Some things that happened at the RNC

I spent last week running around medicking at the RNC protests. Here is a partial list of things that happened:

Edited to add: I forgot to add what some people would probably consider the most interesting bit. I got a ride from the Akron airport to Cleveland with Vermin Supreme.

– I helped set up the medic wellness space, in a historic church that was a former Underground Railroad station.

Cardboard sign with the text "Historic Site of the Underground Railroad. Please Be Sweet with the Space."

A sign from the medics’ wellness center

– Some city EMS personnel (who knew about the street medics beforehand – our organizers had been in contact with them) asked for (and got) their photos taken with me.

– Someone drove by the street medic meetup after the first night of protests, where a bunch of us were hanging out in the church parking lot after the meeting, and screamed “Fuck all you motherfuckers, fucking DIE!” out his car window. I was a bit disconcerted by this because 1) how did this random dude find out where we were meeting? he clearly had opinions on us that wouldn’t follow from just seeing some figures in a parking lot in the dark, ergo he was probably aware, when he passed by, of what we were, and 2) that’s a lot of hostility to have to people for providing first aid.

Two police officers in olive drab clothing and body armor stand with machine guns in a park as people pass by

Don’t know where these cops were from, but they had some heavy gear.

– I got sunburned.

– I watched people play a version of duck duck goose in the grass while being watched by a police helicopter.

– The first time I experienced the cops doing their “shove people with their walls of bikes” thing (same situation as the video here but I was in a less populated section of the crowd where the cops were pushing harder, with more follow-through, because they had more room), I was trying to slip past a Fox cameraman without disrupting his interview with a protester. A cop rammed a bike into the person a few inches in front of me, causing them to ram into me, and me to ram into the Fox cameraman, which disrupted his interview. Had the cameraman not been there I would have been knocked flat on my face, as the bike shove was very hard and the person being knocked into me was like being hit by, maybe not an adult linebacker, but a high school one at least. As it was, I was crushed between people until the bike-shove stopped, and then managed to disentangle myself. This has been described by some media (not the same ones hit by the bikes) as “soft tactics,” which I mean to post about later. Nothing was happening that warranted this, or even warranted compelling protesters to move. It was just some Westboro Baptist Church people and some anti-Westboro people yelling at each other in a public park, no physical violence. Notably, the cops didn’t hit the Westboro people with bikes. Or ask them to move.

– I did jail support – waiting around outside the jail, with my medic kit, for people to get released – for the people arrested at the RCP flag-burning protest. I ended up burning through a lot of supplies, despite whatever you may have heard about there being no injuries (the “no serious injuries” phrasing – my emphasis – bothers me less, since I’m aware that “serious” often means “potentially life-threatening” in medical parlance).

– I also did some first aid for someone who was hurt when a cop hit them with a bike, and for people dealing with issues like heat exhaustion and foot problems.

– I experienced street harassment that involved calling me “baby” (typical enough) and also the harasser shouting something about how our tax dollars are spent (not typical, and I wasn’t sure whether this was a reference to me in some way or to the hospital I was walking by). Having never previously experienced street harassment that involves tax spending commentary, I mentally filed this one as “Only at the RNC.” Also Only at the RNC: A guy leaning drunkenly out of a bus window to yell “We’re the Young Republicans of America!” at me while I was trying to find directions on Google Maps.

– Four or five police questioned me and a group of three other medics about why we were using the portapotties so much (two of us had gone once each while standing in the area, I had not gone at all, and one guy had gone into two separate potties because there was no hand sanitizer left in the first one). They pretended that this was about concern for us, which I’m sure is why they needed several cops to surround us to ask. I assume they suspected that we were gathering bodily fluids to throw at them, because by all accounts, the cops were obsessed with the idea of people throwing things, especially bodily fluids, at them.

– A medic team got detained over carrying a bag of bananas. This attracted the attention of several reporters, who took pictures of the bag when the medics opened it for police, and asked them what the bananas were for, which caused them to look strangely at the reporters and wonder what exactly they think the other uses of bananas are.

– The police, at various times, believed that food distribution group Seedz of Peace’s bags of cherries were rocks to throw at them, that the medics were “anarchist troublemakers” probably carrying weapons in our bags, and that bottles of water with Vitamin C powder in them were pee bottles to throw at them. They also had a tactical team to collect the crap output of the police horses so that it couldn’t be thrown at them, though I will say that the tactical team was slow enough that if anybody had actually wanted to do this they would have had plenty of time.

– I was in one of the crushes that happened during the RCP flag-burning protest after police escalated the situation from a flag-burning protest into a melee, though not the crush where people were being arrested. I was able to see part of that crush, though, through the fence, and it looked pretty vicious. I was worried about people getting hurt or being unable to breathe from being slammed and crushed at length against the fence.

Several hundred police officers in various uniforms, some with bikes and some without, mill around a public park

Public Square after the cops cleared everyone out because people were yelling at the Westboro Baptist Church.

– I watched reporters in the crush that I was in physically fighting with each other for space, grabbing each other by the head and shoulders and trying to throw each other out of the way (no room to do so, really).

– My medic buddy at the time got shoved around by a Bikers for Trump guy and harassed and violently threatened by some Trump-supporting dudebro. More on this later.

– I spent a lot of time in Public Square, a park where protesters of various sorts would hang out, where I saw socialists, liberals, anarchists, revolutionary communists, antifascist and black bloc-ing kids, Wobblies, Trump supporters, delegates and their guests, far-right bikers (some of whom were open-carrying, open-carrying white supremacists and militia types, literal neo-Nazis, Westboro Baptist Church members, mainstream reporters, non-mainstream reporters, performance artists, and hundreds of cops from more than a dozen states. Sometimes all at the same time. Sometimes the cops would push everyone out for no apparent reason, as in the photo below where you can see hundreds of cops in Public Square.

– I watched Infowars interview some Wobblies after their singalong, though they didn’t say that they were from Infowars until the end. Infowars seemed a little slow on the uptake, to be honest. After having listened to the end of the singalong and then spent six or seven minutes talking to the Wobblies about their beliefs, they asked, “So, it seems like you aren’t actually capitalist at all? More like some kind of communist?”

A white female-presenting person, wearing a green "social justice cleric" shirt and a vest with first aid markings, smiles for a photo in a park, while a South Asian man in black, also with first aid markings, jumps into the photo making a funny face

Photobombed by a fellow street medic

– I had a couple of Trump supporters in Public Square actually understand that “Cleric” on my “Social Justice Cleric” shirt referred to the cleric class (which is typically a healer class, as befits my activities as a street medic) in many gaming systems, and ask me about it in non-hostile fashion. They didn’t get aggro even after I explained the “social justice warrior” joke – I got the sense that they considered me a curiosity.

A primer on street medics

Unless you’re a brand-new reader, you’ve probably seen my posts about street medicking before. With the 2016 RNC and DNC looming, and large Black Lives Matter protests around the country, I thought it might be worth a post on what a street medic is. Not only does most of the public not know, but neither do a lot of newbie protesters and organizers (and any time you have big high-profile protests you’re likely to have some newbies). So, an introduction (very much from a North American and particularly a US perspective, though I know that Australia has an active street medic community and various other countries have people who play similar roles). Also, you should consider donating to the RNC street medic fundraiser, which needs more money pretty badly.

What is a street medic and what do you do?

Street medics provide first aid and basic emotional support at protests and other activist convergences, as well as running health and safety trainings for activists. This covers different settings – street medics operate within marches, rallies, and so on, run pop-up first aid clinics or wellness centers at protest camps and large protest sites. Often, we are part of teams that sit outside of jails waiting for arrestees to get out, so that we can provide help to any who are hurt, dehydrated, traumatized, and so on. The contemporary North American street medic movement came out of doctors and nurses from the Medical Committee for Human Rights providing first aid for Civil Rights Movement protesters, and eventually training others to provide first aid in activist settings. Street medics have been present at (partial listing) the Civil Rights Movement, the Occupation of Wounded Knee, the anti-Vietnam-War movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the environmentalist, anti-fossil-fuel, and climate justice movements, the anti-Afghanistan-War, anti-Iraq-War, and other anti-war movements, the anti-globalization movement, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Quebec’s 2012 student protests, and the protests of various Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Some street medics have traveled internationally and done protest first aid work together with locals, for example in Palestine, or during the anti-austerity protests a few years ago in France. There were street medics at the recent neo-Nazis vs anti-fascists protest/counterprotest in Sacramento that ended with several people being stabbed.

