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.


[tog­gle title=“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.

Yet, the law in many ways con­tin­ues to repro­duce the sec­ond-class sta­tus of domes­tic work­ers. First, because it was defanged by CA democ­rats who took out pro­vi­sions for manda­to­ry meal and rest breaks. Sec­ond­ly, it was cyn­i­cal­ly sched­uled to sun­set, or expire, after only three years. And ulti­mate­ly it will be very dif­fi­cult for the state to enforce. In New York, the only oth­er state to have passed sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion, domes­tic work­ers may have earned the same legal pro­tec­tions as oth­er work­ers, but there remains a host of unre­solved griev­ances. A sur­vey showed that only 15% of employ­ers of nan­nies paid their employ­ees over­time a lit­tle over a year after the bill.

Employer’s incli­na­tion to side­step over­time pay is only exac­er­bat­ed by the loom­ing sun­set date in Cal­i­for­nia. Even with domes­tic work­ers’ bill of rights, many will retain a legit­i­mate fear of being fired in an indus­try where employ­ers often get away with egre­gious offens­es in the iso­lat­ed pri­va­cy of their homes, again­st a work­force his­tor­i­cal­ly viewed by the state as sec­ond-class. For undoc­u­ment­ed domes­tic work­ers, cit­i­zen­ship issues obvi­ous­ly also raise legit­i­mate fears of depor­ta­tion. Cou­pled with lan­guage bar­ri­ers, racism, and a cul­ture of sex­u­al harass­ment, a tem­po­rary law grant­i­ng rights to over­time pay is sym­bol­ic at best.

Nev­er­the­less, orga­ni­za­tions of domes­tic work­ers and their allies are keep­ing their eyes on the prize, rid­ing on the coat­tails of the leg­isla­tive vic­to­ry. MUA, as part a statewide coali­tion called the Cal­i­for­nia Domes­tic Work­ers Coali­tion just cel­e­brat­ed its one year anniver­sary, ral­ly­ing around 350 wom­en to the event. One MUA staff mem­ber told me she invit­ed 150 of them per­son­al­ly and the rest found ways to tag along with their friends. I’ve per­son­al­ly wit­nessed dozens of exam­ples of this kind of politi­ciza­tion take place in my short time at MUA.

Wit­ness­ing the self-orga­ni­za­tion of the­se wom­en day in and day out, the ways friends and often­times strangers become com­pan­eras in sol­i­dar­i­ty with one anoth­er, I believe they are real­ly build­ing toward their goal of orga­niz­ing 10-20% of California’s domes­tic work­ers by 2017. Not only that, but they are build­ing the capac­i­ty to real­ly end the sec­ond-class treat­ment of domes­tic work­ers, even as Democ­rats like Jer­ry Brown try to pro­tect wealthy employ­ers. In the mid­st of state­ments like Brown’s – that the state can’t raise the stan­dard of liv­ing for domes­tic work­ers because it would be detri­men­tal to California’s econ­o­my – Cal­i­for­nia domes­tic work­ers and allies make this bold state­ment:

Togeth­er we won dig­ni­ty, respect, and basic pro­tec­tions for Cal­i­for­nia Domes­tic Work­ers… Now we will work to edu­cate the pub­lic and ensure that the­se rights are respect­ed and keep orga­niz­ing to defend the work­ers that make all oth­er work pos­si­ble.

In fact, many of MUA’s mem­bers, I have found, talk about their work as care labor­ers, both paid and unpaid (that is, per­son­al care assis­tants and/or unpaid moth­ers) in terms of pride and dig­ni­ty. Their expe­ri­ences tell sto­ries of hyper-exploit­ed labor­ers who suf­fer phys­i­cal, emo­tion­al, and sex­u­al abuse because they care so much about their chil­dren, their part­ners, and the peo­ple who they care for — be they the elder­ly, the chil­dren of “work­ing wom­en” and/or peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. And MUA turns this care work inward­ly at domes­tic work­ers them­selves – build­ing net­works of self-care and invest­ment in each other’s shared lib­er­a­tion.

