Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ferguson, Rioting, and the Healing Power of Collective Revenge

Over the past few days, the US and increasingly, the world, has turned its attention to a previously unheard-of suburb of St Louis as demonstrations and destruction have erupted in the town of Ferguson, MO. In the wake of the public execution of an unarmed black teen at the hands of a white police officer, marches and demonstrations have escalated into full-blown riots, with protesters destroying police vehicles as they are attacked with LRAD, police dogs, and tear gas.

Rise in Power, Mike Brown

Public outcry has been widespread and vehement; even the way the media reports on the killings of black men by racist cops has come under scrutiny as demonstrations organize nationally in a "Moment of Silence" for victims of police brutality. What is a bit befuddling for some, however, is the level and intensity of community response against police brutality in Ferguson. Liberal sentiment of course condemns police violence; even our lackluster President has commented on the crisis. When it comes to rioting, however, and acts of property destruction? Largely liberals appear to echo the President-- there is no excuse for violence, either against protesters or police.

I met up with a dear friend last night for dinner. We've known each other for years, and he has watched my evolution from bleeding-heart liberal progressive to radical cop-hating anarchist. I also have seen his political evolution, and while he isn't exactly a radical, he certainly has become a little left of liberal (yes, Kent, it's true, stop calling yourself a moderate around my friends, are you trying to embarrass me?). While he was certainly not willing to disparage rioting protesters to my face, he had a very pertinent question that a lot of people are asking.

What's the point of rioting?

You see, rioting against police brutality isn't exactly a new thing. The efficacy of rioting in forcing institutional change worked particularly well for gay men; trans women and effeminate queer men burning cop cars at Stonewall, Compton's, and during the White Night riots definitely impacted public policy around queer male sexuality. Trans people appear not to have reaped the benefits, however, and race riots haven't seemed to have done anything to send a message to the Powers That Be that cops and the criminal justice system are inherently flawed and need to be replaced. I am old enough to remember the Rodney King riots, and things have seemingly gotten much, much worse, not better, since those days.

So what's the point?

First off, let's be clear: the majority of riots are started by police. I've attended many a protest, and yes, some of them turned riotous, and with perhaps one exception (and you can read an excellent piece on that occasion here), they were all started by some dumbass cop brutally arresting and/or beating someone in the crowd on flimsy pretense. Predictably and understandably, other people present got pissed and started throwing things at the armored and armed thugs in our midst.

Aside from who starts things, however, we need to admit why rioting happens. Liberal hand-wringing, conservative pearl-clutching, and politicians and police vowing crackdowns on eruptions of rage are frankly useless narratives to apply to what happens in places like Ferguson. We need to admit that riots do actually have a place in our political praxis-- and it's not necessarily in order to enact social change.

To be frank, I don't believe that these riots are going to make things better. They are not going to teach the murderous pig who gunned down Mike Brown a lesson (by the way, his name is Darren Wilson). They are not going to bring back the beautiful man who was slain by Wilson. Perhaps I'm pessimistic, but I also don't think they are going to halt the militarization of our law enforcement, in effect turning the cops on our corners into soldiers hell-bent on subjugating the people they police.

They have value, however. Aside from the obvious indicator to the world that yes, something is very very wrong in the US, the riots have personal value to those engaging in militant resistance. If a survivor of intimate abuse strikes out in vengeful fury against her abuser, I am going to accept that this is part of her healing. Exacting vengeance may seem a waste to those not experiencing that same abuse; it is anything but. Ferguson is a community abused by white colonizers, with the survivors lashing out and striking back against their abusers. This is not just about taking a stance against police brutality. This is about a community attempting to heal, and rejecting the police that prevent that healing.

This isn't just about Mike Brown, though his death sparked the protests that now have resulted in violent clashes with cops. The people throwing molotovs at the armored tanks occupying Ferguson have experienced abuse. They have experienced racial profiling, harassment, and violence at the hands of the people given power over their bodies and now they have had enough. If burning a cop car or trashing a franchised convenience store helps them to process that trauma... who are we to stop them? Haven't they earned their revenge after centuries of slavery, oppression, destruction?

Why exactly do we fear revenge? What may seem like senseless violence can actually have an important impact on the feelings of helplessness communities like Ferguson have forced upon them. Sometimes, many times, revenge is not just mindless reaction to fucked-up behavior. It's about taking power back from abusers. It's about refusing to be powerless.

