Anthropology at the Barricades

One year ago, dozens of direct actions took place across Washington, DC, to disrupt the Inauguration of Donald Trump. Today, celebrating and defending dissent and commemorating the first salvo in an ongoing struggle, there are numerous events all over the country. Many of these are part of a broad call to build out our movements for collective liberation. If you’re in DC, there are a few things going on today.

In the spirit of this solidarity, I’m sharing below a talk I gave in November as part of a panel on protest, theory, and practice at American University’s Public Anthropology Conference. It’s relatively unedited, I’m not a social movement scholar, etc. – but it’s some of my thinking on solidarity from the academy.


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By around dawn the morning of January 20th in Washington, DC, four individuals sat at the intersection of 10th and E, back to back, connected in a technical lockdown. A half dozen others—myself included—sat right where the police had dragged us, in between the concrete barricades that were supposed to form the security lines for entering Donald Trump’s inaugural parade route but instead became the nucleus for one of several direct actions occurring simultaneously across downtown DC. A few dozen others flanked us, chanting slogans and waving signs amidst the tumultuous opening salvo against the President’s Inauguration. The goal of The Future is Feminist, the non-hierarchical radical feminist collective that spearheaded the action at 10th and E, was to disrupt the checkpoint for as long as possible. Several other checkpoints saw similar direct action protests of varying size and tactics that day—each representing a community concerned about what a Trump presidency meant for it, from Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock, from radical labor to queer activists—and the city also saw a permitted march—a winding parade of protesters, artists, puppets, and families—and an unpermitted anticapitalist, antifascist march clad in black. All of this was organized autonomously under the label “Disrupt J20.” By the afternoon, the other blockades had disbanded and police had kettled part of the black bloc march. Six and a half hours after locking down, the four individuals declared victory, unchained themselves voluntarily, and led a march away from the intersection, which by that time was teeming with hundreds of protesters who had formed a human wall—arms locked and several rows deep—preventing parade-goers from entering the checkpoint. This was how the tone was set for radical resistance to the Trump presidency.

In the months since, direct action has seen a revitalization, from immigration activists blockading ICE vehicles to prevent deportations to waves of ADAPT activists and allies staging occupations of Congressional offices every time Republicans have attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Direct action has also been used by antifascists and anti-racists operating under the ethic of no-platforming, working to prevent white supremacists from organizing or speaking in public, from Berkeley to Charlottesville, Boston to Gainesville. The Trump presidency has inaugurated mass resistance of many types, and starting with the events of January 20th we can see a large number of people turning to direct action to effect change, protect their communities, and assert their rights.

I had participated in this action not as an anthropologist but as an activist. But, as usual, I approached that day with an anthropological sensibility in many ways. Many forms of community organizing, including the organizing that went into Disrupt J20, emulate the ethnographic work that anthropologists do as activists build relationships with others. And as a man involved in a feminist group that centers the most marginalized voices, I was and am concerned with my place and the politics of representation, something which anthropologists honed in on a generation ago and continue to grapple with today, and something I’m conscious about even as I give this talk. As part of an acephalous, egalitarian group that reached decisions by consensus, and which itself acted autonomously alongside numerous other non-hierarchical groups in Disrupt J20 that day and in the weeks leading up to it, I was excited to be a part of a community organized according to different principles than the hierarchies and individualism that dominate American public life. Describing other ways of doing things and studying alternative modes of organizing society have long been at the center of anthropology’s contribution to our understanding of the world. And as both a scholar interested in an empathetic, engaged anthropology and an activist interested in creating a more just society, I viewed that day with an eye towards making the world a better place and creating a new set of relations through praxis. Our decision-making and action-taking processes were our politics—for the activists at 10th and E, direct action was at once both theory and action. It was praxis. Here I situate my experience that day within an attempt at a radical methodology, a revolutionary praxis, and militant scholarship. I put direct action forward as but one way that anthropologists can engage with the world, and I would argue that such participation should be in our toolbox when considering how to respond to our current moment.

On the same day as the blockades and marches, anthropologists around the world gathered collectively for a virtual read-in of Lecture Eleven from Michel Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended. The 1979 lecture addresses the intersections of biopolitics and state racism and the state’s power to discipline and control populations. It is a fitting read for our time, and a lecture that was and continues to be generative for those of us thinking through such issues. Scholarship, research, and theory can be central to radical political action. Movements are driven by ideas, and intellectual communities—certainly not just those in academia—can be crucial to helping these ideas take root and grow. Radical political teaching, and radical scholarship, are critical parts of defending society. Direct action is another. When faced with a resurgent ideology of hate and contemplating how to take action, anthropologists should organize in their communities and fight where they stand.

The scholarship on protest is a broad field, and the topic of resistance has long been of interest to social scientists. Often, though certainly not always, resistance gets glossed either as the armed resistance of revolutionaries or as the types of “everyday resistance” that workers and peasants engage in when faced with hegemonic power. While these forms of resistance and subversion are integral to our understanding of how people engage with the sites of power around them, today I focus on a particular form of resistance, one that seeks not only to subvert power but disrupt it or move beyond it. In opposing or moving beyond the current state of things, direct action constitutes one form of resistance warranting further discussion.

