Campaigns

January 6, 2021: Together We Are Stronger

On January 6, watching events unfold at the Capitol on my tv screen, I was seized by a visceral need to be connected with the SURJ members I have been growing closer to these past months, most of whom I’ve never met beyond a computer screen.  The Capitol had been breached by thousands of mostly white, mostly male, far-right Trump supporters, whose goal it was to stop congressional certification of the Electoral College vote and to overturn the will of the American voters. 

In the midst of all my tumultuous feelings, all of this chaos broadcasted in living color, an email landed in my inbox from national SURJ director Erin Heaney. There was to be a call at 8pm with The Frontline, a black-led, multiracial, working class coalition of social justice movement groups of which SURJ is a member. Joining in a call with like-minded fellow accomplices who felt the joy of the Georgia run-off election and the rage and disbelief of the attempted coup in DC seemed to be the sensible thing to do. Just the ticket.

Almost as soon as I got on the Zoom call, I imagined being encircled with comrades, sharing the weight of these deeply mixed emotions that were also reflected on the faces of the panelists: joy that the hard work of decades of organizing on the part of POC in Georgia resulted in flipping the Senate; and anguish at witnessing  the naked display of white supremacism at the Capitol. I dashed off an email to the LC listserv — “I hope some of you are able to tune in…” — and heard from four others who were watching the Zoom event. I visualized us sitting in front of the glow of the computer screen, maybe alone, maybe with a two-legged or four-legged companion, alone but not alone, taking courage from Rev. Sekou, Ash-Lee, Nelini, and the others. Not alone!

Rev. Osagyeto Sekou, noted activist, theologian, and musician, called on our ancestors for courage and joy.  He said, “There is a well…We come from a people that have seen and understood and endured; there was darkness but they never let the darkness have the last word…Their music would always lament but they never let the lament have the last word, that is what the blues is about… we can not allow the worst of this place to steal our joy. This joy that I have the world did not give to me and the world can’t take it away…”

Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-founder of the coalition The Frontline, co-executive director of the Highland Center, whose words and humor and biting intellect move me to tears every time, had this to say: “Let’s take a moment to just acknowledge all that we’re holding in this moment, to recognize that in this space there is room for all of our feelings. There is importance in taking the time to feel them. So for those of you that are coming to this call, anxious, scared, terrified, pissed off because of what you saw today, we see you. For those of you that are still riding the highs of what it means that we built a people’s movement powerful enough to get Trump out of office, that is committed to continuing to do that until we see it through fruition, we see you. For our comrades in Georgia, and all of us around the country and around the world on this call that are celebrating the power of a black-led, multiracial, working class-led coalition that just flipped the Senate, y’all, in the South — as the South goes [so goes the country], we see you. There is space for all of the feelings of uncertainty. All the gratitude for the work that’s been done and will continue to happen. There is space for you on this call. “

Nelini Stamp of the Dream Defenders and the Working Families Party, her heart so visibly on her sleeve — these BIPOC and the other panelists *are* the change they want to see in the world.

Again I encountered the strange vertigo of a white person, a person complicit in white supremacy, being encouraged, reassured, exhorted by people of color who are in the very thick of the war against racial capitalism. To consider the strength of a person with tears of joy and anguish intermingled on her face, head held high, taking a moment from the battle to offer succor — this is a very inspiring thing. I want to do better, I must do better in 2021. And together, there’s more than a fighting chance that we will. Be better.

I invite readers to watch the video and share the inspiration it offers in these chaotic times.

Link to the Zoom event 
The webinar closed with the following opportunities for taking action:
— Every night at 6 pm starting 1/6 to bang pots for democracy #6for46
— Join The Frontline for a mass online organizing meeting during inauguration week, save the date 1/16
— Text FRONTLINE to 30403 to join The Frontline
— Sign up for eviction defense training, anti-eviction.net/train starting January 27
— Visit thriveagenda.com to learn more about the THRIVE agenda and to contact your members of Congress

“Reimagining Public Safety” Statement

The following introduction was written by Gerardo Veliz Carrillo and others from the Tompkins County Antiracist Coalition.

