© 2019 by Amara Miller

...Exploring social justice through film

WELCOME

“The educator has the duty of not being neutral.” ―Paulo Freire

The Films for Liberation Syllabus project is based on a seminar I designed and taught in Spring 2017. The course uses documentary films to explore contemporary social justice concerns. Topics focus on issues pertinent in our post-Trump moment, which has been characterized by emboldened white supremacy, anti-abortion, anti-environment, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-disabled, settler-colonialist, and Islamophobic rhetoric and policies. Discussion is framed in relation to recent attacks on voting rights, growing corporate power, and trends toward kelpotractic systems of governance. Given my background, the course utilizes a sociological approach to investigate:

 

What are some of the pressing social justice issues in our current political and social moment?

How can we stay more informed to better combat injustice, oppression, and the creep of fascism?

 

In the classroom, we held post-film discussions with guest speakers each week after a screening. Online, unfortunately this experience isn't easily re-createable. Instead, I've written a brief recap of some of the topics we discussed in relation to the chosen film each day we held our classes. Students were also provided weekly resource lists on each topic they can use to engage in their own self-study (svadhyaya) beyond the scope of the course. The lists contain lists of videos, resource hubs, overviews, relevant organizations, and articles/books of interest. I have included these lists here as well for online viewers to use and share.

 

Interested parties can, even individually, use this syllabus to guide their own exploration of social justice through film. You can find the the course below. For each "week", you can: (1) view the recommended film (some are freely available, unfortunately others may need to be rented), (2) read the associated breakdown, (3) check out specific recommended reads, and (4) explore the provided resource list as desired to learn more about contemporary social justice concerns today.

 

In solidarity,

Amara Miller

Open education : Disclaimer 

 

I believe in open education, because education is liberatory. Open education is a philosophy that "everyone in the world should have access to high-quality educational experiences and resources, and [we should] work to eliminate barriers to this goal... Promoting collaboration is central to open education." When it comes to social justice, education can provide us with a common language to describe our experience. Education also enables us to organize more effectively in ways that better embody the more socially just future we wish to actualize in our lives and institutions (praxis).

 

This syllabus is open source, meaning you are welcome to use it and share it.

 

However, given the time, energy, and heart I have put into creating it, I'd appreciate it if you'd acknowledge the source. Please cite me, link back to my page, and/or put a disclaimer indicating you are utilizing or adapting material I created. Acknowledging the sources of our wisdom is a means of building community, creating networks, documenting our histories, and of tracing power.

With this said, I'd like to acknowledge those guest speakers who were able to come to our course. Thank you. You too are part of this creation: Dr. Julie Sze, Dr. Natalia Deeb Sossa, B.B. Buchanan, Duane Wright, Marco Antonio Rosales, Sasha Abramsky, and Dr. Jenny Kaminer. Special thanks to Dr. Sze for sponsoring the class!

 

Course Requirements

*Included as a sample of how the course can be applied in a classroom.*

During the weekly course meeting, we screened a film and then engaged in a post-film discussion on the day’s topic, along the lines of a teach-in and Q&A session. The post-film discussions incorporated guest speakers from various departments, organizations, and groups on campus. Students signed in at the beginning of class to ensure they received credit for attendance.

 

Each week, enrolled students completed an informal (one page minimum) journal response on the week’s topic. Prompts/reflection questions were provided for each day. This “course journal” was due at the end of the class. Students were welcome to explore creative writing techniques in their responses, including the use of poetry, short story, and/or art. A student could propose an alternative course project to complete in lieu of a course journal (such as a photo/video mini project, website, etc.).

 

Grading Guidelines:

Participation 30%

Course Journal 70%

 

While not required, students were provided a handout each week with recommended resources they could explore on their own time. These handouts included recommended readings, videos, and organizations engaging in activist work on related topics.

 

WEEK 1

TOPIC: Indigenous Rights & Environmental Justice

 

Film: Rise, Episodes 1&2 by Viceland (2017, 1:44 min) [AVAILABLE TO STREAM ON VICELAND]

 

Journal Prompt: How does the Standing Rock/DAPL struggle reflect larger struggles for indigenous rights in the United States and globally? What does it mean for all Americans when indigenous populations continue to experience white-settler colonialism in their everyday lives?

Recommended Readings:

(1) Coulthard, Glen. 11/05/2013. "For Our Nations to Live, Capitalism Must Die." Unsettling America: Decolonization in Theory and Practice.

(2) #StandingRockSyllabus Project: "This syllabus brings together the work of Indigenous and allied activists and scholars: anthropologists, historians, environmental scientists, and legal scholars, all of whom contribute important insights into the conflicts between Indigenous sovereignty and resource extraction."

(3) Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. 2015. Especially "Introduction", "EIGHT: Indian Country", "NINE: US Triumphalism and Peacetime Colonialism", and "ELEVEN: The Doctrine Of Discovery" in An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States. Beacon Press.

(4) Cultural Anthropology Series on Standing Rock, #NoDAPL, and Mni Wiconi: "Contributors to this Hot Spots series consider the social, historical, cultural, and political significance of the #NoDAPL movement, situating it within Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) history, leadership strategies and direct action/organizing, Indigenous anticolonial resistance across Turtle Island, and conditions of ongoing state violence against Indigenous bodies and lands."

 

BREAKDOWN

“When the last tree is cut down,

the last fish eaten,

and the last stream poisoned,

you will realize you cannot eat money.”

The documentary for the day, Rise, discusses the Standing Rock resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). We can briefly get a sense of the struggle from Dhillon and Estes's "Introduction" to the Cultural Anthropology Series recommended above:

"Thousands of Water Protectors from more than three hundred Native nations, as well as allied supporters from a range of social movements, gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota during 2016 to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The DAPL threatens to cross under the Mni Sose (the Missouri River), which is the fresh-water supply for millions of humans and countless nonhuman relations. By blocking settler access to capital through direct action, the enactment of political counterclaims to the land and river through ceremony and legal challenges in U.S. courts, #NoDAPL front-line protectors are directly challenging the fossil-fuel industry’s centrality in colonial accumulation and demonstrating that climate change is indelibly linked to historic and ongoing colonialism and Indigenous erasure and elimination."

The Missouri River watershed is one of the biggest watersheds in the nation. It flows into the Mississippi River, so when a spill happens it has the potential to damage not just Sioux Tribal lands but a wide swath of the United States. And it's not a question of if a spill happens, but rather when. The company behind the DAPL has one of the worst records for spills and disasters. Most activists and academics who study the impact and danger of oil pipelines argue that it's impossible to create a pipeline that is leak-proof and spill-proof, meaning that eventually there will be environmental damage. Investing in projects like the DAPL is also problematic given the immediate threat of climate change.

Under Obama, it seemed like the water protectors might win the battle, as construction on the pipeline was halted. However, Trump's controversial election changed the political environment activists' faced. Trump has financial ties to both the Keystone XL and DAPL. Upon election, he revived the (now zombie) Keystone XL project and overturned Obama's hold on the DAPL, which has completed construction and despite numerous reported leaks will begin operation. The Standing Rock struggle was characterized by brutal police response and numerous violations of the civil rights of protesters, despite Standing Rock activists' adherence to nonviolence and prayer. There are so many other shady and disturbing details to this story that can't be covered in this short breakdown, so do some digging on your own to learn more.

 

For indigenous populations, the fight against the DAPL was a spiritual battle, rooted in beliefs around human interconnection to the land. Water is sacred, and given the current climate crisis dirty oil projects like the DAPL should never be considered feasible for the future of our planet in the first place. For indigenous activists, oil pipelines like the DAPL became symbolic of the "black snake" that the seventh generation is being called on to uproot for the earth to heal. The pipeline also takes on a deeper meaning, symbolic of the continuing racism and discrimination indigenous populations face, the refusal of colonial governments to honor treaties and engage in reparations, the use of violence and coercion to serve the desires of the powerful at the expense of indigenous populations, and the impending destruction of our planet the current path of corporate capitalism and resource exploitation will bring unless decolonization can be successful.

The two Viceland episodes explore the origins and experiences indigenous activists and allies faced against DAPL security and state troopers during the struggle. The films discuss aspects of reservation life and the ways the Standing Rock movement ties to larger struggles of indigenous populations for sovereignty and reparations--in other words, larger struggles of decolonization and their connection to environmental justice.

During the post-film discussion for this class, our guest speaker Dr. Julie Sze asked students to write down responses and reactions, including their emotional response; any phrase, image, or story that stuck with them; key words or terms; and questions they had. She asked them to reflect on whose story is being told, and whose voice is privileged in the film? (This is a question we come back to throughout the course.)

 

One of the key concepts Dr. Sze discussed was environmental racism, a system of relations where economically and socially disadvantaged populations experience a disproportionate share of environmental hazards. As we see in the film, the original plan for the pipeline was to cross the Missouri river near Bismark, a predominantly white city (92% white). But the pipeline was rerouted to "Indian Country" after local white citizens complained it might endanger their water supply (oh the irony!). The new route, chosen illegally without adequate consultation of the Sioux Tribe or adequate environmental impact studies, instead endangers the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's water. They were not given an opportunity to weigh in on the decision--instead, they were "excluded from the public process on deciding the route" (Underhill 2016).

Environmental racism doesn't come from nowhere. It's produced and maintained through racialized systems we are often taught to think of as neutral, including racial capitalism (see Pulido 2000 and Pulido 2016). Under capitalism, nonwhite bodies have been devalued in ways that make them particularly vulnerable to pollutions produced by capitalist systems, leading to environmental racism and injustice. Such environmental inequalities are supported by government-driven policies that are also racialized, for example unequal access to parks or, as we saw in the case of Standing Rock, policies and procedures that disproportionately amplified the voices of certain (white) constituencies and worked to silence others (indigenous).

 

Environmental racism is a form of violence. It causes harm, including injury and premature death, to its victims. We can see examples of environmental racism throughout the globe and in the United States, such as the way prisons are located in spaces with higher rates of pesticides and pollution or the way poorer populations experience higher rates of unsafe living conditions that result in asthma and lead poisoning. For example, take the water crisis in Flint, MI, or the fact that the death of Eric Garner and the BLM rallying cry "I Can't Breathe" related to Garner's asthma, which was a contributing factor to his murder at the hands of police, and which can be related to unsafe housing conditions that were a result of poverty. We can see it in the way dumps are located closer to lower-income, ethnically/racially diverse neighborhoods.

The violence of environmental racism is also supported by state-sanctioned policing and military intervention. Historically, the origins of police are rooted in the creation of slave patrols (and as such are historically explicit agents of white supremacy) as well as union busting for corporate interests (explicitly agents of class exploitation). Policing and/or military intervention is "legitimized" violence that ensures and enforces consent when coercion fails, when disadvantaged communities refuse to quietly acquiesce to the forces behind environmental racism. For indigenous populations, the use of militant force to suppress indigenous rights has a long history. It was military and state militias that ignored a Supreme Court Ruling in the tribe's favor, instead forcing Cherokee Nation on the Trail of Tears in 1838, resulting in the deaths of around 4,000. Native Americans are the demographic most likely to experience police brutality and police killings. In the case of Standing Rock, we can see clearly the way armed police and security forces (with tanks and some serious artillery) became used to violently protect corporate and state interests at the expense of indigenous Americans and their allies.

For indigenous communities, experiences of environmental racism run deep. Tribal communities are still dealing with trauma from their experiences with conquest, genocide, colonialism, and continuing discrimination. Due to historical discrimination, including elders' experiences in abusive boarding school systems, reservations are often characterized by high rates of poverty, substance abuse, as well as domestic/sexual violence. There is a great deal of intergenerational trauma that gets heightened in an environment which contributes to both physical and mental health problems, including things like dangerous living conditions or social environments that lead to the development of PTSD symptoms. Reservations may lack access to mental health services to help their members address and heal from such trauma. The U.S. government, which has not honored a single treaty with indigenous people, has done little to rectify these social ills and much to contribute to them over the years, decades, and centuries (a situation tribal communities across the nation are expecting will worsen under Trump).

It is out of this environment Standing Rock developed, driven by a need for healing and a need to organize collectively to address the struggles affecting indigenous communities. It is a social movement that has been led predominantly by women of color and youth who want a better future for themselves and their children, as well as a future seventh generation. It is a movement that is able to mobilize social media, effectively framing their struggle in ways that build strong coalitions with other indigenous tribes globally, as well as other demographics. During the movement indigenous populations received support from #BlackLivesMatter activists, labor groups, and environmental movements, just to name a few. It is also a movement that is just getting started, as indigenous rights and their intimate connection to environmental struggles will only continue to be more salient in the warming climate crisis and amidst widespread systems of corporate capitalism bent on exploiting natural resources, putting profits over people. Standing Rock brought a solidarity and intertribal unity to indigenous people around the globe in the fight against corporate capitalism. It's a fight that's far from over.

There is a reason I chose to start the class discussing indigenous rights and environmental justice. Over the years, I have found I have been brought back again and again to a consideration of the historical legacies of white, settler-colonialism and capitalism not just on human beings, but on our world and environment. In many ways, colonialism and capitalism are the root of many other social injustices we will continue to talk about in the course. The process of decolonization begins with our ability to decolonize the mind, to learn about the consequences of our complex histories, and to begin our work of organizing with an aim for a different fundamental vision of what is possible that allows us to break free of the iron cage. To work toward social justice requires a centering of the historical legacies of white settler-colonialism.

WEEK 2

TOPIC: Police Brutality & Black Lives Matter

Film: Stay Woke (2016, 41 min) [AVAILABLE TO STREAM ON BET]

Journal Prompt: Has your understanding of BLM shifted? How can we as community members support and advocate for racial justice in America today?

Recommended Readings:

(1) Rickford, Russell. 12/2015. "Black Lives Matter: Toward a Modern Practice of Mass Struggle." New Labor Forum.

