Sunday, June 2, 2019

Students, Peasants, and Communism in Colombia


Students, Peasants, and Communism in Colombia



This is a transcript of a recent email interview I did with Oliver Dodd, a PhD student at Nottingham University, where we expand upon his April 2019 article in the online edition of the Morning Star.


Talk in depth about the worker-student-peasant alliance in Colombia. How did these seemingly different groups not just come together, but unify without factions fighting for overall control?
While it is commonly declared that ELN was formed out of Colombia's student movement, and therefore that it consisted of solely middle-class political activists, the reality is much more complex. In fact, from the beginning, the ELN was made up of peasants and workers. The ELN was formed out of structures organized by workers, structures organized by peasants, and structures organized by students. It is, however, true that the ELN's first leader, Fabio Vásquez Castaño, had been a leader in the student movement. Castaño's student and urban based background, it appears, has led academics to claim that the ELN is middle-class in its origins, but this is a misrepresentation of the reality. The ELN drew on its initial membership from broad political structures that included peasants, workers, and students.
The ELN was developed out of an organization called "Movimiento Obrero Estudiantil Campesino" (MOEC) - the Peasants, Students and Workers Movement of Colombia - founded in 1960. This movement had been inspired by the Cuban revolution, which stressed the value of organizing an extensive coalition of social forces, including armed units as well as civil society structures, to bring about revolutionary social change. Hence, central to the ELN from the beginning was the idea of creating a coalition of revolutionary social forces.
This peasant-working-student alliance - MOEC - was not created in a social vacuum, in the minds of left-wing students - it was developed on the basis of decades of intense class struggle - which in the years preceding had been particularly turbulent. The movement was creatively developed according to the historically constituted conditions of Colombian society. For example, the peasants that provided the armed foundations for the MOEC had been members of left-wing rural guerrilla forces formed during La Violencia. They had resisted capitalist sponsored violence in the years following assassination of the left-leaning presidential candidate, Jorge Gaitán. Therefore, the ELN cannot be regarded as middle-class in its origins. Likewise, the workers and students that helped organize MOEC, and then the ELN, had been radicalized while in conflict with capitalist interests in urban territories. As such, these rural and urban class-based experiences, in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution, coalesced into MOEC, which was the main embryo and initial impetus for the ELN's formation.
The momentum, tensions, and struggles of the period persuaded these different structures to unify under MOEC. Indeed, MOEC was met with enthusiasm and proved to be a popular movement for many on the left, with communist activists and moderate left-wingers joining. It sought to build on the extensive revolutionary momentum and the class structures that formed during La Violencia and following the Cuban revolution, but MOEC was not an ideologically homogeneous entity. At the time, using the example of the Cuban revolution, there was a popular belief of a need for a movement less structured than the communist party - which was organized along democratic centralist lines. Therefore, MOEC consisted of several left-wing tendencies, and the movement was not unified by an integrated political ideology, such as Marxism-Leninism. The underlying political differences among the rank and file, however, quickly developed into factionalism. It was the process of attempting to develop a unifying and integrated ideology that led to factions and splits, weaknesses which were exploited by the state's forces.
MOEC's urban political structures were successfully targeted by the police and military. Important leaders were killed and arrested - entire urban structures were devastated, while the more rural structures were proportionally less affected. This encouraged emphasis on a more armed strategy based in rural territories, although some student and workers disagreed with this political course, sparking divisions over strategy and tactics. Ultimately, urban militants were being subordinated to the rural guerrilla forces, although it was never held that guerrilla forces could survive without an urban presence. The strategy was still based on overthrowing the state over time based on a coalition of social forces, including rural and urban structures.
Fabio Castaño, ELN's first leader, represented a guerrilla-oriented leadership that was not tolerant of political differences. Dissidents were dealt with harshly; many were executed. The government exploited this authoritarianism by planting agents inside ELN structures, who were instructed to make false accusations, and thereby spread confusion and fear within ELN's ranks. These processes exacerbated internal tensions, causing desertions and splits. As a result, in the first years, the ELN grew very slowly, and started to recover only after the death of Fabio Castaño and his replacement with Manuel Pérez in the 1970s. Today, those ELN guerrillas that make base-less accusations are punishable by death. The ELN appears to have been profoundly impacted by the troublesome early years.

