The defenestrator is Philly's sporadic newspaper for resistance, creative revolution, and action. To defenestrate Power means total refusal of its tools and tentacles. Like the Hussites who had their oppressors thrown down from the Prague castle into the angry mob below, the defenestrator wrestles power and privilege from its highest and most protected strongholds and casts the beast out of the window and down into the angry hands of the people.
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October 8, 2014
During his 2004 Senate run, and again during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama stood firm in his opposition to reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans. “I have said in the past — and I’ll repeat again — that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed,” he said in 2008, right before his historic election.
Of course, radical solutions have been necessary over the course of history to address the needs and long-festering wounds of the African American community. But in order for Obama to woo white middle class voters, these histories of resistance had to be purged from public discourse. Yet despite the fact that the reparations movement never quite got off the ground for people of African descent in the United States, globally (and for Japanese and some Native Americans) it's a different story.
In Kenya, the birthplace of President Obama's father, tens of thousands of Kenyans were beaten, sexually assaulted, raped and otherwise tortured by the British colonial government and its supporters during the 1950s and ’60s Mau Mau rebellion. In a landmark case, some of the victims have managed to successfully sue the British government for (a rather paltry) $31.5 million in reparations, including court fees. Each of the 5,200 Kenyans who could prove their torture claims will receive a mere $4,100. When we consider that a woman who spilled hot coffee on her lap was awarded nearly $3 million, and the vast sums others have received for far less egregious crimes committed against them, the $4,100 figure is nothing more than a symbolic gesture. Yet it sets an interesting precedent.
Represented by the same law firm that successfully sued on behalf of the Kenyans, a coalition of fourteen Caribbean nations (CARICOM) has begun the process of seeking reparations from Britain, France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Portugal and Holland for their role in the Atlantic slave trade. According to some estimates, about four trillion British pounds in unpaid labor was extracted from those held in captivity in the West Indies. The sale of sugar, cotton, tobacco, indigo, rum and other products produced on West India's very lucrative slave plantations jump-started the Industrial Revolution and precipitated the elevation of Britain, France, Spain and Holland to the level of global superpowers. Meanwhile, today, most CARICOM countries are relatively impoverished and dependent on tourism to meet the needs of their people.
While most discussions of reparations have focused on the period of chattel slavery leading up to 1865, the Kenya lawsuit against Great Britain compels us to expand the time frame to include the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.
Both of the above examples are important, but the Kenyan example is especially relevant for us here in the United States. While most discussions of reparations have focused on the period of chattel slavery leading up to 1865, the Kenya lawsuit against Great Britain compels us to expand the time frame to include the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.
One century after the official end of slavery, African Americans, continued to endure and struggle against disenfranchisement, exploitation and widespread psychological and physical torture despite being nominally free in their movements. Their struggle mirrors that of the Kenyans under colonial retribution.
After chattel slavery officially came to an end, both private citizens and agents of the state were free to harass, abuse, discriminate against, deny services to, and even murder African Americans with near impunity. The cumulative and lingering effects of virulent anti-black racism cannot be understated when examining the disparities that exist between African Americans and other ethnic groups.
In his book, When Affirmative Action Was White: The Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America, Ira Katznelson explores how Congress and other agents of the federal government were complicit in economic disenfranchisement and social discrimination during the Jim Crow era. This fascinating book explores the hidden history of how African Americans were sacrificed by northern liberal lawmakers in exchange for southern cooperation on progressive legislation like the New Deal and the GI Bill.
The exclusion of African Americans from the economic and social uplift provided by progressive legislation was systematic and deliberate, and effectively blocked most from entry into the middle class. The effects of this discrimination can still be seen today; the federal government must be held to account for its role in the hobbling of the prospects and aspirations of a significant portion of its citizens.
The situation for many African Americans living in the United States today is dire. Homelessness, health disparities, mass incarceration, food insecurity, joblessness — the cumulative effects of these ills are taking an enormous toll. At the core of these problems lies a lack of resources and a lack of access to resources. Consider the following statistics and studies as prime examples of why Mr. Obama's attitude towards reparations is, at best, extremely misguided.
A 2003 University of Chicago study by Devah Pager found that whites with felony criminal records were preferred by employers over blacks with no criminal record whatsoever. Additionally, Janelle Ross' article, “Black Unemployment Driven By White America's Favors For Friends,” describes the repercussions for black job seekers of favoritism in a white-dominated and white supremacist society. According to her analysis, some of the discrimination taking place today in the job market is subconscious or unintentional, but regardless of intentions, discrimination and exclusion have serious economic and social consequences.
