The Fire this Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism

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When second-wave feminism came to the front of the various protest movements of the 1960s it was seen by many of both sexes as a distinct set of issues, and although its broader goals and revolutionary implications applied to everyone, too often it was seen in the limited context of woman’s groups, the fight for access to safe abortions, and other such issues. The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism reflects the tremendous expansion of feminism over the past thirty years and presents a series of essays from a number of female organizers about the varied issues they address, giving an indication of how feminism has moved beyond on just “woman’s issues” to become an integral part of citizens’ movements around the world.

The topics addressed in The Fire this Time are varied–the emergence of the global Indymedia network and its addressing of gender issues, the effects of US foreign policy on women, transgendered people and the legal system, immigration, efforts to organize largely female domestic worker populations, efforts to unite women whether in the zine scene of the early 1990s or more recent attempts to form feminist foundations, and the consequences of the prison-industrial complex for women-and those are only a few of the topics covered. Among the most interesting of the essays is Robin Templeton’s look at how the prison-industrial complex is shaping minority families in the United States, how the role of women in these families has shifted, and how women are organizing in response to the incarceration of a significant portion of their races’ males. Ana Nogueria’s and Joshua Breitbart’s essay on how the Indymedia network and how the creation of participatory, user-centered networks for publishing news has created a feminist alternative to the corporate media (as well as raising some questions about how women’s perspectives and gender issues are addressed in the framework of a largely male population of tech people) provides a critical examination of how more egalitarian systems can function within, and as a response to, the existing structure of society. Other interesting essays include Ayana Byrd’s essay on female subjectivity in contemporary hip-hop and Syd Lindsley’s examination of the anti-immigrant stances of many environmental groups. Perhaps the most important lesson that can be learned from the book that feminism cannot be narrowly defined and that an analysis of gender and patriarchy must be a critical part of movements for social change, and indeed The Fire this Time presents a number of ways in which feminist views can be incorporated into a variety of organizing efforts.

Many of the authors in the book eschew the “Feminist” label, viewing the upper-case feminism as the narrowly defined province of upper-class white liberal women who want “an equal share of the wealthy”, and prove that as Rebecca Walker states in the introduction, feminism is far from dead and indeed has been revived in a variety of movements. The Fire this Time provides an engaging series of essays on the amazing work that woman are doing and the ways feminism has been embraced by a new generation of activists.

Vivien Labaton and Dawn Lundy Martin, eds., The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism, (Anchor Books, 2004).

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With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House

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I remember reading an interview with Sara Diamond years ago where she said “that people on the left and progressives need to pay attention to and take seriously the influence of the Christian Right in America.”Diamond spent years documenting the rising influence of the Christian Right in US politics during the mid 80’s through the mid 90’s with books like Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right and Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States. Esther Kaplan has done the same important work for the current Bush administration.

Kaplan covers a broad range of issues that the Christian Right has organized around, like AIDS, homosexuality, abortion, sex education, the courts and foreign policy. She provides details of how Christian groups have mobilized their constituents in order to influence legislators and the policies they make. Kaplan follows in the footsteps of Sara Diamond’s work by engaging in the same investigation which includes reading the literature of the Christian Right, attending their events and speaking with them in person. While many on the left may find the ideas of religious conservatives, Kaplan’s assessment reveals that we should not be so quick to dismiss them.

With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House is a text that compliments another good book written earlier in the year by PR Watch co-founders Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber entitled “Banana Republicans.” The latter book talks more about the funding and organizational elements of the GOP, where Kaplan’s book focuses specifically on the Christian Right, which she often calls the GOP’s base.

Kaplan’s book is important because it shows us how the current administration has appointed many religious conservatives to government positions at such a level that the Reagon administration could only have dreamed of. The book does spend time discussing George W Bush’s personal faith journey, much of which has been influenced by Billy Graham’s son, Franklin. However, the emphasis is primarily on how the current administration has been infiltrated by the Christian Right and it’s ideology. A proper emphasis, since the problem does not lie with the person of George W. Bush, rather with the administration as a whole.

To ignore this book and it’s analysis would be a mistake for those who want to challenge the policies of the current administration.

Esther Kaplan, With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House, (The New Press, 2004).

The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas

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For those involved in Latin American solidarity work over the past 20 years, the School of the Americas has been a common enemy in the struggle for justice. This new investigation by Leslie Gill not only provides some new information, but raises serious questions for the movement that has been attempting to close this US-based terrorist training camp.

Gill begins with some new information on what forces were behind the school’s move to Georgia in the early 80’s. A successful lobby campaign was spearheaded by local business people, particularly Sal Diaz-Verzon Jr. and his sister, Elena Amos. Gill describes them as extremely anti-Castro immigrants who made a fortune in the insurance industry.”Elena was married to the founder of the insurance giant AFLAC and Sal Jr. was the company president from 1978-92. Working with the local Chamber of Commerce and several Georgia legislators, the AFLAC fortune had a great deal to do with the school relocating to Georgia. In many ways it makes sense that Anti-Castro Cubans who were incensed with the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua and the other insurgent campaigns of the early 80s would want to support an institution like the School of the Americas. So the next time you see that ridiculous AFLAC duck commercial, you have another reason to

turn the channel.

The book’s strength has to do with Gill’s ability to weave a great deal of interview material throughout the text. These interviews were conducted in recent years with former students, instructors and the current based commander. The commentary by many of the former students is instructive, in that it provides an insight into the mind of those who have continued to participate in the US-backed counter insurgency campaigns in Latin America. In many ways the interviews are the best element of Gill’s book and similar to the revealing commentary provided in Jennifer Schirmer’s book the Guatemalan Military Project.

Gill reveals that part of the indoctrination process at the School was to win over Latin American soldiers to the “idea” of the US. After experiencing the US through the lens of the School, students would act as recruiters to their fellow army members back home. A comment from Colombian General Alberto Gonzalez also reveals the 2-way benefits of students attending the School; “They learn many things, but that is really of second importance. The relations that they establish with others are at bottom the most important. The School also permits the US to have the future leaders of the Latin American armed forces in its hands.”

The book also deals with how the School has responded to the SOA Watch campaign to shut it down. The author spent a great deal of time with the base commander Glen Weidner. Weidner has taken an aggressive Public Relations approach to changing the School’s image and challenging the integrity of the SOA Watch campaign led by Fr. Roy Bourgois. Weidner’s position is very convincing and it raises some interesting points about the the SOA Watch campaign. One of those questions is if the School was not teaching torture techniques would the anti-School campaign still be opposed to its existence?” Here Gill does not pursue a larger issue which is, what is the real function of this School in the larger foreign policy agenda of the US. The author does acknowledge that some in the Anti-School effort do think that the School has “just made some mistakes.” It would have been more instructive to get at the heart of this question, since even if this School in Georgia was closed, it would have little impact on the overall military policy in the region.

