Anatomy of a Protest; or, We Are Communication-Managed Bodies in Thin Air, and Life Is Good
A film conversation between Gregory Giles and Teresa K. Miller
In some ways, I feel I shouldn’t go there, so naturally I am drawn like a moth to the flame. I can’t get around race and identity politics, and I shouldn’t. But as deliciously pearly white as I am—and given that it’s ipso facto my “identity”—I have still never felt an urge to belong to a white community, mostly because “white community” smacks of Klan rallies and Tupperware parties, but also because the “white” community (to which pink-to-peach-to-olive people belong, i.e., those who can pass the American optical purity tests in spite of those dormant veins of color that beautifully punctuate confused lines of ancestry with transcendent moments of “miscegenation”) has been aptly named—not because its members are remotely “white” in complexion, but because their anemic collectivity, backed by hundreds of years of racial hegemony, is translucent by now. It’s a clan (with a lower-case “c”) of precisely nothing for those members who have no interest in explicitly bonding over shared race.
Yet that abstention among individually minded white folks is itself the preeminent privilege of white people: feeling like you are an atomic being, beholden to no one. It’s no coincidence that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the “free” market is mystified into immateriality; in the absence of self-reflection, the ability to succeed will always seem to white people an operation performed in a vacuum, purely a function of merit, and of indispensable value to everyone else.
This interferes with organization on a political level, of course. Why should this hypothetical white “I” organize behind a cause if “I” feel like an individual with zero dependencies: the now-proverbial late-capitalist neoliberal subject? Living in the shadow of this rhetorical question, the blissfully ignorant white person leaves it to inheritance and to what other white people with massive political, economic, and dynastic clout do to perpetuate the illusion of Horatio Alger’s bootstraps. Complacency and self-satisfaction, for the time being, are less destructive for white folks—less destructive and deeply soothing.
America uniquely enables the perfect shivering ambivalence of this processing disorder. Like hummingbird wings hyper-oscillating into transparency, the progressive, agnostic white individual’s advantages in America’s sugar bath of exceptionalism cultivate a sense of non-belonging: I am just a body in thin air. Or, I am an agent of myself. Or, I am not an entitled product of racism. Or, I can live without a god or a nation or a community. Or, I exist in the spirit of liberty and rebellion.
I am an agent of myself.
White Cisgender Heterosexual Males like myself are the capstones of this perfected ignorance. We are the embittered lone gunmen when the world is betraying our trust in individualism, but mostly we live in enchantment: total belonging without a sense of belonging. Admitting dependencies is the first step toward personal empowerment—as any addiction counselor will tell you—but WCHMs, on average, never do this and, as a result, will always remain frail as individuals. Like a myth of lisping Castilian royalty, we are compelled to make our weaknesses strengths by artificially reinforcing the individualist narrative within the legend of American independence.
The only way to overcome this unconsciously willful (if that isn’t an oxymoronic evasion) white ignorance—this love affair with the individualist myth celebrated through white writers’ settings ranging from Jack Kerouac’s mountaintop cabin to Ayn Rand’s architecture firm—is to build alliances on other bases aside from race: through shared employment, class, age, sexuality, gender, cultural passions, species, or, most radically, organicism. The broader the identity adhered to, the more whitey risks being accused of naïve, Pollyannaish obtuseness—of not checking that white privilege—but the point is not to assume we all have the same desires and problems as human beings and animals, but rather to put one’s body in physical proximity to another body that has been directly, institutionally, and/or historically subjected to sub-person status. And not in order to gentrify a low-income neighborhood and inflate property values and force the family dime store out of business, but rather to place oneself in direct connection to the body existing beyond one’s own body’s paradigm in order to see the tragic shortcomings of compassion and self-awareness that persist with the protection of the self from admissions of dependency.
Plus: Flexible alliances—even those alliances constructed strictly on an expedient basis, without any true camaraderie—win wars. White progressives flourishing under the illusion of individual potency have the potential to admit to their congenital advantages and find strength through humility, conceding to organized groups as well as to the fact that their elect appearances likely streamlined their achievements by comparison to achievements made by POC; and progressive POC invested in identity politics—if they care to have white allies (many understandably may not)—are faced with figuring out how to build alliances with potentially blinkered (however earnest) white progressives without feeling like they are sacrificing the urgency of issues associated with identity politics in America. Pragmatism has always been and will always be the de facto philosophy toward achieved ends, even if its John Dewey, white-bread banality lacks the punch of a snarky, shade-casting meme on Facebook and Twitter among people committed to social and economic justice. Racist, wealthy, white America depends on the demographic divisions among progressives in order to sustain its rule over the economy, over local and federal governments, over the military, among other oligarchic nations, and over a great swath of the media. The blunt body count of representation must rise in the face of this lockdown; the key is not to let this uniform action preclude the plurality of concerns, the humility and receptivity of white allies, the deferring to communities who have been reviled and disenfranchised on an institutional level, and the space for civil debate and course corrections. (I would also like the condescending, icky “re-education” rhetoric to disappear—which I see more often from other whites—but that’s just me.)
