Dirty Tricks: The GC Chapter Election

Image: “BALLOTS!” via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

On why I ran on—and stepped down from—the CUNY Struggle slate (and the real story about the GC election “debate”).

I. The Slate

As a strong critic of liberal democracy—indeed, an opponent of it at this point, because, as I contend in my dissertation, it’s irreducibly a settler, racial-capitalist form—I should’ve known not to get so directly involved in liberal-democratic politics as to run in an election for union office.

And yet I’d been wanting to form an alternative caucus within the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) for years—really, ever since I joined the Adjunct Project in July 2013 and quickly realized how undemocratic, top-down, and reactionary the dominant political party in the union, the 17-year-old “New” Caucus, is—and, more, run a slate of that caucus in a union election.

Last December, that desire started to take shape when a few of us decided to form a caucus out of the extant CUNY Struggle formation and run a slate in this April’s Graduate Center (GC) chapter election.

I’ve long been inspired by insurgent union formations, from MORE (which I touted in 2014) to the fantastic and awe-inspiring AWDU caucuses and the many member unions of CGEU, whose annual conference I attended in 2014 and which so galvanized me. And I floated the idea of forming an alternative to some of my friends in these circles, and to some GC friends as well. At first I wanted to form an AWDU caucus within the PSC, but I back-burnered the idea while I tended to other academic and organizing projects.

Then, with the GC chapter election on the docket, I started pitching the idea again to GC pals and new acquaintances last September. No one bit, and in truth, I wasn’t seriously pursuing the idea, tied up with other obligations and demands.

But in mid-December one of those comrades asked me if I’d be open to running as chair of the New Caucus slate that was forming to run for re-election; apparently, the slate was trying to position itself askew from the New Caucus and was recruiting “independents” to the ticket—and another comrade had already joined the slate as one of those independents.

Of course, I recoiled at the prospect of joining the New Caucus slate, let alone as chair, because the New Caucus, in my view, is the single biggest problem with the PSC: its leadership maintains a vise grip on all decision-making, and they deploy a potent brew of fear-mongering, bullying, divide and rule, disenfranchisement, procedural obstacles, and a twisted form of self-centered bourgeois “solidarity” to tamp down any threat to their hegemony, while their supporters, who are legion, get to pat themselves on the back for being progressive or, dare I say it, radical.

Meanwhile, the rank and file—and the agency-fee payers, who are basically considered dead to the New Caucus leadership and their supplicants, even as they subsidize a hefty portion of the union’s begging and pleading in Albany, not to mention the cushy Wall Street digs and whatever else they spend their income from members and agency-fee payers on—the rank and file are left alone, content to be “apathetic”—even as so many of them are engaged in so many other political initiatives—because the union leadership and their enablers are content to be apathetic about them.

So instead of being a part of the problem, as the saying goes, I didn’t consider joining the New Caucus slate and suggested to my comrade that we run a CUNY Struggle slate, and, pretty soon, that’s what was happening. We quickly pulled together a group of 11 people to run at the Graduate Center, against all the constraints we faced (including the union provision that one had to be a member of a given chapter for a year to be eligible as a candidate, thus slicing off many first- and second-year GC students, in addition to all the ones who don’t have GC fellowship funding and thus can’t affiliate to the GC chapter in the first place) and one person to run at Hunter.

I was persuaded to be chair of the slate, ostensibly because I was the most well-known of our candidates and had a history of publicly calling out the New Caucus and arguing with candidates on the New Caucus slate on listservs. I agreed to take the position, even though any of our candidates would’ve made a fine chair.

We filled out paperwork, got petitions signed, went to a meeting about election rules, and started campaigning, all the while participating in an adjunct organizing coalition with the Adjunct Project and candidates of the New Caucus slate (officially called “New Caucus and Fusion Independents” but a misnomer since it’s officially backed by the New Caucus, and there’s only four independents on it out of 22 total candidates), which produced this agreement on non-negotiable demands for the upcoming round of contract bargaining.

(Never mind that the chair and at least one other candidate of the New Caucus slate then proceeded to reject the merits of one of the demands, proportional representation on the bargaining committee, in various email threads about adjunct organizing.)

Before moving on to the ill-fated debate between the CUNY Struggle slate and the New Caucus slate, it’s important to note the Adjunct Project’s role in both the restoration of the GC chapter and its subsequent growth. Indeed, over the last several years, the Adjunct Project has been the only entity to make a dent in the status quo of the union vis-à-vis the GC.

There wasn’t even a GC chapter when I became a coordinator of the Adjunct Project almost four years ago—the New Caucus leadership had let it go dormant for several years, which struck my fellow coordinators and I as odd, given the GC is a central hub of CUNY in name and practice. So, at a meeting with a PSC staff organizer in the fall of 2013, we raised the issue and said that we wanted to re-start the chapter.

A New Caucus stalwart also happened to be at the meeting, however, and that person quickly started organizing for the chapter’s return without our knowledge. Several months later, at a meeting of candidates who were running on the New Caucus slate for the April 2014 GC chapter election, and who would thus oversee rebuilding the chapter, it was news to those assembled that the idea of doing so had started with the Adjunct Project.

That fall, working with the then co-chairs of the Doctoral Students’ Council, my fellow coordinators and I were able to secure a significant change to the union’s chapter-affiliation policy that allowed graduate assistants paid through the GC but doing their teaching or other academic labor at separate CUNY campuses to become members of the GC chapter. Formerly they could only be members of the chapter on the campus where they worked, even though they were being paid by the GC, meaning that graduate assistants were disenfranchised from the chapter at the campus—the GC—where policies regarding their labor were determined.

Upon this change, we started signing up the hundreds of graduate assistants who eventually joined the GC chapter, creating a three-fold leap in the number of delegates the GC now has at the union-wide Delegate Assembly. Among other reasons, that increase makes the chapter election this month especially noteworthy.

II. The “Debate”

I put the debate in quotation marks because it’s clear in retrospect that the New Caucus slate never intended to have a debate (despite the “debate” that’s happening this Wednesday, in a room that holds 45 people tops—an exceedingly narrow engagement). Answering questions cedes too much control over the message and invites variables beyond their control.

And that was one of the reasons I wanted to propose the debate: to see if the New Caucus slate would actually agree to it, and to learn about their thinking in the process of negotiating the debate’s guidelines. I think this is what some of my colleagues on the CUNY Struggle slate also thought, but I don’t know for sure—if we discussed it, it was brief, and I don’t recall it.

We reached out to the chair and vice-chair of the New Caucus slate on March 1. (I’ve included all emails about the debate between them and me at the end of this blog post. Neither the New Caucus slate nor the CUNY Struggle slate has been truthful about the debate in their public representations.)

Our proposal was to hold separate forums/Q&As with, as I wrote, “chapter members who are interested in learning more about our slate and why we’re running for election,” as well as a debate “in the interest of furthering awareness of the election and our respective slates’ ideas for the chapter and the union at large. Such an event would also, we think, both contribute to raising awareness about the chapter and union at the GC and to energizing chapter members who are already aware/activated.”

This last part was especially key: from our tabling in the GC lobby and talking to people, we realized how low the chapter’s profile was, let alone the union’s (many people didn’t know the PSC existed). In typical fashion, the New Caucus leadership of the GC chapter had failed to engage many or most people in the building, while portraying the opposite in their chapter emails and campaign representations.

It took the New Caucus slate 11 days to provide a substantive response to our proposal, at which point they asked us to provide more details. So, we drafted a tentative list of guidelines, and it took them a few more days to respond with their proposed changes.

(You can see the initial guidelines we proposed here—they’re also contained in the email correspondence at the end of this post—and their proposed changes here.)

