Abusing Tropes of Death, and other reflections on direct action in the CUNY struggle

(or, I’m About To Violate the Taylor Law)

by Drake Logan

Note: This piece was submitted to CUNYStruggle.org in response to Sean Kennedy’s “Death of the die-in (and PSC ‘Civil Disobedience’, too). We welcome reader submissions, which do not reflect the views of CUNYStruggle.org. 

I appreciate Sean M. Kennedy’s effort to boldly critique our actions in struggling against austerity conditions at CUNY, as critique can so often be stifled in the service of fear—that to critique in the midst of political struggle would undercut the cause or detract from the “real” issues at hand. I write as a CUNY instructor and graduate student who was planning to engage in the direct action last week, but needed to stay home for health reasons. Instead of getting arrested that night as planned, I sat down at my desk and finally had the chance to try and tabulate exactly how underpaid I am.

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would like to join in Kennedy’s critique of the inappropriate—and, appropriative—use of imagery from a Black Lives Matter die-in to promote the March 24th CUNY action. And, I too would like to question the use of the die-in as a direct action tactic which aims to symbolize what is already a metaphorical “death” or “starvation” of our institution.

I agree with Kennedy that the inappropriate use of the die-in as tactic serves to reproduce the erasure of anti-black state violence, which enacts literal deaths daily. In fact, I think we need to push this point even further—along with erasing the death produced through anti-black state violence, use of the die-in tactic in this context also serves to erase multiple forms of state violence which enact not only events of violent deaths (e.g. police murders of people of color), but also the forms of slow death perpetrated on populations through such conditions as mass incarceration and chronic poverty. This slow-death happens via forms of ongoing, everyday deprivation and oppression which are not eventful, which do not fit into the spectacular forms of suffering splashed across our every Facebook feed and television screen. Unspectacularly, communities subjected to conditions of slow death through incarceration, poverty, and a discriminatory citizenship regime are dying no-less, as well as being made to live without access to the many resources that make our lives livable. When we mobilize tropes of death in order to symbolize suffering that lives outside of the realm of either spectacular or slow death, I think we commit an act of erasure against other lives enduring both the precarity of slow death and the brutality of state murder—forms of violence disproportionately targeting people of color in this country.

And while I think Kennedy has raised vital questions around this erasure of death, I would like to heartily disagree with his characterization of the PSC/DC-37 action as a form of  “fake civil disobedience,” or “civil disobedience lite” because it was “carefully production-managed for maximum positive media exposure and minimum duress for participants.” Like Kennedy, I fervently support CUNY faculty, instructional staff, and non-instructional staff engaging in job actions such as a strike (and I just violated the Taylor Law by saying so, as it bars public employees from even speaking in support of or advocating for a strike; here it is important to notice that we have been engaging in a “strike authorization vote” and not a vote-to-strike). Unfortunately, I think Kennedy’s critique of the PSC/DC-37’s strategy got somewhat lost in this drive to strip the direct action of its status as civil disobedience by casting it as “fake” or “lite.” I think Kennedy’s strategic critique is a strong one: he contends that the March direct action was produced by a union strategy that used its resources (our resources, really) on an event aiming to create more public pressure on CUNY administration and Albany, rather than focusing the unions’ resources inward to build more immediately within the ranks towards a strike. I agree with him that we need to be engaging in the latter with increased urgency.

However, to say that we need to be on strike as of yesterday ignores that we are—and must continue to be—involved in a step-wise, strategic escalation of our long-term public campaign to fully fund CUNY. This second, larger-scale event of direct action arrests (after the smaller November action) was timed to coincide with the week the CUNY budget is being decided on in Albany, and was intended to apply further pressure on that process. It is extremely important to remember that a strike effectively represents one of the most escalated forms of action we can take to pressure for our demands, and that even a small-scale strike (e.g. day-long or rolling between campuses) imparts risks that faculty and staff are struggling to make room for in our lives (as well as penalties to our union representatives). These include possible arrests of union leadership, revocation of union privileges to receive dues through our paychecks, and for faculty and staff, loss of pay scaled to the number of days we strike. Because we are already struggling to survive on unlivable wages, and exhausted by the chronic stress of over-work—not to mention the sheer lack of any job security held by adjuncts—the risks of participating in the strike are all the more acute. To engage in an effective public campaign we need to escalate strategically, respecting the real risks involved in law-breaking actions, as well as respecting the success possible with slow (agonizing, even) escalation during ongoing attempts at negotiation.

Likewise, Kennedy’s assertion that this action was “fake civil disobedience” rests on a fundamental mis-characterization of what it means to coordinate collective direct action, with regard to direct action training, police liaising, and media strategy work. Kennedy slams the action as fake because organizers “trained participants who volunteered to risk arrest;” negotiated with police during the course of the action to minimize duress for participants; and coordinated a media strategy with outlets who wanted to cover the action. Far from being what Kennedy calls evidence of “fake” civil disobedience, each of these pieces constitute elements of effective direct action coordination which are found in many, if not most, instances of contemporary civil disobedience.

