St. Louis Racial Equity Summit 2021 Keynote

St Louis Racial Equity Summit Keynote (notes):

We are imagining a world we have never seen before. Writing it into existence with words and with actions.

We who live in this country on this earth today have barely experienced the wonder of our planet. We have not experienced a world without homelessness, poverty, inequality, white supremacy, patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, rape culture, slavery, environmental degradation, climate crisis or prisons. And that’s the short list of our ‘horrible, ordinary’ things, as Octavia E Butler called them. We haven’t seen a world free of these hellish beliefs and behaviors – many of us have never even experienced a pocket of community with the absence of some of these beliefs and behaviors – and yet we imagine.

We live in a world which others imagined. Most of the constructs that oppress us feel like fact, are taught to us as fact – but they are actually evidence of historical imagination. These ideas were imagined before being practiced into solidity, authority, tradition, assumption. The core patterns of U.S. historical imagination are supremacy, dominance, victory. These are not the most beautiful things imagined in human history, but the most violently upheld.

Someone imagined a racialized economic system built on a foundation of indentured labor and slavery – exploitative production of dehumanized people to benefit those who labor less or not at all. In capitalism the norm and assumption is that we must always be producing and growing in scale, so we either work ourselves to death, or if we are privileged we work others to death, or under risk of death, though these days we prefer that the exploitation stay out of sight, behind bars or across borders. In racialized capitalism, the exploited are primarily Black and Brown people. But it must be said that while Whiteness is presented as a racial distinction and a superiority, in fact when people speak of white supremacy and privilege, they are speaking of a very particular and limited racialized economic status – they mean wealthy able bodied white straight men. White privilege can trickle down to other white people, but the way whiteness really works is that anyone who has access to white skin privilege is competing for that elite economic status of White. This is why the wealthiest nation in the world couldn’t just pause and care for our citizens to stop the spread of Covid, even the white people. That elite body refused to take a loss, to let production stop. They could not imagine a scenario in which 570 thousand lives were more valuable than their own bottom lines. Can you imagine only being able to imagine what is good for you?

And yet, there are also, alive right now, those who remember how we are supposed to imagine in relationship to all that lives – indigenous beloveds have taught me we are meant to imagine seven generations ahead of ourselves, and make our choices accordingly. This long-view puts us in a time traveling familial relationship with all of existence.

So. We are in what teacher-friend Terry Marshall calls an imagination battle. The moment we begin to question oppressive historical imagination, supremacy imagination; the moment we begin to dream of justice, of liberation, of right relationship, we become imagination warriors. Organizers. Our mission is to co-dream visions more compelling than oppression, and more honest than supremacy. And then move from imagination all the way to new practice.

What happened in St. Louis, in Ferguson changed our imagination. Changed what we thought was possible inside the collective imagination. We have been fed up with living in a world in which a police officer can imagine himself in danger and kill our children, our spouses, our parents, our friends.

When I was in college, Amadou Diallo was killed in the Bronx, just north of my campus. As a young person, I was galvanized, politicized, shaped, scared, and I felt responsible for doing something urgently to stop this from being able to happen again. I cocreated a campus project called CPR – I can’t quite remember what it stood for, it was short-lived but it was a beginning of my path as an abolitionist. Now I see a generation awakened similarly by what happened here, and the way you all rose up to respond to it seven years ago this month.

We are most often moved onto the path of abolition, after being snatched into grief and uprising. Perhaps we watch the disparities, how our communities get locked up for things that white communities don’t. Perhaps we see how those who cause harm go into that system and come out with fewer options and more likelihood of needing to break a law to survive. When does it end? ‘When does it end?’ can be a question most clearly answered by the idea that it ends when we imagine what comes next. Abolition must absolutely be imagined as we begin to practice what comes next.

We imagine in part by remembering. Every single one of us, if we go back far enough, have ancestors indigenous to a place on this earth, or multiple places for those of us of multiple heritages. These ancestors predate colonization world-wide, and in a multitude of ways, they practiced being in relationship to every aspect of the earth and to each other, in responsible stewardship of land and life. For those of us who time and slavery and capitalism and the construct of whiteness have displaced from our original homes and peoples, we must reach to imagine how it might have felt to live this way. Most indigenous people alive today have to navigate and protect their long-held practices, and their literal land, against the pace and pressure of a modern world at odds with being in relationship. But we can all imagine some future-past which lives in our ancestral memory bag, which lives in our DNA. And when we struggle, we can actually find and follow indigenous leadership. A first step is to understand whose land you live on. I am in Detroit, on Anishnaabe territory. Anishnaabe organizers are active here, teaching me and others what they know and remember, and also sharing generously what they imagine through creative projects like the Adizookan.

We imagine in part by tasting our own aliveness. Audre Lorde wrote that once we experience our erotic aliveness, it becomes impossible to settle for less, for suffering and self-negation. For me, organizing to transform the conditions of injustice in the world was when I felt that aliveness, that tying in to something true, a connectedness that vibrates through my veins. We know this isn’t right. We know we aren’t meant to live in this perpetual state of war and stress and unmet needs and loneliness and lies. We can change this. Even before we have an intact political analysis we can feel that things must change, and we in small circles of humanity can change things.