Street medics have also been active in disaster relief and community response efforts. Street medics worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, providing door-to-door aid and founding Common Ground Clinic, which still operates there. Street medics provided door-to-door aid and pop-up first aid clinics in New York City after Hurricane Sandy. Other community and post-disaster settings where I know that North American street medics have worked include:

– Community vigils after the Boston Marathon bombing
– Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks
– Rural areas amongst migrant farmworkers
– Haiti post-earthquake
– Southeast Asia post-tsunami
– Greece, with Syrian refugees

Why are you needed? Isn’t this what emergency medical services are for?

Emergency medical services are usually not right there on the spot for the level of immediate response that we can do. They’re not allowed to enter a scene to help if the police say that it’s not stable or safe and tell them that they can’t. Occasionally they’re hostile to protesters (one of my street medic friends once tried to pass a patient off to EMS in the relevant city, only to be told that EMS was only there to help the police). There are some things that we have experience with that aren’t really part of usual EMS work and training, like dealing with pepper spray, tear gas, or handcuff injuries. And there are some activists who aren’t comfortable interacting with them, either at protests (“I’m afraid of being arrested if I go to the hospital”) or in general (“I have Medicaid in a different state and I’m worried that it won’t pay if I go to the hospital for my sprained ankle, even if it’s supposed to,” “I’m trans and I’ve been discriminated against by EMS in the past”).

All that said, it’s not like we’re not opposed to EMS or hospitals. We’re filling in a gap. At big planned summit protests, like national conventions or trade summits, we often build a working relationship with EMS beforehand, and may end up transferring sick or injured people to EMS or driving them to the hospital.

How will I know who you are?

At least in the US, we commonly wear duct tape red crosses (not to be confused with the Red Cross symbol, which is specifically a square red cross on a white background) and carry first aid kits, as seen in this photo from Flood Wall Street (I hear that Canadian street medics often wear green crosses instead). Big collectives may have a patch with the logo of their collective, such as this logo from Chicago Action Medical. At large actions, we may also have an action-specific patch or insignia, that will also be something obvious and first-aid-y.

Are you protesters?

If we’re running marked as medics, we aren’t protesting. Two different roles. We’re on the ground protecting the health and safety and rights of the protesters, as the National Lawyers Guild’s legal observers do from a legal angle. That doesn’t mean, though, that we don’t identify with the movements whose actions we’re medicking. I very much saw/see myself as part of Occupy, for instance, or the LGBTQ+ movements, or Black Lives Matter, or feminism (all of which are movements whose actions I’ve medicked).

Sometimes people who are trained as or often act as street medics want to be protesters at a particular action and still be able to provide first aid. In that case, they run unmarked, with no street medic insignia – in other words, a protester who happens to have some training and be carrying a first aid kit.

What kind of training do street medics have?

The basic street medic training is 20 hours (in times of need, people with existing medical qualifications can get a 4-hour “bridge training,” but the intention is that they will still get the full 20-hour training when they have a chance). It covers advanced first aid (i.e. something more extensive than the Red Cross’ basic first aid training but less extensive than an Emergency First Responder or Wilderness First Responder training), including being able to spot possible life/ability threats. It also covers consent culture, situational awareness/working as a pair in a potentially volatile environment, basic emotional and community support practices, basic prevention (e.g. of heat-related or cold-related illness), and some things you’re not likely to find in other first aid or medical trainings, like how to help people who have been pepper sprayed or tear gassed and how to assess handcuff injuries.

All street medics have that baseline level of training. Many have more. Some street medics are present or past doctors, nurses, EMTs/paramedics, ancillary care professionals, WFRs or WFAs, CNAs, former military medics or Combat Lifesavers. Some have special training or qualification on the mental or social health side – psychologists, rape crisis counselors and domestic violence advocates, social workers, licensed counselors, trained peer counselors. Some have Masters of Public Health degrees and/or work in related fields like epidemiology. Some are volunteers or professionals in some health-related field or setting other than street medicking. Some have volunteered or worked as other kinds of responders – in firefighting, search & rescue, etc.

Street medics are not necessarily offering every form of health-related care that they have ever learned how to do, though, because that could be dangerous and not practical. To go with an obvious illustrative example, a street medic who is an active, board-certified professional neurosurgeon is still not going to be doing brain surgery in the street.

How do I find you if I need you?

Some actions have their own process, but in general, in case of injury or illness, shouting “Medic!” and getting the people around you to do so as well is the right idea. Please do not shout “Medic!” because you want a cough drop. Just seek us out in the crowd for that.

What are your political beliefs? Do I have to agree with them to get help?

There is no ideological litmus test for getting help. There are many examples of street medics providing care for counterprotesters or people who were in the group being protested. We do look out for our own safety, which means that if it looks like your buddies are going to beat us up if we approach, we’re not going to approach.

All the street medics that I’ve met are broadly on the left – it’s a phenomenon with its roots in left protest after all – but there’s plenty of diversity. I’m somewhere in the social democrat/democratic socialist realm. Quite a large number of the street medics that I’ve met are some flavor of left-anarchist or mutualist (and next time you hear someone demonize anarchists, you might reflect on that). Some are socialists of various flavors. Some are plain old liberals. Some reject any sort of label for their ideology, or have complicated descriptors for it. There’s also a wide range of viewpoints about priority issues, tactics and strategies, and so on. I wish the left as a whole worked as well together as street medics with different viewpoints do.

Do street medics ever get attacked or arrested?

Yes. And there’s stuff that I could have put in that post, and didn’t, including street medics being shot with rubber bullets and jailed for days in Baltimore, street medics having an arm broken or being clubbed in the head and arrested at the NATO summit protests. Not to mention my own arrest experience.

Wait, really? What about the Geneva Conventions?

The Geneva Conventions are treaties that set down rules for humanitarian treatment of prisoners, the wounded and sick, and noncombatants, in war. They don’t apply to domestic handling of protests. You might think it’s wrong that street medics get attacked and arrested, but the Geneva Conventions don’t say anything about that wrongness.

That also means that stealing our red duct tape (or buying your own) and sticking a street medic cross on yourself when you aren’t a street medic, so that you can protest however you want to with impunity under the Geneva Conventions, is not going to work, and will get the medics pretty irritated with you besides. You might wonder why I bothered to say that. Let’s just say that it’s not a product of my fevered imagination.

Do you know where this march is going?

Okay, seriously, undercover/plainclothes cops, I don’t know why you all always seem to think that medics will know the answer to this question, but we usually don’t. Please stop asking me. Also, most of you are bad at pretending to be protesters. There are notable exceptions, but they are generally not the ones who meander up to street-medics fake-casually to ask where the march is going. If you’re not a cop and you’re asking me this question anyway, I still probably don’t know. Ask an organizer.

An obligatory Nevada WTF post

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a Bernie Sanders supporter! I also have some thoughts, regarding different subsets of people, about the mess in Nevada and some of the resulting Internet conversation.

To the people who doxxed, harassed, and threatened a Nevada Democratic Party official: Stop being assholes, okay? And no, the fact that the relevant info was publicly available doesn’t make it better. Doxxing and harassment have a long and ugly history in the anti-abortion movement, that predates the word “doxxing” even existing. Leave that kind of targeting of people to them, leave it to the Gamergaters, leave it to right-wing talk radio hosts (I was doxxed, albeit incompetently, by a right-wing talk radio host after my arrest last year). I mean, fight them, don’t just leave it to them and then call it a day, but don’t join them. Okay? I don’t understand why this is hard. Why would you threaten somebody’s grandkids?

