My latest on the Florida prison labor strike can be found here: https://decarceratenj.blogspot.com/
My latest on the Florida prison labor strike can be found here: https://decarceratenj.blogspot.com/
There’s a funny pattern among academics you can personally witness this time of year if you are Facebook Friends with professors. It involves end of the semester paper grading sympathy posts. It’s not uncommon to see a photo of a stack of papers next to a cold mug of beer during this time of year.
Interestingly, Facebook Friends who work double shifts to accommodate demanding holiday crowds are not posting that they “have to scrape those annoying holiday shoppers’ nacho platters now.” This includes individuals who work as adjuncts AND waitresses…
Is there something less noble in the labor required by workplace clean plates mandates versus on-time paper grading? Really? I happen to think nacho-making-serving-selling- clean-up is an extremely noble enterprise.
Semester’s end is one of those times I feel fortunate not to have that full-time tenured teaching job, with the inevitable end of the semester paper grading load and requisite departmental holiday or year’s end social obligations. “Yes, that’s right, Hank. I did promise to bring my kids over to make gingerbread houses. It’s that time of year, already, huh?”
As a part time adjunct professor, I can skip any non-essential function while my full-time colleagues really can’t as easily. This semester I taught one Ethics section, and wrote freelance journalism articles to pay bills. My adjunct status has me in and out at will, getting my papers graded and posted within hours. True, this is still labor, but it does not a noteworthy professorial post make. So I decided to write a manifesto, to introduce my upcoming blog– “The Artisanal Adjunct”– instead. Next semester I will teach two courses: Ethics and Religions of the World. Religion: now that’s a topic requiring the great mind of a crafty– dare I say “artisanal” ?– adjunct.
As if by paradoxical design, however, I have noticed how my classroom mentality has never been more geared toward meeting students’ individual needs. “You need a late hour extension on an assignment that will set my own personal deadlines back? No problem.” We adjuncts, who float precariously along on our reputation rafts, can’t afford to be anything but the most pleasant and accommodating of teachers. Syllabi become rough suggestions, deadlines become encouraging mental exercises, but nothing, save for our current students’ positive classroom experiences, matters. Nothing.
This emphasis on the artisanal adjunct mode flies in the face of two general tendencies I have noticed over decades in academia and as a one-time militant faculty union member. One tendency criticizes the overuse of adjunct labor as a thorn in the side of academic accountability. “How can adjuncts ever really care for students if they are freeway flying all over the place?” is how the sentiment goes.
The other tendency is for us adjunct advocates to belabor our labor conditions in endlessly boring statistically infused accounts of life on a shoestring. I hear you, and am with you, having written such accounts as a junior tenure track faculty member years ago. But, wouldn’t some humor, satire, and creative marxian reworkings be a breath of fresh air from another exhausted account of how you slept in your car, two nights a week, for two years?
Many observations have led me to consider a humorous approach to the part-time adjunct life. At my college, the pay-scale and contract structure makes humor a job requirement. Each class requires a contract that reflects three pay tiers based on number of enrolled students up to 26. This means you can teach a smaller class (under 12) but it will pay $600 less than the maximum amount. If under 7 students enroll, then you are at approximately $600 for that semester-long three credit class.
This pay dynamic has me really tailoring my classes and accommodating students to build my reputation toward more students overall. I am a new professor there, and I want to build up my course load. I also always want to be paid on the highest end of the pay scale: so 12 or more students is always my goal.
Welcome to the Artisanal Adjunct. “Did you want me to send an early morning email to remind you to hand in that late quiz?” And, “Would you like some nachos with that whine?”
When it comes to attention-grabbing headlines, you can take your pick these days. While education legislation cultivates far less sensationalistic media coverage than, say, racist street fighting and devastating weather events, Florida education inhabits the lengthening list of natural and/ or social disasters making Trump’s America far from “great again.” Detrimental new Florida education policies will affect students’ lives in everlasting ways. These policies are related to other grave matters like racial polarization and climate change. More specifically, the Florida legislature just passed a bill that could theoretically open the state up to more than a billion dollars worth of possible charter industry investments. This simultaneously erodes local school board autonomy and drains school districts’ capital outlay funds (which they are now audaciously required to share with charter schools). Also, another new eerily timed law allows Florida climate and evolution deniers to challenge public school curricula, requiring a school board response. Welcome to Florida’s Disastrous HB 7069/ Schools of Hope Era, where pop-up chartering, rapacious school-flipping, and climate change denial are just getting started.
The class bludgeoning climate has never been more amplified in the public education sector. Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, hails from America’s 88th richest (Amway/Blackwater USA fortunes) family; the estimated worth here is $5.4B, according to Forbes magazine in 2016. DeVos’ hyper-privatization agenda couldn’t be more evident than here in the oh so stormy Sunshine State, which she hails as a national model. In fact, on August 29th and 30th, DeVos visited two model schools of Florida innovation: one was a private Christian school and the other a charter school. Acting from the idea that if you ignore something it will just go away, her visit is stark evidence of the U.S. government’s open plan to destroy public education. DeVos isn’t even worried about appearing neutral by making a quick pit stop at a low income public school to read the students a story about her earnest intentions. It’s that bad.
