Right now, for me, it’s this question:
From what source do we derive our power?
* * * * *
As a Black and Jewish (European) mixie, two genocides mark my recent ancestry. One of them is relatively uncontested. Holocaust deniers exist, sure, but it would be difficult for most Americans to look at my Opa’s identification papers from the 1930’s, see Dachau, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald written in old-timey script, and still insist that my relatives were not systematically starved, gassed, hanged, and burned in ovens, with the stated intention of ridding the world of Jews.
The approach to the question of Black genocide in the United States, though, is different. Systematic anti-Black state violence is more commonly labeled an atrocity, a violation of human or civil rights, or a category of racist oppression.
The United Nations Genocide Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”
“In whole or in part.” This has been the subject of debate and disagreement, even among those who consider themselves experts.
“The part must be a substantial part of [the targeted] group,” some say. “The aim of the Genocide Convention is to prevent the intentional destruction of entire human groups, and the part targeted must be significant enough to have an impact on the group as a whole.”
The determination of when the targeted part is substantial enough to meet this requirement may involve a number of considerations. The numeric size of the targeted part of the group is the necessary and important starting point, though not in all cases the ending point of the inquiry. The number of individuals targeted should be evaluated not only in absolute terms, but also in relation to the overall size of the entire group. In addition to the numeric size of the targeted portion, its prominence within the group can be a useful consideration. If a specific part of the group is emblematic of the overall group, or is essential to its survival, that may support a finding that the part qualifies as substantial…
The historical examples of genocide also suggest that the area of the perpetrators’ activity and control, as well as the possible extent of their reach, should be considered. … The intent to destroy formed by a perpetrator of genocide will always be limited by the opportunity presented to him. While this factor alone will not indicate whether the targeted group is substantial, it can—in combination with other factors—inform the analysis.
When Black members of the Civil Rights Congress brought a paper to the United Nations in December 1951, charging the United States with genocide, they were accused by the U.S. government of exaggerating racial discord in order to advance the cause of communism.
But you can judge for yourself.
Has a “substantial part” of Black people in the United States, historically and in modern times, been targeted and killed on the basis of race?
Has the area of the perpetrators’ activity and control been proximate to the area where Black people live?
Have the millions of African and Black people murdered on the basis of race, during the transatlantic slave trade and its ongoing aftermath, been “emblematic of the overall group” and “essential to its survival?”
Or does this mass murder not qualify as genocide because Africans kidnapped and brought to these lands were intended to be used rather than eradicated? Because white colonizers have always relied on Black lives to underwrite their economies, both in Western Europe and in the “New World?”
Where does genocide figure into the master-slave dialectic? How does it fit into class warfare, the “war” of which implies mass killing, yet the “class” of which requires subjugated strata alive enough to labor, produce, and serve?
Is it a non-genocide because there is no single Black group to kill off? Because there is no such thing as a monolith in the African Diaspora? Or because we lack unity, with parts of the Black group menacing and disavowing other parts?
Why do I feel like I’m trapped in an argument about the difference between rape and “forcible rape?”
* * * * *
Does it really matter what we call it?
Does a designation of genocide or non-genocide really affect our approach to halting the machines of Black death?
And again, in halting these machines, from what source do we derive our power?
* * * * *
The Trump-vs-Hillary debates are painful and depressing to witness, in part because they recall, for me, this weird double standard around genocides.
Trump’s bigotry, like the genocide of Jews, is widely recognized and broadly denounced. He condones torture. He wants to lock up Muslims. He wants to build a wall.
Hillary’s racism, meanwhile, simmers in ambiguity. Normalized. And anti-Blackness is key to its normalization. While Trump promises torture, Hillary facilitates it. Domestically, she has helped orchestrate mass incarceration: the ongoing caging and torture of U.S. citizens and non-citizens, including by means of solitary confinement and malnourishment. Hillary accomplished this on the basis of anti-Black fearmongering. “Superpredators.” She supports the death penalty, even though (or because) it disproportionately kills Black people — Black people whose threats to society are considered more dangerous, whose lives are considered less redeemable.