Direct action does many things, of course. Sometimes it obstructs; sometimes it liberates. Sometimes it cripples state or corporate power; sometimes it communizes space for all. Across the city on January 20th, people engaged in direct action as a part of a collective struggle for a more equal and just society in the face of not just a man or a party but a system that seeks to isolate and oppress us. In the months since the Inauguration, many people have forged new relations through action, whether at airports in opposition to the Muslim ban or in their workplaces through collective action. New networks of resistance, many centered on direct action, have formed in response to white supremacy and misogyny—and not just that of Trump. Direct action is part of building community, which is central to opposing not just the latest form of fascism but also the neoliberalism that brought it about.

In the immediate aftermath of the election one year ago, there were many different responses to the “new” situation we found ourselves in as scholars residing in the United States. This newness was, of course, not new at all for scholars of color, women, and queer academics for whom state, society, and the academy rarely make space. Neither was it new for students of color, women, gender-nonconforming students, undocumented students, and the many other marginalized populations inside and outside of the university. Nonetheless, the ratcheted up white supremacy and retrenched misogyny that Trump represented and still represents rightfully gave many pause. What was a concerned scholar to do?

There were calls to speed up our response to the crisis by paving the way for a sort of faster, more responsive ethnography, a way to study current events and contribute an anthropological voice to the public discourse. There were calls for a more public anthropology, to open the gates of knowledge in the face of swelling anti-intellectualism. There were calls to research what gave rise to Trumpism by supporting more scholarship of the Right, including the oft-cited white working class, but also other groups that rallied to Trump’s cause. All of these are ways to engage as a discipline in a time when many feel drawn to change the way we’ve been doing things. The read-in was itself a response to such a feeling, digging into our wheelhouse of reading and theory to respond to our time. There are other ways, for those of us in the university, to use our classrooms and our role as educators to teach radical politics, to help decolonize the university, to democratize the classroom, to unlearn the white supremacy and misogyny latent in our society and our institutions. Like the rest of the United States, the American university was created for particular bodies, and we have work to do to continue reimagining these spaces and communities. My point is, there are many ways to take action as anthropologists. One way that anthropologists can respond to our contemporary politics that is both intuitive and has great potential is to participate.

At the heart of cultural anthropology, arguably, is the method of participant-observation, and we can and should hone in on this approach and join those struggling against ascendant fascism on the frontlines. Emphasizing the “participant” part of participant-observation, I’m calling for radical, militant participation as a means of scholarly resistance. We should practice a radical method, an engaged theory, an anthropological praxis. In her defense of ethnography, Alpa Shah states that “with the crisis of the left and the spread of the right across the world… there is a compelling need for participant observation as revolutionary praxis, to offer better theory and action in the world.” While Shah still finds a tension between scholarship and activism despite this need, I think that a commitment to radical praxis has the potential to bolster both. Bringing scholarship and resistance together can be a fruitful process in a number of ways.

Being actively involved and already engaged in defending society will make a faster turnaround for research more possible when it is most needed, after all, and public scholarship can only be more relevant if it emerges from popular struggle. Spending time working alongside those trying to secure communities and improve lives also opens up new venues for a more public anthropology. And while studying the right is certainly a necessary project, one from which we can learn a great deal in order to better respond to and curtail movements that seek to retrench various forms of inequality, we would also do well to further our work with marginalized communities and in so doing redouble our efforts to support them in the everyday work of their defense, survival, revitalization, and emergence. Working at the service of these movements can reaffirm our commitments to those bearing the brunt of neoliberal and fascist policies and white supremacist and xenophobic violence.

By dedicating ourselves to and contributing to the movements that are doing the work, anthropologists can put their bodies at the barricades, build relations through community organizing, and engage with a world outside of academia, all while contributing to a more engaged anthropology. There are times when research will be exactly what political action needs—mapping hidden power relations, for example, or tracing patterns of abuse to be resisted. In these scenarios, an informed and engaged scholarship can contribute to causes seeking to empower or protect communities through research, advocacy, and presence. But there will also be times when the concerns of activists may not lend themselves to a conventionally published ethnography as we know it. The livelihoods of our interlocutors is foremost, of course, and security culture exists for a reason, as the state persecution of activists across the country and around the world has reminded us. Audra Simpson’s invocation of ethnographic refusal is just one demonstration of how we can be more creative in what it means to produce scholarship amidst varying power differentials. Another is the by-now old idea of “studying up.”

In times when writing vignettes about an action centering on organizers and activists may not be the best way to talk about our interlocutors, it would make the most sense to turn our gaze and study “up” from the perspective of our comrades on the frontlines. When Shah argued that participant observation was “a potentially revolutionary praxis,” she meant that it encourages us to “question our fundamental assumptions and preexisting theories about the world” and better “understand the relationship between history, ideology, and action.” For Shah, ethnography is more than a method—it is our praxis. Through this praxis we can encounter theories of action and social change while living the solidarity with communities that many anthropologists propound. From the eyes of those on the ground, it is actually quite easy to see the links between settler colonial genocide and the destruction of the environment, between slave catchers and riot cops, between broken windows and for-profit prisons, between redlining and profiling. Training an investigative and critical eye on the structures that oppress and divide is critical both to revealing such processes and to helping allies, accomplices, and comrades find common cause against the next common enemy.