In addition to pushing back against our proposed restriction on attendance to eligible voters in the contested chapter election, they also wanted to cut the length of time for the debate and, crucially, wanted to solicit questions in advance and mutually agree upon the ones we’d be asked at the debate, with a small window devoted to live questions at the event itself.

On Thursday, March 16th, we responded as follows:

i. We would like the maximum amount of time for the Q&A to be at least 90 minutes, rather than the 75 minutes of your proposed change (guideline 7).

ii. We do not agree to solicit questions in advance of the event nor to mutually agree on any questions and we reiterate our proposal to take only live questions at the actual event (guidelines 5, 11).

iii. We do not agree to invite non­members of the chapter, since in our view this event is expressly meant to be an information-gathering opportunity for members of the chapter—that is, people who will be able to vote for either slate (guideline 18).

The following day they responded:

i. Sure

ii. Let’s meet half way and say half and half

iii. We feel strongly about inviting all bargaining unit members at the GC.

Minutes later, we responded:

– ii is a deal-­breaker for us: we will not participate in a debate in which questions are pre­arranged. It’s anti­-democratic and not even the U.S. presidential debates operate in such fashion.

– What is your all’s rationale for inviting people who can’t vote in the election? If you can provide an argument, we’ll consider it.

That weekend—Saturday night, March 18th—they responded:

1. Opening the event to HEOs is non-negotiable, because we sincerely hope that the audience for this is not “invited”, but rather that the event is open to all. Furthermore, HEOs may not have voting power in this particular election, but they are still very much affected by chapter leadership and participate in chapter activity. It doesn’t make sense to us to exclude them if we want to be building cross-title solidarity. And what about the HEOs we have on our slate? Your objection would bar their presence.

2. We have no problem with doing a “blind” debate. We just wanted to raise a problem we have noticed at many debates where people from the floor use their platform not to field a productive question to the debaters, but rather to go on at length about their own position on a certain issue, which in fact undemocratically prevents others on the floor from asking serious questions and unfairly skews the debate in one direction or another. To resolve this problem, we think finding a skilled moderator and putting some mechanism in place for orderly question-asking is key, although this does not necessarily have to be having access to the questions beforehand. For instance, folks from the floor can submit questions to the moderator before the event, and the moderator can decide which questions to ask. We are definitely open to any other suggestions you have might to ensure fairness. It is really unfortunate that [redacted] cannot moderate; we are trying to think of other neutral moderators as well.

We responded:

On the issue of HEOs, we note that cross-­title solidarity, as you put it, is hampered by a particular title being removed from campus chapters and separated into their own chapter. In the case of HEOs, their removal happened under the current leadership of the GC chapter and without any discussion in the chapter, so the concern for cross-­title solidarity rings a little hollow.

Moreover, as we have specified, our vision for the forum­-debate is as an informational opportunity for eligible voters in the contested election. The Welfare Fund candidates on your slate are running unopposed; they’re also the only candidates whom HEOs can vote for. (Indeed, GC HEOs will receive a ballot with only the Welfare Fund candidates listed.)

Nevertheless, we’re open to having HEOs present if questions from eligible voters in the contested election can be prioritized. An election debate in its very purpose is to provide information to voters who must make a choice. You say you’re concerned with people asking questions who go on forever; we’re concerned with people who can’t vote in the contested election taking question time away from people who can vote in the contested election.

To reiterate: We’re fine with having HEOs present, but questions from grad assistants and faculty should be prioritized over questions from HEOs. This can be accomplished through a simple stack system, in which the moderator takes down two lists of questioners, one of grad assistants and faculty, one of HEOs, and then perhaps alternates between two questions from the grad assistants/faculty list and one question from the HEO list. Please let us know how this sounds to you, or if you would like to propose a different system.

On the issue of live questions, that’s non­-negotiable for us. If you all are concerned with people taking too long in their questions, our response is that the moderator can intervene to bring such questions to a close, or we can simply limit questioners to a period of two minutes maximum in which to ask their questions. We’re also not sure what debates you’re referring to that have caused this concern on your part—to our knowledge there hasn’t been a debate at the GC in recent memory.

But we didn’t hear from them again, save for a query about my reference to HEOs being removed from campus chapters into a cross-campus chapter under the current leadership of the GC chapter. Admittedly I was wrong about this: HEOs have been disenfranchised on their own campuses since the 1970s.

One of the incredibly useful outcomes of having participated in this election is all that I learned in the process, and that I wouldn’t have learned without it, such as the disenfranchisement of HEOs. I had always assumed that all the HEOs present at GC chapter meetings were members of the GC chapter; turns out, they’re not, because they’re members of a separate HEOs-only chapter—another divide-and-rule tactic that the New Caucus has used so well to preserve its power.

(And, yes, the separation of HEOs occurred well before the New Caucus came to power, but they could’ve remedied the situation, just like the GC chapter New Caucus leadership could’ve advocated for a change.)

Meanwhile, instead of continuing the negotiation about the debate, the New Caucus slate started trolling the CUNY Struggle Facebook page, upset with a piece we posted about open bargaining, which called out the New Caucus slate for not being committed to it. Never mind that the Facebook page is a campaign platform, on which we had no reason, nor requirement, to entertain the opposing slate’s complaints, and never mind that we didn’t troll their slate’s Facebook page about the significant misrepresentations in their campaign representations.

Indeed, instead of continuing to negotiate with us about the debate, the topic of the email correspondence between the two slates was now about differing ideas about social-media campaign norms—a clear distraction from the issue of the debate.

I was suspicious about the Facebook trolling, and the way they were framing the situation in their email correspondence, and on Sunday night I emailed my colleagues on the CUNY Struggle slate “I feel like they’re going to escalate and we shouldn’t participate in this particular game anymore…”

Sure enough, that’s what happened: on Monday, March 20th, we discovered (1) a flyer in history-program mailboxes that deployed Trumpist rhetoric, and (2) a smear job by a GC HEO, based on leaked, unfinished debate guidelines, alleging that we didn’t “seem to understand the meaning of the word” “solidarity” because HEOs didn’t “have a place in [CUNY Struggle’s] vision of the GC chapter.”

Suddenly, our slate was faced with two explicitly unprincipled attacks. I thought they needed to be responded to strongly, but the principal decision-makers of the CUNY Struggle slate hemmed and hawed, wondering whether we should respond at all. The concern: whether to put forward an exclusively “positive” campaign about the “issues,” and whether exposing the New Caucus slate’s dirty tricks contravened that objective.

In the end, the decision-makers agreed to respond to the history-program flyer (although there was some question about whether to criticize the patriarchal rhetoric and the impugning of our academic integrity) but took a pass on the HEO statement.

Nevertheless, I quickly drafted the following blog post for the CUNY Struggle website, which I hoped would find approval with the slate’s principal decision-makers:

A Graduate Center HEO is circulating leaked, out-of-context information about an in-progress negotiation about the terms of a debate that have yet to be finalized between the CUNY Struggle slate and the New Caucus slate—a debate that we proposed to the New Caucus slate, along with separate candidate forums, in order to engage chapter members and would-be members about the union and the urgent stakes of this chapter election.

One of the main reasons we’re running in this election is to prioritize the needs of adjuncts and graduate assistants in all aspects of the union. Both groups—and there’s some overlap between them—are severely underrepresented on the union’s governing bodies and in the priorities of the union. By contrast, full-time faculty and HEOs are well-represented, aa any GC chapter meeting can attest, at which HEOs are especially in abundant presence and regularly ask questions.

However, HEOs are not eligible to be members of the GC chapter, and thus are not able to vote in the chapter election save for the Welfare Fund positions, bc they have a separate, cross-campus chapter. In effect, bc of longstanding union policy, HEOs are disenfranchised from voting for their own campus representatives. We disagree with this policy and would like to change it.

