Originally Published on Indybay
Critique of Authoritarianism in the Anti-Gentro Gay BID Campaign
A group of activists affiliated with Anarchist People of Color (APOC) and Gay Shame: a virus in the system, who fundamentally differ from the authoritarian organizing style detailed below came together to make visible our dissent. This letter is a result of ongoing discussion and is an attempt to speak to concerns that have been silenced.
“It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we all can flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.
A group of activists affiliated with Anarchist People of Color (APOC) and Gay Shame: a virus in the system, who fundamentally differ from the authoritarian organizing style detailed below came together to make visible our dissent . This letter is a result of ongoing discussion and is an attempt to speak to concerns that have been silenced.
It is anticipated that the reception of this document by the “No to Gentrification” steering committee will be used to justify their argument that anti-authoritarianism is a white “structureless” movement of radicals that do not value coalition-building or collective organizing. To the contrary, it is to voice concerns, revealing authoritarianism and putting it on the table as a public document, so that it can never again be silenced. Reclaiming our voices and actions is essential to serving our community as well as any alliances for the future. This document reflects clearly divergent themes and voices. This is a protection of individuality in voice and style. This is not intended to speak in a single voice, rather to provide a collective forum of expression. We must write this because it is necessary if we are serious about being absolutely uncompromising in our goal of stopping all development.
In the spring of 2004, Oakland City Council Member Danny Wan announced the city and developers’ plans for a “Gay Business Improvement District” (BID) in the Eastlake neighborhood of Oakland. The developers’ plans for the neighborhood include, recruiting “gay” businesses including bookstores, restaurants, specialized retail stores and entertainment facilities according to Tina Lupe, legislative analyst for the city. Large corporations will not be turned away, Lupe said.
Upon hearing these plans, community members and activists in the Bay Area immediately raised concerns about the effect of development on the neighborhood’s residents, many of whom are immigrants, people of color and lower-income families. As history has shown, such development tends to drive up property values and increase the cost of living in the surrounding community.
At a City Council-sponsored bi-monthly LGBT Roundtable discussion in November, a group of people raised concerns about the affects of gentrification in the area under the auspices of providing a “business district” for queers. Many of these activists and/or community members convened an impromptu meeting outside city hall immediately following the roundtable.
Before a conversation about process could be initiated, Dawn Phillips stepped forward and began ‘facilitating’ the group. During the course of the meeting, an email list was compiled, and a steering committee was formed by a show of hands. The majority of the people who volunteered for steering committee positions were leaders of various non-profits based in Oakland and reformist political organizations. Within a week of its formation, the steering committee set up a private email correspondence, with information about an upcoming meeting and to set the agenda for the larger meeting.
A meeting arranged by and for those in leadership roles and not widely advertised (i.e. kept secret) was held at the EBASE office on 1714 Franklin St. in Oakland. Again, there was no discussion about the group’s process and the role of the steering committee in general. One Gay Shame/APOC activist pointed out that no Eastlake residents were in attendance, to which steering committee member responded that in order to reach-out to Eastlake residents, through flyers, networking etc., the group had to get approval from an NGO already working within the Eastlake neighborhood. The only outcome of this meeting was the delegation of responsibilities, including making an agenda, for a larger open meeting the group had planned for two weeks later.
On December 5th the larger “open,” but unadvertised meeting convened at the Providence House in Oakland. Participants decided that facilitation duties would be shared by several people, but many observers felt that the ultimate decision-making power was in the hands of a select few members of the steering committee. Though people expressed their thoughts and concerns about the development, nothing was decided or planed for future actions by the group. Furthermore, steering committee members held a ‘secret’ debriefing meeting after the conclusion of the larger meeting.
Again, a week later, committee members and a select few others held a smaller closed meeting at Dawn Phillips house in East Oakland. The five people in attendance attempted to write a mission statement for the group at large. Attempting to justify their closed authoritarian leadership style, Lisa said “I’ve worked with anarchists, if you bring them to the table things fall apart.” “Gay Shame doesn’t coalition-build. They didn’t win any hearts in the Castro,” “In certain battles there are people who need to be at the table an certain people who don’t.” added another attendee. One activist at the meeting felt that those speaking were making individual issues sectarian.
