Lady Gaga Take II

Despite the widely circulated petition mentioned in my previous post on race and queer issues, calls by major queer organizations, a twitter and facebook campaign, and personal phone calls from other musicians, Lady Gaga took to the stage at the end of July in AZ after two days of vacationing in the state prior. Regardless of what you think about her decision to hold the concert, it seems impossible to describe her two-days of vacation in AZ as an act of solidarity with immigrants.

Since the political firestorm surrounding Arizona has been in both national and international news for some time and most artists have officially or unofficially signed on to an artist boycott of the state, we have to assume that Lady Gaga understood that immigrants’ and brown people’s rights were on the table when she made these decisions. Though she has, as far as I know or am able to find, never spoken out about immigrant rights or SB 1070 prior, her concert in Arizona provided an opportunity for her to care about people whose basic human rights continue to be at stake.

When the petition to ask her to care went viral and major news media started to report on the controversy, Lady Gaga finally did the minimum necessary to retain her fan base. THE DAY OF THE CONCERT she met with immigrant rights  groups in Arizona. She did not schedule these meetings nor request them On the contrary, queer immigrant right’s activists working with the Dream Act had been trying to get a hold of her since it came out that she was neither going to speak about SB 1070 nor adhere to the artist boycott. Their meeting was scheduled to last 10 minutes. However, the activists managed to eek out 10 more minutes to tell her a heart wrenching personal story about how the SB 1070 had already cost one of them their brother and safety in their own home after a police raid. In Gaga’s version of the story, she says

“I met a boy who is suffering … He told me his house was raided because of a parking ticket or something.”

The boy’s tragedy had such a lasting impact on her, she could not even remember the details of his story a few hours later. While most people have focused on her dedicating a song to him and saying immigration raids are evil, I hope the other half of that story is now sinking in.

A last minute meeting scheduled for 10 minutes after press starts to turn against you, a half remembered story, and a few choice words condemning ICE while on vacation and/or making concert related bank in Arizona by choice is hardly solidarity. When it is not backed up by any actual work for immigrant rights during the time spent in AZ, prior to it, or afterward, it is laughable.

Gaga followed up this makeshift meeting by writing “Stop SB 1070″ on her arm in black ink. As you can see from the picture below, her sharpie-activism was barely visible between her tattoos. Worse, it was likely not visible to the majority of concert goers except when captured on one of the overhead monitors.

AP/unattributed

In my mind, anyone can scribble anything on their body and call it a revolution, but without actual social justice work to back it up what does it really mean to the people whose cause you have inked in so un-permanent and un-prominent a way?

She also spoke out at the concert itself. First she called herself “brave” for crossing a civil rights picket line:

Thank you so much for buying a ticket to see my show Arizona. I didn’t used to be brave, I wasn’t a brave person at all, but you have made me brave. And now I’m gonna be brave for you.

Who is she being brave for? The immigrants for whom she showed no interest prior to the concert or even during the initial stages of the petition asking her to care? The immigrants who she finally decided to talk to for 10 whole minutes after it looked like media might turn against her? Or the politicians and business owners in Arizona that support an Apartheid like state in which any brown person is suspect? After all it is these politicians and business people who have condemned the boycott, called it unfair and an act of violence against “good Americans”,  and said that they will rely on other people “who support besieged Arizonans” to bring needed dollars to the state.

Not content to just condemn SB 1070 outright as was needed and called for, Gaga also took time out to disparage the civil rights related boycott saying:

I got a phone call from a couple really big rock and rollers, big pop stars, big rappers, and they said, we’d like you to boycott Arizona, we’d like you to boycott playing Arizona because of SB1070. And I said, you really think that us dumb fucking pop stars are gonna collapse the economy of Arizona?

. . .

I will yell and I will scream louder and I will hold you and we will hold each other and we will peaceably protest this state.

Like many people from the current generation, Gaga seems both ignorant of the effect of both past boycotts and the present one in Arizona to impact lawmakers’, law enforcers’, and every day people’s perceptions of civil rights.  The money lost in Arizona from people canceling concerts, conferences, and other events have had a huge impact on Arizona so far. Despite her mocking description of it as an attempt to “collapse the economy” the boycott has increased conversations about non-violent protest, solidarity, and the power of both individual people and state’s to impact civil right’s decisions that fly in the face of whatwe  claim N. America is about. That has been essential in every civil rights action in this nation that has not had the official support of the government through national level legislation. It has also shifted the policing tactics and the businesses practices of those impacted in favor of repeal or none enforcement. And finally, it has increased the number of prominent people in Arizona willing to speak out publicly against SB 1070. Their voices are essential precisely because when good people say nothing, oppression always wins.

