Let's Build Liberation
A Conversation with Chris Crass on Anti-Racism and Revolutionary Struggle
conducted by Geoff
Could you give a brief history of your own organizing and activist
I got into politics in high school when I was 15. My best friend, Mike Rejniak
introduced me to politics and punk rock. We had a group at our high school
called the United Anarchist Front (UAF) and we handed out flyers, did an
underground newspaper, put on anti-corporate and anti-war protests. The Gulf
War in 91 and the Rodney King verdict had a major influence on us. I was
involved in student organizing at my community college in Orange County.
We were a multiracial, Latino/a led coalition fighting against fee hikes
and for Chicano Studies and immigrant rights. In the UAF we started up a
study group, went through a really powerful and painful examination of sexism
in the group and started up a Food Not Bombs chapter. I moved to San Francisco
and worked with the Food Not Bombs chapter there. I studied political science,
women’s studies and ethnic studies in college. FNB was my primary work for
about 8 years. Through FNB I was doing lots of projects in the larger anarchist
community in the Bay Area. Anarchist Cafe nights, anarchist contingents at
marches and work with affinity groups around civil disobedience actions.
In ‘99, I got involved with an anti-racism study group for white social justice
activists. Sharon Martinas of the Challenging White Supremacy (CWS) Workshops
put it together and invited me to join. After the mass actions in Seattle,
Sharon and I talked about doing anti-racism workshops specifically for the
mostly white sections of the global justice movement. This fit with the new
direction that I wanted to be going in after Seattle. I was really impressed
in Seattle with the level of training and political education that was available
and how important this is if we want to have a participatory and effective
movement. Being in FNB all those years, we always talked about wanting to
do political education and skills trainings but we never had the time. It
was clearer to me that so many gateway groups face this same dilemma. Lots
of people get their first involvement in activism through them, but their
isn’t the time or capacity to train people or help people develop a life
long commitment to social change. Gateway groups, groups that provide a way
into social justice movement more broadly, groups like FNB and Earth First!
and student groups.
Through CWS, we developed a project called Anti-Racism for Global Justice
(ARGJ). We’ve been doing workshops around the country with student groups,
community groups, with the Ruckus Society and at conferences. This past year
I worked a lot with Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations (STARC)
on a summer organizing institute for student activists. It was an eight week
program where folks did internships with community groups, did anti-oppression
workshops and skills trainings to develop leadership and organizing skills
to help build the student movement. Through ARGJ our focus is political education,
leadership development and networking and that’s the bulk of my work at this
I’m part of Colours of Resistance, a multiracial, anti-racist, women led
network of organizers on Canada and the US working to further anti-racist
politics in the global justice movement and support the leadership of radicals
of color and women in that movement. I also work with an anti-racism and
anti-war group called Heads Up and am currently part of two men’s discussion
groups exploring male privilege and patriarchy and working to be anti-sexist
How is anarchist political theory (primarily developed in the context
of the 19th century European workers movement) relevant to the struggle against
white supremacy in 21st Century U.S.?
That’s a good question. I’m going to take it in chunks. First, the issue
of 19th century anarchist political theory and white supremacy and then I’ll
say what has been most relevant to me.
The problem of anarchist political theory in general is that there just isn’t
much of it. There’s a reason for it and I believe it’s one of the major shortcomings
of both anarchist theory and practice. Most of the widely influential anarchists
of the 19th century believed that revolution was both a singular event that
would usher in a new society and that it was right around the corner. Writing
in the 1880’s Peter Kropotkin, the major anarchist theoretician internationally,
estimated that it would be here in the next 10 years or so.
This has a serious impact on how people organize and develop theory.
Anarchist ideas and theories were largely articulated in speeches, articles
and pamphlets meant to inspire revolution in working people. I’m not trying
to argue that anarchists didn’t develop theory and extremely important ideas,
but I think that main lessons of anarchism come from people’s practice. By
most historical accounts the anarchist movement was the most powerful from
the 1880s-1930’s. The most widely read and arguably most influential book
from that time period has been Emma Goldman’s autobiography, Living My
Life. The emphasis on practice and anarchist theory as embedded in practice
rather then texts is both its strength and weakness. More recently, look
at Seattle. Three of the major contributions of anarchists in Seattle were
the use of direct action, affinity groups and consensus based decision making.
These are tactics, organizing structures and decision making processes, but
each of them represents anarchist theories of how social change happens,
how society should function, the relationship of individuals to groups, how
different forms of power operate and how power should be shared, personal
empowerment and collective responsibility and accountability. So in Seattle
you have an upsurge of activism as people not only shut down the WTO but
also speak about the importance of the methods used.