According to a 2013 article by Matt Bruening entitled, “The Racial Wealth Gap,” blacks collectively hold 2.7 percent of the nation's wealth, with whites gobbling up a whopping 88.4 percent. Black wealth would have to increase by at least fivefold to be in proportion to our share of the population. A Brandeis University study published last year revealed that white median net worth in 2009 was $265,000 while black median net worth was $28,500. A Pew Hispanic Center study found the 2009 median black net worth to be much lower: $5,677.
The NAACP's Economic Department and the Dēmos think tank recently released the results of a study finding that, despite having relatively similar levels of credit card debt, blacks are 20 percent more likely to be targeted by bill collectors. This is due in part to the fact that, according to the study, "…only 42 percent of African American households reported having "good" or "excellent" credit, compared to 74 percent of white households."
Disparities also exist in the world of student loan debt, according to a study by Campus Progress and the Center for American Progress. 27 percent of black bachelor's degree holders have more than $30,000 in debt, compared to 16 percent of white bachelor's degree holders.
In a capitalist society, drastic disparities in wealth mean drastic disparities in well being. Breast cancer is the leading cause of death among black women aged 45-64, with the death rate being 60% higher than the death rate of white women. Diabetes-related mortality rates are 20 percent higher for black men, and 40 percent higher for black women, compared to their white counterparts. HIV/AIDS is now commonly referred to as a “disease of poverty;” the infection rate in the poorest of African American communities is on par with impoverished African countries. In fact, Washington D.C.'s HIV/AIDS infection rate is actually higher than that of Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Rwanda.
In his 2009 article, “Racism's Hidden Toll,” Ryan Blitstein asks, "Does the stress of living in a white-dominated society make African Americans get sick and die younger than their white counterparts? Apparently, yes." While examining Arline Geronimus' research on this subject, he goes on to say:
American minorities face a bevy of chronic obstacles that whites and the socioeconomically advantaged cope with far less often: environmental pollution, high crime, poor health care, overt racism, concentrated poverty. Over the course of a person's life, the psychological and physiological response to this kind of stress leads to dire health problems, advanced aging and early death.
This, unfortunately, sums up the experience of many African Americans quite well.
The economic and health disparities outlined so far require an urgent response. Yet when the issues of mass incarceration, disparities in education, gentrification and homelessness/housing insecurity are added to the picture, we can say with confidence that the measures taken so far to address racial inequality have been a disastrous failure.
Adding insult to injury, ongoing widespread police brutality and harassment, racist vigilante attacks and modern- day lynchings continue to expose the fraud that is our so-called color blind and post-racial society.
The disproportionate social and economic stresses African Americans face under white supremacy seem to be increasing rather than decreasing, and some have resigned themselves to their hobbled status. Yet many vehemently criticize the reparations movement, saying it victimizes African Americans and could lead to people avoiding taking responsibility for their own poor choices. Some people question where the money and resources would come from, while others denounce the movement altogether for being utopian and for having too broad a scope, or for being too complicated to practically implement.
According to some, there is a statute of limitations on recovering damages from crimes against humanity. Indeed, many of the critiques of the reparations movement amount to obfuscation of the past, victim blaming and an attempt to suppress and conceal the centuries-long cumulative effects of white supremacy in this country. As far as the logistics are concerned, if people can send robots to Mars and put a man on the moon, we should be able to figure this out — though it will of course require many long hours of debate and discussion.
Before we can explore what reparations and true reconciliation could look like for the African diaspora here in the United States, we must take a moment to address some misconceptions about reparations. Reparations are not:
Most of the above are basic human rights; they are—or should be—the bare minimum for people living in a human community and must not be conflated with reparations for past and ongoing injustices and crimes against humanity. Some aspects of the above list could, however, play a role in the construction of a future reparations program.
Reparations and true reconciliation, though desperately needed, will most likely not occur under the current capitalist regime for several different reasons. One reason is illuminated by Frantz Fanon in his book, Wretched of the Earth, and directly relates to the Kenya and CARICOM examples explored above. Fanon writes:
Not long ago Nazism transformed the whole of Europe into a veritable colony. The governments of the various European nations called for reparations and demanded the restitution in kind and money of the wealth which had been stolen from them… There was only one slogan in the mouths of Europeans on the morrow of the 1945 V-Day: "Germany must pay."
Fanon was both exposing the hypocrisy of European powers and making a rhetorical point concerning reparations for African countries suffering from the effects of colonization and colonialism. Unfortunately, African Americans are not in a position comparable to the Kenyans or the members of the CARICOM countries. We have been absorbed, albeit grudgingly, into the American body politic and cannot be considered a separate political entity — at least not at this present moment.