Now, I sometimes imagine that each of us holds a distinct piece of our collective, liberated future within us, and it is only accessible as we liberate our own imaginations, and our truest selves, shaped by each of our particular ancestral and life experiences.

My work straddles the lines of science fiction, speculative fiction, and collaborative ideation.

Most science fiction answers three fundamental questions: What if, if only, and if this goes on. Social justice work answers the same questions as we dream together of a world in which we feel our miraculous lives matter, our freedom is non-negotiable, and we live lives that are satisfying and interdependent.

What if there were no prisons? What would you need to be able to do? Who would you need to be, to participate and be accountable and experience growth and consequences in that paradigm? I find it exciting to remember that there are places where there is no armed body making people obey – I got to travel to Costa Rica, a land with no ARMY, and I can attest that there is joy and there is community.

What if all children had access to the same resources of healthy meals, space to play and create, solid familial and community attachments, safety from physical emotional and sexual abuse, and quality education? What if they were not raised in an environment of emotionally or physically violent punishments, but tangible and nourishing consequences that grew their sense of responsibility for their behaviors and relationships?

What if we began life by getting to know ourselves outside of any preconceived identity-value construct (race, gender, class)? What would our Blackness feel like if it wasn’t primarily a site of shared trauma and forced resilience? What if the work we do in this generation makes it a smaller and smaller part of our history?

What if?

If only we learned democracy and consensus and collaboration as a practice from a young age, instead of just a theory we expect our government to practice with representatives in our place.
If only our police were not issued deadly weapons, but trained to mediate and intervene on harm.
If only we had a cooperative economy. If only we could liberate ourselves from scarcity thinking and practicing, had an abundance

If only.

If the movement for a just transition goes on, our species might be able to survive on earth and take root amongst the stars, a destiny Octavia gifted us with in her books the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Talents.
If this abolitionist movement goes on, we will transform how humans relate to each other.
If movements for queer and trans justice go on, we will successfully break the restrictive and damaging construct of gender and hetero normative supremacy and actually get to experience the wide variety of love, life and pleasure that is most natural to us.

If this goes on.

What if.
If only.
If this goes on.

Right now, we are in a phase of history in which we are awakening our imaginations, and these questions help. We are articulating dreams to each other in which we matter. We are dreaming to each other that Black Lives Matter – and not just black straight ablebodied male lives, but black queer trans women’s and non binary disabled lives matter. We will say the names of these lives and we will take direct action and change policy until these lives matter to everyone.

I want to share a poem I wrote about this political moment. It’s called “this is not justice, this is respite”:

the first thing we could do was breathe,
together
a practitioner of breathlessness is guilty
(hallelujah hallelu!)
like, they said what we knew
(he looked surprised too)
that small alignment is so rare
it lays our contradictions bare
some hushing shout does move through the body as if (remember) we are one body but
it’s really chorus, we of so many minds
we feel so hollow
we feel such joy
we feel such rage
we feel our grief
we feel relief
all at once, in undulation
we cry out in celebration
and then catch a dissatisfied breath
this moment makes the moment we need possible but…but…
in the next breath world
he would be fathering right now
or high like the rest of us
inhaling aliveness, exhaling freedom
on a day that blended into a life
blessed to be unknown
in the next breath world
they would all be alive today
and the presence of that absence
casts a blur across the headline
it took so much burning of precincts, chaos, rage
screaming and defending and
terrifying the children and
combating every mistruth and
nauseous vulnerability and regret and pressure from so many precious lives already at risk
to get this guilty, guilty, guilty
we will praise up the collective tonight
we will lay gratitude for our warriors tonight
we will claim the hard-won territory tonight
tomorrow, we return to the fight
for even in our gasp of yes
with our need to grieve so desperate
we know
this is not justice
this is respite

Respite is going to save our lives. Rest is going to save our lives. And rest allows us to come down from the nonstop stressful urgency of now, to remember that we are also responsible for dreaming. We are concurrently dreaming a world in which all Black lives matter, and rape culture ends, and we reclaim our place on this planet, and we can hold each other accountable through love, mediation, boundaries and consequences.

My mentor Grace Lee Boggs used to always ask us ‘What time is it on the Clock of the world?” and right now my answer would be, we are in a phase of imagination, co-dreaming a world where our ‘what if’s and ‘if only’s get realized, and the patterns of harm cannot go on.

Imagining these futures, writing these stories, does not mean we know yet how to live into these dreams.

I have worked as a facilitator and mediator for over two decades and a huge portion of the disputes I have been asked to hold are rooted in us being angry at our mistakes or someone else’s, while unable to be accountable for those mistakes. The crises are urgent, but the transformation that emerges from radical imagination is still slow, relational, imperfect work. We are learning.

