Institutional struggles over the meaning of anti-oppression politics

Submitted by Juan Conatz on May 8, 2012

On the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC), Again

Nonprofits exist to maintain society as we know it. Nonprofits often provide vital social services in the spaces left by the state’s retreat from postwar welfare provisions, services which keep women, queers, and trans people, particularly those who are poor and of color, alive. Post-WWII welfare provisions themselves were provided primarily to white families – through redlining or the racially exclusive postwar GI Bill for example. Social justice nonprofits in particular exist to co-opt and quell anger, preempt racial conflict, and validate a racist, patriarchal state. These organizations are often funded by business monopolies which have profited from and campaigned for the privatization of public social services. This has been argued extensively by many who have experienced the limits of nonprofit work firsthand, most recently by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.

Indeed, the exponential growth of NGOs and nonprofits could be understood as the 21st century public face of counterinsurgency, except this time speaking the language of civil, women’s, and gay rights, charged with preempting political conflict, and spiritually committed to promoting one-sided “dialogue” with armed state bureaucracies. Over the last four decades, a massive nonprofit infrastructure has evolved in order to prevent, whether through force or persuasion, another outbreak of the urban riots and rebellions which spread through northern ghettos in the mid to late 1960s. Both liberal and conservative think tanks and service providers have arisen primarily in response to previous generations of radical Black, Native American, Asian American, and Chican@ Third World Liberation movements. In the 21st century, social justice activism has become a professional career path. Racial justice nonprofits, and an entire institutionally funded activist infrastructure, partner with the state to echo the rhetoric of past movements for liberation while implicitly or explicitly condemning their militant tactics.

The material infrastructure promoting these ideas is massive, enabling their extensive dissemination and adoption. Largely funded by philanthropic organizations like the Ford Foundation ($13.7 billion), Rockefeller Foundation ($3.1 billion), or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ($37.1 billion), the US nonprofit sector has grown exponentially, often through the direct privatization of the remnants of America’s New Deal-era social safety net. This funding structure ties liberal organizations charged with representing and serving communities of color to businesses interested primarily in tax exemptions and charity, and completely hostile to radical social transformation despite their rhetoric. In 2009 nonprofits accounted for 9% of all wages and salaries paid in the United States, generated $1.41 trillion in total revenues, and reported $2.56 trillion in total assets. One need only hear the names of these philanthropic organizations to realize that they are or were some of the largest business monopolies in the world, whose foundations are required to donate 5% of their endowment each year, while 95% of the remaining funds remain invested in financial markets. The public is asked to thank these organizations for their generosity for solving problems which they are literally invested in maintaining.

“With increasing frequency,” Filipino prison abolitionist and professor Dylan Rodriguez argues, “we are party (or participant) to a white liberal ‘multicultural’/‘people of color’ liberal imagination which venerates and even fetishizes the iconography and rhetoric of contemporary Black and Third World liberation movements, and then proceeds to incorporate these images and vernaculars into the public presentation of foundation-funded liberal or progressive organizations. …[T]hese organizations, in order to protect their nonprofit status and marketability to liberal foundations, actively self-police against members’ deviations from their essentially reformist agendas, while continuing to appropriate the language and imagery of historical revolutionaries. Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1995-2001, which is in many ways the national hub of the progressive ‘wing’ of the NPIC, I would name some of the organizations…here, but the list would be too long. Suffice it to say that the nonprofit groups often exhibit(ed) a political practice that is, to appropriate and corrupt a phrase from…Ruth Wilson Gilmore, radical in form, but liberal in content.”

Politicians and Police Who Are “Just Like Us”

In California some of the most racist policies and “reforms” in recent history have been advanced by politicians of color. We are not interested in increasing racial, gender, and sexual diversity within existing hierarchies of power – within government, police forces, or in the boardrooms of corporate America. When police departments and municipal governments can boast of their diversity and multicultural credentials, we know that there needs to be a radical alternative to this politics of “inclusion.” Oakland is perhaps one of the most glaring examples of how people of color have not just participated in but in many instances led – as mayors, police chiefs, and city council members – the assault on poor and working class black and brown populations. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan speaks the language of social justice activism and civil rights but her political career in city government clearly depends upon satisfying right-wing downtown business interests, corrupt real estate speculators, and a bloated and notoriously brutal police force.

