What to Communities of Color in America Is White “Insurrection”

Dear Colleagues, Friends, and Loved Ones,

There has been an expected wave of statements from higher education administrators, academic departments, research centers, and prominent individuals affiliated with our fields of work regarding the armed deadly takeover of the United States Capitol by self-declared “patriots” on January 6, 2021. I must be honest that I dread adding to this noise, which is why I have waited a few days to send this note. I do not write on behalf of the American Studies Association (ASA) or its leadership body, but rather out of a humble sense of accountability to the communities of radical and abolitionist movement that nourish me.

Last week’s spectacular white nationalist coup attempt may have been exceptional in form, but (for many of us) it was entirely familiar–utterly “American”–in content. It is misleading, historically inaccurate, and politically dangerous to frame this event–and the condition that produced it–as an isolated or extremist exception to the foundational and sustained violence that constitutes the United States. As the surging neo-Confederates in the Capitol building made clear, there is a long tradition of (fully armed) populist, extra-state, and (ostensibly) extra-legal reactionary movement that holds a lasting claim of entitlement on the nation and its edifices of official power.

Further, the steady trickle of information from January 6 indicates that police power–including the prominent presence of (former) police and “Blue Lives Matter” in the coup itself–animated and populated this white nationalist siege. Contrary to prevailing accounts, this event was not defined by a failure of police power, but rather was a militant expression of it.

People in the extended ASA community have organized their lifework around practices of freedom, knowledge, and teaching that unapologetically confront this physical and figurative mob in, before, and beyond 2021. I write as your colleague, comrade, and “ASA President” to urge you to invigorate and expand your scholarly, activist, and creative labors in this time of turmoil. The ASA is but one modest apparatus at your disposal.

Finally, I encourage a collective embrace of an ethnic and practice that is common to some, though under-discussed by far too many: collective, communal self-defense. This robust ethnic and practice is not only central to abolitionist, liberationist, Black (feminist, queer, trans) radical, and indigenous self-determination traditions of mutual aid and community building, but is also a necessary aspect of “campus life” for many of us in the ASA. The need to develop well-deliberated, mutually accountable forms of self-defense cannot be abstracted, caricatured, or trivialized in this moment of asymmetrical vulnerability to illness and terror. Get your back, and get each other’s backs, in whatever way you can.

D.R.

Dylan Rodríguez (@dylanrodriguez) is Professor in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at UC Riverside.  He was named to the inaugural class of Freedom Scholars in 2020 and is President of the American Studies Association (2020-2021).  He recently served as the faculty-elected Chair of the UCR Division of the Academic Senate (2016-2020) and as Chair of Ethnic Studies (2009-2016).  After completing his Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley in 2001, Dylan spent his first sixteen years at UCR in Ethnic Studies before joining Media and Cultural Studies in 2017.

Dug Ramon: Hot Wheels

As I played with my toy cars next to the giant living room window, the early morning summer sun shined a rectangle of heat all around me. My neck and arms burned, but I was frozen tense as I watched my mom from the corner of my eye pacing back and forth. She bit her nails while her other hand gripped the cordless phone to her chest. Suddenly, I heard keys at the door.

It opened and I saw my dad standing there wearing the same clothes from yesterday. I fell asleep the night before in his rocking chair waiting for him.

“Sabés qué?!” my mom screamed at him. “Si no vas a llegar a dormir a esta casa, por qué putas no te vas mejor?!”

My heart pounded and my hands stiffened on my Hot Wheels. It didn’t make sense why she’d scream at him to leave when he’d just gotten there. My stomach moaned and ached.

Mom gripped the phone, trembled and swallowed, and stared at him with teary eyes.

He said nothing. He glanced at her then looked down, took a shallow breath, and walked past us and into the kitchen. I heard a drawer open and a big noisy trash bag was taken out. Dad walked back in holding the bag and hurried into the bedroom without looking at us. Mom followed.

I pretended not to stare through the doorway at them as she kept screaming.

“No soy estúpida!! Encontré su número en tus pantalones!”

I wondered if she meant the lady dad made me talk to on the payphone the other night. I got worried he would think I told mom after I promised I wouldn’t.

She kept screaming: “Si querés andar jodiendo largate a la mierda mejor!”

