Who you gonna call? One another!

August 18, 2009

Direct action tactics in trying times.

From the July/August 2009 issue of Intersections, the newsletter of Common Action

Your boss won’t pay you for hours you worked. The landlord won’t fix your backed-up toilet. Your friend was detained by Immigration Customs Enforcement, and now she’s facing deportation. Who you gonna call? You might call a lawyer, or a social worker, or you might file an appeal that may or may not receive a reply. But in an economy where these problems are becoming all too common, these solutions just aren’t cutting it anymore – they can be too slow, too expensive, and too isolating. Instead, many groups are turning towards a different solution: direct action.

“Direct action involves bringing people together to confront the person responsible for a problem, in order to demand a swift solution,” explains Emily, a member of Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol for short), an all-volunteer organization that supports workers and tenants. Through fliers on telephone poles and bus stops, a website on the Internet, and good old fashioned word-of-mouth, SeaSol encourages people who have a a problem with a boss or landlord to contact the group for support. Together, they write a demand letter and mobilize a crowd of people to deliver it to the boss or landlord’s house or workplace. If the boss or landlord fails to fix the problem by a stated deadline, SeaSol takes further collective action. Using these tactics, SeaSol has enjoyed a string of victories: winning relocation assistance for tenants and, back pay for workers; forcing employers to drop frivolous lawsuits; and more.

While SeaSol focuses on workplace and housing concerns, many organizations around the world have applied a similar approach to a range of issues. Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), a Canadian group widely recognized as one of the first to develop the direct action model, targets government assistance offices that illegally withhold support from people. Another Canadian group, No One is Illegal, uses similar tactics on immigration and detention issues. In British Columbia the group has occuped the offices of Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) and has prevented CBSA officers from carrying out deportation orders by blocking access. In one instance, more than 1,500 people were mobilized to directly prevent the deportation of a Punjabi refugee at an airport. “Direct action is not always involved in our supportwork, and many migrants have been able to win residency without recourse to it,” explains NOII member Usman Majeed. “However, when petitions, letters to politicians, press conferences, rallies, and legal avenues are all rejected by the state, we have little choice but to use our own bodies to protect and defend members of our community.”

As times get tougher, many people are beginning to question the ability of social services and the legal system to effectively put an end to injustices committed by bosses, landlords and the government. An important book called The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, edited by the group INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, calls this problem “the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.” The book discusses how non-profit organizations’ dependence paid staff and funding from the government or private foundations like the Rockefeller Foundation severely limits what they can accomplish. By mobilizing groups of people rather than relying solely on experts, direct action groups build something that goes beyond solving individual grievances. Direct action groups demonstrate that peoples’ issues aren’t isolated, but represent a much larger system of disempowerment.

Over time, direct action organizations can help empower a community to stand up to this system. As No One is Illegal states, “it is imperative to concretely offer support to those at the front lines of repressive immigration policies and to build our communities’ own capacity for resistance and self-organization.” Each fight is a learning experience for everyone involved, and as lessons are applied, communities win demands more and more often. At a time when we stand to lose so much, we all benefit from the empowering effect of real victory.


Big Money, Bad Baseball

November 26, 2008


From the December/January 2008-2009 issue of Intersections, the newsletter of Common Action

In 2008, the Seattle Mariners set a new record for losing, becoming the first team in baseball history to lose 100 games with a $100 million-plus player payroll. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays, one of the lowest paid teams in baseball, went on to the World Series. In the same year that also saw the departure of the Sonics to Oklahoma City, Seattle sports fans are once again left dealing with the cold, hard reality that big money makes for bad, bad sports.

CLR James would have made the perfect Seattle sports fan – he loved sports and hated big money. James was an unorthodox communist who rallied against both the United States and the Soviet Union in his passion for direct democracy – once authoring an essay called “Every Cook Can Govern.” He also wrote Beyond a Boundary, a book about his life as a professional cricket player in Trinidad. In it, James demanded that sports be considered an art form, akin to writing or painting.

Anyone who ever saw the young Ken Griffey Jr.’s sweet home-run swing would have a hard time disagreeing with James that sports are an art form. But there’s a case for James the communist as well. The history of Seattle baseball is rife with examples of the gaping contradiction between the beauty of baseball and the ugliness of capitalism and the State.

