[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #15 in December 2015]
“As organizers & movement builders we hold space, hold dreams, and we hold trauma on top of what we hold from the lives we lead ourselves… Practicing liberation is about leaving something for ourselves so we can keep coming back to this work” Ejeris Dixon, at Watching the Watchers: Strategies to Resist Police Violence held in Chicago, Saturday, January 24th 2015.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Audre Lorde
It could be that the part of us that most needs healing is the exact same part of us that has capacity to work for liberation. This is the part of us that is both oppressed and defiant. What do we do with the urgency to abolish genocide that also feeds us? Why is it that the terms of freedom and sustainability are defined as self/community preservation, but all too often point toward self-destruction? How could it be that we are tasked with both resisting within and without?
Young community organizers answer these questions in personal stories, reflections, and manifestations of healing, self and communal care. Everyone who writes here is currently committed and working to resist police violence in Chicago. To learn more please see www.wechargegenocide.org
I am not broken.
But the damage is real and cannot be undone.
In this way, you have saved me.
For in the intimate spaces of this movement I have found healing.
From you, I have learned to resist.
I have learned to care.
I have learned to love.
I have learned to dream.
And I have learned that when we resist, care, love, and dream together we heal & transform ourselves as well as our surroundings.
A true story
November 25th, 2014.
“Hey sis was thinking of calling you yesterday but couldn’t get away. Ahhhhhhhhh. Feeling some kind of way!!
“I was thinking of calling you too. I’m pissed, sick, tired, scared. Don’t want to be around anyone but MY PEOPLE. Reverend Staten on KFAI calling Mike Browns death a blessing! I nearly threw up in my car.”
“it’s everywhere. I’m so tired.”
“I know me too.”
When the news came of Officer Darren Wilson’s non-indictment, I was hosting family members at my house from out of town. A couple days earlier, I had celebrated my birthday and also went to the emergency room where I waited for hours, staring at the price list for hospital services on the wall and watching news anchors on TV speculate about “what would happen” in Ferguson. Now, the announcement came and new protests broke out. I twisted my hair between my fingers. Late that night, I called my friend and told her that I was “feeling some kind of way.” We talked for about an hour. We talked about watching our friends in the streets taking over the highways. We talked about wanting to crawl into a hole and hide. We talked about how funny it was that we were both community organizers who had no energy to do much at all. We talked until there was no more to say except “I love you sis… thanks for listening.” And then we went to sleep. Sometimes that’s the most that can happen.
I am a daughter of the almighty Patricia Smith, whom I am deeming the Master of Self Care; and Libby Pearlstein, who dedicated her life to serving others while ignoring her own needs and is now at rest. “What does is it mean to truly care for myself and my community?” is a question that has sat on either side of my shoulder since my grandmother’s passing. The more committed I am to this work to end violence and fight for our liberation—Black people—I have learned that this too means the more committed I need to be to myself.
I cried A LOT on the trip to Geneva, Switzerland to present evidence of police violence to the Committee Against Torture review of the United States. I cried a lot and I reflected a lot. I felt fairly introverted; everything about me wanted to sulk into itself and it did. Listening to stories of women that have been raped, children that have been beaten, and the slow genocide of Black people—for simply being all at the hands of the state—while in a sterile environment claiming to breed justice, took a toll on my capacity to grieve and to heal. All too triggering and emotional it was to hear these stories while sharing my own in a room full of strangers, comrades, and bruised souls alike. I thought to myself, “healing doesn’t happen in spaces like this one, or does it?” The structure of our current justice system repeals love; it’s almost like it’s main purpose is resisting to believe and work towards manifesting love as an action, as the answer. I could go on and on about how disenchanted the “master’s tools” and the “master’s house” are and the inner workings of getting to know them in order to dismantle them, but this peace—I mean piece—is about healing. Living in-between the existence and reality of giving and receiving, rooted in love, is what I believe to be healing and I have a lot to heal from. I am on a declarative crusade to resolve exactly where it is I fit in between both Grandma Pat’s love and Grandma Libby’s light; how I plan to shape and share that with my community. Hermeneutic self-discovery in the name of Zamani, revolutionary love and equity, to me in this moment, is healing. Nonetheless, tea with a comrade, lavender peppermint bubble baths, and medicinally charged dancing is, too, how I am healing.
This is a photo of Maya, my best friend, at BYP 100’s action and occupation of city hall where we protested the killing of Black people at the hands of the police, law enforcement, or self appointed vigilante that happens every 28 hours. She started to tear up a little after this photo. She expressed being angry and hurt and how she has bottled those feelings up for far too long, like many of us.