I would posit that we have more riots coming in the future. Hell, if Detroit is any indicator our government "of the people" is hell-bent on finally signing over our entire lives to capitalist exploitation and white supremacy. Will rioting in Ferguson, in Oakland, hey, even here in lily-white Seattle change any of that? Probably not. After all, the opposition not only has all the weapons, but they are making more.

However, eruptions of outrage and anger are inevitable conclusions to the continued destruction of the poor, the black, the brown, the trans among us. The crisis of capitalism can and hopefully will come to a head in our lifetimes, and when that happens, don't sit around asking what the point is.

Because resistance is the point. Anger is the point. Collective striking against repression is the point. And yes, sometimes, revenge is the point.

Today there are national "Moment of Silence" actions planned across the US. My question is: when do we get to have our Moment of Anger? Our Moment of Howling? Our Moment of Resistance? Our Moment of Fuck No?

Perhaps Our Moment to Heal?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Queer Liberation is a Contradiction to Zionism

At the time of this writing, the Palestinian death toll in the most recent act of aggression by Israel has reached 844. Most of those who have died are civilians.

This is not the first time Israel has massacred Palestinians nor, sadly, will it be the last.

Every time open warfare breaks out in Gaza, I am stunned by the eruption of outrage and anti-Zionist sentiment among my community. It is heartening to see radical organizers and every day queers leap up in collective anger and sorrow; I feel like I have surrounded myself with the right sort of people. I'm probably correct on that score.

Pro-Palestine noise brigade action. Seattle, 7/24/14

What always baffles me, however, is when I see queers support Israeli apartheid and aggression. Homonationalism is definitely a thing, and it seems to rear its ugly head with vigor every time Israel decides that, based on some pretext or another, it needs to go and kill hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinians. Whatever it is that causes some LGBT Americans to identify with the Israeli state's aggression, when war breaks out in the Holy Land, queer voices immediately start to squabble and denounce each other in a fervor to either defend Israel's right to empire or Palestine's right to existence. 

It's confusing to me when queers support Israeli aggression. To them I want to say: don't you know your own liberation is tied with the freedom of the Palestinian people?

Queer liberation was born out of desperation and frustration. A literally riotous movement espousing the necessity of the freedom of our bodies and our ideas, we burned cop cars and disrupted the heterosexual world's status quo in order to fight not just for the right to live without oppression, but (as the AIDS epidemic struck) also simply the right to live. Institutional oppression has long been our enemy; why do our fellow queers now side with the institutions that used to destroy us, and still do, every day?

 Thousands march from Ramallah to Jerusalem in protest on Thursday. They were met with live fire and at least two protesters were killed.

Palestinian resistance is a queer necessity. I say this not just because there are LGBT Palestinians suffering under the yoke of Israeli apartheid and the fear of murder at the hands of the IDF, though we must remember our siblings in Gaza. Can you imagine being HIV-positive in Ramallah, where basic medical supplies and water are in short supply?

I do not say this just to imply that there are intersectional identities that tie us to Palestine, even though there are. Queerness intersects with race in complicated, deep ways that continue to fracture our communities, and you can't scan Israeli opinion without the overt and very real racism at the heart of Zionism slapping you in the face, burning like scalding water thrown in your face.

I say this because until empire is ended, we are not truly free.

Gaza has been transformed into an open air prison, with death raining down from the sky. Much like the massive prisons in the US that incarcerate queer and trans* people of color, Palestinians have their movement restricted and are short of the basic necessities vital to meeting their fundamental human needs. Much like the continued murder and brutalization of trans women in our streets, Palestinian women are exposed to the degradation and death which comes hand-in-hand with Israeli apartheid and aggression. As we snatch and incarcerate people for the simple crime of having HIV, Palestinian youth are kidnapped and tortured in retaliation for perceived slights against the Israeli state.

A Palestinian youth is arrested in Beit Hanina.

To LGBT people who support this Israeli genocide of the Palestinian people I say: you make me weep. Have you forgotten that the equality you have striven for was itself based in the genocide of the people who lived here before us? That still live among us, forgotten? The ability of white American gays to marry came at a great cost, and not just measured in the efforts of LGBT Americans. Our own privilege and freedom was bought in the blood and tears of slaves and indigenous people, hauntingly mirroring the occupation and invasion of Palestinian's homes and lives. How soon we forget.

As long as empire exists, what meaning does our own equality hold? Does it even have any? How can I gloat in my own supposed freedom while people are getting phone calls from the IDF telling them their homes will be destroyed in ten minutes? How are you liberated when empire culminates in children dying, burning, in a cloud of white phosphorus?