There is no more depressing cautionary tale of the fate of 1960s-era politics of “changing the state from within” than the career of Oakland Mayor Quan. Quan fought for the creation of an Ethnic Studies program at UC Berkeley in 1969, and in 2011 penned a letter to Occupy Oakland listing an array of state-approved social justice nonprofits in order to justify mass arrests and a police crackdown on protesters attempting to establish a community center and free clinic in a long abandoned city owned property.1 In response to a season of strikes, anti-police brutality marches, and repeated port shutdowns in response to police assaults, the state offered two choices: either the nonprofits, or the police.

Mayor Quan surveys the aftermath of City Hall vandalism on January 28 Move-In Day.

Quan and other municipal politicians are part of a state apparatus that is rapidly increasing its reliance upon militarized policing to control an unruly population, especially poor people of color in urban areas. Policing is fast becoming the paradigm for government in general. A white supremacist decades-long “war on drugs” has culminated in a 21st century imperial “war on terror.” The equipment and tactics of “urban pacification” are now being turned on American cities and on the citizens and non-citizens who are targeted by austerity measures which have for decades been applied to the Global South.

This is as much the case in the liberal Bay Area as it is anywhere else. Recently “Urban Shield 2011,” a series of urban military training exercises for Bay Area police forces, was held on the campus of UC Berkeley in anticipation of raids on the Occupy Oakland encampment and other local occupied public parks. Israeli Border Police and military police from Bahrain, fresh from suppressing an Arab Spring uprising in their own country, took part in these exercises beside Alameda County Sheriffs and Oakland Police Department officers.

We see clearly that in an era of deepening budget cuts and America’s global decline, the white liberal consensus about racial inclusion is quickly becoming economically unaffordable, and in its place we see increasingly widespread public support for mainstream, openly white supremacist social movements. Armed paramilitary white nationalist organizations like the Minutemen patrol the US border, white supremacist media figures spout genocidal fantasies on the radio and television, and police killings of young black men and women have become so frequent that even the mainstream media has begun to report on it. At the same time, policing is fast becoming the paradigm for government in general.

As Jared Sexton and Steve Martinot argue, “Under conventional definitions of the government, we seem to be restricted to calling upon it for protection from its own agents. But what are we doing when we demonstrate against police brutality, and find ourselves tacitly calling upon the government to help us do so? These notions of the state as the arbiter of justice and the police as the unaccountable arbiters of lethal violence are two sides of the same coin. Narrow understandings of mere racism are proving themselves impoverished because they cannot see this fundamental relationship. What is needed is the development of a radical critique of the structure of the coin.

[The police] prowl, categorising and profiling, often turning those profiles into murderous violence without (serious) fear of being called to account, all the while claiming impunity. What jars the imagination is not the fact of impunity itself, but the realisation that they are simply people working a job, a job they secured by making an application at the personnel office. In events such as the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the true excessiveness is not in the massiveness of the shooting, but in the fact that these cops were there on the street looking for this event in the first place, as a matter of routine business. This spectacular evil is encased in a more inarticulable evil of banality, namely, that the state assigns certain individuals to (well-paying) jobs as hunters of human beings, a furtive protocol for which this shooting is simply the effect.”

Capitalism and the Material Reproduction of “Race” and “Gender”

Establishing community mutual aid and self-defense against the violence of emergent mainstream racist movements, against the systematic rape and exploitation of women, and against the systematic murder and/or economic ostracization of transgender, transsexual, and gender-nonconforming people; attacking ICE and police-enforced austerity policies which have historically targeted communities of color, naming and resisting the rollbacks of reproductive rights and access to healthcare as the patriarchal, racist attacks that they truly are; these are some of the major challenges facing all of us who understand that oppression is inextricable from global capitalist crisis. We cannot separate what’s happening in Oakland from a global wave of anti-austerity and anti-police brutality general strikes, occupations, and riots across the globe – from Barcelona to Tottenham, from Tahrir to Mali, and from Bhopal to Johannesburg.

March 29, 2012 general strike in Spain.

We do not believe that autonomous groups will be able to sustain themselves without creating non-state based support networks and without recognizing the mutual implication of white supremacy with capitalism and patriarchy. Undocumented immigrants confront a vicious, coordinated, and entirely mainstream ICE, police, and civilian assault which is, to be absolutely clear, a nativist anti-Latin@ movement committed to patrolling the borders of a nation understood as fundamentally white. Intensifying anti-immigrant racism is not unrelated to capitalism, and just a national but an international phenomenon, fueled by the success of capitalist globalization, by the profits which could be realized through debt and structural adjustment programs, US agribusiness subsidies, “free trade” agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA, and through multinational industries inevitably searching for lower labor costs through the fragmentation of global supply chains. Austerity means women, and particularly poor black and brown women, are being forced by the state and their husbands, boyfriends, and fathers to make up for the cuts in services and wages through additional domestic and reproductive labor they have always performed.

