Nighttime Conversation between Ann, Myself
I first saw Ann at the Connect the Dots Refinery Corridor Healing Walks that Idle No More San Francisco Bay organized earlier this year. Our friendship really kicked off at the Our Power Richmond Convening Day of Action this summer, when she revealed that she’d lived in Brazil for 20 years. I was astounded! Another gringa who had learned Portuguese, having had extensive contact with Brazilian culture; not to mention she’s also a climate justice activist. Little did I know we had so much in common!
This was the third night on the train, I think. Ann was telling me epic stories of her past – living in Mexico, Brazil and Peru. Attending a feminist conference in Central America. Working the land in the Brazilian countryside for decades. What an incredible life, I thought to myself. One worthy of emulation. She continued: a diatribe on regional enviro-justice politics, the early LGBTQ Movement in the United States, Latin American/Brazilian histories, her life story, and so on. I was truly touched by her humility, grace, humor, etc.
Ann Puntch at left with Global Exchange’s Shannon Biggs
On Alyssa and Rosalyn
I’m a big believer in the power of massage in augmenting well-being. So on the first day of the trip, I put up a sign hanging over my seat on the train, reading “MASAJES GRATUITAS | FREE MASSAGE | Safe space. No strings. Reduces systemic inflammation. Makes you more chill.”
That same night, two people approached me to request a massage: Alyssa and Rosalyn, both San Diego-based black women activists who were in Stephanie Hervey’s group (Stephanie was leading the contingent of young people of color, who were mostly from the SF Bay Area and California). They were super-forward, and eager to get rubbed down! I gladly massaged them both, and they really enjoyed it.
My massaging them was the perfect overture to our budding friendships. We have a strong connection now, having spent just a few days of interaction (I was honored to earn their respect as a homeboy). They had really taken to me, and I to them. I’ve heard their stories in full; I have immense respect for their histories, struggles, and ultimately their triumphs over significant hardship. Also, they’re intelligent, humorous, talented and fun people. What’s most exciting about that relationship is that they have, if I’m not mistaken, christened me as a white ally, without ever having had to say it outright. They can see that I “get it” as a white man, or that at least I am working hard to try to “get it” better all the time.
Yesterday was momentous! We stopped in Chicago for delicious deep dish pizza. Shy-City was windy alright, its downtown cleaner than San Francisco or Oakland. I wasn’t too impressed with the overall vibe of the place, although granted, I didn’t get to see too much of it.
Two days ago, Rosalyn invited me to participate in something called a “Fish Bowl” exercise. It’s comprised of two conversations about perspectives on the root causes of global warming and how it is affecting participants’ communities. The first discussion is had by an “inner” circle of people of color (POC)/representatives of the worst impacted communities, behind whom a group of white people sit, observe, and process. Then, the POC group steps back while the white people from their own circle and reflect on what they’ve just heard.
I think that the exercise went very well indeed. It was emotionally charged with several people coming to tears at hearing each other’s sincere remarks. We each had two minutes to speak. I decided to open with the following quotation by Alice Walker:
If we have any true love for the stars, planets, the rest of Creation, we must do everything we can to keep the white man away from them. They who have appointed themselves our representatives to the rest of the Universe. They who have never met any new creature without exploiting, abusing and destroying it. They who say we poor and colored and female and elderly blight neighborhoods, while they blight worlds.
That prefaced the rest of my share-out, which was a message to American white people everywhere in four points:
1) Step back to let indigenous people and other oppressed communities take the lead.
2) Learn to listen well and genuinely with the end goal of truly understanding the experiences of non-white individuals.
3) Dismantle white privilege.
4) Always acknowledge and retain the fundamental truth about the United States of America: that it is founded on colonialism, the slavery of blacks, the genocide of indigenous and black people, the ecocide of the North American continent, imperialism, and patriarchy; and insist on this reality informing your life, activism, organizing work, etc.
