Monday, 09 December 2013 19:05 Published in Culture
Have you daydreamed about being a member of an intergenerational social justice organization like the Order of Phoenix? Do you want Dumbledore to be your mentor?
Have dementors ever burned you out to the point where you doubted your ability to take on the Voldemorts of our world? Do you find yourself analyzing Dumbledore's Army for lessons on developing liberatory vision, culture, leadership, and organization?
Me too. Let's develop our magic, build our liberation movement, and defeat the Voldemorts in our world. I'll meet you in the Room of Requirement, and until then, here are my top lessons from Harry Potter for social justice organizing.
1. The Voldemort Principle of Systems of Oppression and Getting Free
Voldemort and the Death Eaters suck and they want to impose pure-blood supremacy in the magical world as a means to consolidate their power. Their strategy follows a familiar logic. Organize society into classes according to socially perceived biological differences. Criminalize those on the margins, those born of muggle parents, like Hermione. Position themselves as the defenders of Tradition and the Natural Order. Divide society according to socially perceived biological differences and political loyalty. Use fear and hate to weaken the bonds of solidarity throughout society, while simultaneously uniting the right. Fight the Left, take power, and remake the world in their own image. Dismal? But there's more, and here's where the insight lies.
Just as many of us come into activism through our growing awareness of injustices in society, such as economic inequality, war, sexism, and racism, Harry comes into activism through his growing awareness of Voldemort's evil. But over time, Harry realizes that Voldemort is also inside his head. While we who are activists can and must be literate in the ways that white supremacy creates profound disparity of access to resources such as housing, health care, and education, we also come to find that white supremacy is inside our heads – for those of us who are people of color as internalized inferiority and for those of us who are white as internalized superiority. Voldemort, like the real-world systems of oppression we are up against, is both a force in the world structuring our society and inside our heads.
The great South African anti-Apartheid leader Steven Biko once said, "The most powerful weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." If the oppressed fight each other based on differences of race, gender, ability, citizenship status, sexuality, and so on, and if the oppressed also believe that there is no alternative – that they are incapable of making substantial change and are incapable of self-governing – then the oppressed will maintain the logic and institutions of deeply unequal and unjust societies.
In order to effectively take on Voldemort in the world, Harry must come to consciousness about the Voldemort in his head and resist his influence. Voldemort's influence leads Harry into the battle at the Ministry of Magic, which results in Sirius's death. It is Voldemort's influence that also fuels Harry's anger, which at times, isolates Harry from his comrades. When Harry directly challenges Voldemort in the world, Harry is able to free his mind of Voldemort's influence. On the flipside, as Harry becomes more aware of his connection with Voldemort, he is able to gain insights into Voldemort's logic and plans. This moment, an apex of Harry's consciousness, is also an important insight about our internalizing of the logic of systems of oppression. Through reflection and awareness, we can draw lessons on how oppression operates and use those lessons to help develop an anti-racist, feminist, disability justice, queer and transgender liberationist, working class-based anti-capitalist movement (aka the Left).
As social justice organizers and leaders, the responsibility rests on us to help more and more activists understand the world of power around them and its historical roots, to realize the way socialization and position in society impact our consciousness, and to understand our own personal decolonization from systems of oppression as part of collective struggles for social justice and structural equality. We must help one another become conscious of the ways Voldemort gets in our heads and, together, work to get free.
2. The Power of Love as the Practice of Freedom
After Dumbledore and Voldemort duel in the Ministry of Magic, Voldemort possesses Harry's mind, and tells Dumbledore and Harry that their defeat is imminent. Voldemort declares that Harry's efforts will fail and then fills his mind with images of the horrors that will engulf the world. As Harry struggles in anguish, lying on the floor, Dumbledore whispers to him, "Harry, it isn't how you are alike [with Voldemort i.e., white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy]. It is how you are not." At that moment Harry sees Hermione, Ron, Ginny, and others enter the room and his mind fills with images of loving embraces with his family and friends, of his beloved community. At this juncture, Harry responds to Voldemort, "You're the weak one, and you will never know love or friendship. And I feel sorry for you." Through reconnecting with his values and his community, Harry accesses the power of love, repels Voldemort, and finds his courage for the fight ahead.
Anti-racist feminist socialist scholar bell hooks speaks of love as the practice of freedom. What we are up against is daunting and, at times, voices in our heads tell us that we will be defeated or even that we already are. hooks asks us to take up work against injustice in the spirit of Dr. King who said, "Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives." Harry often struggled to see the power of love, as revenge and anger weighted his motivation. While anger helped bring him into the struggle, just as it brings many of us into social justice work, it couldn't sustain him or ultimately help him achieve his larger goals.
One of the recurring images throughout Harry Potter is his mother, Lily, standing between her newborn son and Voldemort. Lily's sacrifice was a powerful act of magic which saves Harry. The love of Harry's mother and father was a source of power that healed and emboldened Harry. The more he opened himself to their love, the more he was able to powerfully act from love. In our social justice movement, when we are tired, weary and beat down, we must let the love of our ancestors heal and embolden us. The greatest of our leaders and organizers spoke of working for a better world for the coming generations. We are the ones they fought for. The extent to which we are disconnected from their love and our own ability to love is the extent to which Voldemort influences us.
"Your mother died to save you," explained Dumbledore. "If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love." It is imperative that we ground ourselves in the visions we work for, the values we work from, and the love we have for our friends, families, and communities with which we work. While Voldemort might be in our heads, while there may be ways that we ourselves reproduce systems of oppression, while there will be many mistakes along our journey, how we are different from systems of oppression, how we love, is what is of utmost importance.
