My Friend Bert Garskoff feels the Bern

September 3, 2015

Each presidential campaign raises the same questions. Do we ignore? Burn our ballots? Join in the hope of being for once politically relevant? Support Ralph? Sit on our hands?

I think that if we think of ourselves as organizers rather than activists we can see a way for us to approach the issue of 2015, to Bern or anti-Bern.

I know of course that the US is not a true democracy. Even within the limits on true democracy built into its framework, it is not a democracy. I know it was never intended to be. I know political parties, campaigns, voting are all shams designed well to keep people from thinking about real democracy.

And again, of course, the Sanders campaign has all of the above limitations and illusions.

I know that a realer, if not perfect democracy is theorized and practiced in innumerable anarchist and other local community organizations and projects. But, I also know that we (anarchists) need to talk to people other than ourselves if we are to grow, if we are to become a significant movement.

Sanders promulgates democratic socialist (not socialist, I think) ideas and programs. It is a good thing that these progressive ideas are injected by Sanders as inoculation for  the otherwise neoliberal dogma of Hilary’s campaign

. Certainly among the Sanders supporters there are many who will flock like liberal sheep to Hilary once the Bern burns out. However, I believe that among the Sanders supporters there are thousands who are dissatisfied, who are disgruntled, but who do not have a coherent left analysis, who therefore are open to our ideas as they weren’t before they got involved in the Sanders surge. These seekers will be open (certainly many of them) to ideas from the Left of Sanders

We must think as organizers. Yes, demonstrate, fight in the streets but spend some time and energy going to places where the Sanders campaign has gathered a crowd or a meeting but go not to disrupt, disrupting there would show how true we are to our knowledge, to our anger, to our need to show “them” us. But, what does this do? Doesn’t it drive away people, many of them young people who don’t (yet) have our understandings?

So I think that we should jump in the water. After all, the anti-war multitudes of the 60s and 70s were only disgruntled, dissatisfied people and without a coherent left analysis, yet we jumped in. Why? Because a movement can only be built on motion. Motion is people open, people leaving their normal placid acceptance if only a little, if only briefly. So, things swirled. Liberal anti-war marches. My collective would go, stand alongside the marchers with paper Viet Cong flags and pins, encouraging people to wear the flags. We gave maybe a thousand away. A good left action. We also had leaflets with our analysis of the war on Vietnam. Many people took those. Good. Better than if we had stayed home.

So, why don’t  we joined a Sanders local campaign or go to a mass rally? If it seems right, we could have leaflets about participatory democracy compared to the top down structure of the campaign. We could have lists of places and projects where anarchists and others are working with people in projects that are using anarchist and community participatory ideas and vision. Places where Bernie supporters might get involved once they knew about them.

We might talk after the meeting with anyone who will sit down with us.

We can’t only act on our own readiness. (Burn the Ballot for example)  We have to be organizers, which means we have to work with where people are at both geographically and intellectually/emotionally. To play this role, that of an organizer, we have to be honest about where we are at personally. We have to be ready to explain why we are there. And we especially have to be the first there to do the necessary work and among the last to leave. That is we have to be a real part of the campaign. I for one can do that honestly, even as I might talk with people about something better because I am truly happy that the Sanders campaign exists to open up the social democratic program. People should expect these things to be there for them and they are not. Hearing Sanders say they should expect these programs as their right can only make at least some of not many open to other strategies we can provide our ideas only if we are there.


August 31, 2015

Hannah Arendt describes a freedom involving “participation in public affairs, or admission to the public realm” (Arendt, H. 1963. On Revolution, New York: Penguin, p. 32). The hunger strikers at Dyett HS—fighting for public education in Chicago—are creating the public space right now, tonight. She acknowledges that freedom involves the establishment of certain rights within a domain of privacy, spaces where people are neither coerced nor obstructed, but she argues that this in itself is a rather narrow and negative approach to freedom, that the domain of the personal and the private is not the “actual content of freedom.”  The content of freedom is found, rather, in “a body politic”, that is in those public spaces where people come together freely as authentic beings to name the obstacles to their own humanity: “a body politic which is the result of covenant and ‘combination’ becomes the very source of power for each individual person who outside the constitutional political realm remains impotent” (p. 171).

