Fear and Loathing at Creating Change 2016

By Alex Cachinero-Gorman

As I rode up and down the vault-like elevators of the Hilton, I remembered an article I wrote about the World Social Forum-Free Palestine in Brazil in 2011. And it occurred to me that perhaps one of the reasons I’ve written as little as I have on my political experiences over the years is because subconsciously, on some level, I feel that they will all be versions of the same story.

As it was then, so it has been here, and so many other places I have visited for the rousing shot in the arm conferences and meet-ups are supposed to be: a brilliant and chaotic community unlike any other, just narrowly avoiding being totally smothered by the blunt and guileless hand of their “leadership”.

Of course here, as in all those unwritten tales, the meat of the story comes from the contradictions: the gut-wrenching, soul-searching and not infrequently disorganised daytime sessions followed by raucous nighttime partying; the vendors hawking their DIY crafts in an event sponsored by some of the biggest banks, telecom companies, and even Grey Goose Vodka; the dual-power types who pay their respects—as one must in any family—and then proceed to blaspheme the name of the gathering behind closed doors, building new networks in the margins of the conference’s vocabulary; even the movement veterans who have burrowed deep within the machine, hob-nobbing with the likes of those would certainly be indifferent whether we lived or died, but unexpectedly revealing deep wisdom in a moment of crisis…

The list, obviously, goes on. And as I began to wonder if it had merely been a strange coincidence that so many of my experiences reflected these tropes, it soon dawned on me that this is how they always are: because gatherings, contrary to the predominate conception, are not moments of unity, but of transition. 

The presence of hundreds or even thousands of people in a room tends to give way to the usual platitudes about “united” and collective action, but this masks a deeper reality: that movements, like communities, are liquid—changing and incapable of capture in any one vessel. They do not simply “exist”, as is, in order to be brought into some imagined, larger whole. They are constituted and re-constituted daily by all kinds of fractures, alignments, sudden shifts, new material realities, and changes in narrative. The gates of inclusion expand and shrink and adapt to new circumstances. They are on the move: so that any one moment in time, any congregation, is ultimately more of a timestamp than a census—a geological record of where we are in a story that has innumerable possible directions.

I have witnessed many attempts at recording this timestamp, and they are always marked by these apparently banal paradoxes: and in a sense, this is a good thing, for it marks a movement that still has vitality. But it also means that we are always on the verge of a new wave, a new essence spreading through the culture’s immune system that could bring about an entirely different, or expanded consciousness: and nowhere is this more clear than when the unwieldy bureaucracies built to wage the fight at a “higher level” lose touch with the base they imagined they were protecting when they first set out.

In fact, I am so convinced of this that I have increasingly come to see the futility in many of these national gatherings, at least in respect to their stated goals: for try as they might, they appear unable to accept that they will never be fully in control, fully representative, fully inclusive. To be clear, we are not just arguing semantics here: we are talking about different conceptions of what it means to organise. Should we pool all of our resources into one great, muscular arm to flex our strength—one group, one party, one organisation? Are we better off as a federation of like-minded entities? Do we even need to be on the same page to act in concert? We are not without historical examples. The blandest voices in the conversation would have you believe we are. 

Above all, any rite or ritual is greater than the sum of its parts, and certainly more than the sum of its discourse. What it or its acolytes claim to represent is far less interesting than the kind of space they are able to create, and over time I have found this to be a much more effective metric of where a movement finds itself than any supposed ideological position.

One can move between rooms at Creating Change and hear vague, positive-sounding talk about “doing the work”—with no clear definition of what that means—to cutting and visionary stories of possible tomorrows. From groups that know how to throw down and know how to make people feel electrified to unelected leaders who know how to kill a vibe. It is possible to find yourself in a ‘CEO session’ for non-profit directors trying, one would imagine, to negotiate their six-figure survival amidst crumbling infrastructural madness, and follow only minutes later a grassroots collaborative of trans women of color navigating the hostile American landscape with literally no funding whatsoever. In the same conference that is able to host a surprisingly prescient, life-giving conversation between young black feminists and one of the founders of the Combahee River Collective, on the very next day you can hear another featured speaker—with all the best intentions—pass unironically from the slogan of the 1987 March on Washington (“Money for AIDS, not for war”) to celebrating the U.S. military for finally allowing its queerer subjects to participate in the slaughterhouse of U.S. empire.

