If the next revolution is not intersectional, than it will be nothing.

This summer I wrote a piece to WSQ on my experience with gender in Occupy Wall Street. A strongly edited version of what I submitted has just been published in the current issue, Engage (Vol. 41, No. 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 2013), as Reflections on Legal Support and Occupy Wall Street, by Elena Cohen, Rose Regina Lawrence (look, ma! that’s me!), and Moira Meltzer-Cohen. Here is the original version:

If the next revolution is not intersectional, than it will be nothing. (1)

Jail support is the clean up after a march or action. It is a crucial part of taking care of ourselves and standing up to state harassment of activists through the use of an increasingly militarized police force and judicial system. It is long, boring, lonely, and frequently frustrating. Many people have never really heard of it, and those who have frequently think of the large days of action when there’s a sizeable group waiting for the arrestees to be released and the overall mood is a continuation of the sense of community felt earlier. When there are only a couple of arrestees and they are the more vulnerable, those with fewer resources, including social resources, the experiences is frequently far less joyous, but the support provided is even more important, both for the arrestee’s health and continued participation in political activism and for effecting the outcome of the legal case. It is hard to keep spending nights waiting outside police precincts, cold, often wet, and almost always harassed by the police for people one doesn’t know or like. This is one example among many of the very unglamorous drudge work that really builds movements. It is to street activism as dishes are to collective living.

I was the daytime jail support coordinator for Occupy Wall Street. The “coordination team” consisted of me and my partner, who handled the hotline at night while working. Neither of us went down to Zuccotti thinking about how much we wanted to take on that role. We saw a system that was incredibly hard on the people trying to help and knew that there were free telecom tools and a little bit of planning that could make it so much easier, more useful, and empowering. We could not help but step up.

We worked out most of the structure based on wanting to make it as easy as possible for people to participate on their own terms, specifically creating space for people who could not participate in the dominant activities and modes of behavior of Occupy. This meant no hours-long meetings, the ability to opt in or out as desired, kits that contained all the materials and information for someone either new to the idea of jail support or to New York City needed to be there on the ground, and real-time contact through phone and text so that being there on the ground was far less intimidating or flat out scary.

The group grew and shrank. Many of us got burnt out. Some of us kept going long after burning out, scared of what would happen to people who didn’t have close friends or family to wait for them. As the winter wore on, Occupy received fewer and fewer of the care packages that we had used to stock the jail support kits. After the eviction of the park and the loss of the major storage space, we no longer had a place to store the prepacked kits. Still, we were there when people were released from precincts and central booking.

Seven months after my partner and I kick started a new plan for jail support, a group of us issued a strike statement. We could no longer abide the macho bullshit “this isn’t really our responsibility” response that organizers had after months and months of suggesting, asking, begging them to step up their organizing to include jail support and to recognize that an action isn’t over until everyone can go home.

When all you have is your labor, all you can do is to withdraw it. We weren’t on strike for money, hours, or wages. We were on strike for a massive rethinking of how to approach a movement for social justice. When we went on strike, our statement overtly talked about gender. We felt that our work, that of cleaning up and caring for activists, was seriously undervalued and disregarded, with more public facing organizing deeming it not their problem, with a heavy hand of “beneath them.” We also recognized that this wasn’t just about us; the constant undermining and devaluing of the work of women and the work that historically has been designated as women’s work was widespread and deeply engrained. All of us, but especially people for whom Occupy was their political awakening, brought with us the hangups and prejudices from larger society. This was true about gender, true about race, true about class, and especially true at the intersections.

I was unemployed before Occupy. I was unemployed during Occupy. I was unemployed after Occupy. I am amazed by the level of involvement that many people, like my partner, managed to maintain while working full-time. But, for me, it was just Occupy and plenty of time to think about my labor for Occupy in the context of my labor outside of Occupy.

In the unemployment after Occupy, I read a lot in hopes of contextualizing my experience in a way that I could make sense of my frustration and figure out what I might do in the future to stack my personal deck towards more fulfilling, more successfully future organizing. Unrelated to that, I picked up Silvia Federicci’s Revolution at Point Zero, which has a section of her writings from the 1970’s and 1980’s regarding wages for housework. Federicci’s writings from almost half a decade ago about the struggle of poor, mostly Black, single mothers to seek recognition and legitimization of their labor, spoke more to the issues with labor valuation and recognition of work that I had seen within Occupy than anything else I had read.

In that moment it became so palpable to me that even with racial and class privilege, any movement that does not center the experiences of people of color, poor people, women and gender nonconforming people, people with disabilities, indigenous people, and everyone else who make up the wretched of the earth, will ultimately cut me down and refuse to value my labor because if our struggle is not a struggle against the whole kyrarchical network of abusive power relationships, then our struggle will never rise up beyond a struggle against each other.

I still organize with many of the people I met through jail support. Now we are explicit in the necessity of a holistic approach to combating state repression that constantly reinforces that one cannot make progress against capitalism or the state without confronting and addressing oppression. The issues that I saw with the valuation of unpaid labor within Occupy are by no means exclusive to it. I have found it in my search for employment (ie, labor of the paid variety). It is about gender, it is about class, it is about race and overall status in society, it is about the pathological ways we exploit each other, frequently without even thinking. Just like almost everything is. I owe so much to my elders who told me time and time again that this is a long journey and the far-view is the only view that will matter, and that, yes, people are a bunch of jerks much of the time.

Occupy was about everything, but mostly it was about how we as a society got to the 2008 mortgage crisis and accompanying economic mess. The next revolution, the next uprising, the next dreams for a better tomorrow that will break through the shell of the old will be intersectional at its core, or it will not be the next.

