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The activist, scholar and movement lawyer takes stock of this harrowing political moment.
With less than a month to go until Donald Trump and his bevy of far-right appointees take the White House, communities across the United States are preparing for a potential escalation in immigration raids, police repression, Islamophobic targeting, corporate exploitation and climate chaos. Many of those taking to the streets to protest fascism and preparing mutual defense plans in their neighborhoods were also actively organizing throughout the Obama years, which saw a record number of deportations, open-ended wars and the highest levels of imprisonment in the world.
In the following interview, activist, scholar and movement lawyer Dean Spade takes stock of this harrowing political moment and offers frameworks to help social movements navigate the treacherous waters ahead. Spade is an associate professor at Seattle University School of Law, founder of the the legal collective Sylvia Rivera Law Project and author of the book Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. His writing and organizing spans issues from prison and police abolition to queer resistance and global anti-militarism. Spade told AlterNet, “We need to support the people getting killed in the current systems, and figure out how to build the systems we need to get everyone everything they need. This empire is crumbling and we’re going to keep losing the crappy, insufficient infrastructure that exists. We need to build infrastructure we want.”
Sarah Lazare: You’ve argued previously that we should understand the U.S. government as being in a constant state of war. Can you explain what you mean by this?
Dean Spade: For the last several years, especially throughout Obama’s second term, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, writing and connecting with others about the ways that major institutions and politicians co-opt ideas or symbols or words from left struggles and deploy them to shore up the very institutions of oppression that left struggles are trying to take down. For example, toward the end of Obama’s first term he came out in favor of same-sex marriage and repealing the ban on lesbians and gays in the military to make his presidency look progressive when under criticism for drone warfare, targeting whistleblowers, not closing Guantanamo, deporting records of numbers of immigrants, continuing U.S. military imperialism globally and more. Obama used gay politics to brand himself as progressive, just as the U.S. military used the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the ban on women serving in combat to rebrand itself as a site of liberation and freedom when it is the most significant source of violence on the planet.
Understanding this way that institutions, public officials and corporations manage public relations is essential right now. Whether it is a bank promoting itself as gay-friendly or an oil company promoting itself as green, grabbing left movement ideas, symbols and words is a widespread, effective propaganda tactic right now. Especially during the Obama administration, I was interested in how we could fight this form of propaganda, how we could build tools to discern when various ideas and symbols from our movements were being cynically used to cover over the ongoing operations of violence our movements exist to dismantle. Especially when I saw straight people who are usually very clearly anti-war celebrating gay military service and all the pro-military propaganda that came with it, or feminists who usually recognize marriage as a mechanism of gendered social control celebrating same-sex marriage as a moment of liberation, I felt concerned about how harmful institutions that are under attack from our movements can rehabilitate themselves through shallow “inclusion” strategies.
One frame that I think can help us through this, which has been central to so many left movements across time, is to understand the relationship between the United States and both targeted populations and resistance movements as a relationship of war. Movements have articulated that the U.S. is at war with targeted populations, and that the U.S. government uses counter-insurgency strategy when approaching our movements. In other words, the U.S. acts like this is war, so we should, too.
One example that is useful to look at is the framing from the 1951 “We Charge Genocide” petition brought to the United Nations arguing that the United States has engaged in genocide against black people according to the international law definition of genocide. The United States attempted to prevent the delivery of the petition, seizing the copies that were mailed to Paris and revoking the passports of Paul Robeson and William L. Patterson as they tried to deliver it. The petition became an international media sensation and a widely read document in the U.S. The framework it lays out remains vital to understanding anti-black racism in the U.S. Contemporary resistance to police violence has lifted up this same frame, arguing that state violence against black people is not about a few bad cops but is instead systemic. This is a particularly important frame in the context of contemporary rhetoric about how the U.S. is “post-racial” because we have a black president.
Indigenous movements in North America have also, obviously, consistently framed the United States and Canada as settler colonial nations that have engaged in warfare and genocide against Indigenous people. This frame is essential to comprehending the colonial context of their struggles, the outrageous claims of the United States to be in a “trust” relationship with Indigenous people, the meaning of treaty violations and the daily state violence faced by Indigenous people. The warfare frame has also been used by those working to dismantle the war on drugs, recognizing that it instead has been a war on people of color. Left activists have also consistently critiqued the war on terror as actually a war on Arab and Muslim people and a rationalization for permanent U.S. imperial warfare abroad.