If you are saying “But some of those weren’t threats! They were only saying that she should be hurt, not that the person was going to do it!” then you should consider that they are obviously meant to frighten the person they’re directed at. They are threats in a common-sense understanding. “You should be hurt” is a threat. And use some empathy, for chrissake. Last year after my arrest, in addition to the right-wing talk radio release of what the host believed to be my then-home-address, I got some threats of this nature, in the form of tweets and comments on news articles. Notably, a guy who runs a certain well-known and longstanding sportsbro media outlet, as well as a radio show of his own, posted to his legion of followers that we should be slowly and gruesomely publicly beaten to death. By the logic that some people are using when talking about Nevada, I shouldn’t have considered this to be threatening. I am irritated about the downplaying. If you’re defending threats this way, you might support the same candidate as I do at the moment, but you’re not some kind of compatriot, you’re not trustworthy, and I believe that you’ll turn on me as soon as something pisses you off.

To Bernie Sanders: Sorry, your statement was bad. I get that you have some concerns and complaints about the process, that you feel like you’re beating your head against a party infrastructure that is dubious about you. I get that you think the Nevada party leadership is singling out your supporters, when your own staff in Nevada were apparently targeted for violence by unknown persons during the Nevada campaign. None of that belongs in your statement. It’s not adequate to throw in a bit of “And of course I’m against violence.” You need to condemn the harassment against and threatening of the state chairwoman and anyone else who was targeted, and intimidating behavior like chair-throwing on the convention floor or use of misogynistic slurs. Full stop. Nothing else belongs in that statement. Process concerns can go into a different statement. Violence against your staff is abhorrent, and was not an issue of the recent convention, and can be addressed in statements that are not responses to the convention. Bringing them into your statement muddies the waters, and these are waters that shouldn’t be muddy.

To some subset of Nevada Sanders delegates: I don’t know how many of you have a background in street protest. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t and you just know what you’ve seen on TV or the Internet. But in either case, this is not street protest. You chose a “respectable” role for this one. You chose to formally represent a major campaign (and possibly your local Democratic party; I’m not sure how that works in Nevada) at a party insider business function. Nobody made you decide to do that instead of, say, marching through the local streets or sitting down in an intersection outside the building. Nobody made you pursue the electoral route to advance your causes at all. And believe me, I’m not dragging you for your choice here. I support your choice! I believe in diversity of tactics – actual diversity of tactics, not the sometime protest euphemism for breaking windows. I believe that the boundaries between institutional politics and protest politics, between within-the-system and outside-the-system, should be fluid, with activists able to assume different roles at different times if they want to, and people understanding and respecting the usefulness of different roles.

Hell, I’m a street medic who just finished going through the court system after an arrest, and I’m also a delegate in my upcoming state Democratic convention. Which, to my eternal relief, does not have to touch the Hillary vs Bernie issue, because we already chose the candidates’ national delegate allocations through our primary process. There would be something really weird going on if I didn’t believe in being able to move among different activist roles and tactics.

However, different is a key word here. Some of the Nevada delegates didn’t act like they understood what they were there for, from a tactical perspective. They didn’t learn the rules, to the extent that they even scored an own-goal when it came to constructing the party platform, and then were upset when they lost. They responded to procedural things not going their way by angrily going toward the stage and yelling. Protest politics vs institutional politics is not totally binary, and you can certainly do institutional politics with an edge (Bernie Sanders has in fact made a career out of that) or mix the two up a little. But, this isn’t breaking a kettle. It’s not pulling aside the barricades to Wall Street. It’s not disrupting a public Trump rally, or some other kind of antifa-ish action. It makes sense to change your tactics based on the context, and what will advance your goals in the context that you’re working in. If you choose the ground of a major presidential campaign and a state party convention to plant yourself in, then I think you should follow through with it. And just like you’d go to a direct action training, or a know-your-rights training, or a protest health & safety training, or seek out advice from experienced protest-goers, before a big protest, if you’re going to be a delegate, you should do what you can to learn how to be a delegate for the relevant convention, which is something I am trying to do now. I would even be willing to believe that some of the reports of delegate behavior have been skewed or unfair – I wasn’t watching the live feed, and lord knows that’s common enough with protest reporting – but the fact that people accidentally removed a section that they cared about from the platform because they didn’t understand what they were doing, and then were angry about it, is hard to get around.

To some subset of Clinton supporters on the Internet: You have good reasons to complain here. The fact that progressive politicians were booed is not really, in my opinion, one of them. I get that it is upsetting to see progressives that you admire and think have done great work, booed. But no politician is owed unbroken deference by members of the public, and dealing with a little booing and heckling is part of a politician’s job. “Where do these ungrateful twerps get off, daring to boo when a progressive hero like Barbara Boxer is speaking?” is a very different statement from “Booing Barbara Boxer as a delegate at a Democratic Party event probably doesn’t help either Sanders’ campaign or the advancement of his policy agenda.”

To the many, many people in 2011-2012 who criticized Occupy on the grounds that what it really needed to do was to be more like a left-wing Tea Party, to try and take over the Democratic Party from within: Congratulations! You spoke, and some people both inside and outside of the movement listened and concluded that you were right! They decided to channel their energy, their desire to move the country leftward, into an election, into gaining power within the Democratic Party. Wait, why do you look so upset? Why are you going on about how the primary is damaging the party or damaging its chances in the general? Isn’t the Sanders campaign an example of what you straight-out told people to do if they wanted to be Effective Responsible Leftists?

Criminal case done! And also some thoughts about identity and the Democratic primary

First of all, I know I’m nearly two weeks late posting about this, but as many of you have already seen, the final charge against me was dropped! So, hooray, my criminal case is over.

Unrelatedly (well, mostly unrelatedly), I want to make a point about the Democratic primary and identity.

My approach to this primary, and most elections, is largely a mix of ideology and practical concerns. Since there is little danger in most elections that I’m going to find any major candidate to be too far left for my taste, what I generally want is the leftmost candidate that I think could win and could do the job effectively (which in this case, in my assessment, is Bernie Sanders). However, I don’t think it’s wrong to factor in identity when you’re juding candidates. If someone thinks multiple candidates are ideologically and pragmatically acceptable, but identifies with one of them because of her long fight to overcome, say, sexism and misogyny, and that last factor pushes that voter over the fence in terms of who they support, I don’t see anything bad about that. Identity doesn’t really come into play for me in this one because I have serious problems with Clinton’s hawkishness and DLC history. That doesn’t mean that nobody should be motivated by identifying with a candidate.

Let’s say that identity issues did factor significantly into my primary decision-making, though. What would that mean? I almost didn’t write this post because, since I’m writing about a “what if” that isn’t actually the case, it seems superfluous. But the discourse about identity and the primary has bugged me enough that I’m writing it anyway.

A lot of people assume that between Clinton and Sanders, I should identify with Clinton, because of our common history of experiencing sexism and misogyny. And it’s true that we both have that history. But I don’t see why so many people think it’s obvious that I should identify with “woman” more than “secular Jewish social democrat who has been arrested for anti-racist activism.” Or even, you know, any component of that description of Sanders. We’ve never had a Jewish president (either ethnically/culturally, religiously, or both). Or any non-Christian president.

There’s a particular feminist writer – I am not going to name her because she gets enough shit already, and I don’t know who is reading this, and I don’t want to direct any more shit her way – who is very pro-Clinton, and has written some things about how meaningful Clinton’s experiences with sexism are, and how familiar it feels to her when people say sexist things to and about Clinton. I can relate to that. I don’t have a public-facing job in the way that she and Clinton do, so I probably can’t relate to it in quite the same way, but I do work in a very male-dominated field. But I also see the photos and video of a young Bernie Sanders getting arrested – looking as the AV Club memorably put it, “like a young Rick Moranis gone political” – and picture a hundred activist arrests that I’ve seen, not to mention the one I actually experienced. I’m not talking, here, about how much “cred” it should get him, as I don’t think whether someone fought for civil rights in the ’60s has much bearing on whether their racial justice platform in 2016 is any good. I’m talking about identification, and what people assume that other people identify with.

I wish there was more acknowledgment that even if you are a woman or female-presenting, even if you have experienced sexism and misogyny, identity is about more than that alone. Experience is about more than that alone.