The other area that this book falls short on has to do with the last chapter, which looks at the evolution of the SOA Watch movement itself. Gill does acknowledge that the movement has had to deal with the challenges of being a pre-dominantly faith based entity, which in recent years has seen more participation from student, labor and anarchist groups. SOA Watch has, according to the author, begun to allow affinity groups to plan their own actions outside of the official actions, but the author doesn’t really pursue it any further than that. There is no serious discussion about tactics, strategy, nor the campaign’s effectiveness. This would serve the movement greatly, since the military has been responding with their own tactics to the predominantly symbolic nature of the actions that take place every November in Georgia. These shortcomings aside, The School of the Americas is an important contribution to the struggle for justice in the Americas and could be an essential catalyst for new approaches to challenging US military hegemony in the region.

Leslie Gill, The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas, (Duke University Press, 2004).

Making Theory Meaningful–Abolishing Theory

Reprinted from Freedom Toast (April 2003)

“There are no revolutionary thoughts, only revolutionary actions” (1, 2)

As university students, especially students in the humanities, much of our education consists of the study of various theories and theory has become one of the major topics of study at the university, transcending lines separating the disciplines to the point where it is not common to see Foucault’s discussions cited in anthropological studies, historical studies, in literary criticism, and in sociological studies. The use of theory in academic studies outside of the disciplines traditionally associated with theory has certainly contributed different perspectives and allowing for new insights; however, theory has simultaneously been reduced from its previous position as a catalyst for revolutionary change in society, instead becoming an easy way for intellectuals to satisfy their academic ego without affecting the world. Theory, which once enjoyed a close relationship with revolutionary movements, has become little more than an intellectual pursuit of what remains, for the majority of people, an abstract discourse with little bearing on the reality experienced by most people. Within this context, it is not unsurprising that students who have been exposed to various revolutionary theories have completely neglected the very essence of the theories they purport to study–the desire to transform society. In recent years, the reduction of theory has paralleled a decline in student activism, where students have become content to “study” conditions in society without doing anything to change society. They “study” growing poverty which comes during a time of unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the destruction of the natural environment, and the continued perfection of forms of domination and social control–all of which seem to exist on an abstract level for many. Increasingly, students are content to identify these problems and ignore solutions—the sociology major identifies the causes of poverty and does nothing to combat them, the psychology major examines the mental conditions in society which come as a result of the insanity of capitalism and hierarchy without trying to address the core problems, the history major identifies the historical origins of these problems and does nothing about them, the biology major does not work to alter the systemic causes of environmental degradation, and the political science major studies how to perfect forms of control rather than working towards genuine democracy. Just as academic study has become completely separated from society, casting aside any type of serious effort at affecting society, theory has experienced a similar decline–becoming something that is confined to academic books and discourse, rather than being a catalyst for social change.

Now that theory has largely become the province of academics and students, existing only within the context of the university, theory has become increasingly useless. Theory’s existence is meaningful only if it becomes a catalyst for change, if it is simply a subject of study, effectively breaking off any hope of “praxis,” theory must be abolished (3). In the late 19th century, revolutionary theory was closely linked with movements to transform society, including theories such as socialism and communism (4). The same was true of anarchism, in that the theory existed both in theoretical discourse and among a movement of people that sought to transform society, not simply writing about and discussing problems without attempting to change them. In the 1960s, after decades of revolutionary theory becoming increasingly separated from any attempt to change society, especially within the Marxist canon, the theorists of the Situationist International, based in France, made it their project to create a revolutionary theory which would not exist simply for academics, but rather to be a catalyst for action. For the situationists, theory was not just for academics, but rather it existed to “transform the world and change life” in a revolutionary manner (5). Situationist writings were a call to Marxists, anarchists, and other “revolutionaries” to be revolutionary–a challenge to rediscover what was truly revolutionary about those theories–the desire to change society. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to evaluate the extent to which the situationists call for a unity between theory and praxis was heeded by revolutionaries, the situationists were elaborating on a critique set forth by other marxists, who had become fed up with the absorption of Marxism by academia and parliamentary parties (6). However, in the post-May 1968 intellectual milieu, theory in France has once again reverted to inconsequential ramblings with little bearing on the world outside of academia.

Perhaps the most prominent example of the deterioration of theory is the whole “postmodern” project, a theoretical body that claims to be revolutionary, yet functions as little more than a testament to the present poverty of theory. Postmodernism makes no attempt to be accessible to the general population; instead, it is steeped in rhetorical blabbering and exists almost exclusively within the confines of academia. Where postmodernism has any influence beyond academia, it tends to be found within pseudo-intellectuals and nihilists who have little interest in any unity between theory and practice. Moreover, postmodernism is often described as a form of Marxist theory, citing its roots in Marxism, and it very well may–but in reality, it provides little more than cover for intellectuals who do not want to change society in any concrete manner, yet want to be associated with Marxism. This lack of enthusiasm for changing society is most certainly not a legitimate legacy of Marxism, and instead of cultivating a revolutionary theory derived from Marxism–which would entail working towards revolutionary change, postmodernism makes no effort to create a better world. Instead, postmodernism promotes a type of intellectual fatalism in which there is a fascination with the absolute power of television, consumerism, capitalism, and hierarchy, yet there is no genuine attempt to abolish the aforementioned forms of domination. This follows from the fact that postmodernism’s rejection of any type of “absolute truth” can be used as a convenient way to dismiss revolutionary movements, as revolutionary movements that proclaim a better way to live are really little more than false proclamations of truth. Postmodernism represents the most perfected form of a theory made entirely irrelevant to revolutionary struggles.

While postmodernism may be the heir of Marxism (7), Marxism still exists as a somewhat popular form of theory within academic and “activist” circles. In its present state, Marxism is a theory that has outlived its usefulness, as it has become so diluted that there is little point in dragging its dead corpse along. Marxism, once explicitly linked with class struggle and movements for a revolutionary reconstruction of society, has become a philosophy of inaction. Marxism has become “safe” for academics and “activists,” as it has been completely confined to books that do little more than gather dust on bookshelves, while to be a Marxist one need not make a serious effort to change society, as such an effort would certainly be seen as abnormal by one’s comrades. Moreover, Marxism has become a theory to which elitist intellectuals and “activists” can cling, as much of the twentieth century development of Marxism has centered around the idea of “vanguard” groups and the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” under the absurd claim that “professional” revolutionaries must lead the masses in the revolution and in any post-revolutionary period–assertions which are a complete bastardization of the democratic and libertarian tendencies within Marxism (8). Marxism has become a cult-like religion devoted to the study of Marxist texts, which have become akin to the dogma of the Christian church. This cult-like reading of Marxist texts and the ensuing arguments over minute details of theoretical writings nearly 150 years old, run contrary to Marx’s intentions. Marxists would do well to remember Marx’s rejection of “personality cults (9),” as well as his statement, “Je ne suis pas Marxiste” and instead of focusing on his words as dogma, they should focus on revolutionary movements (10). Indeed, it is also true that much of the problem with Marxism, especially in the United States, is that Marxists have allowed its legacy to be shaped by critics from the right and academics, both of whom have rendered Marxism a theory that exists only within a specific historical context. Moreover, the conditions that led to the development of Marxism, the intensified production and exploitation of the industrial revolution, has been removed as capitalism has become rationalized, which is of course not true, but such an interpretation have nonetheless become quite common (11). Marxism has lost its revolutionary potential–it has been reduced to a “theoretical lens” which can be applied to history or literature, in order to construct “Marxist Interpretations” of history and literature or a “badge” which one can wear–completely eliminating its previous relationship with class struggle and revolutionary movements (12).

