Saturday, December 28, 2013

Where do ideas come from?

Where do ideas come from?
Honoring our forebears and the struggle

December 28, 2013
© Rick Ayers

Critical education.  Education for liberation.  Transformative education. 
Those of us who seek to break the cycle of inequity, the oppressive tracking of US schools, find themselves immersed and sometimes entangled  in the  language and scholarship of our time – post modern, critical, post-colonial, neo-Marxist.  Many of us who have entered universities from the front lines of struggles in our communities, from the life and death work of survival and change, are surprised and even chilled by the cool, distant, and opaque language we encounter in the academy. 

Activists who recently were battling for and alongside their students find themselves trying to understand “trace of the trace” and “phrase regimens” which denote personal realities.  As we enter a period of acute crisis of empire, it is essential to rethink some of the intellectual templates we have inherited – to understand where they came from and to begin to write new narratives for a new period. 

Ernest Morrell (2008) has rightly called out the exclusion of scholars of color, the othered scholars, in current anthologies and journals on critical theory.  He reminds us of the foundational work of C.L.R. James (who pioneered anti-colonial analysis with his account of the Haitian revolution) and Frantz Fanon (on the psychology of violence and anticolonialism) as well as Carter G. Woodson (who described the internalizing of structures of oppression through educational discourse).  He calls attention to poets and artists such as Pablo Neruda, Aimé Césaire, and Zora Neale Hurston as well as hip hop philosophers.  We should not sit back passively in the face of Morell’s excellent exposé of the state of critical theory.  It is important to go back to the sources, to understand what is actually critical in critical theory. 

The old-guard European Marxists, those wedded to a domestic economic analysis, those who regarded the “advanced capitalist” working class as the natural vanguard of revolution, generally dominated radical theory.  This formulation supposed that workers in colonial countries, and Black and Brown workers inside the US, were of secondary importance and needed to follow the lead of the more evolved white working class.  Their mechanical analysis was essentially what we should call economist, that is to say it is a narrow understanding of the social and cultural reality of political economy.  In the 1960’s, during the revolutionary national liberation struggles and crisis of capitalism, this dominance was teetering. 

The powerful adjustments/challenges to traditional western Marxism came primarily from the Third World as millions of people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America were fighting to take back their resources and histories.  The leading activists who articulated the critique of Eurocentric, economist Marxism were usually tied down with the struggle – but at some times they paused to write their new insights.  Some of these activists were more aligned with Marxist traditions, some less.

These Third World liberation struggles found themselves critiquing, twisting, re-casting the tools of materialist analysis – not to retreat from the struggle for liberation but to make theory correspond to the transformative conditions in the real world.  Inspired by Marxism, they made crucial contributions and analysis, bits of which were appropriated by European theorists.   Equally important is the recognition of how willfully blind – or even dishonest – these Europeans were as to the origin of their ideas.  It is common to hear people trace the line of theory from one European to another, Leotard back to Foucault back to the Frankfurt School back to Gramsci back to Marx – all a discussion within Europe.  They are blind to the place where new conditions and new battles demanded new analysis, new ideas.  New ideas don’t just come from solitary pondering in university libraries.  They come from social practice and struggle.  And the social practice and struggle of the 1960’s was led from the Third World.

After the 70’s it was the Europeans, and to a lesser extent Americans, who threaded together some of these insights and critiques to construct what is known as post-structuralism, post-modernism, and critical theory.  The revolutionary movements, while winning important local victories, were ultimately defeated, unable to meet the overall goal of dismantling imperialism and colonialism, of redistributing power and resources in a more equitable way globally.  Yet the insights of the post-structuralist, post-modernist reexamination of culture and class politics, those that were compelling and persuasive, were not their own.  They were borrowed, if we may use such a generous term, from the Third World.  This is the same kind of borrowing that Elvis Presley famously committed against Little Richard and Chuck Berry. 

Still in academia one finds graduate students in thrall to the French political philosophers.  I propose, starting with Ernest Morrell’s outline, to add sources directly from the struggle of the 1960’s, people who found traditional, Eurocentric Marxism inadequate to explain their circumstances.  Here are some examples – which just begin to scratch the surface – from the front lines of liberation struggles, not from the halls of academia:

Roberto Retamar is a Cuban intellectual and activist.  He was exiled to New York as a fierce opponent of the Batista regime and returned after the 1959 revolution.  He was a friend of Edward Said and Said credits their friendship for some of the key impetus to his towering book, Orientalism.  Retamar became founder and editor of Tricontinental Magazine, published in HavanaTricontinental was a leading intellectual organ of internationalism in the 1960’s and 70’s – the voice of revolutionaries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  His book Caliban and other essays is a key text exploring the ways that Western culture frames colonial subjects, in this case Native Americans and diasporic Africans, as the other.  It was the Third World revolutionaries who led in the critique of literary texts as a way of accessing and challenging imperialist world views. 

In his essay, “Caliban: Notes toward a discussion of culture in Our America” (which was first published in Casa de Las Américas in 1961 but then anchored his book), he exposes they way leftist intellectuals from the colonial countries are patronizing of and blind to the colonial reality.