Even if she does not know what the impact of boycotts has been in Arizona, which would of course speak again to her lack of concern about immigrant rights there, history is on the side of boycotts effectiveness for gaining civil rights. The bus boycotts were instrumental in ensuring people like me had the right to sit in the front of the bus, ride the bus when it was crowded, and even sit down in a seat of our choosing even if a white person wanted to sit there instead. The walkouts, which was a form of boycott, were essential in ensuring people like me also had access to education that reflected us and were able to teach at and attend universities. Isn’t interesting that Arizona’s recent targeting of immigrants has also included an attempt to reverse the latter while also enacting racial profiling through transit that would likely force people on to the bus where they are easier to round up and harass?

Despite the implication of the last quoted line from Gaga above, the majority of people involved in boycotts were engaged in peacable protest. The philosophy surrounding boycotts is non-violent. Most importantly, boycotts have been a cornerstone of non-violent protest against both government and corporate oppression in the U.S. since before it was an independent nation.

It was the police who were not peaceful.

Police turned on the hoses, brought the dogs and the rifles, and used them all against marginalized people in this nation asking simply for basic human and civil rights. The police shoved, punched, bruised and even broke bones of protesters as a matter of course. In some cases they killed them or were at least believed to have done so, since most were not held accountable for deaths in custody or shortly after it. What the police did not do, “besieged citizens” carried out themselves with limited impunity. This is the picture of violence related to boycotts not peaceful protesters in search of equality.

One of the most disconcerting things for me, as a historian, has been watching middle class white activists argue that boycotts are “wrong”, “unhelpful”, or “useless” in the face of their import to equality in this nation. These liberals, many of whom have some activist credibility, not only continue to support businesses and economies that have actively excluded, ignored, erased, or even targeted people of color, immigrants, women, queer people, differently-abled people, etc but also actively mocked those wh0 do participate. In boycotts involving feminists or people who the feminist community have called feminist despite contradicting self-identification, they have even gone up and expressed solidarity with the people who are being boycotted for excluding or targeting marginalized people. Somehow the very fact of their whiteness combined with even the most minimal activism, like sharpie-activism, negates an entire national history and reframes equality seekers as the violent and oppressive minority.

Frighteningly, Lady Gaga’s own actions and the desire to excuse her are only one reflection of this larger trend. Both feminist and mainstream liberal blogs, some written by Latin@s (see comment section for real issues), have proclaimed her solidarity with immigrants on the basis of a few choice words couched in a series of economic actions and even more telling longstanding social justice inactions that show how very little she actually cares about immigrant rights. In fact, before the end of her speech, she reframed the immigration debate into one of universal rights that does not even reference immigration:

Tonight I want you to free yourself, I want you to let go of all of your insecurities, I want you to reject any person or any thing or any law that have ever made you feel like you don’t belong.

I’ll tell you what we have to do about SB1070. We have to be active, we have to actively protest, and the nature of the monster ball is to actively protest prejudice and injustice and the bullshit that is put on our society because you’re a superstar no matter who you are or where you come from, and you were born that way.

While I applaud those who understand that all oppressions are interconnected and that everyone suffers from them whether targeted or not, the tactic of taking a specific issue in which one’s actions are implicated and enlarging it into a general discussion of humanism is one that is often used by liberals and Republicans alike to mask their inaction or benefit from specific oppressions. When we talk about how everyone is oppressed and everyone can shine, we stop talking about how Lady Gaga spent two days vacationing in Arizona and 20 minutes talking to activists to cover it up and instead get to pat ourselves on the backs for supporting such a freeing artists who cares about everyone and everything.

Like the apology from Mel Gibson for his misogynist and antisemitic comments several years ago that had absolutely no reflection in his continued antisemitism, misogyny, and racism I find very little lasting credibility in Gaga’s inked arm and statement. I find even less in the activists willing to embrace her as a supporter of immigrant rights.

Let me close by saying that if we really live in a world where boycotts are seen as stupid and violent and scribbling something on your arm with a sharpie and saying “[insert oppression here] is bad” while doing nothing to change it is revolutionary, then we might as well pack it in. There is no social justice here.

—–

images

  • AP/unattributed
  • AP/unattributed
  • AZ Press/unattributed
  • Freedom Bus burned by anti-civil rights people only held accountable in the last 5 years
  • Birmingham Desegregation Campaign/Amistad Resources/unattributed
  • “The Power of Inaction”/J Dilworth

What a Difference Kindness Makes


I’ve been swamped with volunteer work in social justice organizations for the past few weeks since coming back from our seminar abroad. As my post have shown, the experience has not been the most positive one. Far too often I have seen young women taking advantage of other young women in the name of helping poor women, women of color, elder women, queer women, etc. As I said in a previous post, the idea is that “if you really care” you will foot the agency bill for an endless amount of labor and associated costs. And I have publicly questioned exactly who is served by this exploitation since neither the line staff nor the clients are able to function at their best under such demanding circumstances and scarcity models. Perhaps it is because it has been so much in my face lately, I have really begun to question the social service industry as an Industry or Institution rather than a helping agent for change. This, more than any other feminist conflict I have witnessed in the past 4 years of blogging has made me rethink what feminist activists involved in critical fields of women’s services are really contributing to the end of oppression of women, especially the most marginalized among us.

