Let’s Build Liberation
A Conversation with Chris Crass on Anti-Racism and Revolutionary Struggle
Could you give a brief history of your own organizing and activist work? I got into politics in high school when I was 15. My best friend, Mike Rejniak introduced me to politics and punk rock. We had a group at our high school called the United Anarchist Front (UAF) and we handed out flyers, did an underground newspaper, put on anti-corporate and anti-war protests. The Gulf War in 91 and the Rodney King verdict had a major influence on us. I was involved in student organizing at my community college in Orange County. We were a multiracial, Latino/a led coalition fighting against fee hikes and for Chicano Studies and immigrant rights. In the UAF we started up a study group, went through a really powerful and painful examination of sexism in the group and started up a Food Not Bombs chapter. I moved to San Francisco and worked with the Food Not Bombs chapter there. I studied political science, women’s studies and ethnic studies in college. FNB was my primary work for about 8 years. Through FNB I was doing lots of projects in the larger anarchist community in the Bay Area. Anarchist Cafe nights, anarchist contingents at marches and work with affinity groups around civil disobedience actions. In ‘99, I got involved with an anti-racism study group for white social justice activists. Sharon Martinas of the Challenging White Supremacy (CWS) Workshops put it together and invited me to join. After the mass actions in Seattle, Sharon and I talked about doing anti-racism workshops specifically for the mostly white sections of the global justice movement. This fit with the new direction that I wanted to be going in after Seattle. I was really impressed in Seattle with the level of training and political education that was available and how important this is if we want to have a participatory and effective movement. Being in FNB all those years, we always talked about wanting to do political education and skills trainings but we never had the time. It was clearer to me that so many gateway groups face this same dilemma. Lots of people get their first involvement in activism through them, but their isn’t the time or capacity to train people or help people develop a life long commitment to social change. Gateway groups, groups that provide a way into social justice movement more broadly, groups like FNB and Earth First! and student groups. Through CWS, we developed a project called Anti-Racism for Global Justice (ARGJ). We’ve been doing workshops around the country with student groups, community groups, with the Ruckus Society and at conferences. This past year I worked a lot with Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations (STARC) on a summer organizing institute for student activists. It was an eight week program where folks did internships with community groups, did anti-oppression workshops and skills trainings to develop leadership and organizing skills to help build the student movement. Through ARGJ our focus is political education, leadership development and networking and that’s the bulk of my work at this point. I’m part of Colours of Resistance, a multiracial, anti-racist, women led network of organizers on Canada and the US working to further anti-racist politics in the global justice movement and support the leadership of radicals of color and women in that movement. I also work with an anti-racism and anti-war group called Heads Up and am currently part of two men’s discussion groups exploring male privilege and patriarchy and working to be anti-sexist allies. How is anarchist political theory (primarily developed in the context of the 19th century European workers movement) relevant to the struggle against white supremacy in 21st Century U.S.? That’s a good question. I’m going to take it in chunks. First, the issue of 19th century anarchist political theory and white supremacy and then I’ll say what has been most relevant to me. The problem of anarchist political theory in general is that there just isn’t much of it. There’s a reason for it and I believe it’s one of the major shortcomings of both anarchist theory and practice. Most of the widely influential anarchists of the 19th century believed that revolution was both a singular event that would usher in a new society and that it was right around the corner. Writing in the 1880’s Peter Kropotkin, the major anarchist theoretician internationally, estimated that it would be here in the next 10 years or so. This has a serious impact on how people organize and develop theory. Anarchist ideas and theories were largely articulated in speeches, articles and pamphlets meant to inspire revolution in working people. I’m not trying to argue that anarchists didn’t develop theory and extremely important ideas, but I think that main lessons of anarchism come from people’s practice. By most historical accounts the anarchist movement was the most powerful from the 1880s-1930’s. The most widely read and arguably most influential book from that time period has been Emma Goldman’s autobiography, Living My Life. The emphasis on practice and anarchist theory as embedded in practice rather then texts is both its strength and weakness. More recently, look at Seattle. Three of the major contributions of anarchists in Seattle were the use of direct action, affinity groups and consensus based decision making. These are tactics, organizing structures and decision making processes, but each of them represents anarchist theories of how social change happens, how society should function, the relationship of individuals to groups, how different forms of power operate and how power should be shared, personal empowerment and collective responsibility and accountability. So in Seattle you have an upsurge of activism as people not only shut down the WTO but also speak about the importance of the methods used. The strengths of this, I would argue, are the organizing lessons and models of making social change that anarchist practice has for our work today struggling against white supremacy and all systems of oppression. The weakness goes back to the impact of thinking