In 1972, Seattle officials broke ground on the Kingdome – home to the Mariners until 1999 – and a crowd of Asian American activists were there to protest them. The stadium threatened to displace Seattle’s International District, long home to Asian immigrant communities. The dome was built, but activists succeeded in directing city resources to maintain the neighborhood’s livelihood.

The Kingdome housed local sports, but was good for little else. Capitalism only knows short-cuts, so shoddy construction and garish aesthetics ensured the dome lasted only as long as it took the Mariners to win their first dramatic division title in 1995 – perhaps the most memorable sports season Seattle has ever seen. Owners, emboldened by fans’ new found love for baseball, threatened to move the team. Despite a public vote against subsidy of a new stadium, politicians led by Slade Gorton – not coincidentally, Washington’s longtime Native American-hating Republican senator – built it anyway, at a cost of $380 million in public dollars.

For all that money, the Mariners are back to losing and low attendance. Of course, if Seattle sports fans truly craved top performance, more would attend Storm games, but generations of institutionalized sexism prevents women’s professional basketball from being valued equally to men’s. While the New York Mets once proved a team can be major losers and still sustain a rabid fan base, Mets fans were part of an urban community, whereas Seattle baseball remains at the whim of an economy hewn to suburbanites, tourists and international investors – not city dwellers, suggesting that baseball will never be truly appreciated as the art it is until fans truly feel ownership over their local team, until every fan can govern.

New Morning, Changing Weather

November 6, 2008


“No matter who wins the elections – All you community organizers, you’re going to wake up on November 5th and do the same work you’ve always been doing.”

That’s what spoken-word artist Walidah Imarisha (Bad Sista of duo Good Sista/Bad Sista) told a crowd in Seattle on Saturday night. She’s right, of course – the work of grassroots organizing is the same, and can’t be changed by the election of any politician.

Still, there is a new atmosphere this morning, I’m just not sure how to describe it. I went to sleep last night to fire works in the streets, neighbors talking and horns honking, and woke up to hear a political buzz like I’ve never heard – on the bus, in the hallways on campus, and, of course, in e-mails and on blogs. Someone calling me on the phone about other business immediately asked, “So what’d you think about last night?”

How to capture this? I don’t know. Here I don’t want to outline my own opinions. I only want to share selections – like Imarisha’s statement – that resonated with me. Some of them might contradict – if they do, that’s good. Those are tensions we need to work through.

  • Selections from discussions among anarchists:

“Too often, anarchists are reflexively dismissive of electoral politics (something I’ve also been guilty of in the past), ignoring the implications of the mainstream political landscape and how it can shape organizing strategies on the ground. Despite Obama’s long list of corporate sponsors, hawkish foreign policy team, weak domestic policies, and overall centrist outlook, it is clear that his campaign has made a significant mark on the country and we should have a serious conversation about how to engage with Obama hysteria without compromising our principles.I have no illusions about Obama’s hope and change rhetoric, but as a community organizer and person of color who works with latino/a immigrants and lives in a prodominately black neighborhood, I think change is palpable already. If nothing else, it seems clear to me that his administration will have a considerable impact on race relations in the U.S., on a level we can’t possibley measure. I imagine the dominant conversation will take the shamefully shallow “post-racial society’ track, but amongst working-class people of color I think there’s a potential opportunity for a stronger black-brown alliance, particularly around labor issues–an arena where anarchist people of color can make inroads.”

I think U.S.-based anarchists, particularly of the white-male-middle-class variety–who seem to be the majority–tend to overlook the significance of Obama’s victory for working-class people of color. I don’t think Obama genuinely has the latters interests at heart, but I think his voice and image has legitimized the notion that real change comes from the bottom, and that we should seize the opportunity to remind people that he’s absolutely right and begin mobilizing folks–particularly around prison issues, labor, health care, and institutional racism.

I think it’s worth reading Obama’s memoirs. He is a great writer, no doubt about it. He’s also a grass roots activist and has been since his 20s. He also spent 5 years of his youth in Indonesia right after the coup and knows what despotism and poverty look like from the street up, rather than from the dizzy heights of power down. He’s also lived through a degree of structural persecution I will never understand and he spent most of his life trying to understand it.