Before La Volencia, what was the state of Communist thought in Colombia? How did La Volencia serve as a catalyst on some level to expand such thought?
Colombia experienced significant social unrest from politically excluded class forces in the decades and years leading up to La Violencia. The country's incorporation into global capitalism, along export lines, meant that Colombia's capitalist model was dependent on economic demand from international markets. When this accumulation strategy was frustrated with the Great Depression in 1929, mass-unemployment and political militancy followed. At the same time, capitalists, especially landowners, had long sponsored violence as a means to advance their interests locally in the midst of a weak state. Peasants, due to their precarious economic situations, were commonly reliant on local economic elites for favors and services - hence, the structuring conditions of Colombia's periphery facilitated the development of clientelism, which capitalists and political leaders exploited by sponsoring the formation of private armies to pursue their private ends. This violence, sponsored by the dominant classes, provoked peasant associations to form to protect their interests.
In order to ensure economic competitivity in the international market, the state forces often sided with capitalists. This was to keep the workers in check and maintain economic productivity. Infamous is the case of the Great Banana Strike of 1928, where Colombia's military massacred, at the behest of the United Fruit Company, hundreds of striking workers. Still, incorporation into the international capitalist economy, backed by foreign banking sectors, favored the growth of capitalist development. This was achieved at the expense of the more vulnerable peasant economies and indigenous communities, leading to the development of capitalist monopolies and the concentration of capital in few hands. Each of these class developments was reflected politically.
Increasing proletarianization provided the social foundations for left-wing ideas to spread. Growing militancy was expressed in the increasingly powerful trade-union movement and eventually the left-wing populist candidacy of the Liberal Party presidential candidate, Jorge Gaitan. Gaitan, supported by a radicalizing and increasingly powerful labor movement, succeeded in capturing the hearts and minds of many workers and peasants. Parallel to this, communists organized peasants in response to the paramilitary violence sponsored by landowners. In other words, there was a clear trend, founded on the growing demands of the working class and its social forces, pointing towards social revolution.
Instead of achieving that social revolution, resulting largely from the maneuvering of the political elites, the ruling class nature of the two dominant political parties, Gaitan's assassination, and then the state sponsored military repression against the labor movement, the country descended into widespread violence. But because of the clientelist structures that had made peasants heavily dependent on local economic elites, it was mostly peasants that made up the 200,000 killed in "La Violencia" - a predominantly rural civil conflict that lasted between 1948-1958 - where, incited by capitalists and political elites, peasants went to war for the interests of their patrons. However, this developing terror across rural Colombia permitted communists and left-wing structures to organize some of the few areas that were free from the violence - thus providing the social foundations for the development of leftist insurgency two decades later. These "self-defense zones", as they were called, tended to be organized on socialist principles.
It was later in the early 1960s, in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution and the spread of socialist influence, that the "self-defense zones" were attacked militarily, with the support of the United States. However, while previously these self-defense communities were relatively static and defensively oriented, after being attacked these structures became more offensively oriented. The Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the National Liberation Army of Colombia (ELN) were partly grounded in these events.

By working with already established organizations, such as trade unions, does ELN push these groups leftward? Is this push done by the demands of rank and file members or does the leadership come on board and the rest follow?
It is difficult to determine whether ELN's involvement in civil society struggles has a clear effect of pushing the labor movement leftward. As of yet, there have been no serious studies conducted on this issue. In Colombia, trade unions have been historically radical. More importantly, sympathizers of the ELN tend to be concealed because it is a criminal offense to express support for left-wing insurgents. Still, ELN's role in organizing trade-unions in Barrancabermeja has been documented by Lesley Gill in "A Century of Violence in a Red City". ELN's structures, it seems, however, were targeted by paramilitaries and reports have suggested that many of the social bases of the labor movement there were terrorized into submission. Whenever the paramilitary targets left-wing structures, not just insurgent ones, they have found allies from local businesses.
ELN's leadership supports a position of radicalizing the labor movement from within. To my knowledge, the ELN's armed units have not sought to do this using intimidation, although intimidation is employed regularly against those accused of corruption, in sectors like healthcare and education. The ELN has a policy in its areas of influence to oppose corruption within the public sectors, such as welfare, fundamental to improving the lives of the working class. Sometimes, social activists and trade unionists work with them on this. But ELN's activity in urban communities and the labor movement is much more decentralized than the armed guerrilla units and militias in rural zones. Ultimately, those affiliated to the ELN are revolutionaries and committed to socialist development, i.e. fundamental political and economic change. Elsewhere, many formerly armed combatants, politicized through the armed struggle with the ELN, leave to work legally in communities and the labor movement, and propagate for the ideas of socialist development. In this sense, the ELN is a radical element in the labor movement.
Based on my experiences of observing the ELN as part of my research for five-months, I witnessed little-to-no conservatism in their approach to capitalist sectors - they always demanded radical and revolutionary change. They spoke against voting in presidential elections along the lines that it was fraud, a choice between supporting various fractions of the capitalist class. I am not sure if this policy has changed since 2015, for example, regarding the left-wing candidacy of Gustavo Petro in the 2018 presidential elections. The ELN at the time I was observing them in 2015 only spoke against presidential elections - some candidates for local elections were supported by the ELN.
I have observed trade-unionists work with ELN structures to coordinate their activity against particular sectors. In some cases, trade-union representatives approach the ELN, and in other instances, the ELN approaches trade-unionists and social movements for assistance. I witnessed one example where a representative of an environmental organization, which was concerned about the government's support for fracking and the damage it causes to local communities, met with ELN's structures in an attempt to make political opposition to fracking part of ELN's regional agenda. This type of social concern, it seems, is regularly brought to the ELN from community structures, such as relating to the protection of endangered animals, struggles for the protection of water, and the protection of the environment from exploitation by multinational corporations.
Social communication between ELN and sympathetic sections of civil society is constant and fluid - some activists believe that, because Colombia is a capitalist state where the law primarily favors capitalist development - the ELN, because of its armed strength and socialist tendencies, can act as a counter-state that is able to effectively impose pro-working class policies onto capitalists. Just as the laws of capitalist society are geared to protecting private property, the ELN has its own regulations that, in theory at least, are geared to advancing the interests of workers. Thus, whereas the Colombian state is oriented to promoting capitalist development and defending dominant class interests, the ELN acts as a pro-working-class entity, at least in some of the territories it governs and when counter-insurgency pressure is minimal.
For example, in areas of ELN influence, workers and peasants regularly bring their complaints to "commissions" - political structures mainly organized by the ELN - to deal with social grievances. I observed one incident, where after a landowner had arbitrarily refused to pay a worker the agreed amount for six months of work 'because he didn't do a good enough job' - the ELN compelled, under the threat of imprisonment and fine, the landowner to pay the worker the full amount. This is not an isolated incident, but a policy authorised by ELN's political leadership. In this way, the ELN builds bridges with local communities and exploited sectors of Colombian society, though it is proving more difficult given the growing dangers of working openly in communities.
Similarly, when economic crisis struck Venezuela and many Colombians and Venezuelans committed to sabotaging the Venezuelan economy by transporting contraband to sell in Colombia, I detected that local ELN structures implemented a policy of prohibiting contraband, thereby sacrificing the potential revenue from taxing it. Whether this policy is still in place I am not sure - but the idea that Venezuela's government and the ELN collaborate, I believe, is a myth spread by the U.S. to justify intervention into Venezuela. I know of at least one very influential ELN leader who was targeted by the Venezuelan military - alias "William" - the former leader of the powerful Domingo Lain Front. I saw absolutely no evidence of collaboration between Venezuela's government and the ELN - on the contrary, from the Venezuelan armed forces point of view, there seemed to be hostility towards the ELN.
Regarding the interaction between the rank and file and the political leadership, the ELN are clearly a Marxist-Leninist organization, despite some academics having suggested that they are influenced largely by Liberation Theology. Based on my five months of observing hundreds of ELN members for my academic research, I saw zero influence of this Christian reputation, except for the fact that they celebrated some ELN figures who were influenced by progressive interpretations of Christianity, such as Camilo Torres and Manuel Perez. Accordingly, ELN's Marxist-Leninist doctrine is foundational to the organization as a whole. Decisions then, in the final analysis, are decided from the "center" at the organizations' National Congress every few years, and by the Central Command - essentially the "central committee". In this sense, the rank and file tend to come on board with decisions decided by the political structures.