A brief legal update: Two down, one to go

Well that was a week! This week I went to trial on charges of trespassing on state property, and (aiding and abetting of) disorderly conduct, and was acquitted! A thing I had never thought about before – how the rubbery-legged-ness and lightheadedness of of a major adrenaline surge, on top of anxiety, can make it surprisingly difficult to stand and face the jury, as required, for the verdict. The trial lasted three days (jury deliberation was about three hours, I think, including the time the judge spent restating parts of the jury instructions after the jury had questions about them).

However, it’s not over yet. In this state, conspiracy is required to be tried in a separate trial from the substantive offenses (whatever you were accused of conspiring to do). And the District Attorney’s office is still pursuing the conspiracy charge. Given that, I don’t want to say a whole lot, and this is going to be an uncharacteristically short post. I was arrested while walking away in some roadside grass, where I had been standing quietly to offer first aid to anyone who needed it, and observe police behavior and potential infliction of injuries, at a protest in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. For that, I’ve been embroiled in this legal battle for just over 14 months. There’s a lot more I would like to say but it should probably wait until some future time.

Fun fact though. I presented at the big annual conference of the American Physical Society, which was in Baltimore this year, the day before the trial. I was glad I could give the talk – it was originally supposed to be two days later, so it had to be moved to before the trial, and almost didn’t happen. But I would say that I do NOT recommend the experience of presenting at a major annual conference (including the prep work that represents – you grad students, faculty, postdocs, and industry/government/nonprofit researchers know what I’m talking about) in a city hundreds of miles from home and then going on trial the next day.

Anti-Trump protests and the free speech argument

There’s a lot of interesting arguments going around in the wake of the cancelled Donald Trump rally in Chicago. One of them is that the protesters violated Trump’s First Amendment rights to free speech, or his supporters’ First Amendment rights to free assembly. These arguments are wrong, and I want to take a look at why that goes beyond the refrain of “freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences” (which is technically true, but I think it’s a flippant and overused argument).

The really obvious problem is that the First Amendment regulates the behavior of the state. The only First Amendment issues you could raise in this situation involve the actions of law enforcement, regarding their attacks on and arrests of protesters and a reporter outside – I would really, really like some of these defenders of free speech to show more concern about that part of what went down in Chicago – or if you don’t think they were legally justified in clearing the arena. The actions of private citizens have nothing to do with the First Amendment.

What people are somtimes trying to get at when they make this argument is that a society that values freedom of speech enough to protect it from government coercion in the constitution, ought to value it enough to guard against or avoid other kinds of coecive behavior in relation to speech. This is what people mean, I think, when they talk about “a culture of free speech.” And while this argument has gotten a bad rap on much of the left these days because we’re so used to it being taken to ridiculous extremes (“How dare you ban me from your website for racist comments? What about the culture of free speech?”) or to claim that criticism of one’s argument is anti-free-speech, it’s an argument that’s worth reckoning with. To understand why, I strongly, strongly recommend reading Chris Bertram, Corey Robin, and Alex Gourevitch’s essay Let It Bleed: Libertarianism and the Workplace, which takes libertarianism to task for its failure to “come to grips with the systemic denial of freedom in private regimes of power, particularly the workplace.” I don’t think the left in general, or the social-justice-oriented left in particular, should be jumping to fall into the libertarian failure mode, into the idea that state coercion is the only kind of coercion worth caring about or opposing. We should give some thought to free speech as a norm, if you will, and not just free speech as a freedom. This is why I don’t much care for, say, campaigns to get rank-and-file workers fired for saying racist, sexist, or other oppressive crap in their private lives. It’s not a violation of their First Amendment rights, but it’s also not good.

That said, not all kinds of exercises of power around speech are equal (I give some more examples in the next paragraph). State coercion actually is different – you can be arrested, subject to invasive searches of your person, have property confiscated, have to appear in court repeatedly, be forced to pay a lot of money, be incarcerated. You can lose much of your liberty. And the First Amendment regulates that kind of coercion, and I’m pretty fervent about the First Amendment. Once you get beyond that near-absolute, you have to make judgments about what kind of coercion, if any, is happening, and what kinds of effects it’s likely to have. And since none of the parties involved is the state, you have to consider the competing rights of private citizens (e.g. giving a speech is a speech act, and so is petitioning to stop a speaker’s appearance or heckling them), and the competing principles that many of us look to in governing human interaction (the idea that people should be able to express their views is a valuable one – so are anti-racism, feminism, affirming that marginalized people are welcome in your communities, and a lot more, and sometimes those come into conflict with people being able to express whatever views, wherever they want). You have to actually make some kind of evaluation about how far is too far for what principle and how to resolve competing needs. The Constitution won’t help you. And free speech advocates aren’t all going to draw all the lines in the same places – for instance, when it comes to speech and higher education, you have advocates like Angus Johnston (who you should all be reading) and advocates like FIRE, and they draw the lines in sufficiently different places that they’ve had public debates about it. I sometimes change my mind about situations that are sufficiently close to my personal lines, and my personal lines sometimes move a little bit as I think situations over (the anti-Trump protest in Chicago did not cross my personal lines). I don’t think you’re a better civil libertarian for having your lines in a different place than someone else, because civil liberties are about the individual’s relationship to the government.

For an average person who has to make a living, the employer has very strong coercive power, possibly more than any other institution except the state, but this power is much less for, say, executives, who have more power in the workplace, usually more financial resources, and probably more ability to get a new job easily. Because Facebook and Twitter are such huge platforms, they have a lot of power to control what ideas get out there and how (by taking action, or for that matter, by not taking action, such that people get threatened and harassed until they abandon the platform in stress and fear). The book-publishing industry has a lot of power over authors, but will be using that power against a whole lot of speech by definition, because they don’t publish every single author who submits something. The blogger who bans you from their comment section has almost no coercive power. The student who asks for trigger warnings both has little coercive power and is not stifling you in any meaningful way (oh no, you’re being asked to say a couple of extra words – I don’t buy that you can even call that an infringement on either speech OR the related but different norm of academic freedom, unless you think that profs being required to issue course syllabi at many schools is also an infringement). There’s also the issue of what kind of platform someone has – Donald Trump gets news coverage if he sneezes, he has one of the largest platforms in the country, the idea that protesting a rally such that he decides to cancel it is stifling him is laughable.

There are also ways in which the situation of Trump’s rallies is unusual. There’s the thing where Trump has encouraged his supporters to physically attack protesters. Like, earlier that day he had said to his rally in St Louis that that one guy getting sucker-punched is the kind of thing they need to see more of, not to mention his previous comments offering to pay the legal fees of people who hit protesters. He’s creating violent spaces at his rallies, not in the “frame everything as violence” sense that you see in certain kinds of activist discourse, but in the literal, physical, interpersonal violence sense. Even if you think that people should not try to shut down other people’s rallies as a matter of principle, “space where you’re encouraged to beat people up who disagree with you” is not usually what a rally is, and it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable that people would want to shut down such a space in their community, especially when it involves racists having such a space at a majority-people-of-color university.

A last bit of the argument that I want to address is the “Well now right-wingers will disrupt Sanders and Clinton events and then you’ll be sorry” argument. My answer is, maybe they will. Protest/counterprotest situations aren’t exactly uncommon. Primarily as a street medic, I’ve been in protest/counterprotest settings that were nonviolent and quiet, nonviolent and loud, and (on at least part of one side) not nonviolent. The first big protests I ever went to were protest/counterprotest situations around same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, when I was 18. Big loud crowds on both sides, people crossing the street to mess with each other, people milling around mixing, most peaceably if noisily, a few less so. I befriended a gay 13 year-old goth who rather hilariously photobombed some homophobes getting interviewed by TV news, and then got kicked in the leg while crossing the street. Also before I started street medicking, I was at a Planned Parenthood rally where the counterprotesters were mostly peaceful but a few of them were trying to tear down people’s signs, shove them around, and rush the stage. I’ve medicked some nontrivial number of Israel/Palestine protests/counterprotests that have covered the whole range of conditions that I listed above. I’ve seen a couple of white supremacists counter the Ferguson protesters I was medicking for, I’ve medicked LGBTQ and anti-fascist counterprotests of a Tea Party rally featuring vicious homophobe Scott Lively, I’ve medicked a pro-Syrian-refugees-coalition vs militia protest/counterprotest (that ended up being very mellow as the militia people decided to go march elsewhere). It’s just not that novel, oppostion happens when you do politics. Violence and threats, obviously, are different matter, but if right-wingers start loudly-but-nonviolently protesting Clinton or Sanders rallies, I’m sure that everyone can manage and it is not like anyone won’t be able to access Clinton’s or Sanders’ opinion on the issues of the day if they want it.

