Beyond Leftist Fundamentalism – May we ever replace pavement with gardens

To me the eternal Anarchist is ever replacing pavement with lush gardens.

~Lew

I have found the enemy, and [she] is us. ~Pogo

By Teresa Smith

It is early autumn and helicopters are circling the UC Berkeley campus as I write this. I can see them from my window. The tut-tut-tut of their propellers punctuate my thoughts.

A few days ago, I rode my bike up to the university to use the library, and had to navigate through a swarm of media and security workers. An Alt Right speech was scheduled on campus that evening, but it was still several hours away. There were no protestors yet, but cable news teams were already milling all over the place, setting up their equipment, preparing their spins. I passed a vlogger talking into a cellphone, addressing his viewers: “Okay guys, we are here, just hours before these horrible, horrible people show up…” Meanwhile, near Sproul Plaza, the epicenter of the historic Free Speech Movement, police officers and rent-a-cops were blocking off intersections and erecting metal barricades, carefully constructing a designated space for the upcoming spectacle.

Not during Occupy, nor during Black Lives Matter, did I see this level of event staging occur for protests. The conflict between the Alt Right and the Antifa, it seems, is a very special type of media/security commodity. For the first time in recent memory, American protestors aren’t expressing dissent towards the corporate oligarchy or the state, but rather are pitted squarely against each other. Since January, citizens from “both sides” of the political spectrum have come together in Berkeley to punch, pepper spray, and kick the shit out of one another. Ribs, fingers, and noses have been broken, and people on both sides have wound up in the hospital and in jail. Security for these events has cost UC Berkeley $2.5 million this year — a stark overshot of the $100,000 yearly budget that the university usually allocates for security at protests.

These street brawls, or whatever you want to call them, are a brilliant media commodity. There’s something for every demographic: there’s action, there’s politics, there are costumes and snarky commentators. A major news event rolled into a game show rolled into the rhetoric of the end of civilization. Could this be the rise of the modern gladiator?

Every viewer, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, is supposed to have a stake in this conflict, and thanks to social media and livestreaming technologies, you can follow your team’s champions as they navigate these hyper-historicized events in real time. Is this the initiation of the mobile coliseum?

It’s the Free Speech Nazis verses the Antifa Brawlers, and front row seats are just a click away…

*

As I struggle to scratch these observations down on paper, I find myself looking over my shoulder, feeling nervous. From within me, a critical voice arises, shouting, “You must take a stance — a strong stance — against the Alt Right!”

So many people in my life have been saying that lately, saying things like, “Anything short of beating up a Nazi is racism!”

In my mind now, these people are chasing me, throwing bricks and bagels, angry at me for discussing present events without firmly taking sides.

“Erase everything you have written!” these internalized voices say. “Erase all this and replace it with an impassioned treatise in defense of punching Nazis!”

*

I realize I cannot go any further until I unpack my Privilege Knapsack. Until I lay my Oppression Credentials on the table. So here goes:

I’m a mixed-race gender-queer cis-lady who spent her childhood in low-income housing and foster care but who has attended college and gained a master’s degree.

As a mixed-race person, I acknowledge that I sometimes have the privilege of passing as white, but because I don’t always pass, I’ve experienced racist bullshit throughout my life, like having my bag searched in the grocery store as a teen, or being asked by teachers to speak to the class on behalf of my “race,” or…a million other things. As a cis-lady, I have the privilege of having been assigned the gender I supposedly identify with at birth, but I have to deal with the financial, sexual, and emotional oppression experienced by women, cis- and trans- alike. As a gender-queer person, I don’t always quite identify as female, and at times I sorely want to express myself in traditionally masculine ways, but because I live in a binary-enforcing culture I am pressured to pick one gender and stick to the script. As someone who grew up in low-income housing, I have some serious PTSD triggers from having experienced the violence of poverty as a child, but having an advanced degree has granted me access to types of spaces, communities, and conversations that many of the people I grew up with will never be able to enter. Additionally, myself and my entire extended family was born on the “correct” side of certain borders, so I have never had to deal with the fear of myself or my loved ones being kidnapped and deported by ICE. Also, I was raised Catholic so I have never had to deal with Islamophobia or anti-Semitism and the horrible hate crimes to which they give rise. Also, I have had the privilege of having been exposed to certain ideas and communities that have allowed to me properly frame this statement of my identity, privileges, and oppressions in such a way that people on the left are likely to accept me — and even tokenize me as someone who is supposed to be visible and speak — so long as I follow the script.

So there we have it.

Have I passed the checkpoint?

Am I allowed to continue to speak?

Or perhaps I don’t have quite the right identity markers, and for me to open my mouth at this time will be dismissed by people on the left as pointless noise.

*

How you ever been accused of being white as a way to silence you? I have.

It happened to me three years ago in a radical newspaper meeting in which a collective member shot down an article I’d written about my fear of the police because “no one wants to hear that kind of thing from a white person.”

I’d written the article under a pseudonym, and hadn’t mentioned my race because I wanted to focus on class. I wanted to focus on the way people are policed in low income housing, about how as a little kid I watched my fourteen-year-old babysitter, who happened to be white, get chased by cops with their guns drawn through my apartments. Even once I’d left the projects and was safely in grad school, all the fear came rushing back every time I passed campus police officers patrolling the halls with guns and batons strapped to their bodies.

“No one wants to hear that from a white person,” is what someone in my collective said. This person, by the way, was white.

I was wildly triggered at the time — to be told you can’t speak because of whiteness you don’t possess is crazy-making. But later, I started to wonder if this is how white people must sometimes feel in leftist spaces. To be told your pain is invalid, just because you’re white? That’s not right. Pain is pain.