How does working with the above-mentioned groups make ELN more flexible when political pressure comes down on them?
ELN's federal structures were not necessarily designed for the tactical purpose of resisting political pressure. While this is clearly a potential benefit of incorporating civil structures into the movement, the ELN does not argue that socialist change will necessarily come through armed struggle. The ELN does not pursue a modified version of "people's war", as the FARC did, where the aim was to gradually encircle the cities from the countryside, and defeat the armed forces. According to the ELN, force, because it has been used systematically by capitalists against the labor movement, is regarded as rooted in the historical conditions of Colombian society. In other words, if such conditions are to change in favor of the labor movement, even under a modified framework of capitalism, ELN's policy, at least in theory, is to reconsider the utility of armed struggle.
ELN's official policy is that the labor movement is fundamental to achieving progressive change in Colombia. Therefore, when ELN claim to aim to struggle for a setting of "peace with social justice" by incorporating civil societies' structures into peace talks, a prerequisite which Colombia's government has consistently refused, they believe they are working to shape the socioeconomic conditions where the labor movement and peripheral classes will no longer benefit from armed struggle, like in other post-conflict societies of Latin America today. The ELN's long-term vision for the peace talks, it appears, is to undermine the utility of political violence by creating favorable conditions through a negotiated solution that involves civil society.
In saying that, a powerful labor movement active in urban areas has always been essential to any successful revolutionary struggle using guerrilla warfare. In Cuba, for example, there was a strong urban underground, including trade-unions, student groups, and militias, which were linked with the 26th July movement, from the outset. It is arguable that ELN's dynamic and non-sectarian political strategy is based to a significant degree on Cuba's revolutionary war, not as it was recorded in the writings of the focoistas - as a small vanguard serving as the "catalyst" of social change - but actually as it played out - with a loose coalition of legal and illegal groups.
As class struggle is dynamic and intensifies in some conditions and not in others, and at particular conjunctures, it is useful for ELN's armed units, based in the countryside, to benefit from solidarity in the cities - where urban struggles often act as the vanguard. If ELN's armed units received no support from these urban sectors, the ELN would be left isolated from where the majority of Colombians today are based - indeed, from where class conflict is often most intense. As a result, the ELN would be unable to coordinate their actions in line with urban based struggles.
It is dangerous and difficult for any aspect of the labor movement to openly declare support for the ELN. On top of the mass killings of trade-unionists and social activists by landowner sponsored paramilitaries, Colombia's government has recently arrested dozens of trade-unionists accused of being affiliated to the ELN. Indeed, many of these trade-unionists played a role during the faltering peace talks with the ELN, in terms of helping to offer proposals for achieving peace. Rather than negotiate with trade-unionists in the peace process, Colombia's current right-wing government decided to arrest them. Further evidence of this is the government's reactivation of an Interpol notice, calling for the arrest of ELN's negotiating team in Cuba.
Specifically, by working with and alongside trade-unions and social movements, the labor movement can redirect attention against the socioeconomic system that has facilitated the rise of leftist insurgency - rather than the Colombian governments' favorite scapegoat - the leftist guerrillas. Using a Marxist understanding of the reasons for ELN's development, the labor movement helps to mobilize against the Colombian state's attempts to criminalize elements of the socialist movement. Political struggles and campaigns are routinely waged to highlight the class character of the Colombian government and its manipulation of the conflict as a pretext to attack the structures of the labor movement. The state sponsorship of paramilitaries as a central component of the counter-insurgency strategy can and has been repeatedly stated by progressive forces. The political and working-class make-up of the ELN can be defended, while the labor movement continues its political struggles for working class solidarity - against the same class enemy as the ELN.
Ultimately, in the militaristic circumstances like Colombia's , it will always be difficult for legal movements to declare sympathy with the rebels, but the class foundations and dynamics of the armed conflict can be emphasized, and this inevitably opens up an element of flexibility for the ELN. The political left is currently working tirelessly to reveal the dominant class agendas of the right-wing government in related to its support for continuation of the armed conflict. The labor movement generally seeks to highlight how some of Colombia's capitalist forces, especially the more landed based fractions, exploit the conflict to create a climate of fear, thereby distracting people from the underlying causes of the half-century civil war - capitalist development.
It should also be said that without ELN's armed units, in some areas at least, the paramilitary would be free to target the spaces of left-wing influence, which were opened up precisely because the ELN was able to push out, using armed force and political influence, the state's military forces. Without the left-wing guerrillas, many of these rural areas would be consumed by neo-liberal processes and right-wing paramilitaries. For example, since the peace accord with FARC in 2016, paramilitaries, drug cartels, and multinational corporations, have occupied previously FARC governed territory and used it to expand their economic investments. So, the ELN actually plays a role in terms of reducing political and economic pressure on some of the legal social movements, but only in particular areas of Colombia.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Teaching and Resistance in LA: An Interview


Teaching and Resistance in LA: An Interview

By Devon Bowers


Below is the transcript of a recent email interview I did with LA teacher Jen McClellan, a teacher in the Los Angeles school district where we discuss her journey to becoming a teacher, the recent LA teacher’s strike, and the state of teachers in the US.