Nevertheless, when it came to the matter of who could attend the debate, given the underrepresentation of adjuncts and graduate assistants and the fact that electoral debates in their very purpose are meant to help voters make a choice between two or more candidates (in this case, slates of candidates), we advocated to limit attendance to those who can vote in the election, expecting that grad assistants would primarily attend.

To see this position as the “exclusion of HEOs,” as has been claimed, is to miss (1) that HEOs are actually excluded from voting in the election except for the two Welfare Fund candidates (who are running unopposed and so will be elected) by the policy maintained by the New Caucus, (2) that HEOs are well-represented in all other ways, and that (3) adjuncts and grad assistants are routinely excluded from union matters, including in this election through policies such as the use of paper mail-in ballots only, when many grad assistants frequently move, or the four-month delay in being able to vote in an election or run as a candidate from when a member joins the union.

In other words, to focus on the “exclusion of HEOs” here is to misrepresent the ways different titles of workers are actually excluded, and to work against remedying these exclusions. It also serves the with-us-or-against-us, divide-and-rule strategy that the New Caucus has so successfully used over its 17-year reign to keep the focus off their failure to meaningfully create change for the most precariously situated members of the union—a destructive logic that CUNY Struggle was created in part to resist.

And it is a struggle to create such change, which is why were engaged in what we thought was a good-faith discussion with the NC slate to work out an agreement that worked best for all involved: as the HEO noted, we’d already moved past our proposal to limit attendance and agreed to have HEOs present, although we were still working out the arrangement for questions. Indeed, we were hoping the NC slate would move past their position on soliciting and deciding on questions in advance, which we saw as exclusionary.

But that good faith was contradicted when a member of the NC slate provided the HEO with the in-progress, changing, and unofficial debate guidelines, and further when the HEO then referred to them out of context, excluding our rationale for our position on HEO participation in the debate—a violation of fair process that the NC slate has yet to address, making us wonder about their commitment to fairness and the aims of members of their slate and certain supporters: to score cheap political shots or to take seriously the need for genuine solidarity—that is, centering the needs of the most neglected titles of the union.

To my mind, if we didn’t call out the New Caucus slate’s dirty tricks and reframe, we had no chance of winning the election—because the dirty tricks—and the distortions, fear-mongering, and reactionary “solidarity”—are the main tactics of the New Caucus at large, and what have kept it in power for 17 years.

On the other hand, bold struggle—the praxis of CUNY Struggle’s stated principles, of its very name—is what I believed then and still believe is needed to genuinely challenge the New Caucus’s status quo, as I’ve learned in my copious and varied study of underdog political insurgencies throughout history.

Furthermore, any top PSC leader knows that in negotiations you have to give a little to get a little. If the New Caucus slate had come back to us with, “Ok, we’ll agree to take all questions live and unmoderated at the debate, we would’ve said, “Ok, we’ll agree to have no restrictions on who can attend the debate and ask questions.” We were doing our best to fairly balance the multiple constituencies of the GC chapter, but we wanted to have the debate and would’ve conceded the point if it had yielded the debate. (I myself had certainly embraced a modicum of realpolitik in the course of campaigning.)

But the negotiation never got that far, because of the New Caucus slate’s dirty tricks.

And when the New Caucus slate refused to take responsibility for the leaked email and related smear job, I knew they were as empty of principles as they had always indicated they were.

I wrote the following email upon learning of the HEO’s Facebook post:

This is such a severe violation of what we thought was a good-faith negotiation about the form of the forum-debate, an event, not incidentally, that we initiated discussion of in order to engage eligible voters in the election and which you all have dragged your feet on. The guidelines have yet to be formalized and we would never have dreamed of leaking the in-progress/changing draft to people who aren’t on our slate, let alone allow the circulation of those incomplete guidelines in order to smear your slate’s campaign effort. Should we have circulated your request to pre-select questions? Should we do that now?

We hope you all understand the severity of this violation and will take suitable action to address it, including having [redacted] take down the post and replace it with a new post that acknowledges that (1) he violated a good-faith negotiation process and (2) that the guidelines for the debate were incomplete and nothing had been officialized.

We hope also that your slate will acknowledge this violation on your FB page, since it was someone on your slate who leaked the guidelines and context, with or without the full knowledge of the entire slate.

We understand that some of your slate members had problems of interpretation with a public blog post of our slate’s and have circulated rebuttals online and in paper form. We support such rebuttals to public content.

We also support a good-faith discussion process between the two slates in order to engage chapter members and would-be members in this vital opportunity to raise awareness of both the union and the urgent stakes of the moment. Violations such as [redacted]’s, aided and abetted by members of your slate, make it really hard for us to continue such a process with you all.

But there was no response from the New Caucus slate. I followed up the next day—Tuesday, March 21st—and received the following reply on Wednesday:

In regard to our mutual frustrations about public postings, I can only say that this campaign has been a bit messier than I suspect either of us had hoped. Inevitably there will be some tensions for the remainder of the semester, but let’s all do our best to campaign seriously but respectfully for the time in front of us.

As for the debate, regrettably we are at an impasse. We’ve been back and forth now three times about HEO participation. Needless to say, you will have your perspective on how we’ve gotten to this point and we will have ours. But here we are, past the deadline that you proposed. Clearly there are many other formats in which our slates can express our positions in the coming 5-6 weeks. We hope that when all is said and done and the ballots are counted, we can all move forward together to fight for full CUNY funding, adjunct parity and the many other things that we all want to see come in this next round of bargaining.

Needless to say, this correspondent was exactly right in his assertion that “you will have your perspective on how we’ve gotten to this point and we will have ours.”

That same day we posted our platform, contract demands, and proposed union reforms to the CUNY Struggle website. I then wrote the following email to my colleagues on the CUNY Struggle slate, a last-gasp attempt, as it were, to move forward with exposing the New Caucus slate’s dirty tricks.

(And there were numerous other emails going back and forth among candidates on the CUNY Struggle slate at this point; I later realized most of the candidates on the slate weren’t reading any of the emails, a sign of a serious problem in our collective process of organizing and making decisions for the campaign.)

I really really really want to urge us to post a revised version of the statement re the debate that I circulated the other day. We are at such a severe deficit in messaging right now that we need to both (1) call out the debate shenanigans (in a “civil”) way and (2) get above their messaging by pointing out how we were interested in trying to craft a genuine set of debate guidelines that would overcome the constraints placed on the debate by issues such as HEOs not being able to vote in the slate election (they can vote for the Welfare Fund candidates, who are running unopposed), and, further, that we were taking into consideration who’s left out of chapter and union discussions and trying to amplify the voices and questions of grad workers and adjuncts while also incorporating HEOs (as we started to do in the discussion with the opposing slate). This reframes their message about solidarity (which is twisted) and exclusion, since it covers up the fact that their proposed guidelines, including the equal access of HEOs *and* their intention to have pre-screened questions.

This is an important opportunity for us to both challenge the status quo (in keeping with our message) *and* to pivot and reframe their message and put out our own in the process. And it can be done without calling names or stooping to their level.

I emailed on Sunday night that I expected their dirty tricks to escalate, and they did, and now they’re in full force. We rightly prioritized getting the platform out and done, but we now need to fully take on this matter, and then we can put it behind us.

And at the end of the email, we can challenge them to the debate.

This is a fierce political campaign now, and messages need to be countered. Otherwise we’ll lose the whole discursive battle, which is not an insignificant battle no matter how little we think people care about this or not, or how little effect we think our blog posts and FB posts have or not (and they don’t have a small effect, btw).