A European journalist, and moreover a leftist, asked me a few days ago, “Does a Latin American culture exist?”  We were discussing, naturally enough, the recent polemic regarding Cuba that ended by confronting, on the one hand, certain bourgeois European intellectuals with a visible colonialist nostalgia; and on the other hand, that body of Latin American writers and artists who reject open or veiled forms of cultural and political colonialism.  The question seemed to me to reveal one of the roots of the polemic and hence could also be expressed another way:  “Do you exist?”  For to question our culture is to question our very existence, our human reality itself, and thus be willing to take a stand in favor of our irremediable colonial condition, since it suggests that we would be but a distorted echo of what occurs elsewhere.  This elsewhere is of course the metropolis, the colonizing centers, whose “right wings” have exploited us and whose supposed “left wings” have pretended and continue to pretend to guide us with pious solicitude – in both cases with the assistance of local intermediaries of varying persuasions. 

Retamar unfolds a brilliant exposition of culture and power, as well as language and hegemonic ideology, with particular attention to José Martí’s anticolonial activism, Fidel Castro’s declarations of anti-colonial independence and the reflections of the European subconscious in Shakespeare and other key texts. 

Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean activist raised in both the US and Chile, picked up on Retamar’s development of liberatory cultural critique.  Some of his work, published in Chile during the Allende years, dealt not with Shakespeare but with popular culture.  His How to read Donald Duck, written with Armand Mattelart, is a powerful Third World cultural critique of the hegemonic framing of the right of control of the subject body.  He examines the ways imperialist culture frames the colonial subject as childlike, requiring discipline and domination.  The Disney stories also justify why entrepreneurs from imperialist centers deserve the wealth they steal from the colonies because they have recognized value in indigenous resources that the locals could not appreciate.

According to Disney, underdeveloped peoples are like children, to be treated as such, and if they don’t accept this definition of themselves, they should have their pants taken down and be given a good spanking.  That’ll teach them!  When something is said about the child/noble savage, it is really the Third World one is thinking about.  The hegemony which we have detected between the child-adults who arrive with their civilization and technology, and the child-noble savages who accept this alien authority and surrender their riches, stands revealed as an exact replica of the relations between metropolis and satellite, between empire and colony, between master and slave.   Disney colonizes reality and its problems with the analgesic of the child’s imagination . . .  Under the suggestive title “Better Guile than Force,” Donald departs for a Pacific atoll in order to try to survive for a month and returns loaded with dollars, like a modern business tycoon.  The entrepreneur can do better than the missionary or the army. (p. 48)   . .. . 
All relationships in the Disney world are compulsively consumerist, commodities in the marketplace of objects and ideas. (p. 90)

Dorfman powerfully explores all the elements of the critique of everyday life and culture – exposing not only the reproductive effect on the children in the colonizing country but the internalizing of colonial mentality in the colonies. 

Amilcar Cabral was the leader of the PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde – or the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) in Guinea Bissau, Africa.  He led the guerrilla struggle of the PAIGC from 1963 until his assassination in 1973 in Conakry, Guinea.  His groundbreaking essay, delivered in January of 1966 at the first Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America held in Havana, was entitled “The weapon of theory.”  His contribution was to break from the economist, legalistic Marxism which dominated the communist parties and which clung to the proposition that the proletariat in the colonial countries was the most “advanced” and therefore ultimately the vanguard of the world revolution.   Cabral reframed class analysis to correspond to the contingent nature of class alignments in the struggle.  True to actual Marxist method, he infused his essay with a concrete analysis of concrete conditions, freed from the dogma of traditional western Marxism. 

The very title of his piece, “The weapon of theory,” reminds us that activists are not victims of theoretical straightjackets but must develop strong theoretical insights, must forge new theory, to describe our situation.  His important line of reasoning takes him back to an understanding of the Marxist principle of understanding the global mode of production and not just a narrow analysis of capitalist production in the advanced capitalist countries.  In this way, he puts the reality of Third World struggle in the middle of the equation, as key to any strategy for socializing the wealth of society.  He reminds us that the struggle of African neocolonial peoples is one to rescue and acknowledge their own history, a history that has been ignored and discounted by the traditional Marxists.

[We must] pose the following question: does history begin only with the development of the phenomenon of ‘class’, and consequently of class struggle? To reply in the affirmative would be to place outside history the whole period of life of human groups from the discovery of hunting, and later of nomadic and sedentary agriculture, to the organization of herds and the private appropriation of land. It would also be to consider – and this we refuse to accept – that various human groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America were living without history, or outside history, at the time when they were subjected to the yoke of imperialism. It would be to consider that the peoples of our countries, such as the Balantes of Guinea, the Coaniamas of Angola and the Macondes of Mozambique, are still living today – if we abstract the slight influence of colonialism to which they have been subjected – outside history, or that they have no history. . . .

Our refusal, based as it is on concrete knowledge of the socio-economic reality of our countries and on the analysis of the process of development of the phenomenon ‘class’, as we have seen earlier, leads us to conclude that if class struggle is the motive force of history, it is so only in a specific historical period. This means that before the class struggle – and necessarily after it, since in this world there is no before without an after – one or several factors was and will be the motive force of history. It is not difficult to see that this factor in the history of each human group is the mode of production – the level of productive forces and the pattern of ownership – characteristic of that group. Furthermore, as we have seen, classes themselves, class struggle and their subsequent definition, are the result of the development of the productive forces in conjunction with the pattern of ownership of the means of production. It therefore seems correct to conclude that the level of productive forces, the essential determining element in the content and form of class struggle, is the true and permanent motive force of history.  . . . The national liberation of a people is the regaining of the historical personality of that people, its return to history through the destruction of the imperialist domination to which it was subjected.