A life worth liv­ing won’t be won through increased state vig­i­lance for the­se wom­en. Instead, it’ll be guar­an­teed in sup­port groups and polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion, where com­pan­eras sup­port one anoth­er in push­ing back again­st dom­i­na­tion and exploita­tion – whether pro­tect­ing each oth­er from domes­tic part­ners or demand­ing their right to over­time pay. The­se fights, waged in the per­son­al and inti­mate work­places of each wom­an, lay the ground­work for future strug­gle. Dehu­man­iz­ing stereo­types of Lati­na immi­grant wom­en are lever­aged to jus­ti­fy aus­ter­i­ty, mil­i­ta­rized bor­ders, wage theft, and state-spon­sored vio­lence in the home. In turn, the­se con­di­tions dis­ci­pline the labor force, and invite rep­re­sen­ta­tions of wom­en that enable even more vio­lence. But MUA’s self-orga­ni­za­tion sub­verts the pro­duc­tion of docil­i­ty, in rep­re­sen­ta­tion and work regime alike.

- MM


[tog­gle title=“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.

All of the­se approach­es have some valid­i­ty in the sense that they are expres­sions of peo­ple attempt­ing to dig in their col­lec­tive heels again­st the onslaught of finan­cial cap­i­tal, prop­er­ty devel­op­ers, and munic­i­pal politi­cians eager to knock us down and move us out of the way. But what’s miss­ing from that anti-gen­tri­fi­ca­tion equa­tion? How can we active­ly stop the mate­ri­al process­es of gen­tri­fied pro­duc­tion, as well as inter­rupt the flows of finance that seek to ini­ti­ate the cir­cuit of prop­er­ty devel­op­ment? What are the role of work­ers at the work­place in fight­ing again­st the cap­i­tal­ist process of urban rede­vel­op­ment?

Privatization of Public Land and Gentrification

One exam­ple can be found just east of Lake Mer­ritt. Dur­ing the course of the past few months, the Oak­land Uni­fied School Dis­trict (OUSD) has attempt­ed to ini­ti­ate a pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship with prop­er­ty devel­op­ers to rede­vel­op a two block area of lakeside prop­er­ty on 2nd Ave. This area of land hous­es both the for­mer OUSD admin­is­tra­tion build­ing (which was tak­en out of com­mis­sion last year due to a mys­te­ri­ous flood in its base­ment lev­el) and a con­tin­u­a­tion high school called Dewey Acad­e­my.

In 2012, the City of Oak­land took the ini­tia­tive through the Lake Mer­ritt Sta­tion Area Plan (one of the speci­fic plans, sim­i­lar to the West Oak­land Speci­fic Plan) to label the two block radius of OUSD land as an “oppor­tu­ni­ty site” for “urban res­i­den­tial hous­ing” with­out con­sult­ing any of the OUSD work­ers, stu­dents or com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers pri­or to doing so. How­ev­er, this went more or less com­plete­ly unknown to the com­mu­ni­ty until this past May when the OUSD con­vened a com­mit­tee to deter­mine what to do with the 2nd Ave. land. OUSD issued an RFQ, or Request for Devel­op­er Qual­i­fi­ca­tions, which essen­tial­ly put the 2nd Ave. land on the mar­ket for devel­op­ers to begin eye­ing for rede­vel­op­ment. At the first meet­ing of this com­mit­tee, a prop­er­ty devel­op­er from the Urban­Core LLC group pre­sent­ed their pro­posed 24 sto­ry lux­u­ry apart­ment devel­op­ment next door to the school district’s land and made clear their inten­tion to “find out what’s hap­pen­ing with the con­tin­u­a­tion school next door to our devel­op­ment.”

Independent Committee of Students and School Workers

At this point a group of edu­ca­tion work­ers at the sur­round­ing schools (there are 3 schools in a one block radius of the 2nd Ave. area) caught wind of the school district’s plans for rede­vel­op­ing the space and began orga­niz­ing. The­se school work­ers – most­ly sup­port staff and teach­ers, both union­ized and union­ized – came togeth­er and wrote a series of arti­cles denounc­ing the plans for rede­vel­op­ment, and expos­ing the role this pri­va­ti­za­tion deal would play in the ongo­ing gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of Oak­land.

While school was out dur­ing the bulk of this activ­i­ty, the school work­ers called togeth­er a com­mit­tee of after-school edu­ca­tors, union­ized teach­ers, non­prof­it work­ers, and stu­dents to strate­gize a fight­back again­st the pri­va­ti­za­tion and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of pub­lic space. They met inde­pen­dent­ly and orga­nized a series of direct actions over the course of a mon­th and a half.