3. Expecto Patronum – Letting Our Light Shine
A Patronus charm conjures up a protective guardian, taking the shape of an animal that can repeal Dementors. The incantation, as Professor Lupin explains, will only work if you are concentrating on a very happy memory, which later we learn must be a memory rooted in love. Dementors are creatures that guard prisons, and in the words of Lupin, "drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them... every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life." Dementors are all around us, from pundits on Fox News to Internet trolls who fill the comments section on blogs and Facebook with name-calling and insults. Dementors are also the voices in our heads that Biko warned us about, voices meant to keep us disempowered.
Our casting a Patronus mobilizes love as the practice of freedom that connects us to our power and express it in the world. All of us must work to connect to our own inner power, our own happiest of memories, and our own calling into courageous action. As liberation organizers, our responsibility is to foster culture and practices that light up the world with our collective Patronus charms. When everyday people in the Civil Rights movement sang "This Little Light of Mine, I'm Going to Let it Shine" in the face of violent police, attack dogs, and jail time, they connected to a deeper collective power that not only gave them the courage to act, but communicated the power of love over Jim Crow apartheid, to the world.
We can create a wide variety of such collective practices and rituals that help us step into loving liberatory power. That power removes Dementors and helps us be bold for justice. We can also create personal practices and rituals to connect us to our power, to help us cast our own Patronus charm. Take a moment to reflect on times you have experienced deep joy, liberatory power, and the tenderness of humanity. Now go forth and let your light shine!
4. Hogwarts, the Order of the Phoenix and Building Movement for Justice
Hogwarts is where young witches and wizards are educated and brought into the magical world. It is here they can be who they are, develop their powers, and be with peers, friends, teachers, and mentors. Hogwarts, like many schools around the world, is the primary place where new people come into contact with counter-narratives of history, interact with a wider cross section of people than they have before, learn values of equality and democracy, and, often, through groups like Dumbledore's Army, have opportunities to join groups putting ideas into action in the world.
While a plurality of ideals exists at Hogwarts (including discriminatory policies against Squibs and non-human magical creatures), the institution is nevertheless deeply influenced by its Headmaster, Dumbledore, a queer, critical educator and a leader of the anti-Voldemort (i.e., anti-imperialist collective liberation-oriented) Order of the Phoenix. Over time, Hogwarts becomes a key site of struggle between the right-wing Death Eaters and the Left. There are Dolores Umbridge's efforts to take over Hogwarts to suppress opposition to Voldemort and gut Defense of the Dark Arts classes (i.e., Arizona banning Ethnic Studies classes in conjunction with anti-immigrant legislation designed to disempower working class communities of color). Then Severus Snape takes over as the headmaster under Voldemort's rule. The struggle over Hogwarts is ultimately a struggle over whose values will shape the common sense understandings of society.
On the eve of the final showdown, the Left retakes Hogwarts as Dumbledore's Army unites with the Order of the Phoenix and in the struggle for power, everyone, regardless of previous affiliation or neutrality, must decide on which side they stand. As Professor McGonagall steps forward to defend Harry and vanquish Snape, all the other professors, along with the students in the houses of Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw, unite behind the liberation movement. In a matter of minutes, with a new united power led by Left forces, the agents of Voldemort in the administration, and student sympathizers in the house of Slytherin, are disempowered, marginalized, and removed. With the neighboring town of Hogsmeade, Hogwards becomes, becomes a bastion of the anti-Voldemort movement, and the power of the institution and its communities (from the stone soldiers to the formerly neutral professors, students, and townspeople) are aligned with the Left and in motion to fight back.
Six key lessons emerge for our movement. First, we must assess the institutions in society, determine which ones have the most liberatory potential, and actively support efforts to govern them from the Left and marshal their powers to further social justice. Through our work, our values can shape the institutions and influence the common sense understandings in society.
Second, we need autonomous Left organizations like the Order of Phoenix to keep us guided by a larger vision, unite people across many institutions and communities with shared values and strategy, and take actions beyond the constraints institutional positions have on us. For instance, Kingsley Shacklebolt must play a limited public role in the fight against Voldemort through his position at the Ministry of Magic, but he is able to share information gathered at the Ministry with the Order of the Phoenix and is able to take action against Voldemort as a member of the Order. And even though he is in the Ministry, Kingsley and the Order prioritize direct action as their primary strategy for change.
Third, we need to be mindful of entry points for people to get actively involved in social justice efforts. We should support those entry points with people who have experience and connections in the broader movement, so that when new people come to consciousness about feminism, anti-racism, economic justice, disability justice, queer liberation, and so on, they are adequately supported as budding activists. Schools are hotbed entry points where tremendous national and local student organizations and tens of thousands of fantastic teachers thrive. We need more organizations like the Order of the Phoenix to help connect highly motivated and committed new activists (like Harry, Hermione, and Ron) with experienced activists and a larger multigenerational community of social justice thinkers and activists.
Fourth, there will be times, like the battle at Hogwarts or Occupy Wall Street, where large numbers of people, previously uninvolved, will take sides, get involved, and fight back. They might not all be involved for the same reasons as the Order, but their involvement is what turns the struggle into a mass movement potentially capable of making the systemic changes for justice we want and need. As we do the day-to-day work of social justice organizing, we must remain nimble in times of mass involvement so that we can be expansive while also helping bring leadership in a new phase of mass participation.
Fifth, there will be divisions among our opposition. Severus Snape's love for Lily Potter converted him from a being a member of Voldemort's inner circle, to a key, if not controversial, member of the Order. Draco Malfoy, after years of being Harry's arch-nemesis, doesn't turn Harry over to Voldemort at Malfoy Manor. Draco's mother, Narcissa, boldly protects Harry in the final hour, by lying directly to Voldemort, a move that sets the Death Eaters up for their final defeat. For Snape, it is love for Lily, not the Order and its mission, which converts him. For the Malfoys, the motivation is the realization that Voldemort's rule will bring misery to their family, despite their shared politics. The lesson is that the hearts of our opposition can change and that a victory is won not just when they agree with our politics, but when in some significant way, they transcend and help us move forward.