Some people applauded me for what I had said, as did fellow white folks. I told them that what I said was genuine, that it’d come from the heart. Nevertheless, I think number 3 was a mistake. Although I feel that white privilege is ultimately evil, I neglected to acknowledge the fact that white allies have a potentially powerful role to play in utilizing their privilege to bolster the struggle for social justice – that is, if and when they are called upon or requested to do so by frontline communities / people of color.
From the Unsettling America website.
I advocate for a decolonized climate justice movement, as well as a decolonized United States. Why? If we don’t decolonize, then the European supremacist anthropocentric mentality will remain unchanged, and hence indigenous people’s voices will remain unheard–their grievances, written off. That is not an acceptable path for our society, or any for that matter. Indeed, the only way forward is through a POC/indigenous-led decolonized movement for social justice and climate justice. Keep in mind that by decolonization I don’t advocate for the return of all non-Indigenous people back to their ancestral continents (whites to Europe, blacks to Africa). Decolonization is more about changing the culture such that the zeitgeist gives Indigenous peoples the respect, authority, and legal power that they merit as the original, deserving inhabitants of Turtle Island (North America). For more on this, read up the goodies on the excellent website Unsettling America, starting with their Allyship Guidelines.
Getting back to the trip, now… before the exercise last night, I accepted Stephanie’s invitation to dinner with her and her posse. As the only white person in a group of people I didn’t yet know, and who probably didn’t yet trust me, I definitely felt a bit of tension at first. But partly thanks to the delicious deep-dish grub (great food almost always seems to produce great conversation), a couple of juicy conversations erupted. In one of them, I explained how I often don’t feel comfortable in all-white spaces because it feels like I’m being held back. The reality of American white social spaces is something I’m well-versed in, and frankly a bit tired of, because all too often, ignorance plagues them. There’s still so much for white people to learn about their own whiteness and associated privilege; about people of color. And due to the fact that my understanding of whiteness, privilege, power, racial justice and social justice goes farther than most whites’, I don’t want to have to be that guy who feels compelled to engage them when they slip up, such as when they say something subtly racist, or insensitive, or when they appropriate another culture with impunity. I also don’t want to be silent when such perturbations occur. Partly due to that fact, I prefer the company of people of color. I’m not saying that POC are immune to prejudice. Rather, I’m acknowledging the fact that POC’s realities are frequently less delusional because they have experienced and continue to experience first-hand the reality of this country/world, which is characterized by intense structural oppression. Their experience has endowed them with a greater, more thorough understanding of the world. Another way to think about that is that I, as a gay man, have a more complete picture of male sexuality and masculinity because I have been ensconced in the subtle world of male-to-male sexual attraction. I see many things that most heterosexual men and women do not perceive.
Now, contrast the aforementioned experiences of POC with the average white suburbanite, the majority if not entirety of whose friends are white, limiting their experiences to the most sinister, narrowest extent. And that is where the tunnel vision of supremacy-privilege that white America maintains, under-girded by farcical ideas, namely of the poor not working hard enough and thus being responsible for their squalor, is sourced from. I must mention that it’s not all about skin privilege, race. Class is extremely important to acknowledge. Millions of white people are poor in the United States, and it must be said that they have suffered severely, but in their totality not as severely, as poor people of color.
It is becoming clearer by the day to me: white America exists in a delusional maelstrom of racism, prejudice, media propaganda, entitlement, denial, cultural marginalization, societal deterioration, and collective inferiority complex. As far as I’m concerned, the more non-white this country gets, the better off it will be.
I’m encouraged by the fact that the hay day of white America has passed. Its privilege is threatened by the changing face of the United States, whose birthrate of nonwhite babies surpassed that of white babies for the first time last year. Indeed, white supremacy is facing a brooding threat: a younger generation that is more progressive than its predecessors. A generation that, to a greater extent than before, “gets it” when it comes to racial justice. Unfortunately, there has been a backlash as US-based racist hate groups have multiplied in the past decade. If the predictions are correct, there will be more brown and black
People in the US than whites by the year 2042. What a joyous moment that will be to witness!
