let no evil come by you, [name]
let no evil come by
you will be set free today, [name]
you will be set free
all our love will guide you, [name]
as you stand calm within the storm
no evil shall come by you, [name]
today you will be bound no more
or whatever words you feel called to sing that invoke collective liberation, breaking chains, uprooting systems of oppression.
as you sing, write the name of whatever system, institution, group, or individual is responsible for the activist’s incarceration 3 times on a piece of brown paper bag in black ink. turn the paper 90 degrees and write the activist’s name three times in red ink. fold the paper into a square.
combine dill weed, galangal root, calendula flowers, licorice root, cassia chips, rosemary leaves, eucalyptus leaves, cascara sagrada powder, and sandalwood chips in a cauldron. light charcoal and add to cauldron. place folded name paper on top of charcoal. open a window.
while lighting a rainbow taper candle (any protection candle color will also work), visualize the activist safe, protected, home with their loved ones. sing. let the candle burn to the end.
make sure all plant material in the cauldron has burned. bury ashes and wax in the earth.
wonder at the miracle that is our collective body of loving support and ferocious action.
Representation and participation in the existing political and economic system, for oppressed peoples, will not produce lasting change no matter how many of us manage to infiltrate it.
In struggles for liberation of oppressed people, some of us choose to do a portion of our work within existing systems, such as academia or government. Those who subscribe to the gradualist/incrementalist school of thought view work inside the system as the best way to ensure equity for oppressed groups. For me, that kind of work is a temporary fix aimed at protecting the most vulnerable among us from institutional harm, rather than a long-term strategy for getting free. Since the institutions that we’re working in weren’t designed to serve Black folks and other oppressed people, attempting to reform them is a Sisyphean task. Political gains are short-lived and transient, and oppressive systems are shape-shifters. Too often, the system will corrupt those who work within it for its own ends, turning folks into weapons against their own communities. Either directly or indirectly, gradualists attempting to effect change from within are usually required to participate in the oppression of minority groups. The system tends to change who works inside it more than we change the system.
A certain degree of assimilation, of course, is needed to work within any institution successfully. Gaining access to positions of power requires that you behave in a certain way, that you use a certain type of language, and that you moderate how you express your beliefs so you’re more palatable to the gatekeepers you’re attempting to woo. Once you gain power and access, there’s an increase in freedom, but you still must work within the confines of the institution to stay in its good graces. Certain institutions demand you surrender more of yourself than others—government or law enforcement, for example, are going to force folks to embrace the status quo more than academia or science. Politics in particular runs on compromise, so politicians often find themselves in situations where they have to support policies that hurt one marginalized group in order to advance policies that benefit another.
Being “in charge” of the system also does not prevent you from perpetuating its harm. Keeping an institution running smoothly as is means making choices that will contribute to marginalization and violence against oppressed groups in order to preserve the status of the institution. In the case of President Obama, while his educational background and experience in community organizing indicated he would be more conscious of the the dynamics of colonialism and imperialism than your average President, he still supported policies that harmed brown people worldwide. Drone strikes and deportations both escalated under his administration. We could spend hours debating the reasons why this is—and it likely would have still occurred under any of our other choices—but the point is, him being Black and conscious didn’t change the manifest function of American government. It did not transform American democracy from a force for domination and subjugation into a force for equity and equality.
This is because institutions themselves have internal philosophies that are derived in part from the circumstances under which they were formed. These philosophies drive them and define their function in society, and while that function might evolve over time, it is unlikely to stray too far from its origin point. No matter how an individual might feel about an institution or its function within the status quo, that institutional philosophy has a powerful effect. For example, law enforcement has a history of terroristic behavior towards Black communities and sees itself as adversarial to them; the institutional bias within law enforcement that Blackness is synonymous with crime can and will infect nonwhite officers. The tragedy of Philando Castile is an example of this—Castile was killed by a Latino officer who had clearly bought into the white supremacist philosophy of the system in which he worked. Whether or not Officer Yanez consciously considered Black people’s lives to be worthless, when under duress, he fell back on an institutional philosophy rooted in Whiteness that prioritizes the comfort of white and white-adjacent people over the lives of Black people. An assimilationist, conformist mentality is both encouraged and required to successfully function as an agent of an oppressive institution. As long as you are harming the right people—in other words, nonwhite people and preferably Black people—the institution will have your back. When oppressed people working within systems fail to recognize that institutional support is only maintained as long as they’re working to uphold the status quo, they willbe sacrificed.
