Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Police Target Hamilton Book Fair

This is ridiculous: The Hamilton police department is warning that the 2nd annual Hamilton Anarchist Book Fair is a potential source of hate crime. Criminalizing dissent is always bad, but there is something particularly cheeky about the police -- the armed fist employed by defenders of the status quo against land claims, struggles for racial and gender justice, actions by working people, and so much else -- accusing these social justice activists of conspiring to promote hatred.

Here is a media release from Common Cause, the group of platformist anarchists who are organizing the event:


Anarchists call Police report comparing activism to hate crime "chilling"

May 24, 2009

HAMILTON- Local members of the provincial anarchist organization Common Cause fear Hamilton police are seeking to criminalize local organizers after a Hamilton police report identified the 2nd annual Hamilton Anarchist Book Fair as a potential source of hate crime.

While presenting the Year-End Hate Crime report (available online) to the Hamilton Police Board on May 19, acting sergeant Michael Goch stated police would be “actively monitoring” the book fair scheduled to take place on June 6.

Alex Diceanu, Ontario Treasurer of Common Cause responded, "As the organizers of the annual book fair, and as local anarchists and activists, Common Cause is deeply disturbed by these statements.

"This is a manipulation of hate crime laws to criminalize activism. At this time of economic and environmental crisis, alongside increasing political disengagement, activism and educational events such as the book fair should be encouraged, not chilled with surveillance."

The report also identifies the 2010 G8 summit (Huntsville, ON), the 2010 Olympics, “local native land reclamation issues”, “the anarchist movement” and “anti-government and anti-establishment reaction of economic crisis and job losses” as trends and events that “may have significant impacts and repercussions on the Hamilton community in terms of hate/bias related incidents.”

For the first time the report also includes incidents of graffiti aimed at police even though this contradicts the report's own definition of a hate crime.

Diceanu commented, "We are concerned that public resources meant to investigate hate crimes are being focused upon people trying to improve this community."

The Hamilton Anarchist Book Fair is not a threat to the community.

It is open to the public and family-friendly, featuring free child care and a kid's workshop.

Over 300 people attended last year's book fair. Activists will gather again this year to exchange literature and other forms of information.

Workshops at the book fair attempt to address issues faced by marginalized groups named in hate crimes legislation, including indigenous peoples, racialized groups, people facing disability barriers and others. Other workshops address the the economic crisis, environmental justice and workplace organizing.

"Common Cause's Basic Policy states clearly that, and I quote, 'we actively oppose all manifestations of oppression such as racism, sexism, [religious] sectarianism and homophobia and we struggle against them.'

Indeed, anarchists have always sought to understand and end all forms of oppression in our struggle to create a world marked by true equality, freedom, peace, and harmony with the natural environment" says Diceanu ATTACHED PHOTO: A Hamiltonian with a disability talks with AJ Withers
a disability-rights activist with DAMN 2025 at the 2008 Hamilton anarchist book fair. Photo Credit: George Sweetman

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sci-fi/Fantasy Fans Against Racism

I am a nerd. Moreover, I am that flavour of nerd that derives great enjoyment from science fiction, fantasy, and horror, in both textual and audiovisual forms -- a taste that has informed my media consumption since my dad first read me various versions of the Arthur myth, some Ursula LeGuin, and J.R.R. Tolkien as bedtime stories starting when I was six or seven.

There is very little I can do to conceal my more general nerdliness from anyone who spends more than a few minutes in conversation with me, but I do tend to be rather sheepish about advertising my specifically fannish tendencies when it comes to speculative fiction. I won't get into the reasons for that sheepishness -- it would distract from the point of the post -- but part of the reason for me posting this today is that I realized that that tendency on my part was on the verge of keeping me silent in a situation in which my political convictions would otherwise be pushing me to say something.

So. Apparently there was a great deal of controversy that began in January '09 when some white sci-fi/fantasy authors and editors and fans said and did some fairly clueless racist things. Some fans of colour and allies pointed those racist things out, and the usual sort of thing happened that tends to happen when white folks get called on racism, in real life or online. This series of events has been called RaceFail 09 (see here and here). I was vaguely aware of RaceFail 09 as it was happening, but only vaguely, because I mostly do not have much to do with organized fan contexts (see above, re. "sheepishness").