The second conversation at the pizzeria was with several activists. Tall, strong Isaac – a Chicano from Denver – was unafraid of expressing his anarchist/radical viewpoints. Isaac mentioned something uplifting: the fact that the dinner space was the most diverse activist crowd he had ever participated in. He said that since white people occupied the leadership positions in virtually all environmental organizations back home in Denver, the onus was always on him to call them out on their shit. I added to the conversation the following observation: white activists often have inflated egos. The group seemed to agree.
That’s the thing: I insist on being up-front, sincere, and direct with people, especially when it comes to fighting against raical injustice, I can do nothing less than to call out my own people on their shit. Unfortunately, it turns out that there are shit tons of such shit out there.
Workshop on the Rights of Nature
As I write this, I am reeling from today’s event, the Bay Area Tribunal on the Rights of Nature, which was held at Laney College this morning. Discussed at the Tribunal and Climate Train workshop were some of the following issues:
If we have human rights, where do those come from? Are they gifts from government, or higher law?
Corporations are a fiction on paper, yet they’re construed as persons by governments.
“There’s a circle of life that we humans often ignore, and we ignore it to our peril.”
The circle of life is not about stockpiling resources. Industrial civilization has claimed ownership over the natural world instead of acknowledging our need to coexist with natural systems.
Human laws are very arrogant, and folly, by treating nature as something separate, something to be exploited.
Human laws are new in the Earth’s history. Our laws pretend to be above nature. However, nature’s laws are supreme, and have been there since the origin of life on Earth.
Human rights come with responsibilities.
Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature
What if the Gulf’s Ecosystem had rights? What would have become of BP then?
Pennie spoke on the original instructions on how to live in balance where they are on Earth. We all had that at one time. We operated on those original instructions for much longer than we’ve deviated from them.
Privatization of nature has taken all of the sacred out of nature.
Earth as property = very dangerous
Two ways to think about this:
1) Rights of Nature
2) Rights of Mother Earth
Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth
-important as an aspirational document
Law is a vehicle for how we use power to enforce values.
Ecosystems have the right to exist, persist, and regenerate themselves. Climate change is related to our relationship to Mother Earth.
Rights of nature has a place in all of our work
Website Reference: http://www.therightsofnature.org. The workshop facilitators recommended watching the videos on the Tribunal.
Rights are higher law. The only purpose of legal systems is to defend those laws
Workshop on Fossil Fuel Divestment.
Social movement art just keeps getting prettier! *Glossy Eyes*
I just wanted to mention one memorable statement from the workshop’s facilitator:
“Saying fossil fuel divestment is not effective is like saying one man recycling is not effective.”
I couldn’t agree more that one person recycling is ineffective! One of the most powerful things that the philosophy of Derrick Jensen, a radical ecological thinker has to offer, is that lifestyle changes are insignificant. They’re not going to stop the raping of the biosphere and exploitation of human beings writ large. What’s needed is a resistance movement – social movements – to dismantle unjustifiable, ecocidal systems, creating alternative economies and legal frameworks in the staid of such systems.
On White Allyship
What does it mean to be a White Ally? Well, it means many things. I wanted to share here just a few things I did over the course of the trip that I believe may illustrate a bit of white allyship:
1) Accept the offer of your colleague/leader/friend of color to be housed with her POC group for the duration of the weekend’s social justice activities; hang out with and make an effort to connect with said group interpersonally; navigating open, honest conversations about racial justice; eagerly accept delegated tasks such as hauling luggage for the group and risking your ass transporting luggage through Times Square in a rental car (“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” “Motherf*:#@!$%s!”).
2) Utilize what conversational Spanish you have to translate for and interview Venezuelan activist who doesn’t speak English.
3) Give up your seat at a climate convergence to said activist who did not manage to register.
4) Intentionally speak less than you may be compelled to during an anti-oppression workshop in order to open up the space to others, namely POC.
I’m working on it…
The Statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front of the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan
During a foray into the Upper West Side of Manhattan, we came upon the Museum of Natural History, located right next to Central Park. Fastened to the cement in front of the place is a statue of Theodore Roosevelt. Immediately, every person in my group was struck by how racist the statue seemed. On a horse sat Roosevelt, pistols in hand and fully clothed, with predictably massive forearms. To his right, a stereotypical statue of an Indigenous man – in headdress, armed with a rifle and also looking pretty ripped. On Roosevelt’s left-hand side, a Black slave: replete with loin cloth and rifle.