1. What made you want to become a teacher? How long have you been working in the LA school system?


I like the first part of this question. I have so many answers. I’ll give just a few.

I was in fourth grade when I gave my first summative assessment. My best friend, a very distracted person like me, was going to spend the night. I wanted her to watch The Tigger Movie with me because I had seen it and I liked the themes or morals of it. I knew we usually couldn’t sit through a whole movie paying attention only to the movie the way I could alone, so I made a quiz with questions that would assure my friend got the main points I wanted her to get. She made fun of me, but I knew she would, and I insisted that it was of upmost importance, what this movie had to teach us. I don’t remember that particular movie or the lesson that the 4th grade me thought was so important. It was probably something to do with friendship. The best part of that experience though, is that it set precedent for our relationship, one that is still and will infinitely be how I understand the term “soul mate.” From that night on, every book we read, every movie we saw, every song we heard, every week of summer camp, every notebook full of poetry, every major life accomplishment and every utterly tragic loss we’ve held in common, so many pieces of our lives are stamped with a theme. 

Because of this, we can take a period of our lives, classify it, reflect on it, move on from it, draw connections and distinctions from it, and write about our experiences like our lives are stories that mean something. That’s a big deal for us, because we hit nihilism and existentialism hard and young and we held on tight to that reckless abandon for so many years that sometimes it still surfaces and tries to drag one or both of us under.

That didn’t make me want to become a teacher, though. That’s just one of those things that when I did make the decision to pursue teaching as a career, I realized, I’ve always been a teacher. Then again, I am absolutely certain that there is no one that is not a teacher, and in that sense, deciding to teach is really about recognizing and stepping up to meet this responsibility consciously; and for money.
Another distinct memory I have that I cited as my inspiration for teaching in my scholarship or college application essays is of Mr. Gill running up to my trouble-maker-ass as I was skateboarding loudly up and down school hallways during class time, shouting with quick, sharp, certainty, “HEY!” and once he was right up in my face, with a final stomp and his outstretched arm dramatically pointing towards his classroom, and in a slightly quieter voice, he goes, “there are students trying to learn in there.” That was all he had to say to throw me reeling in my newfound sense of self-awareness. 

I may forever be trying to attain that Gill level mastery over metacognitive teaching. That kind of teaching where you can’t remember the teacher telling you anything except maybe two life-changing truths like, “writers write everyday” or “if you’re going to insult someone, publicly and in writing, make sure you know how to spell.” Someone had written “Mr. Gill is Satin” on the board. He left it up all day for everybody to see and laugh about. That kind of teaching, like how Basil (my criminal justice professor and Bujinkan Sensei) can lecture for three hours and afterwards none of us students knew we’d been lectured or learned anything because we thought we’d just been having a long, super-engaging conversation, but then when it was time for finals, if you showed up to class you got an A, because we had been learning everything that was in the textbook through his conduction of everyone’s experiences and knowledge, supplemented with just the necessary sprinkles of what only he knew.

However, “what made (me) want to become a teacher” was deep, fundamental unhappiness. Not just the philosophical self-imposed kind I mentioned before. Not the psychological, clinically diagnosed and medicated kind; though I certainly had that too. No, because it’s hardly describable. It’s universal, you know? It’s that feeling of knowing how insignificant any one of us is in isolated introspection. It’s looking at the stars in the middle of the night in the middle of the Eastern Sierras, seeing the Milky Way, and feeling both incredible awe and unfathomable loneliness. It’s the reason we love stories about orphans so much, that permeable sense of abandonment I imagine all beings on this planet must get the very moment they come into conscious life. At least that would explain why the smartest (or most conscious) of us, hurt the most.

As I was saying, I was made to want to become a teacher by my own unhappiness, and after a solid eight years of indulging that spiraling dissent, I found the right combination of tools, practices, and willingness to climb up out of myself. I stole a lot of things before and after I went to jail for petty theft as an 18-year-old, so it wouldn’t surprise me if I had stolen the book that made me see my unhappiness as a simple monster. I was twenty-three and in an abusive relationship with a six foot three, two hundred eighty pound, twenty-eight year old, thrash-metal guitarist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal version of myself when I pulled the gold-yellow hardback copy of The Art of Happiness out from the books that lined the uneven floor from the bedside table to my desk in the old workers’ quarters I was renting then.

Back in Mesilla, New Mexico, in the pecan fields off the Rio Grande, my insomnia and I watched the packs of wild chihuahuas transform, into the giant toads our pit-bull mutts loved to lick until their mouths salivated with foam, into mosquito swarms so thick I couldn’t step outside into the dim light of dawn before I would slap my arm instinctively and look down to see it covered in blood. The fields had been flooded. Another summer was coming to an end. I had gone out there in 2006 after graduating high school with a scholarship to NMSU. And after serving 24 hours in San Luis Obispo Women’s’ County for minor in possession of a stolen fifth of vodka, which stuck me with a lifetime ban from the Vons in Grover Beach and a nine hundred dollar fine that followed me over ten years. 

