This morning, I listened to the words of the inimitable Suheir Hammad, from her poem “First Writing Since.” Suheir ends that powerful piece by saying
“Affirm life. Affirm life. We got to carry each other now. You are either with life, or against it. Affirm life.”
I listen to this poem of hers every year today, and every time, it makes me cry. It unleashes my grief, rage, desperation, relief, and love. It reminds me how I am so lucky to do the work I get to do. Affirming life and every day learning how to better put that into practice collectively.
In 2001, I was living in Washington D.C. for a few months working on the international mobilization against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings scheduled for late September. This was during the height of the global justice movement within the U.S.. We had high hopes and brilliant plans for this convergence challenging the current form of colonialism and empire that millions of people around the globe were rising up against.
On the morning of 2001, I watched the World Trade center towers fall on TV in the living room of the house I was living in with my affinity group, those of us who were organizing the office space that the Mobilization for Global Justice operated from. Some of us had loved ones in New York and were frantically trying to get through blocked phone lines. Others went on reconnaissance downtown and came back telling us that tanks were out in the streets while the Pentagon smoldered.
Some of my affinity group members had been involved in land defense occupations with the American Indian Movement (AIM). Body-memories of being viciously attacked during raids, and the realities of violent state repression were prickling their skin to get the hell out of Dodge. Public transit was shut down and we tried to rally enough bikes to get us all into Virginia if it came to that. Remember that on that first day, nobody knew where this was going to go. No one did. All we knew was that people were dying and more were going to be killed in response. In the midst of the ash and fire, the looming specter was of violent repercussions on a mass scale, likely directed at brown people.
We knew the history of white supremacy and state violence in the U.S., and we did not leave D.C. that night. None of us are Arab or Muslim and most of us have white skin privilege. Those who had been injured standing with AIM knew that they had only been targeted like that because they were working within the indigenous resistance movement that has been the longest-running target of U.S. militarism in the history of this country. We knew that majority white activist movements which aim to challenge state and corporate power are, overall, third-tier targets, following the resistance of movements of color, and poor and working-class communities whose daily lives are marked by state repression. We also thought it was possible that we'd see live ammo at street protests. CNN sure made it sound that way.
We canceled the convergence and planned a peace march for which we fielded flack and accusations of cowardice from all over the country. In our house, we filled the bathtub with water, cooked gallons of soup for our friends and neighbors, drank whiskey, and cried together. We found fellowship and tried to figure out what the hell to do. We talked to west coast loved ones who seemed to be living in an entirely different reality.
We slept in our boots. Grief shook us down. That week is now fogged over with a level of confusion, mourning, and fear that I can recognize later as an experience of collective trauma. And underneath it all was the sense of helplessness, as Bush began rattling the swords and, within a month, made war on Afghanistan amidst an eruption of cheers and applause from all over this country. American flags hung off every highway overpass from D.C.to NYC.
It's 2012, and millions of Iraqis and Afghans have been killed, injured, maimed, displaced from their homes, and have endured the staggering trauma of having their lives invaded. 'Collateral damage' of 'soft targets.'
It's 2012 and the names of everyone who died in the 9/11 attacks, including the first responders, have already been lost just as thoroughly as the names of the 6,000 some U.S. service members whose deaths are officially recognized.
It's 2012 and I don't know who has generated a head count of how many people inside the U.S. who are or appear to be Arab, Muslim, North African, South Asian have been harassed, detained, assaulted, fired, evicted, bullied, raided, surveilled, and killed. State violence. Street violence. In the schools, the convenience stores, in the lines of men between certain ages from certain countries standing outside Homeland Security during the “Special Registrations.”
It's 2012 and the “war of civilizations” and fear-mongering frameworks of the hawk opportunists in power have devastated Afghanistan and Iraq, and eaten an abyss into the U.S economy, social fabric, and soul.
It's 2012 and a veteran of the U.S. military commits suicide every 18 hours according to some studies, or every 80 minutes, according to the VA. Then there's the epidemic of sexual assault and rape within the military, PTSD, physical and mental injuries, poisoning from chemical weapons and toxics “in theater.” The impacts ripple out into families and communities when one person comes home bringing the war in their body.
This morning the Cost of War counter was around $1,372,000,000,000 for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Better believe that doesn't include reparations or sufficient care for veterans.
In 2012, the Israeli military trains the U.S. National Guard in tactics that were developed on the U.S. taxpayer dime and tested on Palestinians. I have a veteran friend who endured multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then was dispatched to New Orleans post-Katrina. He became an antiwar organizer after the similarities in those experiences sunk into his bones. He speaks of what he saw in peoples' faces while transporting prisoners and transporting evacuees.
It's 2012 and the U.S. leads the world in incarceration. The carefully fabricated fear of black and brown bodies, of poor people, of “immigrants,” makes security and safety impossible for most people who live in this country, and has repercussions around the world.
In 2012, though it is not new, more and more people inside the U.S. are being pushed into a desperate situation. The economic violence committed against to so many uses a cover of racism, invoking peoples' manipulated fears and grief.
White narrative divides us
For those of us who are white, coming from every class background across the spectrum, we have to recognize how racism in the U.S. is fundamentally a divide and conquer strategy to convince non-ruling class white people to align with the 1%, against our own interests. It's a class war strategy presenting itself as a race war. The “clash of civilizations” rhetoric, which the Christian-dominated ruling class has employed for generations to expand its power, or to reach its 'manifest destiny,' got a massive steroid shot with 9/11.
