Who Represents Us?: On Popular Culture and Social Justice

This was never the face of our movement.

This was never the face of our movement.

One of my least favorite situations to find myself in is at a party, a bar, or a club, cornered into a conversation about a pop song, a music video, a TV series, and its radical implications for social movements.

I dread these conversations.

I hate their jargony language and circular theory. I detest their pretense of inclusivity, when they regularly shun those without the vocabulary and training to participate in them. But what I really can’t stand is the immense power they place on corporate representations of our communities, over the actual people building movements, the people in the room, the people having the conversation.

How did so many straight, cis, light skinned, skinny, corporate-backed figures and the innocuous art generated (by teams of outside writers, producers and directors) under their names become the avatars for the revolutionary actions being taken by trans, queer, immigrant, Black and Brown feminist movements on the ground? Who has the power to build, and who benefits from, these peculiar connections?

My unwavering position in these conversations is this: Not only is pop culture at best a mere reflection of the hard work we, our neighbors, our family and friends are doing in real time, it is a reflection that is used intentionally to distract our activism and placate its demands.

We exist in an era where much of our activism’s values and perspectives are rooted in academia. We know this is not an accident. We know that for the last four decades, the state and private sector have worked tirelessly to gut labor, infiltrate radical political parties, and sate the transformational demands made by students, feminists, civil rights activists and oppressed communities everywhere through the specters of corporatized higher learning, and the nonprofit industrial complex. We know that, up until very recently, our community movements and their hard earned victories had been largely replaced by academic institutions and privately-funded non-government organizations.

The history of austerity and appropriation that got us here is beyond our control. What we are responsible for, however, is recognizing the values that come to us not only from outside of our community movements, but which were introduced purposefully to confuse our goals, and weaken the strength of our collective organizing.

In a moment like the present, when new and inspirational movements are springing up around the globe, we are in a unique position to return to the values of our communities, hijacked for so long by the academy and private sector, and rethink some of the skewed teachings we’ve been laboring under. Cultural critique is one of these values I believe is worth revisiting.

A core belief undergirding cultural critique as it is laid out by the academy is that the interrogation of media—often mainstream media—will reveal larger and more poignant truths about the social positions of the communities represented therein. While I don’t believe this basic premise is untrue, I think the degree to which it dominates conversation, theory and practice in many activist circles is detrimental. It not only limits our scope to the unending analysis of corporate media, but diverts our attention away from the violence, turmoil and resistance happening all around us in our own communities.

We can see how prioritizing this kind of interrogation can derail movement building in immediate and obvious ways—case in point, generating debate over the VMAs while austerity measures reach new extremes, and more Black women die in police custody. But there are still deeper ways this type of critique throws us off the path of genuine and ongoing movements for justice.

The most toxic effect of this approach is the false sense it creates that corporate-generated icons are actual representations of who we are. Instead of looking to our elders, our youth, our sisters, and each other to better understand the political realities we are navigating, we turn to mainstream media as the best barometer for the true state of our communities and movements.

This is incredibly beneficial for wealthy corporations and media conglomerates. It means they can quell dissent, influence opinion, evade accountability for reparations, all while not merely maintaining their wealth, but growing it on the backs of the struggles meant to challenge them. It means that we confuse projections of ourselves in mainstream media with our own personal empowerment, and are left hopeful for concrete political and economic shifts that aren’t coming. Our political energies become focused on the ways we are represented by giant companies, not the powers, rights and resources we lack in our daily lives. And when the very corporations denying us those rights produce a TV show about trans people, or give a Black actress a prestigious award, we are tricked into believing we are being honored, respected, listened to. We are tricked into thinking this is the mark of our movement’s success.

When we demand representation, inclusion, what are we asking for? Do we want to see more people that look like us on TV, or do we want our voices to be heard by a state that is working harder than ever to censor and discredit them? Were Grammys, Oscars or primetime television slots ever what our movements set out in search of? And how are we actually benefiting from their supposed achievement?

Of course mainstream representations of our communities have real impacts on the ways we are treated and understood. Of course having trans actors, Black women heroes, and queer love depicted on primetime television changes the visibility of those identities in ways that may make many of our lives easier. But those shifts come from our own communities first. Media are always working to catch up with the resistance oppressed people engage out of necessity. We need to stop crediting corporations for selling our own images back to us, stop looking to the mirror for answers to the questions of our safety, sovereignty and strength—especially when the forces behind that mirror are working so hard to deny us racial, political and economic justice, all while fetishizing fictitious versions of our lives.