If I Am Only for Myself: Why #CancelPinkwashing?

This is the companion to my previous post. There, I focused on my experiences of the protest, and explaining the concepts behind it (e.g. “What is pinkwashing?”). This time, I address why I was motivated to participate, why I don’t think groups that engage even in relatively mild forms of pinkwashing belong in the programming of social justice conferences, why I’m okay with measures that many liberal Jews consider a bridge too far like BDS or a protest of a reception.

I’ve seen comments from a few people that amount to “Ugh, why did you have to bring this debate into the conference?” and really, I would rather not have. This was my fourth Creating Change, and I go because I value the learning opportunity, the chance to be in a huge queer-normative space. Which I still got – the debate and protest around pinkwashing is only one thing that happened at a several-day coference – but I’m a relatively conflict-averse person by temperament and infighting in my communities makes me sad. So why, then, did I participate? I participated because once the presence of the reception had introduced the issue, I felt morally compelled, and here’s some of the reasons why:

I participated for Balata Refugee Camp, and for the cultural center staffer there who broke down and cried when talking about the traumatized, violently-acting-out, and suicidal children that he works with. I already wrote a long post about Balata and would love for anyone reading

Three colored strings of beads, with the colors making a Palestinian flag, hang from a metal figure of a butterfly.

My Palestine bead flag pendant from Balata Refugee Camp.

this post to please read that one too. Balata’s cultural center has a shop for internationals to buy crafts from, to support impoverished widows and children. During the march at Creating Change, instead of a sign or a #CancelPinkwashing sticker, I wore a pendant that I bought from Balata’s cultural center shop, with strings of beads that form a Palestinian flag. I used that pendant, during the protest, to remind myself that this was about more than the social dynamics of a conference.

I participated for Palestinian LGBTQ+ group alQaws, which supports and organizes LGBTQ+ Palestinians throughout Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza (and which used to be part of Jerusalem Open House, the organization that was to speak at A Wider Bridge’s reception – the relationship between the two groups is detailed here). And for Aswat, the group for queer Palestinian women living in Israel, which was denied by Jewish LGBTQ+ groups a chance to speak at the pro-LGBTQ+ demonstration after the mass shooting attack on a Tel Aviv LGBTQ+ center in 2009. Both alQaws and Aswat signed onto the coalition statement against A Wider Bridge’s reception being held at Creating Change.

Camera view a few inches from a fence, looking through to a slightly blurry view of metal bars, fencing, and barbed wire, with the figure of a soldier walking through a metal archway.

Israeli soldier viewed through barriers inside a military checkpoint near Qalqiliya in the West Bank.

While I’m on that point, I participated for the LGBTQ+ Palestinians who live in areas that were long part of the Jerusalem metro area, who when the Separation wall was built suddenly lost the ability to access Jerusalem Open House’s LGBTQ+ on-site community services without permits to let them cross the Wall and undergoing the exteme fear, inconvenience, and uncertaintly that crossing the Wall brings. To approximate something the alQaws organizer that I talked to said to my delegation when we talked to her, there’s no pink door in the Wall for queer Palestinians.

I participated for the villages of Bil’in and Nabi Saleh, where I had the opportunity to attend weekly village protests against the Wall and the seizure of their land. They are two of many villages that have such weekly protests, and they can’t even have small nonviolent marches without being bombarded with tear

The camera faces a large cloud of tear gas, with a line of protesters visible on the other side, with desert hills in the background. A few protesters' backs are visible on the camera side of the cloud.

Facing off with soldiers through a cloud of tear gas in Nabi Saleh. One of my favorite photos that I took.

gas (and worse), from dozens of cannisters that could seriously injure or kill someone who was hit on the head. I wrote about them here and here and you should read those posts.

I participated for the Bedouins in Southern Israel, Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel, whose villages are being bulldozed so that Jewish

A middle-aged man with very short black hair and brown skin gestures to a solar panel in front of a ramshackle house.

Our guide in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Alsira, an attorney with Adalah (the “Israeli NAACP”), shows off one of the solar panels he was responsible for bringing to his village.

settlements can be built on top of them, and the Jewish National Fund can plant forests on top of the ruins, as part of the Zionist project.

I participated for the residents of the Saffafra neighborhood in the Israeli city of Nazareth – Palestinians who were, or whose parents or grandparents were, driven out of the nearby village of Saffuriya by bombing attacks, and can’t move back even though it’s the same country and only a few miles away, because it was expropriated to be a Jewish National Fund pine forest (don’t even get me started on the bullshit involved in planting pine forests that catch fire easily in the

A display of battered old clay, copper, and stone dishes, vases, and other objects, and colorful stretches of cloth.

Cultural artifacts from the destroyed Palestinian village of Saffuriya, collected by 1948 bombing survivor Abu Arab.

middle of the desert – I even saw one of these forest fires from our bus at one point – because pine trees grow quickly and you want to cover up the land that you took from Palestinians with something else as quickly as you can) and a Jewish moshav (cooperative community).

I participated because on my delegation that took me to the region, one of our tour coordinators was a Palestinian from the West Bank who had recently graduated from college in the US, and for the first time, she saw what was left of Lifta, the Palestinian village at the

A young woman with brown skin, curly black hair, jeans, and a t-shirt, gazes at the wall inside an old stone room, while two other people look from behind her.

One of my delegation’s tour coordinators looks at a wall in her family’s old village which they fled in fear of Zionist paramilitary groups in 1948, now a nature reserve, which she is visiting for the first time.

edge of West Jerusalem that her family was driven from in 1948 along with the rest of the villagers after a massacre at the village coffeehouse by the Lehi and other attacks by the Lehi as well as fellow Zionist militias the Irgun and the Haganah. Lifta has now been turned into a nature reserve by the Israeli government, the old spring into a place where ultra-Orthodox boys go to swim. If I wanted to visit the places in Europe and Turkey from which my Jewish ancestors fled violence or other disaster, or the place in Europe from which my Roma ancestors were expelled, my only barriers would be time and money, but my Palestinian tour coordinator had never had that chance because it was only the second time in her life that she’d been able to get the necessary permits to be allowed into Israel. She walked through the remnants of the place from which their still-living ancestors were forced to flee, allowed to see and touch it for the first time.

I participated for the mixed-ethnic Israeli city of Lod (or Lydda). Lydda’s pre-1948 Palestinian inhabitants were expelled, hundreds massacred, survivors robbed of their possessions, sent on what became known as the Lydda Death March. Today, Lod is a city where marginalized and often poor Palestinian-Israelis live with marginalize and often poor Sephardi-Mizrahi (Middle Eastern/North African), Ethiopian, and first-gen Russian immigrant Jews, in a struggling environment. Where, as described by my guide, a lifelong resident of the city, kids in the poor, mostly-Palestinian-Israeli

A few pieces of cloth stretched over a wooden frame to make a shanty for one person, with a stone wall to the left and a garbage pile behind it.

Shanty next to a garbage pile in the mixed city of Lod.

Rakevet neighborhood used to be regularly killed by trains – there are so many train tracks through there, and the trains so frequent, that some roads average one train crossing every few minutes at some times of day – because there weren’t signals to warn the walking kids that the trains were coming, until years of hard work by local activists finally convince that the problem needed addressing. Where a ten year-old tried to sell drugs to our driver and homeless people were living in boxes next to a dump.

I participated for the people of Aida refugee camp, where, when I visited, the primary school area of the camp, which is right up against the Wall, was being tear gassed multiple times per week (including while I was touring the camp), and IDF soldiers stood outside people’s doors at night. Where there are large numbers of disabled children and their parents struggle to provide for them because there are very few resources for disabled people in the refugee camps.