No Gods, No Masters, No Steering Comities
From Buddhism to Bush, patriarchy to the Panthers, imperialism to the International Socialist Organization (ISO), authoritarianism is the methodology of oppression. Authoritarianism is, after all, a structure that allocates power through a top down model thus creating those with power (gods, presidents, fathers and steering committees) and those without power, all the rest of us.
Authoritarianism is the system of organization used in all oppressive regimes this is evident. However, often times organizing that is built precisely to resist these larger projects of domination also work through authoritarianism. In contrast to imagining new modes of organizing and creating new ways for power to work, these groups simply substitute their goals for that of the oppressor’s and believe liberation can be achieved without a radical shift in the very methods of organizing or the structuring of power.
Sometimes people choose to organize this way because they are not aware there are other ways to work but most organizations seem to know the alternatives but believe that authoritarianism is the way to create change. Once the structure of these groups is challenged there seems to be two typical reasons given for authoritarianism.
The second major reason given for working through authoritarianism is creating a “security culture”. A security culture is the belief that there is a way to protect those involved with the group from the powers of the State. Both the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers worked through this model of organizing. The United States Government also uses this security culture alibi to support the unlimited powers of the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security. In this model of organizing the top tier of the group (presidents, community leaders etc.) decide who needs to know what, and when. Through this system, information circulates on a “need to know” basis, while the people that are actually participating in actions often times do not have access to all the information available. This security culture has been evident already in secret messages being passed back and forth through the steering committee without the knowledge of most people affiliated that there even is a steering committee, let alone separate conversations.
For SIAFU, a person of color (POC) group of anti-imperialists who came together to protest the RNC, a major obstacle in nurturing collective intelligence was a staunch commitment to “security culture.” The term was applied in the same way that “national security” is used to censor the amount of information that is going to be shared with the public. In the case of SIAFU, as well as other groups that use “security culture” to operate on a “need to know basis,” the demand to do so is usually evoked if “illegal activity” is being planned. Admittedly, it is a legitimate safeguard measure during a climate where activism is increasingly criminalized. However SIAFU was not participating in illegal activities. If anything, those are the unique situations that we need to fully deconstruct because the trade-offs come in the form of loses to transparency, openness and inclusion. In a democratic process, the manipulation of information and constructs of knowledge is a mechanism for control, and should be regarded suspiciously.
Efficiency is often necessary in the context of organizing. Things do come up in a moments notice, and also most of us have other obligations than the specific group we are working in so sometimes things don’t get done on time. However, what kind of culture does it create when the group you are working in has “leadership”? It seems that the very notion of leadership itself is oppressive. There are limitless other ways to both organize, and be in the world, where collectivity is the model of organizing. In these dire moments of worldwide murder and oppression our organizing may slip past these all too important critiques.
Tragically, activism in this area is now primarily a business with its own code of conduct and conference rooms. On one side you have the government and corporations implanting death, on the other side you have “community organizers” often times paid by grants from these same governments and corporations allegedly opposing this death. While these community organizers brunch with counsel members in hopes of guarantying a “community center” while the rest of the neighborhoods is literally torn to rubble and unaffordable live-work lofts are erected in their place- we must be fighting on both fronts.
If you’re a city, you can get money to develop a neighborhood. If you’re a career activist, you can get money to pretend to stall the development. Or at least enough salary to be a part of the first wave of gentrification, such as those who claim to be “residents” of the neighborhood but play an unacknowledged role in its transformation.
On a number of occasions, the “No To Gentrification Group” and the LGBT Roundtable employed similar identity politics tactics. Also, these tactics manifest in the Bay Area’s liberal activist communities. Many critiques of authoritarianism and race have not been discussed based on many mutually beneficial relationships. White anti-authoritarians have used authoritarian POCs as an entrance into long-term people of color battles while many of these same anti-authoritarians do not critique these authoritarian POC structures. These POCs tend to use these anti-authoritarian groups for the illusion of a mass movement. Superficially these may appear to be strong ties, but if the necessary critique of racism, authoritarianism and tokenization are not present, how strong can these movements be? Dawn was quick to point out that at the LGBT Roundtable meeting that the two Black people at the table always came to Danny’s aid. At a later meeting Dawn stressed a need for the anti-gentrification campaign to “have people of color in leadership roles.” Both seem to suggest the same form of exploitation. Danny Wan would like to create a physical space for LGBT’s in Oakland. The “No To Gentrification Group” would like to mobilize a progressive queer left. Both these strategies involve the imposition of an outside will exerting itself onto peoples’ bodies. Where does self-determination enter into the equation?
