Reflections on the First Bay Area Anarchist People of Color Conference
I have been asked too many times to count why people of color need or want their own spaces, their own places outside or beyond the presence of whites. And when I point out the benefits and needs of other communities – women, workers, queers, and so on — to meet independently of what they might consider “other,” people normally claim that some how the analogy is false, that it smacks of elitism, segregation, hell even reverse racism. They demand, “why do activists or anarchists of color want to further ‘divide’ themselves by creating these exclusionary events”? And it came up again at the Friday night meet and greet event on the eve of the first Bay Area Anarchist People of Color (APOC) conference. I was amazed to walk in to the Long Haul and see not one or two people of color, the number usually present at typically anarchist events, but easily forty. I was stunned, flabbergasted. I knew maybe five or six people; so much for me thinkin I get around…and then a young woman, white, walks in and when someone explains to her that it is a people of color only space for the evening, she is appalled, disgusted. “I’m an activist,” she stammers. “I’m working for equality for everyone.” She left eventually and we continued to talk, to eat, to ponder what would come of such an event.
Needless to say I was excited by the turn out and the energy in the room; it had been a quick and tumultuous journey to plan the April 16th and 17th event. It started with losing the initial community college space because the college administration associated anarchists with a risk to safety and security. We seemed to always be under pressure, but people are amazing and as each issue popped up, someone stepped up to tackle it; and so Saturday morning finally arrived. Amidst the flying blue and gold balloons of UC Berkeley’s annual open campus day with thousands of parents and prospective Cal students milling about, I saw the sign “ Anarchist People of Color gathering this way” in black and red.
The opening session was inspirational seeing so many people (many more than the event Friday night), hearing the powerful stories of people’s political development, people’s experiences, people’s fears and excitements about a gathering such as this. I can’t help but think back to the young woman complaining, chiding us that this is divisive; I can’t think of an equally powerful event from which so many people would leave able to work more intimately with other activists and/or anarchists as well as to understand their own connections to their own communities. This can only be beneficial to everyone.
Then, as with many conferences, the workshops ranged from traditional to educational to interactive. At times, I question our dogged adherence to conference type events, which seem to mirror every other conference from self-help seminars to anarchist gatherings. Some important conclusion could be drawn from this. But for me, most of the excitement was during the in-between times, outside of caucuses and workshops, in the hall ways, sitting in a circle talking about parenting over homemade tamales at lunch, relaxing in the sun discussing past experiences with predominately white activists, volunteering at the check-in table exploring white skin privilege and shame, arguing with an African American kid selling the Worker’s Vanguard with his white friend and him proselytizing that class is the only issue, and he like the white activist earlier fearing we are being blinded by race.
As I left the event Sunday afternoon, I realized that it is fear that prevents us from trusting others to solve their own issues, to reach their own conclusions; this fear is in many of us who grew up in this society saturated with a disempowering dependence on authority and outside structures. It is this fear which is dominant particularly in liberal circles ranging from the politically correct fear of discussing difference within classrooms or the activist notion that we should all agree, be on the same page, reach consensus about issues that are multifaceted, about people or cultures marginalized and consistently and endlessly under attack by institutionalized racism. It is this fear that causes people to balk at the notion of separation as a good, empowering, necessary ingredient in the struggle for creating a more egalitarian, cooperative, and trustful society.
Events like the Bay Area Anarchist People of Color conference aren’t a sign of divisiveness but of connection, of recognition that we are different (in many various and internal ways) and yet we see our difference in relationship to others, to other issues. In our mutual differences is our similarity. More events like this are needed and are coming. So far there’s been one national APOC conference and two regional ones, there’s already been a police attack on a benefit for the NYC APOC, and there’s talk of APOC gatherings in other cities and at up coming protests like the Republican convention and the biotechnology conference in SF. And it shouldn’t end with people of color. There’s been talk of re-starting a woman’s night again at the Long Haul Infoshop in Berkeley, there’s a queer and trannie night already on Monday there [not a separatist event], and we even joked at the last Slingshot meeting about a men’s night. I can only fantasize about what would come of more people coming together, talking about shit in an environment of safety, trust, honesty, and respect, and then stepping out to talk to and work with others….