Trump has called public education “a government-run monopoly”, and the goal is to entirely shift management responsibilities onto corporations using vouchers, charters, union-busting, harassment: by any means necessary. DeVos must be especially emboldened by Florida’s privatization militancy. Charter school legislation is backed by politicians-turned-charter industry profiteers– who casually violate ethics laws through blatant financial conflicts of interest. Right up Trump/DeVos’ alley. The name of the game is blatant theft here. The authority of democratically elected school boards is undermined while federal Title 1 funding for the state’s poorest public schools get cut.
Surreal? Hyper-real? Unreal? Take your pick of adjectives, or think of your latest dystopian novel, to describe today’s political climate. The science fiction novel, On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee, aptly describes an American future where workers from super-toxic and largely uninhabitable China are sent to what was once Baltimore (now B-Mor) to raise the purest of food for the wealthy. These workers labor diligently in the shadow of a residential arrangement that Lee casually, yet powerfully, refers to as “Charter villages.” Rarely encountering the “Charter people” in the flesh, these food growers are astutely aware of Charter people’s whimsical tastes, demanding the latest faddish health food: Japanese knotweed, anyone?
Lee’s novel speculates on the implications of today’s charter school frenzy, and projects us forward to a time when corporate control, in the name of chartering, permeates more than our schools. (This kind of privatized hyper-surveilled live/ work community was also the setting for Margaret Atwood’s 2015 novel, The Heart Goes Last.) Today’s chartering practices are marked by a distinctively chaotic dissociation between students’ residences and school locations (as kids are not guaranteed a place in the charter schools nearest to their homes). Lee warns that current acquiescence toward this charter-induced chaos paves the path for increased corporate control. Meanwhile, students are structurally denied the right to develop the very critical thinking skills needed to challenge this move toward more centralized and efficient control.
Climate Deniers and Charter Pushers
Florida, ever a notable state when it comes to extremist education experiments, has been making some big education waves lately. Consider the recently passed House Bill (HB) 989. This law targets public school education by allowing any Florida citizen (not just a parent) to file a formal complaint about curricular content–think banned books here–which legally requires school districts to formally respond to the complaint. The non-profit Florida Citizens’ Alliance (FLCA) backs the law. The FLCA is opposed to the Obama-initiated federal Common Core standards, a popular bipartisan cause, but it also focuses on other “anti-liberty” issues– including climate change and evolution-focused K-12 public school curricula. We could laugh at this group’s hysterical war on scientific fact, if real political power wasn’t being used to shut down climate change education at a critical historic juncture in a climate-critical state. After Hurricane Harvey, which is poised to change climate change awareness on a mass scale, one wonders about this legislation’s fate. Harvey reminds us we need to pay attention to K-12 education policy, or suffer the havoc that awaits an uneducated and ill-prepared populace.
Florida’s attack on public schools is multi-faceted. On the culture warrior side, one tactic is to erode teacher/ administrative autonomy from within the system– as in HB 989. Groups like the FLCA may not have to worry very much longer about teaching science in the public schools because Florida is increasingly turning to corporate board controlled charter schools anyway. The message? “If these public schools are going to exist here at all, it’ll be on the most debased terms possible.” Yes, children, to paraphrase the late great Ronald Reagan on old growth redwood trees: “If you’ve seen one coral reef, you’ve seen them all… now get back to your Personal Education plans on your Microsoft tablets!”
While culture warriors establish censorial public school regulations, the brute capitalist warriors seek a large-scale infrastructural overhaul, or dismantlement, of the system.
Nationally, charter schools exist in 42 states and have increased six-fold in the past fifteen years. The pro-corporate charter school model is nothing new for Florida, which ranks in the top five states for charter schools. On its own, Florida contributes approximately 650 charter schools to this growing national trend. The state is also home to a special needs voucher system that channels public funds to private school entities. In 2013, I published an article (https://www.counterpunch.org/2013/09/04/floridas-most-vulturous-voucher-program/)
detailing my abhorrence at this special needs voucher system– known as the McKay Scholarship. Already an opponent of the privatization trend, I conducted fieldwork by teaching in one of these Florida schools. In 2016-2017, approximately 31,000 Florida students participated in McKay. The program’s financial skirting of federal education requirements for disabled students is a structural failure regarding education, yet other states are getting into the special needs voucher market. Florida is eager to lead the way, with HB 7069 consolidating many privatization efforts and strategies.
