What will it take to walk in peace?

I know in many ways its hypocritical for me to criticize what other people are doing, while I don’t take an active role in organizing like I have in the past. There’s a lot of reasons for this: in large part because I’m having difficulty reconciling my anger with the impotence of most activism, because most activism is feel-good and the whole world is shit, because I see so little redeemable in the world. Because I don’t see any possible action as being effective.

Very few people know this about me, but my “model” movement isn’t Indian Independence led by Gandhi, not the Civil Rights Movement, not Women’s Suffrage, not South African Apartheid, not the Global Justice/Antiglobalization Movement, not Occupy. What I’ve always been fascinated by, inspired by, is the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance. More than any other movement, in my opinion, it demarcates the difference between victimhood and resistance; it is the example of unequivocally understanding what needs to be done and then doing it, at great risk to many who had passing or dominant privilege. It is also a blatant example of how such movements are whitewashed after the fact to restore the narrative to what is most convenient for the hegemonic society. I don’t mean to suggest that there weren’t problems, that it couldn’t have been carried out more effectively.

Most of my opinions and ideas about nonviolence and violence in resistance are shaped by this singular case (though also influenced by many more). When I began training in Krav Maga, I did so for similar reasons. While, again, without its problems (such as the training method for occupation forces in Palestine), it is intricately tied to the history and legacy of the Warsaw Ghetto–I’m now reflecting on it in this way because it has a connection to George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin. Krav Maga (hebrew for ‘contact combat’) was created by Imi Lichtenfeld in the late 1930s, to help the Jewish population of Bratislava defend itself against racist and fascist attacks. Most training takes the question of nonviolence vs. violence as irrelevant, distraction from self-defense and survival. The major moral/ethical guideline in Krav is: end the attack with minimal effort and maximum effect.

When an attack is anticipated, the surest way to defend is to avoid the attack outright. If that’s not possible, one deflects or deter the attack. If an attack is imminent, you end the attack by ending the attacker. If your life is threatened, there is no such thing as ‘fighting dirty’–you attack whatever weakness you can: attack the beitsim (groin), attack the larynx, attack the kidneys, attack the eyes and nose, attack the solar plexus, attack the brain stem. It is understood that some of these attacks can kill or maim your attacker. But they are attacking you, your survival is in jeopardy, what happens to your attacker is of no concern to you so long as the attack is ended and you can continue living. Again, no moral quandary over violence and nonviolence, no judgment of right and wrong, just the simple mantra: ‘so that one may walk in peace.’

All of this is to say that even if Trayvon was highly trained in Krav, he still would have been seen as suspicious, he still would have been followed, he still would have been murdered, he still would have been found guilty prejudicially even as Zimmerman is set free. Trayvon was not allowed to walk in peace. So long as a black man is murdered by police or vigilantes every 28 hours, people of color–and black people especially–cannot walk in peace, for they are always guilty, always suspicious, always eligible to be lynched or murdered without warning or cause or opportunity to deter or defend against the attack.

But I think that the lessons of the Warsaw Ghetto and the philosophy of Imi and Krav Maga can offer something important as we all struggle to understand what happened in Sanford, Florida, and what is left for the rest of us to do now. The recurring debates about violence vs nonviolence, vandalism vs rallies, whether we should petition DOJ or boycott Florida or the Koch brothers, what hashtag we should all use, whether photos of Trayvon’s lifeless body are appropriate, whether we should repeal Stand Your Ground or arm the hood… these all come second to the basic question of how we are to survive another day. Because we are not surviving. We’re losing more black and brown bodies to racism and the police state every single day. We’re seeing the gains of anti-racist movements scaled back constantly, we’re seeing the anti-racist movement atrophy. We’re focusing on everything but basic survival, because we’d rather have martyrs and victims than survivors. We’d rather look like we’re doing something, feel good about doing something, than risk everything to actually do something that contributes to survival.

I don’t know what we should do. The attacks we are facing, that black people in particular are facing, are far beyond anything we train for in the gym. They’re far beyond my academic or experiential knowledge–maybe that’s a good thing; after all, it’s not my struggle to lead. But we need to talk about it and figure out what to do. For all the articles and photos about Zimmerman’s acquittal, about black rage, about if Trayvon was white and George black, about the other cases of SYG in Florida, at best 1% of the discussion and posting about the case has actually begun to address where we go from here.

If it’s black rage, we need to allow it to run its course. If it’s community organizing, we need to understand to what end, and fight the parasitism and opportunism and branding that often accompany organizing. If it’s burning down the banks, which ones, and then what? In short, the question really is: how do we prevent this from happening again? How do we make sure that people of color, everyone really, can walk in peace?