Earlier this year, I noticed that we are in a pattern of disposing of Black women leaders, and I felt the heartbreak of that, and at first it hurt too much to write. But then I wrote, and so much came out of me that i ended up sharing a piece called Disrupting the Pattern, in which I offered some things for us to consider as we learn to practice solidarity with each other, whether it’s with and amongst Black people, or across racially constructed lines with any other people fighting for right relationship to the earth and each other:

“Consider that whenever dehumanization is taking place, someone is benefiting from devaluing another person. Ask yourself who benefits from attacks on effective Black radical women? Who benefits from spotlighting conflict within movements that are changing material conditions for Black people?

Consider who benefits from you thinking that Black success and freedom is dangerous, and particularly that the success and freedom of Black women is dangerous.

Consider that this isn’t a new pattern.

Consider that social justice work is a place where most of us work for years for less than a living wage, subject to the whims of trend and philanthropy.

Consider, when you see the news of some perceived betrayal, some corruption of power, that the least likely option is that a Black woman who has given decades of her life to social justice work, to her people’s liberation, has turned on her own legacy, on us.

Consider that the lie is scarcity. The lie is that there isn’t enough for us to have abundant resources for our liberation work. The lie is that we can’t have multiple leaders shining simultaneously, moving divergent strategies. It’s a lie – we generate what we need and we are always moving divergent strategies.

Consider that there are ways to access abundance that don’t rely on attacking each other.

Consider that it is not an accident that a massively impactful social movement for Black liberation is under this scale of attack – it only looks personal. This is an attack on all our emergent, imperfect efforts for Black liberation.

Consider that you don’t have all of the information. We live in a social media world that profits from tawdry, salacious, divisive misinformation, where power is wielded by those most comfortable with distortion and manipulation. Consider that we don’t have to feed the beast that comes to eat those who inspire and lead us. Consider that this may not be your business, especially if you don’t have time to ask questions, investigate for something true, especially if you are only being asked to leap into judgment.

Consider how you want to be held when you are attacked for things you didn’t do. Consider how you want to be held accountable for things you did do. Do you want death threats, doxxing and other privacy violations, organized harassment and disposal, when it’s your turn? Cause if you plan to lead anything, your turn will come. So consider – what is principled struggle, principled critique, not just when you have a concern, but when you are the concern?

Consider that movement is not just a place of faith in the futures we are creating, but a place where we need to practice faith in each other, in our effort and our learning.

Consider that how you act or don’t act in this moment is part of setting a precedent for how movement responds to attacks on those who love us. If you won’t protect a Black leader from white supremacist attack because you also have critiques of or questions about how that leader’s movement work is unfolding, examine that. How does that align with the world you dream of?

Most of the leaders I look up to were attacked in their time, and might have been attacked in ours. The common thread amongst them is that they were driven by love for their people, our people, us. The work of the revolutionary is to transform everything that does not align with love, from the personal to the systemic.

Consider what love does in the face of dishonesty, faithlessness, and repression: love tells the truth. Love believes in our best selves. Love liberates us.

Consider that you should not feel afraid to love Black women leaders out loud. In the long run, what Audre Lorde taught us is still true: your silence will not protect you or anyone else. Love Black women leaders out loud wherever you see us attacked and dehumanized.

Love invites us home, love says we belong, unconditionally.

Love does not demand our perfection, because none of us have that – love sees the effort we have made on behalf of our people, our species. They are home.

A huge part of my racial justice work is being in solidarity and loving myself in my own Black story and Black offer, which I know takes nothing away from all the other Black brilliance in the world, but increases its abundance. I love myself and claim my eternal place in movements for liberation. I have made and will make mistakes. I will still be liberation bound.

If you feel moved to practice this solidarity of which I speak, repeat after me:

I love you, Black woman.
I love you, organizer.
I will not engage in gossip about you.
I will not stand by quietly while you are attacked.
I will practice solidarity with you, for you, at your side and all around you.
I am committed to your freedom.”

Thank you for that.

In closing I will offer that yes, I imagine a world in which we are liberated. And before that, I imagine a world in which we deeply honor the work that we all do towards that liberation, even if we don’t agree on the methods. But I see so much more than just the state of freedom – I know my dream is not a destination, but a practice that will be ongoing. Because after imagination comes ideation – how do we bring these dreams into ideas of structure and policy and agreement? How do we move from air to earth?

And then once we have these ideas in place, we move into iteration – what do we stop practicing and what do we start practicing?

I am aware of how so much of what I imagine – liberation from the cycles of harm and supremacy, being in relationships of sovereignty and safety in our bodies and on our planet, letting love being a guide to how we understand everything from identity to economy – these imaginings may still seem peculiar and strange…queer. So i want to share the first words of Emergent Strategy, a quote from Ella Baker. ““This may only be a dream of mine, but I think it can be made real.”

BALLE 2015 Closing Plenary Speech

Here are the notes from my talk today at the BALLE 2015 Conference! Enjoy.

Thank you first and foremost for your work to bend the future towards justice, love, cooperation and liberation.

I would call your work science fictional – being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now today will shape the future, tomorrow.

You are excited by what we can create, you believe it is possible to create the next world, you have been building it here these last few days. You believe.

So do I. as michelle mentioned, I’m the Co-editor of an anthology of original science fiction from social justice movements called Octavia’s Brood, which has just sold out its first print of 10k books, so i suppose now it’s public…but I’ve held this belief that we can create new worlds for a long time.

