The very fierce Erick Lyle invited me to San Francisco to speak on my new book The Gentrification of the Mind. Here is the text of part two of that talk, held at the Luggage Store on May 21st. Read part one here.
NOW, we come to PART TWO: What is to be done?
There is a lot of good news. We have a new generation, those of you in your twenties, who are the most radical generation I have seen in years. The most open, and the most desirous for change. Why? Because you are saddled with student debt that boggles the mind, and can’t get jobs that could get you out of it. The yuppie promise is no more. That path is closed. And so the classic American promise of success and superstardom just around the corner, seems more and more absurd. When we look at what we are supposed to aspire to: when we look at Hollywood movies, or television shows or best-selling books, or Wall Street parasites gorging on poor people’s mortgages and students loan interest- most of it is just awful, undigestable and pathetic. While of course from time to time something of merit does get rewarded, it’s not because it was good, it’s usually because the creator went to some school or fucked so and so or his father was whomever. Most of us understand, I think, that there is no relationship between value and reward, and that knowledge is freeing. It makes us, as Adrienne Rich said, “disloyal to civilization.” It creates an essential psychological alienation that allows us to view our obstacles objectively, with distance and see how to transform them.
We now understand that the production of ideas is separate from earning money. That the fantasy that one can write books or make art or promote social movements or create community projects that oppose the Wall Street value system and make real money from them is NOT REALISTIC. This frees us, to uncompromise our work, our art work, our political work, our community work and let it do what it is intended to do, bring people together and articulate new visions of how we want to live.
There are so many of us who want change, but who don’t know how change gets made. We can learn a great deal from earlier movements that were successful to a degree, and see what they did that worked and where they could not make progress, and learn from that as well. One of the many exciting things about the Occupy Movement is that it is bringing class awareness to many Americans. Even if only in the phrase “99%.” Occupy is an American tradition of Consciousness Movements, like The Utopian Socialists of the 1840’s, the anarchists of the 1920s, the Hippie movements of the 1960s, the most visceral expressions of Gay Liberation seeking to overturn consumer-based models of human relationship- all wanted a collective revelation about every institution of containment and inequality. And these movements work dynamically with Reform movements with set agendas such as The Civil Rights Movement or AIDS Activist groups like ACT UP. It is the partnering of utopian consciousness movements and concrete agenda’s reform movements that make this country change. In the 1970s, the combination of the Student Movement, Civil Rights, Black Power, the politicized and focused anti-war movement dedicated to the single demand of ending the war in Vietnam, and the counter-cultural utopian Hippie Movement, propelled the nation into a paradigm change towards opposition to the Vietnam war machine forcing the stepping down of two presidents. This combined with the military victory by the North Vietnamese resulted in the end of the war. It is very helpful, I think, in this moment right now to look at how the reform movements operated and what worked there, despite the flaws.
When I read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” I realized that he and ACT UP basically used the same principles for their most effective organizing.
The first step in creating an effective movement that chooses to have a specific set of demands is to:
- Educate yourself thoroughly so that you are the expert on both the problem and the solution.
- Make a clear, specific demand that is reasonable and doable to the powers that have the ability to institute it.
- When they refuse, we do what Dr King called “Self-purification” or what ACT UP called Civil Disobedience Training, or Affinity Group formation. Here is what Dr King wrote “We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”
- After the process of self-purification, ACTUP and the Civil Rights Movement would move into creative Direct Action to force the powers that be- against their will- to negociate these demands by communicating with the public THROUGH the media.
For example, if a lunch counter was segregated, activists would not only march in front of the place of business with signs asking to be included. They would literally desegregate the lunch counter by sitting in whites-only sections. At the same time that they were opposing an unjust system, they were also actually transforming that system. Similarly in New York in 1989 when the Catholic church got on the public school boards and made it impossible for condoms to be distributed in the public schools. ACT UP realized that people would die because of these policies and that therefore literally disrupting Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was the DUTY of those of us who wanted to save people’s lives. 7,000 people surrounded the Church, in an unprecedented direct action, and several went inside and disrupted mass with both a silent die-in and loud exclamations of “You’re killing us. Stop killing us” until they were arrested. Today, condoms are available in New York City Public Schools.
