Thursday, November 17, 2016

On Salons, Social Movements and a Magic Circle of Friends: Fall Reading, Reflections, and Reviews

This writer and a friend remapping the streets of New York City,  creating Sacco and Vanzetti Square.

Books reviewed in this essay:
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Haymarket Books, 2016LA Kauffman Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, Verso 2017LB Bogad, Tactical Performance: The Theory and Practice of Serious Play, Routledge, 2016Eric Laursen The People’s Pension, The Struggle To Defend Social Security Since ReaganAK Press, 2012Stevphen Shukaitis,Compsition of Movements to Come: Aesthetics and Cultural Labour After the Avant-Garde, Roman and Littlefield, 2015invisible committee to our friends semiotext(e), 2015Kelly Cogswell, My Life as a Lesbian Avenger, University of Minnesota Press, 2014Gregory Woods, Homintern How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World Yale University Press, 2016Alexander Nehamas On Friendship. Basic Books, 2016

Rebel Friends in action through time, from the CUNY Professional Staff Congress, to queer salons, Lesbian Avengers, to Freedom Riders. 

               “It was the best time of my life,” you hear the lament over and over throughout the stories people tell about their experiences with the Freedom Riders and subsequent movements.  Some reflect with a sense of satisfaction; others with a feeling of loss for the kinship networks that dispersed after movements ended.  Others can’t bear to recall what happened, ambivalent about the campaigns that got away, the wars and corporations they were not able to stop, victories which eluded them, their dreams interrupted by the alarm clocks of reality.  To make sense of these complicated sensations, many write, reflecting on their trials, conflicts, victories, lost opportunities, the friendships they made.  Along the way, social movements ebb and flow. As some wane, others arrive, picking up pieces of the old, adding their own chapters.  And inevitably, new stories, programs, policies, and even a few books take shape. These social ties – extending solidarity – help us connect movements, lives and struggles.

                A current of radical friendship and love runs through these efforts.  Here, people act up about what is wrong together; they sing, get arrested, tweet and take care of each other.  Doing so, they engage in a distinct practice of friendship.  For writer, Cody Charles this is:

Through the process, we do great things. In Gay Men’s Friendships, Peter Nardi argues such friendships offer a nexus between individual and community experience, linking peoples’ lives with larger social forces. Over time, these radical networks create their own collective mythologies and culture tales, which influence each other, creating still more stories and scholarship. This small essay considers a some of this ever evolving world of activist-scholarship.  Part autobiographical, this review essay assesses some of the recent literature that has shaped, informed, or come out of the activism of the recent movements and the feedback loop that creates.   Some of these books impact movements; others reflect the stories of movements and friendships which changed their lives, relating conversations about networks, protests, performances, and constellations of ideas forcing our democracy to contend with ideas – from anarchism to AIDS, environmentalism to Black Lives Matter.
               Like those in many of those in the books here, I have long taken inspiration from the collectives I’ve been in or am currently a part of; some are reading groups, organized around salons where we share ideas.  Most of my books grow out of these collectives, their stories, conflicts, and affinity groups that have met during jail support or afterward to talk about what happened, where we went wrong, what we did right, what we’re going to read, build, protest, or plan next.    

                One of the more highbrow groups I participate in is Stanley Aronowitz’s Institute for the Radical Imagination.  Over my three years in this group, we’ve all shared a conversation taking us from autonomous Marxism to deconstruction, through a dialectic of race and class, and back to questions about political economy and Nietzsche.  Last Saturday, we met for four hours.   It can be long.  So afterwards or even during our meetings, I usually ride off, the stories from our texts - Singh’s Black is a Country or Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America - lingering as I make my way to speak outs at Rikers Island, garden, biking events, and protests over aggressive policing, incarceration and profiling of outsiders.

What would Baldwin think?