Before the passage of HB 7069, the trend has already been to starve out public schools. A March 8 article in the Miami Herald proves this well. During the 2016-2017 school year, Florida charter schools and public schools received the same amount from $150 M in state capital aid. Sounds fair and balanced, right? But do the math: $75M went to the state’s 650 charter schools and 3,600 traditional public schools received the other $75M. There are ~ 5.5 times more public than charter schools, but both received the same amount of money! Far from fair, this funding recipe stokes the school-flipping frenzy.
In this already unequal funding climate, HB 7069 contributes quite a pop-up, school-flipping flair. Although the phrase “pop-up”is used to positively denote quickly appearing and disappearing artistic or commercial venues, the phrase seems fitting here. For example, a Hillsborough County’s charter school, the Catapult Academy in Tampa, abruptly closed, unannounced, days into this new school year. While some charters close down amid mismanagement controversies, others are slated to open. HB 7069 enacts “emergency” conditions for charter school expansion in a hostile climate that undermines already compromised local school board autonomy, attacks teachers’ already precarious work conditions, and exploits parents’ already volatile insecurities about failing schools.
Facilitating HB 7069’s passage was last year’s expansion of Florida’s special needs voucher arena. The McKay Scholarship focus grew with the passage of the Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA)– renamed the Gardiner Scholarship after Senate President, Andy Gardiner, who led the effort to create it. While the McKay program funds private school scholarship vouchers for special needs students previously attending public schools, the more expansive Gardiner Scholarship makes money available for families to individualize a special needs (in Gardiner legislation rhetoric it would be “unique abilities”) non-public school education plan. Thus, money, which averages about $10,000 per qualifying student, is available for a range of educational expenses beyond McKay’s school tuition focus. Gardiner supports programs and approved providers including schools, specialists, home school curricula and materials, technology, and even a college savings account. Further, in the interests of developing post-secondary educational opportunities, the Gardiner Scholarship has allotted Orlando’s University of Central Florida $8M for a “students with unique abilities” center. $3.5M of that $8M will go to scholarships for these new programs, and this includes another $3M to fund higher education seed money for students with special needs.
Given the state’s promotion of “pioneering” charter school ventures, and its “financially innovative” special needs voucher and scholarship funds, it makes sense that Florida is championed, by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos among others, as a national leader in education deform. When G.W. Bush became U.S. president in 2000, we know his brother Jeb was already Florida’s governor– eventually slashing school budgets and shutting down public schools in the interests of leaving No Child Behind. That Bush Brothers connection positioned Florida as a kind of ground zero in a national education disaster. (Recent statistics show that Florida ranks 50th in high school graduation rates!) 16 years after No Child Left Behind’s appearance, HB 7069 emerges as more evidence of the all out war on public education, with nothing less than children’s futures as the casualty.
Corporate controlled schooling is governed by hyper-commodified, tech-obsessed education philosophies, ruthless and unaccountable school discipline measures, and the usual racial resegregation that accompanies class warfare tactics. (One in eight black students now attend U.S. charter schools, according to a recent NAACP report.) Charter schools alter everything: social and professional relationships; union strategies; neighborhood fabrics; transportation burdens; and local governing structures. In true Charter Village style, changing schools changes everything.
“Honey, we have to leave one hour earlier each morning so our kids can receive a quality education,” said one parent to the other.
“That’s fine, but our bosses won’t let us leave early to pick them up, so we’ll have to figure something out,” the other parent wearily retorted back.
As weary as chartering makes some families, too many politicians stand to gain financially for it to slow down. House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s wife started Classical Preparatory School, a charter school in Spring Hill, Florida that offers “Traditional Education. Transformational Learning.” Representative Manny Diaz is the Chief Operating Officer for a junior college managed by Academica, one of Florida’s largest for-profit charter school management companies. At the same time, he voted for a $14M cut to Miami Dade College, a public college attended by many in his constituency. Miami’s Republican Representative, Michael Bileca, chairs the House Education Committee. He also happens to be the Executive Director of a foundation that funds True North Classical Academy. The Miami Herald cites these three as chief architects of HB 7069. Are you getting the idea here?
This bill is so polarizing that some mainstream media outlets speculate it goes too far. The Thursday, June 15 Miami Herald ran an article asking whether a $30M expansion of Gardiner Scholarship funds, which was tucked into the much larger and controversial HB 7069 legislation, was being used as “pawn or principle” in this latest education battle. The answer? Pawn! The original HB 7069 language did not include Gardiner Scholarship expansion (already captured by HB 15). Anticipating resistance to HB 7069, Gardiner’s expanded funding was unabashedly included in HB 7069 to get it passed. Who’s heartless enough to say no to special needs students? Not our politicians!
The Miami Herald addresses Gardiner’s inclusion in HB 7069:
“It was only during budget negotiations with the House did the House agree to finance the program — but at the lower $30M level — and while they authorized the expansion in HB 15, House leaders wove the funding into the controversial HB 7069 and touted it as an essential component… Opponents blasted the strategy as an attempt to use vulnerable children as “pawns” to gain support for the controversial legislation.”