The three films we watched are about alliances built primarily through employment status, sexual identity, and the protection of the natural world. While we chose to avoid a film like Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (made by a white Swede!) in order specifically to avoid whitesplaining activism against racism, we must acknowledge that race is still an issue in Salt of the Earth (1954), How to Survive a Plague (2012), and even the abundantly white If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011). (As mentioned previously, I can’t elude issues of race, even when told occasionally that, as a blundering white dude, I should abdicate all thought on the matter.) At the very least, the importance of building alliances among unlike demographic groups is core to the successes and failures of these narratives. The films also point to the importance of recognizing the distinction between selfish personal feelings that obstruct progress and genuine philosophical differences that must be reconciled before effective actions take place.
Salt of the Earth’s progressive indictment of corrupt, racist police officers working on behalf of a remote corporation
Salt of the Earth is a miraculous film for the mid-’50s, given its progressive indictment of corrupt, racist police officers working on behalf of a remote corporation; the direct involvement of women in labor struggles, when they have traditionally been relegated to homemaking; the positive model of conceded power by the white union rep to the local Latino labor leader; and the casting of mostly amateur actors in order to moderate the influence of entitled Hollywood film professionals (albeit Hollywood professionals who, by that time, had been blacklisted by HUAC).
Labor unions will no doubt be one of the many sworn enemies of the newly installed Trump Administration (regardless of his disingenuous confab with building trades union leaders to discuss infrastructure), and while corruption and organized crime are not historically alien to union development, the notion that the teacher’s union in Oakland, California, for example, represented locally by the Oakland Education Association, to which you belonged and in which you organized for several years, is somehow, as your mom’s wealthy white ex-boyfriend insisted several years ago, in cahoots with the Cosa Nostra—this empty, baseless accusation is patently absurd, and yet the casual certainty with which he insisted on it (“Teresa, don’t be so naïve!”) mirrors the indifference to facts among wealthy white people exemplified by Donald Trump. In Trump’s case, of course, the indifference is partly strategic, intended to provoke left-wing outrage as a distraction from the more insidious maneuvers and appointments being quietly deployed and implemented. The popular, conventional media fail us time and again by fretting over and providing enormous bandwidth to trivial lies regarding disputed crowd size estimates at the inauguration, whether or not Trump used the word “Nazi” in reference to intelligence services, etc. Meanwhile, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos intends to divest public schools of any real efficacy by putting them in competition with private schools through reinstating the school voucher program that already failed in the ’80s—not as click-baity as Trump tweeting the word “Nazi,” but it will nonetheless decimate the public school system and undermine chances for children in underserved, low-income communities to succeed in life.
As usual, what matters is what happens on the ground, what happens locally, what happens among bodies in physical proximity. Media sites and platforms are useful tools for broadcasting announcements, but terrible “places” to build communities and alliances, being resistant to nuance, host to virulent misunderstandings and touchiness, permissive of cowardly anonymity, and too vulnerable to our contemporary brand of agent provocateur: the attention-hungry troll. What really matters are local elections; direct communication with local leaders and representatives; local actions like marches, occupations, and other forms of civil disobedience; local meetings on a regular basis; and travel to other locations where political problems require attention. “Local” means bringing the physical body to the foreground, and this somatic emphasis helps counteract mystified, passive notions of the self that have historically depended on wealth, isolation, and institutional racism for their debauched withdrawal from an actualized political life.
This somatic emphasis helps counteract mystified, passive notions of the self.
Teresa K. Miller
It’s not that straight white men shouldn’t think about these things—a lot of people, myself included, wish they would think about them more or less all the time and stop comparing (or having their minions compare) extreme vetting that endangers refugees to having one’s driver’s license double-checked after 9/11—or posing for cringe-worthy photos to pat themselves on the back for forcing women into preventable, oppressive, and life-threatening situations with regard to reproduction. But there’s that pesky human habit of trying to teach other people about things we’ve just learned—often in a partial, biased, or inaccurate way at that—and if that fumbling toward enlightenment concerns the experiences of marginalized groups, and if the recipients of this unsolicited beginner-pedanticism are members of said groups, it’s pretty fucking annoying, if not outright insulting, alienating, and detrimental to building bridges.
The anxiety provoked by the potential to be accused of such ’splaining is a good sign, I think—if it can be harnessed into thoughtful participation in changing the course of this demagogic regime, mitigating its damaging impact on millions of individuals, and, ultimately, ushering the aspiring dictator out. Those sometimes feel like empty platitudes in the wake of the first couple of months under our new POTUS*, replete with the confirmation of racists, pillagers of the environment, and wealthy sycophants of staggering ignorance. But then I look at a story like the one told by How to Survive a Plague—a retrospective tracing the grassroots activists who agitated for funding and crowd-sourced medical research that turned HIV from a quick, terrifying, and mysterious death sentence into a chronic illness that can be managed—and I do feel some hope.