The strengths of this, I would argue, are the organizing lessons and models
of making social change that anarchist practice has for our work today struggling
against white supremacy and all systems of oppression. The weakness goes
back to the impact of thinking revolution is on the horizon. From what I
can tell, the idea that revolution is a singular historic event seems to
come from dominate Western political theory (liberal democratic enlightenment
ideas as well as Marxism). Revolution as a long haul struggle or continual
process is articulated repeatedly in liberation struggles led by people of
color, indigenous people and women. If it’s one big event, then all energy
gets put into making that happen. If it’s a long-term struggle then in addition
to taking on oppressive power, we need strategic planning and developing
theory that informs the strategies we use.
In the 1920s Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta somberly looks back at anarchist
activity over the past 40 years that he’s played a significant role in and
says, "It must be admitted that we have shown very little concern with the
ways and means for the achievement of our ideals". I mention all of this
because when I was 15, 16, I was reading Emma Goldman and Kropotkin and I
started thinking that revolution was around the corner, that it was inevitable
and we just need to spread the word and get more people ready. For a long
time I broke things into two categories, there were anarchists who believed
in genuine revolution and then everyone else was a reformist of one kind
This is where anarchism and white privilege and other forms of privilege
converged in my life. Through white privilege I’ve been trained to universalize
my experience as normal, just as I was trained to universalize my experience
as middle class, being male and heterosexual. As anarchism claimed anything
short of calling for revolution was reformist, my privilege led me to have
a very narrow idea of what a radical was, what being radical looked like
and so forth. A radical looked like me. It wasn’t that I consciously thought
this, rather it was the underlying framework shaped by white supremacy, patriarchy,
heterosexism, capitalism and the state. This framework made it very difficult
to see organizing happening in communities of color or working class communities.
Or if I could see it, I had a narrow interpretation of it, as reformist.
I’m not saying that there aren’t many struggles out there that are oriented
to winning positive reforms, rather I’m saying that my framework minimized
the importance of reform oriented struggles. Minimized in that I viewed reform
struggles based on their tactics isolated from the larger context, movement
building and strategy. This has negatively impacted my understanding of many
progressive and radical struggles led by working class people, people of
color, women and queer people and I think it’s a major reason why the anarchist
movement is so white, middle class and male dominated. Relationships between
people and groups need a level of respect that my ‘more radical then you’
So, how is anarchism relevant to fighting white supremacy in the 21st century?
As I’ve come to understand anarchism through both theory and practice, the
fundamental concept and constant challenge or tension is the goal of building
societies that benefit everyone, where structures of liberation and empowerment
have replaced systems of oppression and exploitation. I know this is vague,
but another concept of anarchism, articulated by Emma Goldman, has been that
we who grew up in chains will be able to envision and practice liberation
in the course of struggling to get there. This reminds me of the Paulo Freire
saying, "we make the road by walking." This connection between the struggle
and the vision is intentional. Goldman and others who witnessed the Bolshevik
Revolution talked a great deal about how the means that we use prefigure
the ends of where we want to go, so that we can’t say that the ends justify
the means as the ends reflect the means used to get there. If w can abandon
the idea that revolution is right around the corner and that it’s just this
one big insurrection, then I do believe that the organizing lessons and models
for social change that anarchist practice offers are relevant to building
mass multiracial, anti-racist, feminist, queer and trans liberationist, intergenerational,
anti-capitalist movement working for collective liberation. I also want to
be clear that I think anarchists have a lot to learn from other folks as
well. I believe anarchism is relevant to building movement and has much to
offer, but is neither the movement nor the one right answer.
What movements and organizing traditions do you draw the most inspiration
from? Why? What lessons do they hold for radicals today?
There are so many. The best way that I can answer this is through books and
why I would recommend that people read them. The Haymarket Tragedy
by Paul Avrich, because it’s one of the most amazing chapters in the history
of both anarchist and working class organizing in this country and provides
so many insights and lessons into organizing for reforms with an expansive
vision of social change. It was also an important movement to me because
it gave me something to be proud of as a young white radical.
Sweatshop Warriors by Miriam Ching Louie about immigrant women fighting
for social change. The immigrant worker centers around the country are deeply
inspiring. Louie looks at the leadership of Latina and Asian women sweatshop
workers in the US taking on capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy. The
organizing strategies used by the worker centers are ground breaking in how
they look at multiple forms of oppression and build the power and leadership
of communities most negatively impacted by transnational capitalism and winning.
The anti-corporate campaigns that have come to define much of student activism
and the anti-global capitalism movement were started by immigrant women workers.