Why is HB 7069 so urgent that politicians manipulated public sentiment about special needs students? Money. The legislation calls for nothing short of a large-scale conversion of Florida’s public education infrastructure into (auspiciously named) Schools of Hope. Schools of Hope can open in or near failed public schools without guaranteeing their students admission to the new charter schools. If a school consecutively earns three grades lower than a “C”, students must be reassigned to another school and the old school must be reopened as a charter school. HB 7069 has allowed up to 100 public schools to be slated for just this fate.
If you think about it, 100 new schools can generate millions, and this is why the Florida charter market is creating much business world buzz. This summer, Colliers International Education Services Group sold two Florida charter schools for $33M to Oregon buyers AEP Charter KCC II and AEP Charter Renaissance LLC. This completes part two of a $105M seven-school deal. Five schools were sold last November for $72M. The hold on the other recently sold schools involved local school boards’ charter renewals. To speculate in dollar signs: if each new charter school is purchased for $15M (like that deal with Oregon buyers) then 100 flipped schools places us squarely in the billions. $1.5B to be exact. This is what’s at stake in this manufactured crisis.
That one million dollar Oregon deal shows how school boards impede the frantic flow of capital, what with those silly democratic processes of accountability and whatnot. But never fear! The state has a plan to put school boards in their place (and school districts are fighting back, too).
An Unconstitutional Law?
Since its passing, HB 7069 is making waves in some unlikely places. The Florida panhandle is notoriously right-wing, ever celebrating its identity as the Redneck Riviera. While the panhandle’s Bay County is relatively close to Tallahassee, it has a less rapacious appetite than other charter-obsessed locales. The Bay County School District unanimously decided to join Broward, St. Lucie, Orange, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Duval, and several more, in a lawsuit to be filed October 1. The main issue here is that HB 7069 strips local school boards of their constitutional authority. Also unconstitutional is that HB 7069 violates federal law by cutting Title 1 funds and complicating school board control over those funding allotments.
HB 7069, which grew from 7 pages into a 270 page document during final and secretive legislative sessions, pulls together “seemingly unrelated measures” including the Gardiner Scholarship, Title I de-funding, sunscreen regulations (kids can put it on without a prescription now!), temporary teaching certificates, and even mandatory recess. 100 minutes (it’s only 20 minutes per school day, so don’t get too excited) of guaranteed recess for K-5 public school students is one of the so-called silver linings on the HB 7069 cloud. But people are quick to note that this recess mandate does not apply to charter schools. (And principals resent being told how to run their schools.) In fact, HB 7069 appears to produce and reinforce a two-tiered schooling scheme.
Another example of this two-tiered system: charter schools are exempt from regulations that limit spending on new school construction. While the big picture remains the struggle between local and state authorities over school boards’ roles and procedures, on the ground we will see this struggle manifest as the shameless pushing of charter schools over traditional public schools. On July 25, the Panama City News Herald reported that the existing process for charter school approval requires potential operators to request an application from the school board, submit a charter, and be vetted by the school board before charter approval. HB 7069 undermines this routine process. It still requires new charters to go before the board. However, the board gets “60 days to rubber-stamp the application and very little room to refuse” according to attorney Heather Hudson, who is quoted in the News Herald. In the event a charter does not get approved, Florida’s Department of Education (DOE) can override the local decision and sign the agreement. Here’s the catch: Schools of Hope will use a standard application created by the DOE– effectively anticipating, even enshrining, the state’s involvement in a process that, for all intents and purposes, could (and should) remain local. This is precisely why the issue of HB 7069’s constitutionality is in question. The school board gets stripped down to a token decision-making body under HB 7069’s fast track protocols. Under these conditions, why elect school board officials at all? Let’s just have that corporate future enrapture us all, eroding any public control– as so many science fiction authors have been predicting for decades.
This Land is Charter Land
Even more grossly unfair is that Schools of Hope charter operators are empowered under HB 7069 to “commandeer” district property– that is land considered unused or “surplus”–for new schools. Like other charter initiatives, they are not obligated to serve students in the low-performing schools they are replacing. To be fair, the bill says those students can enroll in the new school closest to them outside the usual lottery process, which suggests a kind of rightfully warranted preferential treatment for students of former failing schools, yet there is no clear way to enforce this sentiment. If nothing else, the charter industry shows there are many ways to get around attached strings– like neighborhood families. What happens to children who fall through the cracks of this power, land, and money grab? This is a grave concern as local control is ripped away by the state’s own tightening financialized grip.
It is also no surprise that HB 7069 redirects the school district’s money to charters: in this case it’s through an ad valorem tax, which comprises local capital improvement (LCI) dollars. Charter schools can’t collect ad valorem taxes on their own. Due to HB 7069, supposedly an estimated $1.45M of the district’s LCI dollars will be given to the 11 charter schools operating in Bay County, for example. Other district’s report similar problems with fair allocation of funds under HB 7069.