This might be because I was born to a trekkie – meaning one who watches star trek obsessively. My dad watched Star Trek in a way that seems logical to me now. He watched the way a black man from the deep south bringing mixed race children into a racist world would always watch a post racist narrative – eyes wide, faith bubbling up.

We all watched it together, as his military career took our family from place to place. My parents intentionally took us away from the US for our early years and I think they believed that by the time we came back here things would have changed.

When that didn’t happen, they brought us back anyway and took us to Georgia. I think what I experienced there, the casual and constant presence of white supremacy, the knee jerk assessments of my intelligence and humanity, is one of the foundational catalysts for my study of sci fi, apocalypse and post-apocalypse, emergence and complexity.

i thought then in middle school, and i think now…This can’t be all. no one survives this approach, not long term. This can’t be the purpose of our species, to constantly identify each other as ‘other’, build walls between ourselves, and engage in both formal and informal wars against each other’s bodies, build an economy that could never serve the whole.

I feel miraculous. its confusing to feel so miraculous when so many people hate my skin and my history.

i see the miraculous in others – even those who hate me have heartbeats, and, I generally assume, have people they love. why can’t they love me? should i love them anyway? how can i hold these massive contradictions?

I started reading sci fi, obsessively, looking for options. Other worlds where I wasn’t dismissed as an idealist or an inferior.

On that path I discovered octavia butler. Decades before my birth, she was working these same edges in her heart, pendulum swinging between curiosity, possibility and hopelessness. Because if we can’t articulate more viable futures, and adapt, our human future is pretty hopeless.

Octavia Butler wrote novels with young black women protagonists meeting aliens, surviving apocalypse, evolving vampires, becoming telepathic networks, time traveling to save slave owner ancestors. But woven throughout her work were two things: 1) a coherent visionary exploration of humanity and 2) emergent strategies for being better humans.

I’ll say more about emergent strategy in a second.

First I want to say that what my Octavia’s Brood Co-editor walidah Imarisha and I call or work is not actually science fiction. We call it visionary fiction.

Fiction that disrupts the hero narrative concept that one person, often one white man, often matt Damon, alone has the skills to save the world. we write Fiction that explores change as a Collective process. Fiction that centers those who are currently marginalized – not to be nice, but because those who survive on the margins tend to be the most experientially innovative – practicing survival based efficiency, doing the most with the least, an important skill area on a planet whose resources are under assault by less marginalized people. In these ways visionary fiction is constantly applying lessons from our past to our future(s).

Visionary fiction is neither utopian nor dystopian, instead it is like real life: Hard, realistic…Hopeful as a strategy.

We’re here in Arizona, a land where the voting majority believes in aliens, and where my safety is determined by the proximity of my passport. also, the future is unfurling here. Utopia? Dystopia? Perspective is everything.

As long as the future comes from imagination, there will be divergent paths that are moving in and out of alignment, in and out of conflict. Our ideas of right and wrong shift with time – right now it’s clear to me that something is wrong if it hurts this planet. But if we don’t claim the future, that sense of loyalty to earth, of environmentalism, could become an outdated concept. Kenny Bailey from Design Studio for Innovation shared that recently on a panel called black to the future – that justice, rights, things we take for granted are not permanent.

That affirmed to me how important it is that we get into the game, get dirty, get experimental. How do we create and proliferate a compelling vision of a new economy that centers humans and the natural world over the accumulation of material?

We embody. We learn. We release the idea of failure, because its all data.

But first we imagine.

We are in an imagination battle – Claudine Rankin and Terry Marshall speak of this. Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Renisha McBride and all of them are dead because in some white imagination, they were dangerous. And that imagination is so respected that those who kill based on an imagined racialized fear of black people are rarely held accountable. imagination has people think they can go from poverty to millionaire as part of a shared american dream. imagination turns brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race.

We have to imagine beyond those fears. We have to ideate together. The poverty that results from our current system allows all of this Imagining to be fed by the results of scarcity economics. We must imagine new worlds that transition us from seeing black people as murderers, or brown people as terrorists and aliens, to ones that can see black and brown people as cultural and economic innovators.

Black lives matter, which has issued a clarion call to us in this time, is brilliant on so many levels. they created products to support their work almost immediately, making the look of the movement irresistable and undeniable. Now they are gathering stories from black people about what the world will look like when black lives matter. This is a time travel exercise for the heart. This is ideation – what are the ideas that will liberate all of us?

The more people who collaborate on that ideation, the more people who will be served by the resulting world (s).

Sci fi is simply a way to practice the future together. I suspect that that is what many of you in this room are up to, practicing a future economy together, practicing economic justice together, living into new stories. it is our right and responsibility to create a new world.

And what we pay attention to grows, so I’m thinking about how we grow what you are all imagining and creating into something large enough and solid enough for a tipping point of humans to cross over?

Ursula Le Guin recently said “We live in capitalism – Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

she went on to say It’s up to authors to spark the imagination of their readers and to help them envision alternatives to how we live.