On June 19th you will be able to see this action and many others when our film UNITED IN ANGER: A History of ACT UP shows at Frameline at 11 am at the Castro Theater.
The great lessons of these successful movements is that regular people can change the world. And in fact, only regular people can truly change the world. The story of ACT UP in particular is the story of a despised group of people, with no rights, facing a terminal illness, abandoned by their families, government and society -who joined together and forced this country to change, against its will- thereby saving each other’s lives. Race and class do not determine what kind of person we are. A person’s value as a neighbor and community member is based on how we act, not where we come from. Consciousness and action determine the person. You don’t need large numbers to change America. You don’t need a majority. You only need a critical mass. That action at Saint Patrick’s, which was called STOP THE CHURCH, was the best attended action ACT UP ever had. Only 7,000 people. Were there. In a city of around 10 million. There were 147 ACT UP chapters around the world. Many of them were very very small. It’s not a numbers game. It’s about focus.
We make change by creating counter-cultural movements with visionary transformational goals AND by creating focused agenda driven movements like ACT Up and the Civil Rights Movement, that use grass-roots direct action to force policy innovations that they have discovered and articulated as doable, winnable and reasonable. So, for example, asking for an end to Capitalism in the United States right now, would be a wish and a vision that could drive a movement and inspire many people, BUT if you asked me what single concrete demand do I think could best unite the nation for progressive change I would pick organizing specifically to End Student Debt. Most people who have ever even attende college have student debt. This could be a concrete reform agenda used to mobilize many different kinds of Americans across race and class lines. Agenda-driven groups like Students for Justice in Palestine are increasingly influential and the heartbeat of the movement for US institutions to divest their holdings in companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of The West Bank.
Students for Justice in Palestine can become the national center of student resistance to funding Occupation instead of Education. More theatrical folks may want to run symbolic candidates for office on local levels–not with the intention of winning, but to promote reasonable and doable policies and get these ideas on the table, ideas like education taxes on chain stores that increase with each additional franchise. It will make it harder for these non-union parasites to drive up commercial rents and homogenize city life, while making them bankroll state and public universities through taxation, so we can train more people with the skills needed to put them out of business. I’m sure all of us in this room want an end to the illegal and immoral wars in Afganisthan and Iraq that have caused incalculable suffering for Afgahni and Iraqi people And have also created a traumatized generation of working-class Americans who cause pain and experienced pain for reasons they never understood, who are now unemployable and in profound conflict. Our cities are too damn expensive. That’s just the bottom line. There is a way to change the housing situation in San Francisco and New York and that is to build so much quality low income housing that we crash the real estate market. If we stopped using war as a substitute for employment, we as a nation would have the money to build that level of housing. So one million dollar one bedrooms would no longer be worth one million dollars and people would buy homes in order to live in them. Home is not something appropriate to speculation. Home is something that everyone must have for us to have a functional society. We cannot be whole without Home. Home is not a luxury. Building enough quality low income housing to crush real estate speculation is possible. Imagining and articulating a change is the first step towards realizing it. We can imagine changes large and small – long term and short term, but they all require creative focus and some form of co-operative organization to make our ideas known, understandable and embraceable.
Sarah Schulman is an American novelist, historian, playwright, and early chronicler of the AIDS crisis. She is the author of seventeen published works: ten novels, five nonfiction books, and 2 plays. Schulman’s early novels were set in the artistic, bohemian, lesbian subculture of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. An activist and organizer, Schulman joined ACT UP in 1987; co-founded the Lesbian Avengers, was a principal organizer for the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization’s efforts to march in the New York Saint Patrick’s Day Parade; and with Jim Hubbard created the ACT UP Oral History Project.