Finally, we owe a strong response to all the other unions in North America who have insurgent activists either leading them or otherwise agitating for change. Whether we win or lose this election (and now I really wanna win! haha), it’s important to have a track record of what’s going on, for future study and analysis.

The problem is—and this is one of the fundamental contradictions of electoral politics—to win an election one must generally make significant compromises to one’s principles.

III. The Leave-taking

The first major compromise of the principal decision-makers of the CUNY Struggle slate was to not struggle on the issues, issues that include the violations of good-faith bargaining, dirty tricks, and fear-mongering claims of anti-solidarity by the New Caucus slate. These tactics—bullying, plain and simple—continued that week: we learned, for instance, that the New Caucus slate was emailing members of the GC chapter to say that the CUNY Struggle slate was treating HEOs as “second class,” an unfortunately racialized metaphor that (with variations) has a long, regrettable history of usage in academic-labor organizing that is largely non-black-led.

(That the CUNY Struggle slate was primarily white-led was a reservation I had from the outset, but political expediency allowed me to compromise on a core principle of my own: to only participate in organizing led by Indigenous peoples, black people, and people of color.)

Instead of countering these outright lies, however, for which I kept advocating, that approach was deemed “going low” instead of “going high”—the rhetoric Michelle Obama used at last summer’s Democratic National Convention in response to the bullying tactics of the Trump campaign, a phrase then repeated by Clinton on the trail. I was floored to encounter this argument—and, make no mistake, it was the most crystallized version of the argument I kept hitting my head against for days.

Putting aside the moral discourse of “high” and “low,” and the false dichotomy it presents, my interest from the start of the campaign was in demystifying the political dynamics that have kept the New Caucus in power for 17 years with no significant resistance, no matter how hard people have tried to challenge their power. I wanted to expose the New Caucus’s strategies and tactics, to show how undemocratic they are, in service to broadening awareness about how closed the New Caucus is—how it profits from keeping people in the dark about their bullying ways.

At one point the principal decision-makers of the CUNY Struggle slate were on board with this intervention. Then suddenly they weren’t. It seemed to me that winning became paramount, no matter the cost: the exact same force constraining the New Caucus slate.

Because winning the election was an uphill battle and, if it happened, a small, albeit significant, crack in the New Caucus’s power. But that crack, if achieved, would’ve had to expand through rigorous horizontal organizing with members of the bargaining unit at the GC and across CUNY. If we’d won, we wouldn’t de facto have the power to effect broad change.

And this leads to the second major compromise of the principal decision-makers of the CUNY Struggle slate: there was no horizontal organizing or decentralized decision-making in the internal campaign process. Decisions—especially the week the proverbial shit hit the fan—were being determined by how many people voiced assent over email to a given idea quickly enough, what struck me as rapid-fire majority rule: the opposite of collectivity, in which everyone has a chance to participate in decision-making and co-direct a multifarious strategy representative of everyone’s skills and viewpoints.

Moreover, the top-down, no-discussion decision-making style of the principal decision-makers of the CUNY Struggle slate is exactly the decision-making style of both the current New Caucus GC chapter leadership, running for another term in office, and the union-wide New Caucus leadership. When I realized that, I realized that it didn’t make a difference who won the GC chapter election, because the status quo would remain.

So, when our internal deliberations about the debate resumed late in the afternoon of Wednesday, March 22nd, and the decision was reached to publicly call for a debate without mentioning the dirty tricks, I decided to quit the slate. It had simply become way too stressful, and way too laborious, to engage the principal decision-makers in a process that actually mirrored the status quo I wanted to challenge—and a process which, therefore, wouldn’t provide the robust political education about the status quo that was my main objective in running for office in the first place.

Elections are a narrow form of political participation. While they may produce a changing same, they seldom produce transformative change. Political education, however, can at least change people’s perspectives, as I’ve seen powerfully in my own life. It’s why I’m invested in research, analysis, study, and teaching, despite the innumerable problems of the academic-industrial complex.

In fact, I had to leave the slate to post this analysis, because to do so without the approval of the principal decision-makers would’ve been tantamount, in their view, to anti-solidarity—or the same hollow rhetoric the New Caucus slate was using against the CUNY Struggle slate at that very moment. I will likely be accused of such betrayal now, but I take transparency seriously as a foundational element of political education.

There’s enough power in the world—I don’t need to remind anyone of that. What we need more of—a lot more of—are different ways of being in the world and with each other. I’m always trying to think about what that means, and how it can be achieved, across scales—and how to practice it on my own scale.

Nevertheless, I’m quite proud of the platform, contract demands, and proposed union reforms we did collectively (largely) produce as the CUNY Struggle slate—a landmark set of ideas for a moribund PSC dominated by a moribund New Caucus.

In the meantime, please connect with me at the Adjunct Project if you like—not incidentally, the one organizing formation (out of many) I’ve been a part of that’s been a consistent example of genuinely collective decision-making and horizontal organizing, no matter how painstaking and slow it can be (and it is both). I may not be “in it to win it,” to quote another Clinton-campaign chestnut, but I’m in the struggle for genuine change for the long haul.

Following are the emails I exchanged with Luke Elliott-Negri and Anh Tran, chair and vice-chair respectively, about the debate that didn’t happen. I’ve redacted all email addresses, and the names of others who were copied on the emails or who are referenced in the emails. Any irregularities in the images are solely due to the way I screengrabbed them.

(Those edits here.)

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Trap Music, Trap Spaces, and Black Holes: From Harriet Jacobs to Fetty Wap and Beyond

On Friday, September 30th, at Wayne State University in Detroit, I gave the following presentation at the 2016 Union for Democratic Communications conference. It’s an excerpt from the third chapter of my dissertation, currently titled Original Gangsters: Genre, Crime, and Settler Democracy, a project in which I analyze the history and present of the gangster genre as a lens through which to better understand the dynamics of global governance, political economy, and social relations.

After chapters that examine case studies set in India and South Africa, my third chapter is centered on the U.S. In this particular excerpt, I situate Fetty Wap’s blockbuster hit, “Trap Queen,” about a domestic relationship framed by the trap house where the two partners live and work, within genealogies of “trap spaces” stemming from Harriet Jacobs’s “loophole of retreat” in Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl and the “burdened individuality” of post-emancipation black life as theorized by Saidiya Hartman. Further, I link this trapped, burdened individuality to the disciplinary pressures faced by university students of color, particularly black students, who are compelled to become “Breadwinner/Investor subjects of the nation-state,” as Sylvia Wynter explains, or, failing that, remain on the outside of this over-represented genre of humanity.

This is a work in progress, so I welcome any and all feedback.

(NB: I’ve posted images with the slides on top, my remarks at the bottom; you can click each image for a closer view.)


trap-music-trap-spaces-and-black-holes-udc-2016-final-dragged-1 trap-music-trap-spaces-and-black-holes-udc-2016-final-dragged-2

At this point in the presentation I played the first minute or so of the “Trap Queen” video below (beware that when you click play, an ad will start playing…).

Then I returned to my slides as follows.



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Elaborating the South African State-Media-NGO Nexus on Crime: Scraps From the Archive


This summer/winter (the season depending on where you are globally) I was in Johannesburg doing archival research for the South African chapter of my dissertation on the relationship between cultural and media representations of crime and structural processes of criminalization in postcolonial—or settler-colonial—democracies. This research was funded by the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) at the Graduate Center, CUNY, through its Early Research Initiative (ERI) program for advanced doctoral students. I received an ERI Award for Archival Research in African American and African Diaspora Studies for $4,000, as I did also in 2015, when I pursued exploratory dissertation research at several archives in both Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Between the two summers/winters, I’ve now completed the bulk of the archival research for my chapter on South Africa, so I’m immensely grateful to ARC for providing such funding: it’s advanced my dissertation in numerous ways, both macro and micro. I wish, however, there were similar funding opportunities, through ARC or another Graduate Center (GC) entity, for research in other regions of the world aside from the Americas and the African continent, not just for my own research interests but for those of the many GC students whose projects don’t take up the aforementioned continents.