Viewing that January day from the barricades, after all, included seeing the beautiful work of activists, but also witnessing the resolute force of the state. I saw the inspiring convergence of a collective response to hate as well as the face of an emboldened far-right. One only need shift her gaze to enable different ways of seeing and representing the space of political action. And as anthropologists, there are always many ways of engaging with an experience, and being at the barricades does more than let you see. A multi-sensorial engagement shows that there are many ways to encounter that day, from feeling the closeness of linking arms with trusting strangers, tasting hard-earned food from a communal kitchen, and the uplifting sounds of an anti-racist brass band to the smell of pepper spray, the dull thud of flashbangs, and the feel of police hands on protesters’ bodies. Emotions were there as well: the exhilaration of collective action and the fear of police violence, the compassion of street medics, the panic of news from the kettle, the angry and euphoric urgency of active resistance. As Tara Joly recently wrote about the work being done at Standing Rock, resistance is “a feeling, not a theory.” Protest is a multisensory activity, and as any anthropologist knows, there is no better way to understand what it’s like on the ground except to be there. Depending on the needs of the situation, one can also reflect on these experiences in different ways, highlighting activists or the forces they confront.

With direct action comes solidarity and mutual aid. This is also a place where bodies and voices are needed. Working quietly behind the protests and actions, networks of actors work to sustain the movement. Eight blocks away that day, police used flash bangs, pepper spray, tear gas, and riot shields to illegally kettle the anti-capitalist, antifascist march, beginning what has already been a long and draining series of felony charges, superseding indictments, a police raid on an activists’ house, and status hearings for over two hundred individuals whose trials will begin in two weeks [edit: six were acquitted in December, 129 had all charges dropped this Thursday – 59 people, including numerous local organizers, still face 60+ years in prison]. Since the Inauguration, a vast network of legal support and other forms of mutual aid have kept the promise of solidarity by working hard to keep these people out of jail. At every action there are media teams and street medics, jail support and legal observers, marshals and scouts, a complex configuration of people committed to doing the work. We can and should be among them, participating in our communities.

In calling for scholarly resistance through radical participation, I hope this can be part of a response to the problems of this time. There are countless ways to contribute, to act, to participate. This city alone has seen mobilizations around numerous causes. In Charlottesville, a diverse community came together to plan their own self-defense when the state failed to do so. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy several years ago, Occupy Sandy outpaced both FEMA and the Red Cross in some communities, demonstrating what direct action and mutual aid can do. In response to ascendant fascism, runaway capitalism, and disastrous climate change, what we need now more than ever is a radical, political, ethnographic sensibility that puts us on the ground and taking direct action.


At the Smithsonian

Quick note that a two-part piece of mine has been published at the Smithsonian Museum’s Collections blog. It’s called “Southwest Archaeology and ‘The Time of Vietnam’” – here’s part two. The post is about an archaeologist studying pueblos in Arizona who got help from the US military to photograph some sites during U2 training flights in the desert. It’s an interesting story, and one that has echoes of both the ties between the military and research of indigenous peoples and the connections between war and photography. The photographs are part of the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Here’s a little excerpt:

[One] thing that each photo shares is the mark of a small accessory attached to the camera: in the bottom-right corner, each image has a clock and a counter marking the time and number of the snapshot. Some visual anthropologists have analyzed not just the photographic image itself, but also the “micro-event of the making of the photograph” (Pinney 2012). The counter and clock here are such a “micro-event,” but they are also more: they are part of a whole apparatus that took and collected photographs of much of the world.

While I spent several hours following the roads and mountain ranges of the Zubrow photos, I was drawn mostly to the clocks and counters. I tried to decipher the numbers jotted alongside the counter and across the face of the clock. I got lost in making a chart and reorganizing images by time and by number (the photos are not dated, only time-stamped, and the collection is arranged alphabetically by pueblo name). I found myself wondering what images filled the gaps, and where the planes traveled when they weren’t photographing the American Southwest.


Check out the whole thing at the links above. The post and the research that went into it were part of Josh Bell’s Visual Anthropology course, which I took last year and which included a couple of visits to the NAA. Big thanks to Josh and to Caitlyn Haynes and Gina Rappaport of the NAA for their help.


The American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting is in DC this year, so thousands of anthropologists are descending on/near my neighborhood. I’ve been dropping the ball this fall insofar as keeping the blog updated with presentations (at PAC in DC and at ASA in Chicago, sorry), but here’s my AAA run-down.