Image credit: Micah Bazant
This war-frame lets us understand the relationship between the United States and our movements as one of counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency has two prongs. The first is repression. The U.S. government consistently and overtly oppresses resistant movements. We can see recent examples in government spying on Black Lives Matter groups, or the ongoing “green scare,” which includes infiltration of environmental and animal liberation groups, entrapment of members and extensive criminalization of activists. We can see it in the fact that police cleared the Occupy encampments across the U.S. These activities are part of a long, well-documented history that included the government infiltration of the American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, Young Lords and other important organizations in the 1960s and '70s resulting in the assassination and incarceration of many leaders.
The other prong of counterinsurgency is recuperation. Recuperation is about increasing the legitimacy of the government and marginalizing the views of resistant movements. This is the part where the very institutions and arrangements that are being criticized by the movements are recast as sites of freedom and liberation. The Obama administration did both prongs very effectively, particularly the propaganda part. Obama’s presidency was consistently framed as progressive and associated with left causes and movements in a way that rehabilitated its reputation, and the reputations of its key institutions like the military, despite the realities of what the administration was doing.
The Trump administration is not using the same strategy of cloaking its activities in a surface-level nod to progressive politics: the war against targeted populations is more overt. However, understanding counterinsurgency will be just as important for shaping our resistance during this period, particularly because with Trumpism on the scene, so many elected officials, corporations and institutions will be declaring themselves progressive or “anti-hate” since he makes it a low bar, meanwhile continuing to take actions that harm people and the planet.
The warfare and the counterinsurgency frames can give us some useful tools for discernment and debate about who our allies are, and whether particular reforms are helping dismantle harmful institutions and arrangements or just rehabilitating their public images.
SL: How do you see this warfare framework as helpful for navigating which reforms set us back and which move us toward harm reduction?
DS: The powers that be (owners, industries, governments and militaries) want to keep things the way they are or enhance exploitation and violence. Our movements want to dismantle the apparatuses of control and violence that rob people of their land, labor and collective self-determination. When movements are growing to resist harm and violence, they first ignore us. When we get big and loud enough, they acknowledge the problem in some limited way and tell us they will take care of it, creating a minimal reform that, as much as possible, maintains the status quo.
Critical race theorists call this dynamic “preservation through transformation,” and the example that they often use for it is civil rights. In the face of a powerful, disruptive, widespread movement for black freedom, the United States made the concession of civil rights laws, which formally make racism and racial segregation illegal. So, the surface of the law changed, and the story the U.S. tells about itself changes (“racism is a thing of the past”). But the material conditions facing black people did not change much. Schools are wildly segregated and unequally funded, the racial wealth gap continues to widen and the imprisonment of black people and other people of color has skyrocketed in the last half-century. This is a major danger of reforms—that they change the surface, but the injustice and suffering that movements were raising hell about goes mostly unchanged.
Often we see reforms that are solely symbolic. The elected officials or institutions get to take up the cause and associate themselves with the idea of justice and freedom without having to endure anything actually changing. For example, after the Trump election public officials in Washington State, where I live, held a press conference to declare Washington a “hate-free state." It was a feel-good opportunity where they could all show how they are against racism, Islamophobia and homophobia. However, these are the same politicians who are building a $210 million new youth jail in Seattle while the school system is operating at a budget deficit. These kinds of empty declarations are a dime a dozen right now, and can effectively provide legitimacy and cover to institutions and people who should actually be held accountable for the harm they are doing.
Sometimes reforms are problematic because they aren’t totally symbolic, but they provide relief to only the least-marginalized of the effected group. An example would be immigration reforms that are aimed only at people with no criminal histories or are who are wiling to join the military or excel at school and pay for college without access to financial aid. Since poorer immigrants, black and indigenous immigrants, and immigrants with disabilities are more likely to have been targeted by police and less likely to have been given educational support, any policy that picks out the "deserving" will also reinforce existing hierarchies of vulnerability and legitimize the targeting of the most vulnerable.