Under the current system African Americans are, in general, treated as the flotsam and jetsam of history who happen to make up a reliable voting bloc for the Democratic party. A relative few are allowed some measure of privilege and media visibility; in exchange they keep silent about the increasingly desperate plight of poor and working-class blacks who will ultimately be left to rot in the ghettos and in the prisons as a source of cheap labor, very much the same way Natives have been relegated to their distant and mostly forgotten reservations. This is our current trajectory, but it need not be.
Given the current political climate — where even the first black president couldn't care less about adequately addressing the concerns of poor blacks and blacks in general — the best strategy for moving forward would be to align the reparations movement with other movements for marginalized people.
It should be obvious that some of the social and economic ills outlined above also plague other communities, including poor and disenfranchised whites. Native Americans are themselves long overdue for reparations of their own: the return of stolen lands. Central and South American immigrants—driven from their homelands by NAFTA and other pernicious forces, comprising a substantial percentage of the population—also have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed.
Organized, united agitation for the righting of historical wrongs has the potential to coalesce historically antagonistic and disconnected groups into a powerful political force. The socialist revolution in Venezuela, though incomplete and problematic on some levels, gives us a clear glimpse into what the future could be once marginalized people and their allies manage to leverage power against the bourgeoisie and the money- drenched elites.
A determined and united coalition of marginalized people coming together to demand social and economic justice could ignite a radical transformation of this society away from exploitative capitalism. The chronically dispossessed, along with their allies, could be a powerful force if united. They could replace the "pay to play" society we have now with one that respects the inherent dignity and value of all human beings. They could offer hope and opportunity to all people, rather than a select and privileged few.
We know that the resources needed to initiate society's transformation are available. Over $21 trillion is being hidden offshore by the super rich and global elites. Yes, the resources are indeed there. They are simply, for the moment, out of reach — though hopefully not for long.
October 8, 2014
After the sixth day in a row working my wage job at a Philadelphia coffeeshop it was time to put things into perspective. Because we live in a society that tends to define us by what we do for money, I struggled to remind myself that this was not all that I was doing with my life. And of course I understood that intellectually, but by that last closing shift my body solely identified as a barista; not only what I do, but also who I am. Pointing this out is not to demean this labor, or others who work in the caffeinated service industry, but as a reminder that we are all much more than the tasks we perform for money. We are all multidimensional creatures and our desires exceed what we do to survive.
At recent reunions and weddings, people I haven't seen in years ask me what I am up to now. I tell them where I live first and then proceed to talk about Goddard. This program is a more accurate reflection of the kind of life I want to be living. But I am also not just a grad student. I tell them about the anarchist bookstore where I have been active the past four years, but feel obligated to add that we're all volunteers. These are our multidimensional lives.
My first semester at Goddard began two months after I started a job I hated. I was a driver for a corporate catering company, delivering food to offices around Philadelphia. In an attempt to balance school and work, and to makes sense of that whole experience, I kept a journal documenting my hours on the clock: my time in uniform, taking orders, and entering spaces where, given my politics, I never should have been allowed. When I first returned from the residency I tried convincing myself this was just field research, as a coping mechanism, or perhaps a mechanism of empowerment. But that quickly faded and the job began to take its toll, on my spirit and my studies. The reality was clear: I was only working in order to pay the bills, in order to survive.
I want something more—something different. I'm not sure what this will look like—and that is okay—as I choose to embrace the unknown, the infinite uncertainties of the future.
How do we balance grad school and survival? The imperative to sell my labor—whether it's through delivering lunch to a business meeting at JP Morgan's office or in the more relaxed and palatable environment of the hip café—is in a dialectical relationship with my study plan. It would be an oversimplification to suggest that the two are just at odds, or that my time on the clock necessarily subtracts from my school work. That experience with the catering company, for example, was exhausting and compromising, no doubt, but it also provided rich material to write about and analyze. And the Zen time I have washing dishes at my current occupation is often the incubation site of some of my best ideas. It is a complex, sometimes complementary relationship.
A prevailing challenge, though, is maintaining focus in a social construction of reality that does not recognize low-residency education. After our week on campus ends and we return to our everyday lives outside of Goddard, we must swim against the prevailing current of production and consumption; of business-as-usual: conference calls, power lunches, and law students studying for the bar exam together. Every morning that I wake up and prioritize my interdisciplinary graduate work, transforming corner tables at neighborhood coffee shops into a mobile office, is a small act of resistance. I look up and the clock is ticking. It's noon and I have to be at my job in one hour. I need to make that money. Have I gotten anything done yet? This is the balance we face every day.