It’s sad that I left my home town, my family, my friends, my coaches, my mentors and my memories on that note of shame and guilt. It’s humorously ironic that when I came back to California to teach, it was the loan money from the state of California to go to school that paid off the remaining eight hundred something dollar fine to—you guessed it—the state of California. And maybe it’s karma that the book Howard C. Cutler published, that contained his interview with the Dali Lama about Buddhism in the West, the book that had belonged to someone I once knew as a friend, someone who had revolutionized my ideas of music and politics, of film and art, of how to be a human being, the book that symbolized my betrayal of him and of all those things, and of myself, was the book that made me want to become a teacher.

That September I had reread all the writing I had compiled over ten years. I had started searching for a way out of the suicidal cycle of working thirty to forty-five hours a week in food service for five fifteen to seven fifty an hour just to stay drunk and in so many ways fucked up under transient roofs. Thank God for Mr. Gill and that statement prompting one of our free-writes. “Writers write everyday” gave me the notion that even if I failed at everything else, even if I didn’t know what else to do with my life, even if I never fully tried at anything, so long as I kept writing, at least I’d always be a writer. I love and have always loved writers, not always for what they write, but at least for how I could always relate to the shit in their lives. You know? The shit that they had to go through to be able to write anything. The shit they had to go through to write like that was all they had and they could die without anyone ever reading anything they wrote just so long as they didn’t have to take all that shit with them into whatever came or didn’t come next.

Autobiography and biography. That’s my favorite genre if anyone asks. Everything California’s public education system ever taught us under the guise of “history” was a lie; propaganda for our modern state. Everything except autobiography, especially those of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Mary Prince, Harriet Jacobs, W.E.B. Du Bois, and every black person up through Malcolm X, Assata, and Ta Na-Heisi Coats, including every Asian-American, every Chicano and Latin-American, and every indigenous person who ever wrote or inspired one. Everything except biography, excluding any written by or about white settler-colonialists and especially the ones like John Smith’s because his ego was so overwhelming, even to him, that he had to write his own autobiography in third person.

Becoming a teacher wasn’t ever something I wanted to have to do. I knew, in kindergarten, when the kid at the table near me declared his belief in our beloved teacher’s sincere suggestion that we could be “anything” we wanted when we grew up, that I didn’t believe anybody could be the president. I knew when he used the picture of Abe Lincoln on the worksheet to guide his answer, that I didn’t want to be someone who lied to people or let them think they were smart and “good” for saying or doing what they were obviously supposed to do or say. I knew, increasingly, with every teacher, with every detention, suspension, and Saturday school, that most people in charge, even if they had started out with the right intentions, had become or maybe always were tools. I feel this way about the teachers I have loved the most too.

I have loved them because… well, because as long as I haven’t been able to see a way out, I have felt the timeless empathy teachers are able to sustain for their students. Because students are our best selves as we have ever been, and they are all the potential we have ever had and might ever hope to see met.

I didn’t ever want, I still don’t want all that empathy to come from me. Because empathy means you have the hurt, the pain, the suffering, the particular kind of sadness that someone else is feeling.
I didn’t want to have to be a teacher, because for teaching to take place there has to be someone who is willing to receive and someone who is willing to give. The best conditions for teaching are those where people are in need, are searching, are students. Those are the conditions for empathy and empathy is the only bridge I know of that can hold enough authority to see the human race from this world with its globalized late-stage capitalism, rampant individualism, ever expansive militarization, and polarizing dichotomies through communism, through socialism, to the abstract idealistic notions of interconnected autonomy and stateless anarchy that fuels my dreams.

Or if you believe the same misinformation that still confuses us and keeps us from acting in the face of global warming when it says anarchy is chaos, then substitute “anarchy” for “freedom.” Anarchy, as I dream it, means I don’t have to be what you say I have to be and I don’t have to tell you what to do or be. Freedom means I have the autonomy to neutralize gender norms and that I live unhindered in whatever my idea of a home is, on public land. I mean that everything we ever called “public” can’t be private, can’t be owned, and can’t be used to oppress people in any way, shape or form because “public” means we all share it. “Public” means it belongs to everyone and therefore no one. 

“Public” means you can carry shit around with you and call it yours, call it “personal” but even that ignores the disprovable physical laws of spacetime every human being is linearly confined by. How did you come to be? How did the things you think you own come to be? “No man is an island entire of itself,” if you like Donne.

From that gold-yellow book, in September of 2012, the Dali Lama asked me to see myself and he did it a different way, but also the same way that Gill did when we he ran up on me in my high school hallway. After Gill, who I only knew then by reputation through the rumors spread by poor spellers, showed me that new way of seeing things, I sought him out. We don’t have much choice or agency as high school students, but I dropped out of AP English the following year because I had learned that Gill taught regular English classes, and when I went on to the next grade and back into AP, I also took creative writing because I had learned that he taught creative writing. I took journalism and wrote a column in the paper too, because if I was going to take creative writing, I might as well take journalism too.

If I could go back and do it all intentionally, I would have studied the sciences. I would have passed pre-calc rather than failing it twice out of a concocted aversion I manifested out of early onset senioritis. I would love to know where that would have taken me. But Charles Gill got to me, so I’m teaching English and I am grateful to read biographies about Einstein, to be able to translate religious texts that give context to phrases like “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, and to have even the slightest theoretical comprehension of what is being discussed in papers on String Theory. I’m even grateful to have been allowed to audit Charles Hatfield’s Science Fiction and Time Travel course, since it’s there I last learned that while multi-verses and parallel timelines are widely accepted as possibilities, the only thing that goes wrong more than traversing those, is the story that supposes we can go backwards in time.

