Monday, June 15, 2020

Get In Where You Fit In When You Stand Up For Your Rights

“Most people think that Great God will come from the sky
and take away everything and make everybody feel high.
But if you know what your life is worth,
you would look for yours on Earth.
Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights.” ~ Bob Marley

When all else fails, YouTube comes to the rescue for me. I don’t know what I did without it before some saint or entrepreneur or whatever devised it for the rest of us. But this morning, I was struggling my way through my 14th week of hardcore self-quarantine alone, alternately depressed and agitated, when I went to YouTube to find a few meditation videos before I punched somebody in the throat or killed myself.

I found a couple of beautiful videos, posted one to Facebook, and then, as I got ready to post the one above on there, as well, I realized that I miss blogging. Blogging takes more time, more crafting, more thought, more reflection, more passion, more commitment, more of myself. So slowly but surely, as I worked what amounted to two full-time jobs for the past fifteen months, I blogged less and less, throwing up someone else’s work or an occasional video and once in a blue moon, I actually wrote something.

But I’m going to change that. Beginning today.

I’ve been blogging about the socially-constructed, political notion of race since 2006. Needless to say, my interest in mass incarceration – which developed nearly fifty years ago – shows up often. My blog is hardly the Huffington Post (by a long shot), but over the years, it has become a platform that has allowed me to write about race and mass incarceration with a level of expertise and belligerence that has gotten it read all over the world.

I never imagined that I’d write it for more than a decade, that it would over that period be viewed by more than a million people, or that I’d eventually take such pride in it that I’d want to publish a compilation of my favorite posts so that incarcerated people without access to the internet could read what I’ve had to say about topics that impact their lives so greatly. But life transitions give us an opportunity to re-consider how we want to spend our time and energy, how we want to order our priorities, and how we see ourselves as humans contributing to life on our planet.

I have found myself at just such a transitional point. At 74, I am scheduled to “retire” August 1st from my full-time position as an Instructor of Sociology at a mid-sized public university in The South. I have said (over and over) in the past year that I was doing so to dedicate the rest of my life to engaging in what some people call prison abolition work. And this is true.

What I did not consider was the breadth of what this work might entail. I know personally people from coast to coast in the United States who manifest their involvement in this work in a wide range of ways, many of which are very demanding and I somehow got it in my mind that in order to do this work “right,” I would have to commit myself to all of them.

I knew on some level that this wasn’t realistic, but with reckless abandon, I simply took on one set of demands after another until I was overwhelmed, snappish, resentful, and on the brink of burn-out at the very beginning of this new chapter in my life.

At least part of the problem is that over the five decades I’ve been engaged in my  own personal version of Shawshank Redemption, I have developed a lot of expertise in the field and matched it with a strong skill set that would normally take a whole office-full of abolitionists to reproduce. Unfortunately, there’s only one of me. It should have been clear to me from the beginning what the outcome would be. But who had time to think about that?

So until Covid-19 hit, pushing us all off campus, and then the semester slid to a gritty finish in May, I didn’t have time to step back and take a look at what I was doing. And by the time I did, I felt like one of those tigers being driven by an over-zealous trainer wielding a whip and a chair – with me playing both roles. I spent part of every day hating myself and another part looking for somewhere to hide.

Then it came to me: I was raised by parents whose own childhood turned them into perfectionistic tyrants. This resulted in a belief in my own inadequacy rooted so deeply in my psyche that a lifetime of accomplishments, awards, and performance could not mitigate its effect. Even as I aged, I did not lessen my own expectation that I should be more than I am compared to others. I didn’t finish my dissertation – like those who did. I didn’t publish widely as a scholar – like those who did. I didn’t win research awards – like those who did. And so forth, ad nauseum.

Even my radical social change work didn’t look like others’ work. It isn’t that I didn’t do social change work. It’s that my social change work did not fit the model others’ work fit. An organizer I know from another state announced the first time we met in person that my words are my super power. She was trying to help me see what I was doing. Yet I couldn't hear her because all my standards were based on how well I was being someone else. But this week, I finally got it: if I quit trying to be everybody else and focus on being mySelf (which I’m 110% good at), I will have a smaller workload, I will shine at what I was doing, and my life satisfaction will go through the roof.

So that’s what I’m going to start doing. Spending more time blogging and less time on Facebook will be the immediate manifestation of that. Later manifestations will include spending less time stewing over the fact that others are organizing street actions when that’s not my strong suit anyway and, at 74 and diabetic, I ought to keep my butt out of jail (COVID or not). Not accepting prisoners’ needs as a commitment I have to make because they need me to will free me up to focus on the needs I can legitimately meet and leave me feeling less guilty about what I cannot fix. And all this, in turn, will help make my work more effective.

This “personal problem” of mine shows up as a broader issue in social change work in general. When Bob Marley wrote: “Stand up for your rights,” most of us took that to mean “get out there in other people’s faces,” “make noise,” and so on. Assertive or even aggressive push-back is often necessary to get public attention, especially when the “public” in question is made up of decision-makers and cops who shoot first and talk later or not at all. But not everybody can do that for one reason or another. Not everybody does that as well as others do, in any case. And some people have other skills or resources that make them more valuable to the movement somewhere else rather than in the street. You don't put everybody in your army on a horse.

The tricky part of social change work is figuring out the most effective combination of strategies and where we each fit into them. People been standin’ up for their rights since the first time an oppressor took more than his share. Power is never given. But history tells us that the very people who have the moral will to take power by force typically turn into the same self-centered, greedy, morally bankrupt capitalists or even fascists as the power-mongers they overthrew.

Look at South Africa. The decision-makers in that country – now all Black – are treating those that were brutalized in the past just like their predecessors did. Or check out Dilma Rousseff, who went to prison for two years in the 1970s, where she was tortured for her socialist organizing in the streets but became a poster child for right wing capitalism as the President of Brazil.

This is partly why I’m not a true believer in any mindset that touts being “the” vanguard. I learned – early and hard – not to trust anyone who wants me to pledge allegiance to their flag, their leader, or even their t-shirt.

Still, living in collectives in my twenties showed me first hand that having no “leader” meant that the same few people did all the work all the time, while hangers-on wanted to sit on the corner of your desk and talk revolutionary rhetoric before they went somewhere else, got high, and ratted you out accidentally to some cop. So I don't have much faith in anarchy either.

Consequently, I've chosen to spend my life “helping” in one way or another, sometimes affecting a bunch of people all at once and sometimes affecting the life of “only” one; sometimes in socially-acceptable ways and sometimes in ways I wouldn't publish on Facebook. Once I started making enough money to cover my basic bills and have something leftover, I gave away as much as I possibly could. And for the past 32 years, I’ve exposed upwards of 12,000 students to world-changing ideas some of them latched onto with a vengeance.

For the past year, under the umbrella of the Louisiana Network for Criminal Justice TransformationI've been performing “case management services” (whatever that's construed to be on a given day) for incarcerated citizens -- most of them at Angola -- and their families. How that will unfold is, as yet, unclear. And from time to time, a prisoner becomes frustrated with my inability to accomplish what he needs done, as if my not being a lawyer or my not having just the right pixie dust that would walk him through the gates is a fatal flaw that makes me worthless.

I accept that prisoners can feel frustrated and hopeless and their families can feel helpless and abandoned. I accept that we need to change the world system that has us all trapped as wage slaves and that some of us are working for pennies to make others richer than anyone needs to be. I accept that there is no fool proof answer to how we can turn this world into a place safe for all of us where we each have what we need -- including dignity and respect and the freedom to be whole human beings. But starting today, I also accept mySelf.  It will be interesting to see where that leads.

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