He’s certainly middle class, and he’s certainly not a revolutionary, but he’s a damn site better than anything else on offer (not that you said otherwise of course). He’s also charged by ideals that many of us share even if we don’t think he’ll be able to realise them through the instruments of the state and capitalism. He’s also made his way through the political upheavals of the 60s in his own way and seems to have fairly standard Marxist views about history and power – at least that’s what he wrote 13 years ago.

What surprised me most about the campaign was that everyone tried so hard to keep race out of it, but as soon as he won it’s all anyone’s talked about. I think that’s inevitable, but I don’t think he’s inspiring because he’s half Kenyan (though it is also really inspiring); I think he’s inspiring because he’s a real person who’s really thought about politics and the people and has campaigned for most of his adult life on behalf of other people and against the odds and made it in the way he wanted to.

Bear in mind also that his memoirs were published 13 years ago, just after he got the presidency of the Harvard Law Review and well before he went into politics.

He’s an activist first and now he’s a politician. I think the worry for anarchists is how successful he’s been. I think the challenge for us is to hold him to account and to push the agenda without sacrificing our principles. ”

“The two funniest moments of the coverage on the BBC last night were:
a) an interview with a poor-looking woman in some gawdawful dump in the midwest – she was asked whether she expected great change and she replied “well they’re politicians and politicians are politicians and the president doesn’t have that much power anyway, so I don’t expect much change”. It just completely stunned the presenter.

b) Ted Koppel being asked about the prospects for Obama’s presidency and responding about how this wouldn’t really affect the underlying racial problems and that Obama would have pretty much zero space to maneouver given the crisis and he would just be fire-fighting – he was interrupted by the presenter saying “er, this is no time for doom and gloom”.”

“It will be interesting to see how these people operate and see things now that the election’s over. The important thing is to engage and work alongside these people. We all know the underlying reality, and need for radical change, but there is no denying that this is a historic and significant moment in the US. Some elder comrades (people in their 60’s) have helped me understand that. I was at an eviction blockade in Mattapan (one of Boston’s majority Black working class neighborhoods). One of the organizers stated “we should be celebrating last night’s victory, but instead we are here, defending the home of a Black woman who continues to suffer. This is where we belong.””

In the UK this evening they had Dizzee Rascal on for his thoughts, alongside Baroness Amos (a Government peer) and he scored pretty highly too.

“No, one person doesn’t make change, people together make things change”. Plus he was moving around enough to leave camera shot.

  • Dead Prez offer their opinion (the only hiphop track I’ve heard yet critical of Obama… at least until Dizzee cuts a track, I guess): Dead Prez – PolitriKKKs

Common Action

October 2, 2008

This blog needs some action… so here goes. This happened in my life recently. I also moved across town.

Common Action General Assembly Report – 9/13/08

On Saturday, September 13th, members of Class Action Alliance, a regional anarchist organization, traveled from across the Northwest United States to Seattle, WA, for our second general assembly. Members representing the cities of Bellingham, Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and Portland were in attendance.

As the first organization-wide meeting since our founding conference in June 2008, the general assembly was our first opportunity to meet face-to-face, reflecting on our first four months as a group and looking forward to the future ahead. We made a number of important and exciting decisions, including a name change, plans for internal study and education, and a forthcoming publication.

After much discussion, Class Action Alliance has decided to change our name to “Common Action.” We feel the name better suits our work in a broad range of social movements, while representing our desire to come together and build our politics in common as an anarchist organization. It also stresses the purpose of our organization: taking effective and dynamic action in the struggle for a new world.

Common Action members are involved in a variety of organizing projects and social movements, including immigrant solidarity, youth and student organizing, anti-war campaigns, workplace organizing, and much more. Together we represent years of experience, and with this general assembly have taken steps toward sharing our knowledge with one another through internal education and collectively authoring position papers.

