Dear Comrades

prisonIn the last issue, we introduced the history of “Dear Comrades,” a readers’ letters section inspired by pages from the Italian newspaper Lotta Continua. Grappling with a changing class composition, their organization solicited writings from an increasingly heterogeneous base of workers, making space for deeper political coordination across the class. Reviving that practice here, we present six more dispatches, each from a sectoral struggle with an immediate relationship to the state.


Mujeres Unidas y Activas: Immigrant Domestic Workers and Self-Organization

Part workers’ center and part domestic violence resource center, the Mujeres Unidas y Activas space in East Oakland is demonstrating what it means to build a Latina immigrant women’s’ organization. And I am lucky enough to work with them.

I first heard about MUA not long after moving to Oakland when a few members shared the palabra at a show featuring “Las Cafeteras.” Speaking to a full house, the mujeres talked about their campaign to educate and organize Bay Area domestic workers in the aftermath of the passage of AB 241, also known as the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The bill of rights, which was signed into law by the governor in January after many years of struggle by domestic workers and their allies, is estimated to cover 100,000 workers, many of whom are immigrant Latina and Asian women both documented and undocumented. For the first time ever, many personal care workers in the state are now legally protected while working overtime. AB241 is an historic victory for care laborers as it represents the inclusion of a segment of workers traditionally exempt from labor protections in US history.

Gentrification, Privatization, and a Class Struggle

It’s clear to those of us paying attention that gentrification is hitting the Bay Area particularly hard. The Bay is a region where over 40% of venture capital circulates seeking profitable investment, creating the drive among the political sections of the ruling class to capture portions of this growing bubble of money. Politicians across Bay Area cities are coming together to reconfigure cities from San Francisco to San Jose in terms of transit, jobs, and housing through “specific areas plans” that are set to coordinate the circulation of financial capital through urban space.

This circulation of financial capital has weaknesses - points of potential interruption where the linkage between the physical spaces that it seeks to legally control and materially develop can be subverted. Unfortunately, most of the time, the strategies for fighting gentrification have failed to impede this cycle of investment and production, usually waiting too long to really block the circulation of finance and thereby forced to mitigate the impacts of financial investment and property development instead. Community coalitions, nonprofits, housing organizations, and others have attempted to pass laws at the municipal level to protect renters from harassment, stop evictions of individual residents, and pool resources to buy individual plots of land.

We’re confirming an ideological belief about prisons and jails

The idea of providing immediate services to those locked up in jails and prisons is sometimes seen as a compelling and essential way to reach people inside. But what are the inherent risks? It may feel like we are empowering people by giving them positive outlets and time around people who see them as equal and human. It can also provide resources for organizing behind bars. But this service work, which many invested in prison abolition do, allows the jails and prisons to expand. The state lays claim to the work of those resisting inside and outside prisons to justify the need for more money – all in the name of making friendlier cages. We saw this last year when, instead of decarcerating thousands of people, the state of California distributed millions of dollars to expand jails, with the money awarded to the best reform program proposed by county sheriffs.

When We Said Not One More Deportation, We Actually Meant It

When I first heard the word “DREAMer” I didn’t think it was a problematic term, nor did I think it would have a negative impact on our movement. The language came from legislation in Washington and it referred to undocumented youth under 31, who came to the US under the age of 16, and had completed high school with a “college ready” GPA. I remember being in conversations with other community organizers and debating whether this term was appropriate for us to identify with. Back in 2010 I did not know its history; I just knew that it was catchy and it got us attention. As I learned more about the movement and affiliated myself with grassroots groups doing this work across the country, I learned that DREAMer was actually a really problematic term. It was coined by a white legislator in an attempt to create sympathy for some undocumented youth. In turn, the time the only people who were allowed to be media spokespeople were youth either in college or on track to be. They were the ones chosen to represent us in Congress.

If at first the DREAMer narrative was strategic, then it quickly became annoying. As our movement picked up steam, the word DREAMer became exactly what legislators wanted it to be – an exclusive term for those who are model residents and future “Americans.” We began to see how quickly people were ready to throw our parents and “criminals” under the bus. For people who live in low income communities of color the reality was that most youth do not fit into the DREAMer identity. And neither did we.

Organizing Nonprofit Workers

As a Guatemalan third-world left feminist with Marxist tendencies, I organize knowing the enemy: a small group of Imperialist Capitalists with the only intention of growing their profits via the exploitation of the working class. Yet I’m constantly reflecting on the following questions: is change possible doing non-profit work? How can I survive by just being a community organizer? How can I keep working and organizing without burning out?

As I became politicized, I wanted my daily work to benefit struggle. Nonprofits seemed like a way to survive while contributing to my community. I was very hopeful of my decision until I began working for the industry, where it became clear that its workers and its “constituents” were exploited under the rhetoric of social justice.

A Testament to the Deep Fragmentation

Sin Barras is a prison abolition group based in Santa Cruz, California. We are not a registered non-profit, receive no government or foundation funding, and are unstaffed. We say this immediately because we are organizing in a moment of neoliberal non-profits and constant co-optation, so “grassroots” does not get the point across.

We are celebrating a recent victory that has improved medical conditions and treatment inside the Santa Cruz County Main Jail. Our celebration is not an endpoint, but a moment of re-invigorated energy, which we are using to reflect on our strategies and learn our next steps. We are trying to hold systems of incredible violence accountable and at the same time are working to render them obsolete. But one clear takeaway is that a militant and community-oriented direct action led to a year-long grand jury investigation of the inhumane conditions in our local jail. Of course the work continues, because we know deeply that the jail itself is inhumane.

Our organization began with four or five university students excited about the project of prison abolition. We had all experienced the dehumanizing process of being arrested and/or had family members incarcerated, and though we were students, made a commitment to root our movement-building in the broader Santa Cruz community. Slowly but surely we have grown into a fierce network that actively amplifies the knowledge and organizing capacity of people who have been most directly impacted by police and prison violence, white supremacy, and the poverty created by capitalism.

Author of the article

is managing editor at Viewpoint.