(Although, truth be told, there were one-off summer/winter/monsoon research grants provided in the spring of 2014 that were unrestricted as to location, and I received one to do exploratory archival research in Mumbai and Pune for the Indian chapter of my dissertation. It would be great if such opportunities at the GC were regularized.)

I’m addressing funding (and I also received a very welcome top-up grant from the GC’s Lost & Found initiative to explore additional archival collections not directly related to my dissertation) because without the funding I simply couldn’t have done the research. As for that—the research—what follows are several “scraps” (after Brent Edwards) of meaningful information I found throughout my research in Johannesburg this summer, which took place primarily at the Historical Papers archive (pictured above) at the University of the Witwatersrand (also known as Wits). I’m presenting these outtakes today as part of the GC’s now-annual Early Research and Scholarship Conference (which you can follow online via the hashtag #GCArchivalResearch).

Scrap 1: The State’s “No Crime in Schools” Campaign and Non-State Anti-Crime Actors

Mapogo Schools image 1

The Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) is a Johannesburg-based NGO that began as a research institute at Wits in 1989, eventually becoming a stand-alone agency. I started researching CSVR’s collection of 100+ boxes at Wits Historical Papers on my exploratory trip in 2015 because of my abiding research interest in violence and its contested meanings and contexts—and given that CSVR has been in existence throughout the (ongoing) transition from apartheid to post-apartheid, I knew its archive would offer a useful case study for how interpretations of violence and related structures of policing, prisons, and criminal justice at large (or the prison-industrial complex at large) may have changed—or not—over time. And it has indeed proven to be a generative archive for these changes, shifts, and preservations.

CSVR was engaged in a wide variety of initiatives in the five years following the formal end of apartheid in 1994—it was the chief NGO involved in the state’s efforts to reform the police and to develop a National Crime Prevention Strategy, for instance—and the scrap I present here is from CSVR’s work on safer schools, which, in a difference from the ongoing contemporary discussion about safe discursive spaces in higher education, was focused on eradicating crime and physical violence in secondary education.

One of the ways CSVR pursued this work on safer schools was canvassing various stakeholders across South Africa’s provinces for first-hand accounts, which CSVR then used to write reports and white papers, to contribute directly to state policy, and to produce educational media for students. These media interventions and their afterlives are the main focus of the South African chapter of my dissertation (see Scraps 7-11 below for a bit more on this).

The scrap here is from a report CSVR produced for the South African Department of Education, which at the time was considering a national “No Crime in Schools” campaign. I chose this outtake because it highlights part of the contestation then over how crime should be addressed in secondary schools, in this case whether there should be a role for informal, non-state actors such as Mapogo a Mathamaga, which CSVR describes as “vigilante” (or “gangster,” in a contemporaneous analysis). In contrast, I’d argue groups like Mapogo are a far more complex formation stemming from resistance to apartheid rule of law as well as reformations of safety and security during the ostensibly “lawless” period between the unbanning of the African National Congress in 1990 and Mandela’s election in ’94—a period the next scrap takes up.

Scraps 2 and 3: A Former Self-Defense Unit Member on Crime and Violence

SDU image 1

SDUs image 2

The period of 1990-94, when the (apartheid) police and military stopped acting and politico-social violence erupted between different African ethnic groups, remains a significant part of South African cultural memory across racialized groups. The recollections and analyses of the former members of the Self-Defense Units (SDUs), formed to protect their communities from violence perpetrated against them by other communities in the absence of any state structure, are fascinating overall and particularly generative for challenging normative conceptions of crime and violence (the men involved are still widely regarded as criminals, a characterization I disagree with). The interviews I researched are part of an oral history Wits Historical Papers produced in the early 2000s; the primary interviewer is a white South African woman who previously worked for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for which she helped former SDU members file amnesty applications.

Scraps 4-6: An Alexandra Resident on Serving as a ‘Security Woman’ During Apartheid

Esther Rapetswa image 1

Esther Rapetswa image 2

Esther Rapetswa image 3

From the Wits Historical Papers’ collection “Institute for Advanced Social Research (University of Witwatersrand), Other interviews—Urban (Females), 1990s.”

Scraps 7-11: Informal Stills of the SABC-CSVR Co-Production East Side

East SIde SABC image 1

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The six-episode half-hour series East Side was the culmination of CSVR’s educational-media efforts. Co-produced with the education arm of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), it aired on SABC in 1999 and was accompanied by a booklet that was provided to South African high schools. The fictional series, about the integration of a predominantly white Johannesburg high school by students from Soweto, was succeeded by the SABC production Yizo Yizo, which recast many of East Side‘s themes within the setting of a Soweto high school. This significant rescripting by the SABC, known as the “master’s voice” during apartheid, is a central focus of my South African chapter, not least because Yizo Yizo was a ratings blockbuster, thanks in part to viewers’ interest in its gangster characters.

Scrap 12: Coloring the Struggle Against Apartheid

Unban ANC image 1

An outtake from my “Lost & Found”-funded research, from the Colin Purkey collection at Wits Historical Papers. I was pleasantly surprised to find such a fulsomely colorful document produced by the white anti-apartheid group the Johannesburg Democratic Action Committee (JODAC), a constituent organization of the United Democratic Front. I made this image the wallpaper for my phone, not least as a reminder of my own positionality vis-à-vis struggles against white supremacy and in support of black liberation.

Death of the Die-In (and PSC ‘Civil Disobedience,’ Too)


[Cross-posted at CUNY Struggle.]

On Thursday, March 24th, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) staged its second “civil disobedience” of the academic year, this time a die-in in front of the building that holds Governor Cuomo’s New York City office. Like its “blockade” of the entry to the building that holds CUNY’s central offices last November, the PSC trained participants who volunteered to risk arrest, and the NYPD dispatched those arrested to central booking, where they were released shortly after—the whole action a smooth operation carefully production-managed for maximum positive media exposure and minimum duress for participants. What couldn’t be controlled, of course, was the reaction from observers, inside and outside the PSC, which ranged from adulation for those arrested to revulsion that the PSC once again colluded with cops to enact another fake civil disobedience (or civil disobedience “lite”), at a moment when many rank and filers would like to see the PSC hold a strike: a genuine civil disobedience, given the Taylor Law.

Count us among the repulsed. Not only is normalizing the structural role of police, a repressive state apparatus, in this stagecraft deeply reactionary, it also elides the myriad ways the police—and the prison-industrial complex for which they serve as the front line—interfere in the lives and livelihoods of CUNY students and workers who are black and brown. Too, this elision amounts to a significant contradiction in the PSC-leadership-led contract campaign’s tirelessly stated assertion that a new, fair contract is good for CUNY students (as some people who got arrested at the die-in offered as well).

Although a kind of realpolitik claim has it that making people comfortable with the police is vital to ensuring their participation in this type of action, and, therefore, such collaboration with the police should be excused, the very notion of making people comfortable with the police inverts the reality that non-voluntary interactions with the police, such as being arrested for an alleged crime, are not comfortable—and they’re not designed to be comfortable (per the police’s repressive role). Further, the police routinely terrorize, harass, arrest, and incapacitate black and brown people as a function of white supremacy, capitalism, settler colonialism, and imperialism. CUNY students are not excepted from this experience: whether commuting to class, walking around campus, or participating in student clubs and activism, they face both uniformed and undercover officers, and stop-and-frisk, broken-windows, zero-tolerance, surveillance, and other forms of policing. None of this is comfortable for students, nor for anyone who experiences contact with police.

