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The Political Significance of Being Inconvenienced

Striving for justice in the long term is worth the upset in the present, worth the mess and the noise of trying to figure it all out.

Young activists chain themselves together to block a street in Chicago, Illinois, disrupting traffic at the Association of Chiefs of Police Conference on October 24, 2015. (Photo: Sarah Ji)

To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.”—James Baldwin

Last fall, Black Youth Project 100 along with Fight For 15, Organized Communities Against Deportation, and #Not1More shut down the International Chiefs of Police Conference in Chicago. Coordinated teams of protesters locked themselves into blockades all over the McCormick Place convention center. They strategically took over major streets, building entrances and passageways, in an attempt to make access to the conference as difficult as possible.

In reflection, organizers noted that one of the greatest successes of the mass action — in which over 60 arrests were made — was that so many officers were called to the scene, it left the surrounding Black neighborhood of Bronzeville virtually police-free for the approximately nine hours it took to remove all protesters. This was the subtle but significant triumph of the action; not mainstream media coverage (of which there was very little) nor the swaying of hearts of the conference’s attendees. Rather, for a few brief hours, the residents of Bronzeville were temporarily relieved of the fear of violence and harassment from the Chicago Police Department.

For a small window in time, Chicagoans were given a concrete example of what a world without police might look like. Much like the policing slowdown in New York City at the end of 2014, the result of a lack of law enforcement wasn’t chaos or discord, but peace.

The Standing Rock Lakota Sioux and their allies — primarily other Native tribes from the northern US and Canada — are currently blocking the pathway of the Bakken Pipeline, and have succeeded in halting its construction. Even as the contractor, Dakota Access, filed a lawsuit against protesters, citing unsafe conditions for construction workers, tribal leaders are suing the company for breaking the treaties that give the Lakota people sovereign right to the land.

Indigenous communities blocking the pipeline are not attempting to convince Dakota Access of their human right to land and clean water. They are not facing corporate wrath, criminal charges and state violence (North Dakota’s director of Homeland Security has ordered the removal of state-owned trailers and water tanks from the protest site) in order to make a statement about honoring treaties. They are using their bodies to halt the building of a monstrosity that will desecrate sacred sites and destroy the natural environment — not just for their tribe but for inhabitants of the entire region. This is stunningly courageous, and hugely inconvenient for the interests, power and profit driving the pipeline forward.

The privileged decry actions like those named above as unnecessarily confrontational, and even violent. Throughout the last three years, uprisings, street blockades and marches have been criticized for the inconvenience they pose to residents of the cities in which they occur, and the business they disrupt. ‘No one will sympathize with your message if you alienate them with these tactics,’ is a common refrain. Yet this reaction fails to grasp that the goal of direct action is not to generate pity: It is to practice for the coming of a new world. The point of taking action is, precisely, to inconvenience the privileged, and interrupt the flow of the free market.

Inconvenience is the exact aim when the oppressed use direct action to challenge the powerful. However, inconvenience as a political tool is not reserved solely for the elite. Rather, it is a tenet each one of us must learn to embrace as we examine the ways that we as individuals and communities benefit from injustice, the things required of us if we are to bring about a world where all can thrive.

Freedom Square, the encampment on a vacant lot across the street from notorious Homan Square in Chicago, is on its 34th day of occupation. Beginning after a shutdown of the Homan Square black site by the #LetUsBreathe Collective and BYP100, organizers semi-spontaneously decided to take over the empty lot until the black site was permanently closed, and the resources used to run it returned to the North Lawndale community. Within days a small tent city sprang up, offering free meals, clothes, books and workshops to local residents.

The sustaining of the occupation has been grueling, requiring an intense amount of negotiating among organizers around tactics and community expectations, while simultaneously keeping the site running 24/7. It has demanded a force of volunteers, community members, artists and teachers to keep the tents peopled, the stations clean and organized, new food and supplies coming in daily. It has forced organizers to handle inevitable community violence without police — to figure out how to continue challenging the state without becoming the state.

Yet, what has emerged as the primary need and the most challenging question for Freedom Square is childcare. Almost as soon as the encampment materialized, neighborhood kids started hanging out there, and parents began dropping their kids off during the day. Youth out of school with no access to camp, no adults available to watch them, or without a consistent home space have made Freedom Square their home. Organizers have had to find daily ways to engage young people and support their growth, while keeping them safe in the shadow of a black site. This has meant taking shifts in childcare duties, regular communication with parents and families, and community agreements that center the needs of youth while shielding them from police.