We have got to stop kidding ourselves that Viacom and Time Warner are in the business of empowering Black women, celebrating diverse bodies, or fomenting social transformation of any kind. They are in the business of mass marketing, which means they will produce whatever is popular, whatever captivates the widest audience—and in a time like the present, that means addressing the issues that have been roiling beneath the surface of our communities for so long, the ones that organizers have forced into a national light through direct action.

No corporation is so foolish as to produce any media dangerous enough to provide the tools to its own undoing. When the social tide turns, so will the ways we are represented, and the allegiances of the conglomerates who take on that representation.

Using our struggles as a provocative backdrop is not the same as participating in them. Rihanna and Nicki Minaj are not the leaders whose courageous actions have provided the ongoing battles of our people with new energy, new vision, and new direction. Alicia Garza, Jennicet Gutierrez, and the women, Black, Brown, poor, working, trans and queer members of our own immediate communities are.

Art, media and culture are important. They have the capability to sustain, unite, resist, educate, renew, and provide the outlets for imagining brilliant new futures for ourselves and our people. But we have got to start drawing the distinction between the art, media and culture that we create for ourselves, and those which are produced for our consumption by the parties who actively oppress us. We have got to recognize the difference between the voices and visions of our own communities, and the gimmicks that fool us into reinvesting into old systems, the very ones who ingeniously absorb and profit off the powerful cultural forms originally created to fight against them.

We might love a figment of popular culture, might connect to it deeply. It might very well be empowering, nurturing, even healing for us to see ourselves represented in media in ways that challenge the hateful depictions we are regularly forced to confront and absorb. But this doesn’t mean that media is for us. It doesn’t mean its goal is anything more than profit. The same networks that show us as heroes on a sitcom will paint us as villains on the news a few hours later. We are not doing each other or our movements any favors by entrenching ourselves in complex critiques that strengthen our allegiances to the corporate bodies that have to be dismantled for us to be free.

Ultimately, the question is what are we willing to leave behind as we move in the direction of liberation? Though we may find comfort in popular culture, what comforts do we need to let go of if our movements are to achieve their deepest goals?

Pop culture may provide real healing from the harsh world we are currently navigating. How do we learn to find that healing within ourselves and each other, from our own communities and their radical traditions of resistance, and not in the vestiges and byproducts of the systems that are trying to kill us?

Happening Now–#BlackOutPride Action Disrupts Chicago Pride Parade

Happening Now: Members of the Black queer community of Chicago are disrupting the Chicago Pride Parade. Here is their public statement:

Members of the Black queer Chicago community blocked the Pride Parade for 17 minutes in honor of the march's true history of resistance.

Members of the Black queer Chicago community blocked the Pride Parade for 17 minutes in honor of the march’s true history of resistance.

On this day in 1969, Sylvia Rivera, a Boricua trans woman, threw the bottle that sparked the infamous Stonewall Riot. A year later, she and Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman, co-organized the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March in New York City to commemorate the queer upheaval against police violence, which toured the lower east side, ending strategically in front of the New York Women’s House of Detention.

By 1973, only three years after the first march in honor of Stonewall, organization of Pride events around the country were taken over largely by wealthy cisgender gays and lesbians, looking to transform the march that began in New York from political protest to an opportunity for mainstream visibility. That same year—coinciding with homosexuality being removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of Mental Disorders and Conditions—trans and gender non-conforming people saw themselves banned from parades and gatherings around the nation.

The birth of the Gay and Lesbian movement began with the banishing of those members of the queer community still unable to assimilate—the very same people whose direct actions in Compton’s Cafeteria, Cooper’s Donuts and Stonewall had sparked the movement.

We recount this history to remind ourselves not only that the root of our movement as queer people is the militant resistance of state violence in all its forms, but also that the Pride Parade as a tradition is built on the intentional silencing of the members of our community most impacted by that same violence—trans people, women, people with disabilities and mental illness, Black and Brown folk, indigenous people, immigrants, sex workers and street youth.

Today in Chicago, specifically in the Lakeview Neighborhood, young trans and queer people from around the city in search of a safe and affirming space find themselves constantly surveilled by police and local neighborhood watch organizations, profiled by business owners and wealthy residents. Blogs like Crime in Boystown vilify youth for engaging in survival trades, while organizations like the Center on Halsted invite police into their space to arrest, harass and surveil them.

Queer youth experiencing homelessness, and the plight of trans and queer communities of color, is not merely an issue of transphobia and homophobia in Black and Brown communities; It is equally about classism, racism, and gentrification. It is about the draconian measures of austerity that push our people onto the street, refuse us reentrance into real estate and the job market, and the police and prison systems which work together to ensure we stay locked out. Young, Black, Brown, Native, trans, poor, working, immigrant and disabled people are suffering because every system of governance in this country is geared to destroy us.