Still, progressives and Leftists focus on one predator: Trump. Trump, who represents the “forcible rape,” the unequivocal genocide.
* * * * *
If more of us understood ourselves to be living through — today, this minute — the prolonged, slow, but no less legitimate genocide of Black people in the U.S., would we act differently than we do right now? Would we approach the question of Black freedom with more fervor?
And if so, what would we do?
From what source do we derive our power?
I’ll be honest: I’m tired of dropping banners. I’m tired of a select segment of us chaining ourselves to shit in protest, just to be outwaited by the police. (#BayAreaProblems.) I’m tired of spending so much energy to oust a couple of politicians, with no real plans for replacements, and no inspiring, ongoing People’s platforms to sustain us.
I know it sounds bitter and cranky. But I’m grateful, too, that people are trying. I believe we’ll find a way.
Even in this era of no good options.
* * * * *
Influenced by / Food for thought:
1. “New Social Contradictions” (Marxism Through The Back Door): An Interview with Cedric Johnson
2. “My Four Months As A Private Prison Guard” by Shane Bauer for Mother Jones
I’ve been repotting plants lately. I know. No small feat for me. The first time I tried to adopt a seedling — a small, cheery nib of basil for my kitchen — I gently piled it and some good soil into a Mason jar, placed the quasi-terrarium on a windowsill, and tiptoed giddily away to give them privacy. When my best friend came over, saw it, and cackled, I half defended the effort, but yes: within a week or two, the match had failed, and the basil had died.
This all went down in the more recent past than I care to admit; but at least my knowledge and technique have improved since then. Still, the process of planting feels foreign to me, and a little… I don’t know… artificial. Essentially another version of retail therapy. Buy the plants, get the soil, scrounge some containers, and put it all together. Homemaking, yes, the making of a home — a chronically undervalued form of labor. Always fraught and menaced by the hallucinatory expectations of the white capitalist nuclear family, or what Coates calls “The Dream.” Like food these days, homemaking is something we need, and also something marketed to us in combinations that make us go ‘Yum’ and later feel sick, or hollow.
I’m not completely sure, but it seems like we — I, my housemates, and my larger political community, amorphous as it is — are trying to do something different with homemaking. And within the sphere of homemaking we have a range of different relationships to plant life. (As well as to home, land, homeland, and many other sub-tunnels.)
Part of what’s on my mind is: How do we continue in this era of climate change?
How do we continue, knowing that the sixth mass extinction is devastating us, and so are evictions, police killings, transphobia, and imperialism?
How do we reckon with the ‘new’ peril of climate disaster (not so new to those who whose waters have long been dammed and poisoned) that not only condemns the present (our greed, waste, violence, alienation), but also dooms the future?
What does it mean to be squeezed from both sides in this way?
Black feminist sci-fi writer Octavia Butler seemed to think it means: time to learn how to grow food and use a gun. Or: hope that pseudobenevolent alien colonizers swoop in to ambiguously save humankind from itself. Either way, shit is getting very real, very fast.
From what I understand, people in the U.S. used to similarly fear and dread nuclear escalation. Practiced hiding their small skulls under classroom chairs, at intervals. Knowing that this was a joke, mostly. Chairs can’t defend you from radioactive particles. Desks can’t protect your flesh, or your plants, soil, air, water, rain.
Now some middle-class people bike to work. Eat Paleo, Whole 30, local, whatever’s in style. Protecting not just our heads, but our lungs, our guts, our digestive bacteria.
Maybe it’s helping. I’m finding it hard to understand, these days, what helping means.
6:45am – arrive at JFK airport wearing borrowed snow boots one size too big and 10 degrees too warm. Overshot the footwear, I guess. Maybe I’ll be grateful for them later, if I get to tramp around in real snow sometime this month.
