Red Emma Speaks

Sunday, November 06, 2005

so where do i come from, anyway?

Let's see: I am the daughter of the immigrant Norwegian owner of a construction company and an Ayn Rand disciple who stopped reading anything challenging after the age of 25. I went to Lutheran school until i was 14. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, where i was raised to never use the "n-word" but was guided clearly to view the big city as a dangerous den of thieves, dirt and black male rapists. I never had the ubiquitously touted black friend as a child, mostly because there weren't any African-American people in my school or my neighborhood.

I grew up reading one newspaper--the Chicago Tribune. I never had to learn item one about Black History, and never had to read a book written about race or by an African-American person until I got to college. Even there, cultural exchange was sparse (being rural Wisconsin and all). Until college, I loved Ronald Reagan, although I was suspicious of his intelligence. I believed that I could never be a racist person, but I was privately uncomfortable around black folks, even when I dated a few. (no one special--I dated everybody. Just about. Really. That's how I learned about all the people I'd never had contact with before.)

My entry into activism in general and community involvement was through women's studies. I took one class, chosen by my republican and cynical anti-feminist mother, because it fit two crossover requirements. Changed my life. I don't think I read a fraction of the required reading, but just a taste got me thinking in ways I'd never before.

So, right out of college, two things happened: I got a job teaching delinquent and troubled high schoolers, and I volunteered with NARAL. My life then had two parallel roads i ran on daily. One was a heady brew of exploration into the political activist life of leftist Chicago full of meetings and actions and the other was dealing with children coming from a world I had zero experience with.

Those two roads grew closer and closer together as I found myself exploring the city, that forbidden Oz which had beckoned at the horizon of my childhood. There was NARAL, which I soon found too stodgy and conservative for my taste, then there was clinic defense... Then there was my search for books and material I could offer to interest my ever-renewing population of students. Along the way, I attended meetings of just about every group active in Chicago in the early 90s--Queer Nation, ACT-UP, the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Communist Labor Party, Refuse and Resist, Baklava, NOW, the Mad Housers, News & Letters, Food Not Bombs... and more I've long since forgotten.

I pursued my education on street level, avoiding most ideology because of my impatience with all these folks who allowed it separate them from those they could have worked with. Eventually, two entities became my home: the Women's Action Coalition (a direct action oriented, now-defunct group) and Guild Books, which was run by a bunch of commies (although I didn't know that right away). In the meantime, I got up the courage to move into the city alone.

I'm not sure when I reached the conclusion that, at heart, I was an anarchist. My suburban roots would often get in the way of too-in-your-face demonstration activity, but I was good at organizing, leading meetings (sororities might be good for something, after all), and being a go-between in demonstrations between cops and demonstrators (commonly known as being a "marshal"). I also felt out of place at the "autonomous zone," an anarchist hang-out, that was in my neighborhood. That might not sound very anarchist, but it didn't take much time into my adulthood to realize that, although I still felt uncomfortable with most poor people and people of color, I was invariably sympathetic to their causes and instinctively knew, in my heart and from my position of privilege, that the masters were not inclined to dismantle the masters' house--never would, in fact. I felt (and feel) that change comes, as historically demonstrated, from a strong mix of hyper-rational middle-of-the-road discourse/in-the-system work and an outside fringe of feared renegades whose inscrutability and visibility push the masters into accepting the less-onerous demands of the middle-of-the-roaders. I believe the world needs both. And although I blend well with the former, I get fueled by the inspiration of the latter. And I share the latter's sense of urgency.

I am, like the Real Emma, a believer in non-violence. But, also like her, I understand how people fall into violence when they feel backed into a corner, when they feel they're fighting for their lives. I believe that the world is chock full of grey, and that although I will never advocate or participate in violence, I can have compassion for and help those who have. Until this week, I have never been arrested in the "line of duty." I believe that one should never be arrested without a distinct and carefully thought out plan. I do not believe that attacking property is violence, but aside from a few instances of spraypainting and stickering, I have not participated in it.