With expedited chartering via Schools of Hope, more money would be funneled toward charters and away from the school district’s own projects. According to a recent Fund Education Now article:
“HB 7069 disrespects the authority of duly elected school boards by forcing them to share their only capital outlay money with corporate charter chains. In addition, the state gives charters up to $100M per year from Public Education Capital Outlay funding derived from a telecommunications tax. Districts never see a dime!”
A “Right to Charter” State
It has always been the case that students’ learning environments are their teachers’ working environments, right? While it is clear how this bill can negatively affect students in the targeted failing schools, it also affects teachers– who have been called “crazy” “disgusting” and “repugnant” by Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran. (He has also publicly referred to teacher’s unions as “downright evil.”) As we know, this teacher union-busting climate (in a “right to work” state, no less), coupled with accelerated chartering, is a nightmare for education professionals who already suffer in demoralized, unsupportive, and outright hostile school climates. Teachers are quitting in droves.
No Child Left Behind grew notorious for grading and defunding underperforming (“D” and “F”) schools, with the policies continuing unabated during the Obama administration’s maintenance of the status quo under the new name, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). HB 7069 exacerbates crisis measures, requiring school districts to prepare “emergency plans” in the event of a “D” or “F” grade– thus increasing work anxiety in the event of looming charter school takeovers. Talk about a low morale work environment! One more thing: supposedly Schools of Hope can hire non-certified teachers and administrators. Gone are the pesky days of teacher/ administrator certification in this free market of pop-up charter schooling. Who has the time anymore?
There are even more deleterious effects that HB 7069 has on the teaching profession, as it tries to smooth over major thorns in the DOE’s side, like teacher pay and high stakes testing. Teacher bonus caps for IB, AP, and CAPE are removed (which is a good thing for teachers receiving these bonuses, but no one else). The controversial teacher evaluation, Value Added Measures (VAM), system is no longer mandatory (leaving everyone wondering what will be the next harassment tool?) The Best and Brightest scholarship for teachers remains in effect (how’s is that decided, favoritism for non-union rabble rousers)? And testing has been altered again and moved to the last four weeks of school. These are still high stakes tests; Florida would never walk away from that profitable endeavor.
The above changes may benefit teachers in the short run, but don’t be fooled! While surface-level bonus/ rewards systems are doled out, teacher contracts contain limits on employment guarantees; school districts may only award teachers one year contracts and teachers are already being transferred, even right before school starts, with little notice. While the bill includes some “Best and Brightest” teachers’ bonuses, permanent contractual teacher raises appear to be a thing of the past. Tenure for new teachers was previously eliminated– as education is further turned into a commodified battlefield involving business people, politicians, school boards, and teachers’ unions, with families caught in the middle. To add insult to injury, SB 118 has been filed by Senate Education chairwoman Dorothy Hukill. This bill allows Representatives and Senators to unexpectedly visit (spy on?) public school campuses. School district officials are not permitted to limit the visit in any manner. Further intimidation tactics, straight from the Florida Senate’s Education Committee chairwoman! Regarding other governmental facilities, lawmakers don’t have unprecedented access. But, of course, public schools get the differential treatment– as usual. Battleground warfare tactics.
Quite a Formidable Opponent
Far different from the hope proffered by HB 7069’s pop-up charter/emergency public school-flipping schemes, the real hope lies with the growing coalition of parents, teachers, school staff, administrators, school boards, and concerned public education activists who sent over 150,000 letters opposing HB 7069. Even as Betsy DeVos looks to Florida to lead the nation in public education obliteration, there may be some surprises in Trumplandia/ Flori-duh yet. More people seem to be waking up to the idea that failing schools are a mere symptom of broader racial engineering and class warfare agendas, with the deliberate underfunding of public schools producing a highly exploitable education panic. Parents will grow increasingly frustrated by such blatantly unnecessary school-flipping, as their own children’s right to a free quality education is destabilized by invasive and ill-fitted education market forces coming increasingly from out of state.
Maybe more Florida school districts will join up to defeat HB 7069 in the courts, challenging the latest school-flipping phase in education corporatization. As people gain more clarity about the overall situation, we can turn to the urgent task of retrieving all of the stolen tax dollars constituting these sinister financial maneuvers. (Even Republican Adam Putnam, who is running against Rick Scott for Florida Governor, has mildly criticized the sweeping education measure as “a bridge too far… done in the dark.”) It may become more fashionable to criticize such an obviously flawed attempt to shower the charter school industry with public school dollars, but it’s important to acknowledge that the industry is quite a formidable opponent no matter how large the opposition. And the legislation has been passed. That’s why this is “school-flipping.” How many deals will quickly go down as this legislation stays tied up in the courts?