Talk about bringing the physical body to the foreground: In an echo of Emmett Till’s funeral, what higher purpose for the body of a man killed by political apathy than an open-casket march through the streets on the eve of the 1992 election? Mark Fischer, who died of HIV/AIDS, gave ACT UP permission to use his body for this purpose in a statement titled “Bury Me Furiously.” And Bob Rafsky, a fellow activist who later died of the same cause, gave him a fiery eulogy via megaphone in the dark, rainy street in front of NYC’s Republican headquarters, literally cursing then-President George H.W. Bush: “We put this curse on you so that … in the moment of your death, you’ll remember our deaths.” Rafsky, a PR executive with a young daughter, had previously found the political limelight during an election town hall by publicly questioning Bill Clinton about his stance on addressing the disease. The furious funeral makes it starkly clear how inane and heartless Republican assertions about “our side’s turn” are in justifying taking asylum, health care, birth control, and even the very lives from the most vulnerable—wouldn’t it be nice if we could at least agree that care for human survival should prevail over ideology, that humanity has no “side”? As Rafsky notes, “A decent society doesn’t put people out to pasture” when they need help.
“We put this curse on you so that in the moment of your death, you’ll remember our deaths.”
But the clip that had me crying into my cereal on the fourth watching is the completely gut-wrenching, inspiring march from the AIDS Quilt to the White House lawn on October 11, 1992, “to protest twelve years of genocidal AIDS policy.” Protesters marched carrying the ashes of those they had lost to the disease and chanting, “Bringing the dead to your door, we won’t take it anymore.” There’s a moment when the group stops across the street from cops on horses flanking the White House fence. The demonstrators huddle, coming up with a plan, and then—in a phenomenal testament to the perseverance of those who cannot be alienated from their inherent human dignity, in the spirit of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—they link hands, creating two chains of people who quickly march toward and grab the fence, creating a pathway unhindered by the police. People walk between these two lines, bringing the urns, small boxes, and plastic bags to the fence, climbing up, and emptying them onto the lawn. One man pinches some ashes and drops them onto the ground, saying, “I love you, Mike. I LOVE YOU, MIKE!” Others dump larger bags that waft like flour bombs. When the police attempt to maneuver their horses to crowd the protesters out, those holding the line point and chant, “Shame! Shame! Shame!”—similar to the demonstrators in the recent airport immigration ban protests who asked repeatedly, “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?”—and the action continues.
Of course, a key attribute of this ACT UP action, the airport protests, and the Women’s March on Washington that increased the chances of a measured response from the police is a critical mass of white bodies. It’s not a fail-safe—If a Tree Falls, for instance, shows police meticulously spreading apart the eyelids of seated, nonviolent white protesters and dousing their eyes with pepper spray—but the presence of members of the racial hegemony undeniably shifts the dynamic with law enforcement as well as the characterizations of the action both before and after. Given this unjust reality, insofar as white people can participate in intersectional actions with a willingness to work as allies rather than appropriators, their presence has the potential to increase the chances of a peaceful reception.
“Bringing the dead to your door”
All efforts toward greater equality, freedom, and shared humanity are important—and they can’t possibly all have the emotional gravity of a demonstration like the ashes action. Some of the most effective resistance I’ve seen, going back to the Battle in Seattle and before, has been street theater—huge puppets and drumming that get people inspired, moving, marching. If the first goal is to put our bodies on the right side of history even as our imperfect minds, emotions, and ingrained biases are struggling to catch up, then yes, let’s have a flash mob in pussy hats. But we’ve inherited the progress achieved by leaders and activists who put their bodies and the bodies of their loved ones more directly on the line. And so much of the justified refusal to abide the POTUS* is because so many communities, particularly those of color, have always been bodily at risk at the hands of the state through no choice of their own—and he both fails to acknowledge the problem and is increasing the extent to which their rights are undermined and ignored. So may we rise to the challenge and step forward with a meaningful resistance, and may those who have privilege to spare ultimately be willing to commit to more than, to paraphrase Samantha Bee’s wry but not wrong assessment, a white women’s knitting circle.
I’m not sure where the organizing impulse comes from, but activism has appealed to me for as long as I can remember. I didn’t get it from my parents. Around eighth grade, I commandeered my mother’s second-wave feminist library, but she’s never been an activist. She pledges allegiance to MSNBC and prides herself on being an across-the-board Democrat, but most of all, she believes in the holy tenets of polite conversation and avoiding conflict. My dad started out liberal but was pretty well situated in the GOP by the time I came to consciousness, and he got even more conservative over time. When I told him I’d participated in the F15 protest by the U.N. in 2003, he said “Oh, dear,” and, to his credit, didn’t attempt to lecture me, but that’s not exactly cultivating a young woman’s interest in political action. His first cousin proudly tells me that we’re descended from John Brown and Wobblies, and she sees a lot of resonance between that family history and my union organizing. Maybe the activist gene is recessive.