I agree with her. We must make an alternative economic future, as Toni Cade Bambara taught us, irresistible. That was our goal with our anthology, to have a collection of compelling, irresistible stories.

I think you are amongst the protagonists of what might be called the great turning, the change, the new economy.

And I think it is healing behavior, to look at something so broken and see the possibility and wholeness in it. That’s how I work, when a body is between my hands, I let wholeness pour through.

And I think you are healers too – because you are creating possibilities, because you are seeing a future full of wholeness and equity and hope.

I suspect this is in part because you are practicing what i call emergent strategies.

Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of relatively simple interactions. My mentor Grace Lee Boggs first raised this concept with us in detroit after reading Margaret Wheatley’s work , about biomimicry and mycelium magic. Grace started asking us what our movements would look like if we focused on critical connections instead of critical mass.

We need each other. I love the idea of shifting from ‘mile wide inch deep’ movements to ‘inch wide mile deep’ movements that schism the existing paradigm.

Strategy is a military term meaning simply a plan of action towards a goal. We use it to mean good or bad, but it’s not that discerning. Horrible plans can be pitched as strategic. We must be more precise.

Emergent strategies are ways for humans to practice complexity and grow the future through relatively simple interactions. It was what made sense to me when I was trying to explain the kind of leadership in octavia butler’s books.

It wasn’t just that it was black, female, or young leaders. Or perhaps it was because of all of those things, who leads matters.

But what I noticed is that her leaders were adaptive – riding change like dolphins or surfers ride the ocean.

Adaptive but also intentional, like birds migrating south who know how to get where they’re going even when a storm pushes them 100 miles west. I just came from supporting a meeting naomi klein called in canada, to set an intention to build a clean energy economy. I was so moved by their work to build a shared intention. that is radical imagination.

Octavia’s protagonists were also interdependent, often polyamourous, because the personal is political, because pleasure evokes change perhaps more than shame. right now there is an effort called BOLD, black organizing for leadership and dignity, is cultivating a safe space for black vulnerability and mutual support of leaders, countering the usual model of leader isolation. we all need a place where we can weep and be held and feel our feelings and figure out how those feelings can direct our next evolution. what amazes me is that in the space of such constant black trauma, we get together and we celebrate and love on each other, we laugh, we find the pleasure of community, of interdependence. it feels good together.

Octavias leaders were also decentralized, and they were generative – resilience came from that decentralization, no one person held the power. Ferguson showed us the power of individuals willing to act without a single leader, their leaderfull example is inspiring others to stand up in real time, offline and online, to change legislation and perception.

Ferguson and other movements right now are fractal, practicing at a small scale what we most want to see at the universal level. no more growth before experience. There’s a group in new Orleans called the wild seeds that’s doing this fractal work – women of color practicing pop up galleries and stores to sustain themselves on their radical creativity.

Rather than narrowing into one path forward, her leaders were creating more and more possibilities. that is what i see here – not one perfect path forward, but an abundance of futures, of ways to manage resources together, brilliant together.

So I have become obsessed with how we can be movements like flocks of birds, underground power like that mushroom under Oregon, the sea shell representation of a galactic vision for justice.

I invite you to join me in writing ourselves into the future, naming the principles of total transformation, building an economy in which black lives matter because every single life, and all that supports life, matters – let us practice in every possible way the world we want to see.

from earth to obsidian (28/30)

prompt: write a poem about bridges. A bridge is a powerful metaphor, and when you start looking for bridges in poems, you find them everywhere. Your poem could be about a real bridge or an imaginary or ideal bridge. It could be one you cross every day, or one that simply seems to stand for something larger – for the idea of connection or distance, for the idea of movement and travel and new horizons.

queens aya and e— tell why

we walked this sky
because we were not wanted
because we were always targets
of extermination

we left in twos
like all sacred beasts
spinning a path
towards another time

where we cannot be hunted
skinned, broken
lynched, choked of fair breath
expected to look away
from our genocide

where our love is no one’s
path to hell
(that look in the eye
confuses even righteous desire,
or the spark of forever)

we bet on the
miracle of our beautiful
black and queer
and liberated
bodies

we called our ship
Harriet’s Escape
her of rocket science and
witchcraft, dream fuel
and tomorrow
as our only direction

we came here for a future
in which our flesh is precious
in which our children are divine
in which our lives matter

we spun the bridge from
death to life
from supremacy to love
from earth
to obsidian

A Sci Fi Short for Michael Brown

‘We must become experts on lynching.’
‘Again?’
‘Yes. We thought it was a past tense virus, but it was just in mutation. Our danger is escalating.’
‘And if we know more…what then?’
‘It is unclear…right now we need only to awaken ourselves to the presence of this death in our midst. As with everything, awareness yields new practice, new practice yields new worlds.’
‘I am practicing tears, grief, rage. This awareness is painful.’
‘Yes, liberation is a brutal path. It is also a blissful path. It is the only meaningful path.’
‘Axe.’
#scifishort #Ferguson #writeourselvesforward

if you feel moved, please add on to the story or write your own.

Reflecting on Terrorism

It has always been a question for me.

Why?

