Issue 2 (April 2010)

 

Direct Action as Feminist Practice: An Urgent Convergence (1)

Written by Amanda Armstrong, Kelly Gawel, Alexandria Wright, and Z. V.—in conversation with each other and with others.


We have gathered in this room, as we all mobilize for the actions ahead, to take time and turn over the events of last fall. We want to tell stories and attend to situations, problems, fracture points, and experiences that took shape as these events unfolded—stories from our struggle's recent past which we hope will send a call to our struggle's futures. Hence I want to return for a moment to a night last fall. On this night, I shared a small room with forty other students, all of us having found our way to this room following varied paths of political formation and struggle. The public memory of this night has largely been eclipsed, buried under the spectacle of the day that followed. It was an uncomfortable night. Our bodies bunched between narrow walls, jammed under desks, sharing space with shoes and backpacks, shivering, scared about what was to come. I'd never seen some of those who rested their heads by my feet, my side, my face. We didn't know each others' names, but we did what we could to make each other comfortable. We moved our feet from here to there and quietly laughed about our shared predicament. We shared food and smiles. And tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to sleep a bit.

We all knew we had to be quiet. We were all lying or sitting down, not talking across the room, and trying not to rustle sleeping bags or roll over against chairs or desks. We did what we could, and yet our bodies could never wholly be stilled. Irregular but frequent sounds, always muffled, would interrupt the dull silence—a few short whispers, a rustling bag, a zipper, pee striking plastic in a trash can toilet I’d never be willing to use in this space. I was thinking some about these sounds and their apparent inevitability when a new, small group of individuals entered the room. They had a backpack full of equipment, and set about sorting this material out. Soon after, one of their voices, low and forceful, louder than any of ours, shot across the room:

“You all need to be silent! I didn't come here to get arrested for nothing, because a bunch of you were acting immature—like kids at a party.”

The room stilled, but only for a moment. I wondered about this comment. Did he think the rest of us weren't putting out bodies at risk of arrest? Did he think we could be wholly silenced? Later that night I heard a whispered comment from the same corner of the room. “Democracy is impossible during an occupation. Sometimes you just need to make decisions.” The next day, many decisions were made. Some included more of us than others. And some of us were more included than others—there was an unevenness, racial and gendered, in this regard.

At one particularly heated moment of decision, when we were limited in terms of what our options were and sides were polarizing, someone stepped in and attempted to assert his right to veto, to block an impossible consensus on one possible course of action. How did he come to imagine himself as occupying a position that would allow him this power over all of our fates? But his was not the only aggressive claim to power in this moment immediately preceding the cops' final push against the doors—many sharp words were uttered by many of our voices. Feelings were raw as we turned together to the doors in anticipation of the cops’ final assault. In this frightful moment, our contrary bearings were indifferently reshaped according to the rhythm of police batons, steadily striking the doors above our heads.  

There is a moment that gets to call itself “spontaneous.” It is the moment, they say, where there is no time for democracy. It is the moment where we must act. It is the moment where often our greatest triumphs occur—moments of rupture, where the doors and the windows take our side, stay shut or open in our favor. In these moments spaces open—spaces of possibility. Yet in these same moments—when there is no time for deliberation, for self-reflection, for discussion, when suddenly everyone must act—old orders reinstate themselves, and relations of subordination which we’ve fought for decades resurface with the force of “second nature.” We open space, but when unattended by critical awareness, old hierarchies quickly flood into it. Our moments of improvisation must not preclude critical eyes, lest we hand over our victories to our worst habits.

This intervention, then, should not be construed as a liberal critique of direct action. It begins where the transformative force of current direct action ends. Taking over buildings is about reordering the material conditions for our education. Liberating spaces, banks, hospitals, parks, radio stations, and foreclosed homes is about emancipating the material conditions for an alternative social order, for alternative forms of ownership, for alternative relationships to things and to each other. These momentary seizures are also embodiments of our visions and it is tragically ironic that in the very moment of action we abandon the critical practices which bring us to act in the first place, and old orders of subordination often settle and reinhabit our political openings with entitlement and ease. Some have located the emancipatory experience of this movement in our "powers of negation," of refusal, in our collective might realized in the act of confronting, opposing. But here we would like to ask: what are the new orders of subordination that emerge, or persist, precisely at such moments of collective emancipation?