Saturday, Dec. 2, 2:00-3:45p, I’ll be presenting “‘Come Home Messaging’ in a Counterinsurgency: Demobilization and Militarization in and around Northern Uganda,” part of panel (5-0880): “Understanding Violence: Cases and Analyses from Across Africa,” in the Marriott, Roosevelt 4

Abstract: Demobilization of armed groups typically happens en masse after the end of a conflict in an effort to prevent future conflict. In the efforts to stop the Lord’s Resistance Army in and around Uganda, however, demobilization has taken place during the conflict, targeting individuals to convince them to surrender. Sometimes conflated with defection, this process serves to weaken the insurgency and end the war as much as it aims to demobilize and reintegrate fighters. This elision merges what is typically a post-conflict intervention with a counterinsurgency effort, entangling these projects in temporal, relational, and political ways. This paper theorizes this merging by focusing on the ways humanitarian actors speak about demobilization and the ways that different humanitarian and counterinsurgency efforts overlap in terms of the ends they seek. Based on fieldwork, linguistic analysis, and interviews with humanitarians involved, I demonstrate how the demobilizing of armed actors can actually contribute to the militarization of the region.

In addition to my paper, I’ll be running around the AAAs all week, so I hope to see you. I’ll be live-tweeting a panel (2-0430), “Remoteness and Place-making as Social Practice,” Wednesday, 2:15-4:00pm, on behalf of Cultural Anthropology (where I’m a contributing editor now, icymi) and chairing the panel (4-0365) “Sex and War” (Friday, 10:15a-12:00p, Marriott, Jefferson) organized by Holly Porter. I’ve also been relentlessly promoting other events you should check out, and here’s an ongoing list of GW-affiliated presentations. There’s also, of course, a billion other panels, roundtables, meetings, and receptions to attend. Have fun with the whirlwind.

On Violence and Truth and Jon Holtzman’s Killing Your Neighbors

I recently read Jon D. Holtzman’s Killing Your Neighbors: Friendship and Violence in Northern Kenya and Beyond and found it really engaging, especially for my current and recent research projects. I added it to my reading list because I thought the title referenced the electoral violence in Kenya in 2007-2008 (I read it alongside other mass atrocity literature), but it’s actually about local (though perhaps just as violent) wars in northern Kenya and asks how community ties break down such that these wars are possible (and enduring). But it’s also about many other processes that are involved in violent conflict.

Holtzman’s ethnography is principally about the Samburu people, with whom he has done fieldwork in the past and has deep personal and scholarly ties, and in this book he studies the various incidents of violence between Samburu and their neighbors. By looking at wars, attacks, or massacres between the Samburu and nearby Pokot, Kikuyu, Somali, and Turkana groups, Holtzman also tries to map these incidents from “both sides” — attempting a sort of multi-sited (but never claiming “holistic”) approach to the study of violence. The central argument of the book is that there is a process through which neighbors are transformed from unkillable to killable people, and that “this transformation is a cultural and historical process rather than simply a material or political event” (4). Viewing violence as part of a cultural system, Holtzman spends much of the book analyzing how different groups and individuals talk about violence, situating such narratives and representations (including his own as the author) within the same contexts in which violence occurs. The ways people talk about, represent, interpret, and make sense of violence matter.

Most interesting, to me, is this last point, which runs throughout the ethnography. Looking at Samburu and Pokot narratives about the war between these two groups, for example, Holtzman admits ethnographic uncertainty (he doesn’t, and thus we can’t, ever know the “real” reason some of these incidents occurred, or what “really” happened) but also the uncertainty of war itself as combatants’ reasons for fighting don’t add up, or their timelines are off, or potential ulterior motives are revealed. In fact, in many of these incidents, his interlocutors agree on the basic facts of what happened, but they bring forth completely different interpretations of what these facts mean.

This is also seen in other examples: sometimes one group would read an incident through a particular historical lens while others did not: Samburu often saw violence with Kikuyu embedded in histories of Mau Mau killings of Samburu on settler farms, Samburu support for British counterinsurgency, and the subsequent marginalization of Samburu by the postcolonial government, while many Kikuyu interpreted the same current violence ahistorically to be about contemporary land issues, political inequities, and cultural “backwardness.” These incidents and divergences demonstrate the role of memory as a lens through which violence is understood. Meanwhile, Samburu saw a massacre committed by nearby Somalis as an unprovoked and major incident whereas many Somalis situated the event as part of a broader struggle against the British and then Kenyan governments. These different analyses demonstrate how interpretations of conflict occur at different scales – of time, space, population, etc. – depending on different subject positions and who you’re talking to (and, arguably, when and where and how).

One conceptual tool that emerges from these different narratives is that of “collective irresponsibility.” Holtzman inverts Evans-Pritchard’s notion of collective responsibility (a mode of solidarity) by noting that “one may assert that things done by members of our group do not reflect collective actions (although what is done by members of other ethnic groups can be subject to collective blame)” (62) and that “just as victims are prone to apply… ‘collective responsibility,’ perpetrators frequently adopt a stance of ‘collective irresponsibility’: the killers are people like us but not actually us” (100).

Collective (ir)responsibility is always situational, always a matter of who your audience is, always a matter of what the consequences or benefits of association might be. And in instances of violence — especially civil war or ethnic violence — these stakes can be rather high. If “violent acts not only do something but also say something” (165), then how people talk about or interpret violent acts is always in relation to whom that audience is. One thing I’ve been preoccupied with in my own research is how different groups – in different times and in different places – make sense of the same or similar acts of violence. This is something Holtzman reflects upon time and time again.