More recently, different white sci-fi/fantasy authors have said different clueless racist things -- a good summary is here. It was that post just linked, which I found via a post on Alas, A Blog, that got me reading about all this stuff on Friday afternoon when I really should have been doing other things. This newer situation has variously been called RaceFail 2.0, MammothFail, and other things as well. (Two posts linking to other posts on this issue can be found here and here.)

Now, part of what caught my attention was the content of the original boneheaded move by author Patricia Wrede, who I had never previously heard of. A lot of what I read and write, and a lot of what appears on this blog, has to do with Canadian history from below -- that is, history considered in ways that explicitly foregrounds experiences of and resistance to oppressions. As well, I have developed increasing conviction over the years that you cannot get to the root of anything politically in North America unless you deal with the history and present-day reality of colonization and genocide of the indigenous nations of Turtle Island. So it caught my attention to learn that Wrede is writing an alternative history fantasy of North America in which indigenous people do not exist, and in which the chattel slavery of Africans brought to the Americas does not exist either. As others have noted in various things linked in the links above, you might be able to justify this particular fantastical revision of history if what you were doing was examining the ways in which the shape of the social world in contemporary North America depends in profound ways on histories to which indigenous peoples and enslaved African peoples have been integral. That could actually be fascinating and useful, given the ways in which those of us who are privileged tend to be completely out of touch with the ways in which our privileged realities depend on people who are oppressed to our benefit (white folks on racialized people, men on women, etc., etc.). But the comments from Wrede quoted in the above posts make it clear that it was a decision made primarily because having indigenous people in her story would make things more difficult for her as a writer, and their absence has no particular impact on the history she intends to tell.

This is the main comment from Wrede that gets cited:

The *plan* is for it to be a "settling the frontier" book, only without Indians (because I really hate both the older Indians-as-savages viewpoint that was common in that sort of book, *and* the modern Indians-as-gentle-ecologists viewpoint that seems to be so popular lately, and this seems the best way of eliminating the problem, plus it'll let me play with all sorts of cool megafauna).

This choice is happening in the context of a realworld history in which white people have been trying to make the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island disappear for some time now, and one in which one of the dominant stereotypes that indigenous folks must face in much of the U.S. and some parts of Canada is that they don't exist. And the idea that the two stereotypes she references are the only possible ways to write indigenous people is kind of stunning in its refusal to even acknowledge the possibility of writing indigenous people as, y'know, complicated, nuanced, three-dimensional human beings in complicated, nuanced, three-dimensional societies.

The other major contribution to RaceFail 2.0 comes form fantasy author Lois McMaster Bujold -- I have never read her work either, but I know that some friends like it a lot. Her point, I think made in the course of discussing the stuff from Wrede, was a claim that people of colour have only recently started to read, write, and enjoy speculative fiction, thanks to the internet. Bujold and others claimed, as neo_prodigy summarizes, that the reason "POC speculative fiction fans don't exist is because we're too poor/uneducated, weren't exposed to it by other family members and other absurd bullshit."

Now, my understanding is that there are ways that dominant practices in the production of science fiction, fantasy, and horror have not always made it easy for racialized people to find a place. The publishing industry has its own particular history of racism, as do organized fan contexts. The dominant modes of storytelling in science fiction and fantasy have also tended to be based in standpoints that map readily onto whiteness, onto the colonizer, onto the imperial being, which could also be offputting to some who must navigate those oppressive realities in real life.

Because of these active exclusions, I have understood it to be the case the people of colour have tended to be modestly underrepresented as writers and fans of sf/f/h in English -- definitely not absent, but moderately less present. But because of this controversy, I'm no longer so sure that even that is true. Whether it is true or not, I'm sure these things are: Racism in both social contexts associated with sf/f/h fiction and in sf/f/h writing exists and makes these environments less hospitable to racialized people. Yet racialized people are and have always been present in those contexts, as both writers and readers. I mean, it is just a basic, basic thing that oppression creates its own resistance. That resistance can take lots of forms, it may or may not be visible to the oppressor, and it may or may not be easily recognized as such by those of us who claim we want to be allies. But it is always there. So of course there are fans of colour, and have always been. Of course. No matter how hostile an environment we white people might make fan contexts and publishing contexts and some of the dominant tropes of the genre -- people that are erased, excluded, pushed to the exit by relations of white supremacy and the ways in which they are expressed in how writing gets published and what writing gets published, will always, always, always be refusing to passively accept that treatment. Always. And white folk who want to be allies should be refusing to passively accept it too. As well, the ways that human beings take up stories and images is active -- people are fully capable of embracing elements of a narrative that fill us with wonder, with hope, with passion, that speak to us in some way, and really embrace them, even as we are critical of other elements.