Why would she scream at him to leave like that? My heart pounded faster and I felt worry on my face.

I heard the plastic bag being filled while mom kept screaming. Dad was quiet. With my head lowered I peaked at them again and saw him lifting the bag to cascade its contents toward the bottom. He pulled his pants, shirts, and underwear from our dirty laundry hamper and threw them into the black trash bag.

I looked back down at my cars simmering in the sun and my hands were shaking. Dad walked back into the living room with the bag and stood far from me, but I felt him staring. He stepped closer, to the edge of the sunlit rectangle, and knelt down as he dropped the trash bag of clothes onto the warm carpet in front of me.

“Mirame hijo,” he said, and I looked up at him. He looked away quickly.

“Me tengo que ir,” he said avoiding eye contact, “pero sabés que te quiero mucho.” With his hand on my shoulder, he forced a hug around me.

I didn’t move. I didn’t say anything back. I didn’t ask why he had to leave, or tell him to stay, even though I really wanted to. Everything was bright and blurry and I noticed I was squeezing my car.

He stood up, took a deep breath, and lifted the trash bag over his shoulder. He said nothing else.

In the quiet, my mom sniffled. Dad walked to the door, left the house, and mom and me stayed there quiet and shaky.

I turned quickly to look out the living room window, but the brightness burned my blurry eyes. I wiped them and as they adjusted I saw dad walk across the street with the black trash bag over his shoulder. He threw it into the bed of his beat up blue pick up truck, got inside, started the motor, put it into gear, and drove away without looking back.

“Quitate de allí,” mom said, but I didn’t move.

“Quitate de allí!!” she screamed and the cordless phone shattered against the living room wall.

DR

Dug Ramon was born, raised, and resides in East Hollywood, Los Angeles. An LAUSD, LACC and Cal State LA alumni with a background in psychology and mental health, Dug works as an office manager and writes daily for his own joy and sanity. Dug hopes to grow as a writer in the coming years and share his work with more readers. He’s currently working on a fiction project, from which “Hot Wheels” is an excerpt.

blossoming branch of tree against blue sky

Tunisia Nelson: Standing in Remembrance of Mary Lee

Standing in remembrance of Mary Lee
I TIP her hat with pride
Red as Bold & Courageous
Strong as she Identified

The true definition of what it means to be…
A Woman after God’s own heart
The pillar of this family
Proverbs 31 in human form

To know her was to love her, if not to envy her kind, subtle ways
She owned SWAG before it was even a thing
She created the Formation, you hope & dream
To be anything like Mary Lee
A conqueror of much

She is a survivor of more than you will ever know
Her faith made it seem as if she towered, despite her petite frame
Cancer couldn’t take her and the devil couldn’t break her

She made a mean peach cobbler!
The kind you are willing to sneak in the kitchen, eat up,
And get a whooping for.

A sacrificer of much
In a pinch she knew just what to do
Head High, Speaking Her mind,

For ALL that, and more, Grandma,
I tip YOUR hat to YOU!

TN

Tunisia Nelson is a writer, born in Los Angeles but raised in Bakersfield, CA and currently residing in Moreno Valley, CA. She is a VONA Alum and has published poems in the Eunoia Review, Iō Literary Journal, and Refractions, an online literary journal. She received a BA in Psychology from Cal Poly Pomona, and an MSW from Cal State Long Beach. Tunisia dedicates this poem to her grandmother, one of the most faithful and prayerful women she was blessed to have known, who also made the best peach cobbler, hands down, and who loved her family with every fiber in her. Her memory deserves to live on and this poem is paying her homage, letting her know she is so very missed.

This fire season will show there is no limit to our leaders’ stupidity

The fire season seems to arrive earlier and earlier every year, and becomes fiercer, more destructive, and more indifferent to the fact that there are cities and towns in its way. There are currently more than 560 fires burning through the state, most of which have only appeared in just over a week. Most are concentrated in the north and central parts, but southern California isn’t exactly being spared. A large handful of blazes are scattered throughout Orange, Los Angeles, and San Diego Counties. They are smaller, but smaller is always relative.

