In the introduction to the book Taking Sides, the editor extends “an invitation to constructively debate the many thorny questions for which none of us have the answers.” In that spirit, and viewing our publication as a forum for vigorous and open debate, Perspectives presents the following review, and has specifically invited the book’s editor to respond in our pages. We also encourage you to join the discussion. We want to host debate and constructive engagement with the important issues that Taking Sides raises in our comments section. You can participate by leaving a reply at the bottom of the review. – Eds.
It was in a dusty lot in a residential corner of Albuquerque, New Mexico where Amalia’s story came spilling out.1 “This is the earliest memory of my mother,” she said, her eyes locked on a row of greens pushing through sandy soil under an open-faced hoop house. “I was less than two years old. She was picking a row of beets.” The last of ten children of Mexican and indigenous heritage in a family of farmworkers, Amalia says her mother was diagnosed with late-stage cancer while pregnant and given a few years to live.
“We were very poor and my mother felt I wouldn’t survive as a baby. My father worked constantly to feed our family and buy shoes for us once a year. My mother was friends with a white woman in a Jehovah’s Witness church who was married but couldn’t have children.” After her mother died the white couple adopted Amalia when she was still a toddler. “Right away they took me to a doctor because I was malnourished.”
“Then the woman who adopted me, a gracious and wonderful woman, was killed two years later in a car accident. So I lost my mom again.” Her adoptive father, Jack, became her primary caretaker. “He encouraged me as a woman to not let things limit me. He encouraged me to embrace my culture. He made relations with indigenous people in the area so he could take me to ceremonies. He really loved me.”
She spent two months every year with her biological family. “I was ashamed of being Indian, ashamed of being poor, and under a lot of violence in the home.” It was “extremely painful,” Amalia said. “But it was more painful to know that I had every toy in the world, all clothes I ever needed, and my brothers and sisters didn’t have.” When Jack dropped her off with her family, “He knew he was taking me to a place of brutality. He would cry and cry and I would reassure him that it’s just for a couple of weeks and I’ll be back. When he came to get me my siblings were hanging on to my arms and legs, screaming ‘Don’t take her!’ That was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”
Amalia recounted her story in the spring of 2012. She was a leader of (Un)Occupy Albuquerque. Months earlier, Occupy Albuquerque labored through a six-week process to change its name in recognition that the Southwest was already occupied. Amalia said this is not ancient history. Battles over treaties and the colonization of indigenous lands continue to this day in New Mexico. The apartheid Amalia was born into still stung as she recalled restaurants with signs saying, “No dogs or Indians allowed,” or how her mother, a US citizen, would be nabbed by the border patrol, dumped in Mexico, and made to walk back.
The name-change process embittered some Anglos who felt pushed out of (Un)Occupy and were trying to revive Occupy Albuquerque. Students, veterans, retirees and service-sector workers, they were anxious about their crumbling grip on middle-class security. Few were previously political. They found in Occupy an answer and hope, but months after the split they were confused and angry at being seen as oppressors.
Tami, a 51-year-old real-estate broker, said, “I understand white privilege, it’s real. I understand the institutionalization of discrimination that goes on with people of color. I don’t dispute that I am instantly privileged as a white person.” She said (Un)Occupy activists “don’t want to engage with you unless you read this pamphlet, ‘Becoming a White Ally.’ Because of my skin tone they think I am a racist. In my white expedient world I felt that we had to drop the pressure about racial issues.”
When discussing colonization, Tami said, “That was 500 years ago. You’re not getting land back. We are all here. Can’t we all just get along?” Occupy Albuquerque members warned of a Hispanic section of town. Tami said, “We are talking gangs, basically – people who have been poor for generations, people in that culture of gang mentality. There is a community there where they indoctrinate their children to hate white people.” Another member added, “They are stockpiling guns for a race war.”
The (Un)Occupy activists were mostly affiliated with the University of New Mexico and revered Amalia. Natalie, a PhD student, said if the Occupiers learned about racism and accepted (Un)Occupy’s analysis they could rejoin the group, but it was not the job of people of color to help whites overcome their racism.
I kept thinking of these encounters while reading Taking Sides: Revolutionary Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism (AK Press: 2016). Edited by Cindy Milstein, this collection of thirteen essays wades into the controversies swirling around identity politics. I wondered if this book could guide activists through what has become the most divisive issue on the Left.
Why are identity politics so contentious? It originated in the 1960s as a necessary corrective to a class reductionism that ignored or perpetuated oppressions faced by anyone who wasn’t a straight white male. Identity politics gave intellectual force to ideas such as race and class being indelibly intertwined in the American experience and that working-class men benefit immensely from sexism as their social reproduction is ensured by the unpaid domestic labor of women.