In between Institute for the Radical Imagination sessions on historical materialism, a few anti-consumer activists and I started the Activist Informed Reading Group.  For a year now, we’ve discussed novels and essays related to questions from the Black Lives Matter Movement.  We started with Ta-Nehisi Coats’ Between the World and Me.  But we adored Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Richard Wright’s Invisible Man, and Audre Lord’s Sister Outsider.  Each seemed to offer a glimpse of far away so close grief, an estrangement still resonating with us today: “It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society,” Baldwin writes in Notes of a Native Son, confessing his ambivalence about identity in our reading for next Saturday.  After his father died, Baldwin reflects, “I had been away from home for a little over a year. In that year I had had time to become aware of the meaning of all my father's bitter warnings…I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me. ...”

As we met, read and acted up, waves of mass protests over the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and many others pulled us into an age old conversation.  Black Lives Matter brought generations of bodies into the streets, ideas clashing and melding.  With roots in the Black Power Movement, the milieu that inspired Baldwin, and even Occupy, Black Lives Matter expanded this dialog, among “kinship” networks, as well as strangers supporting ever expanding pickets, rallies, and tweets about a dirty secret of institutional racism and income inequality, exposing them for the whole world to see, activists essentially screaming “don’t kill me.”  The Black Panthers were formed to hold the police accountable.  Doing so, members read Marx and built a program, something Elaine Brown suggests is lacking in Black Lives Matters.  Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation builds on and extends this conversation about liberation, public space, policing and race.  “Today, though, the face of the Black Lives Matter movement is largely queer and female,” argues Taylor (p. 165). 

This, of course, is a point, echoed throughout the texts covered in this review essay, particularly LA Kauffman’s work tracing the influences of queer and feminist thinking, transforming activism and movements wide and far. “This resurgence of disruptive direct action in people-of-color-led movements didn’t start in Ferguson,” writes Kauffman, citing precedents including the Republican Convention protests in Philadelphia in 2000, the massive immigrant rights marches of 2006 and the summer 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida.  “But it’s the tenacious young black organizers on the frontlines in Ferguson, many of them women, who clearly deserve the most credit for the scale and character of this nationwide upsurge. Their risk-taking in the face of the tear gas, rubber bullets, and military gear of the police there—and their strategic use of social media to broadcast their message and methods—have transformed grassroots protest in the United States. In both Ferguson and New York, the protests have been decentralized, with different groups and organizers taking the lead at different points.

The example is not without precedent.  Women in ACT UP, Ella Baker in SNCC, have long cultivated and supported multi-issue, U.S. social movements, even in the face of substantial opposition. This through line informs activism in countless ways.  We see it in Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s efforts to connect MLK’s prophetic words and questions, with compelling street actions in which people come together, share righteous rage, a little solidarity, care, and friendship.  And certainly it is never easy to write a book about a movement still continuing in cities across the country.  Taylor’s response to Martin Luther King’s Testament of Hope from 1969 reminds us that movements are bundles of stories, building on each other’s narratives: “I am not sad that black Americans are rebelling; this was not only inevitable but eminently desirable. Without this magnificent ferment among Negroes, the old evasions and procrastinations would have continued indefinitely.…” writes King. “They have left the valley of despair; they have found strength in struggle; and whether they live or die, they shall never crawl nor retreat again. Joined by white allies, they will shake the prison walls until they fall.” King’s words resonate across cohorts, connecting all of us. “America must change.” I remember hearing them as a kid, watching the Jefferson’s sit coms, and reading about them today.

                After the Staten Island grand jury chose not to charge the policeman who strangled Eric Garner death, I recall receiving text messages about where the movement was taking place.  I was going meet everyone after teaching my policy class.  “It’s at the FDR,” the texts explained. That is a huge freeway, I assumed they meant beside the freeway. “It is on the freeway,” one of my friends texted back.  So I rode my bike.  Two young activists I had never met helped lift my bike up, giving me a hand up onto the highway, where as far as I could look in either direction, bodies filled the freeway. It was like that for days.  I’d hear screams and protests and arrests outside the Brooklyn Bridge where I was teaching, only to get out, and join the beautiful spectacle of bodies filling the streets to remind the world that something terribly was and people were not going to just go along to get along. Walking, I saw people I’d seen out at similar rallies in New York since Abner Louima was sodomized by the police in 1997, Amadou Diallo was shot for pulling out his wallet in 2000, and Rodney King watched the group of police who beat him as he sat facing the ground, let off free in Los Angeles in 1992. Daily protests followed these moments, each striking in their exposure of a lingering wound that just doesn’t seem to be going away.  In the streets, I’ve seen activists unarrest participants, shifting public discourse, and policy around criminal justice.  For much of that night on the FDR, I marched with the Treveon Martin Organizing Committee, who framed their efforts in terms of friendship and affinity among equals:

“We are meeting in streets, corners, bridges and highways daring to take back what is ours. And we will not leave one of ours behind. We will not leave our friends, comrades or lovers in the hands of the white supremacist police state. People have de- arrested people before us, and we will continue this tradition. We envision a world where the police are abolished and will live this dream by manifesting it in the present and that means delegitimizing the police and state at every chance we get. Our desire burns today’s empires into tomorrow’s ashes. We are not the first and we will not be the last. We are numerous. We are the future and the now. We are here. We can’t stop. Won’t stop.”

Much of the abundance of the movements grows from a sense of radical love, a commitment to forge ahead.  Each rally is a bit of a meeting, extending a conversation. Some days, we meet in the streets, others in community gardens, or Grand Central Terminal, or a bike ride or even a living room to discuss a book, plan an action or share a meal. The best of the writing about movements we read in the salons involves activists who are able to mix theory, history, their observations and a jigger of narrative to describe the world’s problems and movements, reflecting on the lessons of their experiences.  It is a particular joy when activists I have known through these years have come out with new books which help explain it all.

LAK at OWS Sandy. 2012.


               LA Kauffman’s book Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism comes out early next year.  I’ve been reading her essays for years now.  It’s amazing to finally seen the come together, spinning between the anti-war movement to ACTUP, Global Justice to Occupy. This work’s origin is worth discussing in itself.  Kauffman started drafting this story in the early 1990s in San Francisco.  With each wave of movements, she added a chapter, connecting current struggles with long forgotten efforts, such as the long forgotten Mayday actions 1971 when activists filled the jails of Washington DC.  The Seattle direct actions of 1999 forced a whole rewrite. Kauffman’s writing about the links between social movements, connecting seemingly dispersant lines between Earth First in Oregon and the Community Gardens of the Lower East Side, the queer and feminist organizing with the Alter-globalization movement inspired us those of us who knew Kauffman in the Lower East Side Collective and the Anti-War Movement of the early 2000s.  With each wave of street actions Kauffman took part in, her book grew larger.  She blogged out it, published chapters and interviews in countless books, including mine, and the story seemed to grow.  But the text never quite came out. And for a while there, her famous direct action book started to feel akin to Joe Gould’s secret oral history of the world that never quite saw the light of day. At some point after the Iraq war mobilization, Kauffman finally put down the manuscript and stopped talking about it.

               But in the last couple of years, she started posting ideas about her book again.  She helped organize the successful plan to force New York City to do away with plans to turn the Mid-Manhattan Library into a condo. And she started writing again connecting Black Lives Matter with a long conversation about radical activism, feminism, questions about what happened to the American left after the Sixties and the movements from which it grew.  LA Kauffman posits:

Reflecting on the years of movements and drafts of the book, Kauffman explains: "The emergence of the movement for black lives brought the whole story together. In the end, the longer that I worked on the book, the shorter it became -- it's a distillation of all those years of thinking, reporting, and organizing."
               Finally, some two plus decades after it started, Kauffman’s book has a due date with Verso. Connecting the uses of direct-action blockades, occupations, and campaigns of recent activist movements as laboratories for experimentation and renewal, she traces the evolution of disruptive protest over the last 40 years to tell a larger story about the reshaping of American radicalism.  Her history showcases the voices of key players as social movements shifted from class to identity to multi issue based organizing, from ACT UP to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter.  Direct Action is the most compelling of movement narratives.

Bogad and Shepard in action, fighting for CUNY, back in the day. Photo by Andrew Boyd!

