For centuries, community builders, social justice engineers and freedom fighters--most of whom are multiply marginalized--have been doing exhausting and traumatizing life-changing & life-saving work with and for no money; with no sleep, health or mental health care; and with no institutional support.
This said, I would like us to engage in an open and honest conversation about the relationships between oppression, violence, capitalism, “advocacy” and erasure.
For years I have kept a running log indexing every incidence of erasure that I have experienced at the hands of organizations and individuals who claim to be working toward “rights,” “equality” and “justice.” Up until now, no one knew of its existence. This log has been my outlet. My companion. My therapist. My rage witness. My way of combating, what I like to call, altruistic oppression and benevolent violence against my communities and me.
Why the shroud of secrecy? After experiencing terrible misplaced backlash at the mere mention of the possibility of “respected,” “resourced,” “revered” organizations or individuals causing harm to me and others--particularly those they claim to serve--I decided it best to keep to myself the intra-”community” erasure, aggression, oppression & violence of these entities until I was better prepared to address all of this and the violence that stems from being guilty of actually naming all of this.
Because there has been no room to discuss this all-too-common phenomenon, those of us who are on the ground engaged in the most difficult, traumatic and emotionally taxing work have had to become our own silent witnesses to violence against ourselves and our communities by those who claim to serve our communities (who also happen to hold the most visibility, funding, and power). These entities and people are largely unaware of the [a/e]ffects of their violence because they have effortlessly managed to drown [out] everyone in their white, non-disabled, cis, “care” giver, parent, wealthy, non-incarcerated (and the list of unaware unaffected “experts” continues) tears.
I have held out hope that space would free up for these critical conversations for some time. However, now as myself and others are presently experiencing a deluge of erasure, violence and literal tears, like nothing I have experienced or seen before, even as we all quietly engage with unaffected “experts” behind closed doors, I have decided to carve out a space right now because this conversation can’t wait.
The toll of erasure on social justice engineers, the communities we serve and the movements our hands and hearts have built and carried is immense. Not surprisingly, those in positions of power, are largely oblivious to why their actions are detrimental to struggles for liberation. What’s more, they are impervious to constructive dialogue--even when they ask that we invest in yet more emotional labor to explain how they are messing up.
When called out, instead of cleaning up shop, they attempt to justify their behaviors by quickly rolling over (excuse me, I mean, rolling out) an affected person who is not a part of the ongoing erasure dialogue to demonstrate their allegiance to all affected persons-ever; reminding you that their great-great uncle three times removed also experienced another kind of oppression that was just as bad--if not worse!; or--my absolute personal favorite--hastily throwing your name in their “white” paper and thinking that you will pipe down for the patronization (pun intended).
Many are much less original, and prefer to outright deny or dismiss your “allegations” of their impropriety, naming you a mean and horrible human for making such cruel insinuations when “all they have ever done is fight for the voiceless.” Their counterargument: Well, they are a very good person, of course. Many people can vouch for this, they say. Always the considerate ones, these folks will often send along their handy dandy reference list of other unaffected “experts” who will vouch for their kindness and help lay all of this “erasure business” to rest.
By now, they have all but confirmed for me that there are plenty of people who are nice and racist, kind and ableist and sweet and classist. It is clear to me now more than ever before that we will not get free by prioritizing the hurt feelings of powerful/privileged people or by surrendering to their hushed respectability refrain: let’s discuss this another time; in another, you know, more appropriate, venue.
Let this be a reminder to all who have bought into these age old strategies: our health, safety, lives and movements are more important than millions of unaffected experts’ feelings and tears. Naming erasure and violence is a powerful act of revolution and love that will lead to our collective liberation.
So, here am I; after reminding myself of my duty to fight for my own freedom, naming erasure & violence.
There are “educated, “elite,” “erudite” folks in resourced organizations claiming to be doing work on issues they know nothing about for communities that they would not give a second thought to if not for the possibility of personal or organizational financial or reputational gain. When they are finally all said and done (usually “done” coincides with the ebb of trendy funded advocacy--of which no funding usually goes to those who have been engaged in real liberation work for years), what is left is yet more work for those who already had been engaged beyond trending topics.
This runs parallel to stealing my ancestors from our homeland, inflicting unconscionable violence upon them, treating them as literal chattel--branded, bred and beaten; separating our families at your whim; making millions from our blood, sweat and pain; cutting off our limbs when we talked, looked, wrote, ran; then suddenly rallying against the institution of enslavement that you created to fund a new “revolution”--that was only revolutionary to you because you erased all of the years of freedom struggle before you finally realized that we were right all along.