At the assembly, we approved the first Common Action publication, a newsletter entitled “Intersections.” The first issue of the forthcoming publication will include articles on gentrification in Seattle, the Northwest Anarchist People of Color gathering, the 2008 presidential election, and a hazardous oil pipe-line being planned for the northern counties of Washington State. The newsletter will soon be distributed throughout the Northwest US. Contact us at the address below to receive your own copy. It will also be available on the internet via our website.

Aside from the newsletter, other forms of outreach are also in the works, including speaking tours and resources for new members. We also passed a position paper on building an anarchist international organization, which will soon appear on our website.

All in all, after four short months, Common Action is an organization on the move, having good conversations, and committed to doing real work. Contact us at nwcommonaction@gmail.com or visit http://www.nwcommonaction.org for more information.

Anarchism and Elections

June 17, 2008

Two very timely topics, presented by anarchist writer and organizer Cindy Milstein at the 2008 NYC Anarchist bookfair (reposted here on my very untimely blog). Not very visual presentation, but the audio is great. Listen now before the historical moment passes and this talk becomes dated.

Nearly as early as Hillary or Obama, anarchists were hot on the campaign trail. Plans to resist the 2008 U.S. presidential elections and especially the conventions were afoot in 2006. The German Jewish anarchist Gustav Landauer once observed in relation to “anarchist assasination politics” that they “proceed from the intentions of a small group…following the example of the big political parties..What they are trying to say is: “We are also political.”…[Yet] these anarchists are not anarchic enough.” His comments apply to electoralism too: being political is the right impulse, but the tactics and indeed the focus are wrong. Certainly, in the United States, presidential elections represent rare instances when many people “participate.” But why the anarchist fascination with something that’s far from anything we’d recognize as politics? And why, if and when we choose to engage, do anarchists frequently use strategies that mirror statist and/or liberal forms, or are simply unimaginative? Perhaps, in zeroing in on presidential elections, we aren’t anarchic enough either. Or conversely, perhaps this electoral moment does indeed offer us a way to spotlight the best of anarchism as a replacement for statecraft.

Cindy is a co-organizer of the Renewing the Anarchist Tradition confrence, a board member of the institute for Anarchist Studies, and a collective member of both Free Society and Black Sheep Books in Monpelier, Vermont. She also taught at the “anarchist summer school” called the Institute for Social Ecology. Her essays appear in several anthologies, including “realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority” and “Globalize Liberation,” and she does community organizing at home and public speaking/popular education anywhere else. This was filmed by David Buccola on April 13 at the Anarchist Bookfair in New York City.

The Grace of Inactivity

September 7, 2007

These past few weeks have seen me in limbo between Bellingham and Seattle as we scrambled to complete our video in daily marathon editing sessions. The video finally debuted on September 4th as Present In All That We Do (from the Baldwin quote about history). We have other prospective showings lined up in the coming months, but nothing to justify my lingering days in Bellingham extending any longer.

Now I am in Seattle’s University District. Whereas Bellingham was a place whose history I could begin to understand, and maybe even began to grasp my own place in that history, given its small size as a city, I’m left floundering here, not knowing where to begin.

My father swears he once lived only a block or so away from where I do now, but he either can’t remember what his building looked like, or it has been torn down. Whether the building still stands or not, I think my father’s memory says something about this area: a young person’s presence here is fleeting, transient, leaving behind nothing to remember one by, and one leaves with nothing to remember about the place itself.

This is a place of impermanence, and so I’m thinking it will be a good introduction to the metropolis: no need for the knowledge of my neighborhood here. Instead I can concern myself with my new surroundings – find a job, get political. For now I’m left with nothing do but job hunt and generally laze, which explains the origins of this blog post, and the title too.

I have also been reading.


A roundabout connection to the above: George Woodcock, author of Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, once taught at the University of Washington (so says the back of the book; his Wikipedia entry says nothing about it). His book appeared in 1962, and the era permeated throughout Woodcock’s book, both in the style it is written and in its general pessimism about the prospects of anarchism in general. The book is generally concerned with what happened in anarchism’s history, not why, and given its breadth – basically all the European countries are covered – perhaps that’s all a book like this can do. Woodcock was an English professor, and it shows – he seems to dedicate an entire chapter to Leo Tolstoy simply because he was a novelist, and Woodcock is always interjecting little asides about the literary quality of the anarchists’ writings.