               Kauffman’s organizing with the Lower East Side Collective, the Absurd Response to an Absurd War, and the Library Lovers drew in countless cohorts of activists, inspiring us over and over.  Along the way, we produced our own stories, which Kauffman supported.  Several practitioners from our old Anti War Action Group, have published new books in recent years.  LM Bogad was one of leading performers in this short lived affinity group which brought questions about the absurd into the anti-war movement in 2002 and 2003. His work, Tactical Performance: The Theory and Practice of Serious Play traces questions about efficacy, theory, and performance he’s long contemplated as a scholar, performer and practitioner.  Full of photos and accounts actions and pranks, Tactical Performance is a manifesto of mirth.  Bogad is perhaps the only activist I know who can make issues of debt relief, government surveillance, and even foreclosures on homes, sources for both humor and interrogation.  He’s quick to point out the uses of humor to take down bullies, as opposed to those without power.  The book includes stories of his performances with his affinity groups from Reclaim the Streets, the Billionaires, the Absurd Response, the Clandestine Rebel Clown Army, the Oil Enforcement Agency, Yes Men, La Pocha Nostra, and even as a student carrying the weight of the US military on his shoulders, with a little support from this writer.  Carrying a six-foot-long paper Mache bomb through Tompkins Square Park before a demo, we saw the police watching us. “Get the bomb out of the park,” the police loudspeaker warned us.  Walking, at first we thought the warning was for real.  Then we saw the cops smiling.  And we smiled.  Later at the demo, Bogad spoke with the police, finding common cause while breaking lines between street activists, the police and our competing storylines.  For Bogad, this simple street performance amounted to a dialectical clash between a theater of dominance and a theater of liberation.  Yet, even the police seemed to appreciate our act.  Bogad’s ethnographic consideration of the workings of these groups is telling and thoughtful, critical and supportive.

Bogad in action. 
Bogad's books. 

               Part of the surprise of knowing the activists, is being able to see them frame their stories and programs in innovative ways.  For example, I would have never thought of Social Security as a topic for a renowned New York anarchist.  Yet, this is exactly what happened with Eric Larsen’s The People’s Pension.  In the same way Bogad and Kauffman build on the workings of affinity groups to frame their studies, Eric Larsen molds his history of Social Security in terms of a conversation about mutual aid.  Larsen, a friend from New York, worked with this writer, Bogad, Kauffman and the others in the anti-war movement.  Much of the time we were doing this, a smaller group of us used to meet at the Odessa, a dingy café in Avenue A, to talk about the writing projects we were involved with and read each other’s’ stuff.    Drinking coffee together in a squatted school house in the East Village, sharing meals, reading drafts of our stories, we connected activist narratives with broader questions about the world and movements in constant flux. David Graeber, then at Yale, would drop by, sharing drafts of his ethnographies on Madagascar and the Direct Action Network in New York City.  Stevphen Shukaitis used to come, bringing the notes for projects on Autonomous Marxism and aesthetics that would later take the shape as his book The Composition of Movements to Come, Aesthetics and Cultural Labour After the Avant-Garde, his new book.  How does the avant-garde create spaces that subvert regimes of economic and political control, he asked. How do art, aesthetics and activism inform struggles over everyday life in movements?  In between our own books, we renamed streets in New York City for the anarchists Sacco  and Vanzetti, read Emma Goldman’s books, discussed commodity fetishes, and watched movies, such as René Viénet's 1973 Situationist film "Can Dialectics Break Bricks?" Outside, the movements we cared about were evolving and shifting, from alterglobization to antiwar and so on. 

And Eric Larsen told us about his ever expanding study of Social Security. It was hard to imagine how such a project fit into a salon about anarchism, but Larsen offered a grounding rational for the project, suggesting Social Security’s roots could be traced “back decades, to European anarchist and socialist pioneers who extracted the idea of social insurance from the practice of mutual aid and to reformers who created the first US worker’s compensation laws during the Progressive Era,” (p.21).  Created through the mobilized efforts of Progressive Era Reformers, the social program which began the US welfare state, “embodied the tension between the desire to create a society founded on the principle of mutual aid and another set of priorities, the same ones that had already motivated other industrialized countries to establish social insurance programs,” (p.21).  Social Security offered the sprout of a Socialist future planted in a capitalist present when we were not sure this system would survive.