Cabral explores the nature of the productive forces in the African colonial and neo-colonial context.  The peasants must be understood differently as many are landless rural proletarians.  The small proletariat, mostly involved with transportation of extracted resources, must be understood differently.  And the radicalized petty bourgeois intellectuals, such as himself, must be understood as forging a proletariat in the course of the struggle.  He analyzes in brilliant and unique insight the place of the radicalized sectors of the petty bourgeoisie in the neocolonial countries – explaining that they can play a leading role but must be ready to commit “class suicide,” that is to unite their interests with the working classes rather than simply scramble for their own privileges as the colonial powers are driven out.

The neo-colonial situation, which demands the elimination of the native pseudo-bourgeoisie so that national liberation can be attained, also offers the petty bourgeoisie the chance of playing a role of major and even decisive importance in the struggle for the elimination of foreign domination. But in this case, by virtue of the progress made in the social structure, the function of leading the struggle is shared (to a greater or lesser extent) with the more educated sectors of the working classes and even with some elements of the national pseudo-bourgeoisie who are inspired by patriotic sentiments. . .  . This means that in order to truly fulfill the role in the national liberation struggle, the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong.

Cabral’s concept of class suicide, something adopted by Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party, posits an understanding of historical forces and struggles that is quite removed from the mechanistic, structuralist notion of class that the conservative economist Marxists had imposed on the left during the 40’s and 50’s. 

Nguyen Khac Vien, a Vietnamese activist in the exile community in Paris and then a leading intellectual in Vietnam during the 60’s, also advanced theory in service of the liberation struggles.  His Tradition and revolution in Vietnam positions the strategy of people’s war in the context of the Confucian tradition that was central to Vietnam’s nation building project from the 11th century on.  Confucianism operated as a secular philosophy, emphasizing good works in the world and the struggle for social justice.  He traces the resistance struggle to the crisis forced upon traditional culture by the French colonial incursion in the Nineteenth Century.  He describes the way anti-colonial Marxist organizers stepped into the leadership role by adopting the commitment to right living in society that was a familiar theme of Vietnamese Confucian scholars.

Marxist cadres continued the tradition of the old-time revolutionary scholars by sequestering themselves in the villages, teaching and organizing the peasants over a period of many long years, until the time of land reform and the establishment of agricultural cooperatives.  By doing so, they raised peasant struggle to a much higher level, opening it up to entirely new perspectives.  At the same time, they struck a mortal blow at mandarinal Confucianism.  . .. Marxism was not baffling to Confucians in that it concentrated man’s thoughts on political and social problems.  By defining man as the total of his social relationships, Marxism hardly came as a shock to the Confucian scholar who had always considered the highest aim of man to be the fulfillment of his social obligations. 

Along with Le Duan, Vien explored the indigenous application of revolutionary theory.  The development of People’s War, political, moral, psychological, as well as military struggle, has been called the “greatest invention of the Twentieth Century.”  With it, these poor, colonized countries brought the greatest military power in the world to its knees.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan activist, novelist, and scholar, explored the ways language inscribes colonial and neo-colonial power.  His Decolonizing the Mind (1986) summed up arguments he had developed throughout the 1960’s and 70’s concerning the hierarchies of language and discourse regimes.  Examining literature, education, and criticism, he exposes how imperialism maintains control through language, how the hegemonic control of the culture of subject peoples is as crucial to colonial control as is military might.

Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born Algerian psychiatrist and revolutionary, used the experience of the struggle against French occupation to interrogate the way Europeans colonize not just space but knowledge.  He challenged the western notion of reason, the western notion of their right to name and define things.  Fanon was critiquing white, western, patriarchal epistemology well before Foucault began to write. 

I’m sure there are many more we can point to – from Mexico, Uruguay, Philippines, African America, China, Mozambique, India, Palestine, and elsewhere – who were part of the huge ideological ferment that accompanied the struggles of the time.

The Europeans have ended up with is the remarkable idea that their own work, academic discussion of language and identity, is the center of the struggle.  This in itself is a form of colonialism – the left colonialism of appropriating the insights borne of the Third World struggles in order to build their own careers.

Cabral, Retamar, Dorfman, Vien, Ngugi, Fanon – I touch on these not as a complete analysis, but as a suggestion, a provocation, for us to look to the actual struggles and the people that made and make them for wisdom and leadership on the ways to move forward in the struggle for liberation.  These voices remind us that the academy does not invent social knowledge; at best, it manages to pay attention and systematize knowledge that comes from social practice in the real world.  Many of the leaders who have contributed to deeper understandings of the process of oppression and liberation were cut down during the struggle.  We cannot allow their deaths to be the verdict of history.  Our responsibility is to be involved in the struggle and to uncover, recognize and learn from our forebears.


Cabral, Amilcar. (1966). The Weapon of Theory.  HavanaTricontinental Magazine.
Dorfman, Ariel and Armand Mattelart. (1971). How to read Donald Duck: Imperialist ideology in the Disney ComicValparaiso, Chile:  Ediciones Universitarias. 
Eagleton, Terry. (2003). After theory. London: Penguin Books.
Fanon, Frantz. (1952, 2007). Black Skin, White Masks (Peau Noire, Masques Blancs). New York:  Grove Press.
Morrell, Ernest. (2008). “Othered” critical traditions. In Critical literacy and urban youth: Pedagogies of access, dissent, and liberationNew York: Routledge.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o. (1986). Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature. London: J. Currey.
Retamar, Roberto Fernandez (1989) Caliban and other essays. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Vien, Nguyen Khac. (1975). Tradition and revolution in VietnamBerkeleyIndochina Resource Center.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Love Letter from Chicago Parents to the Teachers

(Another blog rejected by editors of Huffington Post)

Below is a beautiful letter to teachers from a group of parents in the Chicago Public School (CPS) district.  The Illinois legislature had pushed through a law, SB-7, requiring the union to get a 75% vote before they could authorize a strike, a vote of ALL its members.  Since the negotiations and presumably the vote would come in August, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel figured they would never be able to contact and get the vote from that many teachers.  So the teachers held the authorization vote this past month, even as they hope a strike is not necessary in the fall.