Overall it was an interesting read, but nothing I would ever recommend to someone looking for an introduction to anarchism – his subjects are all one hundred years or so in the past, and he remains centered completely on the anarchist men of Europe. Perhaps the only new insight I take away from it is the historical failure of anarchists to organize as anarchists. The success of anarchism, in my eyes, demands participation in larger social movements, those not organized around an idea but a practice. Groups of anarchists are important to me, but only as a circle (a circle A!) to share ideas and insights, which we then carry into our struggles elsewhere.


I also recently completed Benevolent Assimiliation: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903 by Stuart Creighton Miller. Anna and I have plans to visit the Philippines in the next few years, so I’ve been looking to learn more about the history of the archipelago. I learned next to nothing about the Philippines in this book, though I learned a great deal about the early history of American imperialism overseas – often despite Miller’s soft-pedaling, moderate liberalism. The book is inordinately concerned with the debates, scandals and squabbles amongst the powerful – mostly US politicians and generals – during the early years of the US occupation of the country.

I generally couldn’t care less about the powerful, but several short – too short – passages in this book make the invaluable connection between US conquest of the North American continent, and imperialism overseas. A great many of the men sent to pacify Filipino revolutionaries had also been deeply involved in US campaigns against Native Americans, including the Wounded Knee massacre. The tactics of concentration camps, rape, and wholesale murder of Filipinos had been tried and tested on the American frontier.

One point that Miller does have the courage to make: the collective memory of the US is one of amnesia and eternal innocence, an innocence that insists we are always doing these things to help people. The justifications have always remained the same: bringing civilization and democracy to ungrateful savages. After reading a book like this, the historical trail leading from the US frontier, to the Philippines, to Vietnam, and eventually to Iraq become undeniable.

“…another person’s pain, a man’s physical prowess and prospects coming up hard against a padded, but no less cement, wall.”

July 27, 2007

Nearly 3 years since I originally wrote it, my rambling essay On the DL: Power, Politics and Sport has gone public in Habits of Waste: a Quarterly Review of Pop Culture, an 0n-line cultural crit journal on the brink of becoming a blog. Read it to discover what Ken Griffey, Jr., the Nazis, Theodor Adorno, the Superbowl, the Zapatistas, George W. Bush, and Michel Foucault all have in common – the answers may (or may not) surprise you! Great thanks to HoW co-editor Jeff Purdue for providing me with the outlet.

Nearly two months since I’ve lasted posted something here, though I’ve posted several reviews and an interview elsewhere. What I feel I’m lacking here is that magic that gives all blogs their individual character – their blog-a-rhythms – an animating spirit that carries itself through each and every post. So two little posts on two small blogs have significance for me – Tram talking quality control, Scott calling it quits – asking, what is it all for, this blogging? For me, answers are still forthcoming.

100 years of labor, migration, violence…

June 9, 2007

Bellingham Herald, Sept. 5th, 1907The following is the current abstract for a project that is demanding a great deal of my attention these days (sometimes I fear more than I’m able to give?). My partner on the film is my good friend Ian Morgan, who is completing the project for his senior project at Fairhaven College.

We are sponsored in part by the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force and Community to Community Development. We also submitted this to a conference concerned with similar riots that took place in Vancouver less than a week after events in Bellingham, but have yet to hear back.

If anyone is interested in taking a look at the research we’ve been doing for the film, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll email you.

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” – James Baldwin

In 1907, more than two-hundred East Indian workers in Bellingham, WA were attacked by a mob of white workers. The white rioters broke into the East Indians’ houses and workplaces, stole and destroyed their valuables, and threatened and beat the East Indians until they were forcibly expelled from the city. In the course of one night, an entire community was driven from the town – in the approving words of a local paper, “wiped off the map.” One hundred years later, 2007, hostility towards non-white immigrants in Bellingham continues. Raids and detentions by government immigration agents are ongoing; so are surveillance and harassment from both government agents and groups like the Minute Men. How have the events of 1907 shaped Bellingham as we know it in 2007? What has changed and what remains the same?