So some things have been happening in response to all of this. One is this amazing, inspiring callout for racialized fans of speculative fiction to make themselves visible by leaving a comment. Another is the day of blog-based action to which this post is a response, called "Fen of Color United" or FOC_U. The callout was for racialized people to post stories or poetry or fanfic or analyses of the issue and to generally show a refusal to be silent and invisible, and for white allies to speak out in solidarity. So that's what I'm doing.

I'll end with this: Read what you already love but be deliberate as you experiment with new voices. Read authors of colour. Read authors that play with critical politics in their work. And as you do all of that, embrace the juxtaposition of extracting joy and wonder with actively critical reading, of producing joy and wonder with actively critical writing.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Review: "Real" Indians and Others

[Bonita Lawrence. "Real" Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004.]

This book does pretty much exactly the kind of work that I think powerful political nonfiction needs to do. It begins from individual experience, and draws out from experiences the ways in which the real lives of real people, and by extension the oppressions they experience, are socially organized. It does not flinch from hard questions or from following the implications of politicized understandings of the world. It refuses to oversimplify in the name of a political objective, and finds ways to show how diverse experiences of oppression and resistance are tied together.

More specifically, this book is an important study of racial formation in Canada, and of the evolution of colonial relations. It contributes to discussions among indigenous peoples with respect to how they are organizing against their diverse experiences of colonization. By implication, this also issues a challenge that non-indigenous radicals need to take up and work with.

The book takes a series of interviews done by Lawrence in the context of the urban indigenous community in Toronto, a community in which Lawrence herself has actively participated. It situates these experiences in the long history of the settler state regulating who is and who is not properly considered to be "Indian." This stretches from differential practices towards "pure bloods" versus "mixed bloods" by the Hudson Bay Company in the long years before 1867 and arbitrary decisions about who was or was not allowed to participate in treaty processes, through the many incarnations of the Indian Act, and the ongoing, relentlessly colonial orientation of the Canadian state. I actually found it difficult to read in places -- not that the overall idea was particularly new to me, but the relentless detailing of so many twisty, turny evil ways in which colonial management of indigenous lives has wreaked violence upon people made me heartsick at not a few points in the reading. Through all of this, the book looks at the historical and personal trajectories by which indigenous people in Canada have been pried away from their nations over many generations and ended up in cities, and also how they are struggling, individually and collectively, to navigate what history has dealt them.

The use of colonial identity regulation to attack nations by forcibly expelling potential members is a key insight of this book into the processes of colonization that have created Canada. Indigenous nations were forced into small, isolated pockets of land, and then a whole manner of (usually highly gendered) tools were applied to separate people from their nations, with the end goal of destroying those nations and, therefore, the challenge to the Canadian state represented by indigeneity. Generations of applying these tools have produced deep and painful contradictions within and among indigenous people -- differences and contradictions that cannot simply be wished away by labelling them "false consciousness" or some such, but that are very real and that have to be the starting point for establishing political unity in the struggle against colonial relations. These colonially created divisions, as well as settler ideologies around things like "authenticity," have powerfully influenced commonsenses among indigenous people themselves about who is and is not an "Indian."

Lawrence argues that, though the issues are many and difficult, indigenous people in urban areas, and those whose ancestors include both indigenous and non-indigenous people, have important roles to play in struggling against colonial relations and the liberation of indigenous nations as nations. A key element of the political vision that springs from her analysis is a revival of the ancient confederacies that organized the political life of the nations of Turtle Island in the days before contact. This would provide a location for political identification that was not so bound to colonial ways of organizing the world -- that could, without denying the real bases for contradictions among indigenous people, provide a forum for working through them and building meaningful anti-colonial unity. I don't think I have enough knowledge to comment on this as a political strategy, and it wouldn't be my place anyway as a settler, but it certainly sounds compelling as she presents it.