However, the concept of opening dialogue with the enemy arose again at a meeting of the so-called anti-gentrification (No To Gentrification) activists. One person brought up the idea of going to Danny Wan’s front lawn and setting up our own gay business improvement district. Soon after, it was suggested that a delegation should go to Danny Wan’s office and tell him that if he doesn’t do such and such people are going to be on his lawn. Why? So that the police will be there to meet us?
As an experience, it often feels initially exciting to be led by people who seem to be militant and to have a plan; sooner or later, though, it feels disempowering. By then, however, people are often selected to move up in the hierarchy. But, hierarchy has its limits: many leave in frustration, exhaustion or powerlessness. When confronting an issue which at its height of perversity does not give people autonomous control over their own living spaces and community, we must oppose this oppression and create spaces where people will feel empowered to take back their neighborhoods, not hand it over to someone new.
It serves as a reminder of a campaign led by Just Cause in 2003 where the issue was fighting for affordable housing and organizing renters in West Oakland and Uptown to lead the fight. But it turns out that many of the poor renters participating in the struggle themselves probably wouldn’t be able to qualify for “affordable housing” and existed outside of the goals outlined by Just Cause. Many of these folks probably weren’t informed of this during all of the “open” house meetings regarding the direction of the campaign. If a campaign for poor people leaves its membership behind, something is clearly incongruent. Who defined the terms and set these watered down, reformist goals? The power in framing the campaign was held by two senior staff members, who were clearly not folks directly from the neighborhood being organized. When it came time to stage the big community meeting regarding the campaign, which all the house meetings had been leading up to, certain members were handpicked and invited by the Just Cause core to speak out. The appearance was based on bringing visibility to the members of the community who were empowered through working with Just Cause. They realized their power to transform from “objects” to “subjects” of their own circumstance and had found their own voice to speak out about the issue. But according to a former Just Cause organizer, the member from his turf who was selected as a community leader was given a piece written by Just Cause to literally read. Is this the fate of our own organizing? Are we recreating these same falsehoods by allowing disjointing labels like “organizer” vs. “activist” vs. “community leader” vs. “community” to fragment our coalition and disproportionately transfer and control power? We must all see ourselves as all of these things. The mistake in applying such titles is that they construct standards of acquiring political clout and therefore agency.
Many of us are activists in our everyday lives in ways that are not recognized as activism by the existing hierarchy. Given that the dissemination of information has followed this pattern of “acceptable organizing”, the people who were called upon from the community were, not surprisingly from other non-profits. Much the same way the assumption was made that the steering committee reflects the diversity of queers in Oakland, the assumption was made that this non-profit from the Eastlake is representative and in good standing with the residents that community. Most notably, there is an assumption about the politics of the residents of Eastlake that is an assumption based on immigration and the maintenance of the current power structure.
The assumptions about the Eastlake community, primarily based on its immigrant population, have been that these residents do not want to assert agency in their own destiny. Residents of this neighborhood have been told continually, ‘you are too radical for the community”. What comprises community self-determination if it isn’t the will of those who live there! Cohesive communities loves and trust each other. But unlike what many would love us to assume, gentrification battles are not fought at City Council meetings or in Court Houses, gentrification battles are fought with existing social ties and personal relationships. Some of us have seen our own families radicalized by this process, as they also wish to not lose their homes.
There is also an ahistorical assumption that immigrants aren’t radical or engaged in politics. Most notably, these residents have risen up in defense of the prejudiced cruising laws which held them under siege a decade ago. Many of these residents who live in the Eastlake come from much more radical backgrounds than anyone who has yet participated in these forums. Many of them are indeed in this country because of their radical politic. In addition, it is important not to underestimate the radicalizing force of eviction and displacement. Even assuming that the residents are not engaged in resistance today, we cannot assume that they will not be tomorrow.