The holy tenets of polite conversation and avoiding conflict
Or maybe things have to teeter on the brink before we hit a collective tipping point of engagement, because activism is in the air these days, even among people who didn’t previously like to talk about politics—or perhaps especially among them, a collective waking up to the consequences of complacency. I used to stay off Facebook for the most part, because posting anything political was kryptonite. You and I have shorthand for this: “I just ate a burrito, and life is good!” A food or cat pic could get dozens of likes. But “I just wrote a long-form piece about the UNFCCC”? Crickets.
I’m glad the trend has reversed, and now the majority of people on my feed are liking the hell out of calls to action for marches and contacting members of Congress, to the point that it actually seems like a faux pas to post anything apolitical. Still, lest we chase our own tails into autocracy via “secret” FB groups and well-intentioned handicrafts, I hope we can collectively find ways to keep stepping up and stepping back, passing and retaking the resistance baton, to push through protest fatigue and the disorientation of shock events—and to keep our bodies regularly in the streets instead of atomized behind individual computer screens. His own idiosyncratically formulaic filmmaking tendencies aside, I found it chilling to watch Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation immediately after the election, replete with old Drumpf footage that felt suddenly apocalyptic in the most literal sense. Curtis asserts that social media has distracted many on the Left from the greatest existential crises at hand—and that even when it has served as an organizing vehicle, it has assembled masses without a coherent demand or suitable replacement, creating, for instance, power vacuums and instability in the wake of the Arab Spring.
But to come full circle to the question of intersectionality on the Left—whose ideals, though often highly flawed in execution, are in theory nonhierarchical, diverse, and multivocal—how coherent does a demand have to be to be effective, how many demands can we bring at once, and how do we reach coalition and consensus around those demands? Who prioritizes what is most important and what we go after first? Historically, straight, white, rich, and predominantly male people have made those choices, even in the name of liberalism and equality, and—as this latest presidential election has demonstrated with devastating consequences—that has never been OK ethically and will no longer work on even a cynically pragmatic level.
ACT UP, despite the beautifully executed demonstrations described above and the lifesaving advances it pushed through for people with HIV, was not immune to the human failings of infighting, hierarchy, cliquishness, or the elevation of economically privileged gay white men’s voices over those of more marginalized individuals affected by the disease. When one meeting devolved into people shouting over each other and making claims of elitism, Larry Kramer, the group’s founder, sat quietly for a moment and then silenced the room by yelling, “PLAGUE! We’re in the middle of a fucking plague! And you behave like this!” He continued, “ACT UP has been taken over by a lunatic fringe. … All we do is pick at each other. … Until we get our acts together, all of us, we are as good as dead.”
It’s tempting, in what feels like it could be either the death throes of repressive GOP delusion or the death knell of our democracy, to try to silence the movement as it works through internal conflicts: “FASCISTS! We’re letting a fucking fascist regime take over!” But though it would be more efficient to hobble one authoritarian model with another than to muddle through the process of the self-organizing political organism, who would want the resulting replacement? The (New New) Left exists precisely in opposition to the belief that protecting freedom and privacy is a justification for curtailing freedom and privacy, as well as because too many have gone for too long without a seat at the table. How can we uphold those principles and then condone some people continuing to try to silence others in the name of streamlining during crisis? Some would argue that the failure to organize hierarchically will be our undoing, but I remember a group of costumed sea turtles who helped block the world’s most powerful economic decisionmakers from meeting, the year before I was old enough to vote. There are many means to the big-picture end of a more open and equitable society, and I think, ultimately, they can complement each other and keep people personally engaged and collectively moving forward more than they stymie finding shared objectives. We can have different priorities while still walking in the same direction, holding hands, and helping each other climb the fence.
How can we uphold those principles and then condone some people continuing to try to silence others in the name of streamlining during crisis?
This progressive WCHM would like to discuss the role of property destruction in resistance movements, but before I do, I’ll assert that the most important lesson learned these past six months in our privileged Hobbit Shire of Portland, Oregon, is not that this country’s wealth was built on the backs of African slaves, or that institutional racism today consigns inordinate numbers of black men, women, and children to prisons or morgues or economic oppression, or that the persistent War on Terror and the recent Muslim ban are racist programs ironically facilitating the phony new caliphate’s dream of an apocalyptic confrontation through bolstered recruitment (we already knew this)—what we have newly learned is that there are vastly more white people who despise progressive values than we ever guessed, enough to put a demagogue in the highest office with the assistance of the imbalanced electoral college in which one Montana voter who believes that homosexuals should be lynched has roughly the same voting power as four New York voters, with total disregard to the states’ respective populations. This is the biggest surprise to naïve white minds: that bigots aren’t just hillbillies with banjos who moonlight as Grand Wizards, or embattled police officers frightened of black men, or Strom Thurmond’s ghost—they’re a voting body that has tremendous political power while they hide behind concepts like rationalism, laissez-faire, states’ rights, or fiscal conservatism, characterizing anyone who calls them out as Orwellian thought police. (To be absolutely clear, as Dave Chappelle told white America on SNL, this was definitely not a surprise to POC; I am highlighting a trend within my own demographic.) They deny the privilege afforded by their race, but they’re eager to predicate their mealy solidarity (hopelessly atomized by their fierce worship of individualism) on the strategies of civil rights activists, but only as a kind of vindictive lark (e.g., appropriating the word “deplorables” as a badge of honor as if they were an oppressed community reclaiming slurs).
