Friday, November 16, 2012

What happened to the Long Haul & Slingshot?

A few years back I spent some time in the San Franscisco Bay area and had the privilege of hanging out at the Long Haul infoshop located in Berkeley, California. The infoshop hosted discussions about various radical topics and had a large library and meeting space where meals were occasionally served. Zines, books, and novel t-shirts were sold there to help make ends meet. And, of course, the Slingshot newspaper was published there along with the Slingshot organizer (which is distributed broadly at many other infoshops and independent bookstores). And, I'm sure, many of the things I've described still take place there.

However, it should be noted that the tone, tenor, and direction of the space (and particularly its publication) has undoubtedly fluctuated somewhat over the years. This is to be expected of such a public institution (as the prominent issues of the day change and those involved with the space come and go – bringing and taking various qualities or points of focus). And, when the space was raided in 2008, that undoubtedly shook things up. Since that incident... I imagine a certain hard-core has probably stayed away from the infoshop while undercover operatives have possibly filled the void or, at the very least, continued their presence. In any case, a tamer crowd has probably comprised more of the community since the raid.

With those things in mind, I'd like to make at clear that it is not my intention here to outright condemn the Long Haul. It may still be serving as very valuable resource within the broader anarchist milieu. But I must express my general disappointment with the latest issue of Slingshot (issue #111, Autumn 2012). And, with that disappointment, I must wonder who is hanging out at the Long Haul and what the community surrounding the space is like these days.

The first thing which drew my attention in issue #111 was a critique of a recent Black Bloc which occurred in San Francisco's Mission district. The piece, entitled “Black Bloc Breaks Windows, Fails To Make Impact,” written by Max Crosby, begins with a general assessment of gentrification and then turns into a general critique of insurrectionary vandalism. It gears up with a specific critique of the recent Black Bloc action:
The people who did the April 30th action made no subsequent effort to communicate their reasons for indulging in mass vandalism, thus robbing their efforts of all credibility. Evidently they said nothing because they had nothing to say. Their mass vandalism spree could have been a foot in the door for a larger message against the gentrification of the Mission in particular and against capitalist society in general, but nothing more was heard from them. With this lapse into characteristic complacency and silence, in their passivity and juvenile ineptitude the wannabe insurrectionary vandals handed a huge propaganda victory to both the Mission's bourgeois invaders and to the corporate news media, who were able to portray the event as an exercise in self-indulgent adolescent nihilism.”
There is so much wrong with this assessment that I hardly even know where to begin.

First of all, there isn't always a need for those engaged in such an activity to overtly “communicate their reasons for indulging in mass vandalism” and any lack of a spelled-out explanation does not at all necessarily “rob their efforts of all credibility.” Some actions may speak better for themselves than you realize. If anyone is terribly concerned about the interpretation then they can do their personal best in trying to clarify or explain the action. Vandalism for a radical or revolutionary purpose deserves to be publicly discussed and those who didn't personally participate in the action should feel free to try and explain what they think it means. If Max Crosby does have an inkling about what the recent action was about, as the prose about gentrification suggests, then they can communicate their interpretation without demeaning the participants of the action. This is a task that above-ground radical writers should readily be willing undertake.

It is unjust to describe the members of a Black Bloc, who actively destroyed bourgeois symbols of repression, as lapsing into “characteristic complacency and silence.” To assess their action as a failure because they didn't issue a communique and because the media called them names... is ridiculous. Again... actions can speak louder than words and the Black Bloc participants have potentially set an example and presented a chink in the system's armor – and sympathetic radicals can still publicly interpret the significance of their action. If polite society wants to describe the Black Bloc participants as “self-indulgent radical nihilists,” that's to be expected – and I'd say it's fair trade for getting their shit smashed. But why are supposedly sympathetic writers, in a supposedly sympathetic journal, describing them in these terms?