Though keeping the occupation going has been a nearly insurmountable task, and a constant learning experience for organizers, the fact of its existence is itself a success. Freedom Square has not merely created and maintained a police-free zone for over a month, it has drawn new attention to the greatest needs and most lacking resources in the North Lawndale community. It has, in the midst of a police state, demonstrated what a world without police might look like — in both its joys and challenges. It has provided community members and organizers a chance to practice, to hone the skills they’ll need for when that world arrives. And it has generated initial answers to hard questions about how we share labor, pool resources, sustain ourselves and our efforts without the support of the state.

Some of the most complex teachings of Freedom Square are around the struggles that emerge as we remove the systems to which we’ve grown accustomed — even those we acknowledge as harmful. None of us are total victims of the state, just as none of us are its total beneficiaries. Even as our actions reveal the state’s genocidal tendencies, they simultaneously unveil the ways in which we have become dependent on many of its structures. In the same ways we may reject violent masculinity or free market capitalism as values, yet rely on them strategically for protection and survival, we are each partially invested in the systems that are killing us. Abolishing them means, inevitably, relinquishing the ways we benefit from them as well.

All this is to say change is inconvenient, because change is loss. It is disorienting to lose anything one has gotten used to — even a violent state. Many of us have become resigned to the way things are, because even when the current order is genocidal, it is familiar. At its worst we still know how to navigate it. We do not know how to navigate what does not yet exist — a world with no police, where resources are shared, where we control less with the knowledge that our neighbors can have more. Yet this is exactly why experiments like Freedom Square are crucial: They give us a portal into just how those futures could be navigated, what is needed not just to arrive at them, but to maintain them after they’ve arrived.

Sweeping social change will be hugely inconvenient for those of us who hold positions of power in the current order. A redistribution of wealth means that those of us with an excess of money will have less of it. True democracy requires that those whose voices are presently allowed to speak make room for others to be heard. Inconvenience is exactly what is demanded of those whose conveniences are built on the destruction of the planet, and the suffering of others.

On an even deeper level, starting over, creating whole new systems to replace the decaying ones destroying our communities and environment, is an inconvenience for every last one of us. Vision, bravery, creativity and intense labor are required to imagine and bring to life such systems, and to continue shaping them with the new lessons we find on our journey. This is the true challenge before the movement for abolition, and the road ahead is undeniably marked by discomfort.

The core value to which direct action asks us to commit — both as participants and witnesses — is the shifting of power within our societies, our communities, our relationships and ourselves. These shifts are profoundly difficult, yet a more just world is not possible without them. For committing to action in the face of uncertainty is the greatest inconvenience of all, and the only way new possibilities for sharing power can be imagined.

This is precisely why so many discussions of privilege in social justice spaces ring hollow, and actually waste time. The true goal of addressing white privilege, for example, is not awareness but destruction. White people being made aware of their privilege is a step, but it is an insignificant one if the process ends there. Once we are aware of our privileges — be it our abilities, our race, our wealth, our gender — we are charged with destroying those privileges by actively giving them up. To understand we have privilege is to comprehend we have power, access and control we don’t deserve, that is harmful to others. To be in constant preparation for releasing that privilege without ever taking the risk of doing it prevents any real upset in the equilibrium of the status quo, and keeps the usual communities underfoot.

A more sustainable world is not possible unless we let go of our resources, and give them over to the people and communities we’ve unjustly garnered them from. History tells us this virtually never happens because the privileged are made ‘aware’, but instead occurs when the oppressed enact their demands in real time, forcing shifts in power by reclaiming their own, rather than waiting for permission from the powerful.

If we are afraid of giving up our privilege, then we must become comfortable with having it taken from us. We must be prepared for the inconvenience of letting go of what was never ours to claim in the first place.

Attracting high-profile businesses to your city should matter less than everyone in your city having a home. The loss of a crude oil pipeline, and the profits that come with it, should matter less than the protection of the water and earth, the futures of Native youth. Direct action forces us to confront the imbalanced values within ourselves as much as within our larger society, something we avoid doing as a means of successfully navigating that society. This is what makes direct action so demanding for participants, and so discomforting for onlookers. If we can overcome our discomfort — which really means our fear — there is a more just way of living on the other side of it, waiting for us. This justice, the sharing of power and resources, is beneficial for all, including those who control excesses of power and resources now.

New systems will not be realized at once, through one action or one movement. Balance requires the swinging of the pendulum multiple times before it can come to rest at its center. But striving for justice in the long term is worth the upset in the present, worth the mess and the noise of trying to figure it all out.

So remember, the next time a demonstration stops your evening commute or gets loud outside of your office window, protesters are not hoping to raise your awareness or tug at your heartstrings. They are teaching you of the deep political importance of being inconvenienced, and helping you to get used to it.

And most significantly, recognize that anyone willing to risk the peril of direct action has already endured far more than the inconvenience you face.

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