I participated for Tali Shapiro, a queer Israeli Jewish woman who I met and chatted with at a weekly village protest in Nabi Saleh in June 2014. In March 2015, at another weekly village protest in Nabi Saleh, she was (content note: images of military violence and injuries) beaten and arrested by Israeli military forces. Just as there’s no pink door for queer Palestinians, there’s no pink shield or handcuff key for queer Israeli Jews who want support freedom for Palestinians.

I participated because when I was in Ramallah I had the opportunity to observe a day-long conference on treating survivors of torture (Israeli torture, Palestinian torture, and any other source) and there were professionals, presenters, who couldn’t get to the conference because the IDF’s Operation Brother’s Keeper had restricted their movement too severely.

I participated for the Palestinian shopkeepers in Hebron/Khalil whose stores have garbage, debris, and concrete chunks dropped on them from above, and whose shop doors are vandalized, by Israeli Jewish settlers. A Wider Bridge has no problem, apparently, with giving someone who lived in a Hebron-area settlement to attend a radical religious hesder (combining religious studies with Israeli military service) Zionist yeshiva, who happens to be gay, a platform on their website (and yes, I realize that they give

A deserted, very narrow, marketplace street, with stone shops. Some of their doors are vandalized and a net across the street between the roofs is straining from the chunks of debris in it.

Nets full of settler-thrown debris in the Palestinian marketplace of the old city of Hebron/Al-Khalil, which is deserted in anticipation of confrontation with Israeli soldiers.

anti-Occupation folks platforms on their website too, but an willingness to subordinate concern about gross ongoing human rights violations, to the gay self-discovery story of someone willingly participating in those human rights violations by being part of the settler movement, is an interesting illustration of what people are concerned about when they are concerned about Israel advocacy through an LGBTQ+ lens).

I participated because Israel, which portrays itself as an LGBTQ+ haven and makes much of supposedly being a lone liberal democracy in the Middle East, eavesdrops on Palestinians in order to gather information about their private lives, and uses queerness as one of many possible hooks (others include financial problems, drug use, and the need for major medical care that can’t easily be accessed because of the restrictions that Israel places on Palestinian movement) to blackmail Palestinians into collaboration with the Israeli government, which not only harms those individual Palestinians, but creates a public image that queer Palestinians (as well as Palestinians in the various other targeted categories) are likely to be collaborators. You should read alQaws’ statement on this story for important notes on framing and contextualization – I have tried to be mindful of their words in writing this paragraph, but it is entirely possible that I have screwed up.

I participated because, if you apply the Williams Institute figure of 3.8% of the US population being LGBTQ+ to the Palestinian-American population, that’s over 3200 LGBTQ+ Palestinian-Americans, who ought to be welcome at Creating Change. It sends a decidedly unwelcoming message to them when Creating Change has a sanctioned event by a group that supported Israel’s bombing of Gaza to the point of being willing to co-sponsor a protest in favor of it and push people to attend it (and seriously, how is that alone not serious enough for progressives to object to its presence at a social justice conference?).

You may notice that I brought up a lot here that takes place on Israel’s side of the Green Line, or both sides, rather than sticking only to what happens in the Occupied Territories. That’s because sometimes I hear that while what is happening in the West Bank or Gaza is terrible and Israel should stop that, things are just fine inside Israel (and that things are great for LGBTQ Palestinians inside Israel) so I should be nicer to it. Ending the Occupation is vital work, but the problems go beyond that (just as, say, racial justice problems in the US go beyond the legacy of Jim Crow laws, even though ending those was very important).

I’m not saying that if you didn’t, or wouldn’t, participate in the protest, you don’t care about these things. I’m saying that I had them in mind when I participated, and that I have them in mind when I do things like support BDS (which came up over and over when I was in the region, and is supported by a wide range of groups in Palestine ranging from unions to children’s theater programs to Palestinian LGBTQ+ groups to YMCAs). I thought it was wrong for Creating Change to have an event run by A Wider Bridge, an organization that doesn’t seem to care what kind of terrible things it supports (bombing the crap out of Gaza), or what kind of dubious groups it works with (StandWithUs, the Israeli consulate), or what kind of dubious activities it gives a glowing public platform to (settlements, hasbara), as long as it can link LGBTQ+ issues, LGBTQ+ people, and Israel (which, like the US or other powerful countries, is a state whose policies should be roundly criticized, not an informal group of people, many of whom are perfectly nice and well-meaning), together in the public eye to get people to feel positive feelings toward the Israeli state.

If I Am Not for Myself: Addressing Misconceptions About Creating Change and #CancelPinkwashing

As some of you are probably aware by now, Creating Change, the big annual LGBTQ+ activism conference, had a higher-than-usual controversy quotient this year. There were a bunch of reasons for this, but probably the one that received the most publicity centered around a Friday night reception given by an organization called A Wider Bridge, that works to build connections and affection between LGBTQ+ people in the US, both Jews and non-Jews, and Israel. After some LGBTQ+ Palestinian and Palestinian solidarity activists decried the reception as pinkwashing – which means using LGBTQ+ issues to distract from or deflect criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and does NOT mean, contrary to what Mark Joseph Stern at Slate thinks, an idea that Israel ONLY makes advances in LGBTQ+ rights in order to deflect criticism about its treatment of Palestinians – the National LGBTQ Task Force (“The Task Force”) canceled the reception. After Israel-supporting activists decried the cancellation, The Task Force reinstated the reception. This culminated in a sizeable (I would guess 300ish people, though I am awful at estimating crowd size so you probably don’t want to quote that number) protest of the reception, in which I took part, which in turn resulted in hotel staff calling the Chicago Police (who, I have been told, pinned at least one protester against a wall and choked them, though I should caution that this is a third-hand report), which angered people in a whole different way, especially as there were local anti-police-brutality organizers at the conference and large numbers of people of color taking part in the protest (and Chicago PD is not exactly known for its gentle behavior toward protests or people of color). As you could probably guess if you’ve ever paid any attention to Israel/Palestine debates, the tenor of argument about the protest on social media got quite heated and involved a huge number of people who weren’t at the conference and in many cases were not LGBTQ+.

I’ve noticed that there are, um, a lot of misconceptions and unfortunate assumptions going around about the #cancelpinkwashing protest. I wanted to address those here. I’m hoping to do a follow-up post in which I talk about what motivated me to participate.

1. The Goyim vs Jews claims and what really happened

I’ve seen quite a bit of commentary characterizing the protest as goyim (non-Jews) who were protesting Jews at a Jewish event. I’ll get to the second part of this characterization later, but let me quickly address the first.

Before it started, the Chicago chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace kindly led a non-Zionist Shabbat service as an alternative to the one being run by A Wider

Front page of 'An Alternative Shabbat of Solidarity,' depicting the title, the words 'Creating Change Conference,' and the date according to the conventional and Jewish calendars, under an illustration of a many-colored tree blooming into flowers at the top

The front page of the program for the Chicago Jewish Voice for Peace Shabbat service.

Bridge, a safer space for Jews opposed to the reception. This attracted a few dozen Jews, as well as a smattering of goyim who wanted to be supportive of us, including at least one Palestinian and other Arab #cancelpinkwashing organizers. I was incredibly appreciative of this space. As an atheist Jew, I don’t often go to Shabbat services, but it felt important for me to go to this one, as a place of reflection and community and safety. It was a beautiful service (with amazing challah, thank you whoever was responsible for that!). And most of those at the service participated in the #cancelpinkwashing protest, which gathered in the
A close-up photo of part of a Shabbat service Kiddush, focused on the text "Raise a glass to affirm and celebrate joint struggle towrad collective liberation and remind ourselves of our commitment: 'never again for anyone.'"

From the Jewish Voice for Peace Shabbat Service Kiddush: “Never again for anyone.”

space immediately after the end of our service.

A Wider Bridge’s Shabbat service was still going for a little bit of time after ours finished. The #cancelpinkwashing organizers were careful to wait until the service was over and the reception started before beginning the protest (as in, they let everyone know that they were doing so). Because the point wasn’t to protest Jews. It was to protest the exploitation of the LGBTQ+ struggle for Israeli PR efforts. The organizers also asked that people be “disruptive, but orderly,” and the crowd that I was in was walking, assertions of the protest “storming” the room notwithstanding.