Given that I’ve been particularly interested in ways of writing about violence (and spent much of the spring thinking through the subject with some colleagues here at GW), I found Holtzman’s extended reflection on the ethnographic project to be useful and engaging. Take, for example, his conclusion to a chapter on different Samburu and Somali interpretations of what happened the day that a Samburu counterattack—a reprisal for the massacre of dozens of Samburu—resulted in the killing of a shiekh:

There is no resolution, nor perhaps should there be. At our best, anthropologists translate something meaningful about a world that we have grasped deeply, but subjectively and imperfectly, to an audience who will rarely fully grasp even that translation. There are no complete answers: there are incorrect versions and even offensive ones, but we, like our subjects, always see and portray worlds through gazes that are incomplete, if also in some senses true, though in stark contradiction to other “true” versions.


I am not simply trying to present an array of voices to demonstrate that different people are always going to disagree, nor to present a multitude of disagreeing voices that I as the anthropologist can resolve with monolithic conclusions about “what really happened” and “what it means.” Rather, I am aiming to explore what ethnography looks like when we embrace multivocality as an intrinsic aspect of our subject matter, an intrinsic aspect of the worlds our informants inhabit and live through, and thus necessarily an aspect of how we interpret the data. This is different from rehearsing a postmodern cliché of multiple truths; rather, it explores how our subjects act in accordance with a knowledge that these multiple truths shape their worlds (even if they do not acknowledge all of them as “truths”).


We [anthropologists] understand that the lives of human beings are a messy business, more so when, as in cases of violence, so much is at stake… rather than simplifying this messiness for the sake of analytical or theoretical clarity, we as anthropologists [should] embrace the ambiguities and contradictions within ethnographies that mirror, and thus more truly capture, the uncertainties in the world that our subjects (and ourselves) inhabit. (123-125).

And lastly, in the conclusion Holtzman reflects on the role of truth in war, reading Rigoberta Mechú, Tim O’Brien, and other narratives of war in light of the question of “true” representations of violence. But one reflection stuck with me as I grapple with my own research:

People have died in this book, a lot of people, and it doesn’t do them justice for me to slither off to my university job and get paid decent money to say that I don’t really know who is to blame, that maybe it is everyone or no one. Because someone killed those people, so to them, to their loved ones, or maybe to our sense of humanity, who did it and how it happened matters.

Or maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t… Sometimes blame isn’t really the point. A major issue here is the way the stories people tell about their wars contain understandings and misunderstandings of other groups that sow the seeds for future violence (197-198).

An ethnography of violence (or intervention or reconciliation or peace or–) might have multiple purposes, but if one is to tell what “really” happened, I’m not sure that will always be possible. War is messy; everyday life is uncertain. I think Holtzman’s book does a good job of showing us that uncertainty and sharing the stories that people tell. I don’t know what the best way to grapple with such uncertainty is – but I know I’ll be coming back to this book soon as I work through that question.

Connected by Radio

I spent a lot of this summer sitting in a small room in an NGO office, listening to a high frequency radio as people from across Haut Uele, one of the northeasternmost districts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would check in with one another about the security in the region. News would come in every day – sometimes everything was fine; sometimes there were concerns related to health, weather, or other hazards; sometimes there were security incidents involving rebels – and the network of radios posted across the region kept everyone informed.

As I transition from my previous work on FM radios to focus on the HF radio network, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the radio fits within the media ecology – the range of media options that people can choose from. When I described my research to one Congo scholar, he expressed confusion as to why the phonie system still exists since cell phones have largely replaced it. But then I remember watching a driver for an NGO wandering up and down the street trying to get a signal to call the office and ask if the road was clear for the last leg of my trip to my field site. He would call, the call wouldn’t do through, so he would take a few paces over to try again. Vodacom only reaches so far.

I then also remember being in a small rural town where a HF radio was being fixed. We stopped by to greet the chief and the NGO staff explained that they were fixing the radio; the chief seemed grateful and said it was important to keep the town connected to the rest of the region. Almost to emphasize this, as we left someone handed a letter to our driver, asking that he take it back to town. There are few reliable ways to send messages even to the next town. When I was studying FM radio, I found out that one of the radio stations I was studying had asked listeners to respond to a sort of questionnaire. While some responses came via SMS, many came via motorcycle taxi or a chain of family and friends.

In a place where getting news from the next town over can be difficult or can take time, the HF radio does a lot of work. I’m still thinking about what all of this looks like, and what it means to be connected amidst violence (see also). As I continue to fumble through a year of courses, grants, readings, and exams, I just thought I’d take a moment to think aloud on here. More soon.

Disrupt J20: Solidarity Six Months Later

Six months ago today, a diverse collection of autonomous direct actions occurred in downtown Washington, DC, disrupting the Inauguration. Despite he fact that January 20th signified the arrival of the Trump presidency, the massive turnout across the city and country made it a beautiful day of collective struggle against hate, white supremacy, misogyny, and xenophobia. From across the country, leftists of all stripes came together to resist Donald Trump’s presidency in defense of women’s rights, indigenous sovereignty, black lives, peace, bodily autonomy, trans/queer lives, the climate, health care, reproductive rights, labor rights, and other causes. Thousands of people came to DC from near and far. There were dance parties and blockades and marches all day. We set the tone for resistance from day one.