(2) Chatelain, Marcia and Kaavya Asoka. 2015. "Women and Black Lives Matter: An Interview with Marcia Chatelain." Dissent Magazine.

(3) Alexander, Michelle. 2012. Especially "Chapter 5: The New Jim Crow" in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press.

(4) Simpson, Leanne. 12/2014. "An Indigenous View on #BlackLivesMatter." Yes! Magazine.

 

1/8

BREAKDOWN

"To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time."

...

“The future of the Negro in this country, is precisely as bright or dark as the future of the country.”

~James Baldwin

The documentary for the day, Stay Woke, discusses the development of Black Lives Matter (BLM) in the wake of Trayvon Martin's murder in 2012. The film, produced by Black Entertainment Television (BET), reviews some of the most important turning points for the movement. It features footage with the three women, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, who created the hashtag and founded the organization called BLM (one of many SMO's involved in this work, and the largest national network of BLM activists). In their own words:

"#BlackLivesMatter is an online forum intended to build connections between Black people and our allies to fight anti-Black racism, to spark dialogue among Black people, and to facilitate the types of connections necessary to encourage social action and engagement... Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.  It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression."

BLM draws attention to the way black lives are systematically devalued in the United States (and globally)--thus, in a world characterized by violent racial inequality and cultural stigma it becomes necessary to reaffirm that "Black Lives Matter." It's a movement that has been largely misunderstood by the general public, especially whites. To be clear: the movement is not a terrorist organization (in fact, they just won a global peace prize). The movement is community oriented and utilizes direct action to draw attention to a variety of racial inequalities. Contrary to conservative posturing BLM does not support targeted violence against "blue lives" (police).

 

The movement does critique systemic forms of racial injustice, including but not limited to racial inequalities within the criminal justice system. The organization does engage in a very legitimate and powerful critique of policing systems, which as I mentioned in Breakdown #1, originated with slave patrols and are deeply embedded in systems of white supremacy. As shown in the film, BLM originally arose in opposition to police brutality and police murders of black bodies in an attempt to hold police (and vigilantes like George Zimmerman) accountable for racial profiling, excessive force, and murder. Racialized police violence is not new, but with cellphones and social media it has become possible for such violence to be filmed and shared in ways that made systemic racial bias in policing dramatically visible. Greater scrutiny and monitoring has also blatantly revealed the ways police often fudge true accounts of events to avoid responsibility for crimes committed--and police largely do avoid accountability, as studies have shown the unlikelihood of police being charged and found guilty of murder even in cases with video evidence (so more cameras on cops are clearly not the solution).

BLM situates cases of police brutality and systems of racialized policing in a broader social and historical context. The movement connects policing to systems of mass incarceration and the industries that support them, all of which have expanded dramatically since the 1970s, disproportionately affecting people of color. This prison industrial complex ends up disenfranchising a large portion of people of color, particularly Black men (because of involvement in the system felons are subsequently denied the right to vote, and as such Black Americans are not adequately represented in our government). Such systems also affect more personal aspects of life, including family structures, and contribute to the higher rates of poverty experienced by Black and other people of color. Differences in socioeconomic status (class) and unequal measures of wealth between whites and people of color is also rooted in historical forms of oppression, including slavery and Jim Crow, that continue to disadvantage Black people today. Unequal education systems, the school to prison nexus, and a continued lack of diverse cultural representation are also culprits in explaining why Black lives continue to be devalued in our society. It is across all of these dimensions that BLM operates and seeks change, reparations, and healing.

While the documentary does a good job introducing viewers to the origins and development of the movement, during our class we also discussed the film's flaws. Our guest speaker, B.B. Buchanan, drew attention to a number of weaknesses of the film. Despite interviewing some of the founders of the movement, the documentary does not adequately focus on Black women and instead focusing mainly on prominent cases of men killed by police. This is part of larger cultural trends that highlight and center maleness, which often denies the experiences of Black women in their overlapping experiences as both women and as Black people.

 

Also, the film completely ignores Black queer/trans populations, despite the fact that two of the founders of BLM are queer and the presence of many queer/trans leaders in the movement. It also does not adequately acknowledge disability. This is a problem since police do not target people of color equally; those who are disabled, especially those who are mentally ill, are more likely to experience police brutality and violence, as are women (especially trans women). These overlapping intersections of oppression make certain bodies especially vulnerable to racialized violence in numerous forms, a fact the film leaves out, likely because it's produced by the white-owned BET (yes you read that right) and featuring queerness, trans identity, or disability would have alienated more mainstream market audiences. In general, watching the documentary on BET with commercials also drove home the disconnect between a film produced by a white, corporate, capitalist system and the radical vision of equity BLM activists hope to create through their work, which is predicated in opposition to whiteness, corporate power, and racial capitalism.

B.B. also drew our attention to how BLM seeks to uproot anti-blackness, anti-black forms of racism experienced by Black people and internalized by nearly everyone within our culture. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said: “If there’s one thing missing in our country, it’s an acknowledgment of the broad humanity of Black folks. Racism—and anti-black racism in particular—is the belief that there’s something wrong with Black people.“ This belief manifests in a myriad of ways in our own lives and in our institutions. The BLM movement, in seeking to uproot these beliefs, has as a guiding principle the idea of "Unapologetic Blackness." In essence, Unapologetic Blackness centers and celebrates the experiences and cultures of Black people in a way that is unashamed and without reservation.

 

Historically, during the civil rights movement activists often focused on what is now referred to as "the politics of respectability," which we discussed in relation to Al Sharpton. Respectability politics (or assimilation tactics) focus on presenting Black Americans as "just like the white middle class." During the 1960s, activists sought to utilize strategies of assimilation such as dressing up, utilizing songs/hymns (and affiliation with Black churches), and not showing signs of anger even in the face of state-sanctioned violence. Activists tried to "fit in" to hegemonic norms to garner sympathy from white audiences and governments.

 

Within BLM, there is a generational divide "separating the characteristics, the tactics and the tone of the civil rights veterans and the emerging Black activists" (Love 2015). Younger activists argue respectability politics implies liberation should only be achieved for and by people who are respectable enough to deserve it. As such it is a strategy that is not only classist (and ableist and gendered and heternormative and... we could go on) but that the strategy is itself a reproduction of a white supremacist culture where whiteness is the means by which we judge what counts as "respectable," creating a problematic catch-22. Younger BLM activists feel constrained by a respectability politics that is predicated on incorporation into the establishment, rather than predicated on radically transforming the establishment. They don't just want a seat at the same white, cishet, male-dominated table--they want a different way of meeting and organizing entirely. And they aren't afraid to be their full selves as they try to make that happen, because frankly, that's the only way of engaging in embodied practice toward a transformed future (praxis). So they are themselves, in all their humanity: they get angry, they wear hoodies, they swear, they dance, they scream, they are open about their sexual and gender identities, they talk openly about mental illness... and in the process, they are redefining what it means to be a civil rights activist in today's world, and what equity looks like. Their struggles are also taking place in a context with a more militarized police force and a much larger prison industrial complex than civil rights activists had to contend with in the past, necessitating different strategies and tactics than those utilized by civil rights organizers in the 1960s. 

 

Finally, we discussed all of this in connection with our local region, since our campus is located in a predominantly white suburban area. B.B. mentioned how since there aren't as many visible Black people in our community and since the campus town is considered a "liberal" space it's easy to think race is not an issue, that the safety so many experience in our community is somehow felt by everyone. But it's not. Racism can thrive anywhere, especially in white liberal spaces--something the recent, highly visible murders in Portland by a neo-Nazi illustrate clearly (because, yes, Portland is super racist too). We discussed a number of campaigns that racial organizing groups on our campus and in our communities are working on, including efforts to disarm campus police. Ultimately, the point B.B. made was that it's possible to get involved in promoting racial equity anywhere you are, so do some digging, find some like-minded folks, and get to work.

WEEK 3

TOPIC: Reproductive Justice

Film: Trapped (2016, 1:21 min) [AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX OR RENT ON AMAZON]

Journal Prompt: Who is most impacted by the repression of reproductive justice occurring in the United States? How might these impacts be felt by those closest to us, and by ourselves?

Recommended Readings:

(1) Perez, Miriam. 2/2013. "The Meaning of Reproductive Justice: Simplifying a Complex Concept." Rewire.

(2) Ross, Loretta. 3/2011. "Understanding Reproductive Justice." Trust Black Women.

(3) Ross, Loretta and Rickie Solinger. 2017. Especially "Chapter 1: A Reproductive Justice History" and "Chapter 2: Reproductive Justice in the Twenty-First Century" in Reproductive Justice: An Introduction. University of California Press.

 

BREAKDOWN

"Reproductive justice is not a label—it’s a mission. It describes our collective vision: a world where all people have the social, political, and economic power and resources to make healthy decisions about gender, bodies, sexuality, reproduction, and families for themselves and their communities."

~Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas and Kierra Johnson

What is the difference between reproductive justice and reproductive rights?

 

During the women's liberation movement (aka, the second-wave feminist movement) of the 1970s, safe, legal abortion access and reproductive rights became unifying issues for women in the United States and internationally. While feminists at the time were involved in many campaigns to end gender discrimination and transform our patriarchal culture, sexual politics became a focal point. Part of this was the era--the 1960s were characterized by increased sexualization of women in mainstream media, the prominence of the free love movement, and women gaining power while entering male-dominated spheres. Roe v. Wade was also navigating the court system, eventually reaching the Supreme Court in 1973 for the landmark ruling. At this historical moment, with the birth control pill only becoming available legally in 1960, reproductive rights became one of the most controversial, visible, and prominent struggles for women's rights.

 

Because of the term's association with the women's liberation movement of the second wave, reproductive rights typically refers to things like abortion rights, access to affordable birth control, the right to access good-quality reproductive healthcare, access to make free and informed reproductive choices, and the right to education including the right to comprehensive sexual education. It is also a term associated with the white, middle-class background generally dominant in second wave feminism. While reproductive rights are important, many feminists of color critical of the second wave pointed out that there were other issues specific to women of color that were left out of the conversation. In other words, the language of "reproductive rights" is not always intersectional.

Reproductive justice, on the other hand, is a more intersectional approach pioneered by women of color. The term was coined in 1994 by African American women after the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt and introduced to the US by SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective at their first national conference in 2003. Here's what Loretta Ross has to say about it (see link above in recommended readings):

"Reproductive Justice is, in fact, a paradigm shift beyond demanding gender equality or attaching abortion rights to a broader reproductive health agenda... Reproductive justice is in essence an intersectional theory emerging from the experiences of women of color whose multiple communities experience a complex set of reproductive oppressions. It is based on the understanding that the impacts of race, class, gender and sexual identity oppressions are not additive but integrative, producing this paradigm of intersectionality... We believe that the ability of any woman to determine her own reproductive destiny is directly linked to the conditions in her community and these conditions are not just a matter of individual choice and access... Reproductive justice addresses issues of population control, bodily self-determination, immigrants’ rights, economic and environmental justice, sovereignty, and militarism and criminal injustices that limit individual human rights because of group or community oppressions."

One of the shortcomings of the film this week, Trapped, is the sole focus on reproductive rights. With that said, this film does a terrifying, powerful job exploring the current state of abortion rights in America, which is a state of dire restrictions amid a growing war on reproductive freedom. The film explores a new strategy being utilized by the conservative right pro-life movement: TRAP laws. TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws single out the medical practices of doctors who provide abortions and impose on them requirements that are different and more burdensome than those imposed on other medical practices. In other words, it a means of using more detailed legislative changes to specifically target abortion clinics and providers, making it either too costly, too difficult, or downright impossible to stay open despite the precedent and supposed protection of Roe v. Wade.

 

As mentioned in the film, most TRAP laws were made possible because of the vague ruling in the Supreme Court case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992. The case the film discusses regarding Texas HB2, Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, has since been overturned for violating the Constitution. However, TRAP laws are being proposed across the nation and now that Trump's administration has pushed through Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, it's unclear what the future holds for reproductive freedom. TRAP laws ultimately affect certain populations more than others. In particular, those who are poor, those in more rural areas, those under 18 (including rape victims), and those who are people of color are more likely to be impacted.

 

Arguments against abortion deal with the idea of fetal personhood, the question of what point during pregnancy a fetus can be granted the status of "person" with all guaranteed civil liberties per the Constitution. For pro-birth activists (aka, "pro-life"), conservatives have tried to argue unsuccessfully in the courts and without support of scientific facts that fetal personhood should start at conception. For pro-choice activists, the exact answer remains unclear but is typically considered to fall sometime during pregnancy as the fetus develops and is eventually able to sustain life independently from the parent. For women, arguments that the fetus should take precedence over their experiences irrespective of the conditions that child might be born into reflects a number of assumptions around women, sex, and morals that are rooted in patriarchal systems of oppression. 

 

Dr. Natalia Deeb Sossa, our lead discussant this week, discussed the ways the battle for reproductive justice connects deeply to our assumptions about sex and about women in particular. Even the symbols we use to denote sex (♂ for male and ♀ for female) carry underlying meanings. The male symbol denotes a shield and spear, associated with Mars, the Roman god of war. The female symbol denotes a mirror and distaff, a tool once used in spinning cloth (oh, the domesticity!), representative of Venus, the goddess of love, desire, and fertility. In sociology, we discuss the dominant cultural belief in a binary and complementary system of gender roles, assumed to be determined by sex. The ideal feminine is a set of attributes and behaviors associated with girls/women, including: empathy, compassion, tolerance, patience, dependency, domesticity, nurturance, purity, fragility, weakness, restraint, sexual appeal coupled with sexual passiveness, and in general submissiveness. The ideal masculine is characterized by above all an avoidance of anything associated with femininity, so avoiding compassionate emotions or appearances of weakness, fear, or vulnerability, as well as homophobia, strength, aggression, self-reliance, pursuit of power/status, and sexual assertiveness disconnected from intimacy.