All of this took the white media, white Democrats, and white liberal urban centers by complete surprise. Forget nebulous, residual institutional prejudice: We learned that our country’s political fiat is informed directly by flagrant racism, xenophobia, epistemophobia, and misogyny barely contained by a gossamer asbestos curtain of judicial procedure (also not immune to impugnment, though, as we have recently seen). More astonishing than that: This social media–savvy brand of racist enjoys the goof of decrying contradictions and hypocrisy that only seem outrageous in a bell jar of society—in a hypothetically controlled environment that is utterly alien to the way life functions for most people, a kind of snow globe of zero-sum principles only he inhabits—claiming alternately and cheekily to feel besieged and discriminated against. They repackage rhetoric to sow confusion and create false equivalencies, and they gleefully appropriate and adapt progressive terms to their own agendas (e.g., the so-called “masculinist” movement) in an attempt to make those in power seem like victims. (None of them are merely trolling to make a point about the First Amendment, regardless of what Milo Yiannapoulos may say.)
This progressive WCHM would like to discuss the role of property destruction in resistance movements.
But they reach for this victimhood fighting against a nagging sense that they don’t deserve or want the status (because they are independent), which also accounts for why they can only effectively operate hiding behind anonymous activities that never openly recognize a unity of purpose: namely, voting and online posting. Their justifications will always require equivocation, fumbling semantically over whether it’s a “Muslim ban” or not, for example. You can only hold these obscurantist discussions in an isolated, controlled forum where purportedly free-thinking individuals—even those frequently considered allies of progressivism—entrench themselves in mutual admiration, imagining themselves as fearless brass-tack logicians, like Bill Maher and Sam Harris congratulating each other on their humanism, enlightened atheism, and concomitant demonization of Islam, because Shari’a law doesn’t follow their own disciplined logical precision that meanwhile conveniently fails to acknowledge that a putatively secular government has slaughtered far more people overseas than ISIS ever will. Maher and Harris would never agree with me that racism undergirds this lapse in logic, even if they finally concede that America is worse than most nations in the tallied destruction of innocent brown lives.
(I’m having a difficult time writing about movies.)
As a result, left-leaning stalwarts of every epidermal hue arguably have the advantage in bringing bodies to the streets, because dissembling and equivocation are not their pastime, and while Democrats are less likely to vote, the more adamant bloc among them are more likely to be civilly disobedient. At some point, WCHMs with a moral filament have to say “fuck it,” avoid succumbing to fears of awkward boorishness, and just show up to the Black Lives Matter rally; no one (except Amir Talai) is going to send white men or women an unconditional invitation—their kind created the problem, as Angela Peoples reminds us—but they need to go anyway. My wan presence may elicit questions of intent from activists more personally impacted by intersectionality, but if we’re willing to stumble toward stronger alliances, isn’t the body count ultimately essential, as well as the example set for the more timid, punctilious white folks who are sympathetic to the causes but frightened of pshaws from more directly impacted resistors who may attempt to delegitimize their meaningful places in the movement? Pragmatism is not cynical if it brings hundreds of thousands of people to the streets in a massive traffic-obstructing, glass-shattering, dumpster-burning kumbaya.
Which brings me to property destruction (and soon, I swear, to one of the films). Unlike my brother, who became anxious at your suggestion that breaking a Bank of America window was not an affront to struggling entrepreneurs throughout the free world, I have no problem with targeted vandalism, damage, and outright arson, in the same way that I can’t possibly have a problem with water escaping from a sieve on which I have decided to depend for hydration. When activists (yes, “activists”) burned the Sony warehouse in London after the murder of Mark Duggan in 2011, many deplored the loss of independent media stock in the blaze, although when it came time to identify these “independent” musicians who suffered, The Guardian proffered the Arctic Monkeys. As an unknown musician who has only foolishly spent tens of thousands of dollars in the decades he has recorded and performed, I beg for a momentary dispensation to don my outrageously smug musician’s custodian helmet and assert the following: This is an independent record label; this is not. The distinction is not made on the basis of subjective, effete qualities of “edginess” or “hipness”; it is made on the basis of plain economics. One organization has a corporate profit motive (whether fulfilled to the satisfaction of its owners or not); the other does not. As soon as Eiderdown licenses its music to Bacardi or joins the PIAS distribution group, I will gladly strike it from the “independent” column as well, but this will never happen. (Full disclosure: I’m friends with the founder and sole volunteer of Eiderdown, albeit never represented as an artist by him. “That’s right ‘never’!” he assures me.) This is an important distinction to make (and not just a mincing musician’s pedantic spasm), because successful acts of resistance should always go after the profit motive. Any profit motive—symbolic, actual—but the more ravenous the motive, the better the target. Sadly, artists and their consumers must suffer for courting and accommodating the profit motive while it disparages, disowns, and generally crushes entire populations, even if it means a three-month delay before our immolated smash 10CC remix (feat. LaStinka) finally drops.