As a human who has lived a beautiful life, loves my family, has called many places home, has believed lots of humbling and divergent things about divinity, loves my body, and is still scared of death, I have often struggled trying to grasp what would make someone die over a place, a boundary.

I generally understand terrorism to be when a people without an acknowledged place engage in warfare. Generally a statistical minority against a violent majority. It often takes the form of suicide, kamikaze flights into buildings, self-explosion in a crowd, the use of the self as a weapon, as an exclamation point in an argument.

And I have to ask myself, under what conditions would I kill myself?

I remember asking that question perhaps for the first time on 9/11. My response since then has been consistent: that the horror of oppression that exists leading up to an act of terrorism must be unbearable.

I have my own rhythms of melancholy and hopelessness, which undulate on a roughly five year cycle, and which I’ve learned to live through and with. My hopelessness is smart, sometimes smarter than I am. It has great reasons for existing, feels like a logical response to my experience in the world, to unavoidable suffering. But my hopelessness is regularly countered by reprieve from oppression, by great joy and love and abundance and freedom and periods of undeniable emotional and physical safety that counteract some of my other truths.

For me, the only external force that could make me take my own life, and perhaps anyone else’s (still pretty sure this is not possible, though I have people in my life who make me feel violently protective) is feeling unheard in a cycle of hopelessness, in a trap of oppression, with no reprieve.

Powerless and still awake.

On 9/11, I walked from my midtown office to my friends’ home in Brooklyn, through a city of rubble and blood. I ate a dinner of kielbasa and pierogies off a backyard picnic table covered in human and corporate ash. I’d lived in NY for five years that month, dreamed of it for a decade before getting there, and I thought it would always be my home. I loved it. When it was attacked, I needed to know why?

As a sci-fi writer, I get that the idea of hateful lifestyle fundamentalists is appealing, easy like a comic book villain. In a binary mind, it is so fulfilling to have a one dimensional bad person, or bad people. But in my life I have never met a bad person. I’ve met a lot of traumatized people, some of whom behaved badly.

I’ve met prisoners and bully children and drug dealers and sexual assailants and killers and thieves and hustlers. And each one was a human with a story, with learned behaviors and survival strategies, a sliver of life force that hadn’t given up. Some of the people carrying these labels are amongst the most tender, brilliant people I’ve encountered.

People get traumatized individually and collectively. I have both experiences in my life and lineage. Responses to individual trauma can be privatized. Get a therapist, learn to love, stop overeating, forgive someone, choose life. It’s a legitimate effort, a whole life’s work, and for better and worse so much of it can happen behind closed doors, in rooms with sunlight and lavender and people who claim to know how to live.

Collective trauma is louder, harder to hide. It manifests as self-hate and internalized identity phobias, fear-based survival strategies, group violence at a gender or gang level.

It manifests, too, as terrorism.

At an international level, collective trauma is passed around, less like a hot potato, more like live coal in bare hands that no one will drop, believing it will cool to gold. It is searing everyone, leaving no one to offer comfort or a better option.

There is a deep desire to belong in this world, species, land – I have had many teachers say it is one of our deepest most common human longings, and the absence of belonging is one of the most common ways we experience trauma.

I’ve seen this phenomenon with children…my youngest niece wants to play soccer with the bigger kids, wants to be involved. She can’t kick or control the ball with her feet yet, so she picks it up and runs off like Bonnie or Clyde towards the sunset.

Of course, while amusing, this strategy is not long lived. The ball is not meant to be used this way, the other kids cannot just let her take the ball. She won’t have a moment’s peace with that ball. She has to give it back, and be patient as she grows up, learns to play, learns that she belongs to the family whether she can kick the ball or not.

That is the simplest way I understand a conflict/place like Palestine. A traumatized people, left out, forced out of other homes, subjected to genocide, were offered something that was already in use. They ran with it. But the land is not meant to be occupied in this way, and so they have not had, and will not have, a moment’s peace. It has been war, it will be war, until Israel finds a way to return what they can of what was taken, to return dignity to the relationship they have with the Palestinian people they appear to be trying to erase.

I live in a country where this same process happened. Indigenous people were pushed aside, murdered, manipulated, robbed. I believe many of our economic, environmental and health problems, as well as a general spiritual void, are directly linked to that trauma. I don’t think America will be ‘free’ until there is a serious reckoning with that history, and what it now implies for other colonial efforts.

Accountability matters. Truth and reconciliation only works if the truth is really sought, really heard.

The truth, as far as I can tell, is that hate is not a root emotion. The why is not hatred, not at the root. My niece doesn’t hate the other children…she wants to play with them. Israel wants to exist, to be recognized and respected. It wants the world to never again try to eliminate the Jewish people. It is a beautiful and noble desire.

But you cannot transform others.

Not with stolen property, not with apartheid practices of brute force, walls, passes, human rights violations and violence. What will continue to happen is collective trauma, and the growing, desperate need on both sides to end the trauma and begin to heal. The rhythms of Gaza, the demoralization of checkpoints, makes that impossible, currently.