Working within the existing system can only ever be a palliative measure. Legislative and legal change is easily undone, because the underlying problem is that our political system was designed to serve white, wealthy, straight, able-bodied, cisgender men. It’s pretty simple, if painful, to rip off a band-aid, and all our interventions, from the 13th amendment to the Voting Rights Act, are band-aids attempting to cover the gaping wound that is a Constitution written to the exclusion of a majority of the individuals living in the country at the time (and resting on the genocide of those individuals who held the land before its founding). Band-aids over that wound are useful, however, for preventing vulnerable populations from bleeding out. Legislative and legal change can provide comfort, keeping us alive and able to work towards transformative change.
Participation in the political system is a way of making sure we stay relatively protected in the current paradigm while we scheme on what’s going to replace it. Any revolution has to have both short-term and long-term aspects. Working within the system to achieve short-term goals makes sense. Voting, running for office, and other status quo political activities do have a direct impact on the lives of oppressed and marginalized people. Despite the perceived futility of it, I vote, because who holds office can greatly affect the ease of existing as an oppressed person. Doing work within systems that we know are not designed to work for us also has educational potential—learning what structural features of the current system enable inequity instructs us on what to avoid when creating a new one.
So what can we, liberation-minded folk who choose to engage with systems that can perpetuate oppression, do to avoid losing ourselves to the machine? Keeping goals clear is crucial. Long-term goals should be transformative, short-term goals palliative. Visualizing the desired outcome of our interactions with institutions, and utilizing harm reduction principles when planning the steps we take to reach that desired outcome, will ensure we’re doing as much as we can to avoid being used in service of maintaining the status quo. Of course, listening to the most vulnerable among us and triaging their pressing concerns should always be a priority when we attempt to use institutional resources and knowledge to improve social conditions. No matter what knowledge we think we’ve gleaned during our time in the system, it will be misapplied unless we pair it with knowledge gained through lived experience—whether ours or others’. Reconnecting with our communities and families as a form of self-care can be invaluable both for staying centered and embodied as well as for reminding us what and who we’re fighting for.
It is also vital to remember that work within systems has to be paired with work outside systems. Demeaning the work of activists who seek to disrupt the functioning of institutions, as some gradualists tend to, is counterproductive. Disruptive, even violent activism is needed to provide a pressure point that emphasizes the existential necessity of transformative change, as the status quo will not change unless under duress. We have to stay focused on why we decided to work within these institutions in the first place—liberation. Liberation cannot be gained via incrementalism, because white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy will always adapt and reimagine itself no matter what superficial systems we modify in an attempt to approximate equality. Slavery became mass incarceration; colonialism became globalization under an American hegemon. To bypass white fragility and preserve a false sense of class-based unity, incrementalist strategies also tend to avoid addressing white supremacy as foundational to the American political system. Without addressing why the system is structured the way it is, without a critical interrogation of the role Whiteness plays in how the system operates, an egalitarian society will remain an unattainable goal.
Representation and participation in the existing political and economic system, for oppressed peoples, will not produce lasting change no matter how many of us manage to infiltrate it. The myth of “change from within” is a mirage sold to us in order to secure our compliance with the status quo by giving us a buy-in to the system. It is a distraction that allows our leaders to continue kicking the can down the road, claiming progress is being made towards “diversity” and equal opportunity, while avoiding the eventual and necessary revolutionary change that must take place. Ultimately, dismantling the current paradigm, and creating a new one based on equity, is our only path to liberation.
As a Western society, we here in the U.S. are prone to viewing health in a compartmental manner. Even most religious folks buy into the Western model of medicine, save for a few who turn to prayer when disease strikes rather than accept medical interventions. Allopathic medicine is deemed to be rational and science based. Other systems of medicine, because the why of how they produce results cannot be scientifically explained, are viewed dubiously, and assigned a niche status. Allopathic medicine treats symptoms, it does not necessarily treat the underlying cause. For example, when a patient receives cancer treatment, the cancerous cells are removed, but the circumstances that led to their overgrowth — a stressful marriage, lack of nourishing food, poverty, exposure to chemicals in a dangerous job — may not be addressed. The person is pronounced in remission when the cells are gone. Depending on whether or not the confounding factors are removed, the individual may remain cancer free, or it may recur.