I define identity politics as the idea that one’s politics are shaped foremost by social identities such as gender, race, and sexual identity that overlap with physical characteristics (known as phenotype) like skin color and sexual organs, and innate behavior, rather than by social conditions such as class, culture, or the nation-state. While there are attempts such as intersectional theory to merge identity and class, identity politics can easily serve capitalism, unlike genuine class-based politics. The poverty of identity politics is exemplified by how it’s utilized to support those coming from historically oppressed groups becoming leaders of the US capitalist state. While identity politics starts as a social critique—race and gender are social categories—it essentializes oppression: Those who experience racism or sexism gain unique political knowledge that can’t be questioned, or perhaps even comprehended, by anyone who doesn’t share the oppression.
In practice, grasping the nuances of social oppressions and how they are reproduced is crucial to build mass movements, but identity politics can also fracture organizing projects, as in Albuquerque. The pitfalls include valuing language and representations over political acts and organization. Identity politics is obsessed with individual acts, interpersonal dynamics and combatting vague “isms” at the expense of organizing against systemic social conditions and forces. Since oppression is subjective anyone can be accused of being an oppressor by someone invoking a historical oppression, and the more identities the accused shares with the dominant structure, the guiltier they are no matter the evidence. When identity politics comes to rule, those who can leverage the most oppressions can determine the political agenda—sometimes derided as “oppression olympics”—rather than a group collectively analyzing the material conditions, the resources available, the contradictions, strategies to build power, and how to put that all into action. It’s not uncommon for a self-promoting clique to bludgeon opponents with identity politics, and consolidate power based more on moralizing, denunciations, and maximalism than the hard work of organizing.
Identity politics is often self-defeating. In 2004, prior to the Republican National Convention in New York City, as hundreds of thousands were planning to protest the Iraq War, some prominent activists demanded protesters forgo demonstrating against the RNC and instead defend food-cart vendors and homeless people, primarily people of color, who were being evicted for the convention.
Taking Sides parachutes into this terrain, with identity politics lurking over every essay even if the term is never mentioned. The exact purpose of the book is hard to glean, other than gushing white-hot rage. Foreshadowing the hectoring to come, the first sentence is Milstein writing of “screaming” at “white allies” during Ferguson solidarity protests in 2014 because they “seemed intent on quelling revolution.” She wants to challenge a “non-liberatory praxis” – whatever that means, because it’s never defined. She says the essays share a mission to “unearth, contest, and aim to dismantle all manifestations and structures of hierarchical power, wherever we find them,” plunging into the pit of identity politics right away. Power, like oppression, is in the eye of the beholder; anyone can be accused of being power-hungry at any time for any reason, guaranteeing internal warfare. Milstein is fixated on linguistic purity over the “lived practice” she advocates. One among many signs of the book’s lack of rigor is Milstein’s parade of clichés in describing the authors as “street intellectuals … immersed in anticapitalist and anticolonial politics” writing “within contemporary moments of insurrection and social struggle on Turtle Island.” The prologue is a stew of overwrought drama, self-parody, and triteness that will invoke approving nods from the fringes of the anarcho-choir, while mystifying or boring everyone else. (p 2-4)
Unfortunately, the prologue matches what follows. Rather than wrestling with the limits of identity politics, apart from some shots at white guilt, Taking Sides douses the Left’s pyre of self-immolation with gasoline. If a group of activists in Albuquerque had adopted its politics, they would have cast a pox on all houses, rejecting the Anglos as racists and dismissing (Un)Occupy as power-grabbing liberals.
Most essays defend confrontational protests and riots for would-be insurrectionists while condemning everyone else. For novices, there are tips about how to relate to oppressed groups. “Dangerous Allies,” by the collective Tipu’s Tiger, rejects equating oppression with radicalism. It criticizes the position “that oppressed groups must be placed front and center in struggles against racism, sexism, and homophobia” because it points out the Border Patrol and US Army are some of “the most racially integrated and oppressive institutions in the world.” (51) Tipu’s Tiger also describes how Occupy Oakland reacted to a proposal to rename it Decolonize/Liberate Oakland. The split was not along racial lines as in Albuquerque. A Black direct action group opposed the measure as it didn’t “accurately describe the situation of black Oakland residents.” Readers are cautioned to be on the watch for the tendency among “a dominant strain of anti-oppression politics” to erase “the presence of more militant non-white people.” (58-59)
One passage in particular is insightful. “A Critique of Ally Politics” skewers “anti-oppression education” for offering “a partial absolution” for white allies. “M.,” the author, argues that allies are taught to deny their agency while following people of color. This doesn’t eliminate the white ally’s racism; it only lessens it. So, their role is now to “call out other white people on their racism” for which they “gain the ethical high ground” while increasing “self-righteousness and plays for power.” (70)
This describes the dynamic in Albuquerque. The older whites joined the Left for inspiration and guidance. Instead young white college students berated them, making them feel guilty and inferior, and contradicting the principle that organizers should spread dignity and raise hopes. It was exhibit A in the Left tendency to conflate call-outs with politics, and dismissive of the idea that the social justice warriors might learn something from the older whites while working with them to develop a social justice perspective.