The Free Women of Spain by Martha A. Ackelsberg because the Spanish
revolution and civil war of the 1930s represented the climax of long term
radical organizing against fascism and how everyday people were making revolution
in their daily lives. Mujeres Libres and this book about their work offers
important lessons about collective organizing and feminist practice during
a historical upheaval. Spain also provides lessons about Stalinism and the
importance of the struggle against authoritarianism.
I’ve got the Light of Freedom by Charles Payne about the civil rights
movement and the organizing tradition of Ella Baker, the Student Non-Violent
Coordinating Committee and thousands of working class and poor Black folks
who made history. The organizing models, styles of leadership, the centrality
of youth and women’s leadership and the tactics they used provide critically
Barbara Smith’s The Truth that Never Hurts is a collection of her
essays that articulate a Black feminist politics of race, class, gender and
sexuality. Smith has been involved in feminist, queer liberationist and racial
justice organizing for over three decades. In the opinion of many, Smith
along with other women of color feminists have and continue to develop the
best of radical, realistic and relevant analysis for making social change.
For specific organizations that exist now check out From The Road: Snapshots
of Living Resistance, a zine for liberation by Sonja S. and Jennica B.
They traveled around the country and met up with dozens of amazing groups
doing amazing work. Then they put together a zine with information and contact
info for about 20 of those groups. The zine looks at a r2ange of groups from
queer organizing in the South, to training institutes like the Highlander
Center and immigrant rights groups in the South West. You can get a copy
for $5 by writing to 648 Prospect Pl. #4R, Brooklyn, NY 11216.
What advice do you have for white radicals trying to figure out how
to be anti-racist allies to folks of color?
That’s an ongoing question that is open to debate. I think there are lots
of different ways to be an anti-racist ally and that through practice we
reflect, evaluate, keep learning, make mistakes, be gentle while also critical
of ourselves and keep our eyes on the prize of liberation and struggle with
guilt, shame and fear that are part of the process. Three ways that I think
about being an ally are personally, working with individuals and then organizationally.
These are all things that other people have told me, almost all women and
people of color.
Personally, I grew up in a segregated area in Southern California. It wasn’t
until a Black studies class in community college that I was ever in a situation
where white people weren’t the clear numerical majority. I had some friends
of color and I would say that while folks of color should not be expected
to school white people about white supremacy/racism, be ready to say thank
you if and when they do. It was very important for me to learn about struggles
led by communities of color. This was through events put on by orgs of color,
doing ethnic studies classes and women studies classes, working in groups
led by folks of color. However, the main way that I see being an ally to
folks of color is working with white people to challenge white supremacy
and work for racial justice. This is the strategy that I pursue and I’m glad
that other white folks are pursuing other strategies and that we can learn
from each other.
Working with individuals. I think it’s really important that white people
support each other in doing anti-racist work. Having other white folks who
are doing this work to talk with and struggle with each other, learn together,
support one another and hold each other accountable is really useful and
highly advisable. Working in groups is much more useful in challenging institutional
injustices as well as overcoming personal insecurities that hold us back
from the work. Relationships with folks of color and multiracial organizing
is absolutely critical, but again, the responsibility needs to be with white
folks to work with each other and not expect it from folks of color, even
though folks of color end up doing most of this work.
Organizationally doing solidarity work if you’re an all white group or mostly
white is really important. Finding out what orgs of color are doing in your
area, checking out events, asking people in groups that you decide you’d
like to work with, "we’re such and such group, is there anything useful that
we could do to support your work". Be ready to take no for an answer and
also be real about what you can and can’t commit to doing. Do what you say
you’re going to do. Developing relationships with other orgs can take along
time, but that’s really what movement building is about.
In figuring out how to be allies I’d suggest that white folks read A Promise
and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism by Becky Thompson, chapter
7 of Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera and the writings of
Helen Luu, Pauline Hwang, Laura Close, Chris Dixon and Laura McNeill on the
Colours of Resistance website (http://www.tao.ca/~colours
How can white militants balance defending their own political community
from state repression and supporting communities of color that face far greater
state repression everyday?
I think that there are a lot of variables and local circumstances that will
influence different strategies. I know that in Portland, Oregon where you
live the state is going after the mostly white radical community there. The
grand juries threatening people with many years of imprisonment and the police
violently busting up a recent peaceful protest against President Bush. For
me, the question goes back to movement building. I think that the best defense
against state repression of white militants and supporting communities of
color is building movement that prioritizes the issues of communities of
color. What do I mean by prioritize?
Here’s an example. I work with a group called Heads Up in San Francisco that
came together after Sept. 11th as an anti-war, anti-racist group of white
folks. We knew that state repression was coming down on many sectors of society,
including white radicals and that that the most negatively impacted would
be folks of color. So we looked to organizing in communities of color that
we had political affinity with and/or felt that their organizing was in line
with our goals. This has mostly focused on immigrant rights work, supporting
anti-war efforts led by orgs of color and solidarity with Palestinian liberation.