Like the friendship networks traced throughout the other movements in this story, Larsen sees social security as a public commitment from one cohort to another, a way of expanding mutual aid across generations.  It is a model that embodies a faith that we can all look out for each other.  We can share resources, barter, and care about an I and a thou.  To describe the program, Larsen looks to the work of Thomas Paine, who, “proposed a rudimentary system of economic security in his 1797 pamphlet, Agrarian Justice,” (p. 13).  While Paine’s concept did not take off, the idea never quite went away. “[S]omething similar was gestating in Europe, in the minds of such figures as the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudon, who didn’t envision government being involved, and German socialist Ferdinand Lasselle, who did.  Both saw social insurance as a way to take localized or occupationally-based mutual aid networks that had existed for hundreds of years and expand them to the national level… it would help bring about a transformation of society along cooperative lines,” (p.13). 
Still, the experiment became law in August of 1935, ebbing and surviviugn through the century. Truman expanded it. Conservatives attacked it.  It survived Reagan’s “reform” of the program and Clinton’s efforts to “end welfare as we know it.”  When I first started talking with Larsen about this, President Bush had put his sites on privatizing the program.  But the proposal went nowhere.  And Laursen kept on writing.  By the time his work came out, the Obama administration was negotiating with Republicans to reduce the program to almost nothing.  The idea of collective cooperation at the foundation of the program, remain wildly popular.  Today, supports argue that Social Security should be expanded to reach more, and take care of new cohorts of retirees.
At the heart of such thinking is mutual aid. This is an idea movements have been organizing and supporting for ages. Never perfect, this idea grows from self-organization among cohorts of like minded peers.

One of my favorite books from the Activist Informed Reading Group was the invisible committee’s recent opus, To Our Friends.  An homage to freedom, friendship, and autonomy, this work helps explain why mutual aid still matters, expanding on the insurrectionary possibilities of pleasure, the power of our own invisible committees. After all, “To become a revolutionary is to assign oneself a difficult, but immediate, happiness,” (p. 237).  This thinking grows out of movements of strangers meeting, connecting, challenging social mores, powers and principalities.  For these anonymous authors “Writing is a vanity, unless its for the friend.  Including the friend one doesn’t know yet…” (p.238-9).  In this way, an Eros effect expands.

This is an idea expanding across movements. Sarah Schulman once argued that the goal of the Lesbian Avengers was to get their members girlfriends.  The point of queer movements was to create their own script. Kelly Cogswell’s new memoir, Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger, seems to embody such thinking, offering funny observations about street life in queer New York.  Take an afternoon from the fall of 1989.  “I was on my way home to get a falafel after class at NYU when I got caught up in a shocking mob of drag queens all dressed up as the pope and his cardinals with enormous red hats and robes.  There was also her courtiers with giant wigs and sequins,” (p. 20).  Spanning the twenty years from the Culture Wars through the War on Terror, Cogswell captures the feeling of a starting a new world, as participation in a group of Lesbian Avengers changes her life and the culture around her.  She endures hour upon hour of excruciating meetings, finds true love, several times, chronicling ups and downs before the group implodes.  This is a story about friends, fights and efforts to create a wonderful abundance of liberatory bodies in space dovetailing between ACT UP and upswing of the global justice movements.
Through these movements, friendship informed new ways of thinking.  As ACT UP veteran Jay Blotcher confesses. “I didn't have a manifesto guiding my maiden voyage into the turbulent waters of activism; I made it up as I went along. Unwittingly, I was echoing the experience of comrades of decades before. The friendships and sexual connections powered the political passion.”