Indeed, to make people comfortable with the police is exactly what the ruling class wants. Not only does such socialization play into the dominant “bad-apple” theory—that only a small number of police officers kill or brutalize people, when in fact every one of them is trained to repress—but it redirects attention from the masses of people negatively affected by the police to the individual person choosing to be arrested, and to be arrested in a positive context. (Selfies with your arresting officer may be the best example of this celebratory mood.) In sum, if the PSC leadership and those arrested—and those praising those arrested—actually took seriously student issues, as they claim, they wouldn’t be colluding with police in any fashion but, instead, organizing to get cops off CUNY campuses, among numerous other issues and actions that would reduce contact between the police and students, on campus and off, and challenge policing and carcerality overall.

Meanwhile, the specific die-in component of the action raises two points of concern: (1) the significant revision of the political history and contexts that obtain in the die-in as a form, and (2) the implications of personifying an institution as the subject of death rather than the people who are subject to death.

In the first case, the image at the top of this post exemplifies some of the revision: originally a photo of a Black Lives Matter die-in at Emory in December 2014, it was altered to (a) replace the “Black Lives Matter” message on the center placard with “Stop the War on CUNY” and (b) add a second placard with the hashtag “#SaveCUNY.” Although the revised image isn’t an official PSC one—a student organizer made and circulated it—it highlights, as with the normalizing of the police above, a shift in attention from the very real deaths of black people by the state and its accomplices to the metaphorical death of CUNY.

As such, the image—and the die-in itself—erased anti-black state violence as a point of struggle in favor of not just a university, which isn’t subject to violence, but one that, like all institutions of higher education in the U.S., is enmeshed in anti-black state violence (again, via various security apparatuses, but also in various forms of institutional violence, such as the low numbers of black students and faculty at CUNY, particularly at the graduate level). In effect, the PSC’s die-in turned attention away generally from the material realities of black students, faculty, and staff, while the altered image circulated to promote the die-in specifically exploited black people and black struggle for a struggle—to “save CUNY” from “dying”—that isn’t particularly focused on race or racism at all (notwithstanding a few signs at the die-in declaiming that “CUNY is about racial & economic justice“).

Further, insofar as the PSC die-in didn’t reference material but metaphoric death, it suggests that the die-in has reached such a point of institutionalization that it’s no longer a useful form of protest—indeed, that, as a form, it’s become completely depoliticized and, therefore, uncontroversial for a liberal organization like the PSC to stage. It bears remembering that the original die-ins by ACT-UP in the late 1980s occurred in a moment of utter silence from the media and government about the epidemic of AIDS deaths, and that the die-ins were meant to break that silence (consonant with ACT-UP’s slogan, “Silence = Death”). And, importantly, the political funerals that began in 1992 took the die-in a step further, presenting death both materially and symbolically, thus ratcheting up the intensity of the tactic as the struggle demanded it.

In contrast, the issue at the center of the PSC die-in—CUNY funding, specifically Cuomo’s proposed $485-million cut—had been widely covered in the media and the focus of much state-government activity by the time of the action: there was no silence to break. Moreover, unlike the gay and queer men who took part in the ACT-UP die-ins and political funerals and the Arab, Muslim, and black people who take part in Palestine-solidarity or BLM die-ins respectively, the people who participated in the PSC die-in had no literal relationship to the death they enacted because it was only metaphoric. Instead, like non-black or -brown folks who jump at the chance to participate in die-ins, thus erasing, visually, their highly differential connection to the death being represented, the PSC members who staged the die-in erased the question of material death entirely in service to pure spectacle. As such, the die-in also reinforced that the PSC contract campaign and related initiatives vis-à-vis state funding have been largely designed to engage the media (“#StopStarvingCUNY”) and not, for instance, CUNY students, faculty, staff, and community who might actually be starving because of low wages or unemployment.

Finally, given the lack of death as material referent, and beyond the cultural dominance of metaphor as a form of comparison, why frame CUNY as dying at all? For one thing, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, authors of The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, said at last May’s Cultural Studies Association conference, also employing metaphor, the university is already dead: it’s not working for most people, a claim that, at CUNY, might be supported by the dismal graduation rates of CUNY undergraduates (a fact buried in recent professor op-eds about the importance of CUNY to reducing inequality) or barriers to access in the first place, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, the disinvestment of public primary and secondary schools, or high-stakes testing. In other words, maybe CUNY’s “death,” already or imminent, is actually a good thing: the end of the fiction of the “CUNY Value,” whether promulgated by the administration or faculty, and a new focus on the needs of would-be CUNY students in order to get their paper and thus have a greater chance to self-determine their lives.

Taking the PSC die-in on its own terms, though, what does it mean to personify an institution and mourn its “death,” backed by the not-insignificant resources of the union, instead of centering and supporting with those resources the people of the institution who are subject to, in CUNY professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s formulation of structural racism, “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” (Golden Gulag 28)? Relatedly, what does it mean to stage a civil disobedience in which the “penalty”—a tap on the wrist legally—is as symbolic as the action, instead of engaging in the actual civil disobedience of going on strike and breaking the Taylor Law, in which the penalty is significant (lost wages, fines, possibly lost jobs for individuals; fines and other reductions in resources for the union proper)?

The PSC leadership and many of the union’s most ardent champions, on hand at or who participated in the die-in, prefer the empty symbolism, self-interest, and low stakes of the former approaches—the reasons, not incidentally, the contract campaign hasn’t produced any results yet—while many of us uniting under the “CUNY Struggle” banner favor the material meaning, collectivity, and risk-reward ratio of the latter approaches.

Indeed, to use the PSC campaigners’ enthusiasm for death metaphorics, many of us would like to see this current formation of the PSC, and its incredibly narrow and dispiriting strategy, die and a new, genuinely social-justice-oriented one, replace it. Change requires change. Once a form, like the die-in, or a leadership, such as that of the PSC, becomes institutionalized—dead—it should be discarded.

[Image created and circulated by a student organizer to promote the PSC die-in.]
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Beyoncé: From the Black Panthers to Israel?

http://www.bobbyseale.com He said they are making a documentary about him http://www.bobbyseale.com http://iamoscargrant.org The ILWU shut down all bay area ports on October 23, 2010 and took part in a rally near Oakland City Hall My video of their drill team performing at the rally http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEVyQ311LhA

News circulating today about Beyoncé’s (latest) possible performance in Tel Aviv prompted me to look at what Elaine Brown, longtime Black Panthers member and the group’s chair for three years in the 1970s, and an inspiration for the look of Beyoncé’s dancers in her Super Bowl performance, might have had to say about Palestine. The Panthers, of course, were strong supporters of the Palestinians, particularly in the context of the group’s overall resistance to U.S. and Western imperialism, but I wanted to see if Brown had written anything about this solidarity. I turned to her autobiography A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story (1992), cited on Twitter in response to Bey’s half-time show.

Although Brown doesn’t offer her own thoughts on Palestine and the fight of Palestinians against the Israeli state’s occupation and settlement of their land, she does recount the following (fascinating) details about Huey Newton’s revision of the Panthers’ political line on the situation:

He renounced the party’s Eldridge Cleaver-inspired position against the State of Israel. He sent a message to all Arab embassies and to that of Israel stating that the Black Panther Party now recognized both the State of Israel and the right of the Palestinian people to have a homeland.