What?! All of us were annoyed, in disbelief. According to once source, this statue was constructed during a racist period of the museum’s history.
All three characters are portrayed looking ahead – proud, strong. The Indigenous guy and Black slave both look totally subservient to the white man in power, as if they were natural allies of Roosevelt’s in his various racist, imperialist exploits. Fascinating, albeit unsurprising that the statue remains! You would think it would’ve been voted down or vandalized from top to bottom by now…
Burn it down! Or something.
Saturday at the World Trade Center with Reverend Marina, her daughter Oriana, and Nancy
From left to right: Oriana, Nancy, and Rev. Skinner
I had some casual conversations about racial justice with professor and Chair of the Colorado NAACP, Rev. Marina Skinner. The take-away points were to check out the Institute for Dismantling Racism (IDR), and secondly that building relationships must be intentional; therefore, to diversify your organization, it is necessary to make an effort–a strategic effort.
Later that day I went to hear Bill McKibben’s speech at The New School. For those of you who don’t know him, Bill McKibben is the untouchable Holy Guru of the climate movement; arguably one of the most public figures in the world when it comes to climate change issues.
McKibben said that he thinks we’re not going to win–at least not fully. “Even if we do everything right, the climate will still warm by 2C,” he opined. The speech was characterized by a mild air of resignation, presumably because of the reality that this century is going to be extremely difficult for humanity. I do appreciate the leader’s realism. Another revelatory comment of his was the following statement: he said that we must pressure the leaders enough so that they start to take action to relieve some of that pressure.
The memorial consists of two massive square fountains that constantly pour water into a large square basin in the middle. Powerful stuff, I must say.
That statement seemed to be articulating no challenge to the current socio-political and economic orders. Either McKibben doesn’t think that the current systems are the root problem, or he does, but hesitates to address them directly for political reasons.
Those were my original thoughts on his speech. In retrospect, in light of the marvelous success we had at the People’s Climate March and Flood Wall Street, I have immense respect for Bill McKibben’s organizing work.
One of the new world trade center towers. It was spectacular to behold, although I wonder about the ecological/social costs of constructing it…
After McKibben’s speech, I was privileged to hear a 5-person panel of North American Indigenous women talk about their personal struggles against expanding fossil fuel operations in their respective nations. One woman spoke of the North Dakotan fossil fuel industry developments of recent years. Trucks upon trucks now speed through her reservation, increasing air pollution and traffic deaths. Entire fabricated housing complexes have popped up, populated by male workers, and dubbed in rather Orwellian terms as “man camps.” Any collateral damage from that? You bet: sexual violence on the local native people. That woman even spoke of radioactive shoes that had been contaminated by some uranium unearthed in the fossil fuel extraction process.
It’s important to note that the panel was comprised entirely of women, in the spirit of Idle No More’s emphasis on female energy in leadership to counter the imbalanced world that destructive male leadership (see: lack thereof) – patriarchy – has wrought. Another memorable quote from one of the speakers: “It’s not just about changing the system; it’s about changing the way we think.” With that she speaks to the importance of culture, of values. To actualize the new world so many of us are collectively envisioning, the deepest changes must occur in ordinary people’s minds.
“Let us all come together and be of one mind.”
For the #FrackOff Media Kit, visit this webpage.
Morning of the People’s Climate March – Sunday, 9/21
Sunflower Parachute – Frontline Communities Bloc
As we discussed the March in our group that morning, one of our members who had been incarcerated voiced concern about the event: “I don’t like being in situations like that, ’cause I’m the one who always — you know what I’m sayin? I done been to jail too many times.” He was highlighting the fact that because of how he looks and carries himself, he’s often the first to be targeted by police, especially in a protest setting.