On August 4, public education advocate Diane Ravitch’s highly esteemed blog featured University of Maryland’s Steven J. Klees. Klees writes about the deep ties between the Florida legislature, the charter industry, and HB 7069’s controversial passage:
Nothing short of people’s dreams for their children’s futures are at stake here. In Bay County, this dream can be summed up as securing future careers outside the two largest employers: the military and Wal-Mart. On one side, a rapacious emerging industry salivates over the new land/infrastructure deals which stand to grow more risk-free for investors as local control/ accountability is eclipsed in favor of state-backed profit schemes. On the other side, working families can either allow visions of shiny new charter schools to dance in their heads or help create an alternative. Here’s hoping that the dream of quality, accountable public schools for all, regardless of family incomes, will ultimately outweigh whatever “incentives” –Charter Villages, anyone?– the charter school industry offers struggling Florida families.
LefttoOurOwnDevices is available as a PDF. Enjoy!
While our social movements depend on the idea that people can change their ways of thinking in the “right conditions”, the study of political consciousness is a thorny bramble of contradictions, pseudo-scientific speculation, and pop-psychology — for the most part. Marxist theory initially located the origins of revolutionary class consciousness in the workers’ relationship to the means of production, but proletarian consciousness did not lead to the inevitable revolution of the means of production and the abolition of private property — as Marx expected. Thus, “consciousness” became one of the great challenges of twentieth century Marxist theory, with Lenin offering the theory of the vanguard party as a solution, and the Frankfurt School offering its “Culture Industry” theory to analyze revolutionary proletarian consciousness, or lack thereof.
Flash forward to the post-Civil Rights era’s new social movements. Consciousness remains a central theme, as revolutionary organizers seek to expand movements by appealing to people’s instinctual desire for freedom, despite the obstacles blocking the realization of this desire– especially the Cointelpro-enhanced state. Black Panthers emphasized the need for self-defense, popular education, and community organization around food, housing, and healthcare needs to form revolutionary consciousness. Some women’s liberationists employed “consciousness raising” circles as a tool for mass movement building. Both movements were infiltrated and persecuted, the Panthers to a much greater degree, but they (along with all other anti-imperialist movements of that time) leave a treasure trove of theory and practice that successive generations should relish as a great gift.
Today we grapple with the legacy of these movements as we scramble to apply relevant past lessons to the rapidly changing world around us: a renewed focus on murders by police parallel Donald Trump’s ascendancy in presidential polls. Strange days, indeed, but let’s not get sidetracked.
Once ballots get counted and election dust settles, we are left with our same problems, and our own devices, too. How do people come to think what they think? What moves us as individuals? Collectively? What causes people to change their minds about the world, politics, and their own complicity or engagment with it all? Just as Angela Davis stated that the purpose of demonstrations is to demonstrate something, the purpose of movements is to move us somewhere new. Movements rely on the idea of motion: yet we can’t go anywhere unless people desire change and are willing to take risks and make sacrifices in the process. We have to collectively participate in the cause of universal freedom, while also retaining what’s unique about ourselves, our families, our communities, and our histories.
My debut novel, Left to Our Own Devices (LOOD), is motivated by these questions. How do we get from inertia to motion, individually and collectively? From demoralizing stagnation to liberating movement?
LOOD is narrated by a white “disabled” (a term she prefers) woman, Estelle Peters, who leaves her caregiver husband. Inspired only generally by my own mother’s decades long battle with the same disease, Estelle suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and is paralyzed from the waist down with the use of her right arm. Although physically confined to either a hospital bed or wheelchair, her mind compensates for this confinement by going all over the place. The mother of one adult-age son and two daughters, who are both partnered with Black men, Estelle gets an intimate introduction to contemporary race relations through her daughters’ own eyes. That’s the backdrop of the novel’s plotline, which is set in the Florida panhandle’s Bay County in the days before Occupy and Black Lives Matter.
The other factor in Estelle’s life that challenges her to question all of her assumptions about the world she thought she lived in is the incarceration of Jamal, her radical daughter Azalea’ s life partner. Azalea and Jamal bring their hefty college experience as organizers in Atlanta and D.C. to the sleepy towns of Lynn Haven/ Panama City, Fl. Eventually, Jamal is locked up on assault charges for a bar fight defending himself against a “racist cracker” at a local karaoke bar. Azalea and Jamal believe his charges and incarceration are politically motivated due to his earlier activism around the case of Martin Lee Anderson’s murder. Estelle agrees with them: her blinders have been lifted. She may be unable to walk, but Estelle’s vision is just fine.
Meanwhile, Estelle’s conservative husband, Richard, grows more formal and removed from their relationship: she grows suspicious he is hiding something from her… And he is.
Intended to be an antidote to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic novel “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which has our heroine confined to bed rest only to lose her mind, Left to Our Own Devices is a story about a paralyzed woman’s struggle to take charge of her own life “while she still can.”