Today, Black trans and queer people and our allies are purposefully disrupting the Chicago Pride Parade.

We do so to honor our trans, queer, Black, Brown and Native ancestors. We do so because our people are dying at the hands of police, military and state-funded militias around the globe. We do so because we refuse to be tokenized by the same corporations that sponsor state violence, refuse a living wage and profit off our poverty. We do so because young queer people need a better outlet to celebrate themselves than a mire of consumption and sexual violence.

We are blocking the intersection of Addison and Halsted in the heart of Boystown, blocks away from the Center on Halsted, Whole Foods, Wrigley Field and the Addison CPD station. It is an intersection not just of major Chicago streets, but of corporate greed, private exploitation of queer communities, hyper policing, and ground zero for violence perpetrated against trans and queer young people by the city of Chicago.

We are inspired by Boston activists who recently protested the Pride Parade in their city. Acknowledging that we are only a small faction of the Black queer community in Chicago, and an even smaller faction of our Black queer family worldwide, we would like to present our goals in staging this action, and our suggestions for the future demands of our movement in Chicago and beyond:

  • End Stop and Frisk—We stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and demand the permanent abolition of the racist police state. The queer community must call for an immediate end to racist policies that make trans and queer people of color into the targets of deadly state violence!
  • End the Policing of Trans and Queer Youth—It’s time young trans and queer people—especially those that are Black, Brown, undocumented and experiencing homelessness—be recognized as the leaders they are. We demand an end to the criminalizing of youth in our community for doing what they need to do to survive!
  • Reopen Schools and Mental Health Clinics—We demand the Emanuel administration be held accountable for the violence it continues to perpetrate against Black, Brown and working communities in the city of Chicago. Reopen all closed schools and mental health clinics—provide real resources to Black, Brown, disabled, mentally ill, homeless, queer and youth communities!
  • Trauma Center on the South Side—Until there is a real redistribution of resources in our city, we need support in dealing with the inevitable violence that is the result of poverty. We reject the Obama Presidential Library and call for a trauma center on the South Side now!
  • No New Police, No New Jails—As Black queers we stand in solidarity with all communities targeted by state violence, especially queer immigrant and undocumented communities. We support the abolition of detention centers, prisons and psych words. End deportations, raids and racist profiling! Stop funding police and jails, and provide our communities with real social services!
  • Demilitarize Around the Globe–We recognize that we are caught in a global economy driven at its core by militarism. The growing violence we face in our neighborhoods is the same violence faced by our people in Palestine, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere US colonialism profits off our blood. Demilitarize the police, divest from weapons manufacturers and prisons, and hands off our 1st Amendment rights!
  • End Corporate Exploitation of Our Community—We are tired of corporations using opportunities like Pride to market to us while they continue to thrive off our poverty. We stand in solidarity with the Fight for 15, and demand a living wage and the right to unionize for all poor and working people! We also demand that the largest Lakeview nonprofits—the Howard Brown Health Center and the Center on Halsted—provide the same to their entry level employees and other youth workers at the Broadway Youth Center, the Brown Elephant, and the Crib!
  • No More Wage Theft—In the Lakeview neighborhood, Taco Bell, Target and other chains regularly hire young trans and queer people to meet corporate quotas, then fire them within weeks, often without properly paying them. We demand justice in the form of jobs, fair wages, full benefits and the right to unionize!
  • Trans and Queer Shelters Now—Spaces like the Crib and the Broadway Youth Center provide important shelter for homeless youth, but they are not enough! Until there is an end to poverty and homelessness in our communities, we demand funding for existing services and investment in new ones, like Project Fierce!

We are vocally rejecting Pride as a desecration of our history of resistance. We call not for its transformation, but reinvestment in our own communities and legacies of struggle.

We cannot celebrate the passage of gay marriage, and predict that the next round of new laws will be about limiting the rights granted by marriage, especially for undocumented, trans, poor and working people. In order for us to be free, reproductive self-determination, citizenship, and relevant health care cannot be tethered to the approval of our relationships by a settler state. As our Black and Native ancestors have long understood, the state will not respect the myriad ways we find to love, grow, support and protect each other from its violence–no matter what papers we possess. It is our own consent, not the false consent of our oppressors, we seek as we move forward.

We do not wish to assimilate, because we cannot trust a social order so comfortable with inequity, so dependent on violence to maintain its own imbalance. Instead, we demand the shifts in power and resources that, though they may be small steps, represent movement in the direction of our own systems, our own spaces, our own visions for liberation.

Black Power. Trans Power. Queer Power. Undocumented Power. Street Youth Power. Sex Worker Power.

All Power to Our People!