Though it is not its focus, I think this book also issues a challenge to non-indigenous people. I read this, of course, as a white guy who swims within the vague, largely dispersed and disorganized something that could be called the settler-dominated and white-dominated left. There are at least three tendencies within the white settler-dominated left with respect to relating to indigenous struggles. Though it is less universal than it used to be, the first tendency just ignores it. There is a second grouping that pays it some rhetorical heed but with minimal appreciation that there is a necessity not just to voice token acknowledgment but to open up our own politics to be transformed in encounters with indigenous anti-colonial thought and action. And there is a third tendency, and in this one I'm thinking particularly of some segments of the white settler-dominated radical left, that is still usually not terribly good at sophisticated listening and opening up self for transformation, but that takes anti-colonial politics more seriously at least in a general sense. Yet this last grouping often pays attention to certain land-based struggles, particularly those using confrontational tactics, and ignores other aspects of colonization and resistance.

All of these tendencies could benefit from reading this book, but I am particularly interested in seeing it read by folks in the last grouping -- that segment of us that know that taking indigenous struggle seriously is important but that is fumbling around to figure out how to do that. This book doesn't answer that question for us, of course, but by making urban indigenous realities visible in an anti-colonial framework it provides both a push and a resource for correcting one of the traps into which we frequently fall.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Review: The New City

[John Lorinc. The New City: How the Crisis of Canada's Cities is Reshaping our Nation. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008. (Original edition published 2006.)]

I'm not sure it really makes any sense for "cities" or "the city" to be the focus of affection, but it still manages to be one for me: I like cities.

I grew up in a small town, so for most of the year I had almost no experience of the urban that wasn't completely diluted by its mediation through the automobile. However, we would spend at least a month every summer at my grandparents' house in Glasgow and those early associations with urban living -- vacation, grandparental presence, being spoiled, and all the other good things those imply for a child -- may be the actual root of my current city-liking. Still, it took me years of living in Hamilton, Ontario, as a young adult to go from complete disconnection to serious affection, but that may have been more about how my life was organized as an undergraduate university student than anything else. And if my sentiment was indeed forged in visits to Scotland's grimy, poor, industrial and post-industrial urban heartland, it is an interesting coincidence that most of my adult life has been spent in the grimy, poor, industrial and post-industrial Ontario cities of Hamilton and Sudbury.

Regardless of where it came from, my newly flowering affection for Hamilton was partly responsible for the three years I spent producing and hosting a radio show that could variously have defined itself as being about municipal politics, local social movements, or local urban issues. Whichever angle my co-host and I were emphasizing at a particular moment, we were always assertively pro-city in our orientation. If this book hit the shelves during those three years, I'm sure I would've had an entire show devoted to interviewing John Lorinc, a mainstream journalist with a long history of covering urban issues in big Canadian newspapers. There is something about the enthusiasm Lorinc exhibits for cities, and for the best that the urban can offer, that really speaks to me. This is particularly true in my own current context of feeling regretfully under-citied -- I have a certain affection for Sudbury, but still wish I lived some place bigger.

I also appreciate the form and content of the book. It is extensively researched. The writing is not beautiful or brilliant, but it is clear and smooth. Lorinc packs in a lot of material and weaves together many sources in a seamless way, as good journalistic writing has to do. There is also evidence of concern for injustice and suffering. Certainly the book has moments of glorifying conspicuous urban consumption, but much of its focus is on key social issues such as homelessness, immigration, education, transit, the environment, and so on. In doing so, it generally advocates progressive positions, presents important aspects of problems, and often talks to sources that have clever things to say.

I hope I've managed to foreshadow that there might be a "but" coming along in this review, because it is a pretty big one. For all that this book manages to tweak that part of me that is sweet on cities, and for all that it brings under one cover lots and lots of the raw materials that a radical analysis of cities in northern Turtle Island would also require, The New City also smacks with a saddening thump into the limits of mainstream progressive Canadian politics in its first pages, and keeps on thumping into that wall throughout the book.