While I was holding the line at 10th and E with a growing crew of radical feminists, I also got news that riot police had kettled the anti-capitalist antifascist march just a few blocks north of us. Several friends had been up there, and I had planned to join them if our blockade at the gate had been dispersed. Busy with our own aggressive cops and Trump supporters, I didn’t see video of cops indiscriminately pepper spraying crowds – including the elderly, disabled, and children – and using less lethal crowd control on penned protesters until I got home. It wasn’t until the next day that I heard that they had been denied food, water, or access to a bathroom for hours. It wasn’t until months later that news came out that several were stripped down and subjected to invasive searches, and have since sued MPD for using “rape as punishment.”

The two hundred individuals caught up in the kettle that day now face about 70 years in prison for protesting. There is little evidence of individual wrongdoing; and some lawyers have argued that the case has “fatal defects” since many are simply charged for associating with those who destroyed property. The case is a prime example of the type of unconstitutional mass arrests that MPD used to be known for, but have since abandoned thanks for community organizing, legal support, and expensive settlements – that is, until J20. In both their use of pepper spray, stingball grenades, allegedly tear gas and flashbangs too, and in their decision to mass arrest a city block of protesters – and anyone else who happened to be in the area – MPD violated its own policies and broke the last decade of crowd control precedent in the District. DC’s Office of Police Complaints issued a report  [pdf] in February citing concerns that MPD may have violated Standard Operating Procedure, and the City Council already appropriated funds to investigate MPD misconduct and abuses that will cost the city more than all damages from the protest itself, not to mention pending civil cases that could cost the city millions like past police misconduct settlements. Despite all of this, interim police chief Peter Newsham, who oversaw crowd control that day and has been implicated in the illegal kettling of proteters in 2002 at Pershing Park, was approved as police chief by DC City Council a few months later over the wishes of many in the DC community.

Beyond the police repression that day, the prosecutorial strategy has also been one that seeks to punish people for engaging in protest. Superseding indictments brought the total list of charges for most defendants to eight felonies including rioting, incitement, and conspiracy charges. These charges effectively argue that people can be held responsible for the actions of those around them, positing guilt by association just for being there. “Evidence” listed include the fact that people wore black clothing, covered their faces, chanted, and marched. Even journalists and legal observers have been charged (some, but not all, had their charges dropped). Such actions aren’t illegal, but the prosecution is trying to leverage them as evidence anyways, arguing that there exists a form of criminal protest rather than specific illegal acts. This is not new: Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock protesters have faced state repression, and the J20 case is just the most recent. There will be more: lawmakers in numerous states have proposed laws ratcheting up the punishment for nonviolent direct action, specifically targeting forms of protest that seek to disrupt the norm.

In the face of all of this, those involved in J20, and a growing network of support, are working to show the true meaning of solidarity. In conversations leading up to the day of action, organizers promised to provide legal support for those who got arrested. When the scale of arrests and felony charges became apparent, this legal support structure didn’t back down, it was amped up. Solidarity and mutual aid are at the core of what makes direct action possible, and in DC teams of people are attending status hearings at the courthouse, paying for transport and providing housing options for those who have to make multiple trips to DC. While the state tries to isolate individuals and intimidate them with decades in prison, people have got each other’s backs. You should have their backs too.

Ways that you can help:

  • Donate to the DC Legal Posse to help provide legal support and defray costs
  • Donate to local legal support funds
  • Keep the pressure on MPD by calling for investigations into police misconduct and abuse
  • If you’re in DC, provide housing for defendants or show up for court support
  • Support anti-fascist work in your community
  • Spread the word that protesting isn’t illegal, mass arrests are

Things that you should read, watch, or listen to:

Fragments of Field Site History

I’m in the Congo for about three weeks doing fieldwork, after many more weeks of wrangling bureaucracy. A great deal of waiting eventually resulted in me hopping in a humanitarian Land Cruiser with a friend and enjoying a day’s ride that bounced, skidded, and rolled through puddles, humps, and potholes. Much of the drive looked like this, and the fact that we had no issues getting to our destination is due in large part to a skilled driver who knows the road. Along the way we stopped to call NGO headquarters to see how secure the roads were. At one point we passed a group of people with flags, palm fronds sticking up from motorcycles lining the road, as Faradje territory welcomed a ministerial visit (we weren’t it, and unfortunately one person dropped some bright flowers as he made a path for us to pass). With ministerial welcoming committees cleared and the security go ahead, we drove, and along the way we’d pass little army outposts or a truckful of park rangers. Eventually, we arrived in town.

After meeting some NGO staff I was dropped off at a sprawling UN compound, where I’m staying. The parking lot is lined with matching agency Land Cruisers and the perimeter is made up of prefabricated trailers and mobile homes. There’s also a small garden. I was led to my room, dropped my things off, and then wandered. The hallway of the living quarters is plain and sterile, but a few residents have made it their own with little signs taped to their doors, memes and inside jokes. I notice that my room number is thirteen.