When those demonstrations are met with militarized police intimidation, more forceful resistance results.
The folks who burned the Sony warehouse were not Marxists making fine calculations before they dropped a match, of course; nor, I’m wagering, did they first search the building for human life and weigh the subsequent risk to firefighters. Five people died during the 2011 London protests (including a 68-year-old man beaten to death after attempting to stamp out a trashcan fire), which obviously exceeds mere property destruction. The point is not that property destruction is neither disruptive nor dangerous; the point is that uncorrected injustice is exceedingly more dangerous to citizens overall than one so-called “riot” in response to that injustice. BBC reported a year later that seven people were arrested in connection to lighting the Sony fire; meanwhile, the murder of Mark Duggan, a suspected gang member, was ruled a “lawful killing,” so unimpeachably lawful that it was committed by an anonymous arm of the state: V53. When state agents get away with murder repeatedly, they become alphanumeric ciphers while “unlawful” property destruction becomes an inevitable excrescence of the victims’ political repression, a visible sublimation of internalized community-wide rage. Under these conditions, one could say that Special Agent V53 with his crack team of “gun violence–deterring” operatives indirectly murdered five people in addition to Duggan: Trevor Ellis, Haroon Jahan, Shahzad Ali, Abdul Musavir, and Richard Bowes.
Barring some citizens from being represented and treated fairly demonstrates that economic opportunities and judicial systems and law enforcement do not equitably benefit all people. When this exclusion reaches an intolerable, institutionalized point, at first peaceful demonstrations result (perhaps those populated by white people and shepherded by police officers without riot gear); and when no one in power takes those demonstrations seriously or when they’re met with militarized police intimidation, more forceful resistance results. I have no problem with property destruction, because it is always a salubrious sign that limits have been reached. Citizens of nominal democracies, clucking their tongues at an image of a burning warehouse on television, are being led into a more just society by the destruction of inanimate capitalist touchstones, especially when such action is sustained until the scales are balanced. Riots can lead to real peace.
I realize this is not a popular sentiment. Many would rather believe, like the U.S. Department of Justice, that Daniel McGowan’s acts of arson in the Pacific Northwest, for example, constitute terrorism. If a Tree Falls documents the futile struggle to extract his crime from the nebulous and draconian categorization of “terror,” the hysterically tabloid mark of the beast within American courts of law. In 2001 (prior to 9/11), operating in the name of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), McGowan helped burn the Superior Lumber headquarters in Glendale, Oregon, and Jefferson Poplar Farms in Clatskanie, Oregon. While dangerous and costly acts of arson, neither fire produced a single injury; each was intended to disable the operations of the respective companies targeted, as well as to demonstrate the activists’ resistance to business policies that the ELF deemed comparatively more destructive to the natural world. That same year, the FBI declared the ELF a “domestic terror” organization, a legal designation that would prove to “enhance” any sentence after 9/11, in spite of the fact that not a single person has died as a result of the ELF’s actions since its inception in 1992 in the UK. A terrorist “enhancement” after 9/11 means that those convicted under its auspices could automatically receive life in prison, a punishment far exceeding that typically meted out for mere arson cases. Politically and punitively speaking, McGowan is placed on the same categorical tier as Timothy McVeigh.
The hysterically tabloid mark of the beast within American courts of law
Let’s agree, first of all, that “enhancement” is one of those glorious euphemisms—like “extraordinary rendition”—that exploits Latinate preciosity in order to scour a barbaric state-sponsored act of its actual horror and immorality. “Enhancement” is a word more suited to the remote-control tools used to clarify images on your flat-screen television set, not the de facto end of a person’s life for lighting a fire in an empty building. You can agree or disagree with McGowan’s decision to commit arson (I will probably never throw a rock or light a fire, even if I sympathize with the impulse), but the idea that he deserved life in prison because of a semantic stink bomb embedded in his conviction should be universally repudiated as arbitrary political witch-hunting. One might think cooler heads prevailed upon his sentencing, given that he has already been released after serving seven years, but because of the “terror enhancement,” he served nearly six of those years in a highly restricted “communication management unit” (CMU) that amounts to solitary confinement. Legal sanctimony and alarmist ideology combine to disguise the spiteful intent of a state that mostly serves corporate interests, systematizing perfectly avoidable repression and favoritism until they resemble inexorable existential conditions. There is no effective way for average citizens to fight this without action on the streets.
From the war against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA
It’s coming through a crack in the wall
—Leonard Cohen, “Democracy”
Perhaps most chilling about McGowan’s experience is that even after he served his time and had been released to a halfway house, he was rearrested for violating the (unconstitutional) restriction against inmates’ “publishing under a byline” because he published a Huffington Post piece critical of CMUs—despite the fact that “decades of First Amendment jurisprudence has refused to tolerate restrictions that are content-based and motivated by the suppression of expression.” This was well before the media had been declared “the opposition party” by a sitting POTUS*.