The role the U.S. plays in it is so important. Certain states of mind and heart should not be weaponized and resourced. I can’t imagine giving rape victims an AK47 and saying ‘do whatever you need to do in order to feel safe from men.’ Trauma begets trauma. Yet we pour funding into a situation where collective and recent trauma from a genocide is the undercurrent for decision making.

Of course, my mind comes back to the U.S. for other, current, reasons. A 2012 study found that every twenty eight hours a black person is killed by someone employed or protected by the US government. Stand Your Ground and Shoot First policies combine with white supremacy to devastating effect.

I feel and see us going through all of the options we can find to respond. Asking for justice, creating talking points and memes to educate ourselves and those who fear us, journeying across the country to focus our solidarity, meditating, praying, singing, screaming, grieving, demanding accountability, advocating for policy change, taking to the streets in nonviolent protest.

Movement is growing. I am inspired by the work being done under the hashtag/philosophy #blacklivesmatter – focusing on healing, solidarity, love, care and justice. These efforts highlight to the country and anyone else watching that, as a nation, we are only as far along as our oppressive tendencies.

But I also feel a growing danger. There is an exhaustion. One of my favorite exercise podcasts to listen to is The Read,. Cohosts Crissle and Kid Fury had some shows where they fully expressed their emotions about Ferguson. And Crissle particularly spoke my heart at one point when she said she was just so tired of watching black people be killed by authority figures. Deeply tired.

Yes, there is violence inside the community. Scarcity and poverty create a toxic and fatal self-image inside a people. Collective trauma, like individual trauma, does immense internal damage. The work necessary to restore and transform that self-inferiority has been in progress for years – black power, black love, building up our self-esteem as a people, generating dignity. That internal community violence is tragic and logical, to me. Slavery ended 149 years ago. Jim Crow laws, about 60 years ago. Blacks have been considered less than human in this country for the majority of our time here. Our statistics for prison, education, police brutality – there are few numbers we can look at see a story in which America loves black people more today, to see a story in which America is not still trying to rid itself of us. We have the Obamas, we have Oprah, but roughly every twenty eight hours or so, it feels like all we have are exceptions and skin that marks us like a breathing yellow star in a genocidal state.

In order for slavery and Jim Crow to end, there was a combination movement working the voting path, the legal path, the nonviolent movement path, and the path of armed resistance. And probably many many other paths as well. But in my reflections on terrorism, it feels important not to forget that there were slaves who fought back. There were black revolutionaries who armed themselves in response to the constant violent efforts of this nation to enslave and or erase them.

I was taught, in Department of Defense schools, that indigenous people were scalping and violent terrorists. But the more I have read, learned, listened to indigenous people today, I understand that that was the colonial view, a way to justify the unjustifiable and horrific violence of taking land and life from people.

I believe in the power of nonviolence, it is where I have spent the majority of my political life, working in the realm of vision, conflict resolution, nonviolent actions, and so on. And from that place I find myself trying to understand how much oppression humans can ever be expected to bear? It is from that place that I find myself feeling a deep compassion and solidarity for those pressed into the small box of terrorism, globally.

It feels very important to me to relinquish the safety of victimhood in the context of terrorism. Particularly as an American. I no longer feel shocked, ‘how could this happen?’ I feel more like, with the way that modern colonization and power are being wielded at this moment in our human journey, it shocks me that incidents of terrorism are not happening daily, across the nation, across the world.

I work with a client who monitors prison conditions. The staff is made up of people who have never been incarcerated, and people who have been incarcerated. We were recently in a conversation about what the future looks like – is it better, more humane prisons?

One of the responses, from someone who had been incarcerated for over a decade, was that there is no such thing as a humane prison. It was a simple and deep truth to hear. It didn’t mean that reform work is not useful in the short term, but it absolutely meant that we have to build a common answer to this question: what are the conditions by which we can stand together in our dignity as human beings?

There is no humane way to shoot a black child in the street or in the face. There is no humane way to bomb a city. There is no humane way to imprison another human being. There is no humane way to commit an act of terrorism.

In the same way that we must listen to those who have experienced incarceration if we want to craft a humane and transformative justice in our lives, in our nation, in our time…I believe we must learn to really listen to those we call terrorists.

We need to remember, always, to humanize, to seek compassion, to let no human be outside of the mirror in which we see our own responsibility and our own potential. These are other human beings who have been driven to this edge. Dismissing or demonizing them will not keep anyone safe.

We must know that within each of us, there is that same small blue fire for life, for love, that can burn everything in sight under the wrong conditions. We must learn to consider terrorism as desperation born of oppression and collective trauma, and listen all the way down to the root of that desperation, down to the human.

love scholarship lessons 14-20

14. if i want love, i can’t hurt love.

i used to be very cavalier about the idea of boundaries in love. ‘that’s not how humans ARE,’ i’d insist. ‘we must be free, we are mercurial, we are porous, chemistry moves between us, everyone works the systems of human interactions to get what they need, you can no more own a person than you can own the planet, etc.’

i still believe all of this to varying degrees.

but/and! lovers make agreements with each other, agreements that grow trust and transparency as they are held. trust and transparency that lay the foundation for the kind of mutual transformation that i believe can only happen in relationship (not necessarily romantic relationship, but definitely authentic relationship).

lao tzu teaches, ‘if you don’t trust the people, they become untrustworthy.’

if i want to give and receive the kind of all-inclusive trust that allows for transformation, allows me to actually feel loved in real time, i have to be trustworthy. with my boundaries and with the boundaries others set. crossing those boundaries, even if – especially if – i can’t understand them…makes it that much harder for me to trust anyone to hold the boundaries i am learning i need for my own transformation.

grace lee boggs teaches us to ‘transform ourselves to transform the world’ – love is a front line. transforming how i love, and how i treat the love of others, transforms how love can work in the world.