Just think, this is only one of my stories about what made me want to become a teacher, and I haven’t even finished answering the first half of that question yet! Let me shorten it up by directly addressing the “made” in that prompt. I was made to want to become anything by drugs. Specifically, I abused drugs and alcohol to the point that I was frequently blacking out and overdosing without a second thought past “fuck. Being hungover fucking sucks.” My journals said I was a writer and could potentially teach other people to write. The Art of Happiness said it was my right as a human being to be happy and that to be happy I should do less of the things that made me unhappy and more of the things that made me happy. So, I put as much as I could fit in my car while the passed out freckled drunk who would later justify holding me off the ground against the wall in a choke hold as a response to me punching him in the face snored. In the morning I left.

I stopped at the Grand Canyon. I wandered through the woods on the edge of those gaping cliffs in the dark of 2am, with my delirious, sleep-deprived paranoid echoes bouncing off the startled silent forest around me, and with my own madness and fear that this was as far as I was going to make it flying back at me in blinding flashes of lightlessness. After the second sun rose, I decided the things I learned in school were good enough, the things the Dali Lama said were simple enough, and I had gone nowhere enough, that I could at least make it back to California. From there, with a lot of help from a lot of people, I figured out that I wanted to teach.

The way I saw it, I was joining the army or becoming a monk, only I wasn’t going to murder anybody with a righteous fist of forced democracy, and I wasn’t going the other extreme of disappearing into some other desert or mountain range in a vow of silence. This way, under the guise of teaching English, I would forfeit my ego, be humbled before everyone around me and be of service to their learning, to their seeking and finding, and thereby enter the realm of possibly finding purpose or meaning in my life as I simultaneously repaid everyone and anything which came before me and contributed to me still somehow being alive.

I decided I wanted to teach in LAUSD because the teaching at the school I went to felt too small. San Francisco seemed unattainable, too costly, and I simply felt as though I shouldn’t go there. Maybe one day, if I had a real reason, I would go there. Los Angeles, with Hollywood, the ports, LAX, all its smog, traffic, diversity, and skateboarders everywhere, shouted at me like, “aye! Your moms is an hour away. Halfway point. Sleep there for a minute, then come down. Do you really need to think about it?” That was it. I was made to become a teacher by a long series of mistakes, because yeah, you have to make mistakes to learn anything worth knowing, but if you don’t do better, do different, you can’t really say you’re learning anything. I learned that I needed my mom’s help then and that I might at any time so I worked to restore that relationship first, and then every other relationship I had. Then I made new ones.

I met Justin Simons in Nenagh Brown’s Monsoon Asian Civilization class, after wrestling with the concept of Western imperialism and its effects on China, India, and Japan all semester, after falling asleep for months to Marx and Engles audio readings, on the very last day of the semester. That was May 2013. That summer I started going with Justin to Los Angeles. He showed me the places he knew, like The Bourgeoisie Pig and Amoeba, and his friends’ houses. We went to Socialist Party USA’s LA local meetings and I learned about alternative structures of power like horizontalism. [1] I learned what the feminist process meant in practice. I threw myself into the LA left, joined the California Student Union (which coincidentally took me on a life-changing weekend trip to San Francisco), started a chapter of the Young Peoples’ Socialist League at Moorpark with Justin, took the prerequisite classes I needed to tutor for the college’s Writing Center in the library, got to know people in every club across campus as I toured their initial meetings to see who was there and how they did what they did, tabled and used free doughnuts and anarcho-syndicalist zines to lure in new members, got to know the school’s groundskeepers, custodians and maintenance workers, asked them and the students, professors and staff about their experiences and working conditions on campus, then with the practices I learned in LA I taught my peers in affluent, conservative suburbia how to earn a reputation as the most active and subversive club on campus. A legitimately recognized and funded club, I might add. Well at first. After a year we outgrew the parameters that came with that status.
So some of us focused our efforts on taking direct action to provide the students that would come after we left with a long term solution to the scarcity of food on campus resulting from a district wide contract with Coca-Cola and the Vending Machine company that claimed sole distribution over all nutritional possibilities and hence left us stuck on a relatively remote campus for up to fourteen hours, not giving a fuck that all we had to eat was gummy worms and the occasional over-ripened apple.

From the summer of 2013 until I transferred to CSUN in the fall of 2015, I learned from Schools LA Students Deserve, the International Socialist Organization, the Valley Socialists (club at San Fernando Valley’s Community College off the Orange Line a couple stops north of NoHo), independent organizers, politicians (one of whom became an LAUSD Substitute just in time to go proudly on strike with UTLA the second week of January 2019), members of the International Workers of the World, people like Vanessa Lopez whose identity I can’t limit with labels or affiliations, people who stood out to me because in the midst of this new (to me) realm they were able to think ahead and convey to those around them a general, but malleable, flexible and collectively inviting purpose and place to envision direction.

That summer, 2015, I moved into a two bedroom apartment with Jose and Jay who taught me about being American with Salvi parents, about being Korean in LA, about how to bring the motherfucking ruckus almost anywhere, about how to share a kitchen with the smell of abandoned squid, and a hallway with a forth roommate; also from Korea, but he got his own master bedroom and bathroom  because he had more money than us—from the App he had invented—and I don’t remember his name, but I do remember us all stifling laughter as he marched with the overzealous and disproportionately heavy weight of his own self-importance, up and down the hall, in his saggy off-white underwear). I smoked cigarettes on the roof next to 18th Street tags and watchers who watched the watchmen who always hover above all of us in black ghetto birds. They oppress us with the loud pervasive sound of rapidly spinning blades and thereby they unite the richest diversity of the densest populations in the nation with a common enemy. #FTP

I had been doing Supplemental Instruction which is basically being a TA with mad tutoring and small group teaching skills, at Moorpark. I applied and qualified to be an SI Leader at CSUN when I transferred. So, Fall 2015, I started teaching my own class of freshmen in English for 50 minutes a day, two days a week. Then I had two classes in the spring. That is the valley; I don’t know if you count it as LA’s school system. But if we’re being particular about when I started working as a teacher in LA’s schools – I haven’t started yet. I’m in my second semester of student teaching (unpaid) as CSUN’s credential program requires. I’ve been a student for, well as long as I’ve been alive—30 years. I will be over 40,000$ in debt after a quick two-year AA, two more years for a BA, and this last year and a half for my credential work (not classified as graduate school but is essentially graduate school). If all goes as planned, I’ll be paid to teach in LAUSD this fall.


