[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #15 in December 2015]
The idea of doing an issue of AREA that focused on healing first came up over a year ago, at an open meeting and picnic in Union Park. It sounds like a pretty straightforward and uncontroversial topic – who would argue against healing, right? But it turned out to be far from simple. Over the next few months we asked for suggestions and insight about different ways local practices interpret and complicate a simplistic understanding. After circulating two rounds of calls for proposals, we continued to reach out intentionally for contributions between February and October 2015. There are many efforts in Chicago to struggle within and beyond existing models of health care, to develop healing networks and community-based understandings of care. In research, cultural work and in social movements, people have been connecting structural disinvestment in public education, mental and reproductive health on one hand, with displacement and policing of poor black and brown communities on the other. Chicago is also home to ongoing struggles around trauma centers and public mental health clinics, street medic organizing and transformative justice circles, as well as food sovereignty and alternative economies projects that address questions of land, ecology and climate crisis. Considered together, the range of activities and efforts we grouped under the rubric of “healing” represent a dense field of political and social experimentation. These practices attempt to address systemic harms while at the same time enacting social possibilities beyond the logic of capitalism and white supremacy.
But it is also the case that respectable and universally desirable notions like healing are often used as a stand-in for a pacifying and repressive set of practices (“we all need to heal” can have a similar function to “all lives matter”). In a context in which the deepening crisis of capitalism is framed as though it is caused by Black people and poor communities of color, by immigration, by physical and mental disability, by gender nonconformity and womyn, the liberal agenda of “healing our communities” or “healing from violence” actually perpetuates and deepens structural and uneven exposure to violence in its many forms. This version of a healing politics has been central to the project of creating a Chicago that is safe for capitalist development and investors, for tourists and the professional class. It is big business and business as usual, it is normalized as civility, it is slow, mundane and unspectacular. There is an entire economy of public and private investments institutionalized in programs managed by schools, sheriff and police departments, social service agencies, nonprofit organizations and educational projects, cultural institutions, think tanks, universities and charitable foundations. Incentivizing and managing social movements is historically an important aspect of this political project.
Although it may sound like a nice topic and a kind of no-brainer, it seems that healing can be a lens through which to reflect on where we are, what we are doing and how our city works.
In the long and slow process of putting together the issue, I found our conversations returning to a series of core challenges and questions:
1. Who is meant to live, to survive? In his recent lectures in Chicago, Frank Wilderson reminded us that Blackness represents a threat “not only to the police or to whites in general but to the coherence of the very category of “human.” How does anti-Blackness structure our ideas about being human, about life and about the very possibility for life-affirming practices like healing and restitution?
2. From the Ferguson uprising to the Baltimore rebellion and Minneapolis occupation, mainstream media has repeatedly focused attention on the “violence” of outraged Black folks, and pitted peaceful protesters vs thugs, unarmed victims vs dangerous criminals, healing spaces vs riots in the streets. How have social service projects and social movement managers reproduced this logic? How does cultural, educational and creative work operate when it is implicitly and explicitly in opposition to property damage or other activity considered non-peaceful, criminal or disarticulate? How are global struggles and the corresponding debates around the ethics of self-defense and resistance being experienced in Chicago?
3. There is sometimes a big difference between collective efforts in-process, which are often messy and full of unresolved tensions, and the ways we learn to speak about, to represent, our efforts. Often in Chicago we do not speak publicly in ways that offer self-critical reflection on the internal failures or contradictions of our work. At times this is a tactical form of self-defense for communities facing overlapping oppressions, which become reproduced by the expectation of self-disclosure. Other times open debate is suppressed due to the necessity of becoming legible in a larger public arena, creating a narrative that can make sense to others, that can produce campaigns, leaders, supporters, victories, allies. Of course, in the context of the city, AREA is a small project, and the specific way it is organized defines the possibilities and limits of what kinds of reflection is offered for printing in these pages. How could it be made more useful and relevant? Additionally, how can we remember that some struggles and practices intentionally remain invisible or illegible to funding streams, media and a “general” public?
4. Many contributions to this issue are in the form of interviews, recordings from events or testimony, requiring a huge transcription effort by many volunteers. Lived speech takes place in particular spaces, rhythms and gestures; and speaking also happens between specific people who speak and listen and make meaning together. How does this complex social activity become displaced and “translated” into a written document? On the one hand, we wanted to retain as much of the original speech as possible. But we found that transcribing every single utterance produced a kind of document that is challenging to read, given the ways reading and writing have been defined in our culture. We are limited in our collective capacity as a community of readers: we are used to defining knowledge in certain ways, encoded in specific written and media forms. As editors we tried to make slight and minimal interventions into the transcripts to address some of these limitations. But we also want to challenge ourselves to be self-critical readers and to notice how we tend to engage differently with the oral testimony vs written essays. Do we find one to have more authority than the other? Do we find one to be easier to read than the other? This work points to a larger process of expanding our literacies and of socializing reading, writing and publishing differently.
Because we collected these contributions over such a long period of time, and many of the interviews, statements or discussion-based pieces were in relation to specific events, it was tempting to organize the issue chronologically. Instead, we grouped the texts into four sections in the hopes it can be an unexpected and provocative way of reading the submissions in relation to each other. Resistance and Survival raises questions about who is meant to survive in a society structured by a colonizer/ colonized relation. Reparations charts three distinct ways that restitution and reparation have been articulated in recent local struggles. Within and Against (the Law) explicitly addresses the ways dominant institutions structure power and the various ways communities try to find alternatives both inside and outside existing institutional frameworks. The pieces in Coming Together in Struggle offer in-process reflections on the experience of addressing difficult issues. In addition to the printed newspaper, the issue also collects online content – extended versions and videos of some of the testimony, as well as media-specific contributions.
We hope this collection can be a resource for an ongoing conversation about emerging and enduring practices, as well as some of the tensions we struggle to address openly and collectively in the city. Much gratitude to all contributors, transcribers, advisers and all those whose efforts make this paper possible.