So, I recently responded to an email correspondence between several Newark-rooted LGBTQ leaders/activists and a few representatives from a larger, regionally-focused organization regarding our responses to the tragic shooting of DeFarra “Dean” Gaymon at the hands of an undercover police officer in Branch Brook Park in Newark. In sum, I argued that their approach was wrong (as it is often, in my opinion) and a rep responded by ostensibly suggesting that responses like mine impede collaboration. I’ve decided to post the conversation (and a response from a comrade) because it speaks to the problem of macro-level organizing that doesn’t account for people, communities, and cultures on the ground.
Here’s my response to a Board Member’s argument for the opening of space for partnership between the larger, regional organization and that of the local organizations/groups:
Thank you so much for your note/testimony! I am glad that we were able to sit next to one another yesterday, as well.
Personally, I am quite thankful that this discussion, particularly as it relates to collaboration and “community”, is taking place. I think that such times push us to re-examine our relationships and those aspects of our relationships that, both, advance and impede our activist projects. Yet, it also presents us with the opportunity to speak honestly about the ways in which power and privilege operate in our interpersonal and system-oriented relationships. Let me try to explain what I mean by referencing, what I think were, teachable lessons from my short time/work in Newark.
When I began work in Newark, I thought that there existed a monolithic “thing” that we could name a “LGBT” or “queer” community. I was of the opinion that every LGBT person in the city (because I imagined that there were many) knew about the programs and community-based organizations whose missions and work focused on LGBT issues. I thought that we could organize one meeting to discuss LGBT issues and everyone would come out of their concern for the “community.” It wasn’t long before I discovered that there were many points of difference that complicated this notion of a unified/monolithic community in Newark. I soon realized that economic status and perceived class factors kept certain LGBT contingencies from venturing into different parts of the city, from attending certain meetings, from buying tickets to specific events. I realized that race and ethnic identification would play a strong role in group formation, and community partnerships. I realized that age, neighborhood, religion, historical era, Newark nativity vs. Newark newcomer status would sooner have a stronger impact on the ways that one would imagine “community” than the mere sharing of a particular “sexual identity” category or politic. In other words, I realized that to get to place of shared politics, concern and collaboration much work would have to be done on my behalf to ensure that I HEAR the different perspectives maintained by other folk (who lived in different Newark neighborhoods than me) and to RESPECT that some folk didn’t prefer my approach to organizing (because some felt that I maintained a top down approach that didn’t consider the needs of those who lived in economically-stressed neighborhoods, folk who weren’t in my intellectual/academic/social circles, folk who walked balls, danced at the Armory near Baxter Street Terrace Housing Projects as opposed to those who look down at the ball scene and preferred exclusive parties in the brownstones of James Street). This is my experience. But, what I am sharing it? What am I trying to say? Well, for starters, I think that we need to acknowledge the following:
1. While I will not/can not argue against [said organization’s] amazing national and regional work and people-strength (e.g. many thousand members across the county, including more than thousand plus in Newark), it is my opinion that [said organization] comes to the “table” with the belief that our ideals, politics, advocacy positions, and modes of activism are the same. Again, this, in my opinion, and is a problem shared by many large regional and national LGBT organizations, namely, the belief that the work done at the “macro” level speaks directly to the needs and interests of an imagined LGBT “community” at the “micro” level-or on the ground. That understanding does not allow for a serious consideration of the multitude of spaces we inhabit, the diverse perspectives we maintain (e.g. we may be LGBT but some of us choose not to fight for marriage equality because it does not cohere with our politics), or the reality that we need to examine and check the blind spots that may prevent us from seeing how our practices and perceptions shield us from engaging in ways that are equitable.
2. Why Gaymon’s tragic story is not owned by Newark and, indeed, is the story of a man who lost his life in Newark, Essex County, New Jersey, it is one that pulls at the heart of those who live in this city, whose bodies daily maneuver through the streets here in Newark. And, why strong connections can be made to Maplewood and South Orange, the real-time effects of racism (i.e. the disproportionate number of people of color who are victims of police perpetuated violence and institutionalized oppression at the level of the courthouse and jailhouse) and economic injustice (i.e. the disproportionate number of economically distressed and working class folk affected by the same) and heterosexism (i.e. the number of cases of folk harassed on our streets by citizens and cops) makes cases like the Gaymon story that much more “real” and “felt” in the lives and bodies of those living in Newark. The maintenance of analysis at this level, in my mind, signals a respect for the space and place that certain communities exist in and a nuanced understanding of the systemic issues that plaque such communities on the ground.