June, 2012
Chicago, IL

Dear Teachers,

As CPS parents, we are writing to recognize you for your work on behalf of Chicago’s children, and to offer you our support in the coming months and years. We share your sense of urgency and your aspirations, and we recognize the brilliant, difficult work you do every day, in the biggest and smallest moments of our kids’ lives. Parents and teachers are on the same side because we want the same things—better schools for all children, and a better system to support those schools. You see our children in all their complexity and curiosity, in their desire to learn, to be challenged, to be respected, understood, and seen. And we see you.

We know that the recent strike authorization vote received the support of 89% of CPS teachers. In our school, the rate was over 98%. We know that you are voting not for yourselves, but for all teachers, particularly those in schools with the least resources. We take that vote and level of consensus seriously; your independent, collective voice is indispensible to any sensible conversation about education. We want to say - to you and to everyone - that the recent steady drum-beat of contempt from politicians and pundits is unacceptable, and that we, as parents, do not and will not accept a narrative that vilifies or blames you. This is not simply a conversation about wages and benefits, but one about our shared goal of building a just and decent school system for both teachers and kids.

The Chicago Teachers Union’s proposals represent a fair set of standards for everyone: smaller class sizes; more student access to music, art, gym, and libraries; more counseling time; and yes, adequate compensation and benefits for teachers, who are being asked to work longer hours next year. All of these are clearly essential to both good teaching and good learning. In our school, in all CPS schools, and in every school everywhere, good working conditions are good teaching conditions. And good teaching conditions are good learning conditions.

Yesterday, the last day of the school year, we watched you re-organize hundreds of books you donated personally to our school, all of them labeled by hand, by you. One was the first book a small student, in the room helping, had ever read “all by self,” with you cheering. She remembered; you remembered. We have watched you think through everything from questions about math, music, and literature – to the daily social and developmental challenges of childhood. We have heard you sing songs from your own childhoods, and seen you engage our kids with each other and the world, studying everything from bugs to berimbaus. With you, they wrote and signed their own books, traveled to D.C., choreographed and performed dances, solved fractions, slept at the nature museum, read life-changing books, cooked Brazilian cheese puffs, made documentaries, learned English, and sang with seniors at our neighborhood retirement community. You are teaching them to be engaged citizens, like you, people who care about others. That is the lesson we take from your work and your vote.

Seen up-close, the complexity of teaching is breathtaking and often unheralded; you guide our children through their days in more ways than it’s possible to quantify. So we are writing to say that we understand that teaching is deeply intellectual and ethical work. And that we see you doing it beautifully. We see you, and we stand by you.

Your Fans,

Rachel DeWoskin, Zayd Dohrn, Elizabeth Caya, Rob Caya, Dan Cohen, Beth Hobson, Scott Hobson, Julie Kosowski, Seth MacLowry, Stacy Markham and others. . .

Friday, May 11, 2012

"Teacher Appreciation Week" - How we can Show Teachers the Love

  How we can Show Teachers the Love
Rick Ayers/ Bill Ayers

Let’s stop the hype and the hypocrisy: a nice note, a flower, a Starbucks card, and a week when we all go smooshy over Miss Brody or Mr. Escalante can’t possibly counter 51 weeks of official disdain and a continuing frontal assault from the powerful. Lots of cynical similes are filling teachers’ in-boxes this week: Teacher Appreciation Week feels a lot  like Turkey Appreciation Week at Thanksgiving, or Deer Appreciation Week during hunting season—and we’re the turkeys!
Teaching involves engaging real students every day, nurturing and challenging the vast range of people who actually appear before us, solving problems, making connections, putting in 70 hour weeks and spending our own money on supplies; and it means listening to every two-bit politician, the bought media, and big money misrepresent what we do, and attack us shamelessly every day.
Want to appreciate teachers?
Don’t allow education to be defined as an endless Social Darwinist competition:  nation against nations, state against state, school against school, classroom against classroom, and child against child. Education, like love, is one of the fundamentals of life—give it away generously and lose nothing—and school is where we can work out the meaning and the texture of democracy—coming together to explore the creation of community, pursuing the hard and challenging questions, and imagining new ways to be in balance with the earth and in harmony with each other.  Good teaching deals with the real—honor teachers for that.