Vogue Is Not For You: Deciding Whom We Give Our Art To

When visibility reveals itself to be exploitation, we don't have to condone it.

When visibility reveals itself to be apolitical exploitation, we don’t have to condone it.

I began voguing as a sixteen year old high school student.

Still struggling with what it meant to be gay and Black, learning of the ballroom scene both relieved me and ignited within me whole new passions. It had never occurred to me that I could be openly queer without sacrificing my Blackness. It had never occurred to me that whole communities, whole traditions, whole histories existed that were Black, queer, Brown, femme, trans, poor, working all at once. My original interest in vogue, therefore, grew from the deep desire to be all parts of myself authentically and simultaneously.

Learning to vogue was learning that the embodied knowledge of my multiple oppressed identities had always informed one another. Once I understood this within my own body, I learned to see it in my family, my community and the larger social structures that governed my life.

At least once a week, someone sends me an article or video of voguing appearing on a European runway, in an upscale art gallery, or a new music video by a pop artist, and asks me what I think. The inquiry always revolves around the ethical use of vogue: Were the dancers named and given credit? Did the artist properly compensate the voguers she worked with? Who is in the audience consuming the dance form? Ultimately, the question is, can voguing be appropriately appropriated?

My answer is always the same: No, it can’t. Appropriation is always a form of coercion, and that coercion is born out of white supremacy. Here is what I mean:

There is a deep history of white supremacy in the ballroom scene. Much of it was controversially documented in the cult classic Paris Is Burning. The film’s thesis is ultimately that trans/queer people of color are doomed to their own depraved outsiderness, and while their yearning for acceptance by the mainstream is futile, it is, at least, flashy. While the movie itself is a white supremacist document (and its conclusions about the ballroom scene tainted by its white cis director), its very existence uncovers something real: There is a real issue of our community finding its value in its consumption by other, more privileged communities.

Vogue is blowing up in new ways in European dance studios, in suburban recreational centers, in movies and music videos. As has long been the case, voguers often don’t see themselves as successful, don’t feel they can be taken seriously as dancers until they are able to teach, perform or be featured on one of these platforms. The internalized message is clear: Voguing at a ball is the starting point, but voguing for the elite is the mark of success.

This mentality results in the disinvestment in poor and working queer communities for the sake of teaching vogue in spaces that never created or shaped it, but that are fascinated by it, and have the resources to consume it. Instead of expert voguers taking pride in passing on their knowledge to the young oppressed people most in need of it, new generations of our community are abandoned for the notoriety of white, wealthy, straight, cis patronage. Opportunities for mentorship, empowerment and intergenerational solidarity are lost, and the alternative only serves to further make the plight of our communities invisible—obscuring homelessness, poverty, state violence and police brutality behind the glossy sheen of commercial spectacle.

And yes, even when artists of color appropriate our art form, white supremacy is still at play. Beyonce, Kelly Rowland, Jennifer Lopez, Estelle, Janelle Monae, Lil Mama, and FKA Twigs have as much to do with our exploitation as Madonna, Lady Gaga and Jennie Livingston. For philosophy aside, our cultural cameos in these (corporate) artists’ work have done nothing—do nothing—to illuminate our histories of struggle, nor to combat the structures that generate our need for resistance in the first place. Cis people, straight people, wealthy people, even those who share some of our other oppressed identities, still desecrate our art and our community when they objectify our aesthetic, without taking on accountability for the ways they benefit from the violence we face at the hands of the systems that are cutting their checks.

Because there is such a long and well-documented history of the appropriation of vogue, it is one I do my best to take a hard line in discontinuing. I will not teach voguing to professional dancers, to companies who want to use it to make choreography. I will not teach it in white spaces, in wealthy spaces, in spaces that are not queer-controlled and affirming. My conviction for taking this stance is this:

Voguing belongs to queer people of color—specifically trans, poor, working, sex-working, homeless and young queer people of color. We created it, we need to be the ones dancing it, and we need to be the ones protecting it. In a society that is constantly limiting our access to housing, education, land and resources of all types, it is laughable that the privileged find such discomfort in our limiting their access to our bodies, traditions and genius. Anyone who objects to being told they can’t vogue needs to first ask themselves how they are impacted by the systems that result in the daily deaths of queer people of color, and what they are doing to combat our institutional disenfranchisement.

I currently work at a drop-in center for homeless trans and queer youth. Voguing is part of our everyday routine. Every day I watch young queer people use it to resolve disputes, lift their spirits when they’re feeling defeated, affirm their bodies, build their confidence and shape themselves as artists, teachers and leaders in their community. There is nothing more powerful to witness, and no better use of the form I can think of.

