Color Blind

Activists of Color Bring the Economic War Home, But Is the Movement Missing the Message?

Last weekend, Jia Ching chen found himself in the bucolic Santa Monica hills, dispensing advice to a roomful of young activists about occupying a corporation's headquarters (one tip: plan clear sight lines for the media). As a longtime trainer for the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society, which has trained thousands of activists in nonviolent civil disobedience, the 27-year-old Chen has led many similar workshops. Still, he says, he has never been more excited by a Ruckus event because, for the first time Chen can remember, he was not one of the only people of color in the room.

Indeed, this weekend's democracy action camp brought together more than 40 African American, latino, and Asian American activists with an equal number of white organizers. For Chen, who has also raised hell with the Third Eye Movement—bay area 'hip-hop organizers'—it was a rare instance when activist worlds collided. And it was 'a transforming moment' for the hippy-hairy ruckus, he says, a measure of how 'we're really trying to address the racial and class divides.'

Those divides were uncomfortably evident during the spectacular mass protests in seattle and washington, d.C. While the demonstrations electrified activists across the country, the fact that the ranks of protesters were overwhelmingly white has itself sparked protest. As radical black scholar robin d.G. Kelley, puts it, 'the lack of people of color involved in these demonstrations is a crisis.'

It is a crisis born of missed opportunities, considering the resurgence of activism among young people of color around

issues like police brutality, juvenile justice, and the death penalty. In California, for example, the recent fight against Prop. 21—which promises to funnel a wave of teens into adult prisons—galvanized an array of multiracial youth groups. But as Mark Rand, executive director of San Francisco's JustAct, notes, these movements and groups like Global Exchange and the Rainforest Action Network have been like "ships passing in the night."

That separation has not exactly gone unnoticed in the months since Seattle. As Rand says, "The e-mails have been flying, the listservs have been burning up." Widely circulated articles in ColorLines, the publication of the Applied Research Center, an activist institute, prompted expansive electronic exchanges by posing the question, "Where was the color at A16? [the recent D.C. demonstration]," and cataloguing "the reasons the Great Battle was so white."

For some, those reasons begin with the notion that "structural adjustment" abroad can seem abstract to people who "are getting our asses kicked daily," as Van Jones, director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, says. Meager resources certainly kept some people of color from Seattle and Washington. And direct-action tactics have a different meaning in communities where many are undocumented or have a perilous relationship with the police. Activist-author Vijay Prashad argues that the anarchist vibe of the anti-globalization movement turns off people of color, given how the state "is still seen as the arbiter of justice for our communities." But some have groused that activists of color are missing the global point, or that their complaints are based in an identity politics that has been transcended by the all-inclusive politics of economics.

Framing the issue this way, however, misses what's distinctive about new activism in communities of color. Increasingly, young critics of the criminal-justice system recognize that the prison boom is connected to cuts in social spending and that more aggressive policing of schools, streets, and borders is the toxic by-product of neoliberalism. This spring, black, Latino, and Asian youth activists fighting Prop. 21—which lowered the age when children can be tried as adults to 14—designed a campaign that involved storming the headquarters of corporations like Chevron, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Hilton, which had bankrolled the ballot initiative. One hundred seventy-five young people organized by the Third Eye Movement were arrested at the San Francisco Hilton in what Jones calls "the first hip-hop generation sit-in."

Hip-hop also provides the soundtrack for the ongoing 40-city "No More Prisons" raptivists tour, whose targets include multinational Sodexho Alliance, a major underwriter of the private prison industry. Meanwhile, L.A.'s immigrant-led Bus Rider's Union has wedded "an explicitly anti-corporate analysis," as lead organizer Cynthia Rojas puts it, to its campaign against 'transit racism.' We've done solidarity work with the Zapatistas and connected our struggle to the enormous rise of money for prisons. Basically you're talking about capitalism."

These movements bring the economic war home, and by missing that message, the American anti-globalization movement has been fighting with one arm tied behind its back. Following Seattle, movement groups kicked into outreach mode, but ultimately, says Jones, "The point isn't to make the movement look like a Benetton ad. The question is: How will this convergence change the movement?"

As Seattle shows, the change catalyzed by unlikely convergences cannot be underestimated. Just a few years ago, JustAct was known as the Overseas Development Network, founded by two brothers from Bangladesh but the very image of what Rand describes as "a mildly progressive organization of mostly white, middle-class students that came into its own in the era of 'We Are the World.' " Then, Rand jokes, he made the mistake of hiring "some young rabble-rousers— working-class youth of color who were very engaged in survival struggles in their communities." Now the organization has been transformed (beginning with its full moniker, JustAct: Youth Action for Global Justice). It has twin concerns: global youth organizing andthe more than 70 percent of American young people who don't attend four-year colleges.

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