The lessons in Taking Sides are ultimately variations on a theme: Identity is complex. In “Coconspirators,” an excerpt of an interview with Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South (AK Press: 2015) authors Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford, the two argue against seeing whites and people of color as being “completely removed from each other’s day-to-day lives.” They are refuting claims that whites who join in urban rebellions are “cops, infiltrators, or outsiders.” (99) In “Accomplices Not Allies,” advice is posed to those from “oppressor” communities to “think about what you’re doing before you make another community’s struggle into your own therapy session.” (89) Profound insights include “people in struggle disagree with each other” (9) and “there is no singular mass of people of color—or any other identity based group.” (67)
The elementary advice raises the question of who the book is for as it’s not written for greenhorns. Taking Sides is a jargon salad of terms like solidarity, autonomous, insurrection, revolutionary, praxis, anticapitalist, white supremacy, liberation, colonization, allyship. There’s no discussion about what these words mean, why they are important, or how they work in action – beyond platitudes. The book assumes readers are familiar with these ideas and how they operate. If that’s true, then there would be no need for basic organizing tips.
The book also neglects a fundamental rule of organizing—“meet people where they are at.” That rule does not apply with outright bigots, which was an issue with at least one person in Occupy Albuquerque. However, some who left (Un)Occupy, like Tami, were a swirl of contradictions. Tami said in one breath she understood white privilege and in the next, “get over” the conquest. Should she be excluded? Perhaps, if you are in the “better fewer, but better” camp of vanguard organizing. One labor organizer with (Un)Occupy estimated ninety percent of the crowd melted away during the name change debate. They would have left eventually, he said, but the energy could have been spent organizing instead of navel gazing. When it was suggested to (Un)Occupy activists that if they didn’t try to work with whites the Tea Party would be happy to recruit them, the response was indifference. One white graduate student replied, “I don’t care. It’s not my problem.” They had turned organizing into Leftist neoliberalism: It was the personal responsibility of the Anglos to educate themselves. If they didn’t then that was evidence of a moral failing and they should be abandoned to their own devices. A year later, some (Un)Occupy members had changed their tune, admitting they had limited their effectiveness by chasing most people away.
They had not recognized the contradictions were a success. That the Left attracted people from the political middle, that they agreed politicians were in the pocket of Wall Street, that they considered an antiracist analysis, even if they didn’t act on it, was the essence of good organizing: one step forward at a time. The cross-currents created a powerful movement whose reverberations are still felt. Occupy flipped the national debate from economic austerity to inequality, helping pave the way for low-wage workers’ organizing, Black Lives Matter, and Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
But Taking Sides is less interested in movement building than serving as a how-to-manual for circular firing squads. “Outside Agitators” states, “Sometimes, it’s the people who pretend to be on your side who are the most dangerous enemies.” (103) Tipu’s Tiger blasts everyone in range. “Wealthy queers support initiatives that lock up and murder poor queers, trans* people, and sex workers.” (52) Journalists are lumped in with cops “whose jobs depend on co-opting or crushing dissent.” (60) MoveOn is involved in “counterinsurgency campaigns” against social movements. (58) (That there is no explanation why trans has an asterisk, which, according to one writer I googled up, is meant to “include all transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming identities,” epitomizes the elitism in the book.)