Anarchism, historically the “alternative” to Marxism, although few ever saw it as such due both to the misunderstanding of those on the “left” as well as outright distortions by mainstream society and history, has experienced a decline similar to Marxism. Anarchism no longer has any ties to revolutionary struggles, beyond the participation of anarchists within larger movements. The lasting legacy of anarchism is bomb throwing and violence–the involvement of anarchists in the struggle for the 8-hour day, the involvement of anarchists such as Emma Goldman and Voltairine De Cleyre in the development of feminism in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the development of militant trade unions in Europe during the same period, and the struggle of anarchists in Spain against the fascism of Franco and the collectivization and organization of Spanish industry along libertarian lines in the 1930s, have all been ignored by history books. Anarchism, unlike Marxism, has been almost completely neglected by academics and instead it has been made irrelevant to the majority of people by the actions of people on the “left” who have dismissed anarchism as being an absurd quest for utopia, by historians and governments who have dismissed it as violence, and by anarchists themselves who have made little more than token attempts at outreach outside traditional “left” circles. Indeed, if people have any knowledge of contemporary anarchist activity, it is only in relationship to the use of the black bloc tactic at protests, which effectively replaces the legacy of bomb throwing with that of window smashing. There have been few serious attempts to make anarchism revolutionary; instead, most anarchists have remained within the ghettos of the punk scene, the middle-class, and the so-called “dropout” culture (13). While there have been interesting projects coming out of the anarchist milieu in the past ten years, including the development of infoshops to share information across the world, the development of the Independent Media Centers on the internet, the non-hierarchical forms of organization that have been used in the movement against capitalist globalization, and numerous theoretical journals–anarchism, like Marxism, is not currently a revolutionary movement.

Both Marxism and anarchism, as they currently exist, are not revolutionary–just as there is no theory that is innately revolutionary. Theory is kept within the small ghettos of academia, published in journals nobody reads, and dominated by people who are not serious about bringing about the revolutionary changes that must be at the core of all theory. As university students, we play a key role in the system that reproduces theory as a means of intellectual masturbation while removing its revolutionary potential. If we recognize this role, we can confront and abolish theory as theory, instead making theory something revolutionary—by making it a catalyst and component of action. Theory can no longer afford to be an irrelevant academic sideshow to reality; instead, it must intertwined with genuine and serious efforts aimed at the revolutionary transformation of society. Let us take theory out of the books and reclaim it from the intellectuals, let us bring theory into our hearts and minds as inspiration for revolutionary action–let us abolish theory!

Notes

(1) By theory I mean the revolutionary theories found on the “left”, the most common of which is Marxism.

(2) Graffiti painted on the walls of Nanterre University during the events leading up to the revolt/insurrection during May and June of

1968 in France—cited in Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Narin, The Beginning of the End, (Verso, 1998), 49.

(2) “Praxis” is a word that seems to have been forgotten by the majority of people who consider themselves theorists or proponents of theory, an increasingly fatalistic tone taken by many “theorists” who argue that any attempts to radically change the world are destined to fail because of complete and total domination of power. Many theorists have, rather than confronting power, been increasingly interested in simply observing the complexity of power without making any substantive effort at challenging it.

(4) This was of course before they were bastardized by the authoritarians, and later, by a dogmatic adherence to the writings of Marx, along with an almost cult-like fascination with everything Marx ever did, where once directly linked to mass movements designed to transform society.

(5) “On the Poverty of Student Life” in Situationist International Anthology, ed. and trans. Ken Knabb, (Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995), 337.

(6) I am thinking specifically of the critiques of Stalinism and the calls for a more democratic marxism in journals such as Socialisme ou Barbarie, journals that had much wider circulations than the writings of the situationists. These journals were more interested in the spread of revolutionary Marxism than inconsequential academic debates. Furthermore, the use of “marxist” with a lowercase “m” is to show that these theorists were more interested in marxism as a way of transforming society than the cult-like worship of Marx that is common among “Marxists.”

(7) According to some academics postmodernism is the heir to Marxism, although postmodernism really has little in common with Marx. See Arthur Marwick, The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language, (Lyceum, 2001), 241. This association of postmodernism with Marxism is quite common among critics of postmodernism coming from a “right-wing” perspective while many on the “left-wing” find that postmodernism offers a convenient tie to Marxism without requiring one to actually do anything to change the world.

(8) See: V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution, (International Publishers, 1943) for a development of the idea that revolutions can be led by the few and that “dictatorships” can be instituted in the post-revolutionary period. Also see, Friedrich Engels, “On Authority,” in The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (W.W. Norton, 1978), 730-733, for an early defense of consolidating power in the hands of the few.

(9) Karl Marx, “Against Personality Cults,” in The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (W.W. Norton, 1978), 521.

(10) “Engels to Eduard Bernstein in Zurich,” 1882, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1882/letters/82_11_02.htm

(11) Of course, anyone who opens their eyes can see that such assertions are absolute rubbish. Exploitation is still, and will always be, an essential component of capitalist production. Moreover, the absurd notion that we live in a “classless” society, therefore rendering Marx’s class analysis useless, is ridiculous.

(12) This is not to say that there are not many “activists” and groups around the world that call themselves Marxist. However, the majority of these “activists” and groups make no serious attempt to make Marxism a theory for revolutionary change. There is more to being a Marxist than being able to provide citations for his famous quotes or using his writings to simply interpret the world or works of literature. Most “Marxists” would do well to remember the following: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it,” something which most “Marxists” are all to eager to forget. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” in The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (W.W. Norton, 1978), 145.

(13) This is not to say that anarchism has not been growing in popularity in the past few years, and indeed it has, but there has not been a large-scale movement to appeal to people outside of circles traditionally sympathetic to anarchism.