Healthcare policy in the U.S. is reminiscent of how allopathic medicine approaches cancer. We tend to focus on the symptoms of our broken healthcare system — coverage gaps, high premiums, etc. — and not on the sociopolitical forces, such as hypercapitalism and economic inequality, that have shaped the system into the hot mess it is. I was reminded of this similarity while reading an article on Humana, an insurer, pulling out of the ACA healthcare exchanges for 2018. Their reason for withdrawing: Too many sick people in the marketplace and not enough healthy people. And I thought, of course there are more sick people than healthy people in the marketplace. Your friends in the food, agriculture, chemical, financial services and assorted industries are making money hand over fist sowing the seeds of their illness! Like, you can’t be “pro-business” and support deregulation and privatization, and then be mad when that leads to people getting sick because they’re eating poorly, stressed out, broke, and toxic. The parameters for good health are myriad. Your social status affects your health greatly, and the amount of free time and expendable income you have determines what food you can access, whether or not you can make your own, whether or not you can participate in activities, and, of course, whether or not you can afford and access medical treatment. Besides the latter, these are issues that aren’t always considered in the popular healthcare debate, and the solutions our government has come up with don’t seem to address them effectively. It’s pointless to overhaul the healthcare system in order to save money when we’re not addressing the social ills that lead to individuals’ ills.
The fact that the healthcare exchange plans are serving individuals who may not have been able to access health insurance prior to the ACA plays a role in how many sick people are in them, as well. If people have been without healthcare, they’re going to be sicker than people who have been seeing a doctor regularly. The solution is not to deny them options by pulling out of the markets, and kicking them off their insurance plans. Give them an opportunity to improve their health. It might not be cost effective in the beginning, but I think it’s optimistic to think that a 100% coverage goal is ever going to be profitable in the short run. Possibly in the long run, but really, for-profit healthcare and the medical industrial complex are kind of monuments to why we’re so sick as a society. In general, we need to focus more on long-term social and quality-of-life gains rather than short-term economic gains.
The capitalist argument is that businesses should be profitable, not charitable, and since it’s not profitable to insure sick people, health insurance companies shouldn’t be forced to participate in markets that are lopsided towards the sick. This follows the popular argument that businesses should be free to do basically whatever they want, with minimal regulation or oversight, because they are “job creators” and and therefore precious to the U.S. economy. The fear seems to be that in a global economy, the businesses will just move to a country that’s less protective of their populace if we demand they be responsible citizens. But businesses adapt to different regulations and restrictions all the time. Tech companies modify their products to meet Chinese standards for government access. Companies like Johnson & Johnson have had to reformulate products for sale in the EU because certain hazardous ingredients were banned. And hell, look at what they’ve done to keep selling cars here in California. They’ve created cars with much lower emissions levels than they ever would have on their own, because it’s not in their interest to innovate on emissions. Too many people forget that corporations have a primary responsibility to make money for their shareholders. They don’t possess a conscience, and unfortunately a lot of CEOs appear to share that trait. Without any government oversight, corporations will run roughshod over a populace if that is where the profit lies. To believe anything else is naive.
It’s precisely because of corporations’ lack of conscience and lack of accountability to anyone but their stockholders that it’s irresponsible to entrust them with something as important as healthcare. The government is supposed to represent the people, is accountable by election, and therefore should, in theory, be invested in acting in the best interests of the people. To me, I would much rather trust my health to an entity that I have some leverage over regardless of how much money I have, rather than an entity that could really care less about me unless I own an impressive share of its stock. But some people are so distrustful of government that anything seems like a better option, which I will probably never understand. RIP single payer, 2009.
I wish I could say I’m optimistic about the eventual replacement for the ACA, but that would be far from the truth. As long as the GOP is obsessed with privatization, and centering corporations’ interests over the public’s while pretending they’re the party of morality, any solution they come up with will be woefully, almost maliciously inadequate. Only an approach that takes into consideration the holistic nature of health, both physical and social, will ultimately be effective in the long-term, and the current administration doesn’t show any signs of acknowledging that fact. Republicans in general seem less interested in making sure the 20-odd million citizens currently enrolled in ACA plans can continue to access affordable healthcare and more interested in kicking as many people as possible off the expansion of Medicaid to show they’re serious about entitlement reform. And of course, poor people are easy targets with little political, social and economic capital with which to fight back.
The next four to eight years are going to be rough for the oppressed and disadvantaged in our society as we are scapegoated to soothe the anxieties of a dominant group who fears their loss of majority status (among other things, it is of course not that simple). As someone who currently benefits from the expansion of Medicaid, I’m hopeful that the surge of popularity the ACA is currently experiencing will give Republicans pause before they completely gut it. But I’m keeping my expectations low.