1. This is a reference to a Foucault quotation: “if the next century is not Deluzian, than it will be nothing.”

Here, there, and everywhere: when policing practices don’t line up with public good

The NYPD’s Stop and Frisk practices have garnered much attention recently, and rightly so. There have been a bunch of videos of men of color talking about their experiences with Stop and Frisk in NYC. The Open Society Justice Initiative just put out a video that covers the equivalent in Britain. Here’s the full report: Viewed with Suspicion: The Human Cost of Stop and Search in England and Wales.

Last year Open Society Foundations’ Public Health Project put out Criminalizing Condoms, an amazingly strong report comparing policing practices regarding the criminalization of condoms in Kenya, Namibia, Russia, South Africa, the United States, and Zimbabwe. There was also a good video that accompanied it and included the voices of people directly affected.

It’s good to remember that our policing problems in the United States are not unique. It’s also sad since this really hurts people and communities and it would be far better if nowhere had these problems. Even with Stop and Frisk, we in New York City are not isolated as people working on the issue may sometimes feel.

On a happier note, last week’s lobbying to support bill S1379/A2736 in Albany reported went well. Bill S1379/A2736 would ban the use of condoms as evidence of sex work in New York State. Red Umbrella Project has more information available here.

Jail Support for OWS Arrestees

Reprinted from National Lawyers Guild New York City News, Fall 2012. Available at: http://nlgnyc.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/NYC-NYC-News-November2012-final4.pdf

“Jail support” is an umbrella term referring to various services activists provide for each other when arrested. Most of the time is means having people waiting with food, cigarettes, a friendly face, and basic medical assistance. It is a way that we take care of each other so we can come back again to make our voices heard.

I started attending protests in New York City a decade ago like many others, to oppose globalization from above,to stop unprovoked acts of war by the United States, and angry that the Republican party chose to hold their convention in NYC to further capitalize on the city and nation’s trauma. While the motivations for all of the rallies and marches were ongoing, the events themselves were finite in length, conceived and planned for that day. We went to pre-protest skill-shares, formed affinity groups, had phone check-ins with people off-site in case we all got arrested or separated, and always brought markers for writing the NLG’s phone number on our arms. Just as older activists shared this knowledge with us, we passed it along to new activists. At this time, the majority of jail support was organized by activist street medics, not legal activists.

Occupy Wall Street was different than any of that. It was spontaneous and rapid compared to anything I had experienced, with the planning and build-up taking months instead of years. People who had never been politically active heard about it and showed up without basic orientation to street activism and without people they already knew and trusted. These experiential differences combined with the nature of occupation as a tactic lead to radically different jail support needs than anything I had ever heard about, let alone experienced.

Initially, jail support shared the general spontaneity of OWS. There was a table for the legal working group in Zuccotti and jail support happened largely through word of mouth. People had effectively self-organized to meet most basic needs, like kitchen, sanitation, medical, and comfort, but jail support was always a scramble and we will never know just how many people were released without support early on. While waiting for arrestees to be released from the 7th Precinct in early October, Erick Setterlund and I sat down and started putting together a plan for a different way of responding to arrests. The three basic ideas that we started with were: remote coordination and dispatch using a Google Voice number that could be easily transferred between coordinators, premade bins of supplies with instructions so that anyone could step up to do jail support, and no meetings other than for specific, immediate planning. The goal was to make it as easy as possible to do jail support for the first time and to lower the threshold for participation. The remote coordination phone line also served as way that we could walk new people through the jail support processes and respond easily wherever and whenever the calls started coming in.

Our model diverged radically from how street medics tend to run jail support. When we found out about arrests, we sent out texts and tweets looking for volunteers, lined up coverage, stayed in contact until everyone was released, and passed legal information back to the NLG-NYC chapter office. As our relationship with the guild grew and we realized that that there was a serious lack of legal literacy, we started started seeing ourselves as activists working in resistance to the dehumanizing systems of the police state. Many people helped, but a core group of about a dozen amazing people spent an astronomical number of hours through bad weather and late into the night waiting for the release of arrestees.

Neither Erick nor I thought that we would still be coordinating jail support for OWS seven months later. Actions did not slow down significantly until the mid-winter, at which point the issue of planning for May Day already loomed large. OWS kept moving and shifting, setting up durable presences in Union Square, at Federal Hall, and outside Trinity Wall Street. Again, jail support found itself in a situation where the system needed to shift. The core jail support team went on strike, telling activists that they needed to learn and use the skills and legal knowledge we had been teaching. As we prepare for the one-year anniversary of the start of OWS, the jail support line is back up and running and we are again rethinking how to build a system that meets the needs of the movement.

As with any major projects, there were ups, downs, and notable events somewhere in the middle. Sometimes, we did really well and knew exactly where every arrestee was. Other times, there was confusion and people were released without support. Fundamentally, jail support is trying to work with a system that does not want to work with us. The NYPD learned about what we do and tried to frustrate the support and solidarity the community was offering by transferring arrestees multiple times, giving out false information on arrestee location, stonewalling lawyers and family members looking to confirm the presence of arrestees at precincts, and directly threatening, sometimes arresting, people on jail support. We also began seeing increasing usage of questioning for investigations, malicious use of psych holds, and a continued refusal to provide access to medical care for many hours or sometimes at all. These are not new behaviors for the NYPD. Many of us came from relative privilege regarding police interactions. Through jail support we saw the real impact of the NYPD’s practices.

We will need jail support as long as we have a judicial system based on a punitive model, and policing is a major means of social control of communities of color, Muslim communities, and political activists. I look forward to seeing the new ways that activists, the guild, and target communities are working together to take on a system that was not built in the public interest.