The Tompkins County Antiracist Coalition, of which TC SURJ is a member, presents the following critique of the Common Council’s “Reimagining Public Safety” campaign. We urge Ithacans to invest in problem-solving models and to reject approaches that compromise the safety of working, poor, and racialized people. The notion that local officials wish to “gather input from the community,” is a farce. The city has already decided to accept funding for the Law Enforcement Assisted Division (LEAD) program, a heavily police-centered model that was neither requested nor approved by the public. Policing is the problem. We must reject the false solutions of more policing and “reformed” policing and look to restorative justice, mutual aid, and community-powered models for reducing harm in Ithaca.

If you have any questions or would like to get involved, contact tompkinscoalition@gmail.com. You can also hear Russell Rickford, Enrique Gonzalez-Conty, and Gerardo Veliz Carrillo speak to Ute Ritz-Deutch of WRFI about this statement and the history behind it in this interview.

“Reimagining Public Safety” Statement  
Tompkins County Antiracist Coalition  
December 9, 2020  

The REAL Aim of “Reimagining” Public Safety  

In recent months, a popular movement has arisen internationally—and right here in Ithaca—to challenge the entrenched racism and violence of policing.  

Now officials say they want to “reimagine” public safety. But “reimagining” is only the latest attempt to distract us from the popular demand for police defunding.  

We are not fooled by deceptive rebranding.  

The Ithaca Common Council has already ignored the people’s demands for a budget that defunds police AND expands the kind of community services that actually keep us safe.  

Now WE must reject cosmetic reforms designed to legitimize the rotten institution of policing. We need real change centered on restorative justice and rooted in communities, not superficial solutions that camouflage the destructive effects of criminalization and incarceration.  

The Pitfalls of Police “Reform”  

Officials who uphold the punitive logic of policing cannot reform the police. Policing itself is the problem.  

We must reject all “reforms” that increase police presence, scope, surveillance, and budgets. Probation, reentry, and intervention/diversion programs should be removed from police control.  

We should also resist the idea that rooting out “bad cops” will lead to better policing. Bad cop/good cop narratives only disguise a rotten system.  

Conversations about local policing have included proposals to bring to Ithaca the intrusive “reforms” that have been implemented in places like Camden, NJ.   

But as Camden residents know well, such models of policing intensify profiling and mass surveillance and rely on invasive monitoring, frequent arrests, and routine violations of privacy, dignity and human rights.   

Even as city officials encourage residents to engage with the “Reimagining Public Safety” events and claim to be open to all ideas, the city clearly plans to adopt a model that continues to heavily involve the Ithaca Police Department in social matters, as in the case of recent funding for LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), created to “[respond] to low-level offenses such as drug possession, sales, and prostitution.” While we support a focus on community involvement and positive alternatives to criminal justice/jail, we do not support LEAD’s central focus on strengthening police-community relations in Ithaca. 

The Realities of Policing   

Policing is an institution with a long history of brutality against marginalized and oppressed people. It was designed to protect a white supremacist, capitalist system by subordinating groups that were seen as threatening to the existing racial and economic order.  

Despite Ithaca’s idyllic image, local police routinely abuse people of color and poor people.  

  • 2010—Shawn Greenwood shot during a narcotics investigation.   
  • 2011—Keith Shumway shot during an altercation with police.  
  • 2019—Rose and Cadji assaulted/arrested by police (and Cadji tasered) after a scuffle provoked by an aggressive white man.  
  • 2020—A young black man arrested after being threatened by a white man with a knife. The white man walked away with no charges.  

A Path to GENUINE Reform  

If we’re serious about “public safety” we need to shrink bloated police budgets and invest in community services that help meet people’s needs, not policies that criminalize and incarcerate. 

The safest communities have the most resources, not the most cops!  

Why devote more energy to fixing the image of police? Why don’t we join people in our neighborhoods—and many parts of the world—who are pursuing restorative models of justice?  

Truly just alternatives to policing are community-led and community-affirming. They attempt to repair the social fabric. They exclude police entirely from responses to harm and insecurity. They rely on community action and healing to address instability and human need.  

More MUTUAL AID—Less POLICING!  

Mutual aid is one model of community action that is closely linked to matters of public safety. Since the pandemic hit, thousands of people in Tompkins County have participated in mutual aid networks. Could the mutual aid model be expanded to help respond to addiction, suffering, and other forms of harm?   