            And gradually, the world changed, as the culture became a little queerer.  At least this is the contention of  Gregory Woods’ fascinating work Homintern How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World.  The author is frank to confess he looks to novels as evidence to trace a distinct story about queer people, their dramas, stories, salons, and beat hotels where everyone crashed in Paris.   From Oscar Wilde to the gay liberation era, Woods considers a period in which increased visibility made acceptance of homosexuality one of the measures of modernity. “The paederasts are beginning to count themselves and find that they make up a power in the state,” the author quotes Friedrich Engels in a letter to Marx on the 22nd of June 1869, in a rebel friendship like few others. They may not be organized, but “the victory cannot fail to arrive for them,” Engels continues (p.1).   “My right and left arms round the sides of two friends” wrote Walt Whitman, whose poetry impacted Marx.  “All the hands of comrades clasping…” (p.1).  The two friends – Marx and Engels - seemed to understand the potent force of comradeship, injecting this sensibility into left wing discourse (“Workers of the world unite!”) (p.2). One step up, two steps back, the Oscar Wilde trails reverberated throughout the next century.  Nonetheless, queers quietly met, organized salons, made art, shared ideas, and created families of choice - often in secret. Cyril Connolly and his group of queer writers, including W H Auden, tongue and cheekily dubbed their network of gay artists, the “international homosexual conspiracy”, the “Homitern,” referring to the Comitern, the Communist International organized by Lenin in 1919.  But some did notice. British critic, Valentine Cunningham worried about the “guarded coteries bonded by shared private codes” among Auden’s friends, bemoaning the “private passions” of this “magic homosexual circle” (p.14-15).  Still, the world was changing. “The queer is the artistic arbiter of our age, chum. The pervert is the top guy now,” Wade warns Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (p.29). Their secret society of comrades was changing things. Throughout Homitern, Woods reminds us that theater counts; what happens in cabarets matters.  Aesthetics changes things.  Conflict shifts ideas.  Actions create reactions, even when the remains leave lives in ruins.  Zigging and zagging from Harlem in the 1910s to 1920s Paris, 1930s Berlin, 1950s New York, between Giovani’s Room and the Cabaret, Homitern offers a pulsing portrait of twentieth-century gay culture which seemed to change everything. This is Kaufman’s point, expanded through Woods’ narrative.

A subtext of these stories is, of course, friendship. To this end, Alexander Nehama’s On Friendship considers the workings of the process, the fights we have, the conflicts, the ways we grieve the losses, make meaning of, and handle our connections.  To introduce his study Nehamas reflects on the workings of a group of high school friends, who’ve met and stayed in touch, shared drinks, and evenings over literally decades of conversations, their long term engagement having an “all embracing effect on the shape of their lives.”  Over time Nehamas came to see, “that these people are who they have come to be at least in part (and it is a large part) because of their friendship, even when motivated by a desire to a common past, is also crucial in forging a different future” (p.3).  Still, some topics and social mores would be broached.  These underlying dynamics, schisms and contradictions are the subject of his study of philosophy of friendship. We all have friendships.  We value them.  They are born, we enjoy them, and conflicts arise.  Sometimes we handle them and deepen the relationship and sometimes a breach is never reconciled; they just fade away and we despair.  And loneliness takes hold.  From the very beginning, Nehamas is open about his misgivings. “We forget as well as the grief that comes with the end of a friendship.  We ignore the fact that friendships, even good friendships, can sometimes be quite harmful,” confesses Nehamas. “Even the best of friendships sometimes conflict with the morally right thing to do- when loyalty to a friend, for example, takes precedence over discharging one’s duty to others.  Friendship... has a double face,” (p.6).  A theme of my interviews on friendships involves the lingering sentiment of those who feel like they are let down or left behind by their friends. We do not know much about how they work or why they break down.  So, Nehamas looks to the philosophers, tracing writing about the subject from Aristotle to Emerson. Friendship is central ingredient of a well lived life, offering an image of who we are what we might become. This is a space where we connect our lives with much larger stories and social forces.

Friendship is a vital part of the movements and stories traced throughout these narratives. But so are so many other stories.  So lets go out, take one of these books along, and add a new chapter in this ever evolving question about how we live, experience democracy, reclaim the commons, expand mutual aid and answer questions about who we are.  Through these social ties we can keep an eye on who is being targeted, fight back, put on our stars, look out for each other, remember and care. We are all in together after all. We are all in it together. We need each other after all. 

The Holocaust in the Netherlands: Anti Jewish Measures (1942)

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