revolution is on the horizon. From what I can tell, the idea that revolution is a singular historic event seems to come from dominate Western political theory (liberal democratic enlightenment ideas as well as Marxism). Revolution as a long haul struggle or continual process is articulated repeatedly in liberation struggles led by people of color, indigenous people and women. If it’s one big event, then all energy gets put into making that happen. If it’s a long-term struggle then in addition to taking on oppressive power, we need strategic planning and developing theory that informs the strategies we use. In the 1920s Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta somberly looks back at anarchist activity over the past 40 years that he’s played a significant role in and says, “It must be admitted that we have shown very little concern with the ways and means for the achievement of our ideals”. I mention all of this because when I was 15, 16, I was reading Emma Goldman and Kropotkin and I started thinking that revolution was around the corner, that it was inevitable and we just need to spread the word and get more people ready. For a long time I broke things into two categories, there were anarchists who believed in genuine revolution and then everyone else was a reformist of one kind or another. This is where anarchism and white privilege and other forms of privilege converged in my life. Through white privilege I’ve been trained to universalize my experience as normal, just as I was trained to universalize my experience as middle class, being male and heterosexual. As anarchism claimed anything short of calling for revolution was reformist, my privilege led me to have a very narrow idea of what a radical was, what being radical looked like and so forth. A radical looked like me. It wasn’t that I consciously thought this, rather it was the underlying framework shaped by white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, capitalism and the state. This framework made it very difficult to see organizing happening in communities of color or working class communities. Or if I could see it, I had a narrow interpretation of it, as reformist. I’m not saying that there aren’t many struggles out there that are oriented to winning positive reforms, rather I’m saying that my framework minimized the importance of reform oriented struggles. Minimized in that I viewed reform struggles based on their tactics isolated from the larger context, movement building and strategy. This has negatively impacted my understanding of many progressive and radical struggles led by working class people, people of color, women and queer people and I think it’s a major reason why the anarchist movement is so white, middle class and male dominated. Relationships between people and groups need a level of respect that my ‘more radical then you’ attitude damaged. So, how is anarchism relevant to fighting white supremacy in the 21st century? As I’ve come to understand anarchism through both theory and practice, the fundamental concept and constant challenge or tension is the goal of building societies that benefit everyone, where structures of liberation and empowerment have replaced systems of oppression and exploitation. I know this is vague, but another concept of anarchism, articulated by Emma Goldman, has been that we who grew up in chains will be able to envision and practice liberation in the course of struggling to get there. This reminds me of the Paulo Freire saying, “we make the road by walking.” This connection between the struggle and the vision is intentional. Goldman and others who witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution talked a great deal about how the means that we use prefigure the ends of where we want to go, so that we can’t say that the ends justify the means as the ends reflect the means used to get there. If w can abandon the idea that revolution is right around the corner and that it’s just this one big insurrection, then I do believe that the organizing lessons and models for social change that anarchist practice offers are relevant to building mass multiracial, anti-racist, feminist, queer and trans liberationist, intergenerational, anti-capitalist movement working for collective liberation. I also want to be clear that I think anarchists have a lot to learn from other folks as well. I believe anarchism is relevant to building movement and has much to offer, but is neither the movement nor the one right answer. What movements and organizing traditions do you draw the most inspiration from? Why? What lessons do they hold for radicals today? There are so many. The best way that I can answer this is through books and why I would recommend that people read them. The Haymarket Tragedy by Paul Avrich, because it’s one of the most amazing chapters in the history of both anarchist and working class organizing in this country and provides so many insights and lessons into organizing for reforms with an expansive vision of social change. It was also an important movement to me because it gave me something to be proud of as a young white radical. Sweatshop Warriors by Miriam Ching Louie about immigrant women fighting for social change. The immigrant worker centers around the country are deeply inspiring. Louie looks at the leadership of Latina and Asian women sweatshop workers in the US taking on capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy. The organizing strategies used by the worker centers are ground breaking in how they look at multiple forms of oppression and build the power and leadership of communities most negatively impacted by transnational capitalism and winning. The anti-corporate campaigns that have come to define much of student activism and the anti-global capitalism movement were started by immigrant women workers. The Free Women of Spain by Martha A. Ackelsberg because the Spanish revolution and civil war of the 1930s represented the climax of long term radical organizing against fascism and how everyday people were making revolution in their daily lives. Mujeres Libres and this book about their work offers important lessons about collective