The party’s position, as his message outlined, was that the Arab-Israeli dispute could be settled quickly if Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or some other territory controlled by the Palestinians’ rich brothers—who had been claiming since 1948 to be pressing to help them reclaim Palestine—simply gave a piece of territory inside their vast borders to the Palestinians and made them a new homeland. The wrong that had been done by the Stern Gang in collusion with the British gang and the U.S. gang in uprooting the Palestinians’ was a fait accompli. The resultant State of Israel had to be reckoned with, therefore. Life, like revolution, [Huey] said, looked forward, not backward.

His message contained the most daring conclusion. Ultimately, he exhorted, there was a revolutionary way to settle the conflict. He called upon Arabs and Israelis alike to recognize that the problems between them had to do with something larger than the territory of Israel or Palestine, larger than Judaism or Islam. It had to do with the theft and hoarding of the resources of the region—specifically the oil—by what he lambasted as a conspiracy of certain governments of the region with the U.S. He urged them to lay down their arms against each other, rise up united, and overthrow the reactionary Zionist government in Israel and the reactionary Arab sheikdoms and kingdoms and create peace in the land of plenty.

Huey found a certain private delight in taking that position, no matter how befuddled his troops became over it or that it tainted our nominal alliance with the PLO—and notwithstanding the damage it did to Eldridge. Several nights before he proclaimed the party’s new Middle East position, he told me about his father.

Huey’s father, Walter, was half white, or half Jewish actually: the product of a black woman and a Southern Jew named Simon. The question of whether or not Walter Newton’s mother was forcible raped, working in the house of Simon, was a technicality lost to history as far as Huey was concerned. What disturbed him was the damage that had been done to his father, whose self-hatred and hatred of whites was that of the son of a presumed rapist—despite his mother’s subsequent marriage to a black man named Newton, who gave him his name.

Somewhere in the outer regions of Huey’s thinking, he saw a connection between the bitterness of Walter Newton and the bitterness of Arabs and of Jews, and that of black people in general. It was, to him, a useless response to the sting of the past. They had all looked back so long, he declared, the present was obliterated and the future eclipsed. The relief of change was only for those who could create the future. There was, therefore, something poetically proper, healing, even, he thought, for the black son of the bastard son of a Jew to take that position. (254-255)

For more details on Newton’s highly nuanced position on Palestine, see Matthew Quest’s “The Black Panther Party and Palestine Solidarity” (2003), and for more info on the Black Panthers’ overall relationship to Palestine, see Alex Lubin’s new study Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary. And for a recent interview with former Panther Dhoruba Bin Wahad on these political links in light of current circumstances, including the collaboration between U.S. police (whose anti-black violence Beyoncé takes up in the video for “Formation,” the song she performed at the Super Bowl) and the Israeli security apparatus, check out this post by Davey D.

[Photo: “Elaine Brown at Oscar Grant rally in Oakland October 23, 2010 19” by Steve Rhodes by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.]
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On the MLA and Academic Boycott

Young students and tank

This evening I gave the following remarks in the second of two special convention sessions on the boycott of Israeli academic institutions held by the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee as part of the association’s process of considering a resolution on boycott that could come at next year’s convention. The four speakers in each session, two pro-boycott and two anti-boycott, were limited to seven minutes each, after which questions were posed to the speakers from the audience. I will refrain from characterizing the arguments of the anti-boycott side in my session but to mention that I was asked if I agreed “Muslims are terrorists.” I said no, they’re not—to say they are is Islamophobic. And that was the tip of the iceberg of the anti side’s rhetoric…

I first want to acknowledge that we’re on unceded Indigenous people’s land here in Austin.

This past summer I was in South Africa doing research for my dissertation on criminalization, cultural representations of crime, and colonial and postcolonial social relations. While there, I met with organizers of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, BDS for short, including current students and recent graduates of the University of Johannesburg, the University of Witwatersrand, and the University of Pretoria as well as members of Jewish Voices for a Just Peace, the South African analog to the U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peace. I want to emphasize these two organizations at the outset of my remarks, since one of the popular criticisms of BDS, including the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, is that somehow it’s anti-Semitic, despite the countless Jewish-identified groups and people who are engaged in the effort.

At my meeting with BDS organizers in Johannesburg, I was asked why I participate in Palestinian solidarity and why I myself am engaged in BDS efforts, both at the City University of New York and at the MLA. It was, and is, a good question. I answered then and I say now that I’m committed to BDS and the boycott of Israeli academic institutions because Palestinians, in the midst of the unceasing occupation and colonial settlement of their land by the Israeli state, have asked the world to help them break this siege through the methods of BDS. Although opponents of these methods continue to try to dismiss this fact—that the force of this collective Palestinian call has no force at all—it is indeed a fact: as much a fact as the South African call for BDS throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s that played a central role in ending apartheid there.

This is how global-solidarity movements work: a community asks the world to support them in their struggle for self-determination, and the world, ideally, responds. And this is why, for instance, Palestinians under occupation and facing continual inroads by Israeli settlers, have responded to Black Lives Matter organizers here in the U.S. with robust displays of support. Indeed, the links between the black liberation movement in the States and the Palestinian liberation movement in occupied Palestine go back decades, as do links between the Palestinian struggle and many other struggles for self-determination the world over.

This is another reason I support academic boycott: as both a student and beneficiary of settler colonialism in the U.S. and its related structures of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and imperialism, and one who’s tracing these operations globally in my dissertation research, I consider it my ethical obligation to not just oppose settler colonialism—whether here in North America by the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican governments or in Palestine by the state of Israel—but to work to dismantle it as well.

And that’s what we can do, as MLA members, by endorsing the boycott of Israeli academic institutions: contribute to the dialogue within Israel and internationally on ending the occupation and colonial settlement of Palestine. Indeed, as much as BDS is an intervention against the Israeli state’s unjust policies concerning Palestine and Palestinians, it’s also an intervention against the support of those policies by governments and institutions around the world. So while BDS, in one way, is meant to spur Israelis to oppose their own government’s policies in response to growing global pressure to do so, in another way BDS is meant to spur non-Israelis to oppose our own respective governments’ support of those same policies.

This dialogue must necessarily extend to Israeli academic institutions, which, like our own academic institutions, have manifold connections to the state, including specific links to the occupation and settlement of Palestine, well-documented by independent sources. But in the remainder of my remarks I want to address the educational situation in Palestine.

So much of the debate in the U.S. over the boycott of Israeli academic institutions revolves around the academic freedom of U.S.- and Israeli-based academics, even though an institutional boycott would not constrain their academic freedom. Meanwhile, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza face severe restrictions on both their freedom and their academics as a direct result of occupation and settlement.

These restrictions were brought home for me when I met with students visiting from Birzeit University in the West Bank last academic year as part of the Right to Education tour, another example of dialogue. The students spoke of their difficulties in even getting to class because of the routine obstacles posed by the Israeli-security apparatus, apartheid segregation, and settler violence—that is, when classes weren’t cancelled outright because schools were shut down for Israeli military operations in the area or to quell academic resistance. Indeed, in a fresh-from-the-headlines example, sections of the West Bank city of Hebron have been closed since November by the Israeli military and residents have had to file for “special permits to cross through the 18 military checkpoints in the city center.” Can you imagine what that must be like?

As one of the organizers who helped bring the Birzeit students to the States, Kristian Davis Bailey, has written, “everyone must consider academic freedom in its fuller context. Education is a fundamental human right….We must protect it at all levels. So even when the academy or political elite do not agree with the methods of BDS, they have been presented with facts and with a call from a suffering people to do something. The question is no longer whether or when to act, but how will we respond now?” (Against Apartheid: The Case for Boycotting Israeli Universities 157-158)

I hope, as educators and MLA members, we can all take heart and answer the call Palestinians have made to us by endorsing academic boycott—and sooner, rather than later. Thank you.

