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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: California | Education & Student Activism
A Letter to the White Student Movement
The following is a piece written by a BLAST member in response to the recent activity of the student movement against the budget cuts to education in California. While this is not representative of the opinions of the entire BLAST body, it does serve as a decent analysis of the situation from the perspective of a Black student militant.
The following is an open letter to the student movement in California. It is not meant to be taken in a confrontational spirit, but that may be inevitable. The letter is meant to challenge the action that has happened and to reflect on building a bigger movement. The title “An Open Letter To The White Student Movement” does not mean that the actions described have been taken by the entire body of white students, nor does it mean that their have not been dissenting voices of white students. It also does not infer that all the students taking part in the rebellions have been white, there have been a number of students of color that have rebelled, however the letter is targeted at the attitude and spirit of the actions, which has come from a place of societal privilege.
To The White Student Movement,
I have watched you on your so called “battlefield” for months and wondered why I desired to have no part in this movement.
I have sat and wondered why my passion for the student struggle continues to decrease.
I have wondered where the people who look like me belong amongst the chaos and I have decided that if the face of the student movement is occupation then I want no part in it. So, while it is true that I value the opportunity I have in the University, and it is also true that I wish to stand beside you and fight for education, I have tremendous reservations about the tactics that have been deployed.
“We have chosen not to die” has been the motto of the occupationist. As he storms buildings, as he rushes into battles in street against police, as he damages property in a drug induced haze, he screams “we have chosen not to die”. In the morning, when the dust settles and the sun rises he lays bruised in bed. Looking onto a new day.
“we have chosen not to die” seems to be the rallying cry that kept them through the night.
He lays with a smile, oblivious to the fact that the threat of his death was never a reality. Privilege, class and race have proven to be buffers from true oppression. His white skin has kept him through the night and the politics that he believed he risked his life for now are now over shadowed by the mountain of over turned trash cans and broken glass on Telegraph Ave. Adventurism is the privilege of the white college student and the burden of the Black college student seeking to unite people of color in the struggle.
Oddly enough, I too have also uttered the words “we have chosen not to die” many times in my life
I too have made that vow to myself as a traversed the ghetto.
When the police beat my friends for standing on the corner. . .
When I was told that there were not enough books for the entire class. . .
When I would look out onto a playground filled with dope fiends and not children. . .
When I forced to empty the contents of my backpack before attending middle school daily. . .
When I would come home to my mother, back bent from work, crying about her inablity to come up with rent money. . .
I vowed as many of my comrades in the ghetto do: “I have chosen not to die, because my struggle cannot end here! I will go forth and get the knowledge to change my community.”
For those of us from oppressed communities the cuts to education mean more than prolonged graduation, these cuts are yet another strike from a brutal system that seeks to murder and imprison us. We understand that the brutality of this system is unyielding and cannot be fought through brass action and individualistic politics but true communal struggle with the working people who raised us. We have the understanding that these cuts strike the entire community of working class and underprivileged people and thus must be fought with them. Perhaps this is a form of understanding that comes from knowing that the Capitalist system seeks to use us for maximum profit and that for Black youth that means either imprisonment or militarism. Those who do not adhere and seek to create a better system or a different one are met with the violence of the state, that is the true threat of death that looms. This is not meant to give the state god like character but instead to express that revolutionary struggle against the Capitalist system, especially by those most exploited by it, is bound to be met with the fist of the state. Does this mean that they cannot resist? No, but state repression is an inevitable fact when the working people challenge the state. Perhaps you privilege has prevented you from seeing this.
The student movement thus far has been led by white students with no real world understanding of their caste in society and the repercussions of their actions. They compare themselves to the struggles of the Greek people, when they couldn’t be any further from the truth. While confrontation with the state is inevitable for any would be revolutionary, it must be done with the strength of an organized community behind them.
They publish over sensationalized writings about their experiences, drawing on the struggles of working class people, who are engaging in real class war against the elite; these are the people who face death. They make bold and incongruous comparisons. They make a mockery of true struggle with a-political ramblings. This is the movement I have observed.
This semester the universities received funding for education at the expense of health care and the further privatization of the prison industrial complex. This is not a victory. As I sit in a less crowded classroom, my mother sits in a more crowded clinic wondering if she will be seen. It is crucial to demand that the state takes this funding from the rich, from the oil, from challenging the military budget of the state and not from the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the very community that I come from. As a student of color, from an impoverished neighborhood, I see it as essential that I do not gain my degree at the expense of my community. My degree is for my community.
Thus, the focus of my struggle is with them. I do not seek to preserve the ivory tower of education as it stands. I seek to destroy that tower and build a more inclusive, more open experience for all of society. I fight not for myself, I know very well that the fight may not be won in my time at the university; I fight for the youth after me. I fight for their dreams, and their rights. I understand, as many of my comrades do, that the struggle is much grander than I. The struggle is much grander than the university. There is difficult work to be done and cannot be done if things continue down this path.
I do not desire to join in with irresponsible children who riot in the streets, abandoning politics in lieu of the opportunity to have unprincipled havoc. I do not desire to join in a movement led by a Left that seeks to alienate people of color from discussion by rushing head first into irresponsible action. A Left that is filled with self interested parties billing unproductive spaces as democratic safe havens only with the intention of recruiting tokens of color to spread dogma. A Left made up of almost entirely white student activist that find it more pressing to get their political rocks off before ultimately assimilating seamlessly back into the oppressive tapestry of America than to reach out to students of color and allow them to take positions of leadership and help to direct the movement.
