Right now, I sit in a 100+ year old building, in the old offices of the 1930s CIO, in the office of Mr Dick Law, a Finnish lawyer and organizer whose wife Laura would be murdered in the wake of both of their activism over half a century ago. Her murder was never solved. By happenstance, that office is now rented by Chaplains.
I am looking over a tired old town, one of many in these United and divided States. Dozens of people living on the streets are visible, walking up and down the streets. It was a cold night last night. The pharmacy looks almost new and some of the houses of the hill look passable, but the rest of the town is full of gutted buildings and tired projects.
The people here are not really what they are stereotyped to be by the AP newspaper articles and national pundits. They are mostly working class and poor, sons and daughters of union workers, in a blue dog democrat town turning red for lack of better options. They are Native and majority white, but our children are increasingly brown as immigration continues to the area. Our opinions are diverse and often, we are thrown together for survival, whether we like it or not.
We are stubbornly stuck in the crosshairs of global capitalism; abandoned by an extractive industry that still owns the majority of the land, with no replacement economy except for drugs and prisons. The forests are young after years of overharvesting, the coasts have been overfished (although we still bring in sizable harvests), and we are all a little bit tired. Environmentalists love to visit the area to take pictures of its amazing beauty, but care little for the people who also are part of the ecosystem. While a few Seattle based bands mock the town of Aberdeen, not many people think of the place beyond “the city you drive through to get to the beach.”
We have been abandoned by capital; we have been abandoned by politicians; we are mocked by pundits.
We have also been abandoned by organizers.
The left loves to mire itself in constant self reflection. Constant facebook posts about intentions and who did things right. Constant one-upmanship around identity politics. Constant critique of anyone doing anything. Constant arguing around protest: is it good or not, who should lead it, how should you get arrested, and the list goes on. Constant smug comments critiquing every single thing. Everyone is vying to be the expert while everyone agrees that movements should be ‘leaderless.’ Everyone wants autonomy, no one wants to follow. Everyone wants individual expression, everyone needs to be right. We argue endlessly about language and tactic.
And here in the old office above Heron Street, I am tired of listening. To all of it, honestly.
Because while all the pundits and self proclaimed experts and leaderless movement builders are talking and arguing and endlessly extrapolating, my people are dying. I’ve buried 15 people or so in the last year. The oldest was in his 50s. The youngest was 24. Poverty and the drug economy and abandonment have created generations of trauma and death in my community. All of the kids I work with are in and out of jail, and many started their jail career at 10 or 11. The native nations of this community are mired in deep poverty and camps of the forgotten and addicted grow along our riverbanks. White kids in my generation turned to white power gangs and ran drugs; the next generation are joining well networked gangs to find some sense of survival and way forward on the street. The opiate crisis has slammed this community and too many of those I bury are from overdose; after all, we have twice the state average of overdose death.
So to the white, liberal, urban organizers:
Do something. Anything.
Don’t pretend that your identity crises and critiques and endless self reflection are helping anything, are building anything.
Ground yourself in a real community; a flesh and blood one, where people make mistakes, where white power gang members and Surenos meet and shake hands, where homophobes go to their daughter’s gay wedding and clap, where Trump voters and anarchists build homes together.
Shut up. Please.
In my community, and in communities like mine all over a nation that is now nearly 50% low income and poor, there are leaders. They are raising kids and they are in jail and they are stocking the supermarket and they are in all the places that no one looks for leaders. Because all those terrible things I listed above are true, but not the whole story. Out of the pain and darkness, leaders are arising and they will change the world.
Listen to them.
They really do have something to say.
Step out of your silos—whether those silos are universities, hipster coffee bars, an institutional church—those places meant to be white and cultured and upper crust. Stop talking to each other. See the world around you. Listen to the people you are used to talking about.
And, and, there are some things we could really use from you.
Remember how the right built up to the moment we are at right now for 35 years? Remember the jail ministries and the protests and the coffee table conversations and the popular books and magazines and the devotionals? (I do) We’ve got some catching up to do.
Start doing some of those things.
We need Bible commentaries—popular ones that can go on the shelf in the local bookstore and in jails—that tell people that Jesus was on the side of poor and struggling people. We need devotionals that address our trauma and our loss and our pain and tell us God is on our side. We need to hear from others who have dealt with trauma, addiction, and homelessness, but we also need Bible scholars to tell us that there are ways to read the Bible that can give us hope. We need to hear that God is against racism, materialism, and militarism. We need to hear about a God who takes sides. We need think tanks, people, think tanks of scholars (ones educated in universities and ones educated by the hard knock life) who can write magazines and who can put out solid web information, who can analyze our political and economic situation. We need some external acknowledgement of our collective trauma.
Sometimes, we need you to show up to let us know we are not alone. Build relationships. Sometimes, we need you to help fundraise for local efforts, or to assist us with your expertise in law or science or economics as we seek to build a better world, as we seek to transfer wealth back into our community, as we seek to end the street to jail pipeline. If you are from a small, abandoned community, consider returning to one, stymying the brain drain poor communities face when all their brilliant lawyers and doctors leave town for better fields.
Protest when you want, but don’t stop there. Continue your internal dialogues on facebook if you need to, but please, please, do something. Listen. Write. Come. Act.
From here in the office on Heron Street, in the long shadow cast by ghosts of radical, murdered organizers, surrounded by poverty and death, surrounded by new leaders and abiding hope, we are asking you to stop talking to each other for a moment, turn and listen, and act.