15. each time i name, hold or respect an intimate boundary, my understanding of the purpose of love grows.

self-love first: self-love is not about accumulating a galaxy of ever arching incoming desires, sexualizing every experience. self-love is being able to see every part of myself with compassion. to feel tenderness for all my ways of being, how i was shaped, what i have done with my gifts, where i disappoint myself.

love with another, or many others, it is not hunting. love is a fertile ground for growth. one crucial purpose of love with others is to have people to grow with. to grow out of obligations and depression, to grow old, to grow wise, to grow babies, to grow home, to grow creatively, to grow analysis, to grow freedom, to grow justice – to have another person, or other people, with whom to grow.

when i tell someone i love them, i mean: ‘i am growing with you!’

16. if we are not growing, we are doing something else…often regressing. and there are probably a million good reasons for that – the only one i understand is that there is something in my past that i haven’t really seen. and it is going to keep creeping up until it becomes unbearably present behind me, and i turn and face it, and i truly comprehend it. then i can move forward. if i try to run away, or only cast a glance over my shoulder and keep walking, it will not go away. james baldwin teaches, ‘not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced’.

17. what you withhold of yourself becomes your prison. love is also a process of getting free with another person. and along the way you learn all the cages that can develop within you and between you. one of those cages is built of lies and half-truths, knowing something your partner should know, something about who you are or what you’ve done, and withholding it from them.

i have thought of myself as an open book, but that doesn’t mean my words are in a common tongue. too often i communicate in passive aggressive dishwashing, directive playlists, abstract poetry.

i have had to learn to translate from my heart the truth of what i am feeling and what i need, walk another person through my secret garden, discover the fruits i have grown from desperation, believe in the abundance that makes sharing easy. and most of all, not to leave any part of myself in a cage, being unuttered…left there, my forgotten self creates what prisons create: criminals, humans centered around survival.

no more prisons, not even inside.

18. truth seeks the light, and love is a lightbearing emotion. the more i love, the more i want to show my wholeness. secrets come leaping through my mouth because of love. i can’t hide in the face of love. and as i love myself, i feel no need to keep hidden. healing and moving forward become possible in ways that were not available in my periods of resentment, hatred, insecurity, secrecy.

19. i learn to love in various directions simultaneously, inwards to myself, outwards to others, back to my ancestors, forward to my great great great grandchildren. i learn to love my flawed self as i fall for imperfect others. to love my communities as i become unconditionally lovestruck for my nephew and nieces. love has shown itself to be a liberating, generous and universal emotion. when i feel it in one direction, i remember that love in every direction is possible, is always present.

i would venture that part of what is happening in ferguson is an outburst of love. love of children getting to be children, love of black and brown children, is making the truth of this moment in the american racial construct come to light. this love has our eyes and our hearts extended to where michael was shot down, standing up for him, for the people murdered before him and those who will continue to be killed on this 28-hour cycle until we become too loud to ignore politically, socially and spiritually.

20. love requires practice. listening, speaking honestly, caring, surprising, grounding, calming, supporting, nourishing, pleasing, receiving, declining, creating, teaching, learning. there are so many skills to develop, simultaneously. wax on, wax off. love, love. love, love.

love, love.

michael brown’s homegoing

i have been watching ferguson and feeling many many things. how unique this moment is, and how familiar. how exciting the responses have been, and how exhausted i am by the need to respond. most of all, how to manage all of these front lines, all these black bodies swinging, all this brutality to brown skin.

where i sit in detroit, it is a beautiful, soft, cricket-full summer. and there are masses with no water. the u.n. said it isn’t right, like they said gaza isn’t right. so. there isn’t much relief in the moral high ground.

tonight it is the virgo new moon, and it is a night for prayer, ritual, magic and saying what it is we want. i want the kind of safety that comes when no one is afraid of you, when you are loved unconditionally, when you can make mistakes and live to learn the lessons, when you can rest assured that you will only die of natural causes, when you have every opportunity to live a beautiful and impactful life, when you can be bold and young and vivacious and sassy and creative and brave and tender and old and full of tears, pleasure, laughter, wisdom, new life. and black. i want, i invoke, the safety for black and brown people, for all people, that will come with the healing of the species from the mental illness of racial supremacy/inferiority.

i thought the moon should know.

they called him michael
and he was her only blameless child
and you would have loved him
but he died so quickly,
like a nameless child
(chorus of a song i wrote in high school, for another brown boy who never made it home)

lay him in the dirt
lift him high, raging angels
let him make it home
(for black august on the day of michael brown’s funeral)