Waiting my turn to pull luggage like fat root vegetables out of the overhead compartment. Bulky, heavy, heavy, then — quick-quick! don’t piss off the people behind you! — wrestle myself into the giant tortoise shell of a travel backpack and shimmy up the skinny airplane aisle. Already overheating. Long black chrysalis of a down coat and multiple scarves. Hauling my allotted “handbag” item stuffed with multiple other bags, all bulging with books, laptop, and non-liquid gifts for generous hosts.
Sounds like I’m complaining, but I’m one of the luckiest people on Earth right about now. A whole entire month of travel, meditation, visiting friends, and building community in NYC and Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, this weekend, in the Town I just left, something historic is happening. The mothers of Sandra Bland, Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford, Dale Grahm, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Sean Bell, and Eric Garner are gathering around Lake Merritt, converging from all over the country.
I’m trying not to think about that now. My hope is to zoom out for a month, to exist on a different, broader, slower plane, and shed some of the organizing mentality — do, do, do; keep up with the news — that seeps into my bones in Oakland. It’s easy to let go in some ways. New York’s gunpowder density reminds me of my insignificance. And with insignificance comes freedom.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
It’s a pleasant time for me, personally. More than pleasant: an open, bright time. But there’s also a half-haunting, somewhere in the background, of despair and overwhelm.
Because meanwhile, smog-choked consumers in Beijing import clean air from Canada to breathe.
Meanwhile, wild geese might alight and die in oil pits.
Meanwhile, dozens of Black mothers, gathering in bereavement and resistance, never asked for this place in the genocidal family of things.
I won’t be saying much here — just keeping track of some thoughts. A month of reading, sitting, stretching, focus, slowness. And some daily photo practice, too.
If you’re reading this, I hope you’re well, feeling loved and brave.
i don’t often quote MLK, but to me, this passage from 1967, not long before his assassination, points perfectly to some of the reasons that reforms will not work and a social, system-wide revolution is necessary for true change.
With Selma and the Voting Rights Act, one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end. A new phase opened, but few observers realized it or were prepared for its implications. For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade — the first phase — had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality. White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation, or all forms of discrimination. The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the Southern sheriffs and forbade them more cruelties. But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away. White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor…
When Negroes looked for the second phase, the realization of equality, they found that many of their white allies had quietly disappeared. …the free-running expectations of the Negro crashed into the stone walls of white resistance. The result was havoc. The Negroes felt cheated, especially in the North, while many whites felt that the Negroes had gained so much it was virtually impudent and greedy to ask for more so soon.
The paths of Negro-white unity that had been converging crossed at Selma, and like a giant X began to diverge. Up to Selma there had been unity to eliminate barbaric conduct. Beyond it the unity had to be based on the fulfillment of equality, and in the absence of agreement the paths began inexorably to move apart.
– Rev. Dr. MLK, Jr.
to me this is a story not only about anti-Black racism, but also about the mechanisms of capitalism, its roots in exploitation, and its tendency to, rather than encourage us toward fairness and sharing, *exacerbate* economic disparities and concentrate power in the hands of a few. (a tendency that, for instance, Picketty points out in his bestselling recent book, Capital in the 21st Century.) in other words, the betrayal (a.k.a. tepid support) of white liberals (or liberals of any color) is not only a story of racism, but also a story of wealth and economics.
it is a story about U.S. colonialism, imperialism, rampant resource extraction, and environmental destruction, all necessary to maintain the “high” (read: wasteful) standards of living in the middle-class U.S. that set the bar for what racial equality should look like.
it is a story of what King calls, in this same piece, a “fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity” that falsely portrays the U.S. as “essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony.”
fact: without the mass-scale “looting” of indigenous peoples and other nations around the globe, not to mention the enslavement of africans, the U.S. would have accumulated a mere fraction of its current wealth. this is the basis of the middle-class melting-pot Utopia to which we aspire.
this is the looted wealth that built the mansions i drove past tonight in suburban Maryland: twelve-bedroom monstrosities that cost godless amounts of money to heat in the winter. one place reminded me of the house in Clueless: staircase spiraling down to the enormous front doors.