organizing and feminist practice during a historical upheaval. Spain also provides lessons about Stalinism and the importance of the struggle against authoritarianism. I’ve got the Light of Freedom by Charles Payne about the civil rights movement and the organizing tradition of Ella Baker, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and thousands of working class and poor Black folks who made history. The organizing models, styles of leadership, the centrality of youth and women’s leadership and the tactics they used provide critically important lessons. Barbara Smith’s The Truth that Never Hurts is a collection of her essays that articulate a Black feminist politics of race, class, gender and sexuality. Smith has been involved in feminist, queer liberationist and racial justice organizing for over three decades. In the opinion of many, Smith along with other women of color feminists have and continue to develop the best of radical, realistic and relevant analysis for making social change. For specific organizations that exist now check out From The Road: Snapshots of Living Resistance, a zine for liberation by Sonja S. and Jennica B. They traveled around the country and met up with dozens of amazing groups doing amazing work. Then they put together a zine with information and contact info for about 20 of those groups. The zine looks at a r2ange of groups from queer organizing in the South, to training institutes like the Highlander Center and immigrant rights groups in the South West. You can get a copy for $5 by writing to 648 Prospect Pl. #4R, Brooklyn, NY 11216. What advice do you have for white radicals trying to figure out how to be anti-racist allies to folks of color? That’s an ongoing question that is open to debate. I think there are lots of different ways to be an anti-racist ally and that through practice we reflect, evaluate, keep learning, make mistakes, be gentle while also critical of ourselves and keep our eyes on the prize of liberation and struggle with guilt, shame and fear that are part of the process. Three ways that I think about being an ally are personally, working with individuals and then organizationally. These are all things that other people have told me, almost all women and people of color. Personally, I grew up in a segregated area in Southern California. It wasn’t until a Black studies class in community college that I was ever in a situation where white people weren’t the clear numerical majority. I had some friends of color and I would say that while folks of color should not be expected to school white people about white supremacy/racism, be ready to say thank you if and when they do. It was very important for me to learn about struggles led by communities of color. This was through events put on by orgs of color, doing ethnic studies classes and women studies classes, working in groups led by folks of color. However, the main way that I see being an ally to folks of color is working with white people to challenge white supremacy and work for racial justice. This is the strategy that I pursue and I’m glad that other white folks are pursuing other strategies and that we can learn from each other. Working with individuals. I think it’s really important that white people support each other in doing anti-racist work. Having other white folks who are doing this work to talk with and struggle with each other, learn together, support one another and hold each other accountable is really useful and highly advisable. Working in groups is much more useful in challenging institutional injustices as well as overcoming personal insecurities that hold us back from the work. Relationships with folks of color and multiracial organizing is absolutely critical, but again, the responsibility needs to be with white folks to work with each other and not expect it from folks of color, even though folks of color end up doing most of this work. Organizationally doing solidarity work if you’re an all white group or mostly white is really important. Finding out what orgs of color are doing in your area, checking out events, asking people in groups that you decide you’d like to work with, “we’re such and such group, is there anything useful that we could do to support your work”. Be ready to take no for an answer and also be real about what you can and can’t commit to doing. Do what you say you’re going to do. Developing relationships with other orgs can take along time, but that’s really what movement building is about. In figuring out how to be allies I’d suggest that white folks read A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism by Becky Thompson, chapter 7 of Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera and the writings of Helen Luu, Pauline Hwang, Laura Close, Chris Dixon and Laura McNeill on the Colours of Resistance website (http://www.tao.ca/~colours ). How can white militants balance defending their own political community from state repression and supporting communities of color that face far greater state repression everyday? I think that there are a lot of variables and local circumstances that will influence different strategies. I know that in Portland, Oregon where you live the state is going after the mostly white radical community there. The grand juries threatening people with many years of imprisonment and the police violently busting up a recent peaceful protest against President Bush. For me, the question goes back to movement building. I think that the best defense against state repression of white militants and supporting communities of color is building movement that prioritizes the issues of communities of color. What do I mean by prioritize? Here’s an example. I work with a group called Heads Up in San Francisco that came together after Sept. 11th as an anti-war, anti-racist group of white folks. We knew that state repression was coming down on many sectors of society, including white radicals and that that the most negatively impacted would be folks of color. So we looked to organizing in communities of color that we had political affinity with and/or felt that their organizing was in line with our goals. This has mostly focused on