Arendt describes the American revolution as an event “made by men in common deliberation and on the strength of mutual pledges.  The principle which came to light during those fateful years…was the interconnected principle of mutual promise and common deliberation” (pp. 213-214).  And this “principle which came to light” also drove the French and the Haitian revolutions, the German, the Russian, and the Chinese revolutions, the movements in Hungary in 1956 and Poland in 1979.  In each case, in a time of crisis and change, citizens came together spontaneously—whether in town meetings, communes, workers’ councils and soldiers’ committees, or soviets—in order to create a public space for the expression of their dreams and their demands.  It was in these public spaces that, according to Arendt, freedom came to life, and she referred to them as “treasures”, for they embodied the “hope for transformation of the state, for a new form of government that would permit every member of the modern egalitarian society to become a ‘participator’ in public affairs…”  It was this treasure “that was buried in the disasters of twentieth-century revolutions” (pp. 264-65), destroyed and murdered by foreign invasions and occupations, and by elites and vanguards from all sides.  It remains, for Arendt and for others, the “lost treasure” central to the modern predicament.

Freedom is linked for Arendt to a space for human interaction.  She argues that authentic political action requires this free space, created and sustained by people coming together.  This is distinct from a personal, private, or inner feeling of freedom, something that can be achieved through escape or retreat or isolation—through drugs to take one obvious example. 

Schools are an obvious venue for the creation of a public space, a site of freedom.  People are coming together, searching for something better, deciding what we value, what we hope to pass on, who we want to be. Schools are seldom constructed as sites of freedom nor places for the practice of freedom. Dyett High School can be the exception.


Brother Rick Ayers on Police Violence

August 22, 2015

Black Lives Matter and The Exception and the Rule

August 11, 2015

The Exception and the Rule is one of Bertolt Brecht’s “teaching plays” written around 1930. These short political plays were performed in schools and factories in order to educate people about the contradictions and conflicts in capitalist societies.

The play tells the story of a rich merchant who must journey across the desert in order to complete an oil deal. The merchant is accompanied on his trip by a porter (the “coolie”) and a guide. The merchant is increasingly brutal with the “coolie,” and also frightened without the police nearby to protect him. When he fires the guide, the merchant and the “coolie” get lost in the desert and their water supplies run low. The “coolie” comes to the merchant at night to share his remaining water, but the merchant misinterprets his action, and shoots and kills the “coolie.”

In court evidence of the murder is presented. The judge concludes that the merchant had every right to fear the “coolie,” and that he was justified in shooting in self-defense regardless of whether there was an actual threat, or whether the merchant merely felt threatened. The merchant was acquitted.

The “coolie” is a victim of the rule of capitalism. The merchant is a proven murderer, but walks away free—the exception and the rule.


An Indigenous People’s History of the US…Required reading!!!

August 4, 2015

Please come and help spread the word!

Cops, Then and Now, by Two Brilliant Chicago Comrades

August 1, 2015

An appreciation of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

July 29, 2015

William Ayers

Last year my students—Chicago teachers and teachers-to-be, educators from a range of backgrounds and experiences and orientations—all read The Beautiful Struggle. I’d put Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir on the list of required readings because I thought it was a fitting and important educational book, a useful text for city teachers to explore and interrogate. Some students agreed; several did not. “What’s this got to do with teaching?”

I chose it because it moved me, frankly, and I thought it might move some of them as well. I chose it because in the details of this one life—the challenges and the obstacles, but especially the elements he assembled to build an architecture of survival—I saw human themes of love and beauty and the universal struggle to grow more fully into the light. I chose it because it took readers inside the life of one Black kid, this singular unruly spark of meaning-making energy negotiating and then mapping the territory between his home and the streets and the schools—necessary reading for city teachers I thought.

There was a lot to dig into, much to wrangle about, and a lot to send us off to other readings and further research. Soon students were diving into Crystal Laura’s Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School to Prison Pipeline, Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reap,  Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Rachel DeWoskin’s Big Girl Small. The book was doing work, as I’d hoped it would.

My students have all chosen to become teachers against a backdrop of corporate-driven school reform accompanied by unprecedented disrespect and hostility toward teachers and teaching. They know that teaching is devalued; they know they won’t earn either a lot of money or a fair share of respect; they’ve been told by family and friends that they could do much, much better. And still they come to teaching, most saying they want to make a difference in children’s lives. Some are motivated by memories of a wonderful teacher who’d reached and changed them, others by bitter experiences they hope to correct. They are mostly idealistic, and I admire them for that.