3. Lastly, collaboration does not necessarily mean that everyone should be at EVERY table. Collaboration means maintaining an understanding (and process) that is advanced by the group regarding who the group feels should speak, when they should speak and what should be said. Yet, collaboration, at least as I understand is, is a continuous process of engagement. That is, we don’t sit at the table when a situation spews but are always already present. I am thankful that despite the many challenges leaders face here in this city, many have taken heed to the idea of commitment and presence. Frankly, [said organization] shows up when it is campaigning for marriage equality and when high-profile incidents take place. There are meetings taking place all the time…Pride celebrations…scholarship dinners…positive/asset focused events that I have not seen [said organization] reps or its 1200 Newark members present at.
I apologize for the length, but am sharing my thoughts in love. In some ways, I felt inspired to do so by your free sharing. Let’s start a fruitful discussion regarding how we might “collaboratively” collaborate.
The response of the organization’s representative:
Darnell, thank you so, so much. We would be delighted to attend Newark-based events on a regular basis anytime the invitation is there – when we’re invited, we almost always show up, even when we know that sometimes we’re going to be in the figurative hot seat. That’s okay. We will never give up on trying to have closer relations, even if the road is bumpy. It is worth it to invest the time into another, so we don’t base our perceptions on assumptions – whether assumptions about Newark’s LGBT community or assumptions about [said organization].
By the way, about a third of our work is on marriage equality, and most of the laws we’ve passed and actions we’ve taken over the years have had nothing to do with marriage equality. Other issues on which we’ve worked so hard include transgender rights, youth at risk and equal employment opportunities, and we’ve done particular organizing in faith communities.
We respect the unique role that Newark LGBT organizations have regarding a tragedy that occurred in Newark. X’s view that [said organization], too, has a role in this situation, as other statewide organizations do reflects that of our other members, to whom we’re responsive.
And, now a metaphorical response to the problem of White Liberal Organizing by a comrade, C. Riley Snorton:
Dear White Liberal Organizer*
I realize that your tone — a mixture of condescending self-congratulation and bureaucratic coldness — is a reflection of two larger problems: the non-profit industrial complex and the inheritance of certain white liberal traditions, which probably prevent you from even understanding what’s wrong with your response both to the email, which proceeded your own, and to the tragedy of the fatal killing of Mr. Gaymon by a Newark police officer. Please understand, WLO, that the indignation in this letter is really not about you, at all. Rather, it is about a need to articulate the weariness produced by witnessing similar types of responses time and time again. It is tiresome, WLO, because of the systemic nature of it all and the variety of responses (similar to yours) that undermine the race, class, gender, and sexual specificity of the tragedies for which your organization feels it should be responsive. It is also tiresome that an email that is supposed to be in support of local grassroots responses to Mr. Gaymon’s murder is principally about protecting the interests of an organization who implicitly feels a need to defend itself against perceptions and assumptions that it is pursuing a mainstream gay agenda.
Before changing careers, I worked alongside you as an employee of two major LGBT non-profits. So please understand that when I say, it’s not about you, it really isn’t. I know the position you’re in–the role you play–very well. But the problem as I see it, is that the more we internalize the values of the economic structures that support and unfotunately implicitly lead the kinds of work we do, the less we are able to understand and undo a cycle of paternalism that structures the road of organizing (for pay). I believe it is also this set of systematic incentives from our funding structures that cause larger organizations to deride local community organizing as either ineffective or threatening–making the path to cooperative action and social justice bumpy indeed.
So let me conclude this letter with an invitation. I invite you to show up–not simply physically, with your bodies, at a community action, but to show up with some reflexivity and a connectedness to the materiality of social justice. The price of a human life should never register as an obligation to respond to one’s members.
Tired Black Activist
* This note is my version of a letter to a young (white liberal) activist. To be clear, this letter is not an actual response to the content of the email but a metaphorical response to the kinds of rhetoric that characterize what is most problematic about white liberal organizing.