From Classroom Radicals to Transforming Society: An Imperative Shift

Reprinted from Freedom Toast (April 2003)

“Our dreams are their nightmares” (1)

As we contemplate our futures after the university, it is important that those of us who have an interest in changing society do not completely ignore what it was learned during our time at the university. The lessons learned in our classes—the systemic problems that need to be changed, the techniques for changing these problems learned in our activism, and our idealism all must be retained if we are to have any effect on the world around us (2). For the majority of students, graduate school or a “nine-to-five” career are the two choices offered by society, both of which integrate the student into the very system that they spent much of their college years fighting against. For many “radicals,” graduate school is the more attractive alternative, and for good reason. It gives the student the chance to study what they want and provides them with the university environment in which radical ideas are traditionally encouraged and supported. While some good may come out of graduate school, to a large extent graduate school is a way of pacifying “radicals”–isolating them in the university environment during the years in which they are most energetic and preparing them for university teaching jobs in which they will be further removed from the everyday experience of the majority in society, jobs in which they will play the role of the “token radical professor”–a professor talking about the changes that need to be made but unable to put forth the time needed to bring these changes. Anyone making a serious attempt at being “radical” will no doubt reject the notion of a career as a means of instigating revolutionary change, but some “radicals” are seduced by the prospect of “working within the system.” We must not fall into the common trap of “radical student,” radical only until we can get a high paying job in order to afford a luxury car, or even worse, until we can become integrated into the system under the inane notion of “working within the system” a phrase that is nothing more than a euphemism for selling out everything that we have worked towards (3). The system is setup to handle challenges from within and thrives off the labor of those who have been convinced that they can change things by working from within–there is no way one can change anything by having a career, no matter how much one tries to justify their decision (4). Our post-university experience cannot simply be integration into the capitalist system, a system responsible for the conditions we fought against during our university activism, post-university action must involve a concerted effort to break from and abolish the system of ruthless competition and dehumanization brought forth by capitalism (5).

The most radical thing we can undertake is to change the world–a change that will entail the complete destruction of existing forms of power and oppression. As Bakunin said, “the passion for destruction is also a creative passion,” and we must destroy the existing forms of power and oppression, existing both within ourselves and within society, in order to unleash the creativity necessary to build the world of our dreams (6). How do we go from the nightmarish reality of contemporary society into a world that will allow for the shift from existence into the realm of life? It is impossible to say, and indeed anyone that tries to “sell” you the proper way to bring about change, whether in a book or a pompous newspaper articles, should be ignore. Any movement to bring about changes of this magnitude must be instigated by the people seeking a better life. However, one thing is certain—such changes will never come about by working within the system. It is essential that we oppose the system by refusing to participate in the activities that reproduce its power–consumerism, careers, and politics. It would of course doom “radicals” to complete irrelevancy if they abandoned the current system entirely, as nothing is more marginal than a small number of “radicals” engaged in a futile project to destroy capitalism, but at the same time, one must never be seduced by the prospect of “working within the system.” Instead, the system should be approached only in terms of how its products and its existence can be used to undermine its control. To this end, the idea of “dual power” or “building a new society within the shell of the old” is essential–the system must be milked for whatever can be obtained from it, but we must never forget that our ultimate goal is its destruction. In practical terms, this means accepting the fact that we cannot be “anti-capitalist” if we reinforce the system daily by purchasing worthless products, we cannot be “against sexism” if we continue to operate under sexist assumptions, or worse, advocate a sexist “division of labor” in our activities, just as we cannot not be “revolutionaries” if we simply read books about past revolutions without doing anything about the current society.

So, where do we go from here? Wherever we want! We must live in pursuit of dreams—and actually pursue them–not holding on to this idea of “pursuing our dreams” in the same sense that it is conveyed on Hallmark cards or promised by Nike if you buy their new shoes. We all know that a new sports car cannot truly bring about freedom and to this end we must look at the values used to sell you their products, in this case freedom, and work towards true freedom. After all it is true freedom that we want, the freedom to control our own lives and act in pursuit of our dreams–not the false freedom offered by a new car. To achieve this, we need to shift from the idea of “what is possible” or “what is realistic” (two great phrases used by activists to render themselves useless) to the question of “what we want.” The “possible” and the “realistic” assumes that there are only certain things which can be achieved within this system—and indeed there are–but it is no way to effectively attack the systems to which we desire to change as the “possible” and “realistic” leaves out all possibility of change that comes from outside the system. If we begin our activism from the position of what is “possible” or “realistic” we have already set ourselves up for a certain level of defeat, as the system only allows the change that it wants. Imagine the best possible world that could be created within the confines of the system compared with the world that could be created by people committed to making it so that everyone was free to pursue their dreams and desires–the later is infinitely more beautiful and more than worth the work it will take to create.

But this is not possible “the liberals” argue–one must work within the system, it is our only way of “changing” society. Oh how mistaken they are–by working within the system, we support the system, the system will never allow anything else. In the aforementioned paragraphs, it was explained that one should not ignore the system entirely, but to put all of our hopes for change into the system will only guarantee our failure. The only way things can be challenged is by working towards the world we want to see. While this may sound like irrelevant and idealistic rambling, it really is true. When we make our dreams our goals, we unleash the only force capable of improving society. The “liberals” will argue that this is nonsense and that the only way to achieve our goals is through “reform,” but after all, they have been too integrated into the system to realize that there are chances for actually changing the society and we have seen what they have done–social programs that are decimated by budget cuts a few years after they are passed. But how does this, or can it, actually work for activist groups? Surprisingly, it is possible to pursue activist goals on the premise of “what we want” without becoming bogged down in self-important rhetoric without actually changing things. In Canada, a country similar to the United States in terms of its capitalist development, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) has been operating since 1990 with the goal of “eliminating poverty,” a goal that bypasses liberal “reforms” and attacks the system that creates poverty. OCAP seeks to mobilize poor and homeless people to fight back, through militant and direct action, against the system responsible for the creation of poverty. Through a variety of tactics, OCAP has pursued its mission to “fight to win” against those that hold economic and political power, and as a result, they have won numerous victories—victories that have not been achieved by asking what the system allows (7). OCAP is just one example of the successes that can be won when activists actually get serious. The numerous squatted social centres in Europe provide another example–rather than waiting for low-cost housing, people have taken over abandoned buildings and made them community spaces. Furthermore, the 1999 shutdown of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle was certainly not considered “realistic” or “possible,” but that did not stop people from using direct action to achieve what they wanted. We can win (and indeed we may only be able to win) if we start from the position of what we want, not from what is possible.

For this to work, we are going to need to start by reevaluating the basic assumptions that structure our lives. For starters, we do not need to choose a career after college; we can chose not to work in a traditional job. We can achieve, and indeed deserve, much more than integration into a work force designed to support ritualistic consumption. Getting a long without a “career” may seem difficult at first, but in the end, it is the only option that will allow us to take control of our lives. Imagine the revolutionary potential of a whole generation of people learning to love and live without the constraints of the 9 to 5 job. We will have the capability to change the world, not only through collective action and mutual aid, but also by being able to relate to people as people. Freed from the cycle of work and consumption, which pits neighbors against neighbors and forces relationships to be evaluated in terms of “cost benefit analysis,” we will actually be able to appreciate and cultivate what is truly beautiful about humanity. The critics will no doubt argue that if everyone withdrew from the system of work and consumption that the entire capitalist system would break down–but such a break is exactly what we should be seeking, as this destruction will be the final step that allows for the creation of a new world.