Then I read this post:

Hmmmm, I gave the cashier a $20. I looked in my rear view mirror and there were no more cars to pay for. So, $3.18 for my good deed of the day felt a little lack luster. …

When I make these gestures I rarely look back to see the reaction. … But this time? No such luck. I was stopped by two traffic lights in a row and she caught up with me by the second light. She rolled down her window. She searched my face for some recognition. She found none. “Thank you for this,” she said, “You don’t know what this means to me. I’m on my way to an interview. I lost my job a month ago and I HAVE to find work. I’d given these up,” and she raised her cup, “but I decided to splurge today for a little boost of confidence. Your kindness has done so much more.”

I could see that her eyes were brimming and she was fighting back tears. …

This woman’s act of kindness, done primarily out of guilt for not keeping a promise to herself to pay it forward regularly, profoundly changed one woman’s day for the cost of a cup of coffee. It may have helped change her life, by providing her the confidence in herself and in others that most of us lack these days in a world of selfishness and economic uncertainty. Who is to say?

The story reinforced my larger questions about social service agencies and their role in social justice and social change even as they dismantled them. On the one hand, this woman was able to do something I have not seen many line staff be able to do at some of the places I have been working with precisely because she was neither overworked nor underpaid to provide care to others. Her actions came from a desire to do good that was untainted by the fact doing good had become a job in which “there are only so many hours in a day” and a pittance of pay for them. And I do think that money and work are the major distinctions here because I hope that everyone that goes into social service work, especially feminists, are motivated by doing good (even when their definitions are not the best). But I think something happens when doing good is your job and not your calling; something ultimately switches off for you as you work and work and work some more for very little pay and even less institutionalized support. By creating a social service system that depends on your “commitment to the cause” and actively interprets your need for self-care, boundaries, and compensation for work done as a “lack of commitment” justice becomes part of an industrial complex in which funders get tax right offs and young, largely middle class and white, women get training and activist credibility.

At the same time, these agencies are not devoid of value to service seekers. Individual clients get an array of services that help them as individuals but do not actually challenge the system that made them seek out services in the first place. Thus, social service is self-perpetuating and it goes unquestioned in many ways because of the number of individuals whose lives have been profoundly changed (and even saved) through service. In this way, the woman who paid for the coffee and her amazing impact on the women who received it are still metaphors for the larger service industry. An individual woman did good with the limited resources she had available to her and an individual woman was moved in ways that may reverberate throughout the rest of her day or even her life. How do we quantify the impact? Should we? And if you answered we cannot and should not, then what does that mean for creating equitable work and value in social service for workers which as I argued before translates to better and more thorough service for service seekers?

I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. In an ideal world, each of us would operate from a place of radical love with one another, sharing our resources, knowledge, and strength in a way that honored our interconnectedness rather than demeaned. We would recognize that need is relative and that individuals with abundance in some areas have need in others just like everyone else. In that world, there would be no need for social service because we would see someone stumble and collectively help them up without blame or shame or stigma or even self-interest. But we do not live in that world. We live in this one, where banks steal from mom and pop accounts to give to jet-setting CEOs, medical providers quantify the value of lives because insurers care less about whether you are healthy than how much you will cost them, poor people and indigenous people are asked or simply told to foot the cost of businesses environmental degradation,  and people move jobs and industries out of a country hurting for employment because they cannot exploit the labor, children, or reproductive and sexual rights of their workers or pollute the land unchecked, and they care more about profit than they do about people. In this world, where tv hosts and so-called journalists extol the rights of the rich to go on vacations, buy million dollar garbage cans, and everyone gawks at the latest celebrity craze, very few people care or help anyone so whole industries have grown up to do what we as a people have failed to do. And those industries require money to run. And that money is stretched so thin that the workers at the bottom work 80+ hour weeks, paying for phone bills, food, printing costs, etc. for the agencies for whom they work out of pocket for less money than the people at the top who get paid 3xs as much, work just as hard, but move on to middle class lives after a while never once thinking about the line staff who do not. And so we are back at the beginning.

I welcome your thoughts.