They bring to class a vague hope that they will do great things in spite of a system that they know to be corrupt and dysfunctional. But this knowledge is not yet deep enough, for they also accept—some with greater skepticism and some with hardly any doubts at all—the predatory system’s self-serving propaganda: test scores, achievement gaps, accountability, personal responsibility.

Into this contradiction steps Ta-Nehisi Coates with an assertion that shaped and marked the course: No matter what the professional talkers tell you, Coates wrote, I never met a black boy who wanted to fail. That simple observation—or was it an argument, a polemic, or an indictment?—led to hot debate on the evening we first opened the book, and those 18 words were still roiling the seminar as the term came to an end.

Coates never lets up, and he returns again and again: Fuck  what you have heard or what you have seen in your son. He may lie about homework and laugh when the teacher calls home. He may curse his teacher, propose arson for the whole public system. But inside is the same sense that was in me. None of us ever want to fail. None of us want to be unworthy, to not measure up.

Some claimed to have evidence to the contrary, while others answered that those contentions skated glibly on the surface of things and failed to go deep enough in search of root causes, accepting as fact the propaganda that locates failure everywhere but in the intentional design of the system itself. Some rejected the idea that they were agents of the state, bit players in a white colonial space, while others argued that teaching could never be even partially useful—let alone reach toward transcendence—until teachers fully faced the friction and gaping contradictions inherent in their teacher-roles. Truth and reconciliation, they argued, system-disruption and radical reconstruction; remediating the students is a ridiculous misdirection.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me, takes us deeper into life in schools, and especially what the experience means to its captives. I was a curious boy, Coates writes, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance.

That nails it: the obsessions that characterize American classrooms today—especially urban classrooms and schools attended by the poor, recent immigrants from impoverished countries, First Nations peoples, and the descendants of formerly enslaved people—are simple: the goal is obedience and conformity, the watchword, control. These schools are characterized by passivity and fatalism and infused with anti-intellectualism, dishonesty, and irrelevance. They turn on the little technologies of constraint, the elaborate schemes for managing the fearsome, potentially unruly mob, the knotted system of rules, the exhaustive machinery of schedules and clocks and surveillance, the laborious programs of regulating, indoctrinating, inspecting and punishing, disciplining, censuring, correcting, counting, appraising, assessing and judging, testing and grading. The corporate reformers offer no relief, and simply create charter or alternative schools that enact this whole agenda on steroids. They are not concerned with curiosity or imagination, initiative or courage because their purpose is elsewhere: everyone more or less submissively accepting their proper place in the hierarchy of winners and losers.

One night I opened seminar by telling the class that less than two miles from where we were meeting almost 10, 000 Jewish women were housed in cages. It was an electrifying and terrifying image, and the class rose up, some convinced I was joking (though I wasn’t smiling) others that I was lying, all insisting that it couldn’t be true. I eventually relented—you’re right, I said, it’s not true. The truth is that 10,000 poor, mostly very young Black and Latino men are living in those cages. Everything calmed down; the normal world returned.

And we returned to Coates: the streets and the schools [were] arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state [but] fear and violence were the weaponry of both.

We had worked earlier to name the system, a system built on theft and lies and plundering Black bodies, Coates said. It was surely a predatory system, a racist system, and we looked hard at that word: racism. In one common context it meant ignorance and prejudice, the off-hand comments of Cliven Bundy or Donald Sterling, but there was more: there was the system itself,the plunder, the laws and structures, the schools. Donald Sterling’s filthy mind and mouth is one thing; that he became rich as a swindling slum-lord something else.

“I’m no Donald Sterling,” people say, meaning I don’t utter the hateful words. But Coates won’t let anyone off the hook: the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. Their privileges are earned—they are good and true folks all—or come from thin air; their comfortable lives as normal as noon coming around every 24 hours. James Baldwin decades ago accused his country and his countrymen of a monstrous crime against humanity, and added a further dimension to the indictment: it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Coates names the schools as central to the system: If the streets shackled my left leg, the schools shackled my right. The shackles were fear and violence, and also lies and denial.

