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Radical Reading: We Are Many

The We Are Many anthology, edited by Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy, and Mike McGuire and published by AK Press, is an ambitious project. In 435 pages, it attempts to both document the historical activist moment that is Occupy and provide a collection of practical lessons for activists. The editors acknowledge that the book is a work in progress, rather than an end, and I would agree with that assessment. This is an accessible book, but it is not a practical manual. The work of assembling all the relevant voices necessarily stands in contradiction to the work of providing something that on-the-ground activists can easily use. That said, the collection is full of gems, some of which could be extracted for a future more practical guide.
What the anthology does excel at is the work of documentation. I was impressed by the diversity of voices included, and the unique “conversational” format that lends itself well to a work that positions oppositional views in one place, for example on race in Occupy or the role of the police. There are no sections in this book–instead there is an editorial ebb and flow where themes come up but are not explicitly labeled. I really liked this technique, and the way journalistic pieces, personal accounts, practical tips, photos, and drawings were displayed alongside each other.
The style of the book gives the reader who was never present at an Occupy a real sense of the movement, an important task given the way on-the-ground activism and writing/reading are sometimes divided and the unsurprising media bias around Occupy. As a writer/reader type who does most of my activism through this blog, Twitter, and public teaching, I found the book incredibly valuable in this sense. The stories included give a picture of the breadth of Occupy both geographically and in form/focus (for example, see the pieces on Occupy Research or the occupied farm on land owned by UC Berkeley). The pictures and personal accounts are powerful narratives that place the reader at the center of the movement and lend both frustration and inspiration. I particularly liked Michael Andrews’ detailed account of one New York march, capturing the joy and collective spirit of a group that confounded the police with its size and evoked a sense of hope for the future. I also flagged Janelle Treibitz’s piece for future reference: her documentation of specific examples of how cultural resistance works is the kind of thing we need to see more in writings from radical organizers.
Of course, this is not a movement without its problems. Authors in this volume at times question the utility of the 99% model and some of its particular issues: are the police really part of the 99%? What about successful artists and gallery owners? How do 99%ers treat each other? Racial tensions are of course a big part of this picture, as is the treatment of certain groups within the 99%. In an excerpt on Rochester’s Take Back the Land occupation, Hubert Wilkerson comments on those occupiers who complained that homeless residents of the occupied park were “stealing” donated food. “So I’m saying whoa, it’s the reality of an occupation where people are trying to change the world, but haven’t started changing themselves.” (p. 53) This uncomfortable theme of hypocrisy within the movement also comes up in the CrimethInc Ex-Workers’ Collective contribution, which discusses the idea of a “black bloc” of violent protestors within occupy that was described by a non-violent occupier and then used to Other fellow occupiers. The Collective suggests that this tactic might explain why Oakland lasted longer than other movements: when protestors used this language, they handed the FBI a very useful device for a divide and conquer strategy, allowing the FBI to extrapolate from a type of action to a type of people “terrorists” that it could then condemn. Rose Bookbinder and Michael Belt discuss the importance of labor in their piece: while many occupiers were young protestors from the suburbs, organized labor represents the actual community being occupied, and it is crucial that labor therefore be included. Similar critiques have of course been made of the idea of “occupying” already-occupied Native land.
If it were possible to summarize Occupy, this would be a much shorter book, but I like the three logics Joshua Clover describes as considerations to use in considering future activist strategies: Occupy had no single demand, no one body could meet Occupy’s demands, and any demand with meeting could not be met by the current social arrangement. (p. 99) This is, as I see it, an essential statement of what it is to be “radical.” Though I was not an Occupier and had many questions about the utility of Occupy, We Are Many has helped me to understand its value as a manifestation of this radical vision: community microcosms with not one vision but many, impossible to achieve through simple government action, grounded in the need for tough conversations and revolutionary paradigm shifts.
We Are Many is available through AK Press.

Radical Reading: Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?

When I started to read Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s newest collection, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? (AK Press), I had an idea of what to expect.  There are plenty of examples in the trans/queer blogosphere and Twittersphere of queer, trans, and/or non-binary individuals critiquing femme erasure and femme invisibility.  Usually these individuals are young, white, college-educated, and politically radical.  They (we) critique a mainstream gay culture that attacks or erases femme expressions of gender, is bothered or even disgusted by trans queers, and deifies masculinity.

Some of the contributions in this volume come from this group, but the collection as a whole takes on a different tenor, one that is sorely needed in our communities.  Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? focuses on brown bodies, on AIDS, on colonialism and nationalism, and on the intersections between these themes.  These essays are about love and fear–the potential of queer creativity and the impact of a faggot-coded epidemic.