——

Images

  1. unattributed/2009
  2. clipart
  3. “China Blue”/unattributed/portable.tv
  4. “Women Gardening”/Deb Vest/2010

Netroots Nation and White Privilege

NN10

Right before Netroots Nation 10 began in Las Vegas, a blogging colleague mentioned she could no longer attend and put her tickets up on twitter. The cost of the tickets was more than cost of an undergraduate class at our local college (not including fees). It was also more than other similar conferences that include radical and left bloggers but do not have the same political and journalism participation as Netroots. The difference in the blogger attendance at these conferences is striking as others like AMC tend to have more female and people of color participation while Netroots has more white male formally credentialed (including members or wannabe members of government) participating. At the same time, many bloggers regardless of race or class have been attending Netroots precisely because it has become the legitimated space to network and make a name for oneself that the powers that be on the Left will take seriously. The level of attendance also means that it is a great opportunity for bloggers across the spectrum to meet up and think about what they do as political change; yet, those excluded on the basis of cost are almost always bloggers of color, especially women and currently parenting mothers, and therefore the cycle of legitimacy-illegitimacy on the basis of race, class, and gender continues.

NN09

I raised the issue of class at Netroots on twitter with those who were able to attend and found myself inundated with private chats not only about class inequality but also its connections to race inequality at the conference. People alerted me to the fact that several panels on race issues had no people of color on them. Still others, took a solidarity stance with issues of racism and immigration while failing to acknowledge the way the identities they represented overlapped, including queer, female, blogger, etc. Other panels interrogate the Left Media and the ideas that by nature of being liberal you have the right to call yourself progressive or radical or even a change agent if your staff, on air talent, and advertising continue to promote white middle class normativity. The latter panels were met with considerable resistant on and off stage from the very media they were critiquing and many of the people at Netroots who see the conference as an entry point into that media.

As I was taking in all of these reports and matching them against video of the event I had seen over the years, twitter lit up with discussion of Mock ICE. It seems some of my favorite people where engaging in an ICE stop of white Netroots attendees for being undocumented on Indigenous land in order to raise awareness about not only AZ’s new law but also the privilege involved in being able to walk around freely in this country.

For many people praising AZ’s new Papers Please Law, the defense has been based on the idea that carrying and showing papers is not a big deal. They have argued that the law to have ID has always been on the books AZ is just enforcing it, and so documented immigrants should have no fear because they should have been carrying their information all along. Besides the many ways the law can be used to stop and harass anyone brown, that have already been discussed on this blog, the assumption that no real harm comes from carrying and showing your ID in the course of your day is based on the privilege to ignore stigma, spectacle, humiliation, and even time.

As one person stopped at the checkpoint said, “I was just going to get some lunch and they stopped me.” Imagine for a minute that you had to go to an important business meeting and you got stopped by ICE for no other reason than “looking like an undocumented person” and all of the people you were going to meet for the first time passed you on the street being shaken down by the police. Do you think you would be able to make that business deal? Do you think you would have a job to go back to? What if you were going to a lunch with friends and all of the restaurant patrons could see you being shaken down by the police from the big windows in the front of the restaurant? Do you think the restaurant would let you in and seat you? Or that you could eat in peace afterward?

When faced with having to stop and show paperwork, many of the Netroots attendees happily complied with the checkpoint. Some did so because they have the privilege of respecting policing authority and assuming it is in their best interest and others understood or came to understand the awareness action of which they were ultimately a part. Others, especially white male participants with actual journalism or government credentials felt differently (scroll to 59 seconds to avoid video of them setting up):

Not only did they refuse to participate, but as you can see from the video above, some even threatened to call the police. Failing to recognize the irony of the situation he was in, one white male participant not only said he would call the police but added that they would then ask for ID, twisting the word “you” at his would be Latino Mock ICE agent in ways that clearly implied “you look like an ‘illegal alien’ and I hope you get dragged in.”

Why so much vehemence at such a “progressive” conference?

I find myself going back to the issue of cost and credentialing. Netroots Nation is cost prohibitive. That means that many radical and progressive activists, particularly women and people of color, cannot attend. This year was likely more multicultural just based on its location in Las Vegas but other years it has not only included a huge attendees fee, and travel fees if you are not local, but also been in cities that are predominantly white and upper class making travel costs even higher for people outside that demographic. At the same time, the Democratic Party and established media have given more and more credence to the event and the people who attend it, including packing some panels with paid bloggers. No similar attention has been given to other conferences and subsequently to the bloggers who have made a name for themselves there. The divides represent a reproduction of pre-existing inequity in the media, the Left, and political power in this country. Beginning with class constraints that transform into racial and gender ones, ie the intersection of the three, this conference that was envisioned as progressive space, and no doubt included many progressive ideas and work, continues the fundamental flaws that plague most mainstream social change in the U.S. In other words, despite claiming progressive ideas, on many levels Netroots represents an idea that started with unquestioned class assumptions which manifest along gender and race lines. These assumptions reproduce inequality on the basis of legitimacy afforded attendees who are overwhelmingly middle class, white, and male over those who cannot attend or due to the constraints on attendance appear to be in the minority.