We move and write to unlock the spaces which perpetually close themselves to us and others. We see this intervention as a movement towards this goal, but we understand—perhaps more than anything else—that this is a Sisyphean task requiring constant, painful, and lovingly attentive work. We thus see 'feminist movement' not as a static entity or text, whether past, present or future, but as a constant process of struggle, a constant process of recreating fields in which our collective self-realization may become lived reality.

Some may see our intervention as destructive, divisive, detrimental to the integrity of the movement, to the lines of solidarities, to the unity and coherence of our actions. However, we cannot agree with those who will easily label us as “divisive.” What they call “divisive” are those transgressive acts that rupture the regimes of authority securing monopolies over the political discourses, academic and disciplinary hierarchies, and the circulation of various forms of subordination. What if that unity, that togetherness, that non-divisiveness hinges on rotten dynamics? What if that coherence and integrity is predicated on our silent, insidious subordinations? We do not fear disintegration. We are not worried about the demolition of the radical forces—because these practices of subordination thrive on such fears, they persist by asking us to keep them in “private,” to keep silent. This is why we don’t fear opening a total war. Total “divorce” may be necessary to open and reconstitute our forces, our practices, our visions.


It is a meeting, a protest, a circle of friends. It is the spaces we long to create in common. But we live amidst ugly worlds; our commonality is corrupted by many things. Here I speak of a silence, a silencing. It is a complicated feeling, as complex, as familiar and as alien as any other. And as implicated. It originates in no single person or event. It is a relationship, a form of inhabited reality that has begun to occupy the spaces where its abolition is most necessary. The others in the room are ‘Men’: if it were not for my sudden silence, I would never have noticed this fact.

 I sit in the room with four or five comrades. They tell stories of the event—the telling completes it, allows it to become what it is. They speak of militancy, they speak of specifics—how the building was protected, the communication between inside and outside, the rushing forth of action, the movement between initiations. They speak to each other as actors. Originators. It surges through them, they pass the conch, they speak loudly, they are together. They speak towards a communal vision, towards a space in-between them created by stories and experiences they share and construct together. But as they speak, as their eyes alight in mutual recognition and their voices combine in shared incandescence, I am not infected by their heat. Something prevents it; I am overcome by a gnawing coldness, a diffuse but definite closure. There are no words to describe it--silence is its most immediate effect. Self-imposed silence or silencing? I wonder how it is possible, how words and thoughts are cut off at the root, the shared place of nourishment for everyone there but me. I wonder, was I not there too? 
                                
Our experiences and relationships within struggle, even within our intimate conversations, are often marked by this impossible silence. How do we speak of that which renders us speechless? The very power configurations that rob us of our voice, our significance, and our presence take away our ability to name the specific workings of this power. There is a slipperiness, an impossibility of locating these dynamics within and around us. There is such thick complexity to the ways in which we are silenced—each interacting with the next in order to create a domain of impossibility, the impossibility of the radical mutuality necessary for true moments of rupture.

They are intertwined with one another. They smoke, they laugh, they share. They surround me but I am alone. My thoughts are phantoms before the clarity of their booming voices. I become angry: why can’t they understand?  But my anger is shapeless and limp. I do not understand either. I want to be rid of myself. Is this not the point? I want to be rid of myself but my silence brings me back, back to my persistent body, my isolated mind, realizing that it is present for no one there but me. And so I try desperately to hear myself, to project the very voice I want consumed in the fire between them, transcribed into something shared. It comes out thin, providing the odd detail, or fragments of a story I heard from someone else. It is pathetic, forced. My memory of what happened falls between my fingertips. Later that night I go cry to my boyfriend. Perhaps I wasn’t there at all. They do nothing wrong, I think. They do nothing wrong, but their community is no longer mine. The story belongs to them, it always has, through forces that are both in their hands and outside of their control. Its inception eliminates me—I am extinguished by the very things I wish to hold in common. I am robbed of my dream because it was the dream I shared with them, before their speech left me without a tongue. 
                    