Local residents have already offered useful ideas for rethinking “public safety,” including the demand to transform Ithaca’s SWAT truck into a mobile health clinic.   

With empathy, respect and human dignity as our goals, as well as depolicing, we might also  

We can also look far beyond our community for inspiration.   

In places like Brazil and Puerto Rico, organizers are creating a vision of public security that sustains the rights of the most affected populations; demands protection instead of repression; and calls on legislators (not police) to equip communities with the material resources they need to pursue safety and stability. In Mexico and elsewhere, some communities have expelled police, gangs and corruption and enabled trusted, indigenous guards to help protect residents.  

Drawing on these and other models, people in Ithaca and Tompkins County could construct communal models of public safety that work for their own neighborhoods.   

Ongoing Efforts to Restrict, Defund and SHRINK Police  

Such positive approaches should be combined with measures that limit the ability of police to abuse, monitor, harass and detain vulnerable populations. Any community conversation about police reform that does not center the widespread demand for defunding is antidemocratic and dishonest. The shrinking of police is a first step. 

In recent months the Tompkins County Antiracist Coalition, an alliance of activist groups and individuals, has formed around a set of popular demands to shift funds from the ballooning Ithaca Police Department budget and reinvest in social programs. The Antiracist Coalition demand letter was signed by more than 500 people—the vast majority of them from a Tompkins County zip code.  

We realize that long-term alternatives to punitive policing require the construction of a new political and economic order—a society that devotes full resources to meeting the human need for food, housing, healthcare, education, employment, childcare, recreation, creativity and dignity.  

Learn More and GET INVOLVED  

We are committed to a larger vision of anticapitalism and antiracism based on principles of demilitarization, decarceration, decolonization and ecological repair.   

We are also dedicated to the pursuit of real reforms that shrink the scope of policing and increase community healing and wellbeing. We’d love for you to join us in the struggle for genuinely democratic and reparative approaches to public safety.  

Contact us @ tompkinscoalition@gmail.com. Thank you. 

Call Me In

The first week in June, 2020, I was a ball of anxiety. George Floyd had been murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25, and the country (as well as the world) had erupted in protest. In addition to the swift, mass mobilization on the ground in major cities and smaller towns, there was a flurry of activity on social media, including an urgent call from Black and POC folks for white people to “do something.” White people, in turn, took up that call as well, urging other white people to “do something.” And as such, the social media cyber-verse transformed quickly into a theater for the performance of white folks’ progressive politics. Parades of infographics, links to donate, book recommendations, discussion groups, protests, rallies; a veritable buffet of ways to “do something,” proffered by white people for white people, served with a saccharine glaze of the kind of shaming that tends to provoke actionable results in groups well-conditioned by capitalism.

At this point, I’d been on my own personal antiracism journey for over a year. I’d already read “White Fragility.” I’d seen “If Beale Street Could Talk.’” I was thinking about the racism rampant in white feminist circles. I’d read “The Fire Next Time.” I believed (and still believe) ardently in the necessity and vitality of the movement to dismantle the white supremacist, capitalist state. And so, when 85% of the white people I knew suddenly started screaming about systemic racism into the social media void, seemingly for the first time, I experienced a mix of emotions which organized themselves into a general state of agitated anxiety. I was relieved and inspired to see so many white people finally heeding the call to better understand and take action against the very real expression of white supremacy and systemic racism in the U.S.

At the same time, my fragile ego was raging. “I was already doing this work! I must be recognized for that!” And so, I became one of the white people authoring those aforementioned informative yet shaming Facebook posts. I always addressed white people, always with a tone of moral superiority meant to obligate them into action, like a mother scolding her child. I took the stage with all the others, performing my politics with an attitude of unwavering self-assuredness and courage. Backstage (so to speak), it was a different story. I was terrified of being called out for not doing enough, certain that every time I opened Facebook, I’d be met with a comment exposing me as a virtue-signaling fraud. Rarely was that fear satiated by one-off actions: yet another post, a donation, a digital forum. That first week of June, I went about in a haze, living in a liminal space between action and inaction, performing certainty but in reality not brave enough to take the next meaningful step into this work.