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And, perhaps, this is exactly the point—for as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The biggest organisations—from civil society to government itself—are always the last to know what is really going on and what is really needed on the very precipice of their collapse. Such has been the case with almost every non-profit I have ever worked for, and such was the case for every administration on the eve of some sort of revolution, from Rome to the Shah. Yet when we ask critical questions such as these—about survival, about precedent, about militancy and the future—we are often dismissed as being unable to celebrate what little we have, as being unrealistic, joyless sticks-in-the-mud who are disconnected from reality.

But what could be further from the truth? These trenchant critiques are the greatest legacy of the gay liberation movement that spawned the Task Force in the first place, and rather than be told we are simply not able to be content with what we have, why can’t we ask: why these victories and not others? What if the last decade of single-issue organising around gay marriage had been spent working towards removing the material barriers that keep queers and trans people socially marginalised, from universal healthcare to the 1,000+ tax benefits afforded to heterosexual couples? Can we imagine celebrating, rather than a “post-marriage” moment, a “post-redistribution”, “post-economic justice” era in which winning civil marriage rights would have come as a matter of course? Not all that glitters is gold, and the mere appearance of stability does not necessarily mean we are doing anything more than treading water in the midst of a fierce storm.

Think: how else could it be that all of the heaping piles of money (which is supposed to represent power) which go into putting on some of the most professional and lavish spectacles (oftentimes in the most professional and lavish places, let us note) end in disgrace, embarrassment, alienation or irrelevance? While the feeling was not so bleak at the final plenary, the diagnosis may be. How else could the Task Force give space to police and ICE to run workshops in a space filled with undocumented folks, black youth and other youth of color? Why else would it curry favor with a right-wing Zionist organisation that has never cared, and never honestly contributed to the liberation of queer people anywhere? In fact, it seems it is right when the powers that be are finally getting a clue about “representation”—as was clear throughout the conference’s numerous attempts to jump-start conversations on antiblackness, immigration reform, HIV/AIDS, youth homelesness, and so on—they are rapidly outclassed by their younger counterparts, stuck with a several-hundred dollar bill just to walk through the door and frustrated at the numerous indignities they were made to suffer throughout the week.

What is even sadder is that, like the Red Cross or the Jewish National Fund, while much of this financial support comes from big donors, much of it also comes from dedicated and sincere people totally unaware of what they are helping to create, hoping that their dollar goes toward something, anything to alleviate the suffering we are all in. But with the spirit from which it all originated far in the rearview mirror, the activist conference approaches the terminal velocity of modern entertainment culture: more and more a “gig” for people to work (from all the distinct corners of skills & trades that are required to put on an event of such magnitude) and no longer a meeting of minds, priorities, action.

And again, there’s that word, culture. When you close your eyes and feel the air around you, listen to the conversations truly and earnestly, it is clear that political conferences have developed their own groupies, hopping from site to site, schmoozing and moving on without much thought. How many of us have seen some of the most powerful protest movements of our time reduced to glorified Willy Nelson concerts that give cops reams of seasonal, guaranteed overtime? The coffers bloat and it seems that more than ever we should be able to fight for and accomplish the agenda we set out with: and yet we are still stuck in the larger pyramid scheme of trying to compete with each other for dwindling funds from a government that meagerly supports our communities with the one hand, and with the other hand destroys and eviscerates with austerity programs, privatisationpolice violence, systematic neglect, mass incarcerationunsustainable and endless war…you get the picture.

At a time when “social determinants of health” are more in vogue than ever before, the irony that some of our biggest “partners” are the very causes of these social determinants is uncomfortably apparent. As one plenary presenter noted, young black MSM or “men who have sex with men” are less likely all around to engage in risk-behaviors, and yet are 3-5x more likely to have HIV—meaning that what separates them from their white peers can only be the marginalisation and oppression they face in this American inferno, as James Baldwin would have it. But without solutions and more importantly, without spaces that are built to confront these realities, we are not merely engaging in some kind of undesirable “reformism”—would that we were! We are in fact becoming props, set-pieces in a larger visual economy that softens the reality that communities nation-wide are being decimated and even less likely to be able to access the medication these programs are offering. We are then applauding ourselves for a kind of very public navel-gazing, a celebration of short-lived political survival in the face of an oncoming tidal wave.