The first action was a pub­lic bbq on the school district’s land. While this action was orga­nized on a work­day, a Mon­day, they still man­aged to mobi­lize over 100 peo­ple - a major­i­ty of whom were stu­dents and employ­ees of the OUSD, along with health­care work­ers, non­prof­it employ­ees and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers con­cerned about the pri­va­ti­za­tion and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of the pub­lic space.

Over 20 stu­dents, school work­ers, and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers showed up at the dis­trict head­quar­ters in down­town Oak­land to crash a meet­ing of dis­trict offi­cials and devel­op­ers inter­est­ed in the land. When the group arrived, they found that the dis­trict had resched­uled the meet­ing at the last min­ute, pre­sum­ably to avoid the dis­rup­tion of the school work­ers and stu­dents again­st pri­va­tiz­ing the land. Not want­i­ng to lose their moment, the stu­dents and work­ers sought out the pres­i­dent of the school board’s office and demand­ed a meet­ing with him. He came out, reluc­tant­ly, and intro­duced the group to the wom­an he had been meet­ing with: a paid con­sul­tant hired to car­ry out the OUSD’s offi­cial “com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment process” for the price of $40,000.

Attempted Co-Optation by the District and the Persistence of Independent Organizing

This com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment process was ini­ti­at­ed as a direct respon­se to the inde­pen­dent orga­ni­za­tion of school work­ers and stu­dents again­st the pri­va­ti­za­tion plan. It was intend­ed to bring the insur­gent employ­ees and stu­dents back under the wing of the school dis­trict. Board of Edu­ca­tion mem­bers expressed their wish to engage in restora­tive jus­tice to address the “harm” that the school dis­trict had caused to the com­mu­ni­ty through their back­room deal­ings with prop­er­ty devel­op­ers like Urban­Core LLC. How­ev­er, the inde­pen­dent com­mit­tee of stu­dents and school work­ers refused to dis­band in respon­se to the com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment process and con­tin­ued to orga­nize actions at the school board, releas­ing pub­lic state­ments crit­i­ciz­ing the district’s moves as well as updat­ing the broad­er com­mu­ni­ty on the new phas­es of the anti-pri­va­ti­za­tion cam­paign.

Due to the­se var­i­ous actions and pub­lic cri­tiques, the inde­pen­dent com­mit­tee won a par­tial vic­to­ry: it tem­porar­i­ly delayed the devel­op­ment plan and cre­at­ed broad­er aware­ness and pub­lic opin­ion about the rede­vel­op­ment plan and its rela­tion to the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of the city. All of this hap­pened with­in the course of two months dur­ing the sum­mer, before school start­ed back up. Fur­ther­more, of the 12 prop­er­ty devel­op­ers present at the first series of dis­trict-devel­op­er (read: pub­lic-pri­vate) meet­ings, only 4 actu­al­ly sub­mit­ted pro­pos­als.

After the sum­mer came to an end, some inter­est­ing things hap­pened among the school work­ers, in par­tic­u­lar the union­ized teach­ers. A meet­ing of union­ized edu­ca­tors was called to dis­cuss the issue. How­ev­er, this meet­ing of rank and file union mem­bers was not called by an active mem­ber of the inde­pen­dent com­mit­tee again­st the rede­vel­op­ment plan, nor was it ini­ti­at­ed by the union itself. Instead, it was called by an edu­ca­tor who had not at all been involved in the plan. While the union lead­er­ship was drag­ging its feet on issu­ing an endorse­ment of the inde­pen­dent committee’s demands to stop the pri­va­ti­za­tion deal, this rank and file school work­er called the meet­ing in order to bring togeth­er mem­bers of the three schools in the East Lake area in order to dis­cuss what all the school work­ers of that area could do to fur­ther orga­nize their co-work­ers again­st the rede­vel­op­ment plan. Addi­tion­al­ly, each of the schools rep­re­sent­ed voiced their con­cerns and cri­tiques over the way in which the con­sul­tant car­ry­ing out the com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment was attempt­ing to field the school worker’s ques­tions but pro­vid­ing zero answers.