Now, as I reflect on this moment, a couple things come to mind. First, how intensely narcissistic and indulgent it was to center my own white insecurity at a moment which was focused on precisely the opposite: the abdication of power by white people in favor of the empowerment of Black Americans and other people of color, in pursuit of a more just world. But, at the same time, I wonder whether I ever would have taken a next step, had I not waded through that period of anxiety. A heightened emotional state can provide information. In this case, my body and mind were reinforcing what I already knew: I could do more, and therefore I needed to do more.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about bravery and the relativity of safety. I mentioned that in June I didn’t feel “brave enough” to take the next step into action for racial justice. But what does that really mean? I wasn’t at any immediate risk of bodily harm or psychological trauma. I was afraid of being uncomfortable. For my whole life, I’ve been coddled by systems which uphold the architecture of white supremacy, and that conditioning caused my mind to conflate discomfort with danger. It was (and to this day still sometimes is) internalized white supremacy which prevented me from fully integrating racial justice work into my everyday life. It’s not that I wasn’t “brave enough”—bravery implies some kind of valor or virtue in the face of real danger—rather, due to my white supremacist conditioning, I didn’t have the psychological and emotional endurance to sustain discomfort.

It’s also worth unpacking what I refer to when discussing “discomfort.” I think this sensation is multi-fold. At its most essential level, “discomfort” refers to a reticence to engage in racial justice work that’s based in a very racist, deeply entrenched, and historical lack of care for Black people and other POC worldwide. I don’t personally experience this sensation consciously, and the thought of it permeating invisible levels of my consciousness horrifies me. But, in examining the real root of white discomfort in racial justice work, that’s what I discover. Further, white people have been conditioned to consider ourselves a distinct social group—to “believe that we’re white” (to paraphrase Baldwin). We’ve isolated ourselves in our own perceived uniqueness: a fortress fortified by privilege that we mistake for freedom. Our entrenched white supremacy allows us to believe that we can be free while others are not, and therefore the fight for common liberation is one that doesn’t concern us. Again, this is not a belief I consciously hold or espouse, but I recognize it as another subconscious layer in the larger experience of white discomfort. Other layers include fatigue due to an under-developed emotional endurance (as I mentioned above), and the invasion of the fragile ego when engaging with others who are already invested in racial justice and political work. I’ll come back to that one.

Like many people socialized in a capitalist world, I’m a person who craves structure, and I derive a lot of satisfaction from productivity and accomplishment. Seeking that structure as a means to outpace the anxiety to “do something,” I attended a SURJ meeting in June. I was nervous, secretly afraid that I’d encounter a brash, unapologetic austerity in the group’s leadership, and subconsciously feeling like I deserved the same sort of scolding I was doling out on Facebook. To me, the world of structured organizing was a daunting one: a place full of smart, well-read, courageous people who certainly possessed a more comprehensive analysis than I’d ever know, not to mention general ease in any high-stakes protest situation. Here’s that other kind of discomfort I mentioned: the fear some white people have of not being “woke” enough to engage with other activists in political settings. I think this phenomenon is a two-way street: as newcomers, our egos butt in, crying “don’t ask any questions, just smile and nod, you’ll look stupid because after all you don’t know anything!” In the oncoming lane, activists do at times project an ideological opacity, righteously holding their political line. The result is two ships passing (not to mix metaphors), and a missed opportunity for more people to unite in the work.

At that June chapter meeting, facilitators from the leadership put out a call seeking new membership in the leadership circle. Leadership seemed like an even more concrete infrastructure for accountability, and so I thought to myself “I could do that.” It’s now November, and I’ve been a member of the leadership for four months. In that time, I’ve planned and facilitated chapter meetings and action hours, participated in protests, contributed at a common council meeting, learned from more experienced organizers, and engaged in numerous discussions about this movement. And the truth is, in many ways I’m still the anxious person I was in June. I’m not always comfortable, I still sometimes misconstrue discomfort for danger, I’m still sometimes visited by the shameful and urgent voice saying “Do something! You’re not doing enough!” The difference is that SURJ provides a structure. I’m not floating out there alone on social media. Rather, I’m a spoke in a much larger wheel of a people-led movement working to build networks of mutual aid. Being accountable to other chapter members keeps me accountable to myself, and to the movement writ-large. When that voice crops up, there is always something to get involved with, supported by a network of experienced and compassionate colleagues.