 

To be denied the right over their own bodies implies women aren't capable of making moral decisions about their lives independent of male supervision or guidance (but are ironically forced into a position where they become a parent, making decisions regarding the care of another human being). It also assumes reproduction is the most important responsibility women can have and that motherhood is the most important life experience a woman goes through. Denying abortion access and reproductive rights to women is often a means of punishing women for being sexually active, since the underlying assumption is that women should not have sex for pleasure but instead should be passive recipients of a presumed heterosexual male partner and husband. From an early age, women are encouraged to think about sex in ways that center male experience and male pleasure. This is one of the reasons women are not encouraged to masturbate and why they face a double standard when it comes to being sexually active (either a slut, or asking for it) in ways that men do not experience.

Finally, we wrapped up our discussion by talking about ways to get more involved and to make a difference to support reproductive justice in our own lives and communities. One way to do this is to become more educated and to continue to educate others, especially teens, in social reproductive health by sharing resources on sexual education (one positive resource both Dr. Sossa and myself recommended: Our Bodies Our Selves). Be public with your support, using stickers, posters, and verbal communication to indicate that you support abortion rights and reproductive justice. If asked, share information on how to access resources. Sometimes people are nervous and prefer not to share their concerns, questions, or stories because of the stigma attached to abortion and other reproductive justice concerns. Showing your support publicly can help make people feel more comfortable approaching you.

 

Engage in talking about sexual politics, experiences, and reproductive concerns with the people you know, especially your male friends. Women often have these conversations in gender segregated spaces, and this contributes to the sense that it's a "woman's issue" and not an issue everyone is responsible for. This is one of the reasons why a recent survey found 52% of American men don’t believe they have benefited personally from women having access to affordable birth control (which, let's be real, is just plain laughable it's so disconnected from reality). We need to start desegregating talk about sex, sexual health, and reproductive rights. Bring your male peers into these convos. Also talk with your partner about what your needs are in the bedroom and in your relationship generally to ensure your health needs are met, both emotionally and physically.

Lastly, at a structural level we can help push for greater reproductive freedom by engaging in things like donating our money, time, and energy to support this cause. Donate to organizations like Planned Parenthood, a vital resource for low-income communities nationwide. If you are interested, look into being an escort at your local abortion clinic (if you have one). Perhaps consider offering space for those who are traveling to receive care or provide other resources to support travel costs. Pay attention to legislative changes occurring in your nearby states and at the federal level, and consider getting out to protest and pursuing other ways to have your voice heard. Organize. Agitate. Be supportive and listen to the reproductive needs of others in your communities.

1/5

WEEK 4

TOPIC: Trans Justice

Film: Gender Revolution (2017, 1:30 min) [AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON]

Journal Prompt: Why are trans rights so contentious in America today? In what ways does the battle for trans rights force us to reconsider our understandings of reality, the world, and ourselves?

Recommended Readings:

(1) Kacere, Laura. 2014. “Transmisogyny 101: What It Is and What Can We Do About It.” Everyday Feminism.

(2) Adsit, Lexi. 2015. “24 Actions You NEED to Take to Help Trans Women of Color Survive.” Autostraddle.

(3) Teich, Nicholas M. 2012. Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue. Columbia University Press.

 

BREAKDOWN

“Trans women are getting killed EVERYDAY

and you think the struggle is over because you can put a ring on a finger?!”

~CeCe McDonald

 

Trans rights have been more visible these days. But greater trans visibility is not trans justice. In 2016, it was estimated that 0.6% of the adult population is trans. This means that most people do not know someone trans, may have never (knowingly) met someone who was trans, and in general are wildly unlikely to have trans friends, families, or neighbors. Because of this, and because media coverage of trans populations is incredibly limited and stereotypical (in all the worse ways) even when visible, many people have no basis of understanding trans experiences, especially in all their diversity. Many others simply don't want to learn more about trans populations, given internalized transphobia. Simply knowing trans people is not necessarily enough to result in social acceptance and celebration of trans people.

 

Note the U.S. Census does not include questions regarding LGBTQ+ identification, making measurements of trans populations tricky (a trend Trump's administration has only worsened). The rates of self-reported data indicate that "in some states seen as more accepting, more adults identified themselves as transgender. In some states perceived as more resistant, fewer adults did so, even though the surveys were anonymous." In other words, depending on the level of support (or lack of support, or active, virulent resistance) people will feel more (or less) comfortable exploring and/or ultimately being open about their trans identity, even on anonymous surveys. It means that in places that are most likely to be transphobic, populations are also least likely to have had actual interactions with trans individuals in their everyday lives, meaning those trans individuals who do live in such areas are the most likely to be discriminated against and also the least likely to be supported if such discrimination happens. The lack of governmental recognition in general also illustrates how trans populations have been and continue to be marginalized, erased, and unsupported in most social systems in the U.S. and many other parts of the world today.

 

Trans rights are a pivotal battle for our generation. Trans populations face an array of intersecting systemic oppressions, discrimination, and violence simply for being themselves. Because of this, and because of the fact that many people don't know anything about trans people, it is vital that we highlight and support struggles for trans justice.

The film this week is a new one, Gender Revolution produced by (cisgender) Katie Couric and National Geographic. Back in 2014, Couric got herself into trouble during an interview with a trans model, Carmen Carrera, asking her some questions that were extremely inappropriate. Couric has since acknowledged how she went wrong in that interview, saying she created this film because she "wanted to make sure that people knew that I recognized I made a mistake." The film explores a number of topics around gender, sex, and sexuality. In general, it is a solid introduction to the topic, covering a lot of ground in a way that is accessible and interesting to the viewer. Our class recommended it and thought it would be particularly useful to someone who is less familiar with these topics.

 

With that said, there are some problems with the film that are important to point out as well. The film is very focused on white, middle-class trans individuals, highlighting mostly stories from this population. This is likely because it is a population Couric identifies with. Another critique we had was that Couric is also arguably the focus of the film. The title of the film isn't just Gender Revolution... it's "Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric." While the film does introduce numerous trans individuals, this is a journey that Couric takes (with her unseen, and likely non-LGBTQ+, film crew). It's a film she is financially benefiting from, and that she will continue to financially benefit from for years to come. It's a film that essentially uses an at-risk population for personal gain on the part of Couric and National Geographic without adequately giving back to those populations affected (trans populations) or centering the stories and voices of trans populations in a way that gives them control of the narrative. We discussed how an alternative vision for the film might have, had Couric wanted to truly be an ally and co-conspirator, brought on a co-host who was trans, worked to increase diversity behind the scenes on the film (such as hiring a diverse film crew featuring trans individuals), donated proceeds from the film to trans rights organizations, and/or given those interviewed more of a voice to share the stories they wanted to share. Doing so would have been especially powerful had there been more diversity in the show generally, especially more diversity of trans experiences and trans populations.

The truth is trans populations and experiences are extremely diverse, and I'm not just talking about demographics like race/ethnicity, class, or religion, though this is true as well. I mean that how individuals identify and experience being trans can vary. The term trans (or as some write it, trans*) covers a wide variety of identities, including:

  • Transgender: Refers to someone whose gender identity is trans or is different than their assigned birth sex/gender. This includes those who have undergone some sort of physical change but also those who have either chosen not to and/or are not able to do so at this time, as well as those who are genderqueer, genderfluid, bigender, or who self-define in other ways. Note that not all people who identify in these ways may identify as "trans", and that transgender is focused on gender identity, not sexuality, meaning trans populations can be any sexuality. Because transgender is more general and inclusive it also does not speak to one's sex (one's physical reproductive systems).

  • Transsexual: A medical term that was more commonly used in previous decades, and typically only refers to someone who has changed their physical gender to match their desired gender. A transsexual lives full time in their altered gender presentation and usually has had some sort of surgery changing their physical appearance and/or hormone replacement. Because in the past this term was heavily stigmatized and because it has such a specific meaning, is not used as frequently today. The more politically correct and inclusive term to describe trans individuals is usually transgender.

  • Transvestite: Someone who identifies with one gender (typically assigned to them at birth), but who cross-dresses, or wears clothing from the opposite sex. Because of stigma attached to the term transvestite, typically cross-dresser is preferred. Many people mistakenly assume this is what trans means, although in most cases cross-dressers are not included in the trans umbrella at all.

 

Individuals who identify as trans may not undergo any medical changes. Others may undergo gender-confirmation surgery, but it's a long process and takes years of hormonal treatments and medical appointments before the transition is completed. Others who engage in hormonal treatments may never seek surgery at all, and people can take differing levels of hormones for different reasons. There are also people who start various medical interventions and then stop or reduce those treatments–-making them no less trans. They are included under the umbrella of trans because one doesn’t have to transition to be transgender.

 

Also note that there is a class dimension to access to health care for trans populations, and this includes access to transitioning, meaning it's largely a process only available to those who are wealthier or are lucky enough to have insurance that will cover some of the costs (many health plans exclude services related to sex change or gender-confirmation surgery as a means of denying coverage to trans populations for certain health care services).

 

The amazing amount of diversity in trans populations is not adequately captured in the film. This runs the risk of presenting trans experiences as an identical path toward some "final" stage of becoming trans, presented in the film as gender-confirmation surgery (a representation not helped by Couric's choice of title, "A Journey with Katie Couric"). In this "journey", being trans is presented as a path involving a physiological change, a journey that in reality is not shared by all (or even many) trans individuals. The film also implies there is some "final" stage of being trans, when the reality is that trans individuals are who they are, even before they transition, even during a transition, even if they choose not to physically transition in any way, even if they decide on another expression of their selves. There is no one path to being trans, and trans is not a destination. For someone who is trans, being trans is simply being.

Couric is also overly focused on the medical process of transitioning and on the medical take on trans populations generally. The "experts" throughout the film are mostly medical doctors, and Couric's "journey" completely, glaringly lacks input from  social scientists who study gender and sexuality and the social experiences of LGBTQ+ populations (seriously, could she have included a single person from a gender studies department?!). There is one cameo from an anthropologist (white, male, cishet) at the end of the film, which is also problematic considering the colonial nature of anthropological studies. Why is the focus on medical understandings of trans identity a problem? Let's count the ways.

 

First, the introduction of the film focuses on the experiences of intersex populations. Let's be clear here: being intersex and being trans are different things. "Very few people who are transgender are intersex. In many ways, the conditions aren’t even related. Intersex tends to be about reproductive organs that aren't clearly male or female, while transgender is about a person's experience of being male or female." They are not the same. There is no logical reason to have the discussion of intersex in the film presented as somehow connected to or the root of trans identity. Even if it was just a way to talk about the illusion of sex binaries and how the ideology of  binary sexes/genders is problematic, there are better ways to do that than to conflate intersex with transgender.

Second, historically and currently, medical fields have been traumatizing and damaging to trans (and let's face it, intersex, and LGBQ+) populations. The medical field as a whole is not a safe space for trans individuals. A lot of the time medical access involves a tangled mess of discrimination, harassment, and misleading or straight up damaging false information trans populations are expected to navigate on their own with few structures for support. Many trans individuals have negative, sometimes traumatizing experiences with medical professionals even when they are able to see them (which, because trans populations are more likely to be poor/uninsured or to be denied care, is not as often). This does not just occur for trans populations seeking support regarding their choice to transition, but is the case for any sort of doctor's visit, from everyday illnesses to emergencies completely unrelated to their gender identity. Let's look at some stats from a survey of trans individuals:

  • Survey participants reported very high levels of postponing medical care when sick or injured due to discrimination (28%) or inability to afford it (48%);

  • Respondents faced significant hurdles to accessing health care, including:

    • Refusal of care: 19% of our sample reported being refused care due to their transgender or gender non-conforming status, with even higher numbers among people of color in the survey;

    • Harassment and violence in medical settings: 28% of respondents were subjected to harassment in medical settings and 2% were victims of violence in doctor’s offices;

    • Lack of provider knowledge: 50% of the sample reported having to teach their medical providers about transgender care.

Let that sink in. Half of trans populations have to educate their own medical provider about what they need and why. That is seriously disturbing. Couric's reliance on medical professionals to help her on her "journey" understanding the gender revolution is thus seriously problematic.

Third, Couric's focus on medical professions also means that she presents trans identity as somehow linked to biology, something that is not true--recall the discussion above regarding the diversity of trans experiences. Couric discusses a "trans gene," and let's be clear here: this is just dangerous stuff, is not adequately supported by genetics, and in general just screams to me of attempts throughout the centuries to use science and genetics in particular to target marginalized people and justify oppression (cough, eugenics anyone?). Why is the medical narrative the only valuable narrative? Why is it the only legitimate way of fighting against transphobia? Her medical focus decenters trans experiences, instead focusing on having doctors explain trans identity in a way that medicalizes rather than humanizes trans people. It says a lot about the society we live in that we continue to put trans people under a microscope for an audience to look through, the objects of medical curiosity, rather than as an integral part of our communities with the expertise to speak to their own experiences and existence.

In general, the various challenges trans populations face weren't adequately discussed in the film. Discrimination against trans populations runs deep. Couric touches on a few aspects of the discrimination and harassment trans populations face, but because her focus is on white, middle-class trans individuals there is a skewed representation of the intersecting oppressions at work, especially for trans women of color. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 55% of all reported LGBT homicide victims were transgender women, and 50% were transgender women of color. Pretty much any statistic we know about the challenges, discrimination, and violence trans populations face is worse for people of color, and trans women of color specifically. A study by National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) indicates "the combination of anti-transgender bias and persistent, structural racism was especially devastating. People of color in general fare worse than white participants across the board, with African American transgender respondents faring far worse than all others in most areas examined."