It would be pointless, I think, to try and provide a complete accounting of the political problems of this book -- they are all extremely predictable and it would soon become repetitive and shrill. But I suppose I have to at least give an overview, or some examples:

  • Gendered experiences of urban space never receive any attention. This is despite the fact that I know there are Canadian feminist academics and activists who have worked on this question.
  • He vastly underestimates the role of racism in shaping Canadian cities historically and Canadian urban experience today. He cheers on state multiculturalism without any awareness of the criticisms it has received from anti-racist academics and activists.
  • Despite being very supportive of the struggles of immigrants in some parts of the book, it is very hard to read the way he talks about immigration in other sections as anything other than instances of the tired but powerful immigrant-as-problem discourse.
  • He does the usual white progressive two-step around indigenous issues by urging a certain kind of support for Native people while completely completely blanking on what it would actually mean politically to take seriously indigenous claims about the past, the present, and the future.
  • He is very selective in what he targets with pro-ordinary-people skepticism. For example, he seems to completely accept that the "debt crisis" that was used to create the public panic that preceded the sharp ramping up in neoliberalism at the federal level in Paul Martin's 1995 budget as being a genuine crisis caused by foolhardy spending. But you don't have too look too hard, or even too far to the left, to find that myth taken apart and to see how it was mostly just made up as part of class warfare from above.
  • It uses the tired device of performing the virtues of Canada through selective comparison with the United States.
  • It explains its questionable narrative of Canadian cities once being the envy of everyone and now running into some problems basically by looking to decisions made by political parties. While it is nice that it is both nonpartisan and highly critical of the right, analyzing neoliberalism solely at this level means missing a lot -- including missing why the book's call for a more robust social democracy with an urban emphasis is simply not going to be on the menu without significant grassroots mobilization.
  • He largely ignores the ways in which so much "revitalization" of urban space in rich countries, even putatively progressive variants, ends up being an attack on poor people and poor communities.

So by all means read this book. It contains loads of useful information. Some of its discussion of specific policy problems, in the context of organizing for immediate reforms, are also quite useful. And definitely savour the moments when Lorinc shows his passion for vibrant cities. But not only take his writing as a detailed lesson in the real strengths and serious limitations of mainstream progressive politics in Canada, but also take some of the problems of this book as indications that maybe we should start to trouble some of the ways in which privileged lefties (such as yours truly) experience our own enjoyment of the urban.

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Friday, May 01, 2009

Review: In Their Own Voices

[Jim Silver (with Joan Hay, Darlene Klyne, Parvin Ghorayshi, Peter Gorzen, Cyril Keeper, Michael MacKenzie and Freeman Simard). In Their Own Voices: Building Urban Aboriginal Communities. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2006.]

In Their Own Voices skillfully accomplishes its purpose. It uses community-based participatory research to examine both problems and strategies in the urban Aboriginal community in Winnipeg. But it still leaves me with many questions.

The book brings together four distinct research projects. The primary author appears to have been involved with all of them, while the other people listed above participated in only one. The book begins with a sociological and political overview of urban Aboriginal peoples in Canada by Jim Silver. The other four chapters each discuss a specific participatory research project, all located in Winnipeg, which has one of the highest urban concentrations of indigenous people in Canada.

The first project looks at a mainstream neighbourhood association and the relationship of the fairly dense concentration of Aboriginal people in that neighbourhood to the association's activities. The chapter documents extensive barriers to participation. However, it goes on to illustrate how a neighbourhood association that is specifically for Aboriginal residents can provide a much more effective way to build an organized voice for Native people in a given area. The next chapter looks at four adult learning centres in Manitoba, and the ways in which they respond more effectively than the regular school system to the needs of Aboriginal people. Again, it finished by looking at the importance of an organization run by and for Aboriginal people for effective individual and community empowerment. The third project is an examination of Aboriginal participation in mainstream elections, through both the published literature and interviews done in Winnipeg. And the final project brings together the wisdom of almost 30 long-time Aboriginal community activists from Winnipeg to present a vision for what Aboriginal community development can and should mean in urban contexts. It includes mention of struggles for Aboriginal control of child welfare and of a particular high school, and it recommends strategies that involve mobilization and steps towards urban self-determination for Aboriginal people.