The Gentrification of Activism
Gentrification as well as our activism against it must be thought through historically. Gentrification is not a simple an act, nor is it a specific construction project. Gentrification is a tool of capitalism that produces an excess in exchange value, a neighborhood that had a lower exchange value is transferred, through development, into one that has a higher “value”. However, historically speaking today’s gentrifiers may eventually become tomorrows gentrified. This is evident to some extent in the Castro in San Francisco. As lesbian and gay people moved in during the late 1960s and early 1970s taking over what had historically been a working class neighborhood the social landscape changed. Yet now, many of these same gay people that first moved into the Castro are being forced out to make way for more wealthy heterosexuals who think the “safety” of a gay neighborhood would provide the perfect place to raise a family.
Sadly, just about every effort to beautify, green, build community spaces in, or culturally and artistically enrich an area makes it more appealing from a market standpoint. Taking the money out of such a process requires a long-term engagement with land trusts, secured squats, publicly subsidized housing, etc. From an anti-state perspective, were talking a very serious and open commitment that will not dismantle it immediately. Essentially, we have to design solutions that avoid commodification, enforced segregation, and mass contempt between one part of society in another. Community centers, grandfather clauses and “responsible development”, may bring faster tangible evidence, but do little to create community resistance, agency or visibility. This fight is about how many people we can keep from being forcibly removed from their neighborhoods in the Eastlake, but it is as much about creating lasting changes in community organizing and models of resistance. It is imperative to equip people with the tools for lasting community change such that we can define our own struggle as our own agents for sustainable change.
As gentrification is an ongoing process our response must also be equally about stopping the specific “development” but it must also be about creating ways of living and organizing where we are not reproducing the concepts of gentrification. Just as we cannot even dent racism by wearing an “anti-racist” shirt printed in toxic ink on a sweatshop made shirt, we cannot say “no to gentrification” by displacing valuable ideas or silencing dissent in the very name of non-displacement.
Our tactics and methods for organizing resistance must not replicate the asymmetrical divisions of power as those we are fighting against. We cannot simply replace their “white straight male” leaders with our multi-cultural ones and have faith that racism, sexism and heterosexism will come crumbling down. We must destroy the very systems that created this inequality of power, which is, certainly working through authoritarianism.
Already, the language we have adopted to communicate the issue sets out to suggest that a unified body of radical queers has already been established. To let this assumption go unchecked would be counterproductive to the larger interests of truly realizing a radical queer left. As “radical queers,” how are our tactics or the way we develop internally “radical”? For many of my “radical” folks reading this, let’s be honest now and admit that there is definitely some closeted reformism sneaking a peep and eyeing the pie.
Contrary to encouraging exploration into our multiplicity and how to use our many talents advantageously, the complexity of our different politics, class backgrounds and notions of shared experience have largely gone unacknowledged and unaddressed during our meetings. In fact the lowest common denominator by which we operate as a homogenized body has amounted to a dysfunctional model of central, non-rotating leadership that promotes hierarchy and makes no concerted effort to engage and draw everyone fully in its decision making process, let alone discuss if we even want this type of structure. Sadly, this is a depoliticizing force of reductionism that puts the interest of building a strong moderate base before stretching the terms of the debate as far reaching as possible. It is a force that underestimates the lengths to which empowered people will go to fight against the business interests that seek to eliminate them. The unilateral choices imposed by those on the steering committee and legitimized by the larger group does very little to differentiate itself from Danny Wan and his band of token sellouts.
One major distress signal sounding out in the dynamics of our group is a disconnect between the group and the countless other unknown, unsought out queers in Oakland. Nor is an analysis around queer bicultural immigrant experiences being prioritized. This is inherently patronizing because so much of the decision-making is being made on behalf of those who are not even participating in the issue and whose “queer” experiences may not be reflected in the group, let alone in the ways we approach the organizing.