In addition to working in solidarity with organizations of color (going to
them and asking how we can be of use), we also do political education events
for mostly white activists groups in the global justice and anti-war movement.
The main goal of these events is to help build anti-war movement that has
anti-racist politics and looks to the leadership of radicals of color while
simultaneously developing anti-racist white leadership. This has been a slow
process, with many challenging questions.
What does this have to do with defending white militants. Well, if one of
the people in our group was targeted by the state, the relationships that
we’ve built over time would help us mobilize support and solidarity from
a broader cross section of activists and constituencies. That’s really the
key to movement building, developing relationships with people. Think about
when you get a phone call for some political event. Does it make a difference
if you have some kind of positive connection with the person calling? In
general I’m more likely to do something if I’m asked by someone I know. What
this means to me is that defense against the state is about having positive
relationships with lots of people, developing positive relationships between
organizations and working for broad social change that fights state repression
of white radicals, but also structural violence and injustice against immigrants,
refugees, homeless people, sex workers, day laborers, working people, transgendered
people, folks of color, women and queers.
As a white male what do you see as your self-interest in doing anti-racist
and feminist work?
I think this is an important question to ask ourselves. Why are we doing
this work, particularly anti-oppression work when we experience privilege
on the basis of that oppression. I’ll just talk about a couple of reasons.
One, fundamentally I believe they are both catalysts to move our movements
forward and win concrete victories on the path to liberation. I want to live
in a better society where I don’t pay the majority of my money to a landlord,
where I don’t have to be worried about money when getting food. I want access
to good health care and all kinds of basic human rights and I want the people
around me to have the same thing. So, I think all of us want to see our work
for social change succeed and history has shown that unless we are actively
working on racism and sexism then they’ll undermine our work and set us back.
The majority of leadership in nearly every radical social change effort has
come from women, people of color, working class people, queers and transgendered
people and doing anti-racist and feminist work has helped me to recognize
this, learn from this and value it.
Secondly, my own personal development has benefited so much from doing anti-racist
and feminist work with lots of different people. Generally speaking, the
people doing this kind of work are really inspiring and courageous people
who have a lot to teach not only about organizing and movement building,
but about living our lives with the principles that we have and the enormity
of injustice that exists. It can be really depressing and disempowering and
feel utterly hopeless as I’m sure you’ve experienced. Meeting people who
not only fight back, but are also able to keep trying to build healthy communities
and celebrate life, it keeps me sane and gives me hope. The other thing about
building healthy, loving communities is that white supremacy and patriarchy
tear us all apart in very different ways for sure, but the negative impact
is felt in our personal relationships, our political work and in our daily
lives. On a basic level, I want to experience meaningful loving relationships
and vibrant healthy communities and patriarchy and white supremacy and the
ways that I’ve internalized white privilege and gender privilege have seriously
damaged me and people I love. Anti-racism and feminism, for me, are part
of the path of personal healing and social liberation.
What gives you the hope to carry on in this dark time of resurgent
I watch a lot of movies and love pop culture. It’s true, when I’m feeling
down, I often just chill and watch a romantic comedy or something. My friendships
and the people I love, who I go to when I’m depressed. Putting energy into
loving, supportive friendships is high on my list of what organizing and
activism is all about.
Dealing with this political time period? Well, knowing that we’re in line
with the majority of the people on the planet in our opposition against the
U.S. war on Iraq. That’s hopeful. I was reading Chomsky earlier today and
his ability to analyze the world and tear apart the official doctrine and
make sense of things from a radical framework is hopeful. I also just read
this Buddhism book by Pema Chodron called ‘When Things Fall Apart’ and it’s
really good. About facing fears, insecurities and finding peace with groundlessness,
all that good Buddhist stuff. She actually says that we would actually be
better off abandoning hope, that the flipside of hope is fear. Like, ‘I hope
it happens, because I fear that it won’t’, that kind of thing. That hope
places the focus on what could happen in the future, when really the only
time we have to act is now. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have hope, but
Pema reminds me that it is the concrete steps we take today that help us
get to where we need to be. Knowing that people like us have made history
and made the world a far better place gives me hope in times like these.
The challenge is deciding what steps we take today to build movement and
make history now.
Geoff is a revolutionary activist and aspiring
anti-racist committted to overthrowing all systems of domination. He is active
in Portland, OR in movements against imperialist war abroad and racist repression
domestically. He co-edits the zine A New World in Our Heart, and seeks
dialogue with people trying to create a strategy for a revolutionary left
in this time of political crisis (and yes, sometimes he takes himself too