Sixth, social justice organizations like the Order and Dumbledore's Army are critical as vehicles to put our politics and values into practice, make impacts in the world, bring new people into the movement, pass on history and lessons, provide support and camaraderie to one another, and develop vision, strategy, and tactics over time, as we refine and learn from our mistakes and successes.
5. The Importance of Hermione Granger's Feminist Leadership
I love Hermione. How could you not? She is a brilliant witch, passionate about challenging injustice, a book nerd, and she is, essentially, the catalyst who turns the anti-Voldemort struggle into a movement rooted in the aspirations, urgencies, and power of young people. She is, indeed, the Ella Baker of the wizarding world.
In book five, the situation is looking bleak. With center right power growing through Umbridge and fascist right power growing under Voldermort, the Order of the Phoenix is on the defensive and Harry's godfather, Sirius, instructs, "It's up to your generation now."
Harry primarily sees the struggle against Voldemort and the Death Eaters as his own personal mission. It is Hermione who understands the struggle must be rooted in grassroots community power. With Umbridge preventing students from using magic in their Defense Against the Dark Arts classes, Hermione sees the opportunity to build that power. Using her relationships with students in Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw, Hermoine brings together thirty students to initiate a secret class taught by Harry.
Leadership is often thought of as courageous acts by individuals, acts much like those taken by Harry. However, grassroots movements are built through the leadership of people like Civil Rights organizer Ella Baker, a pioneer who built relationships with people and who supported people to believe in their own abilities to collectively solve the problems before them. Hermione is often thought of as brilliant, but rarely as a leader. In fact, she is one of the most important leaders in the series. Hers is a feminist leadership of building power with others, rather than over them. Hers is a leadership based in respect earned through years of building positive relationships, providing support and encouragement, and consistently acting in a principled way. Finally, Hermione's leadership comes out of her experience of being an outsider, a muggle-born witch, who has defied intimidation when called a "Mudblood" by Malfoy, and used her outsiderness to better understand how the system works and with whom she is allied.
There is often an attempt to make leaders appear as though they were born with all the right answers. The genius of Hermione is that she makes strong attempts to practice her politics, and learns in the process. For example, Hermoine moved to "liberate" the house elves through S.P.E.W. (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare). The effort failed because, though her intentions were pure, Hermoine's effort to save the House Elves was without their input, participation or leadership. For example, Hermione could have supported Dobby's voice and leadership in telling his own story and sharing his reasons for wanting to be free. Nonetheless, S.P.E.W. gave voice to a politics of solidarity and respect for all magical creatures. Even though S.P.E.W.'s approach failed, Hermione's efforts matured in the process. She learned about the Ministry of Magic's attempts to take away the Centaur's autonomy and land, and her expression of solidarity with the Centaurs' demands led to a critically important alliance.
Hermione routinely manifested the best big picture thinking of what's going on, knows who can be counted on, and knows how to bring people together, but these attributes alone weren't enough to unite the students she assembled into Dumbledore's Army. As the students listened to her plan, doubts quick arose about whether or not He-Who-Shall-Not-Be Named was really back. Harry ends up giving an impassioned speech about how facing off against Voldemort, with your life on the line, watching your friend die, isn't like practicing magic in the classroom and that no one else there knew what that experience was like. The room went quiet with the heaviness of Harry's words and then something transformational happens.
Hermione responded, "You're right Harry: we don't. That's why we need your help." She speaks on behalf of the group in a manner meant to achieve three goals at once. She needed to convince the group that they need this underground class. She wanted Harry to understand that he in fact does need to step into this role. And finally, Hermione recognized the collective denial and fear in the room, and knew she needed to confront her own fear, publicly, so that others could so it privately. Hermione continued, "Because if we're going to have any chance of beating... (pause) Voldemort..." and the room is heavy once again, as for the first time someone other then Dumbledore or Harry has pushed past fear to say You Know Who's name. Acting with the respect and legitimacy of her relationship-based leadership, Hermione spoke with vulnerable courage, her voice trembling as she Voldemort, and in the process inspired others to find their own courage. No of them doubted Harry from that moment on and Dumbledore's Army was born. Hermione brought the students together, convinced a reluctant leader to step up, and demonstrated the courage needed to build an underground resistance movement that proved key to Voldemort's ultimate defeat.
6. Dumbledore's Army and the Role of Organization
As members of Dumbledore's Army trained during one of their underground Defense Against the Dark Arts classes, Harry boldly declared, "Every great wizard in history has started out as nothing more then what we are now: students. If they can do it, why not us?" Today, as we look back at the great leaders of our social justice movements – the Ida. B. Wells, William Lloyd Garrison, Malcolm X, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – we can get awe-struck and place them on pedestals to be idolized rather than draw inspiration from their example to become extraordinary ourselves. One of the dynamics of looking at outstanding and inspiring individuals is that the narratives of their lives take them outside of the organizations that helped support them along the way. So we hear about Rosa Parks as the middle-aged woman too tired to move to the back of the bus, rather then Rosa Parks the revolutionary who was the secretary of the local NAACP who, just a few months before her history-changing action, had gone through non-violent direct action training at the Highlander Center and had made a commitment to utilizing what she had learned.
Through the student-formed underground practice sessions of Dumbledore's Army, a cadre of young witches and wizards became skilled with spells, deepened their commitment to fight the right, and created a thriving community of comrades who encourage and support one another. The DA created a space for collective praxis to emerge. Praxis is the process of putting ideas into action and then drawing out lessons from the experience. As Harry said earlier, none of the other students had the experience of going up against Voldemort. They only had lessons learned in a classroom. Praxis is taking the lessons from the practice sessions into a fight against the Death Eaters, which is exactly what happened when Hermione, Ron, Harry, Ginny Weasley, Neville Longbottom, and Luna Lovegood faced the Death Eaters in the Ministry of Magic. Leadership is born of values joined with experience and that is why it is no coincidence that Ginny, Neville, and Luna became the primary leaders of the DA when Hermione, Ron and Harry went underground and Hogwarts was taken over by the forces of Voldemort.