2. Give us a historical background for this strike. Place it into a larger context of what has been happening to teachers, students, and the school system at large.

I mentioned that when I started going to meetings in LA in summer 2013, one of the grassroots organizations whose meetings I frequented was Schools LA Students Deserve. We called them SLASD then. They were high school students, parents, teachers, staff, and a community of dedicated, unyielding, persistent public education advocates. We met at and near Dorsey and Robert. F Kennedy, in classrooms, auditoriums, cafeterias, and community spaces. I met one of Dorsey’s English teachers because she hosted a series of free public classes about how capitalism, industry, and global warming had historically affected and was currently affecting people and their neighborhoods in and around, of and in fact, Los Angeles. She hosted an interesting group of us students, workers, student-workers, teachers, people, at her house off the Expo line in Inglewood. I thought, this is what I want. I want to live in this place that feels like the word neighborhood and brings it new meaning.

For five years I’ve worked towards that goal. Now it is the end of January and the beginning of 2019. I’ll get lost in too many words if I give historical background beyond my personal experience of it, but I can recommend Bill Ring’s “Guerilla Guide to LAUSD” for that history.

I felt inspiration, happiness, and hope from Students Deserve’s role in the strike. They work to bring a vast, diverse, segregated, and by all means intentionally divided district together to repair, reinvigorate, rebirth, decolonize, demilitarize, and democratize public education in Los Angeles. They have proven that the people have the power. They have it because without people, the rich, white, elite, house of cards currently dictating the abuse of our collective resources does not stand. The current pyramid scheme of a system stands only to be further stacked against humankind’s survival. This is not something that can be concealed anymore. The students, parents, teachers, psychologists, nurses, librarians, groundskeepers, custodians, maintenance men, and everyone who hungers for learning or yearns to live rather than to be murdered or just barely survive, have the power. They have social media to make transparent all that might be concealed. They have strategic planning, passion, and humility. Their vulnerabilities are their strengths.

I have explored Marx’s critique of capitalism my whole life. Through punk rock, skateboarding, writing, the blues, gender defiance, criticism of those who falsely claim authority, and every breath I take is an effort to teach through action what I, and they, and every person must instinctively know.
Why is it that whenever teachers’ strikes occur, people argue that the strikes are related to pay? Why does the media never focus on the other demands of teachers that actually help to aid students learning?

This is a rhetorical question. Have you read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” essay? What do you know about the Sapir-Warf Hypothesis? The question you are asking yourself is why are you on the side of teachers rather than the state-run, corporate-sponsored media?


3. In what ways do you think that this country undermines education?

What comes to your mind when you think of public education? The sentiment I’m hearing is that the education system is “broken.” If that’s the case, privately owned charter schools aren’t going to fix it by taking students, and therefore funding, out of the public sphere. They’re just going to profit off of the work of others.

What did you feel about school as you were in your last years of it? I loved learning, the few good teachers I had, my friends, and having somewhere to go be away from my parents. But I got in trouble a lot for challenging authority in various ways. From my experience there, San Luis Obispo County undermined education by denying us the responsibilities, respects, decencies and liberties everybody needs to experience from a young age if they’re meant to graduate and go off to college with the ability to sustain a living.

Don’t even let me get me started on student debt.

Schools in LA are segregated by race, class, and status. My school had gates and fences around it, but it also had large gaps or holes in the back fences where we’d easily get out into the cow pastures or strawberry fields; circa rural Arroyo Grande, 2002-2006. However, the schools in Koreatown don’t even try not to look like prisons. The tracking systems like GATE (Gifted and Talented Education), AP (Advanced Placement), and Honors make sure that the right candidates are given advantages to counter its failing efforts to exclude students by race (aka ethnicity), nationality or citizenship, gender, sexuality, class, or ability.[2] Those that do make it through without conforming to become another agent of this web of oppression are rare.

Those people, the ones that manage to escape the school to prison pipeline or manage to make it in and out of the prison industrial complex are the best educators we have. And most of them probably don’t teach in public schools (I’m thinking of bell hooks at The New School or people who teach under other employment classifications). Hence, I see school as the Juvenile Detention Recruitment Facilities that scout for slave labor more than a system of education that should empower citizens of a free nation with the agency and autonomy to actively practice democracy within their local communities, at least.


4. It seems we pay lip service to the idea of it being a 'great equalizer' but then aren't willing to do the heavy lifting to actually make that a reality.

If you’re alluding to the saturation of empty rhetoric our lives are bombarded by, I agree. We are living a crossover of every piece of Dystopian Literature ever written. We let it happen too. Remember when the Simpsons predicted Trump as president?[3]

This gives me insight to another reason I was so happy with the victories won by the recent UTLA strike. The fact that there still exists powerful veins of opposition in an Equilibrium-like dictatorship is amazing when you consider how much it takes to live versus how much it costs to live.[4] Economic surveys give us some ideas about this, though there are so many more un-quantified, unrecorded, and unrecognized variables that should be factored into cost of living. Even so, the abstract understanding I have of wealth disparity from profit driven reports whose audience is intended to be capitalist investors is enough to fill me with humility when I see organizers who work well beyond the legal maximum of 8 hours a day.