After my shift at the catering job, I would feel emboldened to seize the rest of the day. I felt more conscious of this time off the clock, to try to read Marx or write with a sense of urgency. My experience at the cafe is different. After a six-hour shift my coworker and I will go to the bar around the corner and continue conversations that we began earlier while we prepared sandwiches and espresso drinks, this time more candidly, over a pitcher of lager. We'll order another round and further explore the politics of online dating, or the efficacy of celebrating the death of an imperialist former prime minister. On the clock, we are baristas, but also DJ's creating an atmosphere that reflects our mood or that provides a soundtrack to closing up shop. We are also free to feed ourselves, concocting elaborate meals when our boss isn't around. Sometimes we are DIY bartenders, throwing cans of beer from the basement on ice an hour before closing time, or mixing some fancy sparkling lemonade with the remains of a bottle of tequila hidden in the backroom.
Which is all to say: it's not that bad. But not-that-bad can be stifling, even oppressive. It can limit our potential to actualize our dreams. It numbs us because it begins to seamlessly fit into everything else. It feels like it makes sense even though we may never freely choose such an arrangement otherwise. The challenge is to be conscious of utilizing one's time off the clock and to make sure that the not-that-bad job doesn't take up too much space; that it doesn't seep too deeply into everything else. Because it is not the priority right now. This is easy to forget.
What if we didn't have to work while we were in school? This is the reality for some. The capitalist-work-discipline shapes us to be dependent on a structured schedule so that we don't know what to do with such abundant “free time.” I have heard other students say that people who don’t work a full- or part-time job have a hard time with their Goddard work. So is it, then, not merely economic imperatives that prevent us from putting all of our time and energy into our graduate studies?
On the cusp of my final semester, I think ahead to my post-Goddard life. 2014 (and beyond) is a big, wide-open question mark for me. There are, however, two things that I know: I will graduate from the IMA (Individualized Master of Arts) program and I will stop working at the coffeeshop. I'm ready for new challenges. I'm ready to start over again. The not-that-bad job I'm working this year extends to describe my experience these past five years living in Philadelphia. I have chosen to stay in my comfort zone, to avoid risk-taking—with the exception of selling my soul for the catering gig. My life now doesn't look much different from the year I lived in Madison, fresh out of college, almost one decade ago. I want something more—something different. I'm not sure what this will look like—and that is okay—as I choose to embrace the unknown, the infinite uncertainties of the future.
After six days in a row closing the café last week—navigating leaky refrigerators, lack of air conditioning, and passive aggressive notes—I found myself in my hometown having breakfast with my dad and stepmother. They asked me about school and I told them about this remaining timeline ahead. My stepmother proceeded to ask what, exactly, was my degree going to be in, and then, what does that mean, exactly. That same question that my grandmother sternly confronted me with at the beginning of this semester: “Well, what do you do with that? I mean, what kind of job will you get?” I fumbled, muttering something incoherent about nonprofits, and, um…teaching someday. Maybe. Eventually.
And then, just in time, our breakfast arrived and I changed the subject to their recent membership in the town's re-emerging Odd Fellows society. The fellows, apparently, have no idea how to run an organization. I filled my mouth with raspberry butter-covered French toast and pretended that I was on summer vacation. Everything is just fine.
The uncertainty of our post-Goddard, interdisciplinary futures is, I believe, actually one of the greatest virtues of this education. Since the market collapse five years ago, there are no certainties, no guarantees. In choosing this nontraditional route, we are recognizing the frailties of the system. Those who continue funneling themselves through the standard professional and trade schools, pursuing degrees in nursing, education, journalism, etc., with hopes of economic security and stability, are increasingly being squeezed out, crushed by the new reality of austerity, job freezes, and mass layoffs. This affects everyone—besides the “one percent”—in myriad ways, but those of us who are not buying into the pyramid scheme anymore are at least attempting to carve out a way around it. We will have more potential to adapt, to be flexible, and open to alternative arrangements and experiences.
What will I do, exactly? That remains to be seen. But I am hopeful.
I am hopeful despite the fact that seriously looking ahead to that moment, post-Goddard, also invokes the unsavory topic of debt. Like the question of how we support ourselves—and as a corollary, how we balance school and work—the issue of the debt that we are accruing to attain this education is one whispered about at the residencies during meals, but never directly addressed by students outside of workshops on navigating the bureaucracies of debt and aid. I believe that a radical approach to debt is necessary, one that goes beyond individualistic approaches to a systemic problem. And of course, debt and survival are inextricably linked. Why can't we even begin to have a serious conversation about this?