I am blessed to be able to co-teach voguing workshops at this same drop-in center. The guidelines that ground the philosophy and values of our workshops, and which we try our hardest to incorporate into every new session, are these:

We have knowledge – Our lived experiences as Black, Brown, poor, working, homeless, immigrant, sex-working, trans and queer people have taught us skills, given us knowledge that no one else can claim, no matter how much they study or read about us.

We have the right to share our knowledge with each other – Our wisdom is real and valid, and we are the deserving recipients of each other’s learned knowledge. The truths we posses don’t become valuable when those from outside our community take an interest in them. They are valuable because they come from us!

Our needs change – The conditions we need to share our knowledge—like the conditions we need to live full lives—change as we change. Our learning space, our communities and our movements need the flexibility to change as we do. We are the ones who will determine when, where and how those changes occur.

We are experts – We are the voices that need to be heard, and we are the ones most in need of hearing them. No one understands queerness, transness, homelessness more deeply than we do. No one is better prepared to teach us how to survive than we are. No one can come up with a more vivid vision for the future of our community than we can.

Our history is now – We are agents of change! We are the shapers of our community’s future! This realization teaches us to build our communities on trust, generosity and affirmation, and to act with the knowledge that future generations of our people depend on us!

The point of all this is that voguing is a tool we created, not merely for expression, but for organizing, empowering, surviving the daily violence of a white supremacist society. This tool will never mean the same thing, can never serve the same purpose for those who do not share our same need for survival.

The benign belief that crossing boundaries always promotes diversity, that sharing space and culture results in sharing privileges and resources, needs to be finally debunked. For this same soft rhetoric is destroying Black and Brown communities, forcing people out onto the street and filling up prisons. The truth is that when the powerful cross boarders, the flow tends to be unilateral. When the wealthy lay hands on our culture, the outcome is our displacement, not our inclusion. The endpoint is the depoliticizing of our most sacred sources of resistance, which only benefits those who seek to quell our demands for change.

The best way to support our community, to show us love, is to give us room to affirm ourselves and each other, and to share our wisdom with those who really need it. It is to fight alongside us the systems that deny us our basic rights and resources—heterosexism, transphobia, prisons, policing, gentrification—not robbing us further in the name of visibility and tolerance.

Special thanks to NIC Kay.

Feeling Is Not Weakness: Sadness, Mourning and Movement

As we build our collective strength, how can we also allow ourselves to be vulnerable?

As we build our collective strength, how do we also allow ourselves to be vulnerable?

Many of the movements now happening on a global scale—but particularly the ones here in the US—represent political shifts I’ve been hoping for for as long as I can remember. Given this, it’s hard to understand why I’ve been so sad the past few months.

Part of the sadness is mourning. Each day there are new names of trans women, teenagers, queer folks, fathers, mothers, babies who have been murdered by police, or absorbed by prisons. I am hearing their stories, witnessing the revolting details in videos, filled with their relentlessly violent themes. I am mourning the loss of their voices, their wisdom, their light. I am grieving for their families, our family. I am mourning for the lives of young oppressed people, the violence they face or will be facing too soon.

But another part of the sadness runs out of a different place. It comes from the confrontation of a political reality that, in truth, is easier to ignore.

Many of us are able to get up in the morning, survive our daily lives, because we don’t examine our oppression head-on—at least not consistently. We know we cannot allow ourselves to feel the constant rage and pain we deserve to feel. It’s not sustainable. Yet, the emerging of a movement means, precisely, confrontation. It creates numerous outlets for the expression of that rage and pain. This, in turn, means we live in the midst of our own violent reality in ways we might otherwise intentionally avoid.

As a person of color who has long existed in white, middle-class spaces, I’m used to having to explain my perspectives as an oppressed person ad nauseam, and used to having them dismissed. I’m used to being condescended to by people who have never experienced my hardships, told that I am too young to speak to the historical realities of my own people. Yet even as current organizing blows the lid off white complacency, proving the tired claims of Black and Brown communities, and even as members of my own community awaken to the true state and purpose of policing in this country, a small and strange part of myself has been revealed. It is a small, strange and sad part of myself that wishes they were right, wishes I was exaggerating, wishes I had fabricated everything. The vindication of years of my own imploring and arguing has not left me feeling justified or empowered, but sad. I am sad to be right, sad that our reality is as horrific as I have always sensed it to be. Ironically, the vision I have a long urged others to see is suddenly one from which I wish I could turn away.