We are confronted with this constant dilemma—that our ability to hold spaces in common, on whatever level, will be compromised unless we make this commonality truly radical. If we intend for our actions to momentarily rupture the commodification and domination of our lives on so many levels, our relationships to one another must also do this work. We are consistently forced into spaces of masculine dominance, into dynamics of authority, ownership, voice and presence which all carry an unquestionably masculine tone. In these spaces we feel silenced and marginalized into the gendered ‘feminine’ position, and through these experiences we understand the creation of radical relationships as a political necessity. For us this is a question of praxis. We must abolish the distinction between the 'objective' aspects of political intervention, and the 'subjective' experiences of communal spaces and modes of communication that exist within the spheres of our action and that we must share if we are to engender truly different realities. If we do not constantly struggle with these issues the project of communality will not be communal, it will not include us, it will not inspire us.

 

If I had known the day would go as it went, I still would have come, I still would have followed, I still would have suffered the pains of strained and abused intimacy, because there was no choice but to act. If March 4th is to be like November 20th, I will be proud of the group for what it has done, but I will mourn the possibility of true transformation. During the occupation of Wheeler, I was surrounded by women, many of them friends, all of them eager for the same triumph. Yet it is not merely gender as it appears on individual bodies that bear suffocating, gendered power dynamics. It shows up in the form of color. It shows up in the form of confidence. Confidence to step in for the man when the man does not appear. Confidence to own the position of power, confidence in the need for that position of power to exist. Confidence to speak with an authoritarian tone that makes explicit who is in charge. As a woman, a black woman, surrounded by other women, I was not this confident voice. During small moments, when deciding where we should stand, where we are needed, clear lines are established—she is going to be the one to decide and I can come or stay. I immediately became a body at this point. Any possibility of asserting myself was limited to either participating as a body or not participating at all.

I could have gone home at this point but that was not an option, so I remained there as a body. What I become in these moments of action is a cold, rain-soaked mass. A mass of solidarity, a mass to be moved, pushed, told. A mass that internally screams to be heard, yet knows that this is no time to speak. That this is time for action. The fear to speak comes from a fear of thinking too much about myself, of being selfish in a time of collective movement. This is of course about something much larger than me.

Perhaps it was coincidence that it was me, a dark female body, that was required to remain silent for the collective. Perhaps I did not deserve a voice because I was not at all the meetings? But I was at many of them, sitting next to these same women who, in those spaces filled with male voices, were silent along with me. We find ourselves silenced, aware of ourselves as outsiders, intimidated, living in our insecurities. And then, in the next instant, or day, or decade, we name these moments—maybe racism, maybe sexism, maybe colonization. We name these structural forces which limit our participation, and we give power to ourselves as namers. It is important that this naming happens, that coalitions are built. It is also important that we see these experiences of silence and alienation as being shared across the different names we give them. That our emotional, psychic and intellectual experiences have no names by which we may call them. That they have names we may not know. And that when these names are called forth they do the collective work of calling to task anything less than full liberation.

It is not that the women I worked alongside did not care about me. It is that they cared about the best way, the right way, the smartest way, the most informed way. And this way, in their eyes, did not pass through me. We arrived as graduate students together, and yet according to these women, this is their university more than it is mine. That became clear as we fought together to take it back. And according to me? What happens to the movement when we willingly marginalize ourselves so that the “collective” project can happen? By not speaking, asserting, attempting with all my might to shift the dynamics and contracts of power, I let go of any hope of transformation, any hope that the new University, ‘our’ university, would be a place I could love.

