Criticism of safe spaces unmasks white supremacy

The debate about campus free speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and related topics in schools and universities is very old. Indeed, modern campus activism traces to the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, where the student body fought against an administration that wanted complete control of conduct.

Though safe spaces have been placed in direct opposition to campus free speech in many discussions, I will point out that the University of Chicago’s stance against safe spaces is the same sort of administration power play that free speech coalitions have fought against. Issues differ, but it is all rooted in the same power dynamic

Well, the University of Chicago has always embodied the Slowpoke meme. Always relishing its anachronisms. Thus, it’s not surprising that they take fairly regressive stances on campus issues. Students and former students like Cameron Okeke have criticized the university’s stance, saying it has no appreciation of how safe spaces can improve campus function and dialogue, not hinder it. They’re right.

Within education there is a bizarre, unresolved contradiction. Schools, especially universities, are supposed to be about open exchange and freedom. Yet these institutions often serve to bolster white supremacy and obscure historical injustice. Whatever your age, if you were born and raised in the United States, what was the first thing you ever learned about the indigenous people of the Americas? Probably the first Thanksgiving, which occurred over a century after contact. We are told there was harmony, while the systematic extinction of the original inhabitants starting with Columbus is taught much later. Humans tend to believe the first thing they are told about a subject, even if it is later proven to be false (in psychology this is called anchoring). Thus many people think Thanksgiving, not the forced mining or Trail of Tears. If you grew up in California, you spent a whole half-year talking about the mission system. I’ll bet subjugation of natives to serve as labor was probably glossed over. Same with focusing on the Founding Fathers crafting a republican form of government, rather than how it excluded anyone who wasn’t white and wealthy.

So if primary and secondary education fail us, universities have to serve as the counterpoint. But eliminating safe spaces doesn’t make the discussion better, it makes it worse. In most elite schools, black and Latino/a students are under-represented. The strain of often being the only black or brown student in a class, or on the floor of a dorm, is huge. Universities that historically had no people of color (or women, for that matter) are not welcoming, especially if no effort is made to change. Safe spaces, trigger warning, etc. are an effort. U of Chicago is nailing its feet to a place between the beginning of the civil rights movement, and now. It can only fall further behind.

Cal State Los Angeles has recently gotten attention for offering campus housing that is designed for students interested in black culture and issues. This has been called segregation (it’s not), but this all seems to be about comfort. Namely, sacrificing the comfort and safety of students of color in favor of the comfort of white people, who would rather not be reminded of how the university works for them but not for others. That lofty concepts like academic freedom are being dragged down is distressing, as it’s just a fig leaf. Administration wants control, nothing more and nothing less.

 

“We have nothing to celebrate”

CHILE-COLUMBUS DAY-MAPUCHES-PROTEST
cred Hector Retamal AFP/Getty

On Saturday, tens of thousands of people marched on the streets of Santiago, Chile. They supported the Mapuche indigenous people, who have been in a long fight for the return of their ancestral lands and an end to arrest and harassment of their activists. On the 521st anniversary of the Columbus voyage’s “discovery” of the New World, the protest is part of many intertwined resistance movements, in which indigenous people attempt to regain their land and sovereignty from both governments and multinational resource corporations. As the Spanish-speaking, Catholic cultural and political order has its origin with Columbus, it is a reminder that there exist a great many people affected daily by the crimes and actions of Columbus and his successors.

The march ended with water cannons and riot police presence. An earlier protest on Wednesday was seen as having an excessive and unprovoked police response (source).

cred Hector Retamal AFP/Getty
cred Hector Retamal AFP/Getty

The rest of the gallery is here.

Honoring the criminal Columbus

October 12th is recognized as Columbus Day in the United States, one of ten federal holidays. Its recognition is one of the great symbolic crimes against indigenous people in the Americas. Christopher Columbus began a horrendous genocide against the Arawak people (I recommend the first chapter of A People’s History of the United States by Zinn for an overview), and by bringing natives back to Europe to be slaves, he inaugurated an Atlantic slave trade that came to affect millions of Africans. Because he was Genoese, he has been triumphed by the Italian-American community. This is why it is currently a holiday, and remains so.

However, celebrating Columbus is to celebrate a great criminal. Would the Italian community like to celebrate Caligula, or Mussolini? The actions of all three are similar. Murder on a mass scale, callous disregard for human life, abuse of power and authority.