Leadership is a dynamic process that draws on people's backgrounds and experiences, but also relies on the choices and actions people take. Furthermore, leadership is usually developed through the support, encouragement and teaching of others. While some of us as individuals will receive this leadership development, organizations routinely provide spaces for more of us to have our leadership developed. Leadership matures through practice and again where Harry, Hermione and Ron have amply opportunities to practice their leadership, it is the DA that creates opportunities for a more and more people to practice and mature.
For example, Ginny's leadership was certainly rooted in being raised in a working class family guided by Left values and a practice of solidarity (earning them the label "blood traitors" from right-leaning families). Ginny's parents are both in the Order from the early days and nearly all of her siblings becoming members of either the Order or the DA. It is, however, through her participation in the DA that Ginny moved from being a supporter of the Left to being a leader in the fight against Voldemort. The DA created an entry point, and she found support to develop her magical power and take action. Or look at Neville. He could have easily been dismissed as a nice enough person, but hardly a revolutionary; yet in the end, Neville is the courageous leader who declares that the struggle continues even when it seems as though Voldemort has killed Harry Potter. Similarly, Luna was a weirdo outsider, who was routinely mocked. She quickly becomes one of Harry's most important advisors, regularly giving him critical insights and direction. One of Harry's gifts as a leader, is that he not only listened to her, but actively courted her friendship. However, it is through the DA that Luna's "think outside the box" perspective is able to help shape the overall liberation struggle as she too becomes a core leader who keeps hope alive during Voldemort's rule.
Another important dimension of organization and collective efforts in general, is that they can, if we are willing, open space for more and more people to play important roles. This is particularly important for Ron and Harry. In the early years, Ron grew increasingly jealous of Harry's public persona and popularity. At the same time, Harry became, at times, self-centered. This often happens in our social justice work. Ego, jealously and rivalry can often hurt our efforts and destroy relationships. As the DA took form, Ron was able to play important public roles bringing others into the group. Harry and Ron were both able to mature past their squabbles and focus on the larger goals of their efforts. As they began to pay attention to the needs of the dozens of students in the DA who were hungry for leadership and opportunities, Ron and Harry let go of petty grudges and exaggerated hurts. The truth is, leadership, organization, collective efforts for liberation, are all deeply challenging and we need our friends and comrades. Harry and Ron need each other, not just because they are stronger together against Voldemort, but because the love of our family, friends and communities is the magic of life and that love is what makes facing the challenges so rewarding.
At the end of the Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore challenges everyone at Hogwarts to "Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory." Social justice organizations and communities help us support each other to do what is right, rather than what is easy. They help us live our values and develop grassroots power to fight the Voldemorts in our world and help us expand justice and equality for all. It is important to join collective efforts, support them, work alongside them, and help create an ecosystem of social justice organizations, institutions, communities, crews, families, and relationships that form movements that can win.
The Magic of Taking Action for Social Justice
In closing, let us learn from Harry, Hermione, Dumbledore, Ginny and Neville. Let us learn from the Order and from the DA. And let us bring forward the magic of social justice organizing to liberate us from the Voldemorts in the world and in our heads. Let us cast our Patronus charm, vanquish the Dementors, and be in our power. Let us come together with others to build grassroots movements, build up liberation organizations, take direct action, sing and dance together, and love with all our hearts. Let us create magic together and act courageously from a place of love for collective liberation.
Thank you to my lovely team of fellow Order of the Phoenix members for their editorial feedback, contributions and help: Rahula Janowski, Nisha Anand, Marc Mascarenhas-Swan, Caroline Picker, Morrigan Belle Phillips, Chris Dixon, April Caddell, Christina Aanestad, Liz Crockett Hixon and Aletha Fields.
Tuesday, 09 July 2013 20:29 Published in Article
In this mini-series, I interview three young artists and recent graduates of UC Santa Cruz whose work addresses policing, state violence, and creative forms of resistance to the Prison Industrial Complex. The first of these interviews is with Noah Miska, whose untitled multi-media installation educates viewers about the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike and invites viewers to get involved in supporting people in prison. It was created for the 2013 Irwin Award Show, a group show recognizing 12 emerging artists and graduating seniors at UC Santa Cruz's Sesnon Gallery. This series is cross-posted on Open Space.
Today, July 8, 2013, thousands of incarcerated people throughout California held in Security Housing Units (SHU), or solitary confinement, will begin a hunger strike, one of the only forms of resistance available to them.
In a prison system built on punishment and isolation, solitary confinement is the belly of the beast. People forced to live in the SHU are held in their cells for at least 23 hours a day and suffer conditions that can only accurately be described as torture: an absence of physical and mental health care, sunlight, adequate food, rehabilitative programming, and physical or social contact. Often the only contact people living in the SHU have is with prison guards, the very people who enforce their confinement.
It is from this place—a place intentionally kept invisible and silent by the state—that the hunger strike emerged, beginning first in 2011 as an unprecedented act of leadership among SHU prisoners. And it is this place and these people that Noah Miska’s recent multi-media installation brings into visibility.
Upon entering Noah's piece, viewers are surrounded by hundreds of found plates resting on wooden shelves, their undersides turned outwards. On each plate, transcribed by hand, is the name, address and biography of a prisoner in search of a pen-pal. Viewers are invited through signage to take a plate with them and by doing so, commit to writing to the person. In order to further facilitate this connection, the installation included a writing desk with guidelines for writing people in prison and background information about the hunger strike, all handwritten and available for viewers to take.
There is a silence to Noah's work; the silencing of certain people, the warehousing of these people. This silence depends upon the removal of people from our communities, especially poor people and people of color, and is an instrument of a system that says some lives are more valuable than others. While the installation references people, the only human being that is actually visible is in the video that plays on loop at the top, right of the back gallery wall. The video shows a middle aged man exercising in the "yard" of the SHU at Pelican Bay Prison—a short concrete hallway with frosted plexi-glass covered ceilings where SHU prisoners are brought with no regularity.
