Stateside: You Go Girl!
And all the coloured girls go: You go, Girl!
This column has been nobbled by anthrax. It was going to be about the October 21st report-back of the delegation from the Women of Color Resource Center who went to the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban. But the previous Thursday the House of Representatives shut down early because of an anthrax scare and Congresswoman Barbara Lee came home to Oakland for the weekend. So the column's a bit fat, but hopefully what it contains is neither too finely milled nor any flakier than usual.
Barbara Lee turned up at the report-back to receive in person her "Sisters of Fire Award for Courage and Conscience". She also turned up at a completely separate rally outside Oakland's City Hall that had been organised practically by word of mouth to say "Thank you Barbara Lee" for being the sole member of Congress who voted against the resolution giving the President the power to take whatever steps he saw fit in the war against terrorism. Although she then voted with everybody else to give federal money to the war effort, Lee is identified with the anti-war movement - to the extent she has to have plainclothes protection wherever she goes.
There was something scary about her minders that Sunday afternoon at the report-back in the Unitarian Universalist Church on 14th St. Not their presence, or the reason for it, but the alarming visual similarity between one of them standing against the dark oak-panelled wall and a famous image I have imperfectly stored in my memory. Is it a photo of one of Malcolm X's minders standing against dark panelling somewhere? The Audubon Ballroom in New York, perhaps? Not that Barbara Lee will be assassinated - just her character will be. Audie Bock - who, even on the especially large scale reserved for politicians, is opportunistic beyond measure - has already got a website up for just that purpose, and was interviewed by the local NBC affiliate as part of its coverage of the "Thank you" rally.
It got coverage on all four local channels that I receive. They ran it high up in their bulletins and largely left it to the viewers to come to their own conclusions about Lee's action and the anti-war views of people who attended the rally. This softening of coverage extended even to coverage of a peace march in San Francisco where the chants of "This is what democracy looks like" were the dominant audio for the news item. No surprise then that by today (the following Sunday) Senator McCain is on the morning talkshows promoting his call for heavier bombing. For the benefit of any waverers out there, it's not that bombing is wrong either morally or strategically, it's just that the US isn't doing enough of it.
This is the same Senator McCain who spoke at Mark Bingham's memorial service in Berkeley a few weeks earlier and who said, during a willy-wagging session in the men's restroom before the service: "I know, people in Berkeley are just as patriotic as people everywhere else." The remark was in reply to a comment by 'Berkeley Voice' columnist Martin Snapp that "while there are a lot of people in Berkeley who are opposed to fighting, there are also a lot of people in Berkeley who aren't." I know this conversation took place not because I hang out in men's restrooms but because Snapp quotes it in 'California Monthly' in a piece about Mark Bingham. (OK, so I invented the "willy-wagging" euphemism for "taking a piss".)
So it goes. If you oppose the war you're unpatriotic. Which is why it's so good to get amongst people like the women of the Women of Color Resource Center, who actually DO stuff for the constituency they serve. I've seen Linda Burnham, one of the founders of the centre, speak at a couple of events and in response to this questioning of patriotism she always quotes a poem by Adrienne Rich that includes the line: "A patriot wrestles for the soul of her country as she wrestles for her own being".
These women wrestle. They wrestle for the rights of immigrant workers, for decent housing, a living wage, adequate health care, a good education. All the things that Lee promised, in her speech accepting the Women of Fire Award, to get back into the budget priorities in Congress. She thanked the group for standing up at this time to say that the constitution should be preserved, democracy should prevail, and civil liberties should remain intact. Well, of course, by the end of the week the House, perhaps scarified into submission by talk of a constitutional change to cope with a situation in which the whole lot were killed in one hit, had enacted the anti-terrorist USA Patriot Act, stripping away many civil liberties. Barbara Lee was not alone in opposing that measure - more than 50 members did.
As for the Durban conference report-back - Cathi Tactaquin, from the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, commented that "the terrorist attacks have revived a framework that is ages old" in terms of immigration policies, and is enabling the government to clutch back the progress that has been made on human rights abuses at the borders, and to use nationality, race and immigration status as the basis for loss of civil liberties. "Fighting for immigration rights relies heavily on building alliances'" she said, "and South Africa allowed those to be built."
Youmna Chlala, who is co-chair of Amnesty International USA Women's Steering Committee, reported that the three players at the UN conference were the governments - who said "we cannot bring political interests to this conference"; the non-governmental organisations - made up largely of lawyers who work on civil rights and who she said were "weak"; and the media - which was used as a tool, taking brief bites and ignoring the complexity of what was being done. Though the US official delegation's chairs might have been empty after they walked out, their presence was still felt in the backroom deals, she said. And the media completely ignored the 40,000 marchers who took to the streets in support of landless people all around the world.
"These things didn't start on 9/11", Chlala said, refering to profiling, indefinite detention, hate crimes. "We have to move forward mindfully - hear all our stories, link our stories, and not get divided. We have to hold the systems accountable." The three most important things are to listen, to create solidarity, and to "name together who we are going to hold responsible" for abuses. Pinpointing accountability and strengthening solidarity were her recommendations for building on the groundwork laid at the Durban conference against racism.
Linda Burnham said that "If Durban was about anything it was about how history bears down on the present and how unevenly the weight of history is borne." Of the refusal to include the question of reparations (for the "ill-gotten gains of North America and Europe") in the final conference documents she said: "This wasn't recalcitrance; it was wilful, shameful denial of the past." Overall, "Durban was both an encounter with the ugly face of racist resistance and a source of optimism through meeting people who have dedicated their lives to justice."
The final word at the report-back went to the Black-Puerto Rican poet Aya de Leon, a dynamo of energy and fun and fury. "If Women Ran Hip-Hop" had everyone in tears of laughter (as opposed to the tears of sorrow induced by the achingly beautiful traditional Korean paper dance performed by Dohee Lee earlier in the programme.) "Thanks to the delegation for representing me - so rarely do I feel represented," Aya said. "We must be very, very careful who we let tell the story and who we let control the past. God bless Barbara Lee."
As the signs at the "Thank you Barbara Lee" rally said: "You go, Girl!"
Sunday 28 October, 2001