This is why a movement exists to reflect on Columbus and ask the key question- do we wish to celebrate him alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln? A powerful video entitled “Reconsider Columbus Day” puts it simply.

Those that love freedom, value rights and democracy, and consider themselves against prejudice have to voice some kind of opposition. It can just be a Facebook status, or a Twitter hashtag. When the holiday comes and it fills the news, it’s time to get off the sidelines.

Columbus Day celebrates tragedy and triumphs genocide.

Fighting back in the war against indigenous people in the Amazon

(credit Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon of NASA Earth Observatory)
(credit Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon of NASA Earth Observatory)

The history of America is one of false promises and broken treaties to indigenous peoples. Settlers would invade a treaty territory and exploit the surrounding resources. Indigenous culture would be eradicated as their ancestral lands were destroyed or transformed.

Some pre-or early agricultural tribes live deep in the Amazon basin. Some of these communities are considered uncontacted, or lost tribes– meaning that they have very little or no contact with wider society. However, the Amazon is rich in resources that get large companies involved. There have fierce clashes between indigenous groups and illegal gold miners, which has led to intervention by Brazilian law enforcement. With the small and partially-uncontacted Awá, the threat of loggers is serious. Of their main section of land, over 30% of the tree cover has been removed. An 8-year-old Awá girl was burned alive by loggers last year, part of a wider system of massacres and intimidation moves by logging interests. Survival International, a group dedicated to helping tribal groups survive serious threats to their way of life, states that 450 indigenous people were murdered from 2003 to 2010.

This is usually when we’d start writing the eulogy to the Awá- they’re outmatched with money and power. But pleas from the tribe and groups, joining with a Survival International campaign, have led to the Brazil government not only listening, but coming to the area with an impressive show of force. Sawmills are being destroyed, and future movements may eradicate illegal logging both within Awá territory and immediately around it.

Any student of American history knows what happened to the indigenous populations, who once lived on wide swaths of land before being escorted off by soldiers with bayonets. These same issues repeat for different countries at different times. Here is a chance to make the story end a little bit better.

Idle no more

Two years ago, I took course titled “First Peoples of North America.” It was taught Tuesday nights, from six to ten PM- and since it was the winter we often arrived in darkness. The classroom seemed to be an oasis in a large, mostly empty campus.

The teacher was Mark, soft-spoken white guy who grew up in the same sleepy California suburb that I did. However, a unusual conflict during his stint at Humboldt State led to an interest in indigenous people and their rights. In the late 70s, Northern California natives were pitted against federal authorities over fishing rights in the Klamath River- a conflict sometimes referred to as the “Salmon War.”

From this article:

“Federal agents began to assert control over the Indian gillnetting fishery on the Klamath River. About 20 agents armed with billy clubs grabbed five Yurok Indians and confiscated their salmon catch. The Department of the Interior set up a Court of Indian Offenses to prosecute the cases, however, the judge dismissed the charges and ordered the fish returned to the Indians. The Yurok informed the Department of the Interior that they planned to continue fishing in spite of the fishing ban.

In the conflicts which followed, Indian boats were rammed by federal officials and Indians arrested and jailed by heavily armed agents. In one instance, a federal agent held an Indian’s head under water until he was out of air, let him breathe, and then pushed him back under water. In another instance, an Indian woman was sexually fondled while in handcuffs.”

The conflict took thirty years to finally resolve (improve the salmon run by removing dams on the river), and as the above quote shows, the federal agents used an amount of force that I would call inappropriate.

Mark returned to the Bay and met a large contingent of Lakota that had settled in San Jose- including several leaders in the American Indian Movement (AIM). His story is full of interesting events- helping build and maintain a native-run college called D-Q University, being inducted as an honorary Lakota and communing in a sweat lodge, running across the state to raise money for D-Q and stumbling into a farm worker’s camp run by César Chávez. His history was colorful and his storytelling ability unmatched.

A point he made early on, and reiterated throughout the course, was that this course was not simply a history course. Indigenous inhabitants of North America did not disappear and leave their artifacts behind. They are still here, their story is not finished. It continues.

Thus, a new era is born.

 

They are still here.
They are still here.

Continue reading “Idle no more”