The worst fires are up north, in the counties sold to the world as “wine country,” and too complex, diverse and breathtaking for any tourism pamphlet to capture. These are the locations of the LNU Lightning Complex and SCU Lightning Complex Fires. (The term “complex fire” describes a cluster of component fires that started out as separate but have converged and/or are converging to create one massive mega-blaze. Reporters and fire departments will sometimes refer to the component fires by their own name, such as the Hennessey Fire near Vacaville, which is part of the LNU Lightning Complex.) Already, the LNU is the second largest wildfire in California state history, the SCU is the third largest.

Combined, the two complex fires have destroyed more than 600,000 acres and forced dozens of small towns and suburbs to evacuate. Across the state, almost a million acres are now scorched, and by last count at least 119,000 people have been forced to evacuate their homes. Whether anything will be left for people to return to after the blazes fade is, of course, a complete unknown. At least five people have died. With an historic heatwave still pressing down on the state, and dry seasonal winds sweeping through, there is no end in sight. We are, after all, just at the beginning of the season. The infamous Santa Ana winds aren’t even expected to get here until sometime in October, but already we’ve lost ground.

Thousand-year-old, iconic redwoods are currently burning like Roman candles. There is good reason that these trees are so emblematic of California’s unique position in the planet’s ecological history. Their beauty and massive size aren’t merely impressive on their own terms. As with any tree, their size testifies to time. In the case of the redwoods, the slow and intricate patterns of nature’s web – so all-encompassing that we take it for granted – are monumentalized. Seeing them before us, we are forced to contemplate how young society is, how temporally small human beings are next to them. Their destruction severs our ties to deep ecological history.

End-times capitalism shrugs at all this. Wildfires are a natural part of California’s ecology anyway, another example of how nature can self-regulate. Climate denialists love to toss this fact out as its own argument, an attempt to discredit the alarm bells. It fails, in its deliberate stupidity, to account for why the conflagrations get worse and worse every year, for the heatwaves unleashed by climate change, to say nothing of the role played by Pacific Gas & Electric’s negligence in some of these fires.

It is not that humans as a whole consider themselves above nature. It is that capitalism arrogates itself as the pinnacle of history, of time itself. The multi-sided domino effects that spill from one realm of crisis into the next – the interconnection between ecology and society that Jason Moore identifies and calls the oikos – are casually compartmentalized and explained away.

Another factor casting doubt over the end of this fire season is California’s fire-fighting capacity. COVID-19 continues to pummel the state, itself an expression of the countless ruptures and fractures in the metabolic rift. While COVID and climate change are separate phenomenons, Andreas Malm and others have argued recently that the same conditions responsible for climate change–the disruptions of delicate ecosystems–also expose human society’s collective immune system to lethal pathogens.

COVID-19 has severely limited California’s capacity to fight the fires. It’s not just sick firefighters or social distancing that hinders the effort. Over the course of the past several decades, the state has become increasingly reliant on the cheap labor of prisoner firefighters. But the complacency and ineptitude of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has turned the state’s overcrowded prisons into festering coronavirus hotspots. Currently there are plans for early release for as many as 17,000 inmates at particularly high-risk for infection, but this is only a fraction of the state’s 115,000 inmates. Regardless, the CDCR has been slow to enact even preparations for these plans; the prison population is on lock-down, which renders the majority of inmates ineligible to fight the blazes for the paltry sum of a dollar an hour. Many reporters saw the quandary coming a mile away.

Many of these same prisoners are watching as walls of fire bear down on them, unable to escape as the CDCR refuses to evacuate facilities. At the California Medical Facility – a prison outside Vacaville specially intended for terminally and chronically ill inmates – officials had moved 80 prisoners into outdoor tents to enable social distancing. Already subjected to the elements, they now are breathing air poisoned by smoke, in turn weakening their immune systems even further as the coronavirus continues spreading through the state’s facilities. The vulnerability of these prisoners presages a wider vulnerability among California’s populace, at least a hundred thousand of whom are now having to seek shelter elsewhere. Canaries, coalmines, so on and so forth.

The inhumanity of this catch-22 is self-evident on its own terms. California, the world’s fifth largest economy, is now tangled in a public health crisis and an ecological crisis of near-unprecedented proportions, unable to pull itself out of one so that it might fight the other, as both feed into each other. Any number of alleviations are at the state’ s fingertips: providing free and adequate healthcare for all, along with a robust tracing system; a universal basic income, or public housing that would allow evacuated residents to relocate, either temporarily or permanently; comprehensive funding (state or federal) for adequate firefighting capacity; releasing non-violent offenders from prisons or, god forbid, shuttering prisons entirely in favor of a justice system that seeks actual restorative justice rather storing human beings like cattle. The kinds of renewals that make history possible.