The piece feels almost sterile. The plates—a clear reference to the sacrifice and resistance of the hunger strikers—break their uniformity only subtly. They sit on the edge of the shelves, on the brink of shattering and disrupting the tenuous silence. While the number of them references a multitude of people, the plates represent only a small fraction of the estimated 2.3 million people currently imprisoned in the United States. By transcribing all the text by hand, Noah points to conditions that people in prison know all too well: the passing of time, the limited resources, and the necessity and difficulties in finding ways to communicate beyond the prison walls.
As more people put their lives on the line today to fight for the hunger striker's 5 core demands—still unmet by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—the need for this kind of artwork feels critical. Noah succeeds in creating visually impactful and beautiful work that also activates audiences to learn about human rights abuses and get involved.
Without building political power, the cycle of mass incarceration and the silence that it relies upon will continue. Unless one is involved in prisoner-rights organizing, has a family member or loved one in prison, or has survived the system themselves, prisons and those locked up inside them are disappeared. It is the responsibility of people in the free world to carry these stories to places thought to be far removed from the reach of prisons. And so, it is with that intention that I am happy to post this interview with Noah Miska about his emerging art practice, his prisoner rights organizing, and the incredible inspiration of the hunger strikers, many of whom have endured these conditions for 30 years and counting.
Adrienne Skye Roberts: Can you describe your project and the inspiration for your project?
Noah Miska: For this project I spent eight weeks looking through websites like prisoninmates.org, blackandpink.org, and prisonpenpals.org, collecting the names, addresses and autobiographies of prisoners who were looking for pen pals. Over the same period of time, I gathered hundreds of old dishes from thrift stores. I transcribed all of the text I'd compiled onto the dishes: one prisoner's name, mailing address, and autobiography on each plate. Finally, I installed the plates on shelves covering every wall of the gallery. Next to the plates I put a writing desk with envelopes, paper, pens, stamps, and tips for initiating a pen pal correspondence. Also on the walls were a poster explaining the goals of the hunger strike, and a TV monitor with looping footage of the 'exercise yard' at Pelican Bay State Prison.
I was trying to do two things with this project: foster communication between people on both sides of prison walls, and build support for the hunger strikers. I wanted to make it easy for gallery-goers to begin a mail correspondence with someone inside, because I think receiving mail from someone on the other side of the wall can elicit a strong emotional response, and forces you to think about the humanity of the person you wrote. The video was intended to provide a small glimpse of the conditions inside solitary confinement, and the empty dishes represent the efforts of people inside to resist those conditions.
ASR: How did you first become politicized around prisoner rights issues and the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC)?
NM: I was arrested at a political demonstration at the capitol in 2011, and had to spend the night in Sacramento County Jail. It was a short stay, but long enough to see the unchecked violence of incarceration. I'd been protesting to restore funding for education in California, and after getting locked up for that, it became impossible to buy into the myth that police, prisons, and jails exist to keep me safe. After a few hours locked in a small room with forty other people, it became clear that the guards presented more of a threat to my safety than did any of the other prisoners. They exercised brute force at their discretion, man-handling anyone who didn't move fast enough, and they barked out orders peppered with racist and misogynist slurs. I'm a tall white guy, so I wasn't on the receiving end of a lot of it, but I could still see that it was terribly wrong, and standard operating procedure for the guards. After that experience I started paying closer attention to stories about police violence, and started to see the patterns of racism, sexism, and homophobia that shape our criminal "justice" system.
ASR: It’s clear that the Hunger Strike made a huge impact on you. What about this particular protest and form of resistance moved you?
NM: There's something very moving about the fact that the only means of resistance available to these prisoners is self-inflicted starvation. To me, the hunger strikers are saying, "I would rather die than live under these conditions." That's a powerful statement. And when you start to look closely at the conditions they're fighting against, it's hard to disagree with them. Being locked in a small, cold, concrete cage for 23 hours a day, subjected to abuse by guards, receiving shitty food and inadequate medical "care", arbitrary group punishment, and the list goes on. It doesn't matter what crimes a person has (or has not) committed; no one should have to live like that. It's torture.
I'm also intrigued by how the hunger strike complicates this violence/nonviolence dichotomy that we're so used to. Someone on hunger strike poses no physical threat to anyone else, so in that way it's a nonviolent protest, but at the same time they're committing tremendous violence to their own body. And when someone is willing to do that, or thousands of people are willing to do that, you have to ask: why?
There's also the fact that participation in the hunger strike bridged historic racial divides within the prison population. Latino, white, black, prisoners of all backgrounds agreed to set aside hostilities for the sake of organizing the hunger strike. That really flies in the face of what we're told about race dynamics in prison.
ASR: Can you talk about some of the aesthetic choices you made in your installation and specifically, how they coincide with the content or emotional quality of your work? For example, I’m thinking of the hand-drawn sign and instructions and hand written descriptions on the desk.
NM: I wanted everything to be hand-written so it would reflect the actual media that prisoners are able to produce. Only some prisoners have very limited access to computer or typewriters, so it’s rare to receive typed letters. I think hand-writing all the text helped convey a sense of time. It takes much longer to hand-write something than to tap it out on a keyboard, and if there's one thing that prisoners do have, it's time. People who've never been incarcerated don't know how slowly time passes behind bars, but hopefully the sheer volume of hand-written text in the piece gave them some sense of it.
The dishes were all different shapes and sizes, to reflect the unique individuality and humanity of people behind bars. Those qualities are often forgotten when we think about prisoners. And despite the variety of the dishes themselves, they were all arranged neatly in rows, suggesting the conformity that is enforced within prisons.