My own short-lived period of organizing, when paired with what I am able to observe in LA equates to burnout. How long would you be able to go16-24 hours a day and seeing people that are basically your grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins, or children passed out in the middle of the sidewalk, clothes dirty and falling off their bodies, pushing carts full of plastic bags full of plastic things, discarded human beings hauling around discarded belongings like ghosts? How long would you go into Skid Row to meet with, plan and carry out action with, organize with folks to detail the level of surveillance and control the military and police and corporations have over everybody? 

How long would you go to “public,” “democratic,” Board of Trustees meetings to speak in shaking vulnerability knowing all you stand to lose, just to be given a 3 minute maximum time slot in which you are made to stand outside the circle where menacing, suit-wearing demagogues who sit facing each other and ignoring you like the judges, jurors, and executioners of your hopes and dreams?
How long before you burn out? How long before the cynicism overcomes you?
And then what?


5. Unions are demonized in general, but teachers’ unions seem especially hated. Why do you think that is?

An old adjunct professor and mentor of mine is a union representative. Adjuncts are called freeway fliers because universities or community colleges “can’t afford” to hire them full time (because they are spending money building facilities that will draw more students who can afford to pay higher tuitions). My friend, the professor who I invited to lunch immediately after Justin Simons told me she was an anarchist, she says adjuncts don’t have offices. Then she laughs, unless you count their trunks. She burns an image into my mind, of the post-secondary educator’s car filled trunk, back, and passenger seats, floor to ceiling with books, student and personal supplies, as they drive from classroom to classroom dawn to dusk. Before I got butt-raped by the UAW she let me know how useless unions have become. But we are historians, we listen to Eugene V. Debs speeches and read about him in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. We know it’s useless, but what else can you do? You have to fight with everything you have left until you die even if all you’re doing is pissing them off or slowing them down a little.

I haven’t worked in UTLA’s ranks yet. I don’t know how long I’ll last when I do get in there to see how it is. However, I have to hope beyond hope that the reason you or anyone thinks that teachers’ unions are hated is because they are most widely supported, most critically strategic, and most international laborers the world has. Teachers are the last resistance and I’m joining up, if nothing else, at least for vengeance.

What labor has not been assembly-lined? What effective union member has not been murdered, banished, enslaved or otherwise lost, broken, and forgotten? Yet here we are with our poetry and banned books, with our librarian allies, with our entire communities of food-deserted, exhausted, fed-up, impoverished families behind us. Here we are, after Raegan, Nixon and Bush and they’re dreading us still being here after Agent Orange (Truuu—no I can’t say it—he’s like Voldemort).

Here we are after the drugs and diseases they’ve infested us with so they could quarantine us, go to war against us, send us to war against ourselves and make us manufacture all the weapons we use against ourselves while they profit and laugh. And we’re still fucking here, because the working-class teacher unions still holding out are punk rock and kung fu. The teacher’s unions aren’t hated, but the hills have eyes and mouths that spread lies, and that sounds like good news to me. Sounds like it’s working, no?


6. Do you have any regrets about becoming a teacher. I ask this as being a teacher seems to be extremely disrespected, no matter where one is.

I could ask the same of any service member. In fact, I asked my fiancée, an Iraq Army Veteran of the U.S. Calvary, a similar question once. He said that when he found himself pointing his gun at women and children, he found himself knowing he was being made to do things entirely opposite of what he had signed up for. He came back from a dirty war, after being blown up more than once, with PTSD. I won’t even tell you what he was had planned to do before he started coming to Socialist Party USA meetings. I’ll just say that even after the straight-up, downright, real human love we gave him dissuaded him from carrying out those plans and even after Agent Orange became Commander in Chief, he was considering rejoining because he thought that was his only option. But then we got together as I was graduating with my BA and talking about how it would only be another year or two before I was a salaried teacher with summers off and a strong union. Then he proposed and re-enrolled in community college and I don’t doubt that he’ll get to be whatever he wants to be in life. 

Right now he dreams of being a director and a father. We lost our first baby 7 months in utero and he’s currently delayed from school to work 6 months to extend his VA benefits. We won’t let anything stop us though, you know? We’ve got a foundation of unconditional love and acceptance, between us, with our families, with our neighbors, and in our community at large.

Really terrible shit happens all the time and it’s unavoidable that we do things to contribute to the horrors of life and death. But I think once you see clearly what the things are that people to do cause suffering to themselves, to other people and all manner of living beings, then you have the opportunity to stop. From that point on the more you do contrary to all that horrible shit gets you further and further away from the guilt and shame and regret that would eat you alive while keeping you trapped in that cycle of destruction. Regret is a negative feedback loop.

So, no. I have had no regrets only ever since I decided to become a teacher. And I think, so long as you have a genuine love and conscious intent to practice compassion, as long as you work to cultivate or revitalize a support network, as long as you know that your purpose is to make meaning by holding fast to the ropes, and as long as you remember that he who fears death cannot enjoy life and those who hesitate are lost… then you have no cause for regret.


Endnotes
1: Marina Sitrin, “Horizontalism and the Occupy Movements,” Dissent, Spring 2012 (https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/horizontalism-and-the-occupy-movements)

2: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, United States Department of Education, https://sites.ed.gov/idea/

3: Maya Salam, “‘The Simpsons’ Has Predicted a Lot. Most of It Can Be Explained,” New York Times, February 2, 2018 (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/02/arts/television/simpsons-prediction-future.html)