It seems to me that we, people on the Left, have been doing the same thing for too long while expecting and even congratulating ourselves on things being different. We make minor steps forward in the representation of a handful of women (usually also white) or people of color (usually men) and that is supposed to make up for the fact that mostly things stay exactly the same on both sides of the political divide. Fanon published in the 1950s and 60s. Wollstonecraft in 1792. And yet here we are, claiming social justice when our basic premises remain the same. Take a look at that second video again and then ask yourself what unacknowledged investments you have made and whether or not you have masked them with the words “radical” “progressive” or “liberal.” Just because you recycle doesn’t mean that you have not envisioned a world in which brown people take out the bins.

A Message to Non-Profit Social Change Organizations in 140 Characters

citation in frame

My 140: creative & exploitation are not synonymous; when they r used interchangeably there is no revolutionary change going on

——————————————————

I tweeted this in response to the idea that part-time and volunteer workers at non-profits are being asked to foot more and more of the bill for social service provision at a time when people need more services than ever. My problem is both with the idea that nonprofits cannot afford to hire full time grant writers because they are too expensive and that somehow the burden should be placed on the backs of the lowest paid workers instead.

While grant writer salaries are incredibly high, most grant writers can and do write grants to continually fund their positions while at the same time working on large and targeted funding for agencies as a whole. Though the money can and does dry up, they generally help ensure a much steadier flow of capital into the agency which in turn ensures better pay for and retention of workers. When you recruit workers with existing skills needed by service seekers and then are able to retain them over an extended period of time, your services improve, your clients are better served, and workers have more than their ideals to keep them going.

Underpaid workers have always been a cornerstone of social service. What galls me however is that many social service agencies have taken to humiliating or undermining workers who cannot and should not have to take on additional burdens to offset agency costs. For instance, at a late afternoon meeting today I overheard a young woman tear into her volunteers for not printing out needed materials on their home computers. She implied that their failure to make their own printouts and copies was tantamount to sending homeless women back out into the street with neither clothes nor food and water. When one of the volunteers pointed out that her printer was old and could not print multiple copies for the agency as well as print the papers for her classes, her supervisor insinuated that it was a matter of care and credibility. Either she cared about their clients and was committed to the work they were doing or she was selfish. There was never a thought that maybe asking volunteers to pay for an agency’s printing and copying was where the selfishness lay.

The situation reminded me of a conversation I had at the end of my own volunteer service for a women’s crisis drop in center as an undergraduate. I had a broken down two seater car inherited from my grandfather. It barely drove and broke down regularly. Yet I spent so many hours at the drop in center that most women seeking services and other agencies thought I was staff. My name was consistently at the top of the “rock star” list, a list that praised people for contributing more than the minimum hours. And many nights I had even gone in on 10 minutes notice to sub for other PAID workers and even trained a few.

Yet one particularly bad car week, I had had to cancel my shift 3 times because the car would not start and I was unable to get home in the wee hours of the night when my shift would end. Suddenly my 30-60 hour volunteer week had no meaning to the Coordinator who had to scramble to take my place or transfer crisis calls to my home. I was instantly transformed from a rock star to a loser who did not care about women in crisis.

In fact, the Coordinator said to me “Well maybe you should buy a new car already because this is pathetic.” 20 year old me was stunned. She was a lawyer, I was a student on financial aid driving her grandfather’s car. How could I possibly afford a new car? If she’d just been being inconsiderate out of frustration that would still have been rude and inconsiderate, but as the conversation went on it became clear she was serious. In fact she went so far as to say maybe “people like me” should not volunteer if we could not “meet the minimum standards of volunteerism.” Apparently those standards include being middle to upper class but not working more hours than most paid staff.

The idea that I might need to cut back hours at night in exchange for doing more hours in the day or early evening when alternative transportation was available was beyond the elitist framework in which the discussion was couched. When I suggested that maybe I should simply cut back my hours from 60 to the required 10 to make a point about how class expectations were clouding the issue, she suggested I consider quitting if “I wasn’t going to take volunteering seriously.”

Everyone at the agency was in agreement that the Coordinator, not I, was in the wrong here. Apologies were made and plans to switch shifts were floated. The immediacy with which they tried to make amends was heartening but also tinged with discussions of how they would make up for all those late evening hours “no one else wanted to do” and comments like “maybe they would have to just pay someone.” Despite their mostly positive efforts to fix the situation, in light of the original conversation and the side chatter, the damage was done. I no longer looked at the agency the same way nor felt my labor had value to them beyond their immediate gain. While this was likely only slightly true, I was now wary of the next time an emergency would take me away from scheduled hours, hours that it is the Coordinator’s job to schedule a backup volunteer for by the way, because I never wanted to be in a conversation again where my working class background was seen as tantamount to not caring about homeless women’s lives.