The work­ers at this meet­ing decid­ed to con­tin­ue mobi­liz­ing their cowork­ers inde­pen­dent­ly of the district’s attempt to “engage” them so that they could put for­ward an inde­pen­dent voice from the rank and file of school work­ers. Addi­tion­al­ly, they decid­ed that they would engage not only their fel­low union mem­bers, but also cre­ate spaces for dis­cus­sion among the cus­to­di­ans, food ser­vice, and oth­er clas­si­fied staff at their work­places.

Where Are We Now?

This sto­ry is not at all over. The land in ques­tion has not yet been sold off or leased, and the process has slowed down. But the dis­trict has so far refused to rescind their RFQ or for­mal­ly end the mar­ke­ti­za­tion of the land that ini­ti­at­ed the out­rage among stu­dents and school work­ers.

While this small case study does not in any way provide con­clu­sive strat­e­gy for fight­ing gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and pri­va­ti­za­tion, the strug­gle of the past few months east of Lake Mer­ritt has raised some inter­est­ing prospects, par­tic­u­lar­ly around fight­ing the pri­va­ti­za­tion of pub­lic land and resources.

Par­tic­i­pants in the orga­niz­ing have learned the impor­tance of cre­at­ing orga­niz­ing spaces inde­pen­dent of the school dis­trict, despite the school district’s savvy attempts at co-opta­tion through rhetor­i­cal strate­gies of “restora­tive jus­tice” and “harm reduc­tion.”

Union mem­bers have begun learn­ing the lesson of get­ting orga­nized across work­places on an inde­pen­dent basis, with­out wait­ing for the medi­a­tion of the union bureau­cra­cy, as well as the impor­tance of engag­ing in strate­gic con­ver­sa­tions with all work­ers – union­ized and not.

The ongo­ing alliances of stu­dents and school work­ers puts into ques­tion the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom of right-wing teacher bash­ers who see teach­ers as inher­ent­ly self­ish, greedy, and nar­row­ly con­cerned with their own stan­dard of liv­ing, as well as “left-wing” cri­tiques of teach­ers who see them one-sid­ed­ly as agents of the state in rela­tion to their stu­dents. Instead, we’ve seen mutu­al­ly flour­ish­ing rela­tion­ship between mil­i­tant stu­dents and acti­vat­ed school work­ers that point toward pos­si­bil­i­ties of new sol­i­dar­i­ties in strug­gles again­st pri­va­ti­za­tion and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion for this strug­gle as well as future work­place bat­tles.

- Mem­bers of Advance the Strug­gle


[tog­gle title=“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.

This is a self-defeat­ing way for the move­ment to work, and by allow­ing this co-opta­tion to hap­pen, we’re con­firm­ing an ide­o­log­i­cal belief that cor­rec­tion­al offi­cers care about more than their “job secu­ri­ty.” For abo­li­tion­ists there is a con­stant ques­tion of how to best serve com­mu­ni­ties of peo­ple locked up. On the one hand, we want to con­nect with and provide sup­port to peo­ple while they serve their time; on the oth­er hand, we want to do away with polic­ing and pris­ons alto­geth­er. In light of this con­tra­dic­tion, we have to remem­ber that the­se insti­tu­tions work the way they are sup­posed to – they don’t tar­get com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and work­ing class neigh­bor­hoods by acci­dent, it’s an inten­tion­al strat­e­gy to dis­ci­pline the­se folks. If you choose to work with­in pris­ons and jails by part­ner­ing with them, you’re lend­ing cre­dence to the idea that the­se insti­tu­tions can work, advanc­ing reform and growth. But not abo­li­tion.

Then the ques­tion becomes: how can we link up with pris­on­ers with­out jus­ti­fy­ing their impris­on­ment?

- Misty Rojo, Cam­paign and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Direc­tor at Jus­tice Now


[tog­gle title=“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.

Non­prof­its pushed a nar­ra­tive in which we had no agen­cy in com­ing to this coun­try. So who was to blame? Our par­ents. The dream­er nar­ra­tive served as a wedge between youth who qual­i­fy for the DREAM Act and the rest of the com­mu­ni­ty who didn’t. This exclu­sion extend­ed to peo­ple with crim­i­nal records, pri­or depor­ta­tions, and peo­ple who did not fit the age require­ment to name a few. It became more and more appar­ent that if left in the hands of “advo­cates,” our human­i­ty would be defined by a piece of leg­is­la­tion, one that they could use for their own agen­da while also doing what “advo­cates” do best: make con­ces­sions to the state.

