Sunday, December 11, 2016

Two events in Salem raise a question: is racism a moral failure or an ideology tied to the base and superstructure of this society?

Two events held in Salem yesterday give us a question to contemplate: is racism a moral failure or an ideology tied to the base and superstructure of this society?

Reasonable people may quickly answer that it is both, but I’m going to take an opposing view and argue that racism is built into the system, is propagated and constantly regenerated through the system’s structures and is, at its root, a method of thinking and acting. Racism rests largely on assumptions and makes an analysis and has an ideological power to it. It reflects a particular state of society, specific power relations.

The Salem Speaks Up! For Human Rights event was held yesterday. This has become an annual event, with time divided between something like a sermon or talk with music and public testimony “where community members are encouraged to SPEAK UP! about local human rights issues – racism, classism, ageism, etc. Each person who speaks is encouraged to describe experiences and concerns, and suggest possible support systems or changes they would like to see.” The local United Nations Association is prominent in these events. In some years community testimony has been quite dramatic, but I do not recall a time when testimony led to community organizing or protest. The event sometimes feels like a safety valve for some people in the community and as way for Salem’s power structure to cover itself in the event of a problem. See, those in power can say, you have this opportunity to make us aware, but if you don’t tell us what’s going on then we can’t help; the “problem” is one of communication and trust. The police, the mayor and city council are represented at these events, as they should be.

This year I was more attuned to those voices in the room who were saying, or seemed to be saying, that racism is a moral failure solved by love and nonviolence than I have been in the past. There was clearly unease in the room over Trump’s election, but the dominant group in the room----relatively well-off retired white people and people with liberal credentials---were also clearly lost about how to respond to the present crisis. Whatever their good intentions, they fell back to selectively quoting from Martin Luther King, Jr., talking about the U.N. and singing a couple of folk songs associated with the 1960s.

This is not at all to say that there were not positive moments. Levi Herrera-Lopez, Sandra Hernandez-Lomeli and a brave local educator did a great job in framing issues, putting their issues out there and calling on people to be in solidarity behind a few key community demands and needs. Two points struck me as tragic as they spoke; first, that they have to risk making themselves vulnerable while most of the whites in the room don’t have to do that, and, second, that the event is not going to be fully representative so long as Salem doesn’t have weekend bus service. We can’t organize turnout if people can’t get there. And, of course, we can’t build the trust needed to get people there under these conditions. In the meantime, it’s humbling to be in the presence of these three leaders.

Other positives: the opportunity to talk with some active union members, a couple of city officials and activists about things that matter, the presence of Muslims and the presence of some young people of color.

The outstanding negative for me was the ability of white liberals with political projects to take the floor and go on about their projects, as if the event was about them and the world needed to hear from them yesterday. I left after the third white liberal imposed himself. Could we have a day when we do not have to listen to white people? And a comrade put it well when she said, "Racial justice won't be established because you become a good person." I reflected at the event that this was not a “usual faces” event: most of the local African-American clergy and the NAACP leadership, many leaders and activists from local Latino/a organizations, the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities and union leadership were absent.

I left the event early in order to attend the Standing Rock solidarity event at the Ike Box. My quick count was that about 150 people attended, and I know that a good sum of money was raised to help the Rural Organizing Project support Standing Rock. Most of the music was great, but the First Nations speakers explained the struggle at Standing Rock with great patience and clarity, asked people in the room the important questions---why are you supporting Standing Rock? What is it that you hope to build?---and were all about unity and showing positive leadership. The event would not have happened without Laurie Dougherty taking lead on this this and pulling people together.

This brings me back to the question I started with. The Salem Speaks Up! event struck a tone of viewing racism, sexism, xenophobia and classism as moral failures. Transform yourself, act nonviolently and withstand pressure and abuse for that one moment when you can speak to a tormentor and you will transform someone, and if enough of us do this then good will triumph. It is a strong liberal myth with a spiritual component and we have to recognize its staying power. This works against movement building, mobilizing and taking power. Individual transformation may occur as a result of a movement, or in the process of movement building, but it will not serve as a foundation for a social change movement.

The Standing Rock solidarity event, on the other hand, told some hard truths about power relations in words and music, and had some challenges built in. Most of the speakers expressed their spirituality and spoke from a place of using all that they had to witness and fight back against oppression. The repression used by the authorities and conditions on the scene at Standing Rock was not sugarcoated. We were challenged to do more and do better, and we cannot turn away from the structural racism driving the pipeline and the repression in North Dakota. The money raised went to an organization that organizes and confronts powerful interests. The event joined personal and political struggles into one.

What we need from this event is on-going organizing. The Racial Justice Organizing Committee, which had a table at the solidarity event, would very much welcome partnering with and taking direction from a local Native American organization. Our challenge is to pull people together to face a crisis, and if we do not consolidate quickly then unity may be lost. A shortcoming of the solidarity event was that it did not gather in everyone who needed to be there, but with short notice, terrible weather and two events on one day this can't be put on the event organizers. For that reason we emphasized the need to turn out on January 14 in Salem in solidarity with immigrant communities and to join in the January 21 Portland protests.

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