I couldn't say it more clearly than a college acquaintance of mine said on Facebook today: “I will never forget how agents of the religion of war and genocide attacked innocent civilians in New York simply because they were who they were. People who loved freedom, their families, their work and America.”
Yep. There's the narrative right there. That's what we are fed in order to continue enlisting us in this project of accumulating wealth and power for a tiny handful of people, while Oakland and cities across the country are closing schools and telling teachers there's no money to pay them, and anyway, your unions are the real problem with this economy. That's how you enlist white people to support welfare deform, even though statistically white people receive more support than the African-American women who are attacked with obscene racist caricatures of “welfare queens.”
But today I am thinking about some of the other layers in addition to the economic realities of why white supremacy hurts white people when we collaborate with racial oppression of communities of color.
When some peoples' lives are devalued, nobody's full humanity can flourish. When you see some of your neighbors as less than human, how does that affect your understanding of yourself? When you permit some of your neighbors to be treated as less than human, you agree that those practices are acceptable.
Do you think it will never trickle down to you? When you believe that some mothers celebrate burying their children, how does that distort your own ability to love people from the deepest place in you?
When you co-sign a war budget that bleeds our schools in order to drop bombs on other peoples' children, what kind of future are you endorsing? When you make excuses for racial profiling, mass imprisonment, children losing their parents to deportation, torture in prisons in the U.S. and in our overseas allies, what part of your ability to love yourself dies?
Survival is at stake: economic survival, survival of the planet, and the survival of our core selves. Our abilities to fully love, connect, build healthy societies, look out for each other instead of tearing each other up.
Decolonizing our lives
The histories of people coming together to dream new visions, to develop functional alternatives to what we're strong-armed to accept, to find common points of interest and build joint struggle- that is the river into which flows the best legacies of white anti-racist organizing. We need each other. Across lines of power, privilege, violence, oppression, and the very real legacies of colonialism and racism that are inscribed differently in each of our bodies, we need each other. Navigating those lines is complicated and painful and we are all bound to mess up at times when we take risks. But if fundamental social transformation isn't going to necessitate some complicated, risky messiness, then what is?
I believe that my heart is sound enough to support me on a lifetime journey of decolonizing myself from the lies I've been taught. I believe I can unlearn the ways I've internalized privileges that distort my ability to connect with myself, other people, the world around me. I choose to believe that all of us are capable of this. And we all need to do this because we are all needed. We all must bring our varied strengths to bear on changing this world. No more 9/11s. No more CIA-backed coups like the overthrow of Chile's democratically elected Salvador Allende on 9/11/73. No more open-air prisons like the Gaza Strip. No more shootings in mosques, gurdwaras, burnings of Black churches, white supremacist attacks on Jewish communities. Affirm life.
What I might love best about Suheir's poem, beyond her fierce honesty and vulnerability, is the firm re-invention of Bush & Co.'s binary. You are indeed with us, or against us. The question is all about who is “us?” And as Arundhati Roy says in her heartshaking piece “Come September,” 9/11/2001 could be an opportunity, “To say to the citizens of America, in the gentlest, most human way: Welcome to the World.”
What becomes possible when we start understanding ourselves as being part of the world, rather than above it, or bunkered down against it sending out drones and poor and working-class kids to shoot other impoverished kids?
What becomes possible when we accept that invitation to re-grow our collective humanity?
There are so many places that sun is shining through the cracks right now. What I'm thinking about this morning:
In 2001, I was deeply engaged in immigrant rights work. When I returned to my home in San Francisco from D.C., just after the war in Afghanistan had been launched, it was heart-rending to hear from the immigrant leaders who had, prior to 9/11, been building powerful local and national movement. People said, “This just set us back ten years.” The levels of fear and repression hit different communities of color differently, and nobody escaped the impacts.
So it's eleven years later. The UndocuBus tour with the No Papers No Fearriders' historic freedom ride through the South just ended at the DNC to pressure Obama, who is deporting people faster than Bush ever did. The level of courage and militancy in the migrant justice movement, in the face of escalating state and federal level attacks, has risen to a higher public level than where it was on September 10, 2001.
There's more. Every day there are victories. Movements, woven out of relationships, organizations and community structures, are inexorably opening space for survival and dreaming our desires into reality.
This is a love letter. To the First Nations people whose occupied land I live on. To the folks in my life, particularly people of color, who have supported me in continuing to grow in my capacity to effectively place myself on the side of justice. To my affinity group in Washington D.C., to a memory of swimming in the Potomac with you all less than a week after September 11th and feeling us buoyed up by the river and knowing that we were going to pull each other through because we were people who loved each other who were held by a movement so big it spanned the globe. To the global peoples' movements for democracy and liberation that have inspired every successful justice movement in the U.S. And to those who continue to grieve, while they continue to love, whose hearts are so big that nothing can stop them. The work of affirming life is what makes our hearts unstoppable. To my white people, working together against racism is a love letter to the world, and to our own potential to regenerate the humanity that white supremacy asks us to cash in.
Thanks to Max Elbaum and Rahula Janowski for feedback.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project
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