Reframe the debate: We are insistently encouraged to think of education as a product like a car or a refrigerator, a box of bolts or a screw driver—something bought and sold in the marketplace like any other commodity. The controlling metaphor for  the schoolhouse is a business run by a CEO, with teachers as workers and students as the raw material bumping along the assembly line while information is incrementally stuffed into their little up-turned heads; it’s rather easy to think within this model that “downsizing” the least productive units, “outsourcing” and privatizing a space that was once public is a natural event; that teaching toward a simple standardized metric, and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately-developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the  “outcomes,” is a rational proxy for learning; that centrally controlled “standards” for curriculum and teaching are commonsensical; that “zero tolerance” for student misbehavior as a stand-in for child development or justice is sane; and that “accountability,” that is, a range of sanctions on students, teachers, and schools—but never on law-makers, foundations, corporations, or high officials—is logical and level-headed. This is in fact what a range of wealthy “reformers,” noisy politicians, and their chattering pundits in the bought media call “school reform.”
Oppose the “reform” policies that will add up to the end of education in and for democracy: replacing the public schools with some sort of privately-controlled administration, sorting the winners relentlessly from the losers—test, test, TEST! (and then punish), and destroying teachers’ ability to speak with any sustained and unified voice. The operative image for these moves has by now become quite familiar: education is an individual consumer good, not a public trust or a social good, and certainly not a fundamental human right. Management, inputs and outcomes, efficiency, cost controls, profit and loss—the dominant language of this kind of reform doesn’t leave much room for doubt, or much space to breathe.
Note that good working conditions are good teaching conditions, and that good teaching conditions are good learning conditions, and that teachers independent and collective voice is essential in determining these conditions.
Fight for smaller class size, limited standardized tests, enhanced arts programs at all levels and in every area, equitable financing, and a strong teachers contract that protects intellectual freedom, due process of law, benefits (from pensions to health care) negotiated in good faith, and encourages collegiality and collaboration.
Throw in a note or a flower if you like.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s open letter to teachers, his idea of a public appreciation, missed the mark badly even as it regurgitated every silly cliché  rehearsed by opportunist politicians everywhere: my mom wuzza teacher, my sister wuzza teacher, my wife wuzza teacher—all the wuzzas feel our pain. He went on:  
  • “I have worked in education for much of my life.” (And some of his best friends are…you know).
  • “I have a deep and genuine appreciation for the work you do.” (Thanks, boss).
  •  “Many of the teachers I have met object to the imposition of curriculum that reduces teaching to little more than a paint-by-numbers exercise. I agree.” (And your “Race to the Top” program is paint-by-the-numbers on steroids).
  • “You have told me you believe that ‘No Child Left Behind’ has prompted some schools—especially low-performing ones—to teach to the test, rather than focus on the educational needs of students…[it] has narrowed the curriculum.” (So now you’re telling us what we’ve been telling you?).
  • “You deserve to be respected, valued, and supported.” (Just do it!).
Arne Duncan acts like a junior foundation officer dispensing grants, rather than someone whose responsibility is the education of every child in a democracy.
On the bright side, Duncan recently announced that he supports same-sex marriage—perhaps we should all gay-marry immediately, and hope that at last he’ll show us some love.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Waiting for the next bloodbath in Oakland

November 12, 2011

As I write this, everyone is just waiting for the next bloodbath to descend on Oakland.  The television vans circle the plaza in front of city hall, eager to capture some “riot pornography” shots for the evening news.  The police have issued a new ultimatum and stand ready to once again use tear-gas canisters, batons, “rubber” bullets, and flash-bang grenades on the peaceful encampment.  Out of hundreds of encampments around the country, it may seem odd that progressive Oakland is the spot where such state violence is on display.  But perhaps Oakland is playing, as it has before, the role of testing ground for tactics of resistance and of repression.

The police have already played their hand once, clearing out the plaza on October 24 and then attacking a demonstration the following night – injuring many, including veteran Scott Olsen who survived two tours in Iraq only to be shot by a teargas canister and put in critical condition by Oakland police.  A day later, realizing they could not simply “hold” the plaza indefinitely, the police pulled out and the Occupy camp was back.

On the side of the state government, we see a desperate effort to reframe and demonize the demonstrations.  On the side of the Occupy movement, we see a constant improvisation and evolution of strategy.

This confrontation is not new.  In fact, only a few blocks from the City Hall is a city park in which Oakland Black activists set up a “Tent City for the Homeless” in 1984, renaming it Uhuru Park.  When the police came to arrest people and tear down the tents in the middle of the night, I was a legal observer.  For the crime of taking a photograph of an Oakland policeman beating an occupier, I was beaten so badly I had to be taken to Highland Hospital instead of jail.  And back in 1932 a “Bonus Army” of veterans set up a tent city in Washington DC, only to be dispersed by the infantry and cavalry, with many wounded and two killed. 

The University of California Berkeley’s actions on November 10 are a typical example of the state framing their use of repression. UC Berkeley police captain Margo Bennett ( ) had this to say as her forces were caught slamming peaceful students with batons:  “The individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence.  I understand that many students may not think that, but linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.”  This is certainly a new definition of violence and one we will see more of.  Walter Benjamin in the 1930’s remarked that the state is the one institution which claims the “legitimate right to violence,” and indeed it uses violence all the time.  But if someone who is not a state employee lifts a finger, the media express shock, shock that anyone would do such terrible things. 

Then there is the project to demonize the demonstrators.  Oakland City Councilwoman Desley Brooks, preparing the way for the next Oakland bloodbath, sought to label ( ) them as the dreaded “other,” the outsiders that our culture has constructed.  She declared, “This is no longer an Occupy Oakland encampment.  This is not the original crowd, not the one that was about the principles of Occupy Wall Street. What we have now is a mix: homeless, anarchists, gang members, and maybe a handful left who are really about Occupy.”