I see this issue as a systemic problem of a corrupt system attempting to salvage itself. The vicious nature of the Capitalist system means the people are forever bound to the labor power that they can produce for the ruling class. For those who are not of use to the system through legal wage slavery for whatever reason, the Capitalist solution lies in the prisons and the military. At the university, class serves as a factory built to reproduce the work force, there is the connection between the community and the class room. So, while it is possible to struggle, we must approach our task organized and united.
I ask you.
What is a movement against oppression that is not led by the most oppressed in a meaningful way?
What is a movement against oppression that leads it’s people head first into unnecessary danger?
What is a movement against oppression that recreates the same prejudice that it claims to fight?
This letter is not meant to be an antagonistic slam of the work that has been done. It is a reflection on the events of the past few months in hopes that we can move positively and concretely into the coming actions. I have seen this to be a problem in the Bay Area and I now understand that we are not alone. In hopes of creating true solidarity, not just the phrase that is used meaninglessly, I wish to offer some suggestions. In coalition spaces it is necessary to listen and not speak for people of color and women. Deconstructing white male privilege doesn’t mean submitting your freedom but instead challenging and analyzing that freedom. It means that you allow oppressed people to take the lead and work in true solidarity by asking what needs to be done. We must not shy away from uncomfortable discussion or outreach into communities that have been adversely impacted, only then can there be a true assessment of the conditions.
I say this with the most sincere of thoughts and intentions. I say this in the hopes that these words reach some of you; one’s willing to build a better movement.
Striving Towards Solidarity,
[This response initially posted on occupyca.wordpress.com]
On the night I chose not to die…
I was a woman of color. On the night I chose not to die, I fought with anger and determination, and finally fell asleep with a satisfied smile born not from my own sheltered existence, but from the momentary dissolving of the reality of privilege. That night I watched the hordes of college students exiting the bars and dispersing, walking past those of us confronting police in the streets as if it was simply none of their business. That is the privilege you describe, which has no place in this movement.
Who was left? Who made it their business? If you were there, if you dared approach the dancefloor and “battlefield” of the streets, you’d know what we “looked” like.
And yet according to your fairytale of homogeneity and privilege, on the morning after “I chose not to die,” according to you, I woke up a white man. Let me tell you… NO I DIDN’T!
It’s as though all the work I’ve done, the lifetime of daily struggle, of people acting as if I was naturally inferior and practically invisible, is a waste of my time. Because the people I also struggle for, among others, could flippantly assert that now, because I fight alongside my white brothers and sisters, I have no identity, no history, and no color of my own.
To the author of the “Open Letter to a White Student Movement,” we respond:
You don’t just describe a false, whitened version of what happened in Berkeley last Thursday night. You create an archetypal persona of the student militant, who you describe in belittling terms: “As he storms buildings, as he rushes into battles in street against police, as he damages property in a drug induced haze, he screams ‘we have chosen not to die.’ … His white skin has kept him through the night and the politics that he believed he risked his life for are now over shadowed by the mountain of over turned trash cans and broken glass on Telegraph Ave.”
We’ve seen this figure before, in the critiques of direct action written by liberal and leftist groups since this movement emerged. It’s a constantly re-occurring rhetorical strategy that is used to condemn forms of political action that don’t follow the norms of non-violent civil disobedience. Only one problem: we’re not male, we’re not white, and we’re not upper class. And neither were the majority of people who participated that night.
This isn’t just a minor problem in your analysis. It can’t be explained away with a one-sentence disclaimer that acknowledges that some people of color have participated in the movement. It’s a serious erasure of our participation and it calls into question the very basis of your argument: that tactics like those used in Berkeley are grounded in “privilege.”
Honestly, we are tired of being erased from the student movement. We are tired of being told that militancy is a product of testosterone-driven machismo or race-based immunity to police repression. We’re tired of debates about tactics that are masked as debates about identity. We want a discussion that acknowledges that not just a few but many women and people of color have participated in the occupations and confrontational demonstrations of the last few months. Most of all, we want the people who attempt to represent women and people of color when they condemn these actions to know that they don’t speak for us.
We wonder whether you bothered to look carefully at the footage from that night or talk to people who were there. If so you would have learned that it was one of the most racially diverse political events that has occurred recently, much more diverse than a lot of the non-violent, legal rallies we’ve attended. In fact the riot and confrontation would never have taken place if students leaving campus hadn’t been joined by dozens of people who were on the streets and in the bars of Berkeley that night, people of every race, age, and subculture you can imagine. And women were on the front lines, pushing the line of riot police back and fighting alongside white men.
And who are these white men? They’re our friends and our comrades. They’re people we respect and who respect us, who take racism and sexism seriously and who don’t assume that our gender or our race excludes us from participating in illegal actions. They’re people who work low-wage jobs while going to school, who struggle with debt and economic precariousness, whose histories include experiences that simply don’t square with the tidy category of “privilege” you use to make everything they say or do illegitimate.
We’re not trying to deny the fact that racism and sexism exist, or to suggest that the student movement is immune from these institutionalized systems. But we won’t accept our identities being used to shut down forms of thought and action that we think are absolutely crucial in building a revolutionary movement. It’s with the histories of the militancy of women and people of color as inspiration that we embrace the events of last Thursday night.
I don’t know how to fight inequality as a single person, as much as anyone ever has, or ever will, until the conditions out of which such horrors emerge are successfully abolished. But I have so much anger against this world and I have as my only weapon the strength this world has given me to destroy its very foundations. That’s why I must act. That’s why WE do.
You just don’t know to whom you’re talking…
-The Invisible Women Committee