A rational society would see these as feasible solutions, however radical a future they may harbor. We do not live in a rational society, however. The only new future harboring is of a state’s inaction becoming only more destructive to human life and dignity.

AB

(Originally published on To Whom It May Concern on August 22, 2020.)

Alexander Billet is a writer, cultural critic, and artist. He is a regular contributor to Jacobin, and his writing has also appeared in In These Times, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, and Chicago Review. He is currently a member of the Locust Arts & Letters Collective, and serves on the editorial board of Locust Review. Find more of his writing at To Whom It May Concern, and his artwork on Instagram.

Nahshon D. Anderson: Don’t Just Black Out Now; Support Queer & Trans Writers of Color

The recent unlawful killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other African-Americans and 40+ emails since that I’ve received from different nonprofits stating solidarity for Black Lives led me to write this.

Many organizations are now claiming to support Black people (because it’s currently convenient) and believe they are standing in solidarity with us (even as they obtain more funding and media attention since it’s currently convenient).

Yet Queer writers of color have been overlooked and under-funded for decades, especially Trans writers of color (i.e. transgender writers of color).

When it’s come time to cut checks, much of our literature hasn’t been worth bothering for. Many manuscripts, submissions, and more have been left on the curb without hope. In my own work, focusing my subject matter on social justice, economic inequality and police brutality is my form of protest.

Last December, I submitted chapter four of my unpublished memoir Shooting Range, titled “This is for Rodney King,” into a literary competition. I did not expect to win, nor did I expect to lose. I just went for it.

Over the years, in addition to my writing, I’ve also served as panelist for various arts organizations and awards and have been shocked at the absence of a relevant narrative examining police brutality in general and honoring people like Rodney Glen King. Police brutality has been an ongoing issue for years that’s only gotten worse, and Mr. George Floyd’s and Ms. Breonna Taylor’s deaths are only the latest proof. This is what made my submission to the contest, which was dedicated to honoring Rodney Glen King, important for more publications to support. But the piece was rejected.

I was going to remain quiet about not receiving the award for my submission. But when not long afterwards I received an email from the same organization behind the contest about its newly awakened principles and commitment to Black Lives, I was left shaking my head, tired of reading the same bullshit.

However, there are organizations out there committed to walking the walk. To name one example, Shade Literary Arts, a literary organization focused on the empowerment and expansion of literature by queer writers of color, is holding an excellent fundraiser that still needs help reaching its goal of $100,000 to support queer and trans lives.

Do you mind digging in your purse to support Shade Literary Arts, or do you need my help?

Moving forward, I hope nonprofits and arts organizations across the U.S. are sincere in their newfound solidarity statements, even if I know they’re only manufacturing them based on current events, which by the way all read as if they were written by the same person(s).

I also hope that future grant awards reflect diversity instead of it being just another “trendy” bandwagon. This change is long, long, long, long overdue.

N.D.A. aka K.I.N.A.

Nahshon Dion Anderson, aka K.I.N.A, born April 1, 1978 in Altadena, California, is an Afro-Latin American, and French Creole Transgender writer. As a pre-teen, she was her family’s scribe and lector, both reading and writing for her illiterate grandfather, blind grandmother, and dyslexic mother. During 1992, Nahshon’s improbable career trajectory as an actor, writer, and later literary arts advocate, began after family friend Rodney Glen King was beaten by the LAPD, the ensuing aftermath of which played out in Nahshon’s driveway and front lawn. In 2014, Nahshon received a Bronx Recognizes Its Own Award (BRIO) from the Bronx Council on the Arts’, for an excerpt of her memoir Shooting Range, which details an assault she survived as a teen in July of 1997.

selective focus photography of tombstone

Victor Avila: Hope Amid Stones both Tall and Gray

Infinity does not know the grave
though the digger’s hand still turns the soil.
These monuments that some think grand
only mutely invoke the names
of the long forgotten dead.