As our move­ment evolved so too did the DREAM­er. DREAM­er became syn­ony­mous for “non-threat­en­ing” and “cute” in the eyes of the sys­tem.

We soon real­ized that DREAM­er, instead of being some­thing empow­er­ing, set a stan­dard for undoc­u­ment­ed youth. The expec­ta­tion was to com­plete a four year degree in com­mu­ni­ties where the sys­tem his­tor­i­cal­ly has been set up for just a few to suc­ceed. It makes it so that in order to be con­sid­ered a DREAM­er, one must pur­sue edu­ca­tion and only through demon­strat­ing an abil­i­ty to endure and sur­vive the insti­tu­tions of high­er learn­ing can some­one become desir­able in this soci­ety. The DREAM­er term adds stress to immi­grant youth who face a myr­i­ad of issues when attend­ing school in the Unit­ed States. The pres­sure to assim­i­late, the need to learn the lan­guage, bul­ly­ing, crim­i­nal­iza­tion and achieve­ment in school, all lead many undoc­u­ment­ed youth to fall into depres­sion and oth­er health issues. Dur­ing our “com­ing out” of the shad­ows events I heard high school age youth express­ing a lack of moti­va­tion to share their sto­ries, feel­ing unwor­thy of recog­ni­tion because they did not have good grades.

Orga­ni­za­tions such as Unit­ed We Dream and oth­er DREAM advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions were con­ser­v­a­tive com­pared to undoc­u­ment­ed grass­roots strug­gle. We learned that some of those grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions push­ing the DREAM­er nar­ra­tive were actu­al­ly led and tak­en over by peo­ple with papers. So it was easy to con­nect the dots, asso­ci­at­ing the DREAM­er nar­ra­tive with con­ser­v­a­tive view on immi­gra­tion.

Dur­ing a col­lab­o­ra­tion with one of the­se orga­ni­za­tions, I was shar­ing infor­ma­tion on how the Immi­grant Youth Coali­tion takes on, or selects, depor­ta­tion cam­paigns. I told them I believed that we should nev­er turn any­one away. But I was quick­ly inter­rupt­ed by an “advo­cate” who said, “What about child moles­ters and rapists? They should be deport­ed.” I was not sur­prised, but I told them that as orga­niz­ers, you orga­nize the peo­ple. You can’t pick and choose who you fight for, and they can’t stay in the DREAM­er men­tal­i­ty and start pick­ing and choos­ing which group of oppressed peo­ple you fight for. When we said “Not One More Depor­ta­tion,” we actu­al­ly meant it. If peo­ple com­mit an offense, vio­lent or not, they should face jus­tice and be held account­able by the com­mu­ni­ty that was affect­ed. Obvi­ous­ly, we under­stand our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is unjust, but for many peo­ple, it’s a bet­ter option than being deport­ed to a place they fled to sur­vive. Chal­leng­ing the DREAM­er nar­ra­tive is essen­tial to dis­man­tling the crim­i­nal­iza­tion and elit­ism found in the immi­grant rights move­ment. Many youth have seen the prob­lems with DREAM­er and have active­ly chal­lenged it, while oth­ers like myself take offense since it shows a lack of under­stand­ing of how we live every­day as undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple.

In order to cre­ate a space in the move­ment for undoc­u­ment­ed youth, we need to accept all that an undoc­u­ment­ed per­son was, is, and could be. This means fight­ing for every­one, regard­less of their past, regard­less of their mis­takes or mis­for­tunes.

Jonathan Perez, Founder of Immi­grant Youth Coali­tion


[tog­gle title=“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.

Because of their fund­ing struc­ture non­prof­its are instru­ments of their biggest donors: cap­i­tal­ists and the state. They were cre­at­ed by big foun­da­tions dur­ing the height of social strug­gle in 1960’s, when foun­da­tions and pri­vate ven­ture busi­ness­es were orga­nized under a tax code 501(c)(3). This sta­tus enabled them to pay less tax­es, and became a con­ve­nient invest­ment oppor­tu­ni­ty for sur­plus cap­i­tal. By the 1980’s with the rise of neolib­er­al aus­ter­i­ty, non­prof­its became of a crit­i­cal val­ue to the state, tak­ing over some of the func­tions of social repro­duc­tion that the gov­ern­ment had retreat­ed from. Though some rad­i­cal grass­roots orga­niz­ing had moved into non­prof­it work to avoid crim­i­nal­iza­tion and cre­ate insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion, their work was eas­i­ly co-opt­ed to silence their voic­es, dic­tat­ed increas­ing­ly by grant providers. Non­prof­its can­not be crit­i­cal of the cap­i­tal­ist state, its police, pris­ons, and fences since the inter­ests of most phil­an­thropists aligns with that of the state: main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo of cap­i­tal­ism. It’s more about man­ag­ing the social prob­lems cre­at­ed by this racist cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem more than it is about empow­er­ing peo­ple to abol­ish that sys­tem.