Indeed, yet another layer of my sadness is a true reckoning of just what the social, political and economic reality of Black and Brown people in this country is. While the uprisings from Ferguson to Baltimore have initiated some into conversations around state violence and modern apartheid, for those of us who live it on a daily basis, current movements for justice have revealed to us that our violent experiences are not localized, not isolated. Instead of simply having stories about our families, our friends, our own run-ins with the law, there is suddenly (inter)national documentation of just how often we are harassed, imprisoned, killed, and how often the state is getting away with it. Our anecdotal evidence—while compelling for our own lives—is suddenly–and jarringly being placed in a global context, and the sheer numbers of lost lives paints a picture that in some ways is grimmer than one which only encompasses our block, our neighborhood, or our city.

It is sad to realize it’s not one officer, one department. It’s sad to realize there is an entire network designed to harm us, and protect those who do harm. It is depressing to realize how formidable the giant of empire is.

And then my sadness is compounded with guilt. I am guilty for being sad. Sadness feels weak. I know in my head that the point of talking-head propaganda, the point of state murder, of police acquittals, of harassment and imprisonment is demoralization. I feel guilty for being demoralized. I should be angry. I should be fiery with unquenchable passion. I should be as relentless as the state. If I am sad, the state has won. If I am sad, the fight is over.

This is what, most recently, I am trying to remind myself: Humanness is not weakness. It is not a new realization, but one I have been giving myself new permission to inhabit. Feeling, though it may make me vulnerable, does not make me weak. Mourning is what I should do when people I love are taken from me. Experiencing hurt around the painful realities my people and I face is more than understandable; It shows that I have not given in, not accepted the current, violent reality, not forfeited the belief in my own value.

The same qualities that make the state overwhelming are the ones that, in fact, make it weak. An unfeeling devotion to profit, to the grotesque amassing of resources, at the expense of community, people and planet, is not strength. There is, in fact, nothing sadder than believing in the sacrifice of life for material, control, and power. The most intense violence—which we are seeing ramp up—the intentional erasure of history, the use of militaristic force, solitary confinement, the reneging of basic rights, assault, abuse, will never stop our communities from feeling. It will never end our love for our own lives, for the lives of our ancestors, for the lives of our children. It will never dissuade us from fighting back.

My sadness proves my love, and my love proves that I am driven by profound spiritual bonds to my people—past, present and yet to come. And just as it is unsustainable for us to ignore violence, ignore the political reality of our oppression, it is as equally unsustainable to pretend it has not affected us, is not affecting us. Being affected does not imply weakness. Rather, it implies the presence of all the qualities the state does not possess, all the qualities that make struggle worthwhile, and make the realizing of justice the more sweepingly beautiful.

Pretending I am not sad, hiding my sadness, will not make me stronger. Suppressing my true self, denying the fear and rage that surround loss, is what in the long run will weaken me. When we talk of self-care, self-preservation, we need to talk not just about overcoming our feelings of grief, but allowing them, making room for them. We need to talk about movement building that allows us to feel, in all the different ways that may come, and does not expect us to erase or bottle up our sadness in the name of organizing, leadership or activism.

Let us not push forward so decidedly that we do not stop to mourn. It’s okay to grieve for our lost, for ourselves, for our families, for our ancestors. Let that grief be a part of the movement building process for which we allow hallowed space, and let it build within us the compassion that propels us into new battles.

On Going Viral: What the Movement Still Teaches, What the Movement Still Needs

Ethiopian Israelis protesting occupation and police brutality this past weekend.

Ethiopian Israelis protesting occupation and police brutality this past weekend.

Last week an article on my blog addressing militancy and the uprisings in Baltimore was shared more times in 24 hours than most things on my blog have been shared in years. It struck a chord I had not predicted, and challenged the poisonous narratives that were dominating the airwaves last weekend.

Afterward, I got death threats. I got called a nigger, and a few conservative sites found my Facebook profile and reposted pictures of my image. Fox News called for an interview, as did the Huffington Post and several radio shows. I declined most of these offers, not only because I didn’t trust the goals of the outlets, but because centering my voice was not the point.

“…A riot is the language of the unheard,” many were surprised to learn Martin Luther King, Jr. said famously over Black riots in 1968, after being encouraged by media to calm protesters. Perhaps even more poignantly, James Baldwin stated in an interview with Esquire that same year, “…If the American Negro…is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don’t give it up, it will be taken from them.”

Some objectors to my argument made cliche appeals: “Both sides need to be held accountable,” or, “violence only begets more violence.” Many revealed they had not actually read the piece, or at least not carefully.

Virulent responses to the word “racist” to describe those criticizing the riots made it once again evident that racist is still seen as the worst insult one can call another in this country, when it shouldn’t be. We are all products of a racist society, all say and do racist things regularly. The only way to actually end racism is learning to recognize it in all its forms, to name it in ourselves and others, not for the sake of shaming individuals but for accepting responsibility for our own roles in its perpetuation.