There is no permanence
as these stones hope to proclaim.
Whether we are buried over here or over there
only bones below in a box remain.

The earth gladly welcomes them.

Perhaps infinity is just a word
Like truth and God and love.
Are they just pretty syllables
for atheists and blasphemers
to ponder in their despair?

Faith is irrational. It’s the logic of angels.

No, I will never understand
the mystery of the silent mountains.
not far beyond these gray and somber stones.
All the secrets of the universe
I’ll leave for others to discover.
The unknown will remain for me unknown.
I am glad of this.

I walk among the intaglio of crosses
and joyfully accept my mortality.
It’s because of this that I do not fear
the eventuality of days.

For every story, even ours, has a conclusion.

The essence of everything
we hold briefly in our hands.
In reality though, there is nothing in between them.
I find this notion both magnificent and grand.

Dust in time will cover even this.

Nothing in life is learned
until beauty becomes our mirror.
Only then will we catch a glimpse
of all that we call immortal.
We do well when we chase the ethereal.

For it is in the chasing of it, that we find most joy.

V.A.

Victor Avila is a winner of the Chicano Literary Prize. His poetry collection, “The Mystic Thrones of Night,” was published through Vagabond Books in 2019. Victor’s poetry has been widely published and anthologized. Recent work can be found in such collections as EXTREME: An Anthology for Social and Economic Justice, and The Border Crossed Us. Victor has taught in California schools for over thirty years.

Helen Bernstein High School from Sunset boulevard, East Hollywood

José Ocampo: I Wanted School to Be Over

Many students (high school seniors, I’m talking to you!) constantly share one common wish: for school to be over. As seniors, we have put up with nearly 12 years of schooling, have gone through twice as many teachers, met 5 times as many annoying-ass kids, and just wanted our final year to be a breeze. Do we still want that?

When we said, “UGH! I want to get out of here already!” we meant that we wanted the school year to go by fast, unnoticed. However, fate and life (and some may even say God) enjoy toying with us, and like making a wish at a magic genie booth at the L.A. County fair, we actually got what we wanted, just in the most undesirable way possible.

COVID-19 has every school in the major Los Angeles area closed with a very high chance that they’ll remain closed until the upcoming fall. Suddenly, all of us students have been forced into online schooling, with every teacher trying to host a Zoom session at the same time, with many teachers assigning homework every single day, and with some teachers still having no idea how to use technology. This is not the end we wanted.

Suddenly, it seemed our introverted lifestyles were becoming a law and a survival guide: don’t go outside, don’t interact with anyone, avoid direct contact, only leave to get food. Finally, our binge-eating and binge-watching routines were no longer taboo, but being encouraged by the leaders of our state. In a nutshell, it can seem ideal. Living in it, though, has been a serious challenge.

Be careful what you wish for. You don’t know the value of what you have until it’s gone. These are sayings that are kicking everyone in the ass at the moment.

The vast majority of people always complain about the insipidity of their daily routine; we’re always asking for a change. It’s only now that we start to realize how dependent we are in our customs. Think about it: you’re sitting on your couch, watching something random on Netflix for background noise, eating your 5th Cup Noodles this week, and daydreaming about how life was perfectly normal a month ago (though you were probably complaining about it then too).

Many of our lonely souls just want this to be over because we miss our friends. We miss making plans we probably weren’t going to show up for. We miss rolling our eyes at the kids in the halls who take their sweet ass time walking to class. We also miss seeing that one teacher that remembered what being a high school student was like. Some of us are even questioning if we’ll still remember our social skills once this is over. Will we remember how to say “hi” properly, or how to hug our friends?

No matter what kind of person you may be, you probably miss the times that seem like forever ago too. Every day lasts 72 hours now, and there is apparently nothing to do. We all want this to be over, and soon. But what can we do? Be awesome and listen. That’s what. Also, remember to wash your hands and practice saying “hello” at home whenever possible.

(This blog was originally published on the new LA Voice Blog by José Ocampo)

JO

José Ocampo is an 18 year old Senior high school student in Los Angeles who will be studying at the University of San Francisco as a Psychology major this upcoming Fall 2020. He loves writing about the world, and sharing his mind with as many people as he can. Please check out and subscribe to his new blog, the LA Voice, immediately during this quarantine season!