In SURJ (and elsewhere) we talk about “calling in.” Calling in acknowledges that “the left has a long history of shaming and blaming people who don’t have the ‘perfect’ words or don’t exactly agree with our analysis” (SURJ National). It also emphasizes a compassionate examination of our own expressions of white supremacy, so that we can learn through shared experience and do better.

The purpose of this essay is not as an exercise in public self-flagellation, but rather to lift the veil on the perceived barriers to entering activist communities by transparently calling myself in. While I’m certainly not a seasoned activist, I’m doing it, I’m doing it visibly, and I haven’t left behind every vestige of white supremacist temerity and fragility that I knew before I got involved. I know that activist circles can intimidate. I know I’ve been guilty of insisting on SURJ’s political line at the expense of another’s engagement. I know, also, that transparency breeds trust, and trust creates the conditions for learning and growth towards progress.

Whatever you’re carrying, there’s space for you in this work. Bring your questions and your anxieties; know that you don’t have to have all the right answers all the time. There’s a free spoke in the wheel: come help us keep it turning. We want to welcome you.

Organize with New Local Coalition to Stop A Coup

The JUST DEMOCRACY COALITION is a new informal alliance of organizations, groups and individuals in and around Tompkins County, NY. We are organizing ourselves to do everything we can to stop an illegitimate power grab by the Trump administration.  We see nonviolence as the effective strategy that will enable us to connect broadly with all who share our concern for protecting democracy – so that we can continue to work on transforming it. 

WHY WE NEED TO ORGANIZE NOW

“We have a president who has openly said he might not respect the outcome of our election. We have to be ready if he claims victory before votes are counted, tries to stop counting, or refuses to accept a loss.” – The Washington Post, July 19, 2020

Stealing the election by any of these means is a coup, a power grab, a violation of the democratic process. Trump’s violations of power and law throughout the country has made this potential coup possible. The suppression and criminalization of protest, the deployment of unidentified troops accountable only to himself, the deliberate creation of chaos and violence, and the use of propaganda and outright lies that the Trump Administration has engaged in are just a few of numerous examples of abuse of power. This is unacceptable.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

1) JOIN THIS COALITION
You can be part of the Coalition by signing the Tompkins Area Online Pledge to Choose Democracy. As signers we agree that:

1. We will vote.

2. We will refuse to accept election results until all the votes are counted.

3. We will nonviolently take to the streets if a coup is attempted (or support those that do.)

4. If we need to, we will shut down this country to protect the integrity of the democratic process.

2) JOIN OUR NEXT COALITION ZOOM MEETING
Wednesday, Nov 4, 7PM. Join the conversation and hear about actions being planned locally. You can join a team to help plan events, become a trained peacekeeper, get your organization to sign on to the Choose Democracy pledge, help with social media, lead us in songs and chants, make beautiful banners and signs… whatever your skills, there’s a way you can help. To register for this meeting and get the Zoom Link, click HERE

3) SIGN UP FOR ACTION ALERTS FROM CHOOSEDEMOCRACY.US
Text CHOOSE to 50409 to be linked to national organizing efforts, and to receive a call to action the moment a coup is declared.

4) RALLY THIS SATURDAY TO PROTECT THE RESULTS AND BUILD A BETTER DEMOCRACY!
Whatever the election results so far, let’s come together in a massive show of Peaceful People-Power on Saturday, November 7 at 1 PM at the Bernie Milton pavilion on the Ithaca Commons. We will gather in solidarity to demand that every citizen’s vote be counted, and that there will be a peaceful transfer of power. Register HERE.

5) LEARN THESE SIMPLE NEW SONGS by the Peace Poets— and get ready to share our people power, love and positivity at upcoming events!