As a recent W.A.T.C.H. communique from Baltimore puts it, “We know that economic crises mean more domestic labor, and more domestic labor means more work for women. Dreams of a ‘mancession’ fade quickly when one realizes male-dominated sectors are simply the first to feel a crisis – and the first to receive bailout funds. The politics of crisis adds to the insult of scapegoating the injury of unemployment and unwaged overwork. And the nightmare of fertility politics, the ugly justification of welfare and social security ‘reforms.’ ‘Saving America’s families,’ the culture war rhetoric that clings to heteronormativity, to patriarchy, in the face of economic meltdown. Crisis translates politically to putting women in their place, while demanding queers and trans people pass or else. And the worse this crisis gets, the more the crisis is excused by a fiction of scarcity, the more the family will be used to promote white supremacy by assaulting women’s autonomy under the guise of population control. The old Malthusian line: it’s not a crisis, there’s just not enough – for them.”

Capitalism can neither be reduced to the “predatory practices of Wall Street banks” nor is it something which “intersects” with race, gender, and sexual oppression. Capitalism is a system based on a gendered and racialized division of labor, resources, and suffering. Violence and deprivation, premature death, and rape, are structural aspects of an economic system which requires that some work and some do not, some receive care and some do not, some survive, and some die. To say that poor people of color, queers, or immigrants are not interested or not profoundly impacted by the economy, and instead interested only in reaffirming their identities within existing hierarchies of power, is to work within a rigged zero-sum game for the liberation of a particular oppressed identity at the expense of all the others. In the US in particular, the celebration of cultural diversity, the recognition of cultural difference, the applauding of women and queers entering the workplace, and the relative decline of overtly racist or sexist beliefs among younger generations, has not improved but instead masked a dramatic deterioration of the material circumstances of racialized populations.

Massive accumulation through dispossession of native lands; racialized enslavement, murder, and incarceration; constant, intimate, and intensive exploitation of women’s unpaid labor, both in the home and as indentured domestic work, and always violently stratified according to race — all of these form the naturalized and invisibilized underbelly of capital’s waged exploitation of workers. The cumulative economic impact of centuries of enslavement, genocide, colonialism, patriarchy, and racial segregation is not simply peripheral but integral and fundamental to the nature of the global capitalist economy.

The US economy reproduces racial, gender, and sexual inequality at every level of American society–in housing, healthcare, food sovereignty, education, policing, and prison. And also endlessly recreated in these very same sites are the categories “man/woman,” “normal/abnormal,” “able/disabled,” “legitimate/illegitimate,” “citizen/‘illegal,’” and a series of stigmatized populations who always interfere with the smooth functioning of the national economy. The natural, “harmonious” relationship between citizens, patriots, taxpayers, owners, workers, rich, and poor, are disrupted by “illegals,” welfare queens, faggots, freaks, careless promiscuous teens, and so on. The category of “race” is materially recreated and endlessly renewed through these institutions which organize the lives of the undocumented, the imprisoned, the residents of aging ghettos which increasingly function as open-air prisons.

Speaking of capitalism as though it were somehow separable from racist exploitation, gendered violence, and the gamut of complex oppressions facing us in this world, confines antiracist and antipatriarchal struggle to the sphere of culture, consciousness, and individual privilege. The current dominant form of anti-oppression politics in fact diminishes the extent to which racialized and gendered inequalities are deepening across society despite the generalization of policies promoting linguistic, cultural, gender, and sexual inclusivity. Without attacking the material infrastructure which agglomerates power in the hands of some (a process whose end result is now called “privilege”), the equalization of “privilege” and the abolition of these identity-based oppressions in class society is a liberal fantasy.

Mohawk warrior Brad “Freddy Krueger” Larocque, a University of Saskatchewan economics student, confronts a Canadian soldier during the Oka crisis, 1990.