The point also wasn’t to protest Jewish spaces at Creating Change. There is nothing inherently Jewish about supporting Israel or Israeli PR – there are a lot more Christian Zionists in the US, for instance, than there are Jews of any political stripe. A Wider Bridge didn’t advertise their reception as being specifically aimed at Jews – they referred to “Creating Change participants and members of Chicago’s LGBT and Jewish communities.” The conference featured workshops on community engagement for LGBTQ+ Jewish organizations, queer Jewish/Muslim dialogue, Jews fighting right-wing exploitation of anti-Semitism, and a queer Jewish caucus, none of which attracted protests. This was my fourth Creating Change, and every year I’ve gone, there have been multiple Jewish spaces and caucuses and themed workshops and an offical conference Shabbat service, none of which have ever been protested. I got the sense, with some comments on Twitter, that some people not at the conference thought canceling the reception would have meant the loss of Jewish-focused space within the conference environment, and that protests were attacks on Jewish-focused space within the conference environment. That’s simply not true.

Incidentally, a Jewish Voice for Peace organizer that I know, a queer anti-Zionist Jewish woman, offered herself, via Twitter, as a conversation and help resource for any Jews at Creating Change who were confused or upset by the protest. Someone sent her Nazi imagery in response. If your idea (whether you are Jewish or not) of supporting the Jewish people involves sending Nazi imagery to queer Jews trying to help other queer Jews in a moment of stress and confusion, you have gone terribly, terribly wrong somewhere.

2. A targeting of apolitical Jewish organizations? No.

I’ve seen plenty of people, in good faith and otherwise, wondering why this reception was targeted. A Wider Bridge isn’t notably right-wing/Likudnik – its leader is a Democrat, it acknowledges that the Occupation is a human rights problem on its website. It arranged, as speakers at its reception, representatives from Jerusalem Open House, Jerusalem’s LGBTQ+ community center. Some people have looked at these organizations, perceived them as benign LGBTQ+ Jewish organizations, and wondered why, if not anti-Semitism, people would target their event for a protest.

First of all, neither of these are specifically Jewish organizations. A Wider Bridge is focused on linking both LGBTQ+ goyim and LGBTQ+ Jews to Israel. Jerusalem Open House (about which I heard few complaints, they just happened to be the speakers at a reception run by an organization people were complaining about) serves Jews, Palestinians, and others.

In fact, oddly, Jerusalem Open House is the first place I ever met an LGBTQ+ Palestinian – years ago, before I had come to anti-Zionism, I went on an LGBTQ+ Birthright trip, and we visited JOH, and one of the people who spoke to my half of the group was a gay Palestinian, who gave us what might have been one of the few unscripted bits of commentary from Palestinians that Birthright participants have ever gotten from speakers. He spoke movingly about how he had tried to be unprejudiced but he just couldn’t handle trying to date Israeli Jews anymore, because so many of them wouldn’t acknowledge him in public or show him to their families, and so many of them fetishized him in creepy ways, telling him how hot it was to fuck or be fucked by “the enemy.” This was a group of 20 or so young American Jews, some with no previous exposure to Palestinian issues, and you could hear the gasps and the jaws hitting the floor. That guy, that gay Palestinian Muslim who was willing to be vulnerable to a bunch of young Jews on a trip funded by a propaganda organization in order to provide some real talk, is as much JOH to me as anyone else, and I have no particular beef with them. I do not know whether the particular representatives in this case were going to be saying things that I’d consider objectionable or not, and again, VERY little of the debate had anything to do with them.

A Wider Bridge is a different story. I wasn’t sure they were being characterized fairly when this controversy blew up, having not been familiar with them, so I did research on them, read much of their website. Once I did that, I decided that yes, I was quite comfortable with characterizing them participating in pinkwashing. As I said above, they aren’t an organization for LGBTQ+ Jews, they are an organization to build appreciation for Israel among LGBTQ+ Americans, Jews or not. They are not right-wing themselves, but they have been willing to partner with despicable (CN: racism, misogyny, threats of violence) racist threatening pro-settler hard-right organizations like Stand WithUs to build support for Israel on the basis of (a subset of) its LGBTQ+ life. They write glowing profiles of Israeli hasbara (propaganda) practitioners on their website.

Here is a good summary, in the form of a op-ed ( is a progressive Jewish website), of the problems with A Wider Bridge, including its advocacy of bombing Gaza. In my opinion, it has no place at a social justice conference, whether its JOH speakers were going to be engaging in pinkwashing during the reception or not. Here is more commentary on A Wider Bridge from leftist Jewish trans activist Dean Spade.

3. Is the idea of pinkwashing anti-Semitic?

In Mark Joseph Stern’s op-ed about #cancelpinkwashing in Slate Magazine, which I linked to above, he repeats a misconception that I’ve heard quite a bit. He thinks that when people complain about pinkwashing, what they’re saying is “All advances for LGBTQ+ people in Israeli society, all support for LGBTQ+ people among Israeli government or organizations, is a smokescreen created only to deflect or distract from criticism of Israeli treatment of Palestinians,” which would be anti-Semitic because of the implication that the world’s only Jewish-dominated government only does good things for insidious, malignant reasons, which plays to old anti-Semitic tropes.

That’s not what pinkwashing means, and furthermore, it’s not how pinkwashing was

Slightly blurry photo of a hotel hallway, with a crowd of people of different races, seen from behind, some holding signs, with the crowd extending forward as far as one can see in the picture

The #cancelpinkwashing march, from my vantage point.

explained in the #cancelpinkwashing brochures that were handed out at the conference (I read one, but didn’t take it with me, and now I’m wishing I had so that I could photograph it). Pinkwashing means the exploitation of Israeli support for some kinds of LGBTQ+ rights, or the vibrancy of Israel’s LGBTQ+ communities, for deflection or propaganda purposes. Do people think it’s anti-Semitic to think that Israel engages in propaganda? Israel certainly thinks Israel engages in propaganda.

The Israeli government, in fact, developed Hasbara Fellowships to train students in “public diplomacy,” in conjunction with Aish HaTorah, a homophobic Orthodox organization that has promoted conversion “therapy”. And those Hasbara Fellows, supported by this homophobic organization and the Israeli government, have developed campaigns to convince students to believe that supporting LGBTQ+ rights means supporting Israel, under the premise of benign educational events. That is pinkwashing.

For any progressives who are confused about the distinction I’m drawing, let’s say that, say, Europeans, were protesting American airstrikes on Yemen, or had been protesting the Iraq War when that was really starting, and American organizations, governmental or not, responded by saying “But look at our advances in LGBTQ+ rights! Look at marriage equality! Look how many more rights women here have than women in the countries that we’re bombing!” We would recognize that as deflection, and we wouldn’t claim that calling it deflection was a claim that Americans only care about women’s or LGBTQ+ rights for propaganda purposes.

4. Marginalized groups showing up, or not, for each other

Another strand of commentary that I want to bring up is the idea that Jews show up for other marginalized groups (LGBTQ+ people, Black people) but those groups don’t show up for Jews.

Where did we get the idea that showing up for US Jews means backing another country’s advocacy efforts (as I have already discussed, the organizations under discussion here are not Jewish-specific organizations)? Do the the many Jews who went to the Jewish Voice for Peace Shabbat, or participated in the protest, not count? Do the LGBTQ+ goyim, including a Palestinian, who showed up to be with us at Shabbat, when they could easily have just come for the protest, not count? What about the many Middle Eastern/North African LGBTQ+ goyim there, are they expected to care about supporting an Israel advocacy organization than supporting the queer Palestininans in their own community? And leaving aside the question of which Jews are showing up for whom (which could be its own post), what would it mean for other marginalized groups to show up for Jews, if it doesn’t mean this?

Well, for starters, I’d say it means working to oppose Christian theocracy and hegemony in the US, and to support the separation of church and state – these are issues that appeal to most Jews that I’ve met in my life regardless of their other political beliefs. I’d say it means addressing it when anti-Semitism, which is not the same as anti-Zionism, does pop up in social justice movements, including Palestine solidarity (and I do intend to write a post about that someday). It means showing support when Jews are targeted for hate crimes (as

Riot-gear-clad police at the NATO Summit protests in 2012 beat huddled protesters with wooden batons.