So if the action last week was disingenuous or fake because it included these forms of coordination, then many important direct actions of recent years would be fake as well, including actions which Kennedy cites as more genuine direct actions (e.g. the die-ins coordinated by ACT-UP, Palestinian solidarity formations, or Black Lives Matter), along with even higher-risk direct actions, such as the blockades of highways, buildings, and public transit by Black Lives Matter protesters. This is not to mention the historical examples of direct action which would likewise be obliterated if we were to take the inclusion of training, media coordination, or police liaising as disqualifications.

To engage in collective training as preparation for risking arrest in direct action is not inherently a form of “collusion” or collaboration with the police, as Kennedy argues, nor is it about “making people comfortable with the police,” either in terms of our relationship to the police as an institution or to police officers as individuals. The many purposes of this kind of training can include crafting a set of collective agreements on how the group risking arrest will respond to a situation which promises to be volatile, including agreeing on points at which actors want to stop escalating the situation, considering whatever risks may be involved. Training can also be about anticipating how police might respond to the action and collectively preparing to be able to not respond to the bait-and-switch tactics police deploy; and, training can help folks learn to more effectively withstand the kinds of tension and reactivity that come up at the scene of direct actions—from police or bystanders’ attempts at incitement to violence to the difficulty of remaining in one physical position for what may be hours at a time. Training can help us learn to hold our ground together in ways that bolster our collective capacities to resist the violence of police presence itself as well as to resist the specific tactics which seek to render our actions ineffectual.

Neither is the use of police liaising by organizers evidence of collusion with the police. In direct action coordination, “police liaising” usually means that, amongst the action’s participants, one or two participants who will not be risking arrest (and usually have training or experience in de-escalating cops in these situations) take on the role of primary contact people for communication the police on the scene and the participants risking arrest. Like direct action training, focusing police activity on one or two people aims to de-escalate what might otherwise be more reactive, violent responses by police, and helps create a channel for protesters’ communications to have an audience with police on the scene—neither in order to collude with the police as institution or individuals, nor to allow them control over the action, but rather, to mediate often violent police escalation and to avoid the direct action being stopped prematurely. Black Lives Matter direct actions, (e.g. #Blackbrunch) and especially those involving higher-risk arrests (e.g. blockading active BART mass transit trains in Oakland) have used police liaison roles for these ends repeatedly. Police liaising has also been a role that black leadership has pointed to repeatedly as a way experienced white organizers can engage productively in Black Lives Matter actions

Further, the fact that the police went easy on those getting arrested on Thursday is not in itself evidence of organizers collaborating with police to manufacture a disingenuous scene. One arrestee has already de-bunked the assertion in Kennedy’s piece that folks who were arrested posed for selfies with their arresting officers (these were actually mug shots taken by the cops). Another arrested CUNY faculty member said that some of the police were speaking in a friendly manner with arrestees, and that some arrestees had their zip-tie “handcuffs” put on so loosely that they could have removed them if they wanted to. Some police officers were also chatting with arrestees about their family histories in the CUNY system and sharing their support for CUNY funding. This, still, is not evidence that organizers colluded with police. Among other important dynamics at play, I think this is evidence of some amount of support by individual rank-and-file police officers for an end to educational austerity. To see individual police-officers’ going-easy on protesters as evidence that the NYPD was collaborating institutionally with our unions behind closed doors to make it what Kennedy calls a “smooth operation” is to erase the possibility of resistance by rank-and-file police officers to the usual norms of brutality dictating how arrestees are to be treated. This remains true even as this kind of differential treatment at the hands of police is, for sure, complex, as we must consider the scarcity of such treatment being afforded to a Black or Brown suspect of a crime.

However, individual police resistance to norms of committing brutality against law-breakers, suspects, and innocents alike should not be discounted out of hand (and nor should police resistance in general); similarly to the ways in which we can critique US militarism at home and abroad, but still be able to see the powerful ways in which GI resistance within the ranks of the military has been a vital part of anti-militarist organizing for decades. Just as we can see that the working class, immigrants, and people of color are disproportionately funneled into military jobs, we can see that the same economic and political forces of marginalization push these folks into law enforcement jobs. The police is an institution of domestic state violence which helps to commit vast portions of the population to incarceration; and, simultaneously, there is a spectrum of possible resistances from within the ranks that police officers may undertake, some more and some less visible—and do so at their own risk, as well.

Thus, I join Kennedy in the spirit of critiquing our campaign both at the symbolic and the strategic level, and like him, I want to push our efforts toward contesting structural injustice at the university more powerfully. I also want to raise up Samir Chopra’s recent response to Kennedy’s piece, as Chopra argues that while we will likely need to strike—and perhaps, very soon—we are far from ready to do so, in terms of the organizing we need to do beyond the authorization vote to make for a viable strike. As Chopra writes, we need to be organizing more vigorously toward the mass level of support we will need from students and their families if any potential strike is to be successful.

I’ll end on the hope that with the power we are building in this campaign, including through the many students, faculty, and staff who have become more active, politicized participants in their communities and unions, we can build effectively toward our next escalation. As I write, our state legislators in Albany are squabbling over how many pennies they will throw down to CUNY, and how many percentage points below the rate of inflation we will be offered as phony “raises.” And so, if there are ways in which the university is “dead”-to-us, as Kennedy argues—ways in which it is chronically not working for us as faculty, staff, and students alike—then may our critique become powerful enough to build a strong foundation for our continuing actions, through which we might rise from the ashes.

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