At points in the article the author seems to favor militant actions (as long as they are followed by some kind of transparently clear public statement), and even suggests other actions. But the general tone of the article, the general condemnation, is the very same used by the bourgeois press which is supposedly being criticized in this article. Take for example when the author writes that “Black Bloc tactics are solely for the fleeting entertainment of the people who take part in them. They communicate nothing to the world at large. They lead nowhere. They offer nothing to build on. Mainstream working people aren't going to adopt Black Bloc tactics, or join the Black Bloc at protest ghetto events.” This is the same line of the bourgeois press and is not accurate. It's hollow condemnation and, basically, a counter-revolutionary opinion. The author does not seem to understand the motivation of Black Bloc participants, the message that Black Bloc tactics can convey, or who may eventually be moved by such tactics and join in. In the closing paragraph of the article the author writes about the “lack of credibility,” the lack of “commitment,” and the “failure of imagination” associated with the Mission District Black Bloc. In psychological terms... I'd call that projection.

Other articles in issue #111 of Slingshot were more or less interesting or insightful. It was interesting to learn about a ballot initiative in Berkeley to institute fines of $75 for sitting or lying on the sidewalk. An assessment of the recent uprising against police brutality in Ahaheim was interesting – “What is striking is not necessarily the police's preparedness for war, but rather their obvious neglect to obscure their role as a counter-insurgency force. Thus, instead of donning the traditional riot uniform and the baton, the police wear military fatigues and are armed with rifles and less-than-lethal weapons that closely resemble grenade launchers. The image conjured is not South Central Los Angeles, 1992, but Afghanistan, 2012. Not urban riot, but urban insurgency.” Other articles were about a People's Library which has been started in Oakland, a Food Not Bombs chapter in Missouri, a “bike swarm” activist group in Portland which meets up along the lines of a Critical Mass at locations “where social and political injustices can be found.” Issue #111 also included zine reviews and infoshop updates from around the world. These were all well and good.

One thing I noticed frequently throughout issue #111 was quite a bit regarding essentialist identity politics. At one level I think this could be a good thing. And I think cultural sensitivity and respect for personal or societal differences should generally be appreciated. However, in my recent experiences with radical spaces, I've found that essentialist identity politics are often used as a divisive distraction. For example... if we are at a meeting about some corporation that is dumping toxic waste upstream, I don't want the meeting to be derailed in condemnation of someone who says, “That's really lame.” Then when the person tries to apologize for their thoughtless words by saying, “Sorry, dudes,” I don't want it all to start up again because one person being addressed by such an apology will not tolerate being assigned a gender like that. I'm not going to argue about the benign intentions that either speaker may or may not have, but I feel that, sometimes, essentialist identity politics are used in a domineering, disruptive, and generally negative way. In a public forum people are not always going to be up-to-speed on the most precise politically correct speech. And those who aren't can sometimes still be otherwise valued friends, comrades, and associates. So... during important discussions when I see everything stop (and witch-hunts commence) at the drop of an innocent word... I become leery about those who focus heavily on essentialist identity politics.

As a general rule of thumb, I try to avoid both those who take an extreme position in denying the historic role of subjects like race or sexuality as well as those who try to make such subjects the central core of everything that matters. This isn't at all to say that racial slurs or overtly insensitive comments should remain unaddressed, but sometimes a word like “dudes” is gender neutral in the parlance of our day and, similarly, the word “lame” sometimes doesn't have anything to do with people who can't walk. Individuals, and the groups they are involved with, will have to decide for themselves what kind of words they will tolerate – but the strictest groups should remain somewhat private and public discussions shouldn't be derailed by relatively harmless words or actions.

But I honestly don't know the first-hand particulars of the situation at the Long Haul. So... this isn't to say that the problems associated with essentialist identity politics are, with definitive certainty, harming the Long Haul infoshop. But I did see some things in the Slingshot which suggested they might be. Without going into specifics about how essentialist identity politics can be problematic, I'll simply suggest that members of the Long Haul community may want to check out Lawrence Jarach's essay, “Essentialism and the Problem of Identity Politics.”

Anyway... that's my assessment of the recent issue of Slingshot (#111) distributed by the Long Haul infoshop. And my title of this review wasn't so much about condemnation as much as it expressed sincere personal curiosity about what's happening at the Long Haul these days. I'd genuinely like a response from people currently involved in that community and maybe they'll use this prompt to give their thoughts on the subject. I hope I haven't overstepped my bounds and I do have the best wishes for the infoshop. It would be nice if more infoshops were as active as the Long Haul and it would be nice to see more radical newspapers pop up. I'm sure I'll get my 2013 Slingshot organizer in the coming weeks and hope to continue getting that annual publication for years down the road.

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