Now, in the real world where most of us live, there are homeless people, mentally disturbed people, those who have been thrown off by society and join gangs, people in crisis.  They are, and will be, part of the gathering of the marginalized who make those in power uncomfortable.  And, you may note, cities like Oakland have upwards of 75%, not 9%, not 20%, but 75% unemployment for black males.  It’s a wonder the city has not exploded.  You might want a nice, middle-class gathering to petition to right the wrongs of society.  But the rabble is calling for the Bastille to be torn down.  Get used to it.  Putting the traditional label of “others” on many of these people does not justify the impending massacre.  Another irony here:  media complaints about Occupy Oakland come from both sides at once.  It is too white, where are the Black people at Occupy?  Oh, oh yes, there are a bunch of African American people here; but they look to be homeless or look like they are gang members.  No, Ms. Brooks, these are your constituents; this is the 99%. The massive turnout for the Oakland General Strike on November 2 gives a lie to the idea that the occupiers are isolated.  An outpouring estimated from 10,000 to 40,000 people came out.  They included Labor, community groups, teachers, children and yes, definitely small businesses!

Then we have Oakland mayor, Jean Quan.  She was once in a radical organization.  I’m sure she has read Lenin’s “State and Revolution” or Gandhi’s “Satyagraha” in study groups and recognized that the modern state is founded on organized violence.  Now she is part of the state and stuck in that contradiction.  And the state, we know, does these ugly things.  With the cover of one’s “office,” it is permissible to unleash violence.  Clint Eastwood’s new film on the FBI’s Hoover, “J. Edgar,” suggests that all the havoc he unleashed was because of his mean mom and repressed homosexuality.  Hey, lots of people have mean moms; lots of people are repressed.  But they aren’t allowed to hound thousands out of jobs and to jail, set up character assassinations and murder. It was only his office that allowed him to do that.

There is a strange and eerie feeling in the Occupy Oakland camp.  No one is happy when they are waiting to be physically attacked.  Everyone knows that this expression of public theater is on a collision course.  The problem could be easily be solved by issuing a permit and negotiating shared security and public health duties.  But the city is not even considering that option. The Occupy Oakland people will not, cannot, simply surrender.  The police are preparing another assault that will cost millions in immediate costs and even more in legal settlements over the coming years.  But no one, politicians, activists, journalists, or pundits, is willing to take the steps to stop it. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Occupy Our Schools

Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? The sea change that is Occupy Wall Street does not have to do with the list of demands.  It does not have to do with Obama’s election chances.  In a perfect example of conflicting narratives, the cultural gatekeepers find it impossible to understand something that is right in front of their faces.

Occupy Wall Street is action.  We have had talk, talk, talk for years, decades even.  The right – the think tanks, big media outlets, politicians, foundations – thunders its dogma on a regular basis.  The left – community organizers, unions, educators, activists – refute their arguments, though with a much smaller voice and very few dollars.  But it has all just been a conversation.

Now action obliterates the deadlock.  Whatever we have been waiting for – Obama, common sense, karma – we realized it was never coming to help us and it is time for action. Action creates facts, and facts are essential – they create possibilities and new words, fresh vocabularies. The silenced majority, the 99%, has finally been pushed so far that it is pushing back.  Every movement is improbable until it happens; after the fact it so clearly was inevitable.

The bankers intone, “These people don’t understand the work we do.”  The right wing bloggers ask:  “Are they going to take the money away from the wealthy?” The talking heads warn, “Do they have any direction?” The answer, in brief, is we do, we will, and we have.  We do understand what bankers and investors do: they run a three-card-Monte game where only they can see under the cards.  They don’t add wealth to the economy, that’s done by people who go to work all over the world.  They simply siphon it out.  And yes we are coming to take the money from the wealthy.  These people are not job creators.  They are parasites who have stolen from those who actually create the wealth.  And finally, we have a direction.  It’s . . . oh, just watch and see.

The same type of bold action could be applied to schools.  The privatizers, those who would strip down our schools to being test-prep factories training only for compliance and passivity, have made their case with all the volume that billions of dollars can buy.  Wallmart’s Broad Foundation trains corporate executives with no educational experience to be school superintendents.  The film Waiting for Superman articulates a demand for the destruction of teacher’s unions and the creation of privately operated schools that take public money.  Secretary of Education Duncan calls for a “Race to the Top,” pitting student against student, teacher against teacher, school against school, and state against state in a Social Darwinist fantasy game worthy of Ayn Rand.

And of course we, educators and community members and students, patiently and thoroughly counter and disprove their arguments.  Their data are false, from claims about charter success to attacks on teachers.  Their goals are sinister, cloaked in a thinly disguised rhetoric of equity.  Read Linda Darling-Hammond, Pedro Noguera, Debbie Meier, Monty Neill, Diane Ravitch, Bill Ayers, Kris Gutierrez, Anthony Cody.  The list goes on and on. 

But so far it has only been a conversation.  It does not matter if we defeat their arguments over and over.  They still have the purse strings, the foundations, and the big megaphone.  The time has come for action.  Take over these schools.  Occupy them.  Sit in.  24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  We built these schools with our taxes, our labor, our commitment to students and communities.  They are not just playthings for overfed business dilettantes. Instead of taking marching orders from Wall Street, we need to take these schools and make them institutions of liberation. 

With students, community members, and teachers in these buildings, imagine the possibilities.  Poetry workshop in one room; free clinic in another; science lab in a third.  Food production.  Critical pedagogy class.  Strategy meetings.  A kind of education that embraces deep meaning, knowledge for people’s needs, and participatory democracy.  Watch these young people step up.  In a liberated space, the bored and resistant students in the back of the room will be transformed. You will see them taking responsibility for their education, demonstrate their desire for ethical action, for sacrifice for the common good, and for a future they can believe in.