The Racialization of Rape and the Erasure of Sexual Violence

Over the last year in California, the racist specter of potential rape has been used to both delegitimize spaces of militant action – in parks, streets, homes, or college campuses – and to erase the prevalence of sexual violence throughout society. The figure of the black rapist is routinely invoked to excuse police violence, retroactively justifying the murders of countless black men like Kenneth Harding. The need to preempt potential rape has been explicitly used to rationalize the widely publicized pepper spraying of UC Davis students on November 18, 2011. We are tempted to say this incident is more about the need for state bureaucracies to justify their own existence than it does about epidemic of sexual violence in America, but the truth is that the reality of rape and sexual violence along with rape’s deployment as an ideological weapon are fundamental to the everyday functioning of the economy and the state.

In recent interviews, UC Davis Chancellor Katehi and Vice Chancellor Meyer, respectively, defend the police response to the Occupy UC Davis encampment by invoking Occupy Oakland and the implicit threat of sexual violence from the “outside.” Katehi claimed, “We were worried especially about having very young girls and other students with older people who come from the outside without any knowledge of their record … if anything happens to any student while we’re in violation of policy, it’s a very tough thing to overcome.” Chancellor Meyer was much more specific about the hypothetical threats in question: “So my fear is a long-term occupation with a number of tents where we have an undergraduate student and a non-affiliate and there is an incident. And then I’m reporting to a parent that a non-affiliate has done this unthinkable act with your daughter, and how could we let that happen.”2

Police crack down on the Occupy Davis encampment at UC Davis.

These statements illuminate how gender and race are typically linked in public discourse – here, Katehi, a woman in a position of power attempting to justify an illegal police action, infantilizes women as permanent victims and posits a tacitly racist specter of the criminal rapist, coming from the “outside” to the “inside” of the campus community. After the hypothetical rape, the rape survivor disappears. The rape is regrettable; this regret is not articulated in terms of the trauma of the rape survivor, but through the fact that the incident will have to be reported to a parent. To say rape is “unthinkable” is only possible from a position of privilege in which sexual violence is not an everyday reality.

Considering the fact that rape occurs within every class and every possible racial demographic, usually perpetrated by friends and family, it is utterly fantastic to suggest that a large university campus like UC Davis is a place where rapes do not occur and where rape culture doesn’t flourish. Rendering rape unthinkable is absolutely essential to its structural use as a tool of gendered subordination and exploitation, and also as an ideological tool of white supremacy. The pepper spray incident reveals how the specter of rape appears in state and media narratives when it’s politically useful, and functions as a tool of racialization and criminalization (two processes which converge on poor black and brown populations) when in fact rape and sexual violence affects every sector of society.

The locations which we are told to fear rape and sexual violence change depending upon what is politically expedient, and it’s crucial to notice which sites are emphasized and when – rape has occurred in Occupy encampments across the country, but far, far more rapes have occurred in American households, and yet media reports do not discourage us from heterosexual marriage and co-habitation. When is rape ignorable, and when is it unacceptable? Rape occurs frequently in dorm rooms, in fraternities and sororities, in cars, on dates, amongst persons of like age, ethnicity, and class. When the exclusion of police from public spaces is represented by the media as an invitation to rape, we are not at the same time informed that police themselves rape, sexually assault, and abuse women, trans people, queers, sex workers and others with stomach-turning frequency.

While these administrators mobilize the specter of rape to defend the police response to the Occupy encampment at UC Davis, they take part in a nationwide campus culture that sanctions sexual violence. A major study on the topic found that colleges only expel persons found responsible for sexual assault in 10-25 % of all reported cases. These students were often suspended for a semester or received minor academic penalties. Half of the students interviewed said that student judicial services found their alleged assailants not responsible for sexual assault.3

When sexual violence manifests in public organizing spaces, the subject is routinely labeled “divisive” or “just personal”. In a disturbing feat of capitulation to the state’s attack, ‘radicals’ will frequently suspect that allegations of rape and sexual assault are in fact inventions of state forces attempting to infiltrate communities of struggle. Many radical communities have come to associate a focus on addressing and attacking sexual violence with a politics of demobilization or distraction from the “real issues.” Again, the result is that the reality of sexual violence, not merely in one month encampments, but in personal spaces, amongst persons from every racial and ethnic demographic who know and trust one another, is methodically erased. The silence around sexual violence sanctions it, just as the spectacular outrage at isolated incidents of racial violence (e.g. Trayvon Martin) marks the everyday police murder of black and brown individuals as routine. The reality of sexual violence is that it is silenced, evaded, and ignored, empowering primarily cisgendered men at every level of society, and transforming conversations about sexual violence into further justification for intensified racist segregation, incarceration, and policing.

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