The rough wooden shelves were a nod to the physical labor that prisoners are forced to perform. It was a subtle reference, and probably didn't register on a conscious level for most of the audience, but it's something I was thinking about when I made the piece. A lot of manufacturing happens in prisons, from furniture to license plates to military gear, which is something that a lot of people don't know.
The overall aesthetic of the piece was very spartan. It was not a comfortable place to be, with fluorescent lighting, the sounds of the exercise yard coming through the TV, and rows upon rows of plates surrounding the viewer, each one a stark reminder of a caged human. I was trying to make the space as oppressive as possible without discouraging people from spending enough time there to read the writing on the plates.
ASR: What is your hope for the participants and viewers of your piece?
NM: My hope was for anyone who saw the piece to be able to experience it fully only by engaging in some way with the movement to end solitary confinement. At very least, I wanted people to walk away with an awareness that the hunger strike was happening. I was also hoping for an emotional response: a sense of the psychological impact of incarceration, and of the scale of the prison system itself. Ideally, viewers would be inspired to take an active role in the efforts to end state-sanctioned torture in California. A lot of gallery-goers did write letters to hunger strike participants, which I think is important in terms of reminding them that they have outside support. I'll consider the piece a success if lasting relationships develop through the mail correspondence.
It's important to note that any prisoner who receives a letter from someone who saw the installation is also a participant in the piece, as is anyone involved in the hunger strike. My hope is that prisoners who receive letters will be reminded that they're not forgotten - that there are people outside who care about them. My hope for the hunger strikers is that they win their demands.
ASR: What do you believe is the power in making politicized artwork? Why is it important? How does it give us a different entry point into these issues?
NM: Generally speaking, I'm not sure what exactly the power is in making politicized artwork because there are so many different kinds of politicized artwork. Like other types of art, and other means of political action, some of it is effective and some of it isn't. I think you have to look closely at what your specific goals are, and do whatever is necessary to accomplish them.
That said, I think art can be a very effective tool for starting conversations about controversial or unpleasant subjects. When you label something as art, people begin operating under the assumption that "Oh, this isn't real life - it's just art. So it's okay to talk about it." Calling something art sort of removes it from reality, just enough for more people to feel comfortable thinking about it. With my work as an example, most people usually don't want to spend time thinking about something as depressing as the prison system. But because watching the SHU video and writing a letter are part of the art piece, those activities somehow become less odious. Granted, I'm making a lot of generalizations here, and some people aren't willing to engage with certain ideas no matter what, but 'art' can help facilitate that engagement in some cases.
ASR: Do you feel like there is support in making this kind of work?
NM: I had more support than I imagined I would, possibly for the reasons I just described. Without even being asked, friends and classmates offered to help me transcribe the messages onto the plates. No one I talked to about it seemed outright opposed to anything I was doing, and if they felt that way, then they kept it to themselves. Organizers really liked the piece because it was based so centrally on audience participation, and couldn't be written off as art for the sake of art. In every decision I made regarding the piece, I considered the way it would interact with real-life struggles.
Thursday, 11 April 2013 17:52 Published in Article
Now that Reebok has ended Rick Ross' endorsement deal and the rape lyric has been cut from the song that featured it, it's time for activists to dream big about how to plug all this righteous anger into addressing root causes. As a former online campaign strategist, I’ve learned the real shifts happen when we take the long view, formulate a plan and work it alongside others who are committed to our goals.
Tuesday, 26 February 2013 21:35 Published in Article
At the Media Action Grassroots Network, we love movies! We write them, make them, and view them. And, yes we even critique them. We know how important movies are in the creation of culture, in teaching us how to view our selves, our communities, and the world around us. As cultural workers who hold art at the center of our revolution, we celebrate media when they uplift us and we hold media accountable when they fail us. It’s what we do—we challenge ourselves and our media to learn, grow, and change. The Oscars on Sunday offered an opportunity to entertain, inspire, and unite millions of viewers under the banner of art and culture. Media Action Grassroots Network was right there watching, listening, and analyzing the spectacle before us. We weren’t alone—the tweets, blogs, and Facebook posts were rolling for over six hours by people watching all around the world. One of the blogs addressed the clear bias against women that was taking place on stage. We were so inspired by this list of the 9 Most Sexist Things at the Oscars that we decided to make our own list.
Friday, 18 January 2013 15:46 Published in Article
Billboards are everywhere in New York City. They’re on subway trains and in stations, and on top of and inside taxis. But few, if any, have been anything like a series of anonymous billboards that have popped up on bus shelters in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. They’re not selling anything but a declaration: that racism still exists.
Read the rest of the piece here:
Friday, 11 January 2013 23:22 Published in Culture
Long Distance Revolutionary: a Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal, is a compelling documentary about a riveting historical figure—a passionate, partisan, and persuasive intervention in the not at all "free marketplace of ideas." Mumia Abu Jamal is the most famous political prisoner in the United States--Black revolutionary, author, philosopher, speaker, radio personality, and superhero for a lost generation that urgently needs to see one in the flesh.
Wednesday, 12 December 2012 21:31 Published in Article
On September 18th, 2012, Dutty Artz, Beyond Digital, La Casita Comunal de Sunset Park, La Union, CAAAV-NY, and the Arab American Association of New York presented the first edition of Beyond the Block at Rainbow Playground in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. Beyond the Block was a day-long music, arts, and community festival that took place in the crossroads between several major immigrant communities in New York. We had performances and participants from various communities in the South Brooklyn area, and invited musicians, artists, and organizers from outside the neighborhood in order to connect them. As we attempt to improve upon our efforts with future incarnations, we present the story of this festival with the hope that it can serve as an example of the merging of arts activism In-Real-Life with the ideals of a ‘globalized society’.
