The Global Justice Movement has always been about more than the summit protests but it was at those summits that we went through a learning process with a steep curve. The idea of the convergence set our imaginations free to find ways for seemingly separate struggles to meet and together gain momentum. The consensus process, affinity groups, and spokes-councils gave us insight into ways that we can interact with each other as equals. Direct action, medical, legal and media collectives allowed us to take our lives into our own hands. A critique of coercion itself and a goal of collective liberation allowed our work to extend well beyond the fight against capitalism to confronting all forms of oppression, both within and without.
After over ten years of clandestine organizing, the new Zapatista struggle emerged in 1994 radicalizing and inspiring us. Summit protests gave us a place to put ideas into action and experience, at least for a moment, what a different world might feel like. But a question always remained, “How do we carry this into our daily lives?” In this brief piece, we will share our experiences in responding to this question as well as some thoughts on where the GJM might be heading and how it can grow. But first, we will start with the question of where it began.
“Didn’t start in Seattle…Won’t end in Quebec” was the slogan written across a poster for the Spring 2001 protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Quebec City. When did it begin then? And where will it end?
In the spring of 2001, we were students at The Ohio State University in Columbus and still members of our hometown organization, the Cincinnati Zapatista Coalition (CZC).
We were pulling together affinity groups for the FTAA protests and planning to cross into Canada through Mohawk territory at Akwesasne. One member of the CZC was himself Mohawk and had been living in Ohio to earn money. During the conclusion of a tri-state direct action training for the FTAA, he shared his memories of the 1990 struggles at Kanehsatake, Kahnawake, and Akwesasne where the Mohawk were forced once again to defend their lands from Canadian colonialism through armed confrontation and road blockades. He will tell you that he carries much older stories as well and that the Quebec City struggle against the FTAA was another chapter in that fight against colonialism. He carried his Mohawk Nation flag into the protests and his community’s paper carried pictures of him and wrote proudly of his journey from Ohio to Quebec City.
The Global Justice Movement is over 500 years old and defends a land still known by many as Turtle Island.
We never made it to the FTAA protests in Quebec City as struggles more close to home emerged. In November of the year before, while protesting a meeting of the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue, we joined with black defense groups to protest the recent murder of two black men at the hands of the Cincinnati Police Department. The jointly organized “Don’t Beat Me March” against police brutality was repressed even more harshly than the black bloc tactics of the day before. Less than 5 months later, on the eve of the FTAA protests, the Cincinnati police murdered another black man—now the fourth since November. Timothy Thomas, young, unarmed, and guilty of nothing more than outstanding traffic violations, was shot through the back and died on one of the poorest blocks in Cincinnati. Timothy’s family, friends, and neighbors immediately began organizing to seek justice. On April 10th, after three days of packing city hall and protesting outside the police precinct, and after being dispersed by the police with tear gas and bean bag rounds, the protests moved from petitioning the city to looting stores and fighting in the streets. We stayed in Ohio and took the streets in Cincinnati again several times that spring and summer in protest of a police system built to maintain a legacy of white supremacy.
The Global Justice Movement is as old as the fight against the trans-Atlantic slave trade and is still known by many as Abolitionism.
In a recent interview, Subcomandante Marcos remarked that the Zapatistas are not meant to be a model for struggle but a mirror with which to see how we really look. So, given no revolutionary model, but rather a reference point of principled resistance and poetic communication, we have walked many paths to build struggles rooted in our own realities and histories.
The summer of 2001, we lived in Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, R.J.’s first neighborhood and where Timothy Thomas was murdered. We interned with a housing cooperative and built relationships with our neighbors. Guys that owned the barbershop around the corner from where we lived organized with us and other activists not from the neighborhood, most of whom were white, to start a CopWatch chapter. Many of the activists that had emerged from Over-the-Rhine and other neighborhoods were scheduled to attend direct action trainings through Ruckus and be speakers at the IMF/World Bank protests coming up at the end of September. We laid plans together to host a national conference in Cincinnati that would bring grassroots, people-of-color organizations together with the primarily white, middle class activists radicalized by the summits to dialogue on effective ways to work together. We made preparations to send a delegate from Cincinnati to the third international Peoples’ Global Action conference also happening at the end of September in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
We were building a laboratory of struggle in our hometown. We built holistic relationships with our neighbors that went beyond meetings and politics to late-night smoke sessions and trips to the lake. We rotated playing with neighborhood kids and doing childcare for activists in the community. We organized horizontally, having frank conversations about our relative positions of privilege and oppression in this system and building bridges across our differences while creating radical “institutions” like the CopWatch and People’s Law Collectives…and then it happened.
The World Bank/IMF protests were scaled back greatly and the Ruckus camp cancelled. Community activists no longer felt safe going to D.C. much less Cochabamba. Although the root causes of the problems in this world remained unchanged, the climate within which we were organizing changed greatly. People from every part of our organizing communities stepped back. Some radical institutions remained—the CopWatch chapter continued and expanded its work to creating a hip-hop youth center - but we did not.
Ora went back to school in Columbus and R.J. found work as a union organizer throughout Ohio and West Virginia. A year later, at the end of 2002, R.J. joined Ora in Brooklyn, NY, where she had moved to do Palestinian solidarity work with other radical Jews. Our work has taken different paths but we both still struggle with the mandate of the Zapatistas that inspired this new wave of global revolt.
On Becoming Zapatista
“Be a Zapatista in your own community” is an idea that I’ve been wrestling with since I first listened to the communiqués coming from Chiapas. Rather than run solidarity campaigns or send material aid to the Zapatistas, I was expected to build the struggle from my own place in the world—drawing out the liberatory tendencies of my own cultural experience. But what is community when you grow up in five different neighborhoods in a single-parent home? When your family is spread out across the country? What is a cultural experience when white American identity means learning to consume, rather than produce, culture? I know I’m not the only one wrestling with these questions.