To avert our eyes, to choose silence, would come at too great an expense. We understand such silence to be a bringer of death…They/We navigate heavily surveilled and detained realities on tightropes. They/We are expected to be grateful to those that itemize their/our pain to strengthen existing norms. As is routine for too many souls across the globe, They/We must negotiate oppressions as a provision of harm reduction and triage. —Black Lives Matter Chicago statement on #CancelPinkwashing

And indeed, survival turned out to be a fitting and recurring theme at Creating Change. I think it has particular resonance in queer spaces: the concept of having survived at all, having lived through the horrors of the “AIDS generation”, of surviving the slings and arrows of society at large, of being a survivor of trauma and of oppression, of being resilient and fierce and beautiful in spite of it all. But I have been thinking for some time now that this word is too vague: that there are actually different kinds of survival at stake.

That survival can’t simply mean expediency would seem obvious: and yet that is, in fact, often what it means. New-age mantras to “surround yourself with the right people” who affirm you and your goals don’t always translate into emotional support; indeed, as should be abundantly clear from life itself, people with extremely abusive and harmful patterns of behavior—just as much as those they hurt—can surround themselves with voices that enable them and perpetuate their worst habits. One imagines that politicians, too, have faced similar dilemmas in their complex evolution all the way from human beings to lizard people. And the analogy is apt: I am reminded of Hillary Clinton’s famous backdoor meeting with Black Lives Matter activists, in which her reptilian-like ability to slither out of harm’s away was on full display, shedding her skin, reborn anew—yet exactly the same. Underneath that mask, is there still a real person? It is a philosophical question for the ages, but perhaps unanswerable.

What is important is that spiritually, emotionally, this is a bereft path, forcing one to continually burn away the centers of the heart that store any honesty, doubt, or earnest self-reflection until there is little left but a husk of a human being. In Hillary’s case, that husk presides over a bloodsoaked multi-million dollar empire. Here, survival is about coming out on top and inoculating yourself in a frictionless political bubble: survival-as-deflection, survival-as-evasion.

I would juxtapose this with survival-as-renewal. Survival not just as a way of ‘weathering the storm’, but of being changed by, and transforming with the storm.

During one of the more uncomfortable and evasive tirades derailing a conversation about antiblackness at the beginning of the conference week, an attendee called out the organisers for not adequately handling the conversation and for pandering. Many participants then expressed the need to bring the room together by doing breathing exercises and reminding each other to channel the tension to a better place. The conversation remained unfinished and largely untouched, repeatedly showered with platitudes instead of nourishing attention, but I was an outsider in the space, witnessing and not participating in the unfolding polemic, so I continued to observe. However, one attendee spoke beautifully at the end, when they responded with an entirely different proposal: to sit with the discomfort. “That moment of being called out wasn’t the tension for me, that was actually the relief. That was the breath I needed to take me to a new place”, they offered (paraphrasing). This may look different for everyone, between the one doing the calling out and the one being called out. But I am inclined to believe them.

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Some prescient pieces have been doing the social media rounds about the difference between “uncomfortable” vs. “unsafe” and the value in discomfort, and what some alarmist accounts are really getting at is that at Creating Change they felt uncomfortable. But the infinite divide between this sensation and the palpable knowledge of one’s body being disposable—that is, being unsafe—couldn’t be wider. The Task Force’s decisions made the conference structurally unsafe-in more ways than one—and yet, rather than focusing on the violence in the framing of the conference, the Task Force has continually made either pseudo-apologies or justifications for their undemocratic and poorly-thought out decisions. How else could an intersectional protest comprising hundreds of people from the most vulnerable populations that the Task Force claims to serve—among them a core contingent of anti-Zionist jews—be subsequently smeared as an antisemitic mob? How else could the numerous sessions that were disrupted this weekend be reduced to eye rolls about “angry young people” who have “no respect” for proper social manners? Isn’t this story old by now? Calls for calm, “dialogue”, and rationality are typically made by the very parties that silence, and where there may be a legitimate conversation about tactics, it is spoiled by the cluelessness demonstrated by those with influence in any decision-making organs that matter.