The day of the Beyond The Block Festival started out sunny and the neighborhood was already filled with vibrant activity by the time we arrived at the park. A host of volunteers were rushing to help get everything in place. Equipment donations were brought in by Dubspot and Sound Liberation Front, and many of the artists and performers, who volunteered their time and efforts, arrived to help set-up. Adding to the festive atmosphere, and the political aims of the project were the various community organizations who showed up and set-up tables: Bronx Defenders “Know Your Rights” workshops, lawyers provided legal consultations for undocumented young people applying for deferred action, Brooklyn Immigrant Youth Coalition educated the community about the work done by DREAMers, Arroz y Sueños provided demonstrations on healthy food making, CAAAV (Organizing Asian Communities) provided important tenant and housing information, Families for Freedom distributed resources on the impact of deportations on immigrant communities, and Urban Art Beat shared information about their youth arts programs. Other groups including La Raza Youth Collective, Movement Space Project, Occupy Sunset Park, Right Rides, and La Union set up tables as well. All those who helped out were indispensable to the success of the event and we couldn’t thank them enough for their help.
After learning how to operate a generator (through trial by fire), we opened the musical performances with DJ Nopales, a Sunset Park native and current resident who was working with youth at La Unión. Nopales got us moving with a nice mix of electronic cumbia and reggaeton, setting the mood for the day. Next we had local communist punk-ska band Los Skarroñeros who have a dedicated following in the neighborhood. The band made sure to spread the message that work is it’s own reward, but that we were also there to relax and enjoy from music, an appropriate message for many of us working on the event for many months!
Then Uproot Andy and DJ /rupture graced us with their global mix of music, which touched on musical strains from the Latino and Arab communities of Sunset Park and Bayridge, as well as an excerpt from /rupture’s Rent Strike Mix. Following the two New York all-star DJs’ sets, we had youth performances such as spoken word poetry, a solo guitar playing singer, and a duo of youth rappers coming down all the way from the Bronx. They were followed up by arabic rapper Sami Fanik AKA Activist, and beautifully voiced singer songwriter, Omnia Hegazy. Our headlining group, Las Estrellas de la Kumbia, couldn’t perform due to technical difficulties, so Uproot Andy closed out the day playing Dembow, Rap, and Dancehall hits, making a few new young fans in the process.
Uproot Andy at Beyond the Block, connecting with youth in the park.
While all these musical performances were happening, young people were engaged in art projects all around the park. Some of the artists had an intimate connection to the place where the festival was held. Adrian Viajero, who grew up playing basketball in Rainbow Park, brought his mother to see him paint.
Adrian Viajero paints at Beyond the Block; Adrian grew up playing basketball in Rainbow Park
Beside him, 19-year old Sean Pagan who in July experienced being violently stopped and frisked by a police officer in the subway blocks away and suffered severe police brutality, painted his own vision of the neighborhood. Beside them, young Arab, Latino and Asian youth painted flags and lettering in their languages onto a mural.
Sean Pagan, a Sunset Park neighborhood youth, stands by his mural at Beyond the Block
The festival closed with a dance group called Cetiliztli Nauhcampa Quetzalcoatl in Ixachitlan. An attentive crowd of festival revelers stayed to watch and participate in the folkloric Aztec dance. A group of Chinese teenagers politely halted their basketball games to make room for the dancers, and then surprisingly partook in the ritual themselves providing an example of the ability for spontaneous cultural exchange in such public gatherings.
Cetiliztli Nauhcampa Quetzalcoatl in Ixachitlan performs a closing ritual for Beyond the Block
After the performances finished, some longtime residents of Sunset Park mentioned that events such as Beyond The Block hadn’t happened for a long time in the neighborhood, and were perhaps overdue. Several youth followed us around as we cleaned up, trying to figure out how to keep in touch with us and find out when we were going to do it again. For those of us who were coordinating and working throughout the day, it wasn’t always easy to step back and enjoy the fruits of our labor, but such moments as these made us feel that our efforts were appreciated, and let us know that the event was an overall success.
While the day was both challenging and exciting, perhaps the most rewarding part of the experience was the months long collaborative planning process. The idea for the festival was sparked during a lunch conversation between Larisa Mann, Thanu Yakupitiyage, and Boima Tucker during which we discussed some of the challenges and frustrations we faced in our work as socially engaged, globally-minded community organizers and artists. While voicing our individual frustrations we started to make connections between the continued marginalization of communities of color and immigrants in city-wide political organizing strategies, and the trends in the music industry which preference the use of local and marginalized cultures as commodities in the promotion of the industry’s elite. We suddenly realized that connecting these two issues was essential to addressing them, especially in New York, a city whose marginalized communities were responsible for the birth of several global musical and political movements. It was through these movements that contemporary New York had become a place where residents proudly celebrate its cultural diversity. But as relatively newer residents to the city, who had always looked at New York’s political and musical movements for inspiration, we are aware of the continued systematic exclusion of the marginalized communities that had made the city such an attractive place to live and create in. We were becoming disillusioned by the fact that this exclusion also existed in those creative and organizing spaces that we were increasingly becoming involved with. In the Giuliani-Bloomberg era, New York increasingly become a node in free-market facilitated globalization that reproduces inequity. During that conversation we decided to shift from just talking about how all these ideas connected to actually doing something about it. We aimed to provide an example of an alternative practice – a place where we could use culture, art, and global music as the connector for communities to come together on their own terms.
Planning started in the Spring when Thanu and Boima started meeting regularly with Jace Clayton (DJ /rupture). We saw Sunset Park as a perfect starting place because of its immigrant diversity, some already existing connections, and good work being done by organizations in the neighborhood. We met with Leticia Alanis, executive director of La Unión, who brought her own ideas, provided spaces for us to meet, and invited many members of her organization to help in visioning and preparation. The La Unión headquarters at St. Jacobi Church eventually became our central hub, and the place where our meetings would regularly occur.