Milstein notes that the essay “Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex” led to the creation of the anthology (86-96). This fact is revealing, as the piece is mostly an enemies list—“Confessional Allies,” “Parachuters,” “Gatekeepers,” and “Academics and Intellectuals.” Who needs police infiltrators or provocateurs when activists are being trained in internecine warfare, the perfect complement to call-outs, tone policing, and privilege checking? It never occurs to the authors that they are condemning themselves since they are “street intellectuals” throwing around academic jargon. (4)
Methodologically, the book is slipshod, and inadvertently, this is its real value. Despite the fact that nearly every essay is written in the heat of battle, only one delves into specifics. The rest are stripped of names, quotes, dates, countering viewpoints, or any material evidence. In writing roughshod over reality, authors refuse to grapple with the complexities of what constitutes praxis: a moment of theory in action. By sifting through granular details, we test hypotheses and experiment with social forms, language, strategies, and ideas, but only if we are willing to follow the evidence. Much of the Left, however, like the authors of Taking Sides, prefers to rotate aimlessly in the cultural eddies they know, drifting past the same factions, battles, and concepts year after year, rather than diving into unfamiliar currents. Years after encountering the divide between the groups in Albuquerque, I don’t how the two groups could have reconciled their differences. But I do know only by focusing intensely on the actual conditions, social positions and histories, points of conflict, and opportunities can meaningful solutions be crafted collectively. It won’t happen by shrill moral denunciations that has become the lingua franca of the left.
Taking Sides is astonishingly sloppy. Milstein denounces a Bay Area activist anonymously while providing information to identify him. I easily confirmed with the activist that he is the person she attacks in the concluding essay, “Solidarity, as weapon and practice, versus killer cops and white supremacy.” This is unethical, irresponsible, and antithetical to solidarity, but typical of the book. Authors spar with straw men, shunning subtlety and dilemmas. While many authors legitimately argue one shouldn’t trust someone who claims that their identity gives them unique insights, the writers commit the same sin. With details so sparse, the writers in effect demand that readers trust them because there is no way to evaluate if the information is accurate or if their conclusions are warranted.
That’s just one example of the poor writing that abounds in Taking Sides. There is list-making: “patriarchal, trans misogynist and racist state” (108), and “race, gender, class, ability, and more.” (82) “Not Murdered, Not Missing” goes a step further by mashing lists together as a substitute for analysis: “White supremacy, rape culture, and the real and symbolic attack on gender, sexual identity, and agency are powerful tools of colonialism, settler colonialism, and capitalism….” (117) Language is so bled of life it can be tweaked into horoscopes: “Aquarius, check your ego, bring up your fighting spirit, and balance it with wisdom” (65). Or, “Gemini, today there are certain understandings that may not be negotiable, there are contradictions you must come to terms with, and certainly you will do this on your own terms” (88).
Some writers invent facts to accessorize their radicalness. “Outside Agitators” mistakenly claims that term was “popularized during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s.” The previous essay, “Coconspirators,” points out correctly the phrase is as old as rebellion in the American colonies. Southerners saw outside agitators everywhere after Nat Turner’s rebellion and John Brown’s raid. In 1919 the New York Times blamed “Reds” for stirring up Blacks during race riots in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. During the Great Depression, outside agitators were often held responsible for labor unrest.
In “We are all Oscar Grant,” Finn Feinberg claims “most police shooting victims are black and brown men.” (110) Yet that is impossible for him to know. It was not until 2016 that there was a reliable database of deaths at the hands of police for an entire year. The Guardian, which compiled the data, found in 2015 that young Black men were five times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts, but white males killed by cops outnumbered all Black, Latino, Native, and Asian males and females killed by cops. As satisfying as radical posturing may be, a careful look at evidence indicates there’s an opportunity to build a cross-racial alliance against police brutality. Feinberg also claims that in the Oscar Grant and Occupy Wall Street protests, “those stuck with heavy sentences have been Black and/or homeless.” (110) For Occupy, the longest sentences include three months for Cecily McMillan, a 25-year-old white female graduate student in New York City, and years-long prison terms for eight white males in Chicago and Cleveland suckered into FBI and police terror plots. (Many were drifters, but none were living on the streets when they were entrapped.) Tipu’s Tiger claims that residential segregation has returned to levels last seen in the mid-1960s. (52) In reality, according to census data from 367 metropolitan areas, whites lived in a neighborhood that was 88% white in 1980, and by 2010 that had dropped to 75%.
Like Milstein, other writers imagine the masses are about to storm the Winter Palace. Tipu’s Tiger describes “riots, blockades, fires, and refusals to disperse in Ferguson, Baltimore, and countless other cities.” (60) Finn Feinberg states, “Insurrections, rioting, mass expropriations, occupations, and all sorts of unimaginable forms of class warfare are … taking place all over with more frequency.” (112) Milstein writes that after Ferguson “millions” are engaging in walkouts, blockades, property destruction, and disarm-the-police initiatives. (138) Where exactly are these countless cities, these millions engaged in such radical actions, and insurrections?