We propose a documentary film, presently untitled, centering on Bellingham in 1907, that explores the history of immigration and racial tensions in the Pacific Northwest – history, in Baldwin’s sense, the past as it lives on in the present. Accounts of Belligham’s past, illustrated with photographs and texts, will provide a starting point for a discussion of Bellingham today. Through interviews with local activists working for immigrant rights and immigrants themselves, we will paint a portrait of immigration at present and the possibilities of the future.

The film (or, more accurately, video) is being proposed by Andrew Hedden and Ian Morgan, two college-educated white males hoping to put our access to university resources and our interest in film to use in the greater discussion about immigrant rights in the United States. The film will be completed and debut in Bellingham, WA on September 5th, the 100th anniversary of the Bellingham riots. One version of the film will be roughly forty-five minutes in length, hopefully ideal for community education and discussion, though a longer version may also be produced.

Conspiracies of 9/11: Left To The Right

June 6, 2007

I sat down to write about 9/11 conspiracies and came up with this rambling essay about 9/11; what happens when sentiments on the Right and Left converge; the Three Way Fight; and why Leftists, revolutionaries, anarchists, whatever, can’t afford to ally with the Right. What’s immediately obvious to me is that I write about political things in a very different way then I do about my personal life, or art, or history. Maybe someday I’ll learn to integrate those things together in my writing…

This dude Alex Jones has a documentary about U.S. government complicity in the 9/11 attacks called TerrorStorm. It’ll probably give you an idea of what I think about 9/11 conspiracy theories when I say “TerrorStorm” sounds to me like a freakin’ ride at 6 Flags, not an any coherent political theory. For a long time, that’s been my general attitude about the 9/11 conspiracy stuff (or the “9/11 Truth Movement,” if you’re feeling generous): that it’s worth a laugh and disdain from a distance, but little else.

Well, my consideration of the matter has gotten a little deeper as of late, thanks to an interesting back and forth with a friend of mine over e-mail about this 9/11 Truth business. He’s a smart guy and an anarchist buddy, and we go way, way back, and I’ve got to say, I was a little surprised he was so into it. Essentially, he believes 9/11 Truth is a strategic opportunity for radicals that can’t be passed up. I heard him out on the issue a little and now its got me thinking.

Quickly I realized my dismissive attitude towards the 9/11 Truth Movement had nothing to do with 9/11 whatsoever. I have no clue what happened on 9/11 – maybe a few uninformed doubts here or there – and I’m left wandering why it really matters that I know. My friend argues that were 9/11 truth revealed (assuming government complicity), it 1) would sow disillusionment with the State, and 2) prevent the government from committing similar acts.

I’m all for sowing disillusionment with the State, but I’m still not sold on the importance of organizing around 9/11 truth. One reason is that the 9/11 theories are still just that – theories, meaning they’re not concrete enough to organize people together in the same ways that the facts of daily oppression (shitty work places, sexual assault and violence, prisons, etc.) are wholly concrete and simply proved through the experiences of every life. To paraphrase Ward Churchill, there’s no need to speak truth to power because power knows what its doing. Better to organize with oppressed people – build power – than over-emphasize the shady machinations of the powerful.

Another, more important reason, is that I don’t see those most effected by the Statist aftershocks of 9/11 (immigrants and people of color in particular) taking part in the “9/11 Truth Movement.” I’m not sure it really matters, in the long run, to folks on the ground whether Bush/the government/whoever was complicit in 9/11. Just as Malcolm X wasn’t leading the call to unearth the truth of the JFK assassination after it happened.

Read the rest of this entry »

History gets shit on in Port Townsend, WA

June 2, 2007

Literally. Look at all the bird doody on this historical marker.


This marker can be found on the Northwest (?) side of Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, WA.

It reads: “CHINESE GARDENS. The Chinese comprised 20% of Port Townsend’s population. Here they operated truck gardens to sell produce door to door in town from double-decked wagons. Late 1890’s Early 1900’s.”


But nothing about why fewer Chinese live in Port Townsend today than one hundred years ago; nothing about the legacies of racist and exclusionary legislation, or how Fort Worden was a training ground for imperialist armies.

Perhaps history is getting shit on in more ways than one.