Josh Healey on Thursday, Jan. 19th
As a member of the self-identified “slash profession” – writer/organizer/educator/whatever pays the rent that month – I have learned how to wear multiple hats. How to move between different worlds and code-switch my headgear to meet a particular place and community. Alright, I got this big event coming up tonight…should I wear the Kangol, the fitted, or the yarmulke? (Correct answer: all three.) Sometimes, though, it’s a struggle figuring out which slash to bring out in which situation. Take Occupy.
I got back in Oakland full-time last month, and immediately jumped into the beautiful chaos that is Occupy Oakland. I joined the big West Coast port shutdown on December 12, started attending the alternatively powerful and painful General Assemblies, and connected with the two committees I’ve begun organizing with, Occupy the Hood and Labor Solidarity. It’s been great, and I’ve gotten to stretch some of activist muscles that I hadn’t used in years. (Sometimes literally – holding one side of a 30″ banner with that wind whipping off the bay is harder than it looks.) But while I’ve been bringing my organizing and education experience to the table, sometimes I leave behind the thing I do that I’m doing right now on this laptop. Writing. Telling stories. Creating culture.
Last night, however, some of my cultural comrades and heroes reminded me what it means to be artist in the movement. Artists of the 99% organized a panel/workshop (oh artists, how we even have “slash events”) that dealt with strategies for artists participating in social justice movements. It was a power-packed room: Jeff Chang (Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop), Favianna Rodriguez (printmaker activist powerhouse), David Solnit (street theater artist/organizer), and Zeph Fishlyn (Beehive Design Collective). Plus 100 or so radical artists who love talking about radical art on a Saturday night. My kind of folks.
Jeff set it off with his thesis that “cultural change precedes political change.” Meaning, we need Jackie Robinson before we get Brown v. Board of Education, Ellen Degeneres before we get gay marriage (at least in seven states). I don’t fully agree with Jeff – I think culture and politics very much go both ways – but overall, yes: people connect deeper on a daily basis with beautiful flash mobs and Youtube videos than with congressional committees and talking points. The question is, how do we get that flash mob’s message to those congressional committees and make the changes we need? (And yes, I know the obvious answer is to do the flash mob IN the committee itself…but I just don’t think Bernie Sanders has the dance moves to pull it off.)
Or maybe the point of cultural organizing is direct our energies more towards the 99% itself, rather than our so-called representatives. That seemed to be Favianna‘s argument, as she explained her work with CultureStrike, a pro-migrant project in Arizona started last year in the racist aftermath of SB1070. CultureStrike organized a pop music boycott of Arizona that was inspired by similar actions targeting apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. At the same time, they actually brought grassroots writers and artists to Arizona — but rather than perform, their job was to see the border walls and mass deportations for themselves and then create and promote artistic work to challenge the anti-immigrant climate of fear spreading across the country.
Regarding the Occupy movement, Favianna asked, “What are the strategic stories that we need to tell? Whose stories in the 99% are we lifting up?” The corporate media likes to focus on college students and angry anarchists for a reason. We need to highlight the stories of urban youth activists, immigrant day laborers, Black and brown homeowners — AND the college students, the (former) white-collar workers, and even the occasional anarchist. This is what artists do: shift the conversation, broaden the debate, literally paint the pictures that show both our unity and our diversity.
In that spirit, I was thinking about ways that “slash artists” can do more than just participate but take a real lead in progressive movements, from Occupy to environmental justice to international solidarity. I seem to be into lists these days, so I’m going to focus in on three concrete roles I see for me and my fellow artists:
1. Artists as Questioners
All great art, like all great political movements, starts with a question. I don’t mean marching around in a circle chanting, “What do we want? When do we want it?,” especially when we all know that the answers are deeper than “Justice” and “Now.” Artists have the power to question and critique the many injustices that often go unnoticed or unmentioned in present-day America. Just check the massive reaction, both positive and negative, to the recent “Shit White Girls Say…to Black Girls” videos. Culture, and especially humor, opens people up to ask the tough questions they would otherwise avoid.
Movement artists have a double role to play when it comes to asking questions, though — turning the lens not just on wider society, but on our own personal actions and organizations. When it comes to spoken word, I know the best political poem is when the poet isn’t preaching at me but struggling within themself. If only we saw more humility and self-reflection at Occupy Oakland.
On an organizing level, elements like street theater or marching bands do more than just liven up the crowd — they question the division of protesters and folks just passing by, of message and medium, of serious politics and God forbid, having a good time. To paraphrase Emma Goldman: if I can’t dance to some remixed, radicalized pop songs with you, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.
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