 

Trans populations are also more likely to be targeted by police and the prison industrial complex, and this is particularly true for trans people of color, especially trans women. A report released in 2016 by the Center for American Progress found harmful policing strategies and tactics push LGBT people—especially LGBT people of color and low-income LGBT people—into the criminal justice system. One-fifth (22%) of respondents in the NCTE study who interacted with police reported harassment by police, with much higher rates reported by people of color. Transgender and gender-nonconforming people are far more likely to be incarcerated as well: 16% of transgender and gender nonconforming respondents indicated they had been held in jail or prison, with higher rates for transgender women at 21% and lower rates for transgender men at 10% (compared to 5% of all American adults). Also note trans women are often forced to stay in male prison facilities, increasing the risk of violent assault while incarcerated.

Violence and discrimination against trans women, and trans women of color, is so pervasive that there are even terms for it. Most people will recognize the term transphobia, used to describe an intense dislike of or prejudice against transsexual or transgender people. Transmisogyny describes transphobic misogyny, dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against trans women. Transmisogynoir describes the intersections of transphobia, misogyny, and anti-Blackness (noir : Black).

Couric in general has an overly positive outlook on the levels of systemic support available to trans populations, both in the medical field but also in spaces like workplaces, universities, and the government. She highlights one workplace that hires trans populations in the film that has postiviely impacted those working there. It's a touching story, but problematic that some of the only trans women of color showcased in the film are fast food workers (especially given the lack of a living wage for many people in the food service industry and fast food in particular). Also, let's be clear: universities that have made efforts to be more supportive of trans populations (and that's not most universities) have often been forced to do so by student activists fighting for social justice on campuses.

 

The rosy picture Couric paints of our government is similarly overly positive. Many GOP officials are currently pushing anti-trans laws in numerous states, and Gavin Grimm's case highlighted in the film has also shifted ground since Trump's election. Obama was supportive of trans rights, but Trump's administration is actively working to dismantle protections for trans and LGBQ+ populations. The Supreme Court has now refused to hear Grimm's case because it is based on a policy enacted under Obama that was rescinded by Trump's cabinet. This means the case goes back to a lower court for yet another round of hearings, and the ruling may change.

One of the reasons trans rights are so controversial is that the very existence of trans individuals forces us to critically examine our cultural beliefs in a complementary, binary, male-dominant gender system (male/female) assumed to be heternormative and predicated on our sex (biological reproductive system). Trans identity draws our attention to the way gender is socially constructed, and even our ideas of sex and sexuality are not as stable and narrow as society would like us to believe. This can unnerve, frighten, and anger those invested in the status quo. As a result, trans rights often elicit powerful emotional and visceral reactions from people (sadly even within LGBQ+ communities).

 

Ultimately, it's up to all of us to work toward greater equity for trans populations. We discussed numerous strategies in class, such as: continuing to educate ourselves about the intersections of sex, sexuality, and gender; speaking up when we hear transphobic comments or jokes; watching our own language to ensure we are being adequately inclusive of trans populations (there is a reason the 2015 word of the year was the singular "they"--learn it, use it, love it); learning to be a better ally and co-conspirator; getting boots on the ground to protest some of the horrid laws being proposed and to otherwise stand up for trans justice, including intersectional causes like opposing police brutality; donating to trans organizations and personal funding campaigns on sites like GoFundMe; and openly loving and supporting trans people, our trans friends, and/or our trans partners, if we are lucky enough to have such people in our lives.

1/4

WEEK 5

TOPIC: Immigrant Rights

Film: Immigrant Nation! The Battle for the Dream (2010, 60 min)

Note: This film is hard to get a hold of! With that said, I think it's worth tracking down. I rented it through my library. It's also available for streaming at (sadly) an unreasonable price through their website.

Journal Prompt: How does the battle for immigrant rights make us question the reality of the American dream as well as our democracy? How will the current anti-immigrant climate and the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies affect you in your everyday life?

Recommended Readings:

(1) Franco, Marisa. 2017. "Five Big Questions for the Future of the Immigrant Rights Movement." Truthout.

(2) Massey, Douglas S. 2007. “Understanding America’s Immigration ‘Crisis.’” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 151(3).

(3) Massey, Douglas S. 1995. “The New Immigration and Ethnicity in the United States.” Population and Development Review 21(3): 631-652.

(4) Dower, John W. 2017. "Proxy War and Surrogate Terror: How the US Came to Take an Active Role in War and Torture in Latin America." Truthout.

(5) Gonzalez, Juan. 2011. Especially "Introduction" and chapters 10, 11, 12, and 13 from section III, "Harvest" in Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. Penguin Books.

 

BREAKDOWN

“Like other discriminatory legislation in our country's history, immigration laws define and differentiate legal status on the basis of arbitrary attributes. Immigration laws create unequal rights. People who break immigration laws don't cause harm or even potential harm (unlike, for example, drunk driving, which creates the potential for harm even if no accident occurs). Rather, people who break immigration laws do things that are perfectly legal for others, but denied to them--like crossing a border or, even more commonly, simply existing.”
~Aviva Chomsky

In the post-Trump moment, immigrant rights have taken on a heightened sense of urgency and importance. Frankly, this topic is a huge one. Immigrants and the battle for immigrant rights has been ongoing for more than a century, and have taken numerous forms over the years. It is an incredibly diverse movement, just as immigrants are incredibly diverse in their backgrounds, motivations, and experiences. Because politically the focus on immigrant rights now is on undocumented populations and Latinx populations, our discussion and the choice in film for this week tends to foreground these groups. With that said, the film Immigrant Nation! does demonstrate the unity of numerous immigrant populations within the movement and centers the experiences of those marginalized in a way that is personal, powerful, and inspirational despite the ultimate result of Elvira Arellano's case. It looks at a national-level campaign (so a more macro view).

Because the documentary is from 2010, one aspect not touched on significantly is Islamophobia. In light of Trump's proposed Muslim Ban (currently going through the court system) and a rise in hate crimes against Muslim communities, discussions about Islamophobia are more pertinent and important than ever. With this said, tackling this topic is a huge task and is unique from conversations focusing on the immigration rights movement today, which typically centers undocumented and/or Latinx+ immigrants. Ideally, in the future I'll go back and add an additional day to the course on Islamophobia specifically. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Islamophobia in the USA, I'd suggest checking out the documentary by the same name from Al Jazeera.

One of the reasons the battle for immigrant rights has become increasingly polarizing is related to changing demographics of immigrants as well as of the United States generally. Historically, the nature of immigration to the USA has varied across time depending on world events and immigration policies, often based on racism. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the demand for labor increased dramatically and immigration rose. But racist policies that were enacted, particularly the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, meant migrants from Asia were essentially banned. Most immigrants at the time came from Southern and Eastern Europe, including many Eastern European Jews fleeing antisemitism prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917. But beginning with WWI and the Red Revolution in Russia, there was a significant and powerful drop in immigration to the USA, particularly from Europe, that lasted almost fifty years. This long hiatus of limited global movement was exacerbated by the Great Depression, WWII, and then the Cold War. This meant new US labor demands had to be met with migrants from other locations, primarily from Latin America, which provided a close and cheap source of workers.

In 1942 during WWII, the US government enacted the Bracero program to import contract laborers (primarily from Mexico) to help address worker shortages. However, the program became a long-term solution to labor needs in the United States. In fact, from 1942 to 1947 only a small number of braceros were admitted, and the program was actually expanded in the post-war boom in 1951 and remained in effect for another thirteen years. From 1948 to 1964, the US imported on average 200,000 braceros per year, over this time offering "employment contracts to 5 million braceros in 24 U.S. states—becoming the largest foreign worker program in U.S. history."

 

But the Bracero Program ended with immigration reform in 1964 and the Immigration and Nationality act of 1965, which put an end to the racist quota system preventing Asian immigration but also restricted the total number of visas allowed for the Western Hemisphere, thereby restricting immigration from Mexico. The total allotment of 120,000 visas offered in 1965 still was not enough to address the demand and left American industries short on low-wage workers (who were easier to exploit, let's be real) as well as created a high population of displaced workers at the northern Mexico border. "In 1976 the United States Congress imposed a limit of 20,000 visas per country per year in the Western Hemisphere. At that time Mexico was exceeding that amount by approximately 40,000... The end of the Bracero Program combined with restrictions put on the number of visas allowed by the United States greatly increased the levels of illegal migration from Mexico." So, the end result of changing immigration laws was that, after 1965, migrants who had previously been welcomed in the United States became "illegal." It was US immigration policy decisions which ignored the realities of labor demands in the United States that created the "illegal immigration crisis."

Immigration to the USA is exacerbated by the displacement caused by globalization, increased development (urbanization), and militant US foreign policies in Central and South America. Contrary to popular myths, migration is actually spurred by globalization and increased development, which often push rural residents out of traditional occupations and, because of increased cultural/social ties to the West, makes emigration more likely. The US also has a very controversial history of empire in Central and South America. As Dower notes (see recommended reading above): "between 1948 and 1990 the US government 'secured the overthrow of at least twenty-four governments in Latin America, four by direct use of US military forces, three by means of CIA-managed revolts or assassinations, and seventeen by encouraging local military and political forces to intervene without direct US participation, usually through military coups d'état.'" So "illegal" immigration flows are not only caused by flawed immigration policies that fail to account for labor needs within the United States, but also American foreign policies in other parts of the globe which push migrants out of their countries of origin.

Our guest speaker for the day, Marco Rosales, discussed how this historical background identifies the paradox of the immigrant rights movement. The movement is responding to a constructed crisis, a product of tension between capitalist enterprise (demanding labor, and supported through neoliberal policies within our economy) and flawed immigration policies (which restrict legal movement of labor in ways that create the high population of undocumented workers in the United States today). It's in many ways a crisis of America's own making, and Marco pointed out that until this contradiction is resolved in some way the immigrant rights movement will only continue to escalate as activists push toward a resolution of the paradox.

One other important thing to point out is that after 1965, the vast majority of immigrants who have come to the United States were either Asian or Latinx, an unprecedented shift from earlier waves of immigration (which for various reasons--including racist immigration policies--was composed of mostly Europeans). This has led to shifting demographics here in the United States. Because of the immigrants are typically younger (largely in their child-bearing years) and because of dropping birth rates among middle class whites, most youth today are people of color. Children of color now make up the majority of new births in the United States Statistics (Cárdenas 2012). Statistics produced by PEW drawing on 2007 census data indicat if current immigration trends continue (aka, if immigration policies don't change much or unforeseen world events don't change migration patterns significantly) 82% of the growth in the American population from 2005 to 2050 will be due to immigrants arriving during this period and their descendants. The most controversial statistic, which has led to a rise in white supremacy in the United States in recent years (see week 6 below), is that by 2050 non-Hispanic whites will be in the minority, down to 47% of the American population (vs. 67% in 2005). These changing demographics of the United States, combined with increased income inequality, instabilities and crises caused by climate change, and an ongoing War on Terror have created fertile soil for increased visibility of nativist and xenophobic rhetoric (plus Islamophobia to boot), as exemplified by Trump's entire presidential campaign and his administration's policies since.

The post-Trump moment has been characterized by increased ICE activity (both in quantity but also boldness/inhumane use of practices, such as targeting those seeking restraining orders against domestic abusers while they are in court or seeking to arrest underage children on school premises); targeting sanctuary cities or states critical of the Muslim Ban; the Muslim Ban itself, which also incorporates anti-refugee policy changes and targets a religious minority in ways that the courts up until now have insisted is unconstitutional; a lack of adequate legal representation for those who are detained; and the list could go on but I'll stop there for now.

Marco Rosales also discussed the was the way these changes in policies around immigration enforcement are inextricably linked to the prison industrial complex. The War on Drugs has fallen under increased scrutiny, weed legalization continues to move forward at the state level, and there has been more visibility for cases of police brutality against minorities. As a result, it's possible that the prison industrial complex will not be able to reel in as many incarcerated folks through drug enforcement. This means many people who profit off prisons, policing, and/or incarceration are looking for new ways to maintain and expand incarcerated populations, and thus their profits, in addition escalating the war on drugs against predominantly black communities.

 

One of the most disturbing aspects of immigration policy right now is the increasing use of for-profit detention facilities for those who are being detained in the immigration system. Increasingly, ideologies arguing for crack-downs on immigration are being used by interested parties as new cash cows for the prison industrial complex. This is disturbing and inhumane. When someone is making money of the number of people being detained in the prison industrial complex, it's in their financial interest to detain as many people as possible. If they are the ones paying for room, board, and medical fees for those detained, it's also in the best interest of for-profit companies and invested parties to deny that care or provide as little as possible, as cheaply as possible, in ways that put the lives of those being detained at risk. And indeed, private immigrant detention facilities are characterized by higher instances of inhumane conditions, abuse, and unsafe environments for individuals whose only crime is doing something that is perfectly legal for others to do, or for capital to do (travel across borders)--but for paradoxical, xenophobic reasons is an act denied to them.

 

ABOVE: This image depicts Pepe the frog, a cartoon amphibian that has been turned into a Nazi Trump supporter and white supremacist "alt-right" symbol. Pepe takes on the role of the Ghost of Christmas Future from Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is portrayed as the GOP symbol, the elephant, whose death is being foretold unless he changes his ways. Note the interesting almost KKK-like clothing the GOP mascot wears (typically portrayed in blue/red, with white stars). This comic originally appeared on the white supremacist leaning Breitbart, in "An Establishment Conservative’s Guide To The Alt-Right." I think the picture illustrates the ways the "alt-right" seeks to portray their hateful movement as saviors, leading the way to a new conservative future. This piece also illustrates their expansive goals to influence policy and government on a wide scale through the GOP.

WEEK 6

TOPIC: (Re)Emergence of the "Alt-Right"

Film: Hate Rising (2016, 50 min) [AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE]

Note: **TRIGGER WARNING** This film showcases white supremacist ideologies in ways that can be very triggering, showing neo-Nazis using racial and ethnic slurs, profanity, and misogynist language.

Journal Prompt: What is your visceral, embodied, somatic reaction to the rise of the “alt-right?” In what ways are we all complicit in the normalization, legitimization, and amplification of white supremacy/white nationalism in our society today?