So how are we going to do it? We need to start by actually being serious and not just talking all the time about what we want to do–we need to actually do something. Moreover, it is naïve to think that this will not require a large amount of work, indeed it will, but at least it will not be the “work” that we are forced to do to get by under capitalism. We need to reorganize our lives on the principles of mutual aid–helping others in anyway we can. We can trade labor, trading or donating our skills in bike repair, while the people that know plumbing help us, volunteering to do childcare, or whatever else. We can live lives without careers if we shift our emphasis in life from competition to cooperation, no longer will we be stuck in a stage of existence, separated from authentic life. We can plant gardens and share the fruits of our labor with those around us. We can get along without needing to fear those around us. We can truly love our friends and neighbors without constantly measuring our status against theirs. We can create new institutions that will provide alternatives to capitalism, while also working to improve the existing institutions, as long as we remain aware of the fact that the old institutions are merely temporary improvements and that our ultimate goal is to create a new world with new institutions. So let’s work towards what we want, not what is possible–we have a new society to create.

Notes

(1) Graffiti from the walls of occupied Nanterre University, May 1968.

(2) However, I do think a good argument could be made that we should forget much of what we learned in school, especially as it relates to writing in a manner that alienates the majority of the population. Moreover, the opposition to the current system on a theoretical basis, which is fostered in a variety of departments, must be abolished. We can only change the system by action, never by theoretical babbling. Even this paper is a pointless exercise unless it motivates its readers and authors to put it down and actually do something about the conditions we hate.

(3) If you see your post-university “activism” involving a job “working within the system” you might as well drop out of radical politics now, because you will not do shit.

(4) We should pursue a strategy of “dual power” to destroy the system–working within it to gain temporary improvements while also creating institutions which will replace it and eventually render it useless.

(5) This is not to say that I am naïve enough to think that my post-college activities will bring about the end of capitalism–that would be absurd. But at least I am willing to try.

(6) Bakunin, http://www.kat.gr/kat/history/Mod/Leaders/Bakunin.htm

(7) For more information on the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, visit their website at http://www.ocap.ca

Challenging the War on Terror and Stopping the Invasion of Iraq

Reprinted from The Rant (September 2002)

Despite the generally hostile climate towards people opposing the Bush administration’s war on terror immediately after September eleventh, and indeed the media’s continued hostility towards and failure to report dissenting views, there is growing evidence that a successful opposition movement can be built. Shortly after the attacks, many activists felt they were in an extreme minority, a feeling largely shaped by the media that has not reported on dissenting views.

In the months since September eleventh, the media has not adequately covered the growing movement against the war. If you get most of your news from one of the major US news outlets, you would see little coverage of a movement which has staged two major demonstrations in Washington DC and countless smaller actions across the country. On September 29th, 2001, just two weeks after the attacks, there was a demonstration with several thousand people on the National Mall, showing that mass dissent was possible and would not result in immediate arrest, public ridicule, or any number of other concerns raised by people who argued it was too soon to begin organizing against the poorly defined war on terror. While media coverage was limited, the rally was televised nationally on CSPAN and was not subject to police repression. A larger demonstration, involving a diverse coalitions of groups and participants numbers in the tens of thousands was held on April 20th, 2002, with thousands of demonstrators staging a simultaneous demonstration in San Francisco. In the year since the attacks, there have been a number of teach-ins on campuses, video screenings, marches, and other actions. Recently there have been an increasing number of protests against administration policy, gearing up for an October 26th national day of action against the potential invasion of Iraq. The most dramatic of these recent protests was on August 22nd in Portland, where 3,000 non-violent protestors were assaulted by police with pepper spray and rubber bullets for voicing their dissent, while the police department has come under scrutiny for their handling of the protests.

Clearly, those opposing the war administration policy are not alone and while the media may help the Bush administration by minimizing dissent and espousing their belief that it is the patriotic duty of Americans not to question administration policy, they are increasingly unable to hide the fact that public approval for the war on terror is not nearly as unanimous as was once believed. While statistics are not the best way to gauge public opinion, it is worth noting that a recent survey of Michigan voters indicated that 47% of people believe Bush has not made a convincing case for invading Iraq with 44% of people said that they opposed an invasion of Iraq. While approximately 60% of people support military action against Iraq on the national scale, at the current time there is no poll indicating how people feel about military action now that Iraq has agreed to allow inspectors to return. Ironically, as the Bush administration seeks to expand their war they are simultaneously strengthening the opposition.

It is of utmost importance that those who are opposed to the war take advantage of the current climate and begin organizing against the potential invasion of Iraq. We need to continue making coalitions, doing outreach, and most importantly engaging in highly visible actions designed to influence the United States government. At the present, the public is divided, which can be used to the advantage of dissenting groups who should experience a more positive response to their actions and resulting in more participation. Not only will there be more participation, but it should be more diverse as more groups being to oppose military action in Iraq. A successful movement could be effective in pushing public opinion against an invasion of Iraq and if that opinion threatens the politicians’ reelection prospects, they will listen. Aside from the increase in numbers, we know the Bush administration has not made a case that justifies the invasion, that 5,000 Iraqi children die each month as a result of the sanctions, and that an attack will serve to motivate future terrorism. Organize!

Labor History in Grand Rapids, Part I

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

In 1900 Grand Rapids was a bustling river town, not fully settled, but no longer frontier. The red light district was located in the river valley while the mansions of the wealthy overlooked the city from Heritage Hill.

Only seventeen years earlier, the last great log run swept away the railroad bridge near Ann Street. Crowds gathered along the banks of the Grand River to watch as thousands of white pine logs created a jam seven miles long and thirty feet deep. Perhaps this is why so many furniture factories started in the “valley city” — cheap wood, cheap water power, and cheap labor. Scattered along the river and throughout the city were 85 furniture and woodworking factories. Berkey and Gay, Widdicomb, American School Furniture Co. (American Seating), Sligh, Stickley Bros. and others were just then making this medium size city of 87,576 the furniture capital of the United States, a title it held until the Great Depression.

It was this cheap labor that bothered Thomas Kidd, secretary of the newly formed Amalgamated Wood Workers International Union (est. 1895). Low Grand Rapids wages were depressing the earnings of his members.

If the union was to grow, Grand Rapids workers needed to be brought into the fold. Kidd made numerous speaking trips to the city passionately and eloquently presenting his case to the English, Irish, German, Dutch, Polish, and Lithuanian finishers, rubbers, cabinet makers, sanders, and machine hands who compromised the 7,000 workers of Furniture City, USA.

“The most foolish and silly thing the working men have done of late years is to allow themselves to be kept divided by the religious question. Who ever heard of a corporation, a trust, or a combination of any kind, of capitalists allowing any question foreign to the objects for which they are organized to enter into their consideration at all? Everything likely to create discord is wisely cast aside, and all keep their eye on the main thing — the dollar. That is what they are after.”

