Wednesday, June 02, 2004

First LA Public Event: Tom Hayden

Getting to know a community, its political cultures, and its opportunities for learning and acting on those learnings is a long-term process. We have been here for just over two weeks, and last night I took the opportunity to take my first real step in the process. I went to my first public/political event, a talk by Tom Hayden about his new book, Street Wars.

Hayden was a leader of the U.S. student movement in the 1960s, in particular Students for a Democratic Society. His point of highest visibility was as a defendent in the Chicago Eight trial (along with Dave Dellinger, mentioned in posts from last week.) He went on to become a politician and served for quite a while in the California state senate. This is his third book.

I read the first ten or twenty pages of one of his other books a few years ago -- I don't remember the title, but it was a memoir, I think. I was reading it on the way to some kind of political action (perhaps the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001?) and so was easily distracted and never got very far with it. As well, I was lukewarm about the tone; it was written while he was a sitting politician, and the tone reflected that. I have heard that Hayden has a bit of a reputation, in his later years, as one of those folks on the left fringe of the Democratic Party whose function seems to be more about getting progressives to stay in the supposed "big tent" rather than actually pushing the centrists and conservatives who run the party. Still, he has lived a life of commitment to social change, and the topic of the book -- gang violence -- is one that is relevant to my new city of residence.

The location of the event was a book store in an area of the city known as Brentwood. Cool book stores have been harder to find in LA than I was expecting, so I was pleased with this opportunity to take a look at one that would bring in a progressive speaker of this sort. The talk was actually in a courtyard in the middle of the building. The book store occupies the ground floor of three sides of the building itself. It's a bit far away for me to go to regularly, but it looked like a good place to remember.

The crowd was a bit of a surprise. It was older, smaller, whiter, more affluent, and farther in appearance from any phenotypes I tend to associate with the label "activist" than I was expecting. There was one guy who looked like an aging labour radical, and judging from things I overheard that's exactly what he was. Hayden also acknowledged the presence of a couple of veterans of The Movement from back in the '60s. But that's it. Which isn't to say that there weren't more people who have given their lives to creating social change, but I just could not pick them out, and that kind of surprised me.

I found the almost total absence of people of colour to be very surprising -- in some ways LA, or at least parts of it, is less racially segregated than I was expecting. But even Hamilton, which has far fewer people of colour proportionally and which also experiences significant racialized/racist exclusion of people of colour from most mainstream so-called social justice spaces, there would have been greater (if still under- and tokenistic) representation from people of colour. Still, even though Hayden's analysis is not about scapegoating the way most mainstream discussion of gang violence is, the event was still very much well-heeled white folks gasping at how bad things are for "them." I can see how that would be hard to take. Plus I think Brentwood is coded "white" in LA's racial geography, which probably played a role, too.

In fact, though I think there is a lot of good stuff in Hayden's analysis -- I've only read about 20 pages of the book so far -- and it doesn't ignore the effects of capitalism and systemic white supremacy on creating these problems, it still does not really foreground them. It seems to me that the most important message when speaking to economically privileged and predominantly white folk about this issue would be the old truism that privilege does not exist without oppression, so what are you folks with privilege going to do about your role in all of this? Instead, much more energy and time was spent in what felt like a report-back from this brave, fellow affluent white guy who had learned from and about "the other" first hand and was now sharing what he had learned.

The most interesting novel learning for me was the role of the United States in globalizing gang violence. Apparently in response to rising gang violence in the '80s and '90s, one action that was taken was to deport youth who had come to the U.S. as children back to the countries in which they were born for gang-related activities. They had not grown up there and had no easy way to integrate into these societies, so many continued to do what they knew, and now there are gangs in most major cities in Central America.

His answer seems to be fairly obvious, if too moderate, though in the U.S. political culture it is radical-seeming to suggest even this: A state with a more social democratic orientation that prioritizes a "New Deal" for the poor communities of colour which are wracked by gang violence, and what seems to be a peace studies-influenced approach to really understanding gang violence as conflict and providing suppots and tools for those traumatized by it, especially including gang members themselves, to heal and reintegrate. He also gives at least a nod to the potential for mobilizing youth in a united way as part of movements for social and racial justice. In fact, I think one of the most inspiring parts of his book will be the discussions of and with ex-gang members who have committed their lives to creating peace and justice in their neighbourhoods.

So I'm glad I went and I'm glad I caved and bought the book -- it is one small step to learning and, I hope, to acting.

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