Recommended Readings:

(1) Southern Poverty Law Center. 2017. “The Alternative Right." SPLC.

(2) Romano, Aja. 2016. “How the alt-right’s sexism lures men into white supremacy.” Vox.

(3) Beran, Dale. 2017. “4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump.” Medium.

(4) Anti-Defamation League. 2015. "With Hate In Their Hearts: The State of White Supremacy in the United States." ADL.

(5) Lyons, Matthew N. 2017. “CTRL-ALT-DELETE: The origins and ideology of the Alternative Right.” Political Research Associates.

BREAKDOWN

“We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic.”

...

“When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination (especially domination that involves coercive control), they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they wish to see eradicated.”
~bell hooks

Today's topic, "(Re)Emergence of the 'Alt-Right,'" is fascinating, revolting, and vitally important in our present post-Trump moment. The film Hate Rising explores the rise in hate within America, particularly focusing on white supremacy--also note the trigger warning, there is some really vile language in this film (from the mouths of white supremacists) directed towards people of color, Muslims, women, and LGBTQ+ populations. The film isn't perfect--for example, the reporter repeatedly draws on citizenship as a justification for basic human rights, something students found particularly flawed after our discussion of immigration and undocumented immigrants in week 5. However, it's a powerful exploration of recent events in the United States and allows viewers to get a more visceral sense of the white supremacist movement in America today.

 

Our guest speakers for the day were B.B. Buchanan and Duane Wright, who discussed the origins of the "alt-right", the nature of the white supremacist movement today, and current trends around recruitment and tactics used by white supremacists we should all be aware of and watchful for. White supremacy refers to a system of power that privileges white people, often based on the belief white people are superior to those of all other races, especially blacks, and should therefore dominate society. White supremacy is often associated with support for "white separatism" or the belief in segregated societies and support for the creation of white-only ethnic states. It's an ideology that is deeply racist and predicated on widespread inequality and inequity. It's also important to note that this ideology is intimately connected to misogyny, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiment and nativism, Islamophobia, and transphobia.

The United States has some profoundly deep white supremacist roots--which is the reason this week's title is "The (Re)Emergence of the 'Alt-Right,'" since ideologies held by the alt-right are not new and are deeply rooted in American culture. For example, the Ku Klux Klan was founded immediately after the Civil War ended in 1965 as a backlash against the abolition of slavery. Their activities sought to punish freed slaves and Republicans (the party of Lincoln) as well as to suppress the (male) black vote and Republican vote generally through intimidation and violence. They would later promote nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment around the 1920s, and oppose civil rights and desegregation around the 1960s. Today, the KKK is considered a terrorist organization, along with numerous other white supremacist hate groups throughout the United States. All of this is to say that the United States has always been characterized by hate, especially racist hatred.

Since 2008, the United States has experienced a re-emergence of visible white supremacy and a mainstreaming of white supremacist ideology, seen most recently within Trump's campaign, election, administrative staff choices, and ensuing policies. This increasing visibility of white supremacy is due to changing demographics of the United States (mentioned last week), namely the prediction that by 2043 non-Hispanic whites will be in the minority, predicted to fall to 47% of the American population in 2050 (vs. 67% in 2005). When this statistic was released in 2008 it caused a huge stir and spurred talk of "white genocide" in white supremacist circles (partly contributing to the GOP's 2010 midterm election sweep and the effective halt of any possibility for immigration reform during Obama's presidency). It is also a backlash against the election of President Barack Obama, the first African American to ever hold the office. The majority of white voters didn't support Obama--only 43% of whites who voted supported Obama in 2008, with 55% voting for McCain (we could break this down further by age, gender, education, location, see PEW's report). Scholars and journalists have noted that politically, the "whitelash" against Obama's election was a significant reason for Trump's election (recent research has shown race was was the most significant predictor of voting choices).

Racial backlash to changing demographics and the rising prominence of black people has contributed to a significant rise in the number of visible hate groups, particularly white supremacist organizations. According to the American-Defamation League, "during the recent surge of right-wing extremist activity in the United States that began in 2009, white supremacists did not grow appreciably in numbers, as anti-government extremists did, but existing white supremacists did become more angry and agitated, with a consequent rise of serious white supremacist violence... Among domestic extremist movements active in the United States, white supremacists are by far the most violent, committing about 83% of the extremist-related murders in the United States in the past 10 years and being involved in about 52% of the shootouts between extremists and police... white supremacists also have a high degree of involvement with traditional forms of criminal activity as well as ideologically-based criminal activity." (And let's be clear: white collar crime is also criminal activity.)

 

It's important to note that many white supremacists operate outside the formal structure of an organized hate group, instead participating in the white supremacist movement as unaffiliated individuals. This means these statistics are likely understating the number of white supremacists and the impact of white supremacy, since aspects of white supremacist ideology can be widespread and integrated into our culture and institutions. White supremacists are also increasingly plugged in to the internet, meaning many who espouse these beliefs don't have personal connections with formal organizations. "Thus the size of the white supremacist movement is considerably greater than just the members of hate groups" (ADL 2015).

Just recently in 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center (which tracks hate groups in the United States) announced: "The radical right was more successful in entering the political mainstream last year [2016] than in half a century" in large part because "Trump’s run for office electrified the radical right, which saw in him a champion of the idea that America is fundamentally a white man’s country." Trump's slogan, "Make America Great Again," was widely criticized by the left for suggesting it is better to return to racist policies like Jim Crow segregation or Japanese internment camps during WWII, which benefited whites at the expense of people of color (Trump's administration has used both of these systems as justification and inspiration for some of their proposed policies). It also happens to be a phrase Hitler used ("Make Germany great again!") during his rise to power before the establishment of the Nazi regime. "In the immediate aftermath of Election Day, a wave of hate crimes and lesser hate incidents swept the country—1,094 bias incidents in the first 34 days... more than a third of the incidents directly referenced either Trump, his “Make America Great Again” slogan, or his infamous remarks about grabbing women by the genitals" (SPLC 2017).

Why is rising violence, visibility and mainstreaming of white supremacy happening now? In class we discussed a number of reasons, but I think the following summary from SPLC (2017) is particularly thorough so I'm going to quote it in depth:

"The election of Donald Trump—and related developments in Europe—is the culmination of a series of long-developing trends. As the world has become more interconnected, our increasingly globalized economy has fomented huge migrant flows and severe shocks to the industrial sectors of most developed countries. (War in the Middle East [and droughts and food shortages caused by climate change] also produced enormous Syrian refugee flows last year.)

 

In the United States, that has meant the proportion of foreign-born residents has grown from 4.7% in 1970 to 13.7% in 2015. The latter percentage is comparable to the very high levels of the foreign-born seen in the early 20th century (14.7% in 1910 and 13.2% in 1920), when white nativism reached a peak that led to history’s largest Klan membership and the racist Immigration Act of 1924.

 

As part of the same trend, the proportion of non-Hispanic white people in the U.S. has declined rapidly, creating a crisis of white identity. While America was about 90% white from the colonial era right up through the early 1960s, it was 62% white by 2015 and predicted by the Census Bureau to fall to under 50% by 2043.

 

At the same time, economic sectors like basic steel and auto production have increasingly moved overseas, chasing lower wages in a world economy. This has disproportionately affected working- and middle-class whites in the Rust Belt and similar areas, with white suicides and drug overdose deaths hitting new highs. As manufacturing wages have fallen and higher education has become essential to make a living wage, income inequality has risen dramatically since the 1970s."

One serious flaw with today's film is that the reporter, Jorge Ramos, largely portrays white supremacists as rural, uneducated "rednecks" who are working class, a stereotype that is deeply flawed and problematic but unfortunately all too common. Our guest speakers pushed back against this common myth, pointing out that those involved in the white supremacy movement are not necessarily poor or working class. Many are actually wealthier than the average American citizen, but have seen their advantage decline in recent decades due to some of the factors mentioned above, as well as rising income inequality, corporate consolidation, and Walmart-ification (especially in rural areas) that puts smaller companies out of business.

 

The film also glosses over the mainstreaming of white supremacy. One of the most dramatic shifts we've seen recently is the growing power and popularity of "suit-and-tie" white supremacists who present themselves as high-class intellectuals, exemplified by the brief appearance of Jared Taylor in the film. (Many of them are wealthy--Richard Spencer, for example, inherited wealth from cotton plantations, so his family is ironically wealthy only because of slave labor.) Increasingly it is these "suit-and-tie" individuals who are able to access greater funds and subsequently greater political power, including top administrative positions in Trump's cabinet (e.g., Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, or any other number of others).

The use of new terms by white supremacists to describe themselves, such as "white nationalist" and "alt-right" (short for "alternative-right"), are part of the "suit-and-tie" transformation of white supremacy. Fundamentally, both are an effort to rebrand white supremacy for public relation purposes as a means to present a more sanitized, and potentially more appealing, package of the same ideological underpinnings. They de-emphasize Klan robes and Nazi symbols (though you'll still see these in Ramos's film, because these fringe groups are the ones he problematically focuses on). Instead, these white supremacists wear suits, have hipster haircuts, wield memes (and apparently tiki torches), quote literature like academics without the actual qualifications, and in general favor a more "intellectual" approach (which is hardly new, considering the historical and even current occurrences of scientific racism, but hasn't been this blatant for some time).

Also note there is a gendered dimension to all of this, as white supremacy is deeply misogynistic and resistant to changing family roles and the growing visibility and power of women. This is not to say white women are not involved in the movement or complicit in white supremacy. See for example Blee's work Women of the Klan for a historical perspective, or consider the fact that 53% of white women who voted supported Trump despite his comments admitting to sexually assaulting women. Or, if you are up for a stomach turning interview with white supremacists Lana Lokteff and Jared Taylor, check out this example of hate (shared because I firmly believe it's best to know the enemy and what the enemy are saying). Despite women's involvement, however, white supremacy remains male-dominant, deeply patriarchal, and deeply sexist, which is dramatically on display when we consider the origins of the "alt-right."

The "alt-right" gained coherence and prominence in 2014, when conversations largely taking place in obscure corners of the internet (including 4chan) went public, attacking prominent feminists critiquing video game culture in what came to be known as the #Gamergate controversy.

 

For those who aren't familiar with this scandal, Gamergate began after Eron Gjoni, the former boyfriend of female game developer Zoë Quinn, falsely accused her of having an unethical relationship with a journalist (a false claim believed to be a vindictive effort on the part of Eron to punish Quinn for their breakup--oh, misogyny at work!). "Supporters of the Gamergate movement targeted several women in the video game industry, including game developers Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu, as well as feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian" (see the wikipedia article for more details). Predominantly white men began intense harassment campaigns against women in gaming, included doxing (researching and publishing private or identifiable information about an individual so they can be targeted in a variety of ways), threats of rape, death threats (including threads of mass murders) directed at these women as well as their families and children. "Two critics of Gamergate were targets of attempted 'swatting'—hoaxed reports to emergency services intended to provoke a SWAT team response at the target's home." At one point the FBI even got involved to investigate a threat of a mass campus shooting at a scheduled talk with Sarkeesian. The prolonged intense harassment caused a number of women to leave the industry, forced several to move after their home addresses were made public alongside death threats to themselves and their families, and in general profoundly disrupted and harmed those who were targeted, who were predominantly women.

While online harassment is not a new experience for women, what was different about #Gamergate was the level of coordination and the intensity of attacks. For example, "early Gamergate IRC discussions focused on coordinating the harassment of Quinn by using astroturf campaigns to push attacks against her into mainstream view. They also describe how initial organizers deliberately attempted to cultivate a palpable narrative for public consumption while internally focusing on personal grudges against Quinn and aggressive sexual imagery. Mortensen wrote in Games and Culture that Gamergate's structure as an anonymous swarm allowed it to create an environment where anyone who criticized it or became its target was at risk, while allowing them to avoid individual responsibility for harassment" (Wikipedia).

Those involved in #Gamergate felt that feminist critiques of the gaming industry encroached on one of the last spaces dominated by (white) men, and also believed promoting greater diversity in games and in their production was somehow meant to attack this white, male demographic. How does this connect to the "alt-right?" Because the networks forged during #Gatergate formed the basis for this new brand of white supremacy. Some people heavily involved in #Gamergate went on to become the "alt-right," exemplified by the once-Golden-Child of the "alt-right," Milo Yiannopoulos, who wrote for the white nationalist Breitbart News website. Yiannopoulos, a gay British man who rose to prominence during the scandal, subsequently hosted a "Dangerous Faggot" college tour that sparked widespread controversy and prompted renewed debates around hate speech and free speech on university campuses.

The #Gatergate origins of the "alt-right" are interesting not only because they highlight the misogyny inherent in the movement, but also because it reveals a great deal about the tactics used by this new facet of the white supremacist movement. The "alt-right" recruits members largely online, typically by appealing to sexism first and then promoting a racist agenda. They utilize irony, humor, and memes to make their ideas more palatable to a younger mainstream audience, and they use coordinated online harassment to target and punish those they disagree with or who critique them. They glorify violence, particularly violence against women, racial minorities, Muslims, trans populations, immigrants (especially undocumented), and left-wing radicals (such as antifa). They have also increasingly targeted colleges as fertile recruiting grounds and locations that, if they are able to speak there, are able to lend visibility, normalization, and (misleading) academic clout to their completely false and unsupported white supremacist ideologies. If they aren't provided a platform from which to spread their hate speech on campuses (in ways that harm those most marginalized on said campuses), they then claim their "free speech" is being impinged upon and play the victim, creating a media spectacle and yet more visibility for their cause. This is the "alt-right." This is the newest incarnation of white supremacy in America.