Thank­ful­ly I’ve stayed ground­ed and account­able to strug­gle out­side of the non­prof­it indus­tri­al com­plex. Four years ago com­ing out of under­grad­u­ate school back to my com­mu­ni­ty of East Los Ange­les some of my friends and I decid­ed to orga­nize a col­lec­tive. A grass­roots col­lec­tive con­sist­ing of com­mu­ni­ty edu­ca­tion to raise aware­ness about dif­fer­ent issues to take social action. The col­lec­tive is known as Com­mu­ni­ty Edu­ca­tion for Social Action (CESA) and is able to work on issues of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, and police bru­tal­i­ty. It is all vol­un­teer run but it helps us learn how to work togeth­er with the moti­va­tion for social jus­tice and not mon­ey. Over the­se four years we have met oth­er peo­ple and col­lec­tives in the com­mu­ni­ty of East L.A. with sim­i­lar goals and we have worked togeth­er. I like to think that this is the mean­ing­ful work we should all be doing to change the oppres­sive sys­tems that are in place affect­ing work­ing-class peo­ple of col­or.

Though non­prof­its them­selves are not insti­tu­tions we can count on, orga­niz­ing non­prof­it work­ers could have pro­found effects on social strug­gle. As an indi­vid­u­al non­prof­it wage earn­er, lever­ag­ing what lit­tle pow­er I have in my work­place has helped bring more crit­i­cal pol­i­tics to my co-work­ers, which in turn shapes our orga­ni­za­tions work. In turn, I’ve used resources to ampli­fy CESA’s work with my com­mu­ni­ty, with­out the con­straints of our donors. Non­prof­its are fund­ed in part by tax­es, which are my stolen wages, so I take the posi­tion to appro­pri­ate what is ours. I do this by using the mate­ri­als my work pro­vides. On a more coor­di­nat­ed basis, though, with non­prof­it work­ers across a city, this could be a sub­stan­tial avenue for expand­ing the grass­roots work we do on the ground. An orga­nized work­force might be able to hold the boss account­able to select­ing donors, or at the very least would provide a buffer again­st exploita­tive work­place envi­ron­ments that encour­age you to work far beyond your capac­i­ty. We ought to save our ener­gy for the tru­ly trans­for­ma­tive strug­gle. I work at what oth­er col­lec­tives are doing and we have a work­ing rela­tion­ship; how­ev­er, I am care­ful about co-opta­tion, because we as col­lec­tives want to remain autonomous and not be reg­u­lat­ed by the state.

My weeks are full of street activ­i­ties that I look for­ward to. I go and work for a non­prof­it where I meet youth and com­mu­ni­ty and I can share what we do after 6pm. I go home tired but I know we are plant­i­ng the seeds or water­ing the work that was done by past gen­er­a­tions before us and before the non­prof­it indus­tri­al com­plex. As col­lec­tives, we have been able to open up com­mu­ni­ty spaces, coor­di­nate bicy­cle coali­tions, cre­ate com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens, and trans­form Prospect Park in Boyle Heights to the People’s Park. We have learned that we need to build com­mu­ni­ty among one anoth­er and pro­tect our streets not again­st each oth­er but again­st law enforce­ment that pro­files our youth and kills inno­cent peo­ple. We are build­ing rela­tion­ships with the fam­i­lies that have been affect­ed by police bru­tal­i­ty. The list goes on but we would not be able to do what we do if the activ­i­ties were con­trolled by the non­prof­it sys­tem influ­enced by a cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem.

Car­la Oso­rio Veliz, MSW


[tog­gle title=“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.