Can we do this? At one site? At a hundred?  You can be certain that this is a discussion popping up all over the country.  This is the kind of action that would trump the endless, and ultimately losing, debate we have been locked in over the past years.  We can’t talk our way out of the problems in education.  But we can act, together, because another world is possible.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Malcolm X still inspires today

 Malcolm X was a towering figure of the 20th century, connecting the wave of Third World revolutions sweeping the globe with the Black Liberation Movement inside the US. While the powerful seek to domesticate the man and tame his legacy – a narrow self-help guide or high school lesson on pulling oneself up by the bootstraps – his deeper contribution to the central liberating struggles of our time continues to resonate.

Malcolm X’s life and work was forged in the furnace of a specific historic moment: the old-style colonies were breaking up after the two devastating world wars; India won its independence; China overthrew a pro-western regime; revolutionary battles threw the French out of Algeria and Vietnam; Cuban guerrillas evicted the US supported dictator Batista.  Vijay Prashad’s powerful analysis of the period, The Darker Nations, documents the rise of the Non Aligned Nations movement and the creation of the term “Third World” to describe the former colonial and neo-colonial regions which wanted to be in neither the Soviet nor the US camps – they wanted independence, freedom from nuclear threat, democratization of the United Nations, and their own locally-grown participatory democracies.

During this same time, the long struggle of African Americans against white supremacy and for basic Constitutional rights and fundamental recognition of their humanity was taking a more militant turn.  Malcolm X, first from within the Nation of Islam and later from his own organization, pushed to redefine the terms of the movement – from a petition seeking a way into the US mainstream to a liberation struggle demanding independent power and transformation of the political economy.  Today we forget how far ahead of the wave Malcolm X was, how he created the wave.  This is what made him so dangerous to those in power, what drew the attention of the FBI as well as the CIA and various military intelligence agencies. 

So many touchstone principles that would soon propel the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panther Party, and dozens of other organizations and movements, were first given clear articulation in the early 60’s by Malcolm X.  These included:
  • Black pride and “Black is beautiful.”
  • The move from a petition for rights to a demand for power.
  • The change from seeing African Americans as a minority to recognizing them as part of a majority, the Third World majority, on a global scale.
  • The identification of the conditions of African Americans as one of domestic colonialism as well as racial and ethnic discrimination.
  • The questioning of the use of non-violence as the primary tactic for black liberation, encapsulated in the phrases “The ballot or the bullet” and “By any means necessary.”
  • The recognition that white people could be and often were a hindrance to the fullest development of Black leadership and the African American struggle in the South. 
  • The demand that white people work against racism in their own communities and build solidarity with the Black Liberation Struggle.
  • The critique of the Black petty bourgeoisie, which seemed to be making it in America and leaving behind poor and working class African American communities.

The list goes on and on.  While he did not invent or own each of these principles, Malcolm X was the most clear, consistent, and successful popularizer of these views.  African American insights, critique, and inventions have always been major drivers in politics and culture in the US – whether it has been in music, theater, comedy, and literature or whether it was in a the political struggles to enact democracy through elections, economic structures, or education.  The reverberations of Malcolm X’s leadership were felt everywhere, even penetrating the consciousness of this white liberal college student first getting involved and trying hard to understand the world. 

I remember being in New York in the summer of 1966, a year after the assassination of Malcolm X.  I lived with Charles, an old friend from prep school.  We were exploring the city, taking classes, marveling at the explosion of arts, and following the various vibrant political battles everywhere.   In mid-June the front page of the New York Times featured a story on the “March against Fear” in Mississippi, which SNCC had mobilized after James Meredith was shot at the beginning of his solo protest against the segregated university.  Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks dropped a bombshell on the first evening rally, calling for something new to the Civil Rights Movement: Black Power! The marchers had responded with enthusiasm and Black Power became the chant punctuating the march and the Movement itself in that fateful summer.

Black Power had a resonance and meaning that was unmistakable, and it was not about “personal empowerment” or psychological states.  It was an enunciation of the anti-colonial struggle of African Americans, a call for political power – by any means necessary.  Everything Black activists said afterwards to elaborate and explain the idea was important but the phrase was clear and people knew what it meant.  It was Malcolm X’s vision, come to life in the battles of the deep South.

My friend Charles and I diverged right then.  He thought the Black Power turn was a disaster: it was reverse racism; it was going to isolate the movement.  But I had already been drawn to Che and the Cuban revolution, to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and to the Freedom Democratic Party and Fannie Lou Hamer’s articulation of the struggle in 1964. Many white activists agonized about what it would mean; some who risked their lives for the struggle for justice were hurt when they were asked to leave the South and organize against racism in their own communities.  But most got it, had even seen the truth of this analysis in the streets and the meetings.  They were pleased, delighted, inspired by the powerful turn that the movement was taking. 

Of course, the involvement of us white college kids was a matter of choice but also of privilege.  It mainly consisted of reading and discussing.  The challenge of the mid-1960’s however plunged us into action.  We were no longer just watching a movement; we started building a movement.  We were pushed to drop our beneficent and patronizing charity ideas, to think in terms of solidarity.  We began to fight as part of a strategy that recognized the leadership of the Black Liberation Movement and Vietnamese resistance, and the profound transformation of relationships around the world.  Did the revolution of the late 60’s and 70’s win?  No it did not.  But the world would be a much better place if it had.