I'll leave you with the words of the SPLC (2017): "The radical right is feeling its oats today in a way that few Americans can remember. There are very large numbers of Americans who agree with its views, as sanitized under the deceptive Alt-Right label, although many of them may be less visible than before because they are not affiliated with actual groups. Whether or not the movement grows in coming years, it seems indisputable that its views have a better chance to actually affect policy now than in decades." Ultimately, we are seeing the effects of this already, most recently in Trump's bogus voter fraud claims and the appointment of known white supremacist Kris Kobach to run the newly formed "Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity" which is believed to be an effort on the part of Trump and the GOP to engage in widespread voter suppression.

WEEK 7

TOPIC: Voter Suppression & The Gutting of the VRA

Film: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (2016, 1:54 min) [AVAILABLE TO RENT ON YOUTUBE OR AMAZON]

Journal Prompt: How can we raise awareness on this issue, protect our rights, and seek to expand voting rights access? How does voter suppression in the United States affect the rest of the globe?

Recommended Readings:

(1) Berman, Ari. 10/2016. “This Election is Being Rigged.” The Nation.

(2) Bump, Philip. 2016. "The long history of black voter suppression in American politics." Washington Post.

(3) Liebelson, Dana. 2014. "The Supreme Court Gutted the Voting Rights Act. What Happened Next in These 8 States Will Not Shock You." Mother Jones.

(4) Roth, Zachary. 2016. The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy. Crown.

 

BREAKDOWN

"Open your polling places to all your people. Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the color of their skin. Extend the rights of citizenship to every citizen of this land. Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."

~President Lyndon B. Johnson, upon passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965

This week's film, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, is a unique piece from investigative journalist Greg Palast. Palast has been reporting on issues of voter suppression for decades, and his documentary is extensive, covering a wide number of issues. It's also particularly timely and one of the most recent pieces watched in this class, focusing on ongoing and prominent campaigns from the conservative right to utilize fears of voter fraud as a way of disenfranchising minority and democratic voters.

As I said, the film is unique. Palast is not your typical reporter, describing himself as a "gonzo journalist" who reminds audiences of film noir detective characters with his fedora and trench coat. He is also friends with the cartoonist who drew Disney's Who Framed Roger Rabbit comic books, and the film features some cartoons produced with the same style and feel. In part due to the low-budget production of the film, and in part because of Palast's personality, the film largely follows Palast directly as he investigates Kris Kobach's Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, uncovering evidence the program contributes to voter suppression. As such, the documentary doesn't always center the stories of those communities and people most affected. However, it's an excellent overview and up-to-date investigation of voter suppression today that is engaging (though his humor might not be for everyone).

Voting is complex, and there are numerous ways our election processes are undermined. Voter suppression refers to a variety of strategies to discourage or prevent people from voting, thereby influencing the outcome of an election. Because it is suppression, the aim of such actions is to reduce or suppress the number of voters who might vote against a candidate or proposition. Tactics of voter suppression can range from minor changes to make voting less convenient (such as closing polling places to make remaining locations more impacted, farther away, and/or wait times longer), to physically intimidating prospective voters, which is illegal. Historically, of course, physical intimidation could also ultimately lead to physical violence and potential death, particularly for black voters (Rhodes 2016).

There is a long and profoundly racist and sexist history of voter suppression in the United States. Like, all the way back to the founding of the United States. Contrary to popular belief, the founding fathers felt true democracy was dangerous, and instead sought to control access to voting using a model of governance based on ancient republicans in Greece and especially Rome. By and large, the founding fathers (being the slave-owning, genocide supporting folks that they were) felt the ability to vote should only be available to wealthy whites. Correction: wealthy white men, because you know--"founding fathers."

"Here in the 21st century, we have inherited the broad voting rights that came about only after a long struggle. It took nearly two centuries for the nation to move towards a model approaching universal suffrage. Until the mid-1960s, many African Americans were precluded from voting in much of the South. Arizona and Maine prevented American Indians from voting (despite their U.S. citizenship) until the mid-20th century. Prior to 1920, voting rights for women were partial in some places and denied altogether in much of the country. Before the Civil War, almost no African Americans people, including free blacks, could vote. And until the 1820s, even most white guys were denied the right to cast a ballot.

"The legacy of a highly restricted franchise was no accident. Not only did the founders deny women and non-whites the right to vote, but they thought it advisable that qualified white men should meet certain requirements, most often based on net-worth. They hoped wealth would signify that someone was smart and capable, but hopefully also beyond corruption because they weren’t economically vulnerable; the founders feared poor people would either sell their votes or keep them and make bad decisions...

"All federal judges are appointed, not elected.  And, even today, none of us can vote for a presidential candidate; instead, we vote for electors from the Electoral College, who are duty bound, but not actually required, to vote for that person on our behalf.  It’s yet another buffer the founders placed between the sliver of the population they thought should be allowed to vote, and the mechanisms of power they would be indirectly influencing." (The Public Professor 2010).

The electoral college system, by the way, was created to give disproportionate power to slave-owning states in the South, and as such has been considered as a vestige of slavery (Kelkar 2016). And lest we forget, the origins of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) are rooted in attempts by white supremacists to suppress the black vote and limit black political power after the end of slavery (Wikipedia).

This isn't dead history. Recall Kris Kobach from the film, the mastermind of Crosscheck? He's a known white nationalist and long-time lawyer for right-wing extremist groups (SPLC 2017). He was also recently appointed by Trump to help lead a new commission to study non-existent voter fraud, a project largely believed to be an effort to suppress the vote on a massive, federal level. Kobach has already requested sensitive data from states for a federal version of Crosscheck, drawing widespread criticism and prompting over a dozen states to reject the request outright. He has also recently announced he will run for governor of Kansas in 2018. (Talk about white supremacy going mainstream, folks.)

Voter suppression takes many forms, most of which disproportionately affect those in poverty and minorities, demographics who tend to vote democratic. Some forms of suppression showcased in the film include the purging of voter rolls (e.g., Crosscheck), voter ID laws, disinformation about voting procedures (such as giving individuals the wrong information or disqualifying ballots that don't follow every single procedure perfectly), and inequality in election day resources (for example, inadequate polling locations resulting in longer waits in poor or minority neighborhoods). Other forms of suppression not featured in the film include impediments to voter registration, such as creating stricter deadlines on when forms need to be submitted, as well as gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is a process of drawing political boundaries to give your party a numeric advantage over an opposing party. It has a long history in America, but in recent decades legislative redistricting to benefit the GOP has become so excessive it has prompted a forthcoming case in the Supreme Court. (See this week's Resource List for readings on gerrymandering, as well as a full-length documentary on the subject.) Transgender populations are also particularly at risk of voter disenfranchisement because of their gender identity, potential name changes, and disproportionate criminalization within the prison industrial complex.

Our guest this week, journalist Sasha Abramsky, discussed another prominent and disturbing method of disenfranchisement of voters of color: the criminal justice system and mass incarceration, both topics he has reported on extensively over the decades. Felon disenfranchisement originated in attempts to minimize the black vote after the end of the Civil War and abolition of slavery. It is a process that has accelerated in recent decades with the development of the prison industrial complex as demographics have begun shifting in the United States and republicans are realizing their dominant voting base (older, wealthier, white Americans) is becoming a smaller percentage of the population. According to researchers:

 

"Among the GOP’s myriad strategies to suppress the vote of people considered more likely to vote Democrat... felony disenfranchisement laws may be the biggest bonanza of all for Republican candidates. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than another other nation. Some 2.3 million Americans are now in prison or jail, with millions more on parole or probation—together, according to a 2009 study, they account for most of [those] whom would otherwise be eligible to vote" but who are disenfranchised (Ridgeway 2012).

 

Evidence suggests that if all disenfranchised felons in Florida were able to vote the state would no longer be a swing state and Al Gore would have won the presidency in 2000 instead of Bush.

 

Finally, Abramsky pointed out that our voting system gets more flawed at more local levels, something that wasn’t discussed in the film but is especially important. As we go from the national to state to county to city levels, fewer people are involved in politics and the more possibilities exist for voter suppression and disenfranchisement.

 

Students in the Q&A portion asked the question, "Where is the hope?" Palast in the film and Abramsky in our discussion both pointed to the importance of individuals and activists, especially young people, getting involved politically at all levels (not just the national level). In other words, they recommended that people vote, vote regularly, and get involved in politics generally and in protesting when abuse occurs. Stay informed and continue to demand changes to ensure universal suffrage is finally realized and protected in ways that ensure civil protections for all individuals. The film showcases how much work is involved in uncovering these social injustices, and how many people it takes to support these investigations (including those willing to leak damning information).

WEEK 8

TOPIC: Putin's Russia : Kleptocracy : #Trumpgate

Film: Putin’s Way (2015, 53 min) [AVAILABLE TO STREAM ON PBS]

Journal Prompt: What is everyday life like under a kleptocracy (and for who)? In what ways is consent coerced and enforced? Are there parallels with recent changes in the United States?

Recommended Readings:

(1) On the nature of government in Putin's Russia, I recommend: Ledeneva, Alena. 2013. "‘Sistema’: How Putin’s Russia is governed." UCL SSEES Research Blog.

(2) For a general resource on #Trumpgate, including a timeline/history of Trump/Russia connections that stretches back to the 1980s see: Levintova, Hannah. 2017. "The Long, Twisted, and Bizarre History of the Trump-Russia Scandal." MotherJones.
(3) For those curious about the connections between terrorism and Putin's rise to power: Satter, David. 2016. "The Unsolved Mystery Behind the Act of Terror That Brought Putin to Power." National Review.

(4) Beauchamp, Zach. 2017. "What if it happened here?" Vox.

 

BREAKDOWN

“Still another danger is represented by those who, paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare, in their insatiable greed for money and the power which money gives, do not hesitate surreptitiously to evade the laws designed to safeguard the public from monopolistic extortion. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection. They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution... The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information. With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power.”

~Henry A. Wallace

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."

~Sinclair Lewis

This topic was added to the course because of my personal interest in Russian politics, and the eerie parallels I was witnessing during Trump's campaign with Putin's Russia. At the time when I had originally planned this course, #Trumpgate was still only a small possibility on the horizon. The intent of today's topic is not to focus on the connections between Trump and Russia or the #Trumpgate scandal. Instead, today's topic is a means of discussing the nature of kleptocracy and disturbing parallels between Putin and Trump in terms of their leadership and approaches to governance. The scandal is an important part of this, because it reveals the nature of systems of power today and how wealthy elites (like Trump, but not limited to Trump) are increasingly undermining democratic governments to serve their own financial interests, often using Putin's Russia as a blueprint to do so.

 

When I applied to graduate school in 2010, I had planned to continue work on my undergraduate honors thesis, expanding the study to a book-length project comparing America's War on Terror in Iraq to Russia's Chechen War under Yeltsin and later Putin. My prior research looked at human rights abuses during the two conflicts in the relation to news media censorship and accountability for war crimes. However, at the time the project was a dangerous one and would have likely involved traveling to Russia for archival research. A prominent journalist writing on abuses in the Chechen War, Anna Politkovskaya, had been murdered in broad daylight in 2006 in what was widely believed to be an assassination ordered by Putin. In 2010, Russia was considered the fourth most dangerous country for journalists. Given the project seemed like an obscure interest at the time and in light of the danger the study might entail, I ended up dropping it and pursuing different research for my dissertation. But my interest in these topics hasn't lessened, and the importance of these topics has only grown.

 

The majority of Americans today know almost nothing about post-Soviet Russia or Putin's rise to power. Some people likely studied parts of Eastern European history in high school, particularly the Cold War and the fall of the USSR. But the USSR is not the current Russian Federation, and modern Russian history after 1991 is typically not discussed in any depth in schools. This makes it difficult for Americans to understand the context of the recent Trump/Russia scandal let alone begin to grasp the complicated quagmire of foreign politics we currently find ourselves in.

The film today is a PBS special exploring Putin's rise to power, Putin's Way. As Karen Dawisha aptly puts it in the film, understanding Russia today requires we shift our way of thinking: "Instead of seeing Russia as a democracy in the process of failing, we need to see it as an authoritarian system in the process of succeeding." With this idea as our entry point into today's topic, what can we learn from the film about the nature of kleptocratic systems and how they arise? Can we see parallels between Putin's Russia and the government the Trump administration and GOP seeks to create?

Our guest speaker for the day was Dr. Jenny Kaminer. Following the film, Dr. Kaminer discussed the experience of the fall of the USSR from the perspective of the general Russian populace, helping  contextualize the story of Putin's rise to power.

 

Under the USSR, basic services such as health care and housing were provided by the state. Price controls for the most part kept inflation limited and costs affordable, although there were chronic shortages of goods. The system wasn't perfect or completely equitable by any means, but while there were inequalities there wasn't extreme poverty and the wealth gap was (at least in today's terms) relatively small. The USSR, despite the complicated and repressive relationship between the state and it's everyday citizens, was also paradoxically characterized by widespread national pride on the part of Soviets, what has been called Soviet socialist patriotism. Censorship and state propaganda were widespread, and romantic ideals of socialism became integrated into Soviet culture over the generations. Lest we forget, the USSR was a world power, a fact many Soviets were proud of. They were America's rival in the Cold War and played a pivotal role in defeating Hitler and the Axis powers in WWII (a role often downplayed or unacknowledged by America).

With the fall of the USSR during 1989-1991, many former Soviet citizens found their entire world had changed, practically overnight. The newly established Russian Federation had lost prestige as well as significant territory as former USSR republics claimed independence, especially in Eastern Europe. During the next decade, Russia and other post-Soviet countries were characterized by many challenges.

 

Russia pursued shock therapy to "transition" as quickly as possible to a capitalist neoliberal system open to foreign investment. Price and currency controls were abolished (including rent control, leading to rising housing costs), state subsidies disappeared (resulting in skyrocketing prices), large-scale privatization of previously public-owned assets was enacted (characterized by corruption and embezzlement, alongside worsening quality of public services for all but the wealthy). The engineers of this scheme included independent foreign advisers, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)--largely controlled by Western interests, the US government, and the Russian President Yeltsin's administration. Many foreign advisers were American economists, including Milton Friedman, former advisor of US President Reagan, as well as economists at Harvard University.