It’s tedious to plod through so many essays, at least seven, that defend smashy-smashy tactics like breaking windows or lighting dumpsters on fire. It is simple to understand why poor people riot: because they are poor, at the mercy of unaccountable cops, and an instance of police brutality galvanizes that anger. But untangling the conditions behind a riot does not justify it. One study 2 of the 1965 Watts riot found those who resorted to violence were likelier to be among “the isolated, the powerless, and the dissatisfied.” Those in the Black freedom struggle were less likely to riot because, as Cathy Lisa Schneider argues in Police Power and Race Riots, activists “participated in organizations that both prized disciplined strategic action and offered an alternative repertoire to pursue justice.” (11) Thus, the people of color militants uniformly admired in Taking Sides have historically been less likely to riot.
So while a poor people’s riot should not be condemned, it is usually the act of the undisciplined and unorganized and sympathizing with their anger tells us nothing about its impact. Whether or not one should support smashing police cars or burning predatory businesses depends on the results and whether it builds or hinders a movement. There is barely a whiff of curiosity about these questions in the book.
One word in particular, allyship, is the burr under the saddle many contributors who hope to make ally a dirty word and a shunned figure on the Left. What is an ally? Milstein never defines it even while condemning white allies. “Accomplices Not Allies” defines ally as someone who makes “personal projects out of other people’s oppressions.” (93) Using a definition that is disparaging is a disservice to organizing. Before an idea, institution, or social system can be dismantled, it has to be examined from the perspective of those who support it.
In contrast, Tipu’s Tiger provides a balanced definition of allyship, calling it a “genuine desire to follow the lead of communities in struggle while remaining ethically accountable to them.” (55) But rather than offer concrete examples, it asserts without evidence that “self-identified white allies have even physically fought black, brown, and other protesters in Oakland and Berkeley to protect businesses….” (55) Likewise, the contention that white allies were disruptive in Occupy Oakland is devoid of names, dates, quotes, or writings.
Michael Staudenmaier’s “Brave Motherfuckers” is the only essay to look at allyship in action. Staudenmaier also authored a history of the Sojourner Truth Organization (Truth and Revolution, AK Press, 2012). His essay is a useful historical account of how cross-racial organizing can deepen and broaden radical politics. He examines a project to organize the white working class by the Young Patriots, which was politically autonomous but under the leadership of the Black Panthers. He calls it “an early instance of ally style politics.” (14) Nowadays he says, it “might be better understood … as accomplices not allies.” (15) Why? Because “contemporary notions of antiracist solidarity (involve) white activists taking direction from and giving support to radicals of color.” (19)
Staudenmaier’s beef with allyship is semantic, succumbing to the obsession with language. Does it matter if ally or accomplice is used? The value of politics depends on the content not the label: actions taken, links forged, projects sustained, evidence of principled solidarity, self-determination, and democracy, success in building movements, capacity, and organizations, and transforming consciousness, social relations, and policies.
If the Left is serious about changing society it has to appeal to the mainstream. To everyone’s shock, Occupy did that. But once people like the whites in Albuquerque started saying more than “We are the 99%,” many Leftists were outraged. This is naïve. How often do activists denounce American society as racist, sexist, heterosexist, anti-Black, anti-immigrant, or transphobic? Is it so hard to believe then that many who joined Occupy reflected those biases in their language, ideas, and even deeds? Rather than analyze how systemic oppression is reproduced at the molecular level and how to dismantle it, Taking Sides sows distrust, creates divisions, and encourages self-righteousness.
I saw another approach in Youngstown, Ohio. In 2012, a handful of Occupy activists visited unionized workers striking at a metalworking plant in the Mahoning River Valley. We stood in a circle as David Hanshaw, an employee with 30 years at the facility, railed about past givebacks to the bosses, “They took away our pensions, a week’s vacation, and we had a pay freeze for five years.” He said their strike was about America. “I want it back. We’re sinking into a moral abyss.” On a roll, Hanshaw declared the solution was getting prayer back in the schools. Everyone tensed. Except for Kris, a local labor organizer. She took his arm and said, “Well, let’s just leave that aside for now,” and steered the conversation back to unions. It was a deft display of how radicals should make a connection and find genuine points of unity rather than succumb to angry condemnations and soap-box posturing.
- Interviews have been edited and condensed for space.
- Edward H. “Isolation, Powerless, and Violence: A Study of Attitudes and Participation in the Watts Riot,” The American Journal of Sociology, March 1968
Arun Gupta is a founder of the Occupied Wall Street Journal and the Indypendent magazine, both in New York. He has written for publications including The Washington Post, The Nation, Salon, and The Guardian. He is the author of the upcoming Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste (The New Press).
Taking Sides is available here, from AK Press!