“All the institutions of the country are used against us, even our chump of a president, Grover Cleveland [enthusiastic applause] and our condition will never be improved with being a better Democrat or a better Republican. Is all this not enough without our quarreling over questions of faith and thus assisting the enemy to bind us still tighter? [Many of the Dutch were opposed to trade unions.] The working men of this country are gradually but surely getting behind those of other countries. I am a Scotsman and I never worked over eight hours per day, nor on Saturday afternoons until I cam to this progressive country.”

“The union label is the coming power, and it will do away with strikes. The wood workers have adopted a label and already a furniture manufacturer in Chicago is using it on all his furniture, and a Minneapolis manufacturer will at one begin using 22,000 labels a week, and there will be no more strikes there. Furniture without the label can easily be boycotted through the central bodies in other cities.”

“In comparison with other furniture localities, wages here are fairly good, but if the workers here remain unorganized it will only be a matter of time when the employers will have to cut you still lower in order to compete with furniture from other parts. Reason as you will, experience proves conclusively that you will never get better wages unless you organize. In Oshkosh and Marshfield, Wisconsin, wages were as low as five cents an hour before unions were organized in those places, and the men were working eight hours a day, forty cents a day! Just think of it. Do you want to come to that? If you do, continue to go it alone, each man for himself, and you will get it, just as sure as you live.”

Despite Kidd’s best efforts, Grand Rapids Local 46 and Spindle Carvers Local 84 never numbered more than 200 members. In March, the AWWIU held its national convention in Grand Rapids. If the workers would not come to the union, the union would come to them. As hosts, Local 46 and 84 hand made convention badges of “white maple veneer handsomely lettered and mounted.” Sixty-eight delegates attended the week long session.

Most were German immigrants with a few English, French, and Swedes thrown in. The constitution was amended and union policies debated. However, all was not work. Germans, being Germans, and definitely not following the temperance fashion of the times, attended a social session held for the delegates entertainment:

“When the social session opened at 9 p.m. the hall was crowded, over four hundred present. ‘Elk’s mil’ was the first order of business and after several trips of the white-aproned dispensers, the fun began.”

An invitation was sent by the delegates to the local furniture manufacturers inviting them to meet with the union’s officers to discuss the advantages of the union label. Sligh, Rettig & Sweet, and the Luce Company agreed to meet.

The appointed time came and went, but no furniture representatives.

Unwilling to was the evening, the AWWIU officers decided to take in a performance at the Powers Theater. And what should be playing but “Sappho,” a performance so risqué, with the actress who portrayed a Greek heroine baring her arms and feet, that it had been banned in New York City and Kalamazoo, Michigan.

However, this was not the only thing laid bare that night. It seems the lure of culture was too strong for even upright, respectable businessmen, for there, seated in the crowded theater, were the errant furniture barons.

Epilogue

Kidd never did organize the furniture workers of Grand Rapids, despite his charismatic appeal and unceasing efforts. It would take another organizer and another union to lead Grand Rapids furniture workers in the Great 1911 Furniture Strike.

Stand For Children: Making a Commitment For Their Future

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

Every day in America 15 children are killed by firearms, 2,660 babies are born into poverty, 2,833 students drop out of school, and 8,493 children are reported abused or neglected. For a country that claims to love its own or embrace “family values”, the US ranks 18th in the world in infant mortality. The Children’s Defense Fund, an organization that for years has been defending the rights of children, has called for a national day of commitment to children.

On June 1, in Washington DC, there will be a day long event to call attention to the plight of children and to get communities organized arid energized to work in their communities on behalf of children. Stand For Children expects over 1,000,000 people to converge on the Lincoln Memorial to challenge the harsh policies of the current administration. Their brochure states that “if you are struggling to raise a child but know you could do better, come stand with us. If you are a young or middle-income family working hard to make ends meet, come stand with us. If you are troubled by the pollution of our airwaves, air, food, water, earth, and our children’s values, come stand with us. If you are worrying about whether your children’s schools are preparing them for the twenty-first century, come stand with us. If you are anxious that your children will get sick and not get decent medical care because you lack health insurance, come stand with us. If you are lying awake nights concerned about your children’s safety, come stand with us. If you have had enough of political leaders talking about family values while not supporting what families need to raise healthy, safe, moral, and educated children, come stand with us. ”

Locally a group has formed to coordinate travel plans. Two buses are already reserved and hope to be filled. We are also planning a send off rally for die people who will be making the trek to DC. If you want more information on the trip or what else the local group is organizing you can call the 4C’s office at 451-8281. The group here is intent on using the June!, event as a rallying point for efforts here in Grand Rapids for the long haul. Even if you can not attend the DC gathering or the local rally talk about this issue in your family, school, neighborhood, work place, and place of worship. For the present and the future, LETS STAND FOR CHILDREN!

Resurgent Mayan Identity: Human Rights, Elections, and Popular Organizing in Guatemala

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (January 1996)

It was Saturday afternoon in Chichi when we arrived. This was market day where the human activity resembled that of an ant colony. Everyone was busy buying and selling, trading and bargaining. The economic activity of this market economy is radically different from the one that we are used to in the US. It is more of a social event than anything else. Most people who are displaying their wares either made them or grew them. Food clearly dominates the items for sale, thus creating a large potluck atmosphere with people eating and sharing all day long. The smells of the comedores and the sight of tipicas bring great pleasure to the senses, senses that are deadened in the standard supermarket of the North, filled with plastic, preservative, and a multitude of products disconnected from their makers. It is in this vibrant, dynamic setting that the new party members brought their message.

We arrived accompanying members of the newly formed political party Frente Democratico Nueva Guatemala. We were invited to accompany them since the majority of candidates are popular movement organizers who have been on the death squad lists for years and because the government has labeled them an extension of the armed resistance movement. This is a standard tactic used by repressive governments against new parties that advocate anything other than business as usual. This discrediting label did not seem to take effect here in Chichi. The people swamped the pickup truck we were riding in, all extending a hand out to get the literature that was being passed out. Within 30 minutes the flyers and calendars that were being distributed were gone. At first we thought that this was an aberration. Maybe people were taking flyers because it was free or because literature was hard to come by in these rural communities. Our speculations were quickly dismissed when two other party groups arrived passing out their respective flyers. People did not swarm their trucks nor struggle to grab the paper with outstretched hands. While we watched these parties flounder on the street, Maria, a Mayan woman with the Frente, began to speak over a loudspeaker.

People gathered around to hear her powerful words. She spoke with conviction and clarity about the dreams and desires of her people, but she also talked about how her party members have been fighting for justice alongside these people for years. That is why the crowds listened intently and that is why they rushed to take the flyers. All of this was not clear to me at first, because Maria spoke to the crowd initially in Quiche. This was another clear distinction between the Frente and the other parties, they always had local representatives who spoke the local language. Maria did not use much political rhetoric nor did she make idle promises. She spoke as she has spoken for years, about the demand for an end to murder, an end to the disappearance, an end to poverty, and an end to impunity. Only then will the people be able to determine what kind of future they will have.

