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.

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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