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White Like Tim

For some time now, Tim Wise has gained a following as “that white guy who talks about white privilege.”  So much so, that a few years ago, UCI’s Cross Cultural Center brought him in to keynote the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium.  His following was equally split between people of color and self-proclaimed white anti-racists.  This isn’t to say that white people shouldn’t be outspoken about racism and white supremacy; in fact, there’s not enough.  But Wise has gained such a prominence that he’s often invited to speak to people of color about how they experience racism.  And while a few folks, myself included, have criticized and confronted Wise about his role as mouthpiece for people of color, Wise has taken a barrage of criticism over twitter over the last few days from people of color, particularly writer and activist Yasmin Nair, over comments Wise made regarding people of color and Edward Snowden.

What Wise has failed to account for each time he’s confronted, is that by him speaking, he’s both speaking for people of color, and taking the microphone from them.  In those cases where he actually uses his fame to promote non-white voices, the spotlight is still kept on him, he validates their comments with his own, or, even, interrupts a table of black men to explain their experience to the television audience:

In the case of the UCI talk, not only did he monopolize the microphone and discussion of race, but he surely accepted a speaker’s fee that could have gone to a person of color, to speak about their experience with racism.  So, instead of just white-splaining racism, he’s also profitting from anti-racism and white privilege.  What’s more white-privileged than using your white privilege to make money talking about your white privilege?

The additional problem with speaking at the Cross Cultural Center at UCI is that the Center itself, or at least the administration there, isn’t exactly the vanguard of anti-racism or progressive politics.  For example, when Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez made a joke about being a “wetback” (because it was raining), the Cross staff defended him.  When Jesse Cheng, a UCI student and UC Student Regent at the time, was accused of sexually assaulting a female student, the Cross staff were among the first administrators to circle wagons around him and attack the survivor and her supporters.  The Cross staff have been more interested historically in pacifying militant students of color and preventing them from criticizing the UC and UCI administrations than addressing actual racism on campus, such as the Pilgrims and Indians party, the Compton Cookout at UCSD, or rapidly declining enrollment and graduation of Black and Latina/o students.  Even just a few months ago, a UCI fraternity got in “trouble” for making a video with a student in blackface. (For a much more in-depth look at UC’s racism crisis, see my previous post on the subject)  When the student body erupted in outrage, the Cross staff has tried to bureaucratize that anger, by funneling energy back into student organizations that depend on the good graces of the administration for funding.  So, for such a center to welcome Wise as “a phenomenal speaker and writer with the extraordinary gift of empowering others”, whose “message will undoubtedly remind us why it’s so important to recognize and celebrate Dr. King’s work,” we really have to question whether he is the Great White Hope that some anti-racists make him out to be.  Or, similarly, at an event subtitled “Reigniting the Dream Through Activism,” whose dream is being ignited, and what does activism really mean in this context.  Because, as those of us who are committed to ending white supremacy know, the activism encouraged by the Cross is not really activism, and the “Dream as interpreted by a white guy” is axiomatically not the Dream of Martin Luther King.

If this weren’t enough, Wise is also speaking at a Teach for America training. There’s a lot to say about TFA–that it’s essentially a temp agency for liberal college students, that having teachers with so little training in the poorest classrooms in the country does little for those students, that poor students and students of color are used to pad the resumes of future grad students and non-profit staffers, it provides the shock troops to privatize public schools and bust teachers’ unions–but it should suffice to say that TFA is not helping poor black students, or shaking up the racial hierarchy in this country.  As Mark Naison, a Professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University describes the organization:

“the most objectionable aspect of Teach For America — other than its contempt for lifetime educators — is its willingness to create another pathway to wealth and power for those already privileged in the rapidly expanding educational-industrial complex, which already offers numerous careers for the ambitious and well-connected.  An organization which began by promoting idealism and educational equity has become, to all too many of its recruits, a vehicle for profiting from the misery of America’s poor.”

Naison also points out that only 4 out of 100 Fordham students, many of whom come from the very communities TFA deigns to serve, were accepted into the program, while 44 out of 100 Yale students were accepted. The reputation of the universities and the qualifications of the students are beside the point: TFA only wants a certain kind of teacher–white and middle/upper-class.  Similarly, Julian Vasquez Heilig, an Assistant Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African Diaspora Studies at UT-Austin, points out: “Recruits with five weeks of training are good enough for poor whites and students of color, but they are glaringly absent from affluent schools in places like Scarsdale, N.Y., or Westlake, Texas, districts seeking well-qualified career teachers for advantaged children.”

So what is Wise doing there?  Maybe he genuinely believes that he can shape these temporary teachers to challenge racism in the classroom.  It is clear, though, that in a way, he is killing two birds with one stone, for the people who will listen to him speak in Charlotte are by and large the same people he panders his white supremacist anti-racism to–those people who take action or take a stance or read one of Wise’s books to feel better about their privilege, while leaving unexamined the consequences of their own actions.

When community educator Ivan Illich was invited to speak before a similar group of do-gooders, he concluded his remarks by saying, “come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.”  Wise would do well to similarly frame his own remarks before the new cohort of TFA teachers.