In those who question the “usefulness” of podium takeovers of Black leaders, in those annoyed by the lockdowns that keep deportation buses from leaving, in those who criticize any call for boycott by Palestinians, it is so easy to hear the echo of those who wrote King to offer some “friendly” advice.

I say with sincerity to those – included loved ones of mine – who feel so deeply unsettled by this cancellation: If it makes us uncomfortable that an oppressed community refuses to be erased, then perhaps we are too comfortable. —Stefanie Fox, “In Praise of Discomfort”

Inevitably, from the directors all the way down to the lowly volunteers, there is some kind of sacrifice that goes into organising any large-scale spectacle. There are layers upon layers of subtle and often invisibilised work that go into organising that are too easily dismissed with broad-brushed critiques. And with all this effort, it is only natural that folks come to feel attached: but not so much so that questions of vital importance—questions which should have been, but were not answered long before the conference ever came to pass—are cast as attacks on the very fabric of our being and “our” movement.

Ironically, it is in my view the historically militant wing of almost every major social movement that has set the terms, and made the way for the more quiescent classes to appoint themselves as headmasters in the first place. And yet here is the bind we find ourselves in, tumbling down this slippery slope of survival-as-deflection: stuck defending half-way reforms and spaces which matter to us almost involuntarily—that is, not because we want them to, but because we need them to. Like a club with a shitty bartender, we keep coming back because of the people we meet there, and not the space itself. But when is the tipping point? When do we pack up and leave?

I heard two divergent impulses at the Hilton last week: one, which repeatedly insisted on the need by different groups for their “own” Creating Change. This sentiment is certainly valid, but one wonders if it could avoid the pitfalls that seem to come with scale. The other, and more interesting to me, was the need for something qualitatively different.

After the vibrant protest of the pro-colonial reception on Friday night, we found our way back downstairs, suddenly affirming a new chant, a new reality: “I want my movement back”. Over and over again the refrain was repeated, and eventually one young woman seized the microphone and asked the crowd how it felt to actually be the ones leading change on the ground. We turned and looked around at each other, and the power and vitality of this impromptu coalition—even in its hardest and ugliest moments—was inescapable. She asked how many people had paid bill money, or rent money to get there, to knowing grunts and shaking heads—and then she asked the question staring everyone in the face: why do we keep doing this to ourselves?

I don’t think anyone had a good answer, other than knowing in their very core that this space felt nothing like the movements they were building on the ground. And these movements indeed are the ones leading the charge; they indeed are the ones that forced Creating Change to even present the agenda it did throughout its program; they indeed are the lifeblood and the treasure of our “communities”, and left unattended and unnourished, they will not simply fade: they will revitalise themselves anew, with or without you. To quote Stefanie Fox, “If this feels like crisis, that’s because it is.”

Anecdotally, I have heard many long-time participants express sadness at what Creating Change has become and that this may indeed be their last. Though it was my first, I may have to concur. I have also spoken to many young people who enjoyed themselves thoroughly, having been brought into a space of queer life and vibrancy that is sorely lacking in their lives.

This “dual-track” is, as I indicated in the beginning, nothing new for Creating Change—and this time around, even as the Task Force stubbornly cast its lot with regressive anti-Palestinian forces, at least two of its own plenary speakers walked on stage wearing keffiyehs and spoke up for Palestinian life, queer or otherwise. As vague nods to “immigration reform” were made in official speeches, activists on the ground strategised about whether they even need Creating Change anymore in light of its incomprehensible attempt to create a “dialogue” with the biggest deporation bureaucracy in the West. And as some left the conference feeling abandoned and unsafe, others managed to nestle into some of its remaining untainted corners to drink, laugh, pray, or butt heads with their closest friends or new comrades.

But this is not forever: as the divergent trends begin to split even further and this fragile balance is stretched to its tensile limit, it is sure one day to crack like a wishbone. And perhaps like that morbid tradition, we can make a wish upon its remains, and get to work on something new.

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