Sure, there are moments when someone else is in a lot more pain and they need attention first, but that doesn’t mean your pain doesn’t matter at all.

*

Recently, I was drinking beers with a friend who is queer and brown who told me, “Yeah, I got called ‘white and straight’ by a roommate a few weeks ago…”

He explained that the housemate was trying to make a case against him to the other housemates, and in the process said something along the lines of “he’s just a freaking white straight male” — even though he very clearly is not. Weirdly, the person who accused him of being white was, you guessed it, himself white. Hmm…self-hatred much?

This reminded me of another friend who is a rad mixed-race Asian lady, who last year told me she was accused of being white by someone in her zinemaking collective, and after that, just dropped out, because, yeah, the accusation of whiteness being used to silence you, especially if you aren’t even white is really, wow. Just wow.

I can think of several other examples of moments when, in leftist community discourse, folks of color who were specifically accused of being white as a way to undermine and silence them.

It seems like there is an undercurrent in leftist circles of accusing someone of having a type of privilege — especially white-maleness — as a way of saying their opinions don’t matter, that they should stop taking up space.

*

Another, more common way that leftists shut down underprivileged people whose opinions they don’t like is to accuse them of harboring an “inner oppressor” — of being “white/able-bodied/etc/male on the inside.”

If a brown or black person takes part in a “too militant” anti-capitalist action, other leftists of color may accuse you of being a “Coconut” or “Oreo” — this literally happened during the 2012 occupation of the UC Davis Cross-Cultural Center. People of color, it seems, are encouraged to speak and hold space by mainstream leftists — until it is realized that we have a class analysis, and then the mic is quickly taken away. “Ignore that brown person,” the liberal1 p.o.c.s say, “She is really white on the inside!”

Likewise, women who voted for Bernie Sanders during the primary election were accused by liberal “feminists” like Gloria Steinem of “letting their boyfriends vote through them.” It didn’t matter that Clinton was the big-bank candidate — women are apparently supposed to only ever vote for another woman, regardless of whether or not we agree with her politics, otherwise we are denounced as being mindless pawns of men.

On the mainstream left, women, people of color and other oppressed groups are embraced as tokens, but only if we promote the big-bank-friendly neoliberal version of diversity. If we happen to have a post-colonial class-based analysis (which is to say: if we’re friggin Marxists who read Fanon, baby), we are robbed of our p.o.c. and lady points. The mic is taken away. We are accused of being “white on the inside,” of being the “empty vessel for the will of our boyfriends.”

*

When, on the left, did we let “white” become such a dirty word that we’re using it on people of color to silence them?

Since when did we start accusing women of being “pawns of males” as a way to indicate their opinions don’t matter?

I’m tired of feeling like I have to police my privilege and slap my oppression credentials on the table every time I want to speak.

I’m tired of seeing words like “male” “white” “straight” and “cis” thrown around like they are insults.

I’m tired of watching people play the Gotcha Game: calling out microaggressions so fiercely in our spaces that bystanders get scared and never want to come back.

I’m tired of the weird witch-hunts that go down in squats, radical spaces, and housing projects in which a small group gets accused of “having inner oppressors.”

What I’ve started to see is a type of leftist fundamentalism emerging. Rather than attempting to repair our communities when microaggressions occur, we’ve fallen into a pattern of vilifying and taking down the _______-ist. Like, rather than identifying hurtful/oppressive behaviors, we’ve started putting labels on individuals in such a way that those individuals are not able to redeem themselves. Or we simply label oppressor groups as being inherently _____-ist, whether or not individual members have done things to change.

I think the fact that the term “whiteness” gets thrown around on the left as a way of saying “shut up” has everything to do with the reality of those helicopters outside my window: we now have a fascist movement that has descended upon the leftist epicenter of the Free Speech Movement, eager to provoke us into beating them up because they know they can come here to get media images that prove their point to rural Americans that urban leftists are unreasonable.

At this time — a time when all Americans are suffering in the wake of a recession that decimated the middle class — white Americans are being offered two very different versions of reality. According to the left, white people’s pain isn’t valid and they need to shut up. According to these Alt Right assholes, white people are some kind of magical unicorn “superior race” being held back by an “evil left wing conspiracy” of “enforcing diversity.”

We all know how ludicrous the words of these Alt Right speakers are, and yet, there are millions of white people in America who are buying into this fantasy version of themselves being offered by the right. And at moments, when I see the way “white” gets thrown around as a slur in leftist circles, I can almost understand why.

These Alt Right fascists are idiots. We can outsmart them. But we have to put effort into building up our own spaces, and we have to start working towards smarter discussions in which everyone’s suffering is given space. We need to stop telling people they aren’t allowed to have any pain simply because they are part of an oppressor demographic. I believe we can do this, while continuing the vital work of undermining the oppressions created by race, class, gender, sexual bio-essentialism, and capitalist colonialism. We can do our amazing work of building intersectional community on the left without othering people.

Several friends in the Bay Area leftist scene are ready to engage in compassionate criticism that moves us beyond Leftist Fundamentalism. We are starting a new publication called Subversas.com. We are interested in articles that discuss leftist taboos, and that hold space for the types of discussions that normally get shut down on the left. The fundamentalism that has emerged on the left is like concrete being poured over a lush garden — it is time for the flowers to break through the cement!

The American populace has never been so close to uniting against the big banks and stripping the 1% of their power. The corporations are dumping money into fanning the flames of conflict because they know how close we are to going for their throats.