Dear Comrades

prisonIn the last issue, we intro­duced the his­to­ry of “Dear Com­rades,” a read­ers’ let­ters sec­tion inspired by pages from the Ital­ian news­pa­per Lot­ta Con­tin­ua. Grap­pling with a chang­ing class com­po­si­tion, their orga­ni­za­tion solicit­ed writ­ings from an increas­ing­ly het­ero­ge­neous base of work­ers, mak­ing space for deep­er polit­i­cal coor­di­na­tion across the class. Reviv­ing that prac­tice here, we present six more dis­patch­es, each from a sec­toral strug­gle with an imme­di­ate rela­tion­ship to the state.


Mujeres Unidas y Activas: Immigrant Domestic Workers and Self-Organization

Part work­ers’ cen­ter and part domes­tic vio­lence resource cen­ter, the Mujeres Unidas y Acti­vas space in East Oak­land is demon­strat­ing what it means to build a Lati­na immi­grant women’s’ orga­ni­za­tion. And I am lucky enough to work with them.

I first heard about MUA not long after mov­ing to Oak­land when a few mem­bers shared the pal­abra at a show fea­tur­ing “Las Cafeteras.” Speak­ing to a full house, the mujeres talked about their cam­paign to edu­cate and orga­nize Bay Area domes­tic work­ers in the after­math of the pas­sage of AB 241, also known as the Cal­i­for­nia Domes­tic Work­ers Bill of Rights. The bill of rights, which was signed into law by the gov­er­nor in Jan­u­ary after many years of strug­gle by domes­tic work­ers and their allies, is esti­mat­ed to cov­er 100,000 work­ers, many of whom are immi­grant Lati­na and Asian women both doc­u­ment­ed and undoc­u­ment­ed. For the first time ever, many per­son­al care work­ers in the state are now legal­ly pro­tect­ed while work­ing over­time. AB241 is an his­toric vic­to­ry for care labor­ers as it rep­re­sents the inclu­sion of a seg­ment of work­ers tra­di­tion­al­ly exempt from labor pro­tec­tions in US his­to­ry.

Gentrification, Privatization, and a Class Struggle

It’s clear to those of us pay­ing atten­tion that gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is hit­ting the Bay Area par­tic­u­lar­ly hard. The Bay is a region where over 40% of ven­ture cap­i­tal cir­cu­lates seek­ing prof­itable invest­ment, cre­at­ing the dri­ve among the polit­i­cal sec­tions of the rul­ing class to cap­ture por­tions of this grow­ing bub­ble of mon­ey. Politi­cians across Bay Area cities are com­ing togeth­er to recon­fig­ure cities from San Fran­cis­co to San Jose in terms of tran­sit, jobs, and hous­ing through “spe­cif­ic areas plans” that are set to coor­di­nate the cir­cu­la­tion of finan­cial cap­i­tal through urban space.

This cir­cu­la­tion of finan­cial cap­i­tal has weak­ness­es - points of poten­tial inter­rup­tion where the link­age between the phys­i­cal spaces that it seeks to legal­ly con­trol and mate­ri­al­ly devel­op can be sub­vert­ed. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, most of the time, the strate­gies for fight­ing gen­tri­fi­ca­tion have failed to impede this cycle of invest­ment and pro­duc­tion, usu­al­ly wait­ing too long to real­ly block the cir­cu­la­tion of finance and there­by forced to mit­i­gate the impacts of finan­cial invest­ment and prop­er­ty devel­op­ment instead. Com­mu­ni­ty coali­tions, non­prof­its, hous­ing orga­ni­za­tions, and oth­ers have attempt­ed to pass laws at the munic­i­pal lev­el to pro­tect renters from harass­ment, stop evic­tions of indi­vid­ual res­i­dents, and pool resources to buy indi­vid­ual plots of land.

We’re confirming an ideological belief about prisons and jails

The idea of pro­vid­ing imme­di­ate ser­vices to those locked up in jails and pris­ons is some­times seen as a com­pelling and essen­tial way to reach peo­ple inside. But what are the inher­ent risks? It may feel like we are empow­er­ing peo­ple by giv­ing them pos­i­tive out­lets and time around peo­ple who see them as equal and human. It can also pro­vide resources for orga­niz­ing behind bars. But this ser­vice work, which many invest­ed in prison abo­li­tion do, allows the jails and pris­ons to expand. The state lays claim to the work of those resist­ing inside and out­side pris­ons to jus­ti­fy the need for more mon­ey – all in the name of mak­ing friend­lier cages. We saw this last year when, instead of decarcer­at­ing thou­sands of peo­ple, the state of Cal­i­for­nia dis­trib­uted mil­lions of dol­lars to expand jails, with the mon­ey award­ed to the best reform pro­gram pro­posed by coun­ty sher­iffs.