Many reforms provide little or no meaningful change to conditions, but go far to legitimize and even expand harmful systems. We can see this when states propose to build “gender-responsive prisons” in the face of criticism about gendered violence in prisons. Building more prisons means filling more prisons, but cloaking that project in purported care for women prisoners can legitimize prison expansion. Similarly, police forces faced with criticism about racism and sexism sometimes initiate hiring focused on women and people of color. Our movements want to dismantle policing and imprisonment, not win reforms that expand them.
Because of these complex dynamics, a big question for movements is how you tell whether a reform (that we’re proposing or that the powers that be are proposing) advances our struggle or recuperates their institutions?
Some of the criteria that I have found useful are: Will it provide material relief? Will this improve the life chances of people who are most vulnerable under the current conditions? Does it leave out an especially marginalized part of the affected group (such as people with criminal records, people convicted of “violent” crimes, or people without immigration status)? Is it a reform that says some groups (families, children, people with jobs, people with education) are deserving and should be given relief but others (single people, adults, poor people, people on benefits, people with criminal records, people without degrees) deserve to get targeted? Is it dividing our constituency, undermining our power, and exposing the most marginal people to more harm? Does it legitimize and expand the system we’re actually trying to dismantle?
And the question isn’t just about the content of the reform, but also how it is being fought for. Who’s pushing for it? Is it a bunch of people in suits behind closed doors, or is it most affected people in the streets fighting for this? Are we building power in this fight, power that we can keep using to continue the fight? Or is this reform coming from the powers that be, the sheriffs and prosecutors and elected officials saying they have solved the problem and we can all go back to sleep?
In his recent book, The Failure of Nonviolence, Peter Gelderloos suggests that we ask, “Does it have elite support?” That’s a very useful question right now, because with everyone excited to get on the Trump-is-bad bandwagon, the bar has gotten very low for what constitutes a racist. If you’re not Trump, you get to proclaim you are progressive or right-on, even if you’re actually a jail-building elected official. Many elites are trying to get mileage for their reputations out of supporting reforms that won’t threaten their power or the power of their donors, but make them look like they are on a moral high ground compared to Trump. It is a good time for us to be suspicious of any purportedly justice-oriented reforms that are backed by elites.
The organizer, educator and writer Mariame Kaba made a very useful contribution to this thinking about how we evaluate reforms in an article about evaluating police reforms. She asks: does it allocate more money to the police? Does it advocate for more police and policing? Is the reform primarily technology-focused? Is it focused on individual dialogues with individual cops? These kinds of concrete questions help advance our thinking about reforms, and they do so because they keep an understanding of the adversarial relationships between the government and capital and our movements in focus.
Image credit: Talcott Broadhead
SL: What kind of organizing do you think is important in this political moment, less than a month out from Trump taking the White House?
DS: Trump is not promoting himself as progressive. Obama did promote himself as progressive, but only as cover for his actual actions as the deporter-in-chief, the expander of drone warfare and domestic surveillance, the president of the most imprisoning nation in the history of the world, etc. The Trump moment is different from the Obama moment in many ways, but there are also important similarities. We’re under a lot of the same conditions, but not under any illusions that we can negotiate at the federal level to transform them. We’re all pretty aware that the levels of danger that vulnerable people (people in public housing, people on benefits, immigrants, prisoners) are in are very high already and worsening under Trump. A lot of people are scared and many are getting mobilized by that fear, whether they are the ones in the most direct line of fire or whether they are concerned for the people they care about.
This moment, importantly, turns us to the local level. Most of the things we’re concerned about—immigration raids, people losing their welfare benefits, public housing being closed or privatized, a growing private prison industry, more power for landlords, bosses and polluters—these things might be federal decisions, but when they are implemented on a local level. This is the moment to establish local projects to obstruct the implementation of these harms and support the people most endangered by these forces. It is time to build many, many local projects everywhere, to do things like support prisoners, go with people to housing court and benefits hearings, create rapid response and alert systems for immigration raids, create community networks to house each other, create emergency response for climate-change created disasters, create community care networks to support people with disabilities and old people, create childcare projects and more. We need to do this mutual aid work alongside work to disrupt the operations of the systems that pulverize our communities. We need to be blocking deportations with our bodies, sabotaging jail and prison building efforts and occupying public housing slated for demolition.