For me then, this idea means working to build community and to be a good community-member. On a basic level, this starts with not treating individuals or communities as if they are expendable. This is a simple idea that has powerful effects when applied to day-to-day work. It is also a rule of thumb that can help to identify those behaviors and models of organizing that are actually anti-social.
I live in Brooklyn, NY now and work with Critical Resistance NYC (CR-NYC). It is the local chapter of a national—aspiring to be international! —prison abolitionist network. As an anti-authoritarian collective of over twenty people of different racializations, class backgrounds, gender identities, sexualities, ages, and political tendencies, CR-NYC is a space where we attempt the work of being both directly democratic AND led by people most affected by the prison industrial complex. Having a visionary mission of abolishing prisons, police, and surveillance means that we must also take on the challenge of articulating alternatives that result in real safety for individuals and communities. We new abolitionists are finding and applying different structures and processes in response to these questions of internal accountability in the collective and restorative justice in the community. This work will hopefully be a major contribution to the “movement of movements” as a whole.
In the U.S.A., prison abolitionism is important not only because the government incarcerates more of our people than any other nation-state in the world but also because abolitionism has deep historical roots here. Mexico’s Zapata and the U.S.A.’s abolitionists stand at the very foundation of their country’s respective identities. They represent legacies of resistance the elites can’t knock down.
Being a Zapatista where I am at has meant working with Jewish and Palestinian communities. Whether this be organizing with Jews Against the Occupation (JATO), teaching at a synagogue in my neighborhood, challenging my family, or being a part of multi-racial organizations and building relationships with people who do not expect Jewish allies. I have learned the importance of moving beyond politics of reaction and opposition into creative and positive community-building politics. JATO functions as an affirming community producing an alternative Jewish culture of dissent and complexity. More importantly, in contrast to Jewish anti-occupation groups that only identify with the Israeli left, JATO strives to be accountable and responsive to Palestinian communities and organizations. I also value Creating lesson plans such as “Jews Around the World” and “Tzedakah: A Jewish Response to Poverty” has allowed me to critique the current (and Zionist) Jewish establishment while encouraging young Jews to explore resistance and diversity within our heritage. I view this project of reclaiming liberatory aspects of Jewish culture as part of the process of becoming the full human beings we need to be in order to struggle side by side with Palestinians.
Feminist and queer theory, although too often limited to the realm of academia, as well as Zapatismo, provide a useful framework through which to view and articulate an analysis of Jewish history and the politics of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. The late Gloria Anzaldua’s writings on mestiza consciousness in particular resonate here.
Queerness and mestiza consciousness acknowledge the creative power of identity-based organizing while resisting rigid identities. This embrace of contradictions and multiplicity stands in stark contrast to Old Left essentialist definitions of the oppressed and the oppressor, the worker and the boss. The idea of ‘racial, ideological, cultural, and biological cross-pollinization’ that Anzaldua talks about challenges not only the theory of racial purity that has driven so much of Western history but also imagines a way forward from the important but limited identity politics of past liberation movements. This fluidity is crucial because the power structure relies on fixed, unchanging, and mutually exclusive identities.
Ammiel Alcalay, a Sefardi writer and activist, suggests building a positive future in the Middle East will require reaching back to draw from a rich Levantine history of cultural exchange and hybridity that today’s polarized world cannot imagine.
Given these mandates, Jews working with Palestinians in resisting the Israeli war against them can break down the false dichotomy of Jew vs. Arab. I am inspired by Alcalay, Ella Shohat, other Jews of Spanish-speaking and Middle Eastern descent, and the dozens of Palestinians and Lebanese who have shared with me memories of co-existence and mutual respect before the creation of the state of Israel.
When I joined the struggle for Palestinian dignity and freedom I began to grow into a fuller human being and, as we say in our tradition, started to taste a piece of the world to come.
A View of the Horizon
So it wouldn’t be fair to end a piece on the GJM without looking ahead. It’s a presidential election year in the U.S.A. and the Republican National Convention (RNC) is coming to NYC. Coming out of a history that shows us that State power is, at its best, a dangerous tool for social transformation doesn’t mean that we ignore the elections. Queering our engagement with State power beyond the binary of “to have or not to have” opens up a wealth of possibilities. With respect to the 2004 presidential elections, this becomes not a vote over who should be “our” president but rather a referendum on the Bush Administration. Not unlike the call for direct action put out for the Tuesday of the RNC protests—our vote at the ballots will be a collective “No” to Bush and our movement building and other creative actions will create a myriad of “Yeses” to the worlds we want.
From the Still We Rise Peoples’ Assembly process being initiated across the country by the Racial Justice 9-11 Coalition, and joined locally by Third World Within, to the Life After Capitalism conference being hosted in NYC the weekend before the protests, activists are using the world’s animosity for Bush to organize for the long haul. And rather than engage in divisive, and thus costly, debates about whom to vote for, we are working to build our own capacities to change the world. Power is held in people, not in the halls of the government, and it is within ourselves that we must reclaim it.
Thank You for Listening
We hope that sharing our experiences is useful to you in reflecting upon and gaining new insights into your own lives and struggles. We have many different histories and paths and they need not be homogenized into a single, Global Justice Movement story. Revolution is not an apocalyptic event that happens to the world. It is also not an individual one. Revolution is something we build together. We’ve shared our own stories because they are the ones that we know best and we hope that you will seek out the stories of those that came before and of those that are harder to hear. We would also like to hear some of yours.
Ora and R.J.