In 2006 Florida passed a law stipulating that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable.” The law called for an emphasis on the “teaching of facts.” Facts and only facts, without frivolous and messy interpretation, would be permitted by the legislators to guide instruction, for example, about the “period of discovery.” I read that and did a neck-wrenching double-take: Huh? Whose facts, exactly, I wondered? The facts of a Genoan adventurer in the pay of  Spanish royalty, the facts of the First Nations residents overwhelmed, murdered, and enslaved, or possibly a range of other facts and angles-of-regard altogether? I’ll guess that the Florida lawmakers went with the first choice, legislating in effect a pep-rally for Christopher Columbus—yes, their own particular constructed explanation and analysis of events and circumstances passing as Fact.

In 2008 a group in the Arizona legislature passed a law stating that schools whose curriculum and teaching “encourage dissent” from “American values” risked losing their state funding. American history is bursting with stories of dissent from the first revolutionaries onward: Abolitionists, Suffragettes, anarchists and labor pioneers, civil rights and Black Power warriors, peace and environmental activists, feminists, heroes and sheroes and queeroes, Wounded Knee, Occupy, Black Lives Matter! Wherever you look and whatever period you examine, dissent is as American as cherry pie, an apple-core American value and the very engine of hope or possibility—except to the lawmakers of Arizona.

A history teacher in a Southside Chicago school was teaching a standard lesson on the legendary 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education. Brown reversed Plessy v. Ferguson and ended racial segregation in US schools, and the lesson was pointedly directed toward illustrating our great upward path as a nation. A student who had appeared to be paying no attention at all spoke up suddenly, challenging the teacher: “So you’re saying this class here is against the law? We’re breaking the law here? Can I call the cops?” Everyone cracked up, but the disruptive student was highlighting the obvious: here was a segregated classroom in a segregated school in a country that had outlawed school segregation decades ago. 

It doesn’t take perceptive young people anytime at all to sniff out the duplicity and the dirty-dealing in the nothing-but-the-facts agenda, and to conclude that all schools lie. Teachers lie. Parents lie. In fact the whole edifice of adult society is a complete phony, a tangled and fiddly fraud sailing smoothly along on an enforced sea of silence. Some students submit to the empire of deception, concluding that the price of the ticket includes winking at the massive hoax and promising to keep quiet and go along—they’ll hopefully get rewarded by-and-by. Many other students go in the opposite direction: their insights lead them to insurgent actions and gestures and styles, all matter-of-fact performances of self-affirmation as well as hard-nosed refusals of complicity and rejections of a world that is determinedly disinterested in their aspirations and perceptions and insights.

There’s a genre of jokes that all end with the same punch-line: in one version, a man comes unannounced and unexpectedly upon his partner in the intimate embrace of another, and explodes in accusation. The accused looks up indignantly and says: “Who are you going to believe? Me, or your own lying eyes?” Kids get it viscerally: schools are asking them to ignore their immediate experiences and their direct interpretations—their own lying eyes. Who you going to believe?

In The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing offers a compelling statement about modern education as a dominion of deception:

It may be that there is no other way of educating people.  Possibly, but I don’t believe it. In the meantime it would be a help at least to describe things properly, to call things by their right names. Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this:

“You are in the process of being indoctrinated…What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture…You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system…you…[must] find ways of educating yourself—educating your own judgment…”

Schools chug along on the rails of indoctrination and propaganda: everywhere you look and in every direction lies the hype of the curriculum and the disingenuous spin about young people. Students are routinely subjected to an alphabet soup of sticky, inaccurate labels, mistrusted and controlled, and defined as lacking the essential qualities that make one fully human. On a daily basis and as part of the normal routine, schools engage in the toxic habit of labelling students by their presumed deficits, and officially endorse failure—especially for children of the least powerful—in the name of responsibility and objectivity and consequences.

And everywhere you look and in spite of it all, youth are making their wobbly ways toward enlightenment and liberation, the twin pillars of an education of purpose. From Youth Speaks in Oakland to the Baltimore Algebra Project and the Chicago Freedom School, they are having their say and forging their unique pathways. And right next to them are wondrous teachers in countless spaces and places organizing small insurgencies and underground railroads, bursts of purpose and power growing through the cracks in the concrete. These are teachers whose faith in the young calls them to dive into the contradictions, to find ways through the mechanisms of control, to tell the truth when it must be told, and to take the side of the child.

Between the World and Me will be required reading for those teachers, and it will be on my syllabus in the Fall. Get ready.


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