In contemporary culture, we are strongly encouraged to spend all our political energy declaring our positions on social media, and none on supporting targeted people or actually building the world we want to live in. The work we need to do is deeply local. It is not glamorous, but it is satisfying and radical. Figuring out how evictions work in our town, what resources tenants are missing in those processes, and how to support the most vulnerable tenants who are the least likely to make it through those processes when fighting rich landlords is work we can actually do. And when it fails, we must also be ready to use direct action to protect tenants and target landlords.
We don’t have to be lawyers to support people through bureaucratic procedures. Many of us have the research skills to support these kinds of projects and can share and build those skills with others. If we have the internet, we can be doing research for people getting out of prison about housing and health care, helping them with that transition. We can be using various kinds of literacy and access to create meaningful advocacy and accompaniment projects. It is the right time for solid, long-term, committed mutual aid work. It is a matter of survival, and it is a matter of creating a new world.
I’m very inspired by groups like No One Is Illegal, which has chapters across Canada. NOII has done organizing around people being in immigration detention and facing deportation. They consistently use grassroots organizing and direct action to assert political pressure to support people facing detention and deportation and delegitimize Canadian border enforcement policies and practices. We’ve seen these strategies building in the United States with the hunger strikes of people in immigrant detention over the last several years and work to block deportation buses. #Not1More has demonstrated the powerful work that can happen with solidarity between people inside and outside immigration prisons.
When we’re committed to regular practice with group of people with whom we build trust to commit to a project, and those groups are in solidarity and connection with other groups in similar kinds of deep work, I think this is our way to prepare for this Trump moment and all the ongoing moments we’re going to face during and after this presidency. This work builds the relationships and movement infrastructure we need to prepare for the next storm, the next war. To be honest, we needed this work with Obama in office too. Local, grassroots work that is rooted in mutual aid and has lots of people participating is vital for both survival of the most targeted and building the power to displace the structures that have been making war on targeted populations for centuries. I hope that the ways that many people are feeling mobilized by the election help us develop more of this work.
SL: You’ve talked about now being the time for ‘nobodies.’ Can you explain what you mean by that?
DS: I got this concept from the activist, writer and filmmaker Reina Gossett. She talks about "nobodies" and "somebodies" and asks us to think about when we are doing things to try to not feel like a nobody. When are we doing things to try to feel like a somebody? Her inquiry made me think about how many people are excited about social movement ideas and transformation but don’t actually give a f*ck about homeless people in their neighborhoods, or actual people in prison in their city and state. Even people who have been through poverty or criminalization or migration are encouraged to wash our hands of it as soon as we can, to villainize anyone still struggling.
In our movements, it often seems like people are struggling to be seen, to be somebody, to meet with someone who is somebody like the mayor or an activist celebrity or a Hollywood celebrity. What would it look like to turn that upside-down? How could I shift that and say, I can’t wait to shake the hand of the person whose name I don’t know who’s in solitary in the prison 50 miles from my house. And that’s my life goal, not meeting Beyoncé or Noam Chomsky, but connecting with someone who is being tortured and denied human touch.
As someone who has been a poverty lawyer and spent time fighting in these murderous bureaucratic systems, I have seen how they are very local and idiosyncratic. We need to getting in the muck of local systems. All of us need to figure out something that we’re kind of good at or willing to study up on, something we feel passionate enough to make a long-term commitment to and dig into material work. We need to support the people getting killed in the current systems, and figure out how to build the systems we need to get everyone everything they need. This empire is crumbling and we’re going to keep losing the crappy, insufficient infrastructure that exists. We need to build infrastructure we want. We need to actually, concretely build the world we want to live in, before the next blackout or storm comes, and in the face of the longer-term deterioration of our educational systems, hospitals, all of it. This local work is building our movement, because people who are doing that work are mobilized, have relationships with each other, know each other’s kids and elders, and have skills for connecting across difference that are lost in an individualist, isolating society.
The warfare frame helps us with this work. If we understood that there is a war against targeted people and our movements, we would be more ready to help people escape the raid, escape the jurisdiction, escape from prison. We might be more ready to open our homes to the person getting out of prison, set up the bail fund, hide someone from the cops or ICE, give someone a ride, or whatever it takes.
Debbie Southorn helped with this interview.
Image credit: Roan Boucher
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