[Photo: “Israel Palestine” by Rusty Stewart via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
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The NYPD and CUNY Inequality: Two Urgent Notes on the Arrests

Stop & Frisk

Two things that everyone who shared or read news of the arrests outside of CUNY Central last night urgently needs to know:

1) The union pre-arranged the arrests with the NYPD. Those who agreed to be arrested were brought down the street, given a desk ticket, and released. Never mind that the union president claims the arrests were in part on behalf of the students of CUNY, who are routinely terrorized, harassed, and spied on by the NYPD—the union actively worked with the NYPD to stage their spectacle, and egregiously appropriated a civil-rights genealogy, and “racial justice,” in their public rhetoric about it.

2) The demand of “CUNY Needs a Raise”—that is, the equal-percentage across-the-board wage increases that the union is bargaining for—will maintain and even increase the pay disparity between adjunct faculty and full-time faculty absent any other measure (such as a minimum starting salary of $7K). The union, as it has consistently done, contract after contract, is actually fostering inequality with this demand—no help from CUNY management or the state even needed.

Instead of “CUNY needs a raise,” we should be calling for pay equity for adjunct faculty, the majority of the faculty (59%) and the ones on the front lines of introductory classes filled with working-class students of color that CUNY is systematically trying to exclude.

[Photo: “Stop & Frisk” by carnagenyc via CC BY-NC 2.0.]
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South Africa, July 9-August 19

I’ll be in South Africa doing dissertation research July 9-August 19. My basic itinerary and research sites follow, in case you’d like to connect with me there or know of folks with whom I can connect. Interested in discussing all aspects of South Africa, in particular its manifold relationships, historical and contemporary, to the U.S. and India, including vis-à-vis film, TV, and music cultures.

July 9-16: Johannesburg/Pretoria (National Film, Video, and Sound Archive, Bailey’s African History Archive)

July 17-19: Durban (Durban International Film Festival)

July 20-25: Johannesburg/Pretoria (as above + the University of Witwatersrand library)

July 26-August 8: Cape Town (Centre for Popular Memory/University of Cape Town library)

August 9-19: Johannesburg/Pretoria (as above)

The (Capitalist) Devil is in the Details: Academic Conferences

An analysis by the MLA Subconference collective (of which I’m a member) of the recent Cultural Studies Association conference—on the theme of “Another University is Possible”—and of academic conferences in general, including the MLA Subconference. To read the full post and see the budget of our convening this past January, click here.

The (Capitalist) Devil is in the Details, or, the theory and praxis of academic conferences

The academic conference is a microcosm of academia as a whole and contains all of the latter’s contradictions. Primary among these is the contradiction between theory and praxis. Theoretically, the academic conference is committed to the free pursuit of knowledge; practically, knowledge itself is traversed by the power relations of our capitalist, settler-colonialist, hetero-patriarchal society. Theoretically, the impulse behind the academic conference is egalitarian; practically, it conceals myriad classed, raced, gendered and other hierarchies. Theoretically, the academic conference is open and accessible; practically, it poses significant barriers to access (financial and otherwise) which disproportionately affect graduate students, contingent faculty, and other members of what we hesitate to call the academic precariat. These barriers have by now been amply demonstrated.

As organizers of the MLA Subconference, our engagement with these contradictions has primarily played out in relation to the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, as well as in our attempts to construct an autonomous shadow conference oriented towards transformative praxis. More recently, we have experienced similar contradictions in relation to the Cultural Studies Association (CSA). With the theme of “Another University is Possible,” the latter’s 2015 convention aimed to foster “an insurgent intellectual space for imagining, enacting, and mapping new forms of knowledge production and scholarly communication and community.” At the same time, barriers to access have increased: last year, for instance, the CSA provided travel grants to all graduate students who requested them, but this year they provided grants to less than half of applicants. (Email with CSA president, Dec. 15, 2014, and chair of the travel-grant committee, May 18, 2015, respectively.)

In noting this disparity, our intention is not to “call out” the CSA. It is rather to call on all of us—graduate students, contingent and tenured faculty, conference organizers and attendees—to consider how we can more profoundly join our intellectual commitments to our political practices, even or especially where these may not appear political at first sight. We have no doubt that the CSA genuinely seeks “new forms” of scholarly community, yet decisions about allocation of resources can inadvertently reproduce the same old, hierarchical forms we are all theoretically committed to overcoming. Academic organizations frequently lament the ongoing corporatization of higher education while positing these processes as outside of their control. But it is precisely our collective and individual decisions about matters such as budgeting that either challenge or reproduce such processes. We thus insist that the practical politics of conference organizing do not emerge in the choice of annual themes, plenary sessions or keynote speakers, but rather in more seemingly mundane choices as to venue, structure, cost, and financing. It is the relation—or rather, diremption—between these two which needs to be demystified.

One way to do this is for academic organizations to begin publicizing and rendering transparent their conference budgets. Accordingly, we here offer our budget for the 2015 MLA Subconference, “Non-Negotiable Sites of Struggle.”

To continue reading, click here.

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Lying On the Line: Michael Slager and Darren Wilson

Further to my last post about Darren Wilson’s deceitful grand-jury testimony, in which he claimed that Mike Brown seized his gun, Michael Slager, the South Carolina police officer who executed Walter Scott, also claimed that his victim got control of his weapon–until a witness’s video showed no such thing.

According to initial news reports, Slager and the North Charleston police department claimed that Scott and Slager struggled over Slager’s Taser until Scott not only obtained the Taser but tried to use it on Slager, which forced Slager to retaliate:

Police allege that during the struggle the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer. The officer then resorted to his service weapon and shot him, police alleged.

The video of this purported struggle, of course, shows no struggle—just Scott running away and posing zero threat to Slager.

Similarly, Wilson too claimed there was a struggle between him and Brown—and note how the term “struggle” normalizes a profoundly asymmetric differential of power and violence—and that Brown also got control of the cop’s weapon. Unsurprisingly, this was a matter of protracted attention during Wilson’s testimony at the grand jury (pages 20/214 to 23/217):

He immediately grabs my gun and says ‘you are too much of a pussy to shoot me.’ The way he grabbed me, do you have a picture? …

My gun was basically pointed this way. I’m in my car, he’s here, it is pointed this way, but he grabs it with his right hand, not his left, he grabs it with his right one and he twists it and then he digs it down into my hip. [indicating]

Then, in the moments it takes to project several photos of Wilson’s gun, the questioning attorney goes back to Wilson’s claim that Brown was “striking you in the face through the car door,” and that Wilson “needed to pull out your weapon,” setting up Wilson to say his life was in danger (“why did you feel that way,” the attorney asks. “I don’t want to put words in your mouth.”):

I felt that another one of those punches in my face could knock me out or worse….I’ve already taken two to the face…the third one could be fatal if he hit me right.

In response, the attorney consolidates the possibility of fatality to an absolute: “You thought he could hit you and it would be a fatal injury?” (emphasis mine).

Reading these short passages, the degree of orchestration involved in Wilson’s testimony is clear: the assertion that Brown grabbed his gun, the re-enactment of Brown grabbing his gun, the visual documentation of the gun, the attorney’s corroboration of the fatal threat Brown posed. If this extravagant scene wouldn’t be out of place in a Law and Order episode, that’s because it’s just as fictional. And the fiction is only underscored by Slager’s—and his police department’s—similar, if abbreviated, account of his life threatened by Scott, when in fact it wasn’t.

Indeed, we should resist the naturalized fact that police officers “put their lives on the line” when in the “line of duty”—a dubious moral assertion that nonetheless seems to be the single greatest rationale for their never-justified violence. Slager’s plain lie demonstrates anew that police will say anything to save themselves from culpability—a safety their victims don’t have, from culpability or death.

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