I channel bell hooks’ judicious words as I write this reflection: “Do not expect to receive the love from someone else you do not give yourself.” The word “love” can certainly be replaced with tenderness or compassion and still feel reasonable, but replace it with care or healing, and we’ve struck a wall. The reluctance to self-care is nothing new to me, especially when I know there is urgent work to do with unfortunately no end in sight. Still, we have to try to remember that what we’re organizing for is glorious, absolute, collective liberation, and what we are organizing against in order to achieve that is not light on our souls, and will not go down easy. We seem to have recognized the sensibility in leaning on each other for guidance and love, but when it comes to creating space to hold and process our own traumas, and validate our own selves, we often come up short. Something I think we’ve failed to see is the interconnectedness between self-care and community care. To rewind back to bell hooks’ words, replacing the notion of love with that of healing, its important to realize how necessary it is to create breathing room for ourselves so that we can continue to provide breathing rooms and healing spaces for our beloved communities. Healing is putting the work into multifaceted organizing to achieve collective liberation while never feeling guilty for reveling in the POC spaces you intentionally carve out. Healing is for every two affirmations you write on your comrade’s Facebook wall, you write one for yourself on a post-it note that you’ll stick to your bathroom mirror. Healing is feeling deep-in-your-core validation in the unified charge of genocide with your comrades on that international level. Healing is allowing yourself to feel that deep and bottomless anger at everything wrong in this world today so that you can move forward and create something that will help your community build a better tomorrow.
Healing has been a difficult thing for me to think about. I find that living in this world, full of so much pain and continued oppression makes my “healing” practice feel more like a coping mechanism. Wounds are continuously re-opened, and organizing in the framework of me and my people’s personal narratives makes displaying my oppression a part of my everyday work.
The process that best allows me to hold this pain, and be vulnerable without feeling like I’m re-opening wounds is in Circle. At least twice a week I sit in Peace Circles in my community. I share space, and act in shared vulnerability with the other members of the circle. I get to feel safe sharing the parts of me I normally do not feel comfortable sharing. I believe this is because the way people interact with this world is in itself surface-level and oppressive. The standard problematic racist, sexist, hetero-normative ways of interacting easily manifest themselves. The circle acts as a way to circumvent that, not only in how people interact with you, but also the oppressive tendencies you internalize.
I have found out a lot about the ways I internally put down and oppress myself by deep introspection into my own trauma. I realize my patriarchal tendencies of putting down and trying to control those less powerful than me was replicated in the way I chastised myself and the ways I thought about my relationship with others. I realized that to check my patriarchy and racism I had to first stop internally putting down myself. As I learn to love myself, it changes the ways I interact with the world.
Ethan Viets-Van Lear
Between months of circle talk; the incessant rotation of trite activist vocabulary words like “system” and “the work”; routine organizing meetings on stale coffee; and protests timed to the twenty-eight hour life expectancy of the blk and breathing, (ironically) there is plenty of room for forgetting. That first march from Daley Plaza when you were seventeen, full of righteous flame and fist, somehow slowed into a sleepy chant pacing your mouth. Bold lettered signs stack your desk, not quite gathering dust — though it feels like you are. The hashtags cluster into a scroll of obituaries. You rant your tongue dizzy. Someone in your email box wants you to come talk about feminism, about police brutality, about the black grass turning in your lawn. Someone in your notifications wants your take on Ferguson, on Florida, on New York, on Palestine, on Nigeria, on last week, on tomorrow, on a New Year’s Eve not yet come. Your angry tweets turn into payroll. Some days, your brain feels like a conveyor belt. Some days, your heart just sits and watches. You’re always angry and you’re always dying and your calendar waddles and spills this nameless existence.
Between months of tired orbit, you forget you are still breathing. You forget being a scattered seventeen year old until finding that thread that pulled your fist together. How it felt like your fingers lay strewn across your messy room of body for years until someone reminded you that you have hands. You have palms and you have work to do. Now, we talk about healing to do “the work” as if the work is not the healing. As if the conference rooms do not swell with strategizing how best to love. How to exit this world with both of your lungs. How to stone and soften for survival beneath an angry machine. How healing is what pulls you out of bed each morning, how it commands your step, the repetition of your slug heavy throat. Healing is in a meeting stretching 3 hours overtime. It is a living room packed to the walls with rainy women trying on one another’s hurt. It is in the invading fingers that roughly strum your politics, making you vibrate with such a long-toothed passion. A hive jostling that you are almost grateful for. Between months of such overlapped healing, there is plenty of room for forgetting to call it by its name. To thank it for waking you. To run your fingers through its salted hair, quietly celebrating all the days it’s lived long enough to see.