Dr. Manning Marable’s new biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, does much to fill in and correct the historical record.  Most agree that Malcolm X’s autobiography, written with Alex Haley is a powerful organizing document but leaves much out.  Marable offers many beautiful and satisfying moments: the background on Malcolm X’s family and upbringing, the story of the Garvey movement (the United Negro Improvement Association - UNIA) and its strength throughout the US in the teens and 20’s, the descriptions of Malcolm X’s trips to Africa and the Middle East which are much more detailed and impressive than earlier accounts, and the explication of the Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. 

But on the fundamental significance of Malcolm X, on his core vision and contribution, Dr. Marable gets it wrong.  In the midst of his detailed research, he swipes at the philosophy of Black Nationalism and anti-colonial internationalism.  In describing Malcolm X’s historic 1960 debate with civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, he asserts that Rustin won hands down because he proved the “practical impossibility” of setting up a Black state, exposing the “essential weakness” of the nationalist line. It is one thing to be opposed to Black Nationalism, but to suggest that it is simply an illusory idea with no possible way of being pursued is to mislead.  The long history of the struggle for Black Power goes back to Martin Delaney before the Civil War, through the UNIA of Marcus Garvey; it is seen in the work of W.E.B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson in education; and even in the position of the Communist Party in the 20’s and 30’s which defined a Black nation in the South; the Négritude movement from the Caribbean and Harlem was part of this movement; and it includes many organizations in the 60’s and later, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) after they embraced Black Power, the Revolutionary Action Movement, the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party, the African People’s Socialist Party, the Republic of New Afrika, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Black Panther Party, DRUM, The Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Black Arts Movement, and the explosion of Black Student Unions.  These movements had all kinds of proposals:  some for territorial zones inside the US, some for reuniting with Africa, and some for independent political identity within an extended presence throughout the US.  Malcolm X was neither confused nor stumped when confronted with anti-nationalist arguments. His was an internationalist, anti-colonial vision and politics.  There is no one else in the US during this historical period who articulated and advanced this insight so powerfully.

Prof. Marable argues that reform was possible in the US and that this fact undermined Malcolm X’s position, suggesting that “perhaps blacks could some day become empowered within the existing system.” In order to show that change can come without overthrowing the system, he cites Nixon’s introduction of affirmative action laws. A look at the condition of African American people today in relation to educational opportunities and meaningful schools suggests that Malcolm X’s side of the argument was closer to the truth.  Marable rejects Malcolm X’s criticism of middle class Black leaders who had supported the election of Lyndon B. Johnson for president. “It apparently did not occur to (Malcolm X),” he asserts, “that great social change usually occurs through small transformations in individual behavior.” I’m sure it occurred to him but he was part of a much more radical critique, a more far-reaching call for transformation of social relations.

Dr. Marable declares that “‘black nationalism’ was highly problematic in a global context, because it excluded too many ‘true revolutionaries.’”  But it’s not problematic at all, any more than Cuban nationalism, Latin American solidarity, Pan-Africanism, Vietnamese nationalism, or anything else that was shaking the world precluded relations between Third World movements. 

As in all anti-colonial struggles, Malcolm X asserted the right of resistance and even the importance of African Americans arming themselves.  Marable declares that such comments “alienated white and black alike.” But in reality, this is part of what made him so wildly popular. When Malcolm X says that African Americans should vote but not for Republicans and Democrats, Dr. Marable claims that he “was promoting electoralism but in practical terms gave blacks no effective means to exercise their power.  Who were they supposed to vote for if no one on the ballot could bring any real relief?” The answer is clear: Malcolm X advocated independent political action.  That was the only place he believed African Americans could get relief.

The art of writing a political biography is tricky.  Two examples that stand out as excellent are Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, and Henry Mayer’s All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery.  Each of these does something very important:  they situate the focal lives within the movements that produced them and the movements they built. They explicate the positions of the protagonists and appreciate the evolution of their positions – including the debates, experiences, and commitments that made them.  And they don’t put themselves in the position of debating with the person they are profiling.

While Manning Marable has made a great contribution with this biography, in some respects he misses the central significance of Malcolm X.  The speeches of Malcolm X are available everywhere and should accompany this book, for they animate, explain and consolidate so many experiences and feelings that were boiling beneath the surface at the time. Malcolm X understood and pursued the implications of the earth-shaking revolutions going on and his words continue to capture the radical imagination of freedom lovers around the world today precisely because he stood for international solidarity and a restructuring of power.  It is a vision that still inspires.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Well, it looks like Huffington Post has new rules.  I have written over 50 blogs for them.  I just learned that.labor and progressive are calling for writers to boycott after Arianna Huffington sold to AOL and pocketed a lot of money.  And the writers work for free. Here's the story of the boycott:

I have to admit, I liked getting my stuff out there. But perhaps their new, slicker, shallower format will decide things anyway.  The last post I tried to submit was an appreciation of Malcolm X and a comment on Manning Marable's new biography.

But on June 21 I got back the following email from an editor:

Hello Rick,
Thanks for your recent blog submission. Unfortunately, this post is far too long for us. We advise bloggers to limit posts to 600-800 words. If you'd like to revise the post, please go back in from the back stage. I've moved it back to draft so you can resubmit and let me know when you're done.
When I inquired if this was a new policy, Emily wrote to me:
"We've always tried to enforce this policy."

Hmmm, the piece is slightly over 2,000 words.  Can I cut it that much?  600 words is like a gossip item, not an essay.  Anyway, there's a picket line up.  So for now I'm out.
So . . ..  hello blogspot.  Not sure how the reach of this deal will go.  I hate to give up the tens of readers I had back at Huffington (or at least ten readers).  But here we go.  Enjoy.