On the night I chose not to die…
I was a woman of color. On the night I chose not to die, I fought with anger and determination, and finally fell asleep with a satisfied smile born not from my own sheltered existence, but from the momentary dissolving of the reality of privilege. That night I watched the hordes of college students exiting the bars and dispersing, walking past those of us confronting police in the streets as if it was simply none of their business. That is the privilege you describe, which has no place in this movement.
Who was left? Who made it their business? If you were there, if you dared approach the dancefloor and “battlefield” of the streets, you’d know what we “looked” like.
And yet according to your fairytale of homogeneity and privilege, on the morning after “I chose not to die,” according to you, I woke up a white man. Let me tell you… NO I DIDN’T!
It’s as though all the work I’ve done, the lifetime of daily struggle, of people acting as if I was naturally inferior and practically invisible, is a waste of my time. Because the people I also struggle for, among others, could flippantly assert that now, because I fight alongside my white brothers and sisters, I have no identity, no history, and no color of my own.
To the author of the “Open Letter to a White Student Movement,” we respond:
You don’t just describe a false, whitened version of what happened in Berkeley last Thursday night. You create an archetypal persona of the student militant, who you describe in belittling terms: “As he storms buildings, as he rushes into battles in street against police, as he damages property in a drug induced haze, he screams ‘we have chosen not to die.’ … His white skin has kept him through the night and the politics that he believed he risked his life for are now over shadowed by the mountain of over turned trash cans and broken glass on Telegraph Ave.”
We’ve seen this figure before, in the critiques of direct action written by liberal and leftist groups since this movement emerged. It’s a constantly re-occurring rhetorical strategy that is used to condemn forms of political action that don’t follow the norms of non-violent civil disobedience. Only one problem: we’re not male, we’re not white, and we’re not upper class. And neither were the majority of people who participated that night.
This isn’t just a minor problem in your analysis. It can’t be explained away with a one-sentence disclaimer that acknowledges that some people of color have participated in the movement. It’s a serious erasure of our participation and it calls into question the very basis of your argument: that tactics like those used in Berkeley are grounded in “privilege.”
Honestly, we are tired of being erased from the student movement. We are tired of being told that militancy is a product of testosterone-driven machismo or race-based immunity to police repression. We’re tired of debates about tactics that are masked as debates about identity. We want a discussion that acknowledges that not just a few but many women and people of color have participated in the occupations and confrontational demonstrations of the last few months. Most of all, we want the people who attempt to represent women and people of color when they condemn these actions to know that they don’t speak for us.
We wonder whether you bothered to look carefully at the footage from that night or talk to people who were there. If so you would have learned that it was one of the most racially diverse political events that has occurred recently, much more diverse than a lot of the non-violent, legal rallies we’ve attended. In fact the riot and confrontation would never have taken place if students leaving campus hadn’t been joined by dozens of people who were on the streets and in the bars of Berkeley that night, people of every race, age, and subculture you can imagine. And women were on the front lines, pushing the line of riot police back and fighting alongside white men.
And who are these white men? They’re our friends and our comrades. They’re people we respect and who respect us, who take racism and sexism seriously and who don’t assume that our gender or our race excludes us from participating in illegal actions. They’re people who work low-wage jobs while going to school, who struggle with debt and economic precariousness, whose histories include experiences that simply don’t square with the tidy category of “privilege” you use to make everything they say or do illegitimate.
We’re not trying to deny the fact that racism and sexism exist, or to suggest that the student movement is immune from these institutionalized systems. But we won’t accept our identities being used to shut down forms of thought and action that we think are absolutely crucial in building a revolutionary movement. It’s with the histories of the militancy of women and people of color as inspiration that we embrace the events of last Thursday night.
I won’t know how to fight inequality as a single person, as much as anyone ever has, or ever will, until the conditions out of which such horrors emerge are successfully abolished. But I have so much anger against this world and I have as my only weapon the strength this world has given me to destroy its very foundations. That’s why I must act. That’s why WE do.
You just don’t know to whom you’re talking…
-The Invisible Women Committee