Let us once again be clear: If we oppose violence, then we must oppose all forms of policing. If we oppose violence then we must call for an end to war, an end to occupation. We must oppose sexual assault, and prisons as institutions which wield it as a strategic tool. If we abhor violence to bodies, families, communities, then we should abhor all these systems and call for their immediate abolition. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said so perfectly, “When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.”

Other writers challenged some of my views in important ways—not by defaming rioters, but by acknowledging that rioting is rarely something than can be planned, controlled. Understanding riots, militant uprisings, as emotional reactions to extreme trauma as much as political demonstrations was an important point of reevaluation for myself, one I feel I am still learning about from other writers, community members and activists.

My heart is heavy at the end of this week over the indictments of six officers in Freddie Gray’s case, not because I do not believe in individual accountability, but because I, too, believe that violence begets more violence. As a movement, we cannot celebrate indictments for any crime. If we seek to end racist policing, we must seek the end of all policing, all incarceration. We have got to comprehend this once and for all. When we call out the violence in some of the state’s representatives while heralding others as our heroes, we are falling for its tricks. We are reinvesting in its authority, which means we are fortifying our own ultimate subjugation. Instead of invoking the names of our dead to call for more imprisonment, we need to tell their stories in service of demilitarizing, decriminalizing and freeing our communities from the prison system forever.

Some—in most cases conservatives and policing advocates who had not actually read my article or fully grasped it—tried to make the issue about me this week. It didn’t work, because the issue is not about me, just as it is not about individual police officers, the State’s Attorney, or individual slain Black people.

A movement cannot be about one voice. It is never led by one leader. The moment we are in inspires me so deeply because there are innumerable leaders. At the forefront are women, queers and young people of color. We are genius, we are loud, and we are tirelessly action-oriented.

There are too many of us to imprison, too many of us to arrest. There are too many of us to censor, to smother with senseless soundbites, to demoralize with propaganda. There are too many of us to intimidate with the very violence our movement seeks to eradicate.

Don’t let them make you forget that.

In Support of Baltimore: Or; Smashing Police Cars Is Logical Political Strategy

Rioters near Camden Yards in Baltimore smashing the windows and windshields of police cars.

Rioters near Camden Yards in Baltimore smashing the windows and windshields of police cars.

As a nation, we fail to comprehend Black political strategy in much the same way we fail to recognize the value of Black life.

We see ghettos and crime and absent parents where we should see communities actively struggling against mental health crises and premeditated economic exploitation. And when we see police cars being smashed and corporate property being destroyed, we should see reasonable responses to generations of extreme state violence, and logical decisions about what kind of actions yield the desired political results.

I’m overwhelmed by the pervasive slandering of protesters in Baltimore this weekend for not remaining peaceful. The bad-apple rhetoric would have us believe that most Baltimore protesters are demonstrating the right way—as is their constitutional right—and only a few are disrupting the peace, giving the movement a bad name.

This spin should be disregarded, first because of the virtual media blackout of any of the action happening on the ground, particularly over the weekend. Equally, it makes no sense to cite the Constitution in any demonstration for Black civil rights (that document was not written about us, remember?), but certainly not one organized specifically to call attention to the fact that the state breaks its own laws with regard to the oppressed on a nearly constant basis.

But there is an even bigger problem. Referring to Black Lives Matter protests, as well as organic responses to police and state violence as “non-violent” or “peaceful” erases the actual climate in which these movements are acting, the militant strategies that have rendered them effective, and the long history of riots and direct action on which they are built.

I do not advocate non-violence—particularly in a moment like the one we currently face. In the spirit and words of militant Black and Brown feminist movements from around the globe, I believe it is crucial that we see non-violence as a tactic, not a philosophy.

Non-violence is a type of political performance designed to raise awareness and win over sympathy of those with privilege. When those on the outside of struggle—the white, the wealthy, the straight, the able-bodied, the masculine—have demonstrated repeatedly that they do not care, are not invested, are not going to step in the line of fire to defend the oppressed, this is a futile political strategy. It not only fails to meet the needs of the community, but actually puts oppressed people in further danger of violence.

Militance is about direct action which defends our communities from violence. It is about responses which meet the political goals of our communities in the moment, and deal with the repercussions as they come. It is about saying no, firmly drawing and holding boundaries, demanding the return of stolen resources. And from Queer Liberation and Black Power to centuries-old movements for Native sovereignty and anti-colonialism, it is how virtually all of our oppressed movements were sparked, and has arguably gained us the only real political victories we’ve had under the rule of empire.