This scene, like many others i witnessed, reflected the political space that was opening up in Guatemala. A space that was not given to them, but one that they made for themselves. I arrived in Guatemala 3 weeks before the elections on November 12. My intention was to meet with as many people as possible, to gather information, to work on a video about human rights, and to observe the elections. The following is some of the information and experiences of my trip.

Popular Movements and Political Repression

As was mentioned before the public activity of the popular movements is at an all time high. Every time I go back to Guatemala new groups have formed. Some of them form to fill a void in the popular base or to challenge some of the faults of the existing groups. Notable, are the increase of women’s groups and indigenous groups. The women’s groups are more and more challenging the machismo of the ladino and indigenous societies. They have learned from their own experience and that of other Central American women that their issues cannot be subordinate to the revolution. The indigenous groups are also refusing to allow ladinos to set the political tone in a country that has its own form of apartheid, with 60% of the indigenous population still having no effective political representation at the government level. Plus the indigenous groups also do not want to lose their own cultural identity within the national identity, whether that is a totalitarian identity or a nationalist identity.

One of the newest indigenous groups is CONIC, a campesino-based organization that is fighting for land rights by challenging the traditional property system in the courts, but mostly through land occupations. CONIC was born out of the 500 years campaign that has existed in Guatemala formally since the late 1980g’s. Their main objective, aside from autonomy, is to reclaim land that was once theirs. This they believe is fundamental to rebuilding a new society. An enlarged statement on one of their organizational brochures says “The struggle for land, is a struggle for life and peace.”

Another area of increased organizing is with the repopulated communities. These groups consist of communities that were either refugees in southern Mexico since the early 1980g’s or internal refugees who were displaced from their villages and survived in the highland regions. i had an opportunity to spend time with both, once internal (Los Cimientos) and external refugees (Nuevo Mexico in the south coast). Each community was dealing with the lack of sufficient community resources, children adjusting to unfamiliar places and tensions with surrounding communities. At the same time they are essential to the foundation for a new society based upon their experience and ability to survive under extreme circumstances.

Overcoming Impunity

Even with the tremendous political space that has been created by the popular sectors, human rights violations still mar the political landscape in Guatemala. It is in the area of human rights that I spent most of my time, specifically with the group CERJ. This organization, which was born out of the need to resist the forced civil patrol duty of indigenous men that was instituted during Rios Montt’s reign of terror, has now become one of the most outspoken defenders of human rights.

Most of my time was spent between documenting the testimonies of people who had been victims of human rights abuses or witnesses to them, as well as accompanying members of the organization when traveling about since they are constant targets of military repression. In both instances the video camera I brought with was a tremendous asset. One incident that we documented is particularly noteworthy, since it demonstrates the type of repression that most of the groups like CERJ must deal with on a daily basis. Just days after accompanying CERJ members who were campaigning for the Frente in Chiche, a woman and her three children were strangled to death in that same village. This alone was abominable, but to make matters worse the murderers then put up posters throughout the town accusing CERJ of committing the murders. Upon discovering this we went to Chiche to make a public declaration against this defamation of CERJ. The intention of course was to create confusion amongst the villagers, but the murderers made a fundamental mistake, the defamation was written in Spanish in a community where most of the inhabitants could not read and only spoke Quiche. The attempt at character assassination was also a failure since CERJ has won the trust of most villagers by their years of solidarity with Mayan brothers and sisters.

The rest of the country was experiencing similar forms of terrorism. In early October the military entered the community Aurora 8 de Octubre, in Xaman, Alta Verapaz. This was a clear violation of the terms of agreement between repopulated communities and the government that were signed in 1993. When the community members confronted the soldiers, the soldiers opened fire killing 11 people and wounding another 25. This event, which received some international attention, affirmed the analysis of the human rights groups in the country….that some things are not getting better. In fact, most of the groups who have been documenting the abuses said that there have been more human rights violations during the year and a half of President Carpio (the former human rights ombudsman) than during the years of Jorge Serrano. Serrano, the previous president of Guatemala, was forced to flee the country after suspending the constitution and plundering the national treasury. According to the families and Relatives of the Disappeared group, GAM, some 1,433 human rights abuses were documented in 1994. This includes murders, disappearances, death threats, and detentions. In the first 6 months of 1995, GAM had documented over 700 abuses, thus keeping pace with the previous year’s numbers. Still, the major contention that surrounds the issue of human rights is impunity. Everyone knows who is committing the crimes and virtually nothing is being done to stop them. Even the UN, which came out with their 3rd report (early Nov. 1995) in as many years on human rights in Guatemala said “….no one is prosecuted, especially as it applies to the government.”

Vote… if you can

Historically voting has been somewhat of a formality in Guatemala, since most everyone knows that the military runs the show. People either vote out of fear or not at all for lack of faith in the system. Abstention generally claims the majority of votes. This election proved slightly different from the very beginning, not due to the electoral process but to several factors that made the privileged few very uncomfortable.

On October 20, the anniversary of the 1944 revolution, people participated in the usual demonstrations and public rallies, calling on people to reclaim the spirit of that revolution. With the election being just weeks away it added anew sense of revolutionary purpose in the popular movement, especially with the newly formed FDNG. However, a new popular party was not the only thing that motivated people in these tense days.

To add to the excitement and expectations of many people, president Carpio allowed something that most people did not expect. The remains of one of the revolutionary presidents, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, were returned to Guatemala with much fanfare. The FDNG took advantage of Guzman’s return by calling it a “symbol of the return to revolutionary democracy in Guatemala.” This helped set the tone for the Frente as they scrambled to make up for the limited time for campaign organizing.

It was also not only an issue of time for the Frente but also the lack of resources that the “traditional” parties enjoyed. The Prensa Libre said that both PAN and the FRG overwhelmingly outspent the FDNG on election expenses. The money spent on election day alone for party observers, transportation and other expenses were as follows: PAN Q476,100, FRG Q250,000, and the FDNG Q15,000. The FDNG could also not run the types of campaign commercials on the TV and radio that most of the other parties could, nor did they have the resources to give away hats, T-shirts and other paraphernalia with the hopes of buying voters. At one FDNG rally a labor organizer made the statement that “PAN is for the rich, but tortillas, the food of the poor, is what the Frente represents.”

Political violence was evident, especially in the rural areas just prior to Election Day. We saw several military battalions on maneuvers in the Ixil Triangle at 2:00am while traveling on bus from north Quiche. Few of the Frente candidates were harassed, but that was in part due to the fact that most of the candidates were people who have been escorted by members of the international community for the past 10 years. Rosalina Tuyuc, the director of CONAVIGUA, a widow’s organization, was threatened one evening and her vehicle was also stolen just days before the vote. The most ominous form of political repression however, was and remains in the form of poverty. This is something that the Frente kept highlighting in their platform. Democracy cannot exist, nor can you have democratic elections when people are starving. This is something that will certainly plague the country for years to come unless major structural changes are made with the entire system.

All this aside, the most important aspect of this election was the increased participation of the indigenous population. Not in the usual sense of just casting a ballot for some wealthy ladino but in a new way that could be the key to real change in years to come.