What happened the last time I interacted with Chicago police at a protest. Michigan Ave & Cermack Rd, May 20, 2012, photo credit Andrew Nelles.

happens over 600 times per year in the US), as these Muslim-youth-organized Norwegians did in Norway last year.

As long as I’m talking about marginalized groups showing up or not showing up for other marginalized groups, hey, the hotel called the Chicago PD on a protest full of people of color, into a conference in which numerous local anti-police-brutality organizers were participating, and some of my fellow Jews are cool with that. I said this on Twitter, but, have you ever seen the Chicago police go after a protest in earnest? I have (and this was my first time back in Chicago since then, and I had a panic attack when I first realized that the Chicago police had shown up). You can see a picture of it at right! I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, political opponents or otherwise.

To finish this off, it possible that someone said something anti-Semitic during the protest? Maybe. I can’t account for all 300 or so people, and I have had the experience of being at an otherwise fine political event and one jerk spouting anti-Semitism. But I didn’t see or hear anything anti-Semitic. And a lot of the characterizations that are fueling the claims of anti-Semitism are just downright wrong.

Valuing labor in the anti-violence sector

This post comes out of a conversation that I had with a friend the other day.

I volunteer for a bunch of organizations, including rape crisis and domestic violence organizations. Those, and LGBTQ anti-violence programs (which help LGBTQ people who have experienced interpersonal violence, and work to prevent such violence), could collectively be referred to as the anti-violence sector. There are a couple of things that I’ve observed:

1) It is hugely dominated by women and trans/gender nonconforming people (some of whom are also women). Some LGBTQ anti-violence programs came out of cis gay men’s communities in the ’80s or thereabouts, in response to gay bashings, and traditionally have strong ties with those communities, but even those, these days, tend to be dominated by people other than cis men. And in anti-sexual-violence work and anti-domestic-violence work I encounter even fewer cis men – they definitely exist, they’re just very outnumbered (and they’re disproportionately gay/bi/queer/etc, which means that like the women and trans folks that I discuss below, they’re more likely to be poor than straight cis men).

2) It depends on unpaid labor (both volunteer work and internships) that is also performed mostly by women and trans people. I appreciate everything I’ve learned and had the opportunity to do by volunteering extensively in the anti-violence sector, and I also see the usefulness of the model from a movement-building perspective (lots of community members, not just those who made it their paid career, trained in the relevant skills and forms of organizing) but I feel weird about it from a labor perspective. This is not “volunteering” in the sense that some people think of the term, where you show up for a couple of hours to do unskilled tasks. To do direct service volunteering with my local rape crisis center, I had to have 40 hours of initial training to get certified as a rape crisis counselor, and have to attend two 90-minute continuing ed/skills development meetings per month, in addition to the work itself. It’s hard not to wonder if we’re undermining the idea that grueling and important anti-violence work is of value (on the other hand, even with volunteers reducing the number of paid staff needed, it’s not like there’s enough money to pay the existing staff, and I’ll get to that in a minute).

These organizations usually have a mix of government, foundation, and individual funding, with funding for smaller and people-of-color-oriented organizations usually coming disproportionately from the first two categories. You can read all kinds of illuminating things about the trials and tribulations of nonprofit funding (including the data to back up my previous sentence) at the blog Nonprofit With Balls. This rarely allows for good salaries. There are clinicians with graduate degrees getting paid at levels that qualify them as “Very Low Income” for a two-person household in this metro area under HUD regulations. And advocates who work their asses off who make even less. Especially in the context of a society where 57% of trans/gender nonconforming people have household incomes of less than $50,000/year (compared to 41% of the general population) and where women make less than men and are more likely to be poor, there’s something wrong here. The current funding and pay structures are reinforcing inequality. The individualistic approach would be to tell young people that they should go into well-paying fields and not these ones, but that doesn’t address the issue that we need talented people to go into these fields.

Now, I’m talking about a structural problem here, not just trying to stick the blame on nonprofits themselves. I’m aware that the money is often genuinely not there (though I do think some people in the sector need to reconsider certain attitudes – I’ve heard wonderful people who are paid far too little talk about decent salaries as being “unsustainable” and a sign that an organization is doing something wrong, instead of a goal that we should aspire to make feasible for everyone). But why isn’t it there? Because much of the money comes from government and foundation funders, and the amount they supply doesn’t support paying people at reasonable levels.

“Well, the government doesn’t have the money either.” Here’s the thing. The federal government has a bunch of money. I used to do computer science rearch at companies that got most of their funding from the Department of Defense. In my first job out of college, I was being paid roughly twice as much as someone in a typical bachelor’s-level anti-violence-sector job in this metro area, to work on research funded by DoD small-business-funding programs, some of which was pretty cool (and interesting to other researchers), but most of which ended up on a shelf somewhere in terms of how much the DoD actually cared about putting it to use. If the DoD could give my then-company enough money to pay me a decent salary for that, why doesn’t, say, the DHHS, or the Department of Justice, have money to give to rape crisis centers to pay workers at least $50k/year for skilled labor? It’s a matter of funding priorties. It’s not a matter of the free market, because we are talking about government-funded sectors here.

It’s a matter of valuing labor that is mostly by and for women and trans/gender nonconforming people (which is itself a matter of valuing those people and their well-being). It’s a matter of valuing service work and affective labor. It’s a matter of treating workers in these jobs with respect instead of as martyr-wanna-bes who took a value of poverty. It’s a feminist and queer issue.

Environmentalists win on Keystone XL. Don’t forget what went into that.

By now, many of you have seen the news that President Obama rejected a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. While TransCanada is reviewing its options to keep the project alive, but experts are dubious. This is a major victory for environmentalists – as a friend commented upon hearing the news, five years ago it seemed like there was no chance this thing would be stopped. It’s also a testament to the idea that working outside the system with protests and other resistance, as well as inside the system, can produce results. Marches, rallies, blockades, civil disobedience, these are all tactics, just as negotiation with elected officials, voter registration, courtroom options, public education, are all tactics. Over at the blog Lawyers Guns & Money, labor and environmental historian Erik Loomis talks some about this, and the ways in which the “respectable left” sometimes mischaracterizes protests and protesters.

It’s probably either a reflection of my recent mood or the somewhat weird and occasionally grimdark perspective on protests that being a street medic can bring (or both), but after “Oh wow, that’s great,” my first reaction to the news was “I’m so glad that the activists who really took it in the teeth on this one didn’t do so in vain.”

I’m talking about all the people, and especially those singled out by name, affected by TransCanada’s briefs to law enforcement on how terrorism statutes could be applied to anti-KXL protesters, or affected by the local fusion center’s involvement.

I’m talking about the people who were pepper sprayed, hit by a truck, and in some cases charged with felonies for nonviolent civil disobedience.

I’m talking about the two protesters who police handcuffed to a backhoe and tortured for hours with a Taser, chokeholds, stress positions, and pepper spray to open cuts (you can read a graphic first-person account here).

I’m talking about the different set of two protesters in Oklahoma who were charged with a “terrorism hoax” because they spilled glitter while hanging a banner. Does anyone know what happened to those two, by the way? I couldn’t find the outcome of their case anywhere.

Like Loomis, when I hear criticism of leftist protesters on the left (and on the right, for that matter), it’s often that they’re playing a role, or only in it for the glamor, or unwilling to do “real work.” It’s worth keeping in mind what activists actually go through sometimes for victories. I will defend, say, Occupy, pretty hard if pressed, not only because I think that, while flawed, it accomplished a great deal, but because I know a number of people personally who were seriously affected – people who were injured badly enough that they had to change career fields or had long-term disability, people with PTSD. They are few as a total percentage of people who were active, but when you’re a medic, you tend to hear about these things. It hurts to think that those people could hear or read derisive comments and believe that it was all for nothing, a punchline, a joke about hippies, when I believe that they contributed to a movement that did a lot. I’m glad that the Keystone XL protesters and support people who drew the short straws in the weird lottery of protest experiences will have a very conspicuous, very concrete thing they can point to as tangible evidence of what they got done.

Anyway, this is sort of a glum post for talking about a major left-activist victory! The victory should be celebrated! But don’t forget what goes into it.


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