Moving inward, beyond the highest and most profound of our stated goals, in moments of collective action, our most intimate desire for ourselves is to feel a like a part of the collective. To lose and find ourselves in the group, to understand ourselves as one of many acting, thinking, creating for a collective struggle. When this sense of collective is damaging to that self, when you sense yourself positioned below, separate from, or in opposition to the collective, this is a moment of breakage often as unsettling as the external ruptures of the action. To turn to the self, as opposed to the group registers as defeat, and yet there is great danger in identifying with a “we” that wishes to abuse you, or spit you out.  A response is to maintain a multiplicity of "we's," both present and absent. A multiplicity that allows movement from a present "we" when that "we" does not include you. A mobility that allows you, in moments where the "I" becomes present in the face of an oppositional "we," to form collectives with the absent "we's" for and with whom you also fight. Be this a feminist "we," a third world collective, a queer "we," a poor "we," a disabled "we," a people of color "we." This ability to transfer the "I," to witness its ejection and yet reposition it in perhaps even stronger, more long-lasting collective powers, can enable a survival of collective action even when it appears you are alone.

I sat there quiet, uncertain--an immigrant woman, inhabiting a foreign body, a body compelled into silence by a voice always marked by an accent, a voice always coming from an elsewhere, a non-here, a voice of otherness, inviting a reorientation of presumptions, inviting inevitable questions and well-intended shifts towards dead-end conversations. It somehow didn’t matter what I thought, as if my thoughts didn’t belong to that conversation. I would minimize it, discount it, argue against it and defeat it in my mind so I didn’t have to bring it up—and meetings came and went, and decisions were made, and actions were taken, and successes were proclaimed.

They were all men, and they all knew each other. They were friends. And we? Some were their girlfriends, others were their occasional friends. We didn’t speak. We didn’t speak during meetings, but we didn’t speak to each other either. It wouldn’t occur to us at first, we were somewhat uninterested, our focus was elsewhere, what mattered was how to establish a meaningful sense of self in relationship to those who spoke. And so we would sit next to each other silent, disconnected, isolated, like scattered pieces of a puzzle, and we preferred to remain fragments because we feared connection—perhaps we feared what such connection could expose. Something utterly disturbing and yet profoundly constitutive of who we were?

They were all men and they wanted to speak to each other. Most times there was nothing wrong with the conversations, it was just that we were not the addressees of those who spoke. Conversations happened regardless of whether we were there or not. There was no opening for us—these were conversations we had been closed to in advance. And even if those men claimed otherwise, they were deeply uninterested in what we had to say. It was assumed that without our voices conversations and meetings would be more efficient, the exchange of ideas would run smoothly, decisions would be taken quickly and there would be no waste of time. The male space of radical action was thus consolidated prior to us, it was rendered solid and impermeable. A friend once remarked that sometimes it feels like they are in love with each other. True, their disavowed desire resurfaces to reinforce the heteronormative order, to further consolidate radical politics as a fundamentally heteronormative, male-dominated space.

I knew something was wrong, a strange disjuncture warping the spaces, subtle and insidious dynamics causing intangible displacement, a dissonance. Did it come from my assumptions, from my assumptions about equality? From my expectations about mutual openness and affirmation, from my notion that the shape of the circle is about opening an inclusive space, a space in which we can ask each other questions, listen, and learn, bond and validate each other over a common project? Instead, a phallocentric logic structured the mode of address, turning the circle into a passive space to be controlled, dominated. The phallocentric mind was the originator of all that had political value and we, "women," were seen as incapable of originating anything worthy of collective action. Our ideas were not important. They needed to be "sanctioned" by the men to become legitimate ideas, to be imagined as politically meaningful, to be politically effective. We put ourselves on the front lines—

our bones were broken,

our bodies arrested,

—and yet we remained the generic body mass with no historical agency. At the root of these fantasies of phallocentric origination were the ways we imagined political transformation: as radiating outwards from a singular source, as opposed to a collectively accumulated social practice aware of its own inevitable dependencies.

