When words aren’t enough — mourning Kelsey, Phil, and too many others

I was at the annual California Federation of Teachers convention in Sacramento last weekend, when I heard about the loss of Phil Ejercito. As I read the news on my phone, union officials were announcing the Campaign for Quality Public Education, which may be one of the most impressive offensives to defend and improve public education from K-12 to Community Colleges and Universities in many years.┬áIt was hard to contain my emotions, in a room full of members, officials, and staff, because in many ways it’s hard to think of organizing in a world that Phil is not a part of.

I met Phil at UW-Madison. I was involved in the Student Labor Action Coalition and the Associated Students of Madison, and he wasn’t a stranger to either organization. Phil was always the guy we called when we couldn’t figure out how to do something technological. More often than not, he was a megaphone for others: he would handle campaign emails for ASM slates, and during one of the funnest SLAC campaigns, he sent a fake facebook “friend” invite to all 40,000+ students at UW, asking them to befriend then-Chancellor John Wiley. Of course, Wiley’s facebook page was made by SLAC, calling on the UW administration to improve its enforcement of labor standards in the production of licensed clothing. I spent most of the following day just approving the friend requests that came in, before facebook shut down the account.

After everything that has gone down in Wisconsin over the past two years–the capitol occupation, the passage of Act 10, loss of so many jobs and my parents’s collective bargaining rights–it’s hard to believe that one of the fixtures of Madison activism, someone who almost every young activist comes into contact with and is inspired and mentored by, is no longer with us. It’s even harder to believe that, without him, we stand a chance of righting all the wrongs committed by Walker, the Kochs, and all of our well-intentioned friends and relatives who supported their campaign against social justice. And it reminds us of the psychic turmoil of all those events–all those painful losses–on someone as dedicated to justice and democracy as Phil.

This is even tougher because of the loss of Kelsey in the Fall. Kelsey was known to many in the Chicago anti-war and queer liberation circles. She was also, for a time, a close friend, who I have fond memories of spending time with between Orange County and Santa Barbara, during a vacation to see her family in Thousand Oaks. She’s still missed by many, but had struggled with a number of problems for some time. Maybe it could have been avoided, maybe I or another friend could have helped her through it. But what Kelsey put her time into fighting–a system that seeks to destroy all of us, that tries to separate us and wear us down–likely was what made life too difficult to live.

Mourning Kelsey and Phil is more difficult than mourning Brad Will or Tristan Anderson or Scott Olsen (the latter two weren’t fatal, luckily), because their deaths weren’t on the front lines, but in private.

Too many of us are struggling against Capitalism–not in the streets but within ourselves. I know the depression and isolation and pain all too well. I’ve been fortunate to have a community around me who supports me even when I can’t understand why anyone would. They’ve helped me make sense of things about myself that I can’t otherwise comprehend, that threaten to push me towards the edge. Even still, it’s difficult to wake up in the morning, to get out of bed, to find some purpose in my life or convince myself that it’s worth continuing to fight what so often feels like a losing battle, against capitalist exploitation and myself. Those who know me well or who were with me at UCI in 2009/10 have a good idea of what I went through, from the police to my department and other activists.

I know there are many, including some of you reading this, who have been through much worse. I hope we can all be there for each other. I want to be there for you, even if we haven’t spoken in 5 years.

It’s tough writing even this much, and I’m not really sure how to end this on a positive note. I’m not sure there is one to end on.

If you’re having a tough time, please talk to somebody (including me!) about it. The Icarus Project also has a lot of resources for those “navigating the space between brilliance and madness” (i.e. dealing with mental health issues) from a radical, anti-capitalist perspective.

Another resource I’d like to share deals more with my own experiences with mental health challenges. You can read it here. I’m sharing in case it is helpful to anyone who’s been through similar.

More on Phil:

Dane 101 tribute

Isthmus tribute


Phil’s Photography portfolio