 

Unfortunately shock therapy in Russia resulted in extreme income inequality and excessive poverty, especially for older women. According to researchers, "The richest slice of Russian society doubled its wealth in the past 20 years, while almost two-thirds of the population is no better off and the poor are barely half as wealthy as they were when the Soviet Union fell" (Parfitt 2011). Poverty in the region increased more than tenfold. The economic crisis that struck all post-Soviet countries in the 1990s was twice as intense as the Great Depression. After the fall of the USSR, for a prolonged period standards of living actually decreased, hyperinflation ran rampant (at one point hitting 2,500%, wiping out the life savings of most Russian citizens), and crime surged (including violent crime), especially in Moscow. Many were left wondering "if this was what capitalism brought... if they weren't better off under the communists" (Freeland 2000). Given America's involvement in creating this state of affairs, many Russians were justifiably resentful and distrusting of the United States, who had contributed to the struggles they were experiencing.

"After seven years of economic 'reform' financed by billions of dollars in U.S. and other Western aid, subsidized loans and rescheduled debt, the majority of Russian people found themselves worse off economically. The privatization drive that was supposed to reap the fruits of the free market instead helped to create a system of tycoon capitalism run for the benefit of a corrupt political oligarchy that has appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars of Western aid and plundered Russia’s wealth" (Kaplan 2000).

Ultimately, shock therapy in Russia created a "robber baron" state of affairs, characterized by high crime and corruption alongside devastating decreases in standard of living for everyday citizens. Many people including Putin, past Russian President Yeltsin, and a slew of Russian and American businessmen became filthy rich by embezzling money during privatization deals, in the process creating a new class of Russian oligarchs (many with direct ties to the Russian mafia, see Galeotti 2016).

 

Dr. Kaminer pointed out that Putin's appeal is ironically precisely because of these challenges post-Soviet Russia faced. Given the chaos of the past ten years, Putin offered order and a return to Russia's prestige in global affairs that was appealing to many Russians. He assumed the presidency in 1999 and was subsequently elected in 2000. Because of "windfall" high world prices for oil, Putin was able to increase the standard of living for many Russians and was able to rein in the power of the oligarchs by integrating those loyal to him into the government and targeting those who resisted financially, legally, and/or physically. Real disposable income for Russians doubled between 1999 and 2006, although this trend has changed recently after the global financial crisis of 2008 and with the imposition of international sanctions against Russia in 2014. One reason Putin was so interested in Trump gaining the presidency was because Trump (with his many financial entanglements with the Russian oligarchs and industry) would support lifting sanctions on Russia. The Russian populace largely approves of the second Chechen war and Putin's most recent occupation of the Crimea, as well as Putin's stance that NATO's eastward expansion represents a threat to Russia. Putin has helped rekindle a sense of national pride, aided by his adherence to hegemonic masculinity aligned with the cultural ideal of the muzhik, a "real" Russian man.

 

Putin consistently has extremely high approval ratings, topping 86% in February 2015, and it's likely such estimates--while not completely accurate--aren't that overstated. He has become a political celebrity with a large fan base, often actively working to create a cult of personality. Over the years he has utilized his prestige to consolidate his own power and protect his wealth:

"In 2004, he signed a law allowing the president to appoint regional governors, a privilege he mostly retains despite reforms prompted by street protests in 2011-12. Putin’s famous 'castling' with Dmitry Medvedev allowed him to return to the presidency in 2012. In the meantime, Russia’s lapdog parliament had passed a law extending the presidential term from four to six years. Putin has said he won’t rule out running again in 2018, and if he wins, his time in power could surpass that of Leonid Brezhnev–18 years–and even Joseph Stalin" (Luhn 2015).

Putin's Russia is an important contemporary case of neo-fascism. In protests today, we often hear chants opposing fascism, historically a form of radical authoritarian nationalism, characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and control of industry and commerce and most often associated with Mussolini's Italy or Hitler's Germany. What most protesters today are fighting is actually neo-fascism, political ideologies that include significant elements of fascism while operating within seemingly constitutional and democratic political structures. Neo-fascism is often characterized by ultranationalism (and related nativist and isolationist policies), xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, limitations on civil rights (characterized especially by anti-Blackness), restrictions on women's and LGBTQ+ rights, antisemitism, and increasingly Islamophobia. Many aspects of Putin's and Trump's approaches to government exemplify these characteristics, which is why they have faced claims of fascism or more accurately neo-fascism.

Putin's Russia is a kleptocracy, a government with corrupt leaders who use their power to exploit the people and natural resources of their territory to extend their personal wealth and political power. "Kleptocracies are generally associated with dictatorships, oligarchies, military juntas, or other forms of autocratic and nepotist governments." Trump, who was elected in part because of Putin's assistance (among other factors), has begun taking steps to create a more kleptocratic system of governance in the United States, a country already being undermined by corporate oligarchy. Trump claimed during the campaign: "It's very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it." He has routinely ignored ethics rules and used the presidency as a cash machine for himself, his family members, and those loyal to him. He has, in other words, used his power to exploit the people and natural resources of the United States as a means of extending his personal wealth. Experts are worried he'll seek to expand his political power next, something the GOP is already trying to do (see the case of North Carolina).

Trump has openly praised and said he admires Putin, and in general, Trump and Putin have a number of similar characteristics. Both cultivate a sense of glamour and star production used to obscure claims of corruption, implying they care deeply about how they are viewed by others and seek public adoration (which Putin largely has, and Trump definitely does not). Both leaders emphasize loyalty in their administration and subordinates above anything else, even while they are often deeply untrusting of others. This creates a situation where they generally require absolute obedience in their goons. It's in many ways a classic tactic of manipulation, so perhaps it's no surprise many have noted Trump uses tactics favored by abusers, including gaslighting.

 

At a base level, they both support similar policies of privatization and neoliberal capitalism as a means of personal enrichment through politics. Often, the approaches they use contribute to and exacerbate extremely unequal income disparity. They both utilize hard-line rhetoric flirting with neo-fascist ideology in ways that appeal to a populist base and which are definitely not politically correct. They both seek to control the press and limit the independence of news media. Trump is highly critical of the media in general, and under Trump's administration attacks on the press (even literal ones) have escalated.

They both promote tactics of "post-truth," undermining the legitimacy of investigations into corruption or news they dislike (consider Putin's use of the phrases "quasi-investigation" or "alleged" in the film, and how they parallel Trump's recent claims of "fake news" and use of the phrase "so-called judge" to describe the federal official who blocked his Muslim Ban in court). Often their attempts to create a "post-truth" culture are designed to undermine critique and divert attention from evidence of illegal activities they are connected to. While Trump might not yet be able to throw critics in prison or assassinate them, Trump's administration has put unprecedented restrictions on the press in ways that mirror trends used in authoritarian regimes. There are also a record number of efforts to crack down on protests and civil unrest happening right now. Putin or Trump both dislike backing down, and both seem to epitomize a toxic form of hegemonic masculinity. Putin even made it illegal in Russia to distribute any images that depict him wearing makeup and which imply he is gay (an order that was spurred by the clown image shown above). Trump just recently threatened a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist with a cease-and-desist order over a popular bromantic meme of Putin and Trump riding a horse together shirtless.

Putin's rise to power was characterized by staged terrorist attacks (the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings, blamed on Chechen terrorists but widely believed to be the work of the FSB). His reelection to the presidency in 2011 also appeared to be characterized by election fraud. While it is a disturbing thought, in light of recent terrorist attacks such as the Manchester bombing in the UK and evidence of Russian interference in US elections in 2016, some experts are concerned about what might happen if a Manchester-style attack occurred on US soil and whether the GOP and Trump would use such an attack to seize additional power (Beauchamp 2017).

Throughout this breakdown I've focused on some disturbing parallels between Trump and Putin. I want to be clear, though, that the push toward kleptocracy in the US is not just because of Trump, or even Trump's administration. The problem goes deeper, driven by the GOP especially but also wealthy elites within all political parties. Ultimately, the fight against neo-fascism and kleptocracy is one of the most important political battles being waged right now. It's imperative that we work to resist these forces, utilizing what we can learn from our past and by studying countries like Russia: "an authoritarian system in the process of succeeding."

WEEK 9

TOPIC: Resisting The Creep of Neo-Fascism

 

Film: V for Vendetta (2005, 2:10 min) [AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX or RENT ON YOUTUBE]

Journal Prompt: Reflect on your time in this course. What have you learned, and where will you go from here?

Recommended Readings:

(1) Masha Gessem. 2016. "Autocracy: Rules for Survival." NY Books.

(2) Snyder, Timothy. 2017. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Tim Duggan Books.

 

BREAKDOWN

“The strategic adversary is fascism... the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

~Michel Foucault

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
~George Orwell, 1984

Today's film, V for Vendetta, is the only fictional Hollywood drama included in the course. In some ways, it seems out of place. It is not nearly as emotionally draining as films watched in other weeks, something I felt students would appreciate as an end to the class. I could have chosen a different film to discuss for our topic, "Resisting the Creep of Neo-Fascism," that was literally about a historical struggle against fascism. But I ultimately decided against doing so, for two reasons.

 

First, because past struggles against oppression are always responding to specific circumstances, making each historical case unique. To understand a new case in addition to discussing a general understanding our week's topic could get complicated and confusing. Secondly, "fascism" is not the same today as it manifested in past struggles. We exist in a different and more complex time than the past, and this requires thinking about how we might engage in an intersectional, revolutionary transformation of our culture and institutions of power in different ways than past struggles have used. We have to consider how to be innovative in our strategies and methods to best address the specific circumstances of our campaigns. Ultimately, we need fictional pieces that take us beyond what has happened in the past to imagine a path to a future that has never existed before, and that we will help shape.

 

Social justice work is an act of fictional imagination. As such, social justice work is an act of fantasy just as much as it needs to be grounded in present experiences we are enmeshed in. We need to explore the possibilities of what equity can mean and might look at in ways that are different than a past characterized by inequality and oppression. This requires the deployment of imagination and fantasy to envision a better future society, how it might work, and how we might best achieve it (what might be termed political futurism, afrofuturism, radical scifi, or utopian/dystopian genres of fiction depending on who you ask and who is doing the writing).

To be very clear: this is a super white film, a huge flaw with the production. The only people of color appearing in the film are at the detention center (right before they are killed, according to the story), or at the end of the film in the sea of protesters. In reality, resistance against oppression is often driven by the people most affected, who are often the least likely to be white. There were numerous ways to integrate racial/ethnic diversity and themes into this story, and had the producers done so I believe the film would have been monumentally stronger for it. Alas, it is not so easy to change the whims of Hollywood's white, patriarchal social norms--they bleed through in this work of fiction. The overwhelming whiteness of the film is also the result of being based on a comic series written and illustrated by two white men, then adapted into a screenplay by The Wachowskis who are both white (creators of the Matrix series, and trans women), and directed by (you guessed it) another white man.

With that said, the whitewashed dystopia is part of our lexicon for a reason: it's the vision of white supremacy and is so steeped in our culture that most scifi and fantasy creations often unintentionally imagine an alternative reality just as racist, just as white. In fact, within white supremacy today there is an increasingly popular idea for the creation of a "white ethnostate." A 2015 book written by white supremaicist Wilmot Robertson outlines "the practical and moral necessity for the creation of a European ethnostate, either in America or Europe, as the only way in which the European people and civilization can be saved from the imminent swamping of the First World by the Third."

 

The "alt-right" aims to "create a white ethno state that would outlaw minorities—and force women into domestic roles. While the group is typically defined by its racist views, sexism also is central to its ideology. In their world, men would rule... and women would serve as their homemakers." In the words of the "alt-right's" Richard Spencer, "Our dream is a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans. It would be a new society based on very different ideals than, say, the Declaration of Independence." This is the world white supremacist patriarchy actively seeks to manifest. It's a world that doesn't take much imagination to conjure up in our minds, as scary, disturbing, and utterly and completely morally wrong as it is. In this sense, the dystopic whitewashed future deployed in V for Vendetta isn't unimaginable, even though of course it is horrific. It's a dystopic future we don't like to face the possibility of, because it makes visible our own internalization and normalization of white supremacy. It makes visible the fictional genocide that enables the telling of futuristic stories without a single person of color included.

The ethnostate is also a patriarchal system of oppression. One criticism of the film that came up in our class was the use of sexual violence as a plot development (a laudable critique of most Hollywood plot lines). But we pointed out in our last class how the use of sexual violence to support fascist states and systems of oppression is very real. Portraying a dystopic future like V for Vendetta does without acknowledging the violence experienced by women within it would also be an erasure. Gender is deeply embedded in the workings of patriarchal systems like the one depicted in V. Mass violence is almost always committed by men, often indicated first and foremost by instances of domestic violence (the best predictor of violent crime). So acknowledging sexual violence in this film is not out of place, and is actually an important aspect of the film that makes visible the way structures of power work.

A better gender critique of the film surrounds the character V himself and his relationship with Evey. V is in many ways characteristic of hegemonic masculinity--he is shown as strong and dominant in ways that are typical of the male superhero genre. He abuses Evey, who despite this ends up falling in love with him: a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome. This is seriously messed up to be sure (again, recall the comic was written by two men). There are ways the hegemonic masculinity of V is undermined compared to other more stereotypical misogynist superheros (here's to you, Clark Kent/Superman!). V is emotional, openly crying over what he knows is a hopeless attraction toward Evey; he cooks for Evey while wearing a pretty awesome flower-covered apron, making visible a level of domesticity that is unusual in male superheros; he is effeminate, with a flair for the dramatic; he is not overly muscular like many superheros today; and he also loves music, theater, and art. However, much of V's cultural capital is shown in elitist ways that privilege white, high-class culture over other forms of what we can only assume would also be contraband under the High Chancellor's political regime (did V save cultural records of rap? feminist literature? what else ends up on Norsefire Party's "black list," and can we interrogate the construction of contraband in V as a racialized, classed, and gendered plot line?).