In my years of involvement, I have seen, with my own eyes, some incredible instances of injustice--not perpetrated against me, usually, because of my capacity for "blending in"--but against my cohorts of color, homeless and otherwise. I have been in a squatters building when the police raided it. I have witnessed the destruction of homeless settlements along the train tracks. I have been at my parents' house for Thanksgiving, feet sunk into plush carpet, and watched the news report on someone I knew left to die by paramedics because of his homelessness and color. (And had to deal with my parents' irritation that I could "actually know that person" through my tears.) I have watched people be (literally) shot at and every stop pulled out to destroy their lives because they were a minority in their town. I have continually been struck with how differently I could be treated versus how someone unlike me would be. And, although I couldn't articulate it until I left Chicago, I felt a duty to respond. To do something about it, in whatever capacity I was able, without compromising my beliefs.

When I left the city, it was after I had quit my "day job" in the interest of finding a more clear path to the writing life. I spent my last six months there driving a cab, letting most of the activism drop away in the face of being the only white female in the city driving hack 12 hours a day. It was very intense. I learned a great deal, which was part of my intention. I learned about immigrant issues, got a taste of really down-and-dirty sexism, and experienced class in a whole new way. I learned a lot about hooking, about the streets, and about how people treat those they view as their servants.

When I left, I was exhausted. I felt a need for perspective. For rest. And so, moving to the North (for a lover), was my ticket to it. The thing is, I couldn't stop getting involved in issues that bothered me. Not only did I feel like I wasn't going to waste the education I'd earned on my own terms, I felt a duty to use it. And, as always seems to happen, I met people who could help me get some understanding of all that I'd experienced.

For instance, out of all that, I'd been struggling with the issue of "white guilt." There were definitely times I'd allowed someone to take advantage of me just because of his/her color or class. I had been stolen from, used, and put down. Also, I'd behaved in ways that were obvious in their "overcompensation."

Luckily for me, there was Kwiesi, who lived in a co-op I moved into. The only way I can easily explain him is to say he was like a small-time Malcolm X. From Baltimore, an anti-racism and union organizer--he was a big burr in the backside of this little Northern place. And he indulged me, during the time we lived in the same building, with many hours of intense conversation. Through our talks, I was able to see through my confusion, and separate out my "character" from all my misgivings. I was able to get an outside view of where I'd been so far, and what it was I needed to do. One thing was understanding that there was nothing wrong with feeling a little guilt if you have reason to feel guilty, and that the best way of dealing with that was to do something to affect change. That my naiveté was to be expected, given where I'd started, and that it was really about what I was going to do to change it.

Too soon, Kwiesi was driven from town in search of work (he was essentially blacklisted here), and it wasn't until later that I realized there might have been a reason for his brightly shining light--all through the time I knew him, he'd been unknowingly dying of cancer.

And so, reinvigorated, I stepped away from my own personal cloud of confusion. I continued to work within activist circles. (Catholic Workers, Food Not Bombs.) Eventually, I got into writing for a local independent weekly, which is a whole other story, a foray into local politics and some kind of respectability. And I found an opportunity to do something about racism--something concrete. But I won't tell what that is, because if I do, then my identity will be all too clear, and I'm not interested in tying this moniker to My True Self just yet. Now that the whole hullabaloo surrounding that concrete effort has died down somewhat, I am still working with the responsibilities I garnered through it. Best of all, I feel a real sense of accomplishment, that my internal work has paid off. The ripple effect of that act has felt enormous.

Last week, I got arrested for blocking the doors to an Army Recruiting Center. It was almost as exciting as the few times I've tried but failed to get arrested during actions in the past. (Cops sometimes let you go, whether you want them to or not.) I'm proud that my first arrest was for something so worthwhile. The funniest thing about it is that it has felt distinctly anti-climactic. I was home in time for pancakes.


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