Then anger came. Part of me in disbelief, another part in fury, I questioned, I confronted. Some argued fiercely with me in private. Others disagreed in public: "There is no gender problem," they said, "it might be true for other groups but our dynamics are different." For some women, it was a matter of protecting the integrity of their relationship and remaining loyal to their partners and friends. “We don’t want to hurt our loved ones,” they said. Further, the connotations of conquest and domination residing in the language of occupations, the historical experiences such language conjures, did not pertain to our discussions. "It doesn’t matter what you call them," some said, completely obliterating the agency of language.

I despaired. I withdrew. I made sardonic comments. I felt alone. But then recognitions began one by one: exchanged glances after an inappropriate comment, an improvised conversation in a bathroom, a hallway, a locked room, a secret whisper and the search for a safe space to raise our voices. An occasional small alliance, connections, a meeting, thoughts on paper. And a “we” emerged—it reemerged. And our voices grew, from a whisper to a call.



We would like to share a secret—the kind of secret that won’t be surprising at all. Men have the monopoly over writing. There has been a proliferation of blogs, writings, statements—an entire generation of texts about occupations and radical actions. Anonymously posted, they theorize the political moment, offer profound analyses, and issue urgent calls. They are all written by men—and one can argue with us only by citing “exceptions.” We don’t even know how they get written, it is as if they appear out of nowhere. The initiating act has already happened elsewhere and we are given the polished draft, sometimes the final version, most often we have to go online to read them for the first time. Their anonymity perpetuates our silencing.

A few days before February 14, I received an email informing me that a Valentine's Day love letter was on its way. As you can imagine, my curiosity was aroused and I couldn't wait to receive it. When the letter finally arrived, I realized that it was like no other love note anyone had ever sent me. For starters, it wasn't addressed to my name, but to “the insurgent students and workers on California campuses.” This promiscuity of address didn't make me jealous, though; instead, I rather liked the idea that all of us who had been working for months to remake our university would receive a letter that spoke to intimate places in ourselves—places that we might sometimes feel the need to keep hidden as we organize. I also thought our lives could use a dash of romance, perhaps even of a slightly dangerous sort. But when I opened the love note named After the Fall: Communiques from Occupied California, and began to read what my anonymous correspondent had written, I have to admit it left me cold.

The first piece in After the Fall had a celebratory quality. It told me excitedly about some things that people have been doing across the globe in recent years—people in Greece, South Korea, France, and Chile—and it equated these actions with some that I had taken this past fall. It referenced the building whose doors I had gripped for 12 hours and the hand of mine that had been smashed. The piece invited me to see my hands in the hands of activists from Greece, South Korea, France and Chile. It used the following words to name actions supposedly undertaken by these hands:

They throw molotovs...
light christmas trees on fire...
smash windows...
turn up paving stones...
fight...
have a base from which to carry out raids...
drink and fuck...
talk philosophy... 
line up in formation...
say they're ready to die...
fortify positions...
attack...
shut down...
avenge...
dump a bucket of shit...
say 'fuck that'...
draw lines in the sand...
make videos...
write on walls...
turn over dumpsters...
start blogs...
gather and consolidate their forces... 
know...
throw down...
scatter their rage...
prove their powers...
affirm their powers...

 

You can appreciate, I hope, why it is hard to hear my hands, my body, in these words. These words awaken histories; they live in fields of particular meanings and experiences—fields with a masculine and martial cast that carry with them a train of violence. When entering these killing fields, I taste high school fears, touch scars cut into me one night at college, and catch images of wounded bodies as they flash before my eyes. These words—drink and fuck; avenge; attack; scatter their rage—burn as they pass across my tongue. I only later realized that I had identified myself with the objects of their violence. Before I knew it, I had aligned myself with bodies violated, raped, abused.