 

V always wears a mask, harkening back to the historical figure of Guy Fawkes ("Remember, remember, the 5th of November, the Gunpowder Treason and plot; I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot"). It is unfortunately a mask that is obviously white and gendered male, limited by the historical connection. But there is something powerful in the use of the mask as well, despite it's whiteness and maleness. V himself no longer remembers who he is, leaving his ethnic/racial identity a potentially open question mark (though this is probably not the intention of the writers, and I'm definitely reading too much into that plot development). V is what he was made by the system of oppression he experiences. The symbolism of V is an idea, something nameless, faceless, without history beyond the history of violence enacted upon him by the state, which ultimately created him and led to the state's destruction. It is a Marxian story-line--the exploitation and oppression of the ruling elite ends up creating the elite's own destruction.

 

The masks in the film allow for the formation of a collective identity of the movement and its members, who eventually take to the streets emboldened by wearing them. Masks provides them with anonymity against violent reprisals of the state in ways that lower the costs for those participating in the same ways "masking up" provides protection against doxing and other forms of surveillance for activists today. This movie and the Guy Fawkes mask motif ultimately inspired the creation of the Anonymous hacktivist group, and the mask is still used in protests around the world today. It's a plot-line that demonstrates a powerful tactic of protest movements--the use of symbols to generate solidarity and spur engagement. We can think of the way real-life movements (besides Anonymous) have used symbols in similar ways: the use of sunflowers by the Sunflower Student Movement in Taiwan, the umbrella movement in China, the brown berets used by members in the Chicano movement in California, the way the raised fist and the afro came to represent the black power movement in the USA are all examples of this. If used well, it's a tactic that can be especially powerful in helping organize activism and recruit members, generating feelings of solidarity and group identity.

The film showcases a number of other strategic points I want to highlight regarding today's topic,"Resisting the Creep of Neo-Fascism." The Norsefire Party, led by High Chancellor Sutler in the film, utilizes intense control of the press, and constant surveillance of citizens. Because of this, V has to engage in acts of culture jamming, the tactic of disrupting or subverting mainstream cultural institutions to expose the methods of domination of a mass society and to foster progressive change. (Recall V's hacking of the communication system.) V also engages in storytelling to counteract the dominant narratives of the state. (Recall V's story while disguised as Rookwood, told to the inspector.) The film highlights the importance of protecting a free press. It illustrates the importance of activists creating our own narratives and stories, and documenting our work in ways that allow us to create and share own historical narratives. The film showcases how important it is to culture jam the system in ways that undermine dominant hegemony and orthodoxy.

 

It also shows the importance of leaks (e.g., the doctor's journal in the film) to the construction of these alternative narratives, and the power narratives backed up by careful evidence can have to change the status quo. V, in the guise of Rookwood, states he needed the Inspector--having the presence of independent investigators and institutional allies is crucial. In the film, Finch's willingness to keep an open mind and challenge the status quo was essential to V's success. The truth can set us free, if we can ensure it is told to the right people at the right time. Information politics is a powerful weapon in struggles for social justice.

 

The film problematically centers V as the sole architect of the resistance, a completely unrealistic story that is also common to a trope in superhero savior films. Despite this tendency, though, it also illustrates the way V is supported by others, most especially Evey. He is only successful because of the conflux of actions many activists engaged in--the actress who passes on messages that give V, and later Evey, strength to resist death; Evey herself, who ensures he is not shot and later supports him in various ways in his activities; the activists who were Evey's parents, who died and gave Evey a reason to resist in the first place and to become a target of the state; the young girl who is shot vandalizing a wall, which leads to the recruitment of numerous others; and ultimately the massive protest shown at the end. One critique that was made was that the military not firing on the protesters was unrealistic, and that's probably true. But it's not unheard of. Military forces do not always support the ruling elite, as many historical examples show.

 

Activism takes the cooperation and loose coordination of a wide swath of people to be effective. Even though V for Vendetta is a hero story, it's also an anti-hero story that showcases the way movements build on our experiences, our histories, and our already existing networks in ways that are complex, messy, and hard to capture and predict. The domino metaphor used in the film symbolizes the many people and events and causal chains that lead to change. Networking is absolutely essential to activist work, particularly networking across diverse groups--and not just in terms of race/ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality, but also across religions, professions, geographic locations, generations, and (alas, it's unavoidable) political affiliations. I'm not saying we need to be besties with all these people. But it can be useful to cultivate some sort of network ties with diverse people to help us work towards a more socially just future. Networks are a strategic tactic used by activists, and can be cultivated and leveraged in important ways.

 

Also note V's actions were a long-time in the making. His plan was not enacted overnight. He says it took him nearly ten years to clear the rail tracks for his final act. Why is this point important? Because life-long activists recognize activism takes time and dedication. These battles are long battles, and we have to be willing to be in it for the long haul, to engage in long-term planning, to take the time we need to recharge and care for ourselves so we may be prepared for this type of commitment. Sometimes this means we may take substantial breaks when life events require us to. But it also means we always, consistently return once again into the fray when we are able.

 

Activism is costly. Activism often entails sacrifice--emotionally, psychologically, professionally, and sometimes even physically. It's not for everyone. It can be incredibly rewarding, but not everything about activism is enjoyable. In the film, Evey loses her job, she is hunted, and she is tortured. V is emotionally damaged and physically scarred. Neither of them are able to engage in a healthy relationship with each other in the film. There are some disturbing parallels with activists in the real world, even those in less hostile situations than Evey and V experience in the film. Research on real-life activists has shown they are less likely to be in long-term relationships with others (particularly marriage) and they typically earn less compared to peers who were not politically active. Whether or not those are "bad" things is debatable, of course, but there you have it. I know many activists who deal with depression, anxiety, anger, and hopelessness at times. These can be damaging emotional conditions we may want to seek professional counseling for--recall the need to engage in self-care. If you can, I highly recommend seeking professional help. But I also think it's important to note that these emotional responses can also be natural responses to the trying work activists engage in. Many activists use their emotions to network with others and as motivation. Activists can also be targeted by institutions or individuals in various ways, including losing work, being sued, arrested, harassed, assaulted, or even killed. Of course, intensity of repression will vary depending on the historical and social circumstances surrounding the activism. But it's worth acknowledging activism can cost a great deal.

 

Despite all this, most long-time activists express they felt the work they had done was worth it and was a rewarding and deeply important part of their lives. Consequently, most activists who become deeply engaged in a social movement will remain politically engaged, often in numerous struggles and campaigns, throughout their lives. I sincerely hope those who have stuck with the course are willing to risk the sacrifice, and get more involved politically. I genuinely hope you become an activist, if you aren't one already, and that this class has been useful for you. I hope you take something away from your experiences with this syllabus. Activism on the part of the people is a powerful force for change, and can be one of the most rewarding experiences of one's life. Go forth, comrades.

In solidarity,

Amara

TESTIMONIALS

"Coming into this course, I did not know a lot about many of the topics that we discussed or that I would have a new perspective about the world we live in. At the end of every class meeting I took valuable information away with me. From here, I will continue to engage and be more active in the issues that surround us daily."

"Even though we watched films, which are produced, they humanized a lot of the stories for me. The documentaries showed real people that are being affected by the current policies. There is something about seeing people move and hearing them speak and seeing them in their communities that makes their struggle more understandable... There are so many social problems right now. It feels like everything is falling apart, and that there is more bad than good in the world. It is a hard time to be a young person when you feel like the world that you are about to step into is one that does not want you to be apart of it. But, these films were really encouraging in that it showed that there are people that exist that want to create a better world. For basically every injustice that exists, there are people that are fighting against it, and that is wonderful. Those people need to be supported."

"The class helped me dive deeper into issues that are often reduced down headlines by our popular media outlets."

"I definitely learned a lot with each meeting. There was so much I was not aware of and things I never really thought about. This class has planted a little seed in me. I have started to do more readings and tried learning about more issues that are occurring. There is definitely a lot I have to learn and become more open minded about. I have started to also participate and attend meetings, rally’s, and protest that are addressing some of these issues. My friends have also started to get involved and it is nice to have people who I know to also grow with me. I have made mistakes, but I am learning from them. It definitely is a process in unlearning certain societal ideas and learning to stand up to against to what is wrong with this society, the government, and capitalism. With all that I am learning, I am starting to feel more angry, sad, and frustrated, but there are times when I feel more grateful for all that I do have. I’m understanding my privileges and using them to try to help others."

"This course has opened my perspective on so many different topics... I was able to have fun and learn a lot from this course. Most of my learning involved stepping out of my current self and observing perspectives from other points of view. By doing this, I was able to expand my understanding on important political topics... I plan on actually making a difference in this messed up world we are forced to live in... I look forward to having my voice heard and making sure people are aware of these issues that I wasn’t really aware about before this class."

"This class definitely showed me how important activism and speaking out and creating awareness is, especially right now with how our government is and what is happening to our society."

"Over the few months in this course, I have come to challenge myself for change. I want to engage and broaden my perspective about the sensitive topics I would normally try and avoid. I want to be educated in the movements my community are partaking in and I want to help create that change. I want to be able to have a voice in where I can confidentially engage in a discussion or debate and be able to stand ground by saying, “hey, here are the facts”... I don’t want to be complacent anymore, I’ve just seen and heard too much to willingly be okay with being ignorant and “unaware” of what’s is going on around me, when in reality it involves me in some way... thank you for educating me about activism, about the realities and major issues of the world, about the ways in which we are being censored, and most importantly about being able to express myself in the way I want to and to fight for it."

"I want to be more socially conscious. I don’t want to be surprised or shocked about things I feel like I should have known about... I hope to be aware of movements and projects that might emerge within my community. This class has taught me that it doesn't have to be difficult to be a part of a cause you believe in!"

"It feels as though I have gone from not knowing much about social issues and feeling like I have few opinions to being passionate about a variety of topics. I cannot see myself relinquishing these beliefs any time soon. I have learned that issues, especially political and social issues have a lot more dimensions than would have previously imagined... Furthermore, not just with the issues we covered in class, I will be sure to do my research and think critically before making a decision... I have adapted a sense of skepticism with regards to such issues that will carry over into me being an actively participating citizen."

"After being exposed with different material it is my duty to educate my own circle with the knowledge that I gained after taking this class."

"For some of these issues, the documentaries were able to add an emotional commentary, or insight that I hadn’t exactly experienced before. Of course I knew about them and had my own opinions about them, but there’s a difference between knowing something and caring enough to become an activist -- this class has definitely made me want to become the latter. These are all injustices that need to be addressed, and fixed. We can’t just sit around, and accept this as the way things are. We need to do everything in our power to dismantle these issues... Communication is a great way to start the conversation, but to find ways to actively be a part of the fight, beyond just words, is where I want to go from here. Partaking in protests, becoming more and more aware, volunteering, donations, and calling out moments of injustice directly when you see it, are great ways to be a part of the fight against all of these issues. To be human, to let greed or prejudices get in the way of being a good person, is not the country I want to live in; so I will do everything in my power to help start that change."

"From here, I want to continue to expand my understanding and knowledge about these interconnected issues and find ways to get involved. I think one of the best things I can do is to raise awareness within the white community because nothing is going to get anywhere unless the white infrastructure is invaded, exposed, and then dismantled. I really enjoyed my time in this class, and I hope to expand my knowledge from what I learned from my peers, older students, and the films."

"I really enjoyed and appreciated all of the films we watched and discussed throughout this course... This course taught me how to be an ally to marginalized groups. It gave me hope that through our voices, we can make changes. We can support those who are silenced. By being an advocate we can shine light on issues that plague our nation. Being surrounded by such woke individuals was empowering. Although I am one of few words, the insight and experiences my peers shared in this class made the topics more personal and relevant to today. Thank you for providing a safe space for us and for beginning a conversation on issues that people shy away from because they consider problematic."

"I learned a lot about the world, about humans, and about myself. I may not have been converted to an all-out activist for any one issue, but I can assure anyone reading this that I am always active and vigilant to fight injustices as I see them happening. I will go on to obtain a law degree and my fight will continue there."

"I have learned so much in this class. I feel like I am just a baby in the woke world and this class challenged my understandings of reality, every week... I am outraged of the injustice in the world, I am glad to know about it. And I am aligned with my purpose again, because of this course."

"I learned a lot about what’s happening in our country right now, but also a lot about why it’s so important to resist. Just because we can’t see the infringement of civil rights explicitly, we still need to remain aware of the realities of the world we live in and the issues that are faced by the people around the world as well as in our own country. It’s so easy to just accept the bubble you live in and not really take notice of problems that are happening away from you (though this is harder than usual with Donald as president)... From here I want to stay as aware as I feel right now after taking this course, and hopefully become more involved in my community and on campus with activist groups... it really takes a network of people to get movements going and to fight for a belief. I want to be more involved in that, or at least more aware of what is going on with movements and activism so I can become a resource for people who are seeking more information about their rights and what they can do to fight back... I’m going to work hard to stay as woke as I am now after this class."

"I’m going to use the information I learned to be more critical... I’m also going to try to apply as much as I learned as possible to how I live my life and move through the world. I like to think that this class was another step towards becoming educated on important issues going on, and that I’m more equipped now than when I started this class to intervene or be active in situations and places where I haven’t before."

"Classes like this are important because they create a welcoming dialogue that celebrates different perspectives and opinions and creates an environment for the free exchange of ideas... I was able to immerse myself into each week’s topic at my own pace and walked away with many concepts that I will not forget... Despite the difficulties and depressing reality of the topics, this class left me with a better understanding of my peers that I hope to carry with me."

 
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