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

Haiti Still Rebuilding

I promised to write a post on the first of every month about Haiti until the crisis was over. I missed last month because I was just generally MIA the entire month anyway. That does not mean that rebuilding in Haiti is not still going on or that people in the U.S. have largely moved on to the next thing. In the face of the Gulf Crisis in particular, including flooding in the surrounding areas, it’s hard not to see why compassion fatigue has set in. But, as is my way, I would not doubt that fatigue would wipe Haiti off the immediacy map anyway.

So what is going on in Haiti?

1. Wycleff Jean for President …

limelight.org

First Wycleff Jean has made it known he is considering running for President. When Fernandez originally took office in the Dominican Republic there was some complaint that he was from New York not RD. His focus on transnational issues, “Americanized” sense of blackness and identity, and his progressive ideas were all things that his opponents attacked in his original campaign and to a lesser extent in his subsequent campaign that ousted Mejia. Some people have pointed to Fernandez’s success in uniting factions in RD and changing racial and socio-political discussions for the better, particular in terms of his ability to advocate for a more respectful place at the table of U.S. foreign affairs, as a reason why transmigrants might make more globally successful presidents for the Caribbean. Given that Haiti shares the island, comparisons between Jean’s potential bid and Fernandez’s presidency seem to make some sense as well. However, Jean is first and foremost an entertainer not someone deeply involved in politics and governance like Fernandez. His charity has come under scrutiny more than once over financial issues that range from general lack of knowledge about establishing proper status for the organization and pay structures for its employees to the more disconcerting accusations about the use of funds. His own involvement has been critiqued from multiple sides and should be evaluated in the context of his newly stated political aspirations. Regardless of whether you see him being politicized by his needed philanthropic work in Haiti or his charity work as a stepping stone to a political career, I think questions have to be asked about Yele in light of this announcement. And I don’t think asking those questions distracts from the work Yele or Jean himself did in Haiti during the earthquake crisis; work this blog helped to highlight. More than that, if you do interpret the bulk of questions surrounding Yele as lack of knowledge, then how does that reflect on Jean’s ability to run the much larger budget of a nation-state?

2. Women Rebuild

Women were amongst the hardest hit by the earthquake. Not only did they make up 50% of the heads of households in Haiti but they were early reports of sexual assault and child trafficking that spoke to the targeting of women in the aftermath by relief workers and opportunists alike. Women and children also outnumbered men in the relief camps but footage coming out of Haiti pointed to several young men bullying them out of food lines and food, water, medicine and sanitation shortages leading to the death of newborns, pregnant women, and small children, leaving surviving mothers with classic PTS and depression. These conditions have been documented around the world in refugee camps that do not provide enough security or gender related supported to women. However, both women and men involved in the relief effort in Haiti have pointed out basic ways that women can and should be supported:

The Merlet International Feminist Solidarity Camp, named after a famous Haitian feminist killed in the earthquake, also worked to combat some of these issues. It was organized by women’s groups in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the LACs region, and the Global Fund for Women with the goal of ultimately being run exclusively by Haitian women. The camp helped coordinate women’s centered relief efforts coming through the Dominican at a time when relief was still sitting untouched at the Haitian airport. It also provided a holistic health center for women to deal with both physical and emotional issues related to the earthquake.

Both International women’s organizations and NGOs within Haiti and the Dominican Republic began helping women in Haiti from the beginning of the Earthquake. I mentioned these organizations in prior posts including links to their donation lines but here is a video of the work that was being done in February.

MUDHA’s work is particularly important because it is a well-established women’s organization focusing on women’s rights and equality in both RD and Haiti. Their work in the Dominican Republic in particular has been critical to ensuring both Haitian women and Haitian descended women receive services, funding, education, and health care that have largely been denied them in the Dominican Republic. Their partnership in the relief efforts with Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees also helped bring a needed transnational element to their work, including support of Haitian women fleeing the earthquake, Haitian transmigrants in the U.S. and RD, and women’s organizing in general. You can read more about the efforts women are engaging in on the border of the Dominican and Haiti from the perspective of the Director of the Women and Health Collective here (Spanish only). As you can see from the interview, the majority of the displaced are women and they face major antihaitianismo hurtles despite the relief efforts.

According to Dir. Galvan, 6 months later, Haitian women also continue to face problems with lighting and security in camps in Haiti despite the promise of money to fix these issues. They also do not have enough access to jobs, food, or milk for their children. Their complaints about sexual assault have not been taken seriously enough nor have changes to protect against further assault. Nor has enough money been spent on women’s specific mental health needs in the aftermath. Worse there is limited to no access to birth control or post-birth or post-abortion services in the camps. Yet women are banding together to demand representation, services, and inclusion in the rebuild including 7 demands presented specifically to the government and the relief workers in Haiti.

Revista Amauta/Roberto Guerra

While women centered NGOs and women’s organizations are small but strong in Haiti, many of them do not represent queer women, and women make up a very small percentage of the government itself. Since the government is re-establishing its ability to make decisions about funding and rebuilding efforts in the aftermath, female representation in the government is critical. Haitian women have begun to advocate for themselves in light of this situation, along with pre-existing women’s political organizations, Vital Voices has emerged as an organization by and for Haitian women that is helping fund the campaigns of over 70 women for office. They are also working on educating women about political participation and its import and getting women registered to vote. Vital Voices receives training and money from international sources but also provides training and leadership from within Haiti; meaning, that they are in charge of the organization and work on an exchange of skills model rather than allow international funders to dictate what happens.

The Centre National des Equipments, which is in charge of government sponsored infrastructure rebuilding, has also centered women in the rebuild efforts. The majority of their workers are women and in the aftermath of the earthquake leadership has extended job and training offers to women in the capital. According to the Seattle Times, 85 trainees/65 women were on site clearing rubble within hours of the earthquake. Their work, and CNE’s in general, is helping to challenge gender stereotypes about women’s work, leadership, and strength. With so many displaced women, it is also providing an opportunity to regain self-sufficiency and develop new and needed skills. CNE’s salaries also represent middle class incomes for women who may not have other entry points into similar economic status. Though it comes with the potential for engendered conflict between men and women, and even domestic violence, it also represents economic freedom and the chance to make new lives for women and their children at a time when those lives seem nearly impossible.

In the day to day existence of Haitian post-earthquake, women have also taken on many of the roles ensuring the nation’s survival. These women have provided food, education, and care in communities that were the last to receive international aid as well as those still depending on displaced camps. According to Bell, they are

Street vendors, factory workers, farmers, professionals, and unemployed, they compose a national force which has sustained hungry, wounded, and abandoned survivors. Though they may be on the razor-thin edge of survival themselves, though they may already be caring for many, women have been finding and cooking food for strangers, taking in children left orphaned and others left homeless, and seeking out medical assistance and health care or improvising their own. Some have taken it upon themselves to organize education or recreation sessions for children, who have little to do since Port-au-Prince’s schools have closed. ‘It’s just our social obligation,’ said one woman.

These women, and all of the women involved in organizing in Haiti, represent individual and collective efforts that speak to the power and resilience of Haitian women in the face of tragedy.

Here are the donation links I posted in the past for women’s organizations working in Haiti.