I’d like to tell you briefly about the most underwhelming, saddest sign I saw in the whole demonstration. On it read the 3 Rs Narrative: “Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!” The dude and his posse of a few other college students were chanting the 3 Rs over and over again. I thought to myself,
Come on, folks. That was so the 1990s. Please join most of us, who have now recognized that lifestyle choices will neither save humanity, nor the biosphere. Read this article to see a bit more what I mean by that. KTHXBYE.
One of my favorite signs from the entire day.
Certainly one of the most dynamic, engaging and entertaining conversations I had during this trip was with a Puerto Rican grandma named Sandra. She hit up the Artisan Hub table – chair in hand. We asked about that chair. “I brought it in case I needed to sit down.” She’d carried it for the entire duration of the march, at least a few miles. In flip flops. Dang, grandma! You go!!
In any case, Sandra told me a lot about Puerto Rican politics and US-Puerto Rican relations. She traced her life story as a bicultural/bilingual person, including the challenges she faced growing up. I was even able to get some romantic advice out of her pertaining to Rican men.
It felt like we were kindred spirits, since the conversation flowed easily, punctuated by lots of laughter and levity. In true bittersweet fashion, efforts to keep in touch have failed, so this will likely have ended up being a single cathartic interpersonal experience that can never be repeated. Saudades, Sandra!
Quote of the day Saturday:
“You two are my favorite allies” — friend of Ann’s and mine.
Heading Home on the Train, 9/23/2014
On Tuesday night as we chugged along past grain fields – grain silos – ancient buffalo territory – a man came down give me some company as I ate my super highly-processed Train Food Dinner (gods help me). He was Indigenous and from Omaha – I knew that much. I attended a workshop he’d given on board the People’s Climate Train about Indigenous issues.
John Pappan, founder & coordinator of the Indigenous Council of Nebraska.
I forget why exactly he approached me, but he said something to effect that it was his intuition. I interpret it this way: he somehow perceived that I was on a similar wavelength (an ally-in-training to Indigenous peoples, of sorts), that I was what you might call a sympathizer.
He told me at length of how the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has executive authority over any decision a Tribal Council makes in US territory. Talk about fry-bread republics! He spoke of immense corruption in local Indigenous institutions; of how much lack of accountability there seemed to be between the State officials and the local officials in Omaha. Due to such rampant incompetence, John founded the Indigenous Council.
Our conversation drifted far and wide, from the Navajo necklace gifted to me by a dear friend to the concept of “fry-bread republics,” to Ancient Babylon. “Truth is stranger than fiction,” I remember him saying. I couldn’t agree more! The one book he urged me to read: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown. The one thing he urged me to do: keep a dream journal.
I was delighted by how warm and down-to-Earth John is. He took quite a bit of time out of his night to tell me about his story, the story of his people. I am grateful for that.
The Last Conversation
As we traversed the Sierra Nevada passes, an intense haze from lingering forest fires flooded the air. We were fortunate enough to encounter a small rain shower, the cotton candy clouds floating gently among the conifer armies – almost like ephemeral spirits that had taken a deep breath and never exhaled.
The last memorable conversation I had on the return train ride began over lunch with a Coloradan man – middle-aged, white, trained in biology. He had a unique way of speaking; calmly, hushly he went on about a range of topics (this seems to be a characteristic of most of the good conversations I had on the trains). He started by describing how the local economy in his hometown used to entail a cannery, butcher shops, and various local stores, but then Walmart came through and smashed them all. The evolution of steel processing had culminated, he claimed, with the Germans, who had streamlined the system to peak efficiency. This man’s disposition, a tad morose, but authentic, subdued me in the way an elder should. Our chat culminated in a discussion about ecology, about technology.
“When you introduce too many changes into an ecosystem, it usually can’t adapt fast enough. Then, the ecosystem is destabilized.”
And my favorite line from the exchange:
“Technology is not something we get to vote on. Maybe we should.”
* * *
I’m full of appreciation and gratitude at having had the opportunity to attend this historic event. I got a lot out of it, and it was wonderful to be able to see a lot of the US by land for the first time. A thousand thanks to all of you reading this, and to those of you who contributed your presence/energy to the journey.
Many thanks for reading!