A bridge on the road to my field site.

If all goes well, my dissertation research will be on high frequency radio networks that are used by rural communities to alert each other. When we stopped along the way to check about road security, it was thanks to this network. Built in the aftermath of a string of incidents in which the LRA killed hundreds of people, the network is supposed to act as an early warning system and help keep isolated communities connected. Many villages are in the middle of nowhere, stretched out in the dense forest with little road access. Getting word to people is not easy, and the radio network serves to allow operators to communicate. The road here was trying enough, and that was a decent path in an able vehicle. Some roads to villages are only footpaths in the jungle, and some villages are hardly visible through the foliage.

Four years ago I was here for a week and did only preliminary work on the same issues. I wrote a tiny bit about it, and it’s been a small section of my broader work on technology, humanitarianism, and conflict in the region. As I shift from FM radio to HF radio, from Uganda to Congo, from one research project to another, I’m facing a steep learning curve but it’s been good so far. The first week has included listening in on radio rounds, meeting folks involved in one way or another to the network, stumbling through informal interviews in French, becoming more familiar with the terrain, finding a surprise archive of letters, and filling dozens of pages of field notes. Next year, I’ll be back for the long haul, but for now I’m doing all that I can to see what’s possible in an area that I’m not so familiar with. I’m also piecing together fragments of a history.

A century ago, colonial authorities established a cordon sanitaire around the Uele region of Belgian Congo to protect the population from sleeping sickness which was a major health concern in other parts of the colony but not yet in this corner. Movement was restricted, the sick were removed and placed in prisons or quarantined villages that looked and felt like penal colonies (one referred to them as “death camps.” The colonial era letters cited in one article are rife with talking about Congolese as economic assets that need to be maximized. Even amidst epidemic and quarantine, rubber and ivory quotas were strictly enforced.

Half a century ago, some poor colonial officer stranded in the northeast corner of the colony built a large castle. According to Wikipedia, he was tasked with building a two-way bridge, but instead built a narrow one and used the rest to create a chateau. I’m sure there’s more to this story. Fifty years later the castle looks pretty beat up, vegetation is overgrown, and at the foot of it sits the UN peacekeeping office. That a colonial castle has turned into a foreign peacekeeping mission’s headquarters seems like a perfect metaphor, but for what I’m not sure. Down the road trucks rumble as they wait to clear customs and drive on up to South Sudan.

A glimpse of “Dungu Castle.”

Ten years ago this community had virtually no MONUSCO or FARDC presence. Once the LRA set up camp in 2005, things slowly began to change. The national army and the UN peacekeepers gradually deployed to the area – including a botched UN operation against the LRA that left eight Guatemalan peacekeepers dead – but they failed to protect civilians when the UPDF launched its own failed attack on the LRA, setting in motion a chain of events that include the Christmas Massacres of 2008 and Makombo Massacres a year later. It’s in response to these massacres that the early warning network was built, but it wasn’t built from scratch. It was expanded using an existing network of radios between mission stations and towns, and functions in a way somewhat reminiscent of radio networks in Kinshasa that predated the cell phone and telephone.

Technology always has a history, and an ecology. It’s also locally iterative and situated. Not just radio technologies but technologies of protection and security more broadly. Humanitarian technologies, military technologies, communication technologies. Technologies of memory, of connection, of risk mitigation, of preparation, of information. With luck, I’ll find some interesting things out while I’m here.

Making a Modern City

I left Gulu on Sunday morning to do a short stint of research and deal with some logistics for an upcoming trip. By the time I made it back to town on Thursday, it was evening and I was tired. I paid my boda driver and grabbed my bags, turning towards my hotel. The lights were off, which had been typical lately with so many power cuts, but the door was shuttered too. I noticed a small 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper posted on the door. As I read about how the hotel I had just stayed in was now closed for renovations, the owner approached me from his seat beside the building. A friend of mine since last year, he apologized and explained that they were remodeling some of the building and were temporarily closed. “You know, with city status coming, we wanted to spruce the place up a bit,” he explained.

Two weeks ago, I went to an open mic show at a cafe in town. In between performances, the emcee thanked several  notable patrons for attending the show. Among them was the owner of the new big supermarket. He mentioned, off hand, that her business gave Gulu “a real supermarket” that resonated with becoming a city.

Gulu town has been inching closer and closer to city status for years, and with it come particular notions of what a city is. I remember back in 2013, seeing news about the removal of thatched roof huts from town, also justified as part of the march to city status.

More recently, a number of buildings are marked for demolition in the name of safety but also in the name of making Gulu look like a proper city. In the Daily Monitor this week, a local division chairperson is quoted as saying, “We are taking this initiative of demolishing the dilapidated structures in preparation for a city status. We cannot have a city with this kind of dilapidated structures.” In addition to several dilapidated buildings deemed structurally unfit by engineers several years ago, several thatch-roofed buildings are slated for removal too.