But we are not interested in making any fundamental statements or general claims about violence, nor do we want to leave the erroneous impression that our critique presumes an inherent link between violence and normative masculinity. On the contrary, for us, questions of revolutionary violence—the intolerability that makes it imaginable, the conditions of oppression that no other political force can rupture, the subjects who experience its inevitability—are deeply contingent upon specific historical situations. In fact, clear lines between violence and non-violence might force us into making ontological claims we may not be interested in producing in the first place. Such dichotomies can only give us a two-dimensional view of what one could understand as a continuous spectrum of political practice played on unstable terrains of political meaning.

It is not that violence is inherently "male" or "belongs" only to the "male" fighter. The issue here is the absolutely self-engendering, "violent" subjects imagined in these texts, as well as the structural logics these texts mobilize. It is a question of how political action in such accounts of recent events has become indistinguishable from a fantasy of domination: domination over spaces, crowds, meeting circles; domination over women’s bodies, over mothers' bodies...

One only needs to flip through the pages quickly to encounter without much effort more slippage. The last text, which calls itself "a general theory of occupations" was written early on—after the second UCSC occupation. Back then, Humanities 2 was taken without much police presence and abandoned in the early AM hours, when the dance party it was planned around failed to provide the “crowd” support. A "general theory" was extracted from a few of these early experiments—an ambitious title to start with, a theory doomed to do nothing more than generalize what should be understood as deeply situated, carefully positioned historical experiences. Further, it betrays a kind of vanguardism we thought we've already left behind, and a host of fantasies: of controlling spaces, of being at the “head of large and unruly crowds,” of having “ordinary, everyday people” serve as the “line of defense against a police attack,” of controlling masses, bodies, and their trajectories, of “rushing” them to the buildings to form a human shield… A self-reflexive reader would immediately ask, whose bodies are these?

We have learned that, during the brief occupation of Durant Hall on the night of February 26 on the Berkeley campus, someone wrote "Occupy your mom" on the inside walls of the building. "Occupy your mom": someone’s incestual rape fantasy, barely veiled by a defensive irony, coalesced with his experience of the occupation, and the building's takeover acquired an uncanny semblance to pillage and rape. It was not surprising that everyone seemed to prefer to hang out and dance on the outside. Durant Hall—a space where we could have inhabited and embodied our liberation—became a scene haunted by fear.  

We don't come to trash the recent history of radical actions in California, but to open up questions about how this history is represented. We want to ask about the sorts of subjects imagined to make this history, and the events understood to make it up. About the dimensions of these events that are emphasized, and those forgotten. Whose labor is valued, and whose disavowed. And we recognize that sometimes our words betray us. 



Our words and our actions betray parts of ourselves—they reveal the gaps in our vision, the residues of our formative experiences, or the personae we thought we had tucked carefully away. They also betray, or foil, our attempts at speaking languages and enacting solidarities adequate to the world we would like to build for each other. Much of what we have been trying to do today is speak of times when words used and gestures made betrayed something or someone. When they betrayed masculine privilege, or streaks of authoritarianism. When they betrayed unspoken desires. When they betrayed us, and others.

But we don't want to suggest that all actions last fall were saturated with these betrayals. There were also sustained moments during which gender hierarchies and systems were disrupted.  During Live Week, for example, the stick figures that worked to gender our bathrooms were ditched, and bathrooms somehow, almost magically, became unisex. And the centered stage—as well as voices attempting to speak from the position of center—couldn't capture peoples' attention for longer than a few moments. And in the midst of all that has occurred, bonds of solidarity and care are being built between bodies exposed to gender violence; as well as with those—perhaps less exposed—who are working to undo hierarchies of gender. To be sure, we seek today to break bonds built on our silences. But more than this, we seek to strengthen and to remold the bonds of solidarity and care that have made our repeated acts of struggle possible. We hope that you share desires of this sort.

 

 

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1. This piece was first presented in Dwinelle Hall at UC Berkeley on February 22, 2010, as part of the Rolling University series of mobilizations towards March 4, 2010.