Next year, after graduation, I will be expected to start repaying my student loans. I will no longer have my overpayment checks at the beginning of the semester to help me get by and, perhaps, will start to feel the pressure to secure a job which pays a living wage. Not that there would be anything wrong with that.
I believe that a radical approach to debt is necessary, one that goes beyond individualistic approaches to a systemic problem. And of course, debt and survival are inextricably linked. Why can't we even begin to have a serious conversation about this?
Over the past decade, some of the choices I’ve made have perpetuated self-exploitation under the guise of resistance to compromise. During this new era of my life, in which I will hold a master’s degree, I should add to my list of ways to not compromise my beliefs: never work a minimum wage job ever again. That won't include volunteer work; our voluntary laboring outside of the market in an effort to sculpt meaning and purpose supplements our livelihood in dynamic and fulfilling ways, with activities we are truly passionate about. But, as my mom likes to point out, volunteering doesn't pay the bills. And there will still be bills.
I feel grateful that I will be confronted with the consolidation of massive amounts of student loan debt just as the debt resistance movement is growing and becoming more sophisticated and strategic. The resources that Strike Debt, for example, has started to put together will prove to be invaluable tools and a reminder that I too “am not a loan.” It might be seen as a distasteful comparison, but I am thinking about military veterans returning from overseas, alienated by the vast bureaucracies holding their futures captive as they attempt to reacclimate to being back home, out of duty. The comparison is not that of higher education and the military industrial complex—although there is a relationship between those institutions—but that of the emerging debt resistance movement and the groups that do veteran advocacy work, including Iraq Veterans Against the War (whose motto happens to be, “You are not alone”). Again, instead of approaching a systemic problem through an individualistic lens, the institutions responsible for suffering and exploitation are held accountable, thus empowering individuals through collective action.
I think this is how change happens.
That's what Howard Zinn taught me when I was in high school. First through his masterpiece, A People's History of the United States, and then in person, the evening that he visited the program I was in my senior year called School Within a School. Howard and his wife Rosslyn used to stay on Cape Cod in the summer, in Wellfleet, where their son Jeff directed a local seasonal theater company. In September 1998, three months before President Clinton began a bombing campaign against a sovereign country in the Middle East called Iraq, Howard came to my high school one Thursday evening to speak to our group. He told us about his own experiences as a bombardier in World War II and in the Civil Rights and antiwar movements in the 1950s and '60s. After his talk in our high school auditorium we were able to ask him questions. I nervously raised my hand and asked, “What is your advice for young people like us who want to change the world?” In his response he reminded us that throughout history change has only happened when people have come together, when they were organized in groups fighting for what they knew was right. You can't make the world a better place all by yourself.
I need to keep reminding myself this. Another option after Goddard is to start a business, but not alone. Instead of just applying for jobs and attempting to establish some sort of career with a salary and benefits, I could get together with a small group of other people and put these politics of collectivity and direct democracy into action, beyond merely studying what other people are doing. Starting a worker-owned cooperative is one of the more realistic and practical options out there that is truly appealing to me and conducive to where I am at with my life right now.
Back at the coffeeshop, I don't understand why anyone would want to be a boss. Washing dishes in the back, I think about how we could run this place ourselves, horizontally, without anyone in charge. We would all be a lot more invested in the café and more accountable to it and each other. But do we really need another café? I have a few friends in Philly that I have talked with about potentially starting a co-op of some sort in the near future and I think that, ironically, a worker-owned collective could be a pretty successful marketing pitch. Sort of like how the new vegan cafés and restaurants in the city have created a substantial customer base around ethical eating. Philly definitely needs more democratic workplaces. I'm excited about the potential of making that happen.
But there is also a chance that I won't even stay in the city after this year. Despite a number of important friendships and other social ties, there isn't anything that is keeping me anchored here, nothing to prevent me from moving wherever I want or traveling indefinitely. So, again, we will see.
No matter what happens, I know that this experience at Goddard will be worth it, despite the debt I will be saddled with at the end. Perhaps I will one day move to Vermont and work for the college. I guess anything is possible. For now, I continue to balance work and school, a part-time day job that is not-that-bad and a low-residency program that holds the potential to encapsulate my wildest dreams and to catapult me somewhere that I can't even begin to imagine yet. Hopefully into a world beyond bosses and day jobs and capitalism itself.
But, as Howard reminds us, I can't do it alone.