Intentionally written as a stream of consciousness travelogue of sorts into the inner workings of Estelle’s own logic and reasoning, as she moves in her own words “from an NPR tote bag carrying, Harper’s and The Nation reading, liberal democrat to a radical crip, a revolutionary of sorts” LOOD emits the struggle between inertia and motion in the form of casual, chit chatty, gossipy, and, yes, sometimes almost pedantic, long-winded, “We get it already” soapbox-like prose. You remember how valuable ideas were to you when you first came into your own radical consciousness? Please have patience with this “piecing the puzzle together like a frantic 3 year old” woman — our late-bloomer, Estelle. She changes considerably, gaining more confidence, in the second book, “Everbody Carries a Heavy Load.”
Readers are invited to join Estelle amidst her recounting of the throes of her own changing consciousness and marital status. Not always a smooth ride, her feelings are equal parts claustrophobic, sardonic, and exuberant. And she leaves no topic unturned: her medical care details, 9/11 conspiracy theories, Obama vs. Clinton, the well-worn prison abolitionist script, hegemonic European beauty standards, Joni Mitchell in blackface, Nina’s Simone’s “Suzanne”, narcissistic American yoga, inter-racial wedding planning, marriage as an institution, food porn, sex porn, friendship, tarot cards, Scrabble, children’s toys, bourgeois dinner parties, social media, nature writing, holistic health doctrines, tensions between community building and cop bashing tactics, cars running down bikers, comparative religion, Guantanamo-esque U.S government torture in a local boys’ home, Rob Zombie films…It’s no surprise Estelle’s whole family is immersed in the American horror genre– a coping mechanism for Multiple Sclerosis’ horrific neurological uncertainty.
Changing our minds and lives isn’t always easy. It can be quite painful, and even a nightmare at times. (This may account for why more people don’t do it!) One woman’s distinctive willingness and ability to radically alter relationships in her own life, (negatively affecting her immediate finances), serves as an analogy to the consciousness raising process itself, urging readers to connect their own lives to her story, as if the novel was a mirror reflecting back something from each readers’ own story. Different reflections emanate from the same basic source: the struggle for political freedom, personal self-realization, and most importantly– the relationship between the political and personal as captured in my ideal of non-doctrinaire but well-read, flexible but militant, innovative but time-tested, humorous but deadly serious anti-capitalist/ imperialist struggles.
We may be “Left to Our Own Devices”, but we share this condition with each other: we are the multitude. And we’d all really like to get somewhere, right?
Remember how the 9/11 attack led people to cancel or pull back from anti-globalization protests? It appears a similar dynamic could be at work as a shocking event challenges and divides a growing and effective movement making serious headway. Like anti-globalization protests before it, the anti-police brutality/ policing movement is going through its own birth pangs as the tactics debate (when is property violence appropriate?) and issues such as how to foreground anti-black racism (#BlackLivesMatter vs. #AllLivesMatter) have taken center stage in the multifaceted and large scale resistance efforts underway.
Saturday, December 20th, was a big day for movement news. While Minnesota’s Mall of America protest had people occupying space in the US’s largest mall to demand an end to police violence, half way across the country in Brooklyn, two police officers were shot and killed by a young black man who had ostensibly posted on social media before the shootings about his intention to “put wings on pigs”, citing revenge for the deaths of Brown and Garner as motive. The accused shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, shot himself dead on a nearby subway platform after shooting the officers. As of Sunday afternoon, there is little information and much speculation about the accused murderer’s life (including that the murders were part of a counter-intelligence plot to discredit the movement and justify extreme force). Much is uncertain, but it’s certain that the NYPD is already using this to suppress protest, repress entire communities, and further foment divisive public relations–especially with NYC Mayor deBlasio. How can recent police union behavior and statements be considered anything but a naked admission of a police force’s own extra-legal/ paramilitary ambitions?
At this writing we do know a few things for certain: the corporate state’s policing apparatus will do everything in its power to use this event as a further call to arms against protesting U.S. residents and communities of color. They will attempt not only to discredit a growing direct action-based movement, but also to aggressively attack protest groups and individuals they have been trying to get their hands on anyway. If Ismaaiyl Brinsley had been arrested and charged with the killing of two police officers in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, clearly the anti-policing movement would be having very different debates and discussions. Now, in his death, many people righteously struggle to contextualize his motives or opportunistically use his actions for their own political reasons.
Not that probing Brinsley’s motives is entirely irrelevant–he shot a woman, possibly an ex-girlfriend, before the officers, for example– but the movement can hurt itself by participating in the posthumous quasi-legalistic media charade of “nailing down” his motives or state of mind. (This activity already inculcates participants in the state’s judgmental logic of condemnation/ exoneration–echoing media character assassinations of murder by police victims like Brown and Martin.) What if he was acting in concert with counter-intelligence forces? What if Mao’s little red book was in Brinsley’s pocket? What if he was an active member of a local Cop Watch group? What if he was a well-known local homeless man struggling with mental illness and addiction?