We need to clarify what we mean by terms like “violence” and “peaceful.” Because, to be clear, violence is beating, harassing, tazing, assaulting and shooting Black, trans, immigrant, women, and queer people, and that is the reality many of us are dealing with daily. Telling someone to be peaceful and shaming their militance not only lacks a nuanced and historical political understanding, it is literally a deadly and irresponsible demand.

The political goals of rioters in Baltimore are not unclear—just as they were not unclear when poor, Black people rioted in Ferguson last fall. When the free market, real estate, the elected government, the legal system have all shown you they are not going to protect you—in fact, that they are the sources of the greatest violence you face—then political action becomes about stopping the machine that is trying to kill you, even if only for a moment, getting the boot off your neck, even if it only allows you a second of air. This is exactly what blocking off streets, disrupting white consumerism, and destroying state property are designed to do.

Black people know this, and have employed these tactics for a very, very long time. Calling them uncivilized, and encouraging them to mind the Constitution is racist, and as an argument fails to ground itself not only in the violent political reality in which Black people find themselves, but also in our centuries-long tradition of resistance, one that has taught effective strategies for militance and direct action to virtually every other current movement for justice.

And while I don’t believe that every protester involved in attacking police cars and corporate storefronts had the same philosophy, did what they did for the same reasons, it cannot be discounted that when there is a larger national outcry in defense of plate-glass windows and car doors than for Black young people, a point is being made; When there is more concern for white sports fans in the vicinity of a riot than the Black people facing off with police, there is mounting justification for the rage and pain of Black communities in this country.

Acknowledging all of this, I do think events this weekend in Baltimore raise important questions for future direct and militant action in all of our movements. In addition to articulating our goals, crafting our messaging and type of action, we need to think carefully about what the longer term results of militant action might potentially be. Strategies I might suggest, and important questions I think we should try and answer as we plan or find ourselves involved in political actions are these:

  • Are we harming state and private property, or are we harming people, communities and natural resources? Is the result of our action disrupting state and corporate violence, or creating collateral damage that more oppressed people will have to deal with (i.e., Black families and business owners, cleaning staff, etc.)? Are we mimicking state violence by harming people and the environment, or are we harming state property in ways that can stop or slow violence? Are we demonizing systems or people?
  • Who is in the vicinity? Are we doing harm to people around us as we act? Is there a possibility of violence for those who are not the intended targets of our action? Are we forcing people to be involved in an action who many not want to be, or who are not ready?
  • Who is involved in the action? Are people involved in our action consensually, or simply because they are in the vicinity? Have we created ways for people of all abilities who may not want to be present to leave? Are we being strategic about location and placement of bodies? If there are violent repercussions for our actions, who will be facing them?

We should attempt to answer as many of these questions as possible before action occurs, in the planning stages if possible. We also need backup plans and options for changing our actions in the moment if any of the agreed-upon conditions are not the same when it comes time to act.

I rolled my eyes when inquiries in Ferguson “shockingly” revealed racist emails sent throughout local government, including higher-ups in the Police Department. I think many of us knew the inquiry of virtually any police department would yield almost identical findings. The riots in Baltimore have many drawing parallels between policy and conduct in both cities now. What kind of action brought to light for the less affected what Black people have always known? What kinds of actions will it take to make it widely understood that all policing is racist terror, and justice can only come with its permanent abolition?

Black power, Queer power, power to Baltimore, and to all oppressed people who know what time it is.

Just Practice – Workshop Series 2015

53ed2b23e4b0cbe8da4956afJust Practice, a training series started last year by Shira Hassan, will be resuming next month. The series focuses on strengthening activists’, youth workers’ and community members’ harm reduction and transformative justice toolbox. It is committed to providing concrete skills for oppressed community advocates, and generating creative alternatives to the criminal justice system.

I’m excited to announce that members of the Radical Faggot team will be providing a workshop for this year’s series! Based on voguing workshops we have been leading here in Chicago, we will be facilitating a session around physical movement, creative community empowerment and transformative curriculum. We can’t wait to be a part of this unique project, and hope to see you there.

The roster of workshops and registration are available here. Sliding scale payment is available for all sessions. Make sure to check out all the amazing workshops that will be taking place!


Vogue Studies: Using Community History to Inspire Action

June 6th

10:30am – 1:30pm

24 E Congress Pkwy

Chicago, IL

In this workshop, participants will examine a concrete example of how the history, experiences, and traditions of community can be harnessed from within for collective empowerment. Engaging in a movement workshop based on the Black and Latin@ queer dance form known as voguing, participants will feel what it is like to use aesthetic movement to inform struggles for justice. Participants will be walked through the workshop, examine its components, and then have a chance to map out some of their own ideas for specific curricula that might empower their unique communities of learning and organizing.

Note: This workshop is open to People of Color only.