The operating premise in the vehement defense against property destruction—which is fundamentally at the heart of his conviction for crimes that, as you point out, were consciously planned to injure no one—is that if people don’t have a right to their property, they won’t have an incentive to work for anything, and anarchy will ensue. I’d be willing to entertain a greater emphasis on property protection if everyone’s life were already equally protected in both law and action and if everyone had north of a subsistence level of material comfort. But that’s obviously not the case, so if Niketown has to put up a new sign, I’m going to assume the heartache in filing that insurance claim doesn’t reach the same level as burying an unarmed family member killed by police or watching old growth forest (and the climate it keeps in check) be irrevocably destroyed.
“From the ashes of the gay /Democracy is coming to the USA”
I say this fundamentally as a pacifist who would prefer that business as usual were shut down because of a critical mass of peaceful bodies, not intimidation, violence, or destruction. But as poet Syd Staiti, a fellow Mills alum, said before the series of inauguration-related demonstrations began, lest demonstrators try to impose one true form of protest on each other: “you don’t get to decide how it is for everyone (and you’re not right just because you think you are).” Progress comes through a combination of offense and defense, legislation, legally protected resistance, civil disobedience, and banditry.
I have mixed feelings about the ELF at best, among other reasons because of the firebombing of the Center for Urban Horticulture in my hometown of Seattle soon after I graduated from high school. It resulted in the destruction of a library of rare horticulture books and a collection of endangered plant species, not the end of GMO research. In fact, University of Washington Professor Toby Bradshaw, whose lab was targeted because he was suspected of creating GMO poplars, seems to have been doing a version of selective breeding, something all agroecologists, organic farmers, and permaculturists participate in and humans have done for millennia. The agroecologist in me is saddened by this act, and to follow the profit motive, it seems self-evident that major pesticide/herbicide brands like Syngenta and Monsanto—which have manufactured the need for GMO crops to withstand their brews of former war chemicals and which fund GMO research at universities—are the much bigger problem.
And McGowan and his compatriots’ cases, while cautionary, are the exception to white people’s experience, not the rule—how many nonwhite suspected terrorists languishing in extrajudicial limbo and black men sentenced under inhumane three-strikes rules have we never even heard of? McGowan’s crime was precisely his materially explicit lack of cooperation with the state, not generally and existentially the threat perceived to emanate from his skin color, faith, or history.
But the ELF’s questionable success and relevance aside, I agree that McGowan is not a terrorist by any rational definition of the word. He’d already recognized the error and lack of positive impact of his actions and had reformed himself. He certainly didn’t deserve to be in a CMU, if any sentient beings truly deserve to have their communication and human contact “managed.”
I don’t think we can maintain our humanity when we dehumanize others, warehouse them, and pay our taxes to agents of the state to kill them. When my father was killed, my mother was immediately and insistently forgiving of the 17-year-old who, we were told, was taken away from the scene in handcuffs. I still don’t know that I forgive him, but I’ve never wanted him ostracized from society. So I joined her in asking the prosecutors not to try him as an adult and not to seek a maximum jail sentence. As it turned out, he served only three months in a juvenile facility, while McGowan served the better part of a decade for injuring, let alone killing, precisely no one. Is that a just exchange for vehicular homicide resulting from street racing and intentionally driving onto an elevated bike and pedestrian path, for altering the course of my and my mother’s life and ending an innocent, hardworking, generous man’s one journey on Earth? I don’t know, but I don’t subscribe to the Code of Hammurabi. Having lived through a family member’s time in prison and the aftermath, I know that there’s nothing rehabilitative about prison—it’s pure vengeance and fear. Guilty and innocent are equally traumatized and rendered second-class citizens upon “reentry,” literally and figuratively disenfranchised, and discriminated against in hiring for the rest of their lives, even as politicians paint them with broad brushstrokes as needing to engage in the religion of hard, honest work.
The agroecologist in me is saddened by this act.
For the same reason, I was extremely uncomfortable with the violent rhetoric directed against Brock Turner. I know that any call to temper such rhetoric isn’t popular, because feminist women, survivors, and friends and family of survivors (which is, essentially, everyone, given that 1 in 5 women has been assaulted and many more than that have been violated, demeaned, and intimidated in ways that do not meet legal definitions of rape) are expected to view rapists as purely evil—and because, on a practical level, people feel compelled to take justice into their own hands when the official system delivers unjust results. Plus, that flawed system is now overshadowed by a “leader,” then a candidate, who embodies the definition of rape culture. But calls by otherwise kind, rational people for Turner to be raped and tortured in prison (on my own FB feed, not to mention the internet at large) do not aim for any justice that I can conceive of. I don’t think we deter people from murdering each other by making the consequence murder by the state—or solve the problem of rape by allowing rapists to be assaulted—just as I don’t agree with hitting kids as a response to hearing that they’ve hit someone at school. Revenge isn’t a sustainable course. It’s the medium of bitterness and exclusion, and it provokes revenge in return. Even if “deserved,” it doesn’t achieve its desired ends.