When We Said Not One More Deportation, We Actually Meant It

When I first heard the word “DREAM­er” I didn’t think it was a prob­lem­at­ic term, nor did I think it would have a neg­a­tive impact on our move­ment. The lan­guage came from leg­is­la­tion in Wash­ing­ton and it referred to undoc­u­ment­ed youth under 31, who came to the US under the age of 16, and had com­plet­ed high school with a “col­lege ready” GPA. I remem­ber being in con­ver­sa­tions with oth­er com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers and debat­ing whether this term was appro­pri­ate for us to iden­ti­fy with. Back in 2010 I did not know its his­to­ry; I just knew that it was catchy and it got us atten­tion. As I learned more about the move­ment and affil­i­at­ed myself with grass­roots groups doing this work across the coun­try, I learned that DREAM­er was actu­al­ly a real­ly prob­lem­at­ic term. It was coined by a white leg­is­la­tor in an attempt to cre­ate sym­pa­thy for some undoc­u­ment­ed youth. In turn, the time the only peo­ple who were allowed to be media spokes­peo­ple were youth either in col­lege or on track to be. They were the ones cho­sen to rep­re­sent us in Con­gress.

If at first the DREAM­er nar­ra­tive was strate­gic, then it quick­ly became annoy­ing. As our move­ment picked up steam, the word DREAM­er became exact­ly what leg­is­la­tors want­ed it to be – an exclu­sive term for those who are mod­el res­i­dents and future “Amer­i­cans.” We began to see how quick­ly peo­ple were ready to throw our par­ents and “crim­i­nals” under the bus. For peo­ple who live in low income com­mu­ni­ties of col­or the real­i­ty was that most youth do not fit into the DREAM­er iden­ti­ty. And nei­ther did we.

Organizing Nonprofit Workers

As a Guatemalan third-world left fem­i­nist with Marx­ist ten­den­cies, I orga­nize know­ing the ene­my: a small group of Impe­ri­al­ist Cap­i­tal­ists with the only inten­tion of grow­ing their prof­its via the exploita­tion of the work­ing class. Yet I’m con­stant­ly reflect­ing on the fol­low­ing ques­tions: is change pos­si­ble doing non-prof­it work? How can I sur­vive by just being a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er? How can I keep work­ing and orga­niz­ing with­out burn­ing out?

As I became politi­cized, I want­ed my dai­ly work to ben­e­fit strug­gle. Non­prof­its seemed like a way to sur­vive while con­tribut­ing to my com­mu­ni­ty. I was very hope­ful of my deci­sion until I began work­ing for the indus­try, where it became clear that its work­ers and its “con­stituents” were exploit­ed under the rhetoric of social jus­tice.

A Testament to the Deep Fragmentation

Sin Bar­ras is a prison abo­li­tion group based in San­ta Cruz, Cal­i­for­nia. We are not a reg­is­tered non-prof­it, receive no gov­ern­ment or foun­da­tion fund­ing, and are unstaffed. We say this imme­di­ate­ly because we are orga­niz­ing in a moment of neolib­er­al non-prof­its and con­stant co-opta­tion, so “grass­roots” does not get the point across.

We are cel­e­brat­ing a recent vic­to­ry that has improved med­ical con­di­tions and treat­ment inside the San­ta Cruz Coun­ty Main Jail. Our cel­e­bra­tion is not an end­point, but a moment of re-invig­o­rat­ed ener­gy, which we are using to reflect on our strate­gies and learn our next steps. We are try­ing to hold sys­tems of incred­i­ble vio­lence account­able and at the same time are work­ing to ren­der them obso­lete. But one clear take­away is that a mil­i­tant and com­mu­ni­ty-ori­ent­ed direct action led to a year-long grand jury inves­ti­ga­tion of the inhu­mane con­di­tions in our local jail. Of course the work con­tin­ues, because we know deeply that the jail itself is inhu­mane.

Our orga­ni­za­tion began with four or five uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents excit­ed about the project of prison abo­li­tion. We had all expe­ri­enced the dehu­man­iz­ing process of being arrest­ed and/or had fam­i­ly mem­bers incar­cer­at­ed, and though we were stu­dents, made a com­mit­ment to root our move­ment-build­ing in the broad­er San­ta Cruz com­mu­ni­ty. Slow­ly but sure­ly we have grown into a fierce net­work that active­ly ampli­fies the knowl­edge and orga­niz­ing capac­i­ty of peo­ple who have been most direct­ly impact­ed by police and prison vio­lence, white suprema­cy, and the pover­ty cre­at­ed by cap­i­tal­ism.

Author of the article

is managing editor at Viewpoint.