This volume asks us to question our fears–not only of femininity but of brown bodies, trans bodies, poverty, drugs, open sexuality, terrorism, and AIDS.  The essays engage explicitly with sex, linking queer desire to ideas of nationality, safety, and acceptability.  The authors ask us to build a political discourse around sex and desire and to see the potential in brown, femme, and/or diseased bodies that the collective mainstream gay imagination fears and has forgotten because of the terrifying possibility of death.

Some of the most controversial essays challenge the idea of “safe sex” and ask us to consider barebacking as a sexual practice.  How do we pose bodies and sex as dirty or clean?  The public health discourse around AIDS jibes well with a national rhetoric of individual responsibility–you are either safe/clean or you are not, you are a citizen or a terrorist, you are with us or against us–and if you cross the line, it is your fault.

“The ‘risk reduction’ we practiced often meant avoiding intimacy with the very people we needed in order to overcome generations of internalized shame; we ended up limiting the types of connections that had historically led to personal health and community well-being.” –Chris Bartlett, “Levity and Gravity”

Some of the authors in this volume suggest solutions to the status quo that are wrapped up in sex, desire, cruising culture, creativity, and femininity.  These solutions also challenge the white, middle class, masculine gay norm.  Ali Abbas, for example, tells the story of a white colleague accusing him of “playing into” his own Middle Eastern culture while simultaneously ignoring the queerness of some Middle Eastern cultures.  Masculinity here is linked to nationalism and citizenship, which in turn is linked to the mainstream gay American culture’s focus on marriage (a right linked to citizenship) rather than human rights, immigration, sexuality, or poverty.

Several essays challenge the assumption of norms, usually presented in a “good vs. bad” binary, around desireability and sexuality.  CA Conrad wants to know why fat men are assumed to be undesireable, while Philip Patston asks the same thing about disabled bodies.  Patston’s story of going to his therapist and initially assuming, when told that things would be different for him because of his disability, that gay men would see him as a rare and desireable potential partner, challenges the assumption that normal desire focuses on able bodies–or on white ones, thin ones, cis ones, or masculine ones.  Discussions of creativity in the early AIDS movement and of the good things about HIV-positive sex challenge readers to consider whether even an “infected body” is necessary less desireable.  The gay community is used to the idea of collective trauma (ie, AIDS) vs. collective Pride, but why does Pride have to be found principally in middle class white bodies?  Why not in a community of “Others”–brown, trans, pos, disabled, queer faggots?

I agree, at least in part, with the criticisms of the mainstream public health response to AIDS.  There are no “good gays” and “bad gays.”  The community, such as it is, would be a better place if we consciously engaged with disease, with sex, and with the creative potential of our fringes.  I agree with Patrick “Pato” Hebert that our power lies in sex and storytelling, and that these things are linked.  “We make ourselves through storytelling.  We reproduce the queer power of ourselves through our sex.”

The narratives in this collection are a first step in looking at ourselves as sexual, positive, worthy wholes and as a powerful potential community of activists and artists.  As Nick Clarkson explains in his story about a gay cis man who is unwilling to go home with him because of his trans body, we are not solely defined by our histories.  It is important to recognize queer people both collectively and individually as a whole–through our histories, our identities, our bodies, and our stories.

Review: Captive Genders

I received a review copy of Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (coming out this month from AK Press) at the perfect time.  I’ve been frustrated by the growing focus in recent months on two of the things I care least about when it comes to queer rights, the two things that the mainstream LGBT movement seems most adamant about: marriage and the military.  It’s impossible to get away from those two topics if you’re following LGBT news, but this book also turned my focus to another problem–that the most-covered “alternative” issues, those focused on individual rights, are still not the most important priority.  Employment and housing discrimination are important but they focus on the middle class.  Hate crimes are a problem, but the kneejerk response of hate crimes legislationtries to solve that problem by using the same harmful official system that terrorizes queer and trans people on a daily basis.

I would recommend this book to any activist, but especially to white, middle-class activists in the “LGBT movement.”  The pieces in this anthology encourage us to get away from the white, middle-class idea of “safety.”  Strong sentences for hate crimes don’t make us safer.  Nor do most of the priorities of LGBT rights organizations.  It is only from a privileged position that we can even believe that there might be a safe, mainstream, assimilated place to work and live.

Conservatives and moderates in the movement, and outside of it, want you to feel safe.  It’s another story of us versus them: it helps those who are disgusted by trans people of color, by poor queer youth, by public queer sexualities, to tug the most powerful and heavily funded segments of the LGBT population away into a zone of “safety” and assimilation.  Of course, many queer and trans people don’t have that luxury, and it’s foolish to think that any of us really do.  Queer and trans people in prison, juveniles in the child “welfare” system, immigrants, sex workers, the homeless, and other marginalized groups are often victims of a cruel and unusual system that targets minorities and encourages oppression.
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