this is also the looted wealth on which my small rented home in oakland stands. it’s the looted wealth that pays my wages. i’m not separate from this history, or above it; i inherit it every day.
i guess what i want to know is: what do we mean when we insist that Black Lives Matter? are we talking about stopping the worst of the terror, the extrajudicial executions of teenagers? is this all we want “allies” to support, or do we want something else, something more?
if we take King’s words to heart, how do we work for complete freedom, fairness, and self-determination for all beings, not just an end to the most acute forms of suffering, degradation, and oppression?
are complete freedom, fairness, and self-determination for Black people possible without completely restructuring our economy and society?
this other, bigger thing — the new phase 2 — obviously will not happen overnight, and not without deadly resistance from the people currently in power. but let’s at least be honest with ourselves about what’s necessary. sympathy and sentimentality do not help. to use a Buddhist teaching, pity is the near enemy of compassion. even if we somehow stopped the epidemic of police murder against black people, black children, how long before the giant X of diverging priorities reappears?
thanks to Adam Claytor for sending me this book in the mail. lots to think about.
for years and years, by skype and screen
a friendship did maintain its sheen
’til reunion found its time
out in california climes
telling stories, counting rings
catching up on all the things
re-exploring classic texts
taking up arboreal nests
celebrating impish moods
eating lots of tasty foods
from way, way back in new orleans
a friendship has maintained its sheen.
text: On Violence by Frantz Fanon (from Wretched of the Earth)
food: eggplant by Lauren
friend: Henry Mills, no stranger to this blog
a lot of sorrow lately. not particularly mine, but here in me, with me, shadowing.
all around, death and pre-death. loss, grieving.
friends losing parents.
friends breaking up.
friends leaving their job.
friends who come from méxico, watching from here as the country burns. (for a long time the fire has been in the walls; now it’s billowing out in the open.)
i’m seeing video of entire towns in guerrero arming themselves. every single person, cradling a crappy-looking but well-intentioned weapon. this isn’t just david v. goliath, the working class against the state, but david v. goliath and a rattlesnake at david’s ankles.
and pneumonia in david’s lungs.
and even if he beats this giant, david’s got ptsd for the rest of his life.
what i’m saying is david’s got it rough.
and see? like i said, this isn’t even my sorrow. i’m not directly connected. i just see around me and the sorrow comes.
it’s bittersweet, with the unity here, yeah? they want peace, he says. they want peace. i wish it for them. the peace that will come from a way out of capitalism, on a world scale. the peace that will come from transforming our way out of oppression, healing the karma of thousands of years of keeping each other down.
thankful to the people of guerrero and all of méxico who keep trying to fight and heal.
By Roque Dalton (Translated by Jack Hirschman)
Like you I love love, life, the sweet smell of things, the sky- blue landscape of January days.
And my blood boils up and I laugh through eyes that have known the buds of tears. I believe the world is beautiful and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
And that my veins don’t end in me but in the unanimous blood of those who struggle for life, love, little things, landscape and bread, the poetry of everyone.
Por Roque Dalton
Yo como tú amo el amor, la vida, el dulce encanto de las cosas el paisaje celeste de los días de enero.
También mi sangre bulle y río por los ojos que han conocido el brote de las lágrimas. Creo que el mundo es bello, que la poesía es como el pan, de todos.
Y que mis venas no terminan en mí, sino en la sangre unánime de los que luchan por la vida, el amor, las cosas, el paisaje y el pan, la poesía de todos.
the tedium of meditation gives rise to strange forms of subtle entertainment.
like the upper and lower teeth resting together so lightly that each heartbeat creates a tiny “clack.”
it sounds kind of ridiculous, but in a way it might be a practice of deep listening. giving attention to the subtle wonders that would otherwise escape our notice.
turn toward suffering
rest in contentment
keep asking questions
* * *
and share good company