In fact, the revolution had begun eons before you finally came to the realization that your institution was unjust--during that time when you were charging us for freedom that was never yours. Yes, then. Oh but now, you could maintain your moral superiority because, you had courageously taken it upon yourself to “come to our aid.”
But, you see, capitalism has always rewarded commodification of that which already belongs to those it chooses to oppress: Freedom, land, life, humanity.
Indeed, you will find, wrapped up in Black and Indigenous-led movements against enslavement, genocide, poverty, mass incarceration here in the “United States,” centuries of erasure of the unremunerated work of freedom fighters--who paid for freedom with blood & life.
It takes very little time to identify the pattern: Create injustice and violence; monetize violence while criminalizing and monetizing any and all attempts at freedom by the oppressed; knight the oppressor who decides that the oppressed is right; monetize future work to “reform” the violent and oppressive institution; ensure that reform benefits the oppressor and creates new systems of inequity; erase all memory of oppressed insurrection; move on to the next “cause.” Repeat.
People in positions of power often pat me on the back and rail that I should be paid for the “good” work that I am doing. Truth be told, I do not have the slightest idea how to monetize this love. In fact, the very thought of finding ways to make money to soothe human suffering makes me mentally and physically ill.
The truth is, capitalism could not afford to pay me my worth. Even if it could, it would not dare. A funded me would be the death of it.
Alas, capitalism feasts upon those who pray upon it. Ask yourself: before money existed what payment was required to love, protect and care for another?
What does it say about us when a society establishes systems whereby it monetizes human suffering and commodifies relief from the same suffering? Where the only people who are able to receive relief are those who can afford it? Where those who provide support are held out as heroes and those who provide “funding” heralded as gods? Where the only ones who can afford to do the work are those who can get the funding & getting funding is premised on being beholden to the very system that created the suffering in the first instance?
It is not surprising then, that those receiving funding rarely look like those who are adversely affected by the institution; or that they are often so unaffected and out of touch with those they seek to "help" that they often cause more trauma through “reform” than would have occurred had they just left everyone alone.
I suppose, if capitalistic calculation were applied to social justice engineers, my net worth would be in the millions. Wealthy folks often look at me with dismay (and I also pick up a bit of disdain) when they determine that I have provided "hundreds of thousands, if not millions" of dollars of "free" information, service and support to attorneys, organizations, law firms, businesses, agencies; and somewhere in the same "ballpark" in services and support to those who are suffering at the hands of government and private corporations.
They are surprised, and seemingly disappointed that I have not monetized my mind and struggle. It is true. My body's labor inures to fiscal and reputational benefit of business & government all in hopes of physically freeing my people.
Sadly, this society has created systems that commit violence against the most marginalized among us and against the most marginalized advocates among us--effectively ensuring that those who are best situated to end the violence can never fully engage; thus ensuring that violence continues, largely unscathed.
And the cycle never ends.
I am here to name that all of the work that I have done for the past decade has been for free[dom].
I have been directing an-all volunteer organization full-time on top of full-time law school plus part-time work, then on top of full-time professorship; on top of losing my life partner; on top of studying for bar exams; all on top of serious mental health conditions and a great deal more tribulations and violence that I will not get into here.
I am also here to name that I have been managing all of this while coping with violent theft of my intellect and derivative work, and erasure and commodification of my labor and my communities’ unspeakable suffering.
I am here to name that this and other violence by and through resourced organizations and individuals sets back the ground gained by efforts of the few of us who actually infuse heart, mind, body, blood into this struggle.
Those same organizations and individuals are happy to refer people who need actual support to me and our handful of volunteers to high heaven unless and until media or funding calls. Then you will find their faces plastered in print with worthless commentary on matters of life and death about which they know less than nothing because they forgot to care when it actually mattered--that is, when no one was watching, filming or offering reward.
I am here to name the terrible physical, mental and emotional toll this violence continues to have on me, my kindred, our unborn; and how it stymies our work toward liberation.
Very kind, well-intentioned, unaffected experts say to me all the time, “we have to find a way to get you some funding.”
The reality is that that thinking, is precisely why we are here.
I am not interested in continuing this fight. Free[dom] fighters are here now and always have been here for liberation. No amount of funding or accolades will remove the chains that bind my people. When “good” people are as enamored with and excited about freedom as they are about funding, there will be no need for heroes, gods, funding or saviors.
Until then, I will nod vacuously at those “nice” people and continue to heed my ancestors’ call.
I hear them clearly as they sing to me:
we gotta find our way to get us free
we gotta find our way to get us free
we gotta find our way to get us free
I dream incessantly of justice. Hoping to calm my mind & stir yours through this freedom space.