Sin Bar­ras pro­motes com­mu­ni­ty-based inter­ven­tions that con­front inter­per­son­al harm with­out rely­ing on the police. We fight for pris­on­er rights and sup­port pris­on­ers’ strug­gles through art, direct action, and legal strate­gies that tack­le “non-reformist reforms,” reforms that do not par­tic­i­pate in crim­i­nal­iza­tion or com­pro­mise. It takes a vari­ety of tac­tics to make vis­i­ble the lived real­i­ties and resilien­cy of peo­ple who have been caged and ren­dered dis­pos­able by the state. It is no coin­ci­dence that while Cal­i­for­nia has built 24 new pris­ons in the last 30 years, most for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple and their loved ones have been coer­cive­ly con­di­tioned into less vocal and direct forms of resis­tance. This is done by the police, our cur­rent edu­ca­tion sys­tem, the courts, and the pris­ons. Because of this real­i­ty, it is cru­cial that those most impact­ed by the sys­tems we are fight­ing are at the fore­front and cen­ter of our move­ments, work­ing to sus­tain a statewide coali­tion of anti-pris­on orga­ni­za­tions. This lead­er­ship mod­el is cru­cial to com­bat the sto­ry lib­er­al social move­ments so often mobi­lize, paint­ing vic­tims of oppres­sion so they match nation­al norms about what “deserv­ing cit­i­zens” are like. The­se con­stituents are por­trayed as “non-crim­i­nals,” with doc­u­men­ta­tion, con­form­ing to white, cap­i­tal­ist, and patri­ar­chal norms. When the­se strate­gies are used, the most dan­ger­ous con­di­tions and the peo­ple who are cur­rent­ly most vul­ner­a­ble can­not be dis­cussed or addressed and are cast as “unde­serv­ing.”

While we main­tain and devel­op our own analy­sis of an abo­li­tion­ist future, we have learned that work­ing togeth­er across our geo­gra­phies and polit­i­cal nuances is effec­tive. We orga­nize with Cal­i­for­ni­ans Unit­ed for a Respon­si­ble Bud­get (CURB), a statewide coali­tion of over 60 orga­ni­za­tions that seeks to “curb pris­on spend­ing by reduc­ing the num­ber of peo­ple in pris­on and the num­ber of pris­ons in the state.” Dur­ing our for­ma­tion as an abo­li­tion­ist orga­ni­za­tion, we were skep­ti­cal about join­ing a group with non-prof­its. But we have con­sis­tent­ly found that there is ongo­ing and pow­er­ful work being done to decarcer­ate that does not declare itself “abo­li­tion­ist.” Work­ing with an incred­i­bly diverse group of (some­times unex­pect­ed) allies has been cen­tral in build­ing a uni­fied and trans­for­ma­tive move­ment again­st mass incar­cer­a­tion.

Ear­lier this year, we killed $4 bil­lion of jail expan­sion mon­ey. And yet the num­ber of those incar­cer­at­ed in the state of Cal­i­for­nia climbed high­er. As we cel­e­brate vic­to­ries secured by a diverse and broad coali­tion, a unit that was unbowed in attempts to divide us over half-mea­sures and emp­ty promis­es, we also want to rec­og­nize the work we still need to do. Activist and aca­d­e­mic Ruthie Gilmore has recent­ly argued “the fact that pris­on num­bers rose in 2013 is a tes­ta­ment to the deep frag­men­ta­tion of social jus­tice work in the USA.” Why is it that imme­di­ate strug­gles again­st crim­i­nal­iza­tion are so often divorced from fights again­st depor­ta­tions or from rebel­lions like those ongo­ing in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri?

In this November’s elec­tion Cal­i­for­nia will con­sid­er Propo­si­tion 47, which decarcer­ates some inmates while accel­er­at­ing more fund­ing to cage “dan­ger­ous” offend­ers, tak­ing away the pos­si­bil­i­ty of parole for many. We know that state strat­e­gy has been to frag­ment our move­ment by offer­ing “poten­tial” vic­to­ries at the cost of leav­ing the most mar­gin­al­ized and the most rad­i­cal behind. We need to find a pro­gram – a tar­get and plan for polit­i­cal devel­op­ment, from which we can con­nect our move­ments in a seri­ous and ongo­ing way.

Tash Nguyen and Court­ney Han­son, Sin Bar­ras


Author of the article

is managing editor at Viewpoint.