I quit that day. But as I watched the young woman tear up in front of her supervisor at my luncheon, I did not think she would. Worse the demands did not end there. Before we had finished eating, this same woman tore into another volunteer because she had shut off her cellphone. From what I could gather, the agency was running several of its intake services through the volunteers phone and was now in a supposed bind because the girl could no longer afford to pay her cellphone bill. The girl explained that she had lost her job several months earlier and let the agency know sooner or later she would likely have to switch phones but the supervisor did not care. She kept demanding the girl figure out a way to pay for extended coverage because the fate of all immigrant women everywhere hung in the balance. Never mind that the agency itself had to have phones and voicemail they could have and should have been using.

While I wanted to believe that this was another case of an overly self-involved middle class “doo gooder” clocking time for her resume and not an agency wide situation, I knew better. In these economic times the number of agencies serving the same population’s needs is diminishing while the need is growing. The number of paid jobs are also shrinking so that for some, the only way to get into the work that they love is to be volunteer staff. Its a dilemma that holds funders, volunteers, and especially service seekers hostage to a system that is no longer serving people’s needs to the best of our abilities.

Often agencies in economic binds are told to “get creative” about their funding issues. That creativity seems to translate not to looking for new funding sources or finding new, cheaper, ways of doing the same thing, but instead to exploiting workers. Every day I see job descriptions that are actually 4 or 5 jobs for the salary of less than one advertised in the service industry. Every day, I get emails and phone calls from students worried they cannot feed their kids, themselves, or pay their basic bills because they dared to go into helping fields. And as I watched this 20-something, upper class, recent grad berate the multicultural cast of working class and student volunteers and part timers, I could not help but wonder what kind of social justice can come out of exploitation masked as economic “creativity.” If one’s own workers and volunteers have no human value than what value do service seekers have in this model? And how exactly are we striving toward a world where everyone has value, equality, and justice when we are not even providing it for the people on whose labor we depend?

It seems to me that a critically unexplored part of the non-profit-industrial-complex is the exploitation of labor and the subsequent exploitation or diminishing of useful services to clients. After all, nothing can change at cash-strapped agencies who have come to take their workers for granted without a critical paradigm shift in the thinking of social justice agencies. As long as money is tight and the answer is to shut down services and rely on underpaid or volunteer workers for everything from phones, to printing, to salary related donations, neither funders nor workers can escape the cycle by which we all poor money into dysfunction to ensure at least one place remains open for service seekers. Agencies know this and so do the supervisors who lament attrition rates in both clients and volunteers without ever asking themselves why.

So I put it to you again, in another way: what kind of social justice can you possibly be working for when you are providing no justice to your least paid workers?

Race Issues Are Queer Issues

During the post-CNN/Dan Savage Prop 8 debacle, it fell to black queer people to remind the “community” that we existed and that we did not all come from offensively homophobic families just itching to burn down gayborhoods like white people did to Rosewood, Pierce City, and others in the past. It also fell to the entire queer community/ies of color to remind both gay and straight white people that they had not authored, sponsored, nor ushered in the bill and that homophobia crosses race, class, and gender lines. More than that, people of color and allies had to trot out endless evidence that they had in fact organized against Prop 8 and that many had done so with no funding or support from larger queer organizations. It was the stuff of nightmares that reminded us all that despite all sharing one identity, the intersections crossing that identity meant that we were still, sadly, on different & exploitable divides.

Richard Settle/Flickr

Enter the immigration debate. At this past week’s Netroots 10 conference, at least one panel on immigration included a discussion in which a white queer blogger argued correctly that gay rights people need to fight for immigration issues because “when one of us is not free, none of us is free.” Though I share his sentiment, the juxtaposition of one community with the other once again renders them mutually exclusive. Yet gay immigrants not only exist, they have the unique distinction of being cut out of one of the major ways to gain legal access to citizenship in the U.S.: family reunification. After all, if your family isn’t legally recognized neither is its reunification. Even if queer immigrants are able to come here legally through other means, they also run the risk of having their legal marriages abroad considered null and void in the majority of the United States. So the marriage issue is in fact an immigration issues and vice versa.

Queer immigrants are also routinely denied asylum despite the fact that homophobic harassment, especially by police or military, should clearly qualify them. These denials have often sent queer petitioners home to their deaths a distinction they share with women escaping domestic violence and government sponsored rape and torture or immigrants whose ethnic or religious affiliation is no longer of import or has never been important to the political aims of the U.S. When HIV exemptions were still on the books, many gay men were denied citizenship, even when legally petitioned for as part of a larger family unit, based on the erroneous fear they were infected. Sometimes, the HIV exemption was used to punish citizen and asylum seekers for being gay; though statistics on how many were denied for this reason is hard to comeby, anecdotal stories from lawyers and advocates exist. The list of discrimination goes on.

So whether we are talking about equal access to marriage or not, as long as gay people have limited or no rights, certain immigrants will lack certain rights and vice versa. Ultimately gay rights and immigrant rights are not just equally important because of how oppressions are linked but also because for some people they are the same thing.