Another similar situation occurred in relation to SIAFU, this body was a composite of various ideological influences, class backgrounds, and strategies. And again, the basic elements that outlined the directives of the group were channeled along rigid hierarchies that promoted top down leadership. There were three layers or tiers as they were described within the structure. The first tier was the core decision-making body, the next tier were trustworthy organizers to execute the decisions, and the third tier were the majority of folks used to implement the decisions. People interested in participating had to pony up an obscene amount of money, something like $700 to be a part of SIAFU’s trip to the RNC. The cost was justified as covering airfare, housing, food and uniforms. Once you joined, you were farmed into your choice of a handful of pre-designed committees. The contentious part about the cost of membership to THE anti-imperial bay area POC delegation was that in actuality it pushed other POCs, who couldn’t or refused to pay up club dues, to the margins. For example, much of the free housing offered up by POC organizations in New York were snatched up by SIAFU, exhausting most of the limited resources specific to POC activists. How is it that you can justify such an exorbitant cost to cover housing, and then take up most all of the free housing available? Who made that decision? Did members of SIAFU realize that this was happening? And how many radical anti-imperial, anti-property, anti-authoritarian POCs were invisible at the RNC because of this?
Ending the Non-profit Industrial Complex
True to form, this pattern of alienating the folks who are supposedly leading the campaign is rearing its ugly head here in this body. Anti-authoritarians who are committed to radical means for radical ends have been isolated , stripped of political agency, and snubbed by the steering committee for being “too radical or the community”. Is it happenstance that the folks who were most obviously disturbed by the reformist concessions and lack of consensus building were also the ones who were attacked? From the original fallacious notion that “collective engagement” was based on a single e-mail to a steering (think about when you steer you bike, you tell it where to go) committee based on these same affiliations; this association has had a coded agenda based on their concepts of “queer”, “community”, “activism”, “gentrification” etc.
It would seem that when select reformers get ready to make career moves and concessions they need radicals and direct action out of the way- it could erode their relationship with the government officials on whom their power is based. This restriction of autonomy has been ostensibly based on not “scaring the community”. But, what has become very clear is that restriction from direct action in this fight is not about making our movement more palpable for the community, because indeed we have not even asked
We all have different relationships to the power structure in our coalition because in the decision making process of “our” group we are all situated differently. By this reasoning, power is realized by directing decisions towards particular goals. Because of this, everyone’s direct input into determining the goals, especially the language that describes and frames the goals must be ensured.. A smaller working group might be useful if it was overseen by the entire group as a tool in keeping account of the logistics needed to realize everyone’s desired objectives. But, as things stand now, a steering body that does not report to the larger whole compromises transparency and information sharing for the whole and limits the full participation of all queer folks who want to get involved
Referring back to SIAFU as a structural reference, the irony is that this organization exerted a lot of energy in carving out a specific identity. It chose the symbol of the West African ant whose colony is so well organized that it is able to take down an elephant. The ant, specifically the worker ant class, is a popular metaphor for the power of collectivism because it gets shit done. What is underrepresented in the use of the metaphor is that the strength of the colony is not its militancy as much as it is its ability to interact with its environment. Tasks are distributed in a way that there is no central organizer. Most noticeably, self-organized ant colonies are adaptive and able to move around quickly and efficiently because of collective intelligence. They communicate tactically through pheromones. Therefore collective communication leads to collective intelligence. If we are serious about importing this operating model, then we need to address the fact that we do not have a strong communications infrastructure to rely on for quick adaptations and decision-making. In fact, the proclivity demonstrated actually bends towards non-adaptive, predetermined “old school” modes of organizing that are predictable. More so, a very particular central organizing body is delegating the tasks within that structure. By ant standards, this is totally unsustainable.
Similarly, the decisions concerning the fate of the Eastlake district have not been made readily available to the mostly immigrant population living there. Our group has a steering committee that most people who first get involved are not aware of. The objective of various secrecies may diverge slightly, but in the end each winds up with the same effect of muting the urgency of the situation. Especially dangerous for those seeking to get involved with a purported fight against gentrification, is that members of the steering committee are looking for ways to reach concessions through opening dialogue into “responsible development,” as it will wind up drawing the most volunteer resources and energy from participants seeking to halt all development.
A steering committee that was developed by a show of hands has now made many important decisions that set the tone for the entire campaign. Who empowered those folks with that much authority? To date there have been no conversations around structure involving more than a handful of people.