We then invited individual organizers, fellow creatives, and representatives from the diverse communities in and around Sunset Park to weekly meetings. These meetings provided a space to slowly shape a multicultural coalition and facilitate interaction between communities and individuals that often have little connection despite their proximity. This coalition worked as a vehicle through which community representatives were able to identify mutual needs and desires for services, as well as express diverse visions of representative cultural production. At the same time, coalition members served as conduits into their respective communities. Finally, it allowed organizers to regularly debate our processes, and analyze how our modes of organization fit within the ideals of multiculturalism and social justice activism. The goal was for communities to feel represented and able to speak for themselves, without being tokenized.
Flyer Design by Talacha.net
The Dutty Artz core and affiliated crew such as Geko Jones, Diego Gutierrez, DJ Beto, and Uproot Andy all regularly supported the planning process. Diego especially, made a momentous effort to design all of the visual material for the promotion of the event, including making flyers in four different languages. Food often played a central role as a motivator during and after meetings, and other fun activities were central in helping to create a feeling of solidarity amongst organizers. We held a fundraiser in August at Glasslands in Williamsburg, and were able to raise a few thousand dollars. We are deeply indebted to the extended Brooklyn community for their support in making the event a reality.
The second local group we invited to collaborate on the festival was the Arab American Association of New York based in neighboring Bay Ridge. We partnered with AAANY staff and members of their youth group, who became crucial for inter-community coalition building. Interestingly, some of the Arab youth were initially skeptical towards the festival, and wondered whether their own community would come to a less specifically Arab cultural event. In the end they came on board, and became some of the most excited promoters. On the day of the event brought their friends, performed, painted, shared music, and canvassed for voter registration at the festival.
Arab American Association staff, youth, and allies at Beyond the Block
The organization CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, a pan-Asian organization that specializes in housing rights, was integral to the success of the festival as well. Before the event, CAAAV translated all of our documentation into Chinese and did outreach in the neighborhood. During the event they provided housing rights information and did onsite translation so the festival’s goals were communicated to everyone at the park that day. Their table was heavily attended by the largely Chinese immigrant park users who took full use of the housing resources provided, demonstrating the critical need for such information for that community. CAAAV’s role at Beyond the Block also ensured that the largely Chinese immigrant park users did not feel alienated by the entrance of new people into the space.
CAAAV (Organizing Asian Communities) at Beyond the Block
In the final months of planning we formed a partnership with La Casita Comunal de Sunset Park. The involvement of La Casita organizers, both local residents such as Dennis Flores and new arrivals such as Noelle Theard, brought fresh energy, exciting ideas, and became the final push we needed to make the festival a reality. The organization, formed by several Sunset Park locals, was instrumental in supporting the rent strike of a building in the area and helping Latino residents hold on to their homes. At the festival, an art exhibit was set up displaying photos of the Sunset Park rent strikers and their struggle to keep their housing. It was also in collaboration with La Casita that DJ /rupture was able to make his Rent Strike Mix, which weaved interviews from the rent strikers into the sonidero inspired soundtrack.
Brooklyn Immigrant Youth Coalition at BTB
Beyond the Block and its accompanying processes served as manifesto of sorts for our vision of utilizing cultural organizing for a more democratic, diverse, and egalitarian society. We recognize that the many people who have engaged in contemporary American social movements such as Occupy Wall Street, or celebrate the increased access to social and cultural diversity via the Internet, are attempting to engage with ideals of democracy and multiculturalism with the best of intentions. But, structural change happens over time, and we believe that it starts on a local level first. We think that this is well illustrated by the effectiveness of the #Occupy community in their direct action efforts, specifically through providing relief to communities affected by Hurricane Sandy. We also think that it is crucial that marginalized people and communities be recognized as active agents and part of the distribution process of their own cultural production. In other words, Beyond the Block sought to be a space where “culture” was not used for purposes of “diversity” alone but as a part of a part of the practice of community dialogue and change. We hope Beyond the Block can be a first modest step in our desire to move our work in that direction.
Tuesday, 04 December 2012 19:33 Published in Article
Last spring I accompanied a friend to Oakland for the opening of Evan Bissell's project, "The Knotted Line." I had little information about the event other than the assurance that I "had to see this work." Arranged in a non-chronological timeline throughout the exhibition space were over 50 paintings created by Bissell. As I moved slowly along the walls, crouching and squinting to take in the miniature paintings, an overwhelmingly painful history of the United States was revealed. Among the many themes depicted was the history of colonization, Christian hegemony, slavery, the birth and growth of the prison system, criminalization and immigration. Beneath each painting were lists of historical facts, evidence of Bissell's research that described both acts of oppression, for example, the imprisonment of 19 Hopi men on Alcatraz in 1895 for refusing to send their children to boarding school and resistance, the occupation of Alcatraz by over fifty Native American tribes over seventy years later. By the time I reached the last painting, I felt buried beneath the weight of these images and their ability to communicate the complexity of histories so often kept hidden.
Tuesday, 04 December 2012 19:25 Published in Article
A woman, somewhere, gave birth to each of the people killed in Oakland’s 109 homicides this year. And after the news cameras go away, and the protests die down, and the courtroom dramas wrap up—in the rare instance a killer is tried at all—those women are often left behind. They walk among us with lives forever reshaped by the violent taking of their children. “Love Balm for My Spirit Child,” a new play which debuted last week at Oakland’s Eastside Arts Alliance, explores that changed, wrenching existence.
Read the rest of this powerful review on ColorLines!
Friday, 30 November 2012 16:42 Published in Article
In the first part of my conversation with Junot Díaz, we discussed the influence of women of color on his work and how his work addresses race. I asked him about the way he establishes a disjuncture in his writing between the realistic representation of race and an endorsement of the racial logic on which the representation is based. He answered by appealing to the example of the character Yunior from Drown, suggesting that Yunior’s inability to transcend society’s racial and gendered logic contributes to his continued victimization by that very same logic. In this part, our conversation turns to The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her, and Monstro, his novel in progress.