Understanding these connections are fundamental to an effective and inclusive gay rights strategy. Yet, prominent gay or queer (as a verb not a noun) artists seem to understand this less than the movement(s) itself. Last week Elton John played Tuscon AZ despite massive protest. In response, he told his audience:

“We are all very pleased to be playing in Arizona. I have read that some of the artists won’t come here. They are f***wits! Let’s face it: I still play in California, and as a gay man I have no legal rights whatsoever. So what’s the f**k with these people?”

His comment stood in stark relief against his decision to play Rush Limbaugh’s wedding, which not only flew in the face of the gay marriage ban in multiple parts of the U.S. but also his own rights as Limbaugh has spoken out against them on his show and supported others who have done so. More than that Elton seemed to turn the idea of shared freedom on its head, claiming “if I am not free, who cares if you are” in place of “if one of us is not free, none of us are.” Not only is this sentiment self-interested, hypocritical, and oppressive it also shows the underlining issues with how SB1070 is perceived and likely to be applied. After all, Elton John has no more legal right to be married in AZ than he does in CA but more than that, if the judge had not put on hold the ID portion of SB1070 this week Elton would have had to carry his papers to do any future concerts in the state. He did not think about that because he is white and European and like everybody else, he assumes he will not be stopped, harassed, or “accidentally” deported because he does not “look like an illegal immigrant.” That difference and the privilege to not only exploit it but also be completely oblivious to it is one of the fundamental problems with queer organizing in the U.S. and to a lesser extent Britain. Both groups continue to articulate themselves as white, upper class, and male. While they claim to be interested in socio-political issues outside of themselves, there is very little stated or real effort to be interested in issues related to poor people and people of color (both of whom are assumed to not be queer).

Elton is not alone in his complete denial of the import of immigrants’ rights. Lady Gaga plans to play Phoenix AZ at the end of the month. Though her appeal crosses sexualities and genders, Gaga has become one of the queer icons, in every since of the word, of our time. Like Madonna she has been taken in by a community that she claims while keeping her sexuality largely out of it. Like Elton John she has also made headlines for oppressive decisions like mocking trans women. And also like Elton John she has no qualms with playing a concert in a state that most artists have refused to play until the pass law comes down. Gaga’s concert also coincides with a week long solidarity effort called for by queer organizations, immigrants rights activists, and progressive organizations across the country asking everyone to use the week to raise awareness, organize protests, and refuse to have anything to do with AZ accept boycott. So in essence, Gaga’s concert not only violates an unspoken decision to boycott but also a very clear picket line.

In both instances, artists with considerable international fame and connections have simply snubbed their nose at human rights in the name of the almighty dollar. Neither Gaga’s silence nor Elton’s tried and true tactic of “hey look at that over there it’s much worse than this” can mask the fact that in a very public way white queer performers have failed to see the connection between the struggles of people of color and their own. They have once again transformed the public face of the movement(s) into one of racial privilege and racial disdain despite the work that queer people, regardless of race, have been doing to support immigrants rights and communities of color. They have made it that much harder for coalitions to be formed in the future and for new generations of activists to see their lives and their work implicated in the lives and work of people they perceive to be different from them.

Arizona is not California. But every activist involved in ending Prop 8 learned a valuable lesson about racial exclusion and racial myopia that everyone else should take note of if we are ever going to get equal rights in the U.S. Race Issues are Queer Issues. Queer Issues are Race Issues. And anyone who does not get that needs both education on oppression and an end to ticket sales. If you can boycott AZ businesses in the name of solidarity, you can stop listening to Lady Gaga too. There are several petitions circulating to try and get Gaga to cancel her concert, the most legitimate one seems to be here.

(Update, this post was written prior to Gaga’s concert. You can read my response to her Sharpie activism during that concert here.)

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images of Gaga, Elton & Eminem unattributed

More Radical Opportunities in NOLA

With all the talk of who is doing what over in the Gulf, I thought it might be nice to announce an event where people are actually pooling knowledge, talking about change, and then getting down to the business of it. It won’t stop BP from telling their version of truth about what is going on with the oil spill or their seemingly unrealistic version of how long clean up will take, but if you are tired of the spin and want to work on all of the other and intersecting issues going on in the region while taking a break from trying to save fragile wildlife, here’s one such place to start:

Last month, more than fifty people took part in spellbinding story sharing and conversation with Ms. Dodie Smith-Simmons. This Thursday, join John O’Neal for storytelling and conversation about nonviolence as a tactic and a way of life.