Initial activist reactions offer a range of responses: some grapple with the delicate issue of expressing compassion about the shooter’s life, death, and family; some timidly, or not so timidly, tiptoe around self-defense concepts and a deep understanding of the extreme nature of “revolutionary suicide”; some routinely denounce Brinsley’s actions–acting as guardians of the “real non-violent movement” against “unstable violent outsiders”; some have decided that was a police action he got entangled in. Then there’s those (new to the issue white activists, I am talking to you) who may have been active and supportive of the anti-police brutality movement, but will use this as an excuse to pull back. (Controversial events function as a movement’s filtering process, losing people who are too challenged to keep fighting and were just waiting for a chance to fold anyway.)
If there’s anything I am reminded of by this event, it’s the power of social movements, and anti-racist struggles in particular. For me, there is a connection between the cop murders and the movement. Before you jump down my throat insisting that I am “feeding the cops’ ideology” by saying this–hear me out, please, and don’t take my statements out of context. Since the drug war and mass incarceration/ deportation practices, many black and brown lives have been destroyed. You don’t have to be a front lines long term activist to have strong opinions about policing and institutional racism in America, and feel hopeless in the face of it, too. Frustration and anger is woven into the everyday fabric of people’s lives, and this includes individual consciousness, rhetoric, and self-understanding. Add to this an endless flow of social media, news commentary, and live feeds of protests and demonstrations all over the U.S. Some people may not be able to attend protests for various reasons (work, childcare, transportation, not living close to one, or a shy demeanor) but social media offers a strong way to feel emotionally connected to events since Ferguson began.
This access and ability to connect is both reason for the movement’s effectiveness and a reason to prepare for more controversial actions taken up by individuals in the name of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or against violent police generally. (And then there’s always police counterinsurgency activities…) In a large, multifaceted, international movement such that the Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!/ anti-policing movement has become, no one can ultimately judge who’s a protestor or a non-protestor, who cares or doesn’t care, about “the issues”. (Who has an authentic political consciousness gauge and where can I get one?) We can only state if we support certain actions as part of strategies our organizations or ideologies endorse.
I believe, from what I understand about Brinsley’s biographical facts and his presumed state of mind before the murders, he understood himself as a target of racist policing. Go figure: young, black, and male in the U.S. A. But, As Dr. Johanna Fernandez states in the NJ Decarcerator blog, (http://decarceratenj.blogspot.com/2014/12/despite-deaths-of-two-officers-campaign.html), he could have also been acting in concert with authorities to execute a state plot to discredit the movement. We will never know the facts here, and it shouldn’t deflect from our understanding of institutionalized racism, anyway.
Whether or not Brinsley acted alone or in concert with the state, his life had a truly tragic end. If we admit understanding or empathy with people espousing extreme tactics — even cop murder — to express oppositional feelings, are we only throwing the police state, and its rabid NYPD, another reason for street level preemptive attack? (As if it ever needed a reason. We’ve clearly seen over the decades, if the state doesn’t have a reason to justify aggression it’ll make one up.) What about attempts to understand how social pressures like racist policing and mass incarceration damage people–like Ismaaiyl Brinsley? If we deny a careful consideration of the incalculable impacts movements can have, which include tapping into very real frustrations/ psychological dynamics leading individuals to act alone or as police agents, we sacrifice any potential unity than can be derived in a process of self-reflection and greater political awareness. Collective analysis may not lead to the unity of a shared position, but it could lead to an “agree to disagree” unity or a commitment to explore unpopular perspectives. Something beyond simple condemnation or exultation is called for here.
It’s a daunting situation and the corporate state wins again if we play into the terms of engagement it always sets by the very nature of its power. If Ismaaiyl Brinsley had survived and faced his accusers in court, we would see the movement split around “just” court procedures and outcomes. Some would want him evaluated to qualify for mental health rehabilitation services, some would want him routinely punished, and some would call for his freedom, with an understanding his actions were committed under extreme duress due to the pernicious police state apparatus (a kind of “black rage” defense– if you will.) From the looks of his social media posts, he knew he was probably going to die Saturday.
I shudder to think about what the state would do to Brinsley, and how the movement would split around his “just” punishment and desirable “rehabilitation.” (How are we going to rehabilitate psychotic racist police? Any ideas?) We would have to painfully endure a real trial of the Left’s anti-policing/ abolitionist positions. Instead, we are left to grapple with three dead bodies, many unanswered questions, and a big question mark about our ability to buoy the turbulence of building and sustaining a mass movement, focused specifically on the deep and festering wound of racist police violence, in the age of social media activism.
If we are going to posthumously speculate on Ismaaiyl Brinsley’s life, dare I suggest we use the very commitment to institutional analysis and human compassion that has served as a foundation of the Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!/ anti-policing movement–and previous anti-racist movements– since its inception? As the saying goes, let’s “keep our eyes on the prize.”