On the other hand, there has been excessive usage of singular possessive pronouns like “my” meeting, “my” call out, etc. There is no ownership of this network of people, we are all here by our own convictions. In addition, there has been a proclivity towards qualifying each other’s authority a lot. This takes on the form of also fronting like an authority on all things organizing, which is ridiculous. This form of authoritarianism directly relates to creating dialogue about structure, because after all no one benefiting from hierarchy wants to call itself out as it assumes a radical position. When we give unspoken permission for activist rockstars to take the helm, it keeps someone less established in the “activist world” from adding their perspective because it might sound naïve or inexperienced. For a campaign that values personal experience we have got to honor everyone wherever they are at. We are all bringing in our own shit, so let’s work it out.
Until we flush out and make clear the inconsistencies of our organizing concepts, we will fail to identify many of the hidden assumptions that implicate larger attitudes about power, privilege, class, race, immigration, gender, sexuality, ability, age, environmentalism, capitalism and so forth that we bring to our work. Operating solely within a mode of identity politics carry with it these sorts of limitations. Rather than addressing the limiting factors which reduce our multiple identities and politics and draw us away from our diversity, we have remained uncritical of the tensions between us. Let’s get beyond poli-tricking.
In addition, we as a whole must take notice that throughout the “No To Gentrification” meetings, an ongoing self-evaluation has not been built directly into the process. Stepping back and critiquing the power structure as it emerges is necessary for the health of any organizing body, particularly coalitions that write themselves across many political identities, ideologies and strategies. The next steps we have indicated formally in outreach has been a call for people to join in a radical queer response to stop gentrification and gay business development, which is all the more reason that intentionality around how and why we are organizing must be explicit. It has already happened in past meetings, where people who may be new to organizing or unfamiliar with activist literacy sink into the background and be silenced. Incorporating an ongoing internal dialogue is helpful for equipping us with a means of orienting folks to the process of coalition building, one that maintains a strong decentralized mode for everyone to find their place. It provides space for holding controlling and authoritarian elements accountable because it creates the kind of transparency for people to make informed decisions.
In order to ensure an organization that hopefully represents it’s own diversity and that of the communities it purports to represent, clearly defined process in a group such as the one that formed in response to the announcement of the gay business improvement district. in Oakland, should be something that pre-empts the creation of “steering committees” and the appointment of “leaders”. There are at the very least five primary components essential for a representative organization: the dissemination of information, non-hierarchical organizing, open process, consensus and diversity of viewpoints.
Dissemination of Information
Non-hierarchical Conduction of Affairs
The point is to ensure that power is distributed broadly and collectively, for which a solid decision-making process, which is how and where power is negotiated, must be agreed upon. This process must make space for everyone to contribute ideas and strategies, include space for collective discussion and debate, and provide a clear means of reaching an agreement in which everyone can consent.
Diversity of Viewpoints
Coalition building does not mean restricting individuals and collectives from asserting their own self-determination. Coalition building admits a level of diversity. It acknowledges our differences and appreciates them. It allows the diversity of tactics that creates an environment where the spontaneity which once existed amongst organizers can be returned. Instead of outmoded ideas and old school tactics we have the amazing privilege to develop something new and unexpected. Especially, once we have recognized the resident’s roles in the strategy building, we have the amazing opportunity to implement ideas that have never been heard before and we have the opportunity to use tactics from all over the world.
The critique we have laid out is, in fact, an attempt to make our organizing and the activist work we do, in some ways, like the kinds of worlds we hope to create and inhabit. Deconstruction is an important analytic and political tool we feel that is often dismissed as simply divisive. The good thing about critique is that it helps expose our very real differences. And in this exposition, it is our hope to use these differences to strengthen our resistance. However, it is also imperative that the methodology of our resistance is modeled after a non-hierarchical structure that displaces power from the top-down scheme that we are all too accustomed to. Our reasons for this intervention are not that we simply want to destroy the work that some of the aforementioned groups are involved in, as it is important work. Nor are we interested in simply critiquing players in this authoritarian organizing. This authoritarian structure has displaced too many of us for too long, and it is our drive for making the world a more livable place for us all that makes this discourse not only important, but necessarily urgent.
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