MORE ABOUT THE JUST DEMOCRACY COALITION – TOMPKINS AREA

OUR PURPOSE

  • Build connections and collaborations among diverse groups and organizations with a shared commitment to stopping an attempted coup and building a more just democracy
  • Enable fast and flexible responses to changing situations
  • Organize events, actions, persuasion campaigns, and gatherings both in person and online 
  • Build a collective culture of effective, discipline
  • Encourage preparation and planning for rolling strikes, general strike, or other forms of widespread noncompliance with illegitimate authority, if necessary

WHAT WE ARE DOING

  • Building a database of people in and around Tompkins County who want to be informed of actions (in person and online) that are happening around this year’s election and the aftermath
  • Sharing the Choose Democracy Pledge and encouraging organizations, elected officials, faith groups, and others to sign on
  • Encouraging everyone to lean on elected officials to demand that every vote be counted    
  • Sending timely emails to our members to keep you informed of actions you can take from home and on the street

In solidarity and joy!

The JUST DEMOCRACY COALITION -TOMPKINS AREA team

justdemocracytompkins@gmail.com

Demands for an Anti-Racist Cornell

More than 700 people connected with Cornell have already co-signed a letter that demands anti-racist change from the administration. The letter points out a central tension in the way the university operates. On one hand, the letter identifies the ways that Cornell is complicit in perpetuating structural racism and white supremacy. And on the other, it invokes Cornell’s history of activism, liberal self-image, and stated focus on justice–including its egalitarian founding motto about “…any person …any study.”

This contradiction underscores the fact that Cornell is not doing enough to work toward meaningful change both on and off campus. As the letter says, “diversity” initiatives are commonplace at Cornell—but they fall miles short of the uncomfortable, structural change that is necessary to dismantle the academic systems that have built up over centuries to favor privileged, white people and systematically disadvantage Black people, indigenous people, and other people of color.

The letter distills the message into demands: 10 “immediate” demands, including changes to hiring and grad student recruitment, and 29 “long-term” demands, including eliminating the GRE requirement for graduate programs and ensuring pay equality for BIPOC faculty. One long-term demand, to name a building after alumna Toni Morrison, will be fulfilled next year when new residential halls open. The demands are detailed but represent only the beginning of a major realignment that Cornell needs to put its stated commitment to racial justice into actual practice.

You can sign the letter now to convey your support for the demands, especially if you have some connection to Cornell.

Sign Demand Letter & Join Campaign to Defund Ithaca Police

TC SURJ is working with the Tompkins Antiracist Coalition to drastically shrink the budget of the Ithaca Police Department and use local public funds to invest in true safety and community needs. As first steps, our multiracial coalition is gathering signatures for a demand letter and launching a popular education and agitation campaign. We invite you to sign our letter (a place to sign is linked in the demand letter above) and encourage other members of our community to sign, too.

Below the letter is the list of our specific demands.  For more information about the demands, see this FAQ sheet.

Letter: bit.ly/2DLWLtQ

Sign on form: bit.ly/3kCf45y

Please add your name today! If you are part of an organization that wants to be a part of the coalition and help strategize moving forward, or have questions/comments, reach out at tompkinscoalition@gmail.com.

Unpacking Thanksgiving

For a portion of November’s SURJ Chapter Meeting, two members hosted an educational session on the history of land and native people in relation to Thanksgiving and navigating conversations around the holidays. Below are some resources.

Article on the holiday itself: Thanksgiving: A Native American View, by Jacqueline Keeler

On having a dialogue in a way to foster continuing conversations: Talking Across the Political Divide: Skills for Difficult Personal Conversations, by Better Angels

Printable resources from national SURJ including the placemat (scroll a little):
www.showingupforracialjustice.org/thanksgiving

Also, here are some notes from our conversations during the chapter meeting about what barriers/resources came up when thinking about how we as individuals understand Thanksgiving and what might come up in thoughts about having courageous conversations with the people who we may be gathering with for the holiday:
  • The book titles mentioned were Bury My Heart at Wounded KneeAn Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United StatesCuster Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto
  • Consider the balance in maintaining relationships without avoiding breaking white silence
  • Share articles Before you’re at the dinner table which gives folks time to read digest and have background ahead of time
  • Connect to different backgrounds/frameworks, being sensitive that those backgrounds may not include the nuanced definitions that accompany the jargon of social justice
  • Incorporate honoring native people/creating new traditions in prayers said at the table
  • Initiate dialogue with “I learned something this week…”