immigrant rights work, supporting anti-war efforts led by orgs of color and solidarity with Palestinian liberation. In addition to working in solidarity with organizations of color (going to them and asking how we can be of use), we also do political education events for mostly white activists groups in the global justice and anti-war movement. The main goal of these events is to help build anti-war movement that has anti-racist politics and looks to the leadership of radicals of color while simultaneously developing anti-racist white leadership. This has been a slow process, with many challenging questions. What does this have to do with defending white militants. Well, if one of the people in our group was targeted by the state, the relationships that we’ve built over time would help us mobilize support and solidarity from a broader cross section of activists and constituencies. That’s really the key to movement building, developing relationships with people. Think about when you get a phone call for some political event. Does it make a difference if you have some kind of positive connection with the person calling? In general I’m more likely to do something if I’m asked by someone I know. What this means to me is that defense against the state is about having positive relationships with lots of people, developing positive relationships between organizations and working for broad social change that fights state repression of white radicals, but also structural violence and injustice against immigrants, refugees, homeless people, sex workers, day laborers, working people, transgendered people, folks of color, women and queers. As a white male what do you see as your self-interest in doing anti-racist and feminist work? I think this is an important question to ask ourselves. Why are we doing this work, particularly anti-oppression work when we experience privilege on the basis of that oppression. I’ll just talk about a couple of reasons. One, fundamentally I believe they are both catalysts to move our movements forward and win concrete victories on the path to liberation. I want to live in a better society where I don’t pay the majority of my money to a landlord, where I don’t have to be worried about money when getting food. I want access to good health care and all kinds of basic human rights and I want the people around me to have the same thing. So, I think all of us want to see our work for social change succeed and history has shown that unless we are actively working on racism and sexism then they’ll undermine our work and set us back. The majority of leadership in nearly every radical social change effort has come from women, people of color, working class people, queers and transgendered people and doing anti-racist and feminist work has helped me to recognize this, learn from this and value it. Secondly, my own personal development has benefited so much from doing anti-racist and feminist work with lots of different people. Generally speaking, the people doing this kind of work are really inspiring and courageous people who have a lot to teach not only about organizing and movement building, but about living our lives with the principles that we have and the enormity of injustice that exists. It can be really depressing and disempowering and feel utterly hopeless as I’m sure you’ve experienced. Meeting people who not only fight back, but are also able to keep trying to build healthy communities and celebrate life, it keeps me sane and gives me hope. The other thing about building healthy, loving communities is that white supremacy and patriarchy tear us all apart in very different ways for sure, but the negative impact is felt in our personal relationships, our political work and in our daily lives. On a basic level, I want to experience meaningful loving relationships and vibrant healthy communities and patriarchy and white supremacy and the ways that I’ve internalized white privilege and gender privilege have seriously damaged me and people I love. Anti-racism and feminism, for me, are part of the path of personal healing and social liberation. What gives you the hope to carry on in this dark time of resurgent fascism? I watch a lot of movies and love pop culture. It’s true, when I’m feeling down, I often just chill and watch a romantic comedy or something. My friendships and the people I love, who I go to when I’m depressed. Putting energy into loving, supportive friendships is high on my list of what organizing and activism is all about. Dealing with this political time period? Well, knowing that we’re in line with the majority of the people on the planet in our opposition against the U.S. war on Iraq. That’s hopeful. I was reading Chomsky earlier today and his ability to analyze the world and tear apart the official doctrine and make sense of things from a radical framework is hopeful. I also just read this Buddhism book by Pema Chodron called ‘When Things Fall Apart’ and it’s really good. About facing fears, insecurities and finding peace with groundlessness, all that good Buddhist stuff. She actually says that we would actually be better off abandoning hope, that the flipside of hope is fear. Like, ‘I hope it happens, because I fear that it won’t’, that kind of thing. That hope places the focus on what could happen in the future, when really the only time we have to act is now. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have hope, but Pema reminds me that it is the concrete steps we take today that help us get to where we need to be. Knowing that people like us have made history and made the world a far better place gives me hope in times like these. The challenge is deciding what steps we take today to build movement and make history now.
Geoff is a revolutionary activist and aspiring anti-racist committted to overthrowing all systems of domination. He is active in Portland, OR in movements against imperialist war abroad and racist repression domestically. He co-edits the zine A New World in Our Heart, and seeks dialogue with people trying to create a strategy for a revolutionary left in this time of political crisis (and yes, sometimes he takes himself too seriously).