One subtext of this conversation is the specter of attempting to do good—even just by engaging with important, life-threatening topics—and fucking up. And we all fuck up at various points to some degree, even activists keenly and personally attuned to facets of oppression: Even Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi—who has been saying essential, incisive things in the wake of the election—spewed some transphobia in the process of promoting her book, as if we need to distinguish trans women from cis women in feminist organizing, as if trans people are hiding a secret cache of male privilege that separates them from real feminist understanding.
Hopefully, the conversations springing from her blindspot and the many daily others we all betray can pave the way for greater awareness and inclusivity, rather than simply resulting in a fall from progressive grace. For the same reason that I don’t support grossly punitive sentences for activists—or anyone—I don’t support irrevocable, unredeemable tarring of thoughtful people who make mistakes in their philosophical evolution (a descriptor of everyone to some degree, probably even the Dalai Lama). If we can fall flat on our faces and be corrected and remain integrated in the work of creating a more just society, I think that process makes for a humbler, less paternalistic or self-righteous or rabidly ideological activism.
With these activist missteps in mind, as much as it might be tempting to dismiss Salt of the Earth as a communist propaganda film replete with 1950s hypersincerity, it does a surprisingly nuanced job of peeling back the onion layers of privilege. Even within the downtrodden mining company town, there is a hierarchy. The starkest contrast is between the company owner, who goes on safari in Africa, and the workers, who do not have enough money to feed their children and keep up with the payments on a radio. They don’t own their homes or have hot water. But within that class, there are still divisions. White workers have a hard, dangerous job, but they’re assigned to the mine in pairs. Mexican workers must tunnel alone. Then there are the workers’ wives, who do not even have a forum to appeal their lack of input—the union meeting is adjourned without considering their proposal to have a ladies’ auxiliary, which could address their concerns about lack of sanitation. The same men who are acutely aware of their racial oppression dismiss the possibility that women carry an excessive burden, so the wives are excluded because of their gender. (And having written my undergraduate thesis on lesbian class relations in the ’50s, I can’t help but note that all of this, progressive leanings aside, unfolds within a decidedly heteronormative framework.)
As it turns out, though, the male workers cannot achieve their labor demands without including and collaborating with the women of their community. After a protracted, financially and emotionally draining six months on strike, the company gets an injunction, making it illegal for the men to continue picketing. Because the women’s labor is so taken for granted as to be invisible, there’s no express prohibition on their picketing, and they take over the resistance. Not unlike women’s paid work during World War II, this has repercussions in the domestic sphere. Rámon tells the narrator, Esperanza, “The union doesn’t run my house,” to which she replies, “Husbands can be backwards, too.”
Because the women’s labor is so taken for granted as to be invisible, there’s no express prohibition on their picketing, and they take over the resistance.
As the strike continues, even resulting in Esperanza’s being taken to jail, from which Rámon has to come pick up their baby, the crisis within their marriage comes to a head. “We can’t go on this way,” she says, but “we can’t go back to the old way, either.” She continues, “Do you think you can have dignity only if I have none?” This seems like the central question of our current political situation. For the white supremacists, nationalists, and political conservatives, for the staggeringly rich resisting taxation at every turn and their foot soldiers in the GOP doing everything in their power to dismantle the social safety net—if not all of representative government as we know it—and even for the nominally liberal white folks who just can’t sit with the idea that they might harbor ingrained biases, or outright racist or homophobic or sexist tendencies, we’re playing a zero-sum game: There’s only concession and sacrifice if you’ve already “got yours.” But many Berniecrats and others out there remain—despite the U.S.’s disturbing flirtation with authoritarianism and a hobbled fourth estate—convinced that we still have a path toward a more just, more equitable, more inclusive society, and they see enough room at the table for everyone, if people could be persuaded to scoot over and share.
In the face of Esperanza’s assertion of her power and right to dignity, Rámon, a committed labor organizer and proponent of racial equality in the mine, raises his hand to her. “That would be the old way,” she says. He goes out hunting with other members of the local, during which time the company strategically serves an eviction notice, and the sheriff’s deputies begin piling all the family’s belongings in front of the house. But the workers of the mine and the home gather together, and everyone picks something up and carries it back inside. Finally, the officers leave—they know that they’re outnumbered.
“That would be the old way.”
Screenshots—taken from Salt of the Earth (1954), How to Survive a Plague (2012), and If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011)—are included here under principles of fair use for the purpose of commentary. This conversation is the sixth in an occasional series on films with environmental, food, and social justice themes. Previous installments have tackled the (climate) apocalypse, the meat industry, dams, gleaning, and the globalized food system.
About the Authors:
Gregory Giles is founder of the once and future freak-pop band 20 Minute Loop, whose LP Songs Praising the Mutant Race was released in February.
Teresa K. Miller is the author of sped (Sidebrow) and Forever No Lo (Tarpaulin Sky) as well as co-editor of Food First: Selected Writings from 40 Years of Movement Building.