My liberation, as privileged as it is, is worthless in the face of this aggression. As the death toll in Gaza mounts, and as white western colonial powers make ineffectual statements or none at all as these murders take place, our western efforts for equality seem empty. Israel itself supposedly prides itself on gay equality; what tragedy that these seeming lands of queer freedom stand idly by while this massacre continues. At what cost have we made these institutional gains, if it means we will instead turn about and strengthen the institutions of oppression that continue to enslave and murder?

We are not truly liberated until empire ends, my friends. I am not liberated, even in the white privileged, male socialized, and American entitled fortress that protects me at the cost of others' freedoms. You are not liberated, fellow queer, as long as people are brutally slain simply because they are guilty of the crime of being imprisoned in Gaza.

No-one is liberated, least of all ourselves as queer and trans* people, until Palestine is free.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

It's Okay To Be Called "Cisgender." I Promise.

The climate around LGBT politics is vastly different than it was decades ago. Mainstream gay activists feel they have a lot to celebrate; a cavalcade of judicial decisions have swept the country, imploding conservative efforts to defeat marriage equality. One by one, states in the US have begun caving to progressive sentiment, leading many to declare victory for LGBT Americans everywhere. 

There's just one problem, of course. These victories are not necessarily for all LGBTs. Rather, they are more for the LGBs-- at a time when queer sexual identities are becoming more mainstream and acceptable, trans* gender identities are caught in conflict with gay entitlement. Not only do trans* people still face oppression and violence at the hands of society at large, it's becoming increasingly obvious that they face microaggression and dismissal from their own supposed comrades: gay Americans.

Recently, this has been thrown into sharp relief by conflicts between transgender activists and notable drag queens over the word "tranny." Sparked by the use of transmisogynistic language on RuPaul's Drag Race, debates among LGBT activists and advocates as to whether cisgender individuals have the right to claim the term as their own have been raging, in a discussion that has perfectly illustrated what happens when one privileged group refuses to accept the stories and testimonies of a disadvantaged minority.

I'm not going to rehash that. Others have done it more eloquently than I could have. I did, however, want to address a particularly confusing sentiment shared by gay men defending the use of transphobic language: 

"Don't you DARE call me cisgender."

In online debates, I've heard this a dozen times. Finally, and unsurprisingly, this culminated in a trainwreck of a tantrum thrown by a writer for HuffPo's Gay Voices, J. Nelson Aviance, titled "I Am Not Cisgendered" (sic). It's a real headache to read, so let me give you a synopsis: people criticizing people who are not trans* and insisting that said non-trans* people check their privilege is a form of oppression, and calling someone "cisgender" is a slur. Evidently, life is very hard for white gay men who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth; getting called out by all these mean trans* people is very taxing! Parker Molloy has a play-by-play of his screwy and alienating logic on her site.

"Waaaaaaaaaah, pointing out my privilege is oppression! Waaaaah!"

Parker said a lot and I am not going to repeat her words; but I am going to express incredulity over this sick form of reverse oppression Olympics. Claiming some sort of victimization because people refer to you with a privileged term is insane. Sadly, unsurprising.

Let's think about this critically: there are people who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. There are those that don't. The ones that don't, we have a host of terms for. Trans. Genderqueer. Genderfluid. Agender. Neutrois. The ones that do? Yes, there is a word that is used for that, and it is cisgender. Why does that exist? Because using the phrase "not-trans*" is cumbersome and sounds silly. 

It's not a slur. Why? Because it's what people who are not trans are. Hell, I don't identify with the gender I was assigned at birth; I am genderqueer. However, I am perceived as cisgender most of the time. While this is incorrect, it means that I benefit from the privilege that cisgender people have. As someone who wants to support trans* people, I accept that privilege and understand my place in their oppression.

However, this sentiment is not because these people really believe that the term "cisgender" is an insult or slur. Oh no, even they know in their cruel, hard little hearts that they are being ridiculous. The thing is, every time someone tells them "You are cisgender! Please check your privilege," they actually know that they are being told that frankly, they don't need to be commenting on transgender issues. Because they are wrong. And they need to stop.

Who is surprised that people with privilege will get in a huff when told that they can't dominate narratives of the oppression they actively enact on others? I'm sure not.

So I'm going to say this: being called "cisgender" is not a slur, not ever. However, I believe in calling people what they like to be called. Would you prefer, J Nelson Aviance, that I call you "not-trans*?" I will. Gladly.

I will do it like this: "You are not-trans*. You need to check your privilege. And you need to stop opening your damn yap about trans* issues. Because you are wrong."

Glad we cleared the air.