“Our cries, pain, and woe from the last several hundred years have begun to end, and now we can begin to listen to our own voices.” This declaration from Nukuj Akpop, a Mayan phrase for “Experiment in Governance,” reflects the present awareness and selfdetermination of many of the indigenous people. Never since the Spanish invasion of Guatemala have indigenous people organized their own election candidates, nor have they had their own platform. Of all the candidates that ran for the Frente, 130 were indigenous, including mayoral candidates, Congressional candidates, and even the vicepresidential candidate was a Quiche Mayan, Juan Leon. This new dynamic gave many great expectations for change and real participatory democracy.

As an election observer it was my job to report on any part of the process that was in violation of election standards, as well as to act as a deterrent to any potential fraud or violence that may occur. I was one of 100 or so independent observers from all around the world. In addition to us there were groups from the OAS, UN and even the Union of European States. These groups had more resources, labeled vehicles, and walkie-talkies to assist in their work. However, they were fewer in number and tended to be in the more urban areas, away from the potentially more volatile rural areas. I worked in the department of Quiche and observed in 5 towns throughout the day.

We did observe some elements of coercion. In Patzute members of the PAN party were giving money to people before they got into line, hoping to buy votes. In San Pedro Jocopilas some parties were displaying party emblems, a violation of Election Day rules. No one could wear a hat, T-shirt, or anything else that had party colors or symbols. Many people also discovered that their names did not appear on the register, even though they had a voting card with a designated number. At the same time there were reports that names of people who had been dead for years appeared on the voting lists. And there were reports of military personnel or civil patrol members around voting stations, also a clear violation. The biggest problem, however, lay with the very structure of the electoral system itself.

Most of the people who came to vote in the areas that I observed in were indigenous. Many of them had never voted before or were not that familiar with the voting process. Matters were complicated by the fact that the voting procedure was in Spanish, thus making it difficult for people who were either unable to read or only spoke an indigenous language. The election representatives at each table were almost exclusively ladino and male. When people had problems, many of them could not communicate with those in charge. The most common thing we witnessed was people were going to the wrong place. Many of the voters had to travel from another town to vote, since not every village had its own station. Upon arriving most people would simply go to the nearest voting site and wait in line, sometimes 2 or 3 hours. When reaching the front they were often told that they were at the wrong voting station. If people were not familiar with the town they were not able to find the other voting stations, and election personnel were not really assisting them. Frustrated, many people simply gave up and went home, never able to fulfill their hopes of voting for change. Clearly the system was fraudulent, at least for the majority poor indigenous population. At one point we decided to tell people which lines to get in when they arrived, since we had copies of the voting station numbers. In spite of these efforts and that of many of the popular movement, nearly 60% of the population either refused to vote or could not because of the difficulties posed by the system.

At the presidential level PAN candidate Arzu was the top vote getter with 36%. Portillo, the Rios Montt-led FRG party candidate, was second with 24%. Of the 19 presidential candidates the FDNG was in fourth with 8%, not bad for the lone oppositional party that had only 3 months to organize. Even the press in Guatemala referred to their position in the results as “A Big Surprise”. At the local and congressional level the Frente did much better. I watched the vote counting in Santa Cruz de Quiche, and at all three tables I witnessed a Frente victory. It was a delight to watch and listen to the vote counters as they kept echoing the words Nueva Guatemala (short for the FDNG). Representatives from the other parties did not seem to be surprised though. These were areas of the country with a Mayan majority and where Frente candidate Amilcar Mendez has worked to defend people’s human rights through CERJ over the past 8 years. Other impressive victories were the election to Congress of Nineth Montenegro, the director of GAM, whom I had escorted for months in 1988, due to constant death threats against her, and Rosalina Tuyuc, who became the first Mayan woman ever elected to Congress.

In spite of these victories, the FDNG went public the day after calling the elections a sham that was fraudulent. On Monday, Nov. 13, the day after the election, the electricity went out in the entire country. We were told that this was the first time that that had ever happened in their history. This means that the election computers went down for awhile, much in the same way as in Mexico in 1988, when it was revealed that the ruling party PRI fixed the election results. We are still waiting on the truth of that mysterious blackout, but many villages did not wait to express their disgust with the election outcome.

A community of recent returnees in the Huehuetenago area were denied the opportunity to vote even though the accord signed with the government granted them that right. In Escuintla hundreds of people were accusing the mayor of fraud. In Santa Lucia Milpas Atlas, a crowd of people set fire to tires calling for a re-election for mayor. People in San Miguel Acatan were so disgusted with the results that they burned the ballots. In Guanazapa, Escuintla, PAN supporters beat several people and took election council representatives hostage. These types of public protest were repeated in Tecun Uman, Olintupeque, and San Aguastin Acasaguallas. As of this writing many towns are still protesting the election results and some are threatening to boycott the January run-off between Arzu and Portillo for the presidency.

It still remains to be seen what will eventually happen with the final results of the election. Many people are wondering how the Frente candidates will fare in Congress or if they will live that long. People are also speculation on whether or not the Frente can deal with internal party problems that have plagued other regional democratic movements. Many things remain uncertain, but one thing is for sure, the majority of the population wants a change. I have no doubts that they will continue to struggle for an authentic democratic society in Guatemala, but as long as US policy remains the same there it is questionable as to whether the Guatemalans will ever be able to achieve authentic democracy.

Why Give a Damn about Guatemala?

If people have even bothered to read this piece on Guatemala, they might be wondering of what importance it has to people living in Grand Rapids. My response is this – US corporate exploitation of most Guatemalans has been going on for at least a century, causing loss of land, poverty, and death. Our consumption of their labor contributes to this vicious cycle of misery. The US government has directly been involved with repressive political policies at least since 1954. This has meant that Washington has directed and supported the bloody political structure in Guatemala that has caused over 200,000 deaths since 1960. Our tax dollars have helped to pay for this brutal repression with the funding, training and arming of one of the worst militaries in the hemisphere

These policies have caused thousands of refugees to flee Guatemala, many of whom have made their way to Grand Rapids. This exacerbates the already difficult economic conditions in Grand Rapids as people fight for jobs with companies looking for the lowest bidder. Since “our” system is inherently antagonistic to “foreigners”, their misery is often extended here. Now, I realize that most of this takes place without our knowledge. This is no surprise since the GR Press more or less chooses to ignore the political realities there. They printed only one piece (with no sources) on Guatemala that was 3 column inches high on the last page of section A on Nov. 12. They received a fax that I sent them a few days after the election, but failed to print it or contact me upon return. So it goes.

I also realize that most of these decisions, ones with brutal outcomes, have been made without our input and no doubt will continue unless we do something. The point is that it is in Washington’s and corporate America’s best interest to maintain these unjust dynamics. They will not change unless WE change. I emphasize we because it must be a collective response. A response that is predicated on our developing a relationship with Guatemalan people and personalizing their suffering. It is my experience that we can count on their continued involvement in the struggle, what is not clear is what our involvement will be.