What: Talkin’ Revolution: Conversations with Elders who Led the Way, featuring John O’Neal
When: Thursday, June 10, 7pm
Where: The 7th Ward Neighborhood Center,
1910 Urquhart Street at Pauger Street
FREE PROGRAM

Hunger Strike Against SB 1070

Some students at UC Berkeley have been engaging in a hunger strike against SB 1070 since Monday of last week. The students have asked the President, Chancellor, and Vice Chancellor of the university to denounce SB 1070 and address racial issues on campus that they believe make UC Berkeley, and to a larger extent the UC system, susceptible to similar legislation and policing in the future. They also requested that the university become a “sanctuary campus” in which undocumented students would be safe to both attend and seek refuge if they were attending other schools.

In response, Chancellor Birgeneau, who was out of town, condemned SB 1070, assured students that no one was being investigated for previous immigration rallies on campus, and asked that students turn their attention toward teachable moments rather than risking their health to make a statement. He also raised concerns that making Berkeley a sanctuary campus would actually draw negative attention to Latin@s on campus and increase the potential for covert surveillance of them by authorities. Historians will note that radical and even moderate social justice students, particularly those interested in racial and gender equality, have been the targets of such covert operations in the past and that Berkeley has been a particular hotbed for conflicts between government agencies and students. He also reiterated that Vice Chancellor Breslauer had his support in meeting with students and trying to clarify their requests.

While Chancellor Birgeneau comments from afar focused on the issues raised by the initial call for a hunger strike while questioning the methods, UCPD was not so interested in support for immigrants’ rights or students’ protests. When one student called for medical attention during the weekend, UCPD showed up instead. Students went to twitter to alert everyone that the police had been called despite no confrontational politics or illegal activity on the part of students. They raised concerns about how students’ attempts to care for themselves, as instructed by the Chancellor, seemed to be directly thwarted by campus and local police.

In response to police action and what students’ believe is the failure of the Chancellor to officially meet with them, 3 students are going on a “dry strike” (ie no food or water) while at least 10 others will continue the “solidarity hunger strike” (juice and water ok).  They have also modified their list of concerns and needs for the university:

  1. Public denouncement of SB 1070 (presumably including some connection to why similar legislation would not be ok in California)
  2. recruitment, retention, and safety for students of color espec. undocumented students & a commitment that UCPD will not report suspected undocumented workers or students to ICE (this replaces a call for a “sanctuary campus” originally demand #2 in a circulated list during the beginning of the hunger strike)
  3. changing the student code of conduct so that the maximum sanction for students engaged in social justice protests is community service, not suspension, expulsion, and/or potential arrest; suspension of the code until it is applied fairly to all groups on campus
  4. the rehire of laid off service workers, all of whom are people of color
  5. a commitment from both Chancellor and Vice Chancellor that they will engage solely in non-violent methods to address protesters on campus and an apology for the police brutality some students experienced during previous protests

Supporters of the strikers applaud the ongoing political commitment of UC Berkeley students in the face of ongoing oppression of students of color on and off campus. They point to the ways that Berkeley students are drawing attention to SB 1070 while addressing how a climate for state sanctioned discrimination must exist before legislation can be enacted. In other words, by pointing to key issues on Berkeley’s campus, they are highlighting how ideas of illegality and criminalization of people of color is the starting point for legislation that publicly sanctions racial profiling and makes it into law. They are also drawing attention to how the university system in general is implicated in both the exploitation of undocumented workers and reaping economic benefit from undocumented workers and students while failing to take a unified stand against anti-immigration elements.

Others have expressed concerns about the students’ methods and message. Some believe that instead of acting in solidarity with students in Arizona, the hunger strike has in fact shifted needed discussion and energy away from SB 1070 in order to center issues in California. Instead seeing a larger narrative of policing and erosion of civil rights for Latin@s in this country, cast as immigration issues, they see Berkeley students’ piggybacking their own issues onto the SB 1070 law with little effort to raise knowledge, create discussion, or organize around SB 1070 itself. Some have also pointed out that the hunger strike is “only a handful of students” while other efforts that actually are circulating concrete information about SB 1070 and organizing discussions, actions, and rallies to repeal it and prevent its spread to other states represent much larger efforts on campus. Finally, some have simply called the hunger strike “ridiculous” given that neither California voters nor California schools had anything to do with SB 1070 and that the action is undermining any credibility that students have to represent these complex issues.

No matter which side you fall on, it seems that once again SB 1070 has had far-reaching impact Arizona legislatures likely never considered. As the tide continues to turn against them amongst academic circles, negative views of the state and Arizona schools continues to spread. While some have flocked to Arizona’s defense in an act of white entrenchment solidarity, the slow ripples of disdain for state sanctioned legalized racial profiling and discrimination are extending outward in larger and larger circles. From academics to sports personalities to politicians and organizers, Arizona is starting to feel like the next “Sun City.” And in that sense, we should all remember that it was organizing at Berkeley that helped turn the tide toward national level divestment from places with legalized inequality and discrimination.