In all cases, the research emphasizes the importance of activities that are culturally based and that emphasize cultural revitalization; of organizations that are run by and for Aboriginal people in urban contexts; and of the importance of focusing on the very urgent needs and harms that colonization has imposed on the everyday lives of most urban Aboriginal people.

It's always possible to cover up methodological problems in studies like this, but as far as I can tell it is an excellent example of this kind of research. It seems genuinely participatory. It takes the politics, experience, and needs of the group of interest into account, and focuses on the voices of the oppressed in how it presents its data. Aboriginal people in Winnipeg were integral to this research in multiple ways, both shaping it and executing it.

In addition, a lot of the stuff that it talks about is pretty interesting. It provides some quite cool examples of indigenous people building power in urban areas, even if the language is a bit different than that. The indigenous-controlled high school, child welfare agency, and adult learning centre were particularly inspiring, as were the initial moves towards a larger scale of self-determination within the city. It provides a strong and consistent emphasis on the role of colonization in shaping the experiences of urban Aboriginal people. It is also very useful for its insight into the everyday lives of urban Aboriginal people -- something to which radicals like Patricia Monture, Taiaiake Alfred, Andrea Smith, and Howard Adams are responsive, but the details of which aren't necessarily always legible in their work to those of us who do not share such experiences. This book's use of people voicing the details of their own experiences paints a stark picture of just how vicious colonization is to its victims. In Their Own Voices also puts an emphasis on addressing the all-important political questions in the context of ordinary people living their lives, and of what is actually happening in a particular city. It is about people building organizations, and finding ways to help people shift their everyday experiences in important ways.

However, there's an awful lot this book doesn't talk about, too. It does not talk about the possible limits and dangers of state funding. It alludes to some of the dangers of market relations to urban Aboriginal communities as the process of addressing individual colonization and community poverty begin to have some effect, but only in very limited ways. It does not talk about current experiments in urban settings in North America to address related social questions in ways that are fundamentally anti-state, such as many of the groups affiliated with INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. In the chapter on elections, it is thorough in presenting the various reasons why indigenous people might choose not to participate in mainstream electoral politics, including if they have indigenous nationalist politics (though it is interesting that very few of the urban Aboriginal people in Winnipeg that they interviewed claimed this reason for not voting). And I think it's also important that this chapter presented the pragmatic, immediate gains that can result from voting. But it did not explore the limits of what can be achieved through electoral politics. Nor did it explore what it means to participate electorally when the state is a significant source of violence to you and yours. This connects to the almost complete absence of discussion of police violence and harassment, which plays a huge role in shaping the experiences of indigenous people in urban areas, particularly in Western Canada.

All of these areas of silence add up to a fairly significant whole, and risk skewing the political vision that is presented in the book in particular directions. And in saying that, I'm not recommending that attention to these things be taken in puritanical directions -- noting the limitations of electoral politics, for instance, does not mean leaping to self-righteous abstentionism. At the same time, not explicitly dealing with such limitations can lead to serious misunderstandings about what voting for your Member of Parliament can actually achieve.

A final area of concern is where this kind of research implicitly locates the problems that it tries to address. The focus on voices and experiences of oppressed peoples and on the organizations that they are building to meet daily needs is absolutely essential, practically and politically. Yet unless that is paired with efforts to explore, starting from those voices and experiences, the way in which those experiences of oppression are socially produced, then it risks leaving oppression oddly disembodied and without any apparent agent to enforce it. This book certainly names colonial oppression, but in most instances it does not explore how contemporary colonial relations are put together. Yes, emphasizing the agency of the oppressed is vital, but pointing to the agents of oppression -- individuals, institutions, and particular forms of social relations -- is also vital. It is only through at least some attention to how oppression is created that a complete and balanced picture of politically necessary work can emerge.

I don't want to overemphasize the negative. This book has a lot of important stuff in it, and its commitment to what people are actually saying and doing is great. It is cool research that describes some cool organizing. But I think it is best understood with a clear awareness of what it leaves out.

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