I don’t know much of the details of what’s been going on in town. I’ve heard stories of how, when the new main market was built, many vendors couldn’t afford rents there but were also being pushed off of land as the old outdoor market was razed. The streets winding outside of town in neighborhoods like Pece are well-paved with sidewalks and medians. It feels like every year when I come back here town has changed quite a bit, and keeps changing.

Demolishing or fixing buildings that are unsafe is one thing; erasing traditional buildings from the urban landscape is another. Gulu will likely attain city status next year. But what does it mean to be a city? What does a city look like? And whose city is it?

Arriving Late, Studying After

Northern Uganda has been post-conflict since the 2006-2008 peace talks, during which the LRA rebels retreated into havens in South Sudan or relocated to greener pastures in the Congo. From my first trip here in 2010 until now, the region has seen steady progress.

“The guns are silent,” many Ugandans like to say. And while this isn’t totally true – insecurity and occasional bouts of violence have occurred here and there in the intervening years – the guns associated with the rebels are hard to hear anymore. The LRA are hundreds of kilometers away now, for the most part, and in northern Uganda life seems to be moving along.

Every other Monday for the last year and a half, there’s been a small reminder on the airwaves. A radio station in Gulu town hosted a program – one of the come home radio programs that I study – wherein former rebels would go on air and tell their stories. The goal was to paint a picture of demobilization and reintegration, the final steps of a story that began with violence, abduction, conscription.

After telling their stories, the returnees would be asked what messages they had for those rebels who remained in the bush, for their fellow returnees in Uganda, and for the community at large. To the rebels, these returnees invariably called for them to come home, to surrender, to demobilize. To the returnees and to the community, they often warned against problems that affect much of society – everything from violence to excessive drinking – and tried to promote reconciliation between former rebels and the broader community.

I’m here in Uganda to continue this research. It’s a sort of a launching point to start/continue my next project. But lo, on the drive up to Gulu I got an e-mail from an interlocutor saying that the radio program I studied was no more. It had ended just weeks before I arrived, amidst funding cuts. When the U.S. military officially withdrew their troops from the counter-LRA operation in Central African Republic last month, all of the associated funding streams – including money that paid for a radio program in Uganda – left with them. As recently as late May people were hoping that the funding would stay for at least a little bit after the troops left.

Uganda has been firmly post-conflict for a decade. Amidst that, there have been a number of radio stations over the last few years that reached out to rebels across the border or to returnees amongst the civilian population, calling for reintegration. The afterlives of the war were always very present on the airwaves, for better or worse. But we might be seeing the end of come home radio, at least in Uganda.

As I prepare for my next project, and as I fill in the gaps of my radio research, I’m left thinking: how does one study the aftermath of an aftermath?

Why Protest Pride?

Activism is nothing if it isn’t intersectional. If feminism is principally about challenging oppression, resisting patriarchy, and ending inequality, then what is the point of a feminism that is exclusionary? Why struggle for gender equity if it only applies to the wealthy? What is class consciousness that isn’t aware of race and gender and other differences? Why fight for gay rights if you’re going to abandon trans allies? How can you see liberation realized if you don’t stand up for queer rights? A truly intersectional politics should be about ending all forms of oppression and inequality, which means centering those most marginalized.

I’m not in DC right now. I’m on a plane. But today a group of radical queer activists and their allies – a group that I’m a part of – is protesting the Capital Pride parade, demanding that DC’s Pride celebration – ostensibly in commemoration of Stonewall – remember that queer and transgender people were at the center of that riot in 1969 and should not be left behind.

There is a long history of queer people protesting Pride, most recently in my hometown when the group Trans Queer Pueblo interrupted the Phoenix Pride Parade, wedging themselves between the police contingent of the parade and the sheriff, demanding that Pride not include police that racially profile and facilitate deportations and that it reject funding from Bank of America, which is invested in private immigration detention centers that hold LGBTQ immigrants (video of that protest here).

 The event that Pride commemorates was the Stonewall Riot, a riot of queer, trans, and gay people, led in part by trans women of color, against a police raid on a gay bar and homophobic and transphobic state violence in general. That doesn’t necessarily mean Pride has to be a riot, and celebration is certainly a form of protest, but this history does mean that those celebrating the movement that started at Stonewall should not leave queer and trans folks behind, and it should be a reminder that state violence is not a friend of the LGBTQ movement. A truly intersectional gay rights movement is not only inclusive of queer and trans communities, but also acknowledges that some LGBTQ people are also people of color, immigrants, indigenous, disabled, or members of other communities (If you watch the video from Phoenix, at one point a parade-goer shouts “this is not your day,” as if undocumented immigrants can’t be gay.) If it’s not intersectional, it’s not real liberation.

It’s clear that Capital Pride needs the reminder.


Today, No Justice No Pride will be holding Capital Pride accountable for disregarding the concerns of queer and trans people in DC. There will be a rally at 3 at McPherson Square to celebrate the LGBTQ community’s radical roots. There will be an alternative Pride march which is family-friendly and just as celebratory as Pride but without all the egregious problems I list below. People will also be protesting at Pride itself. Tonight there will also be a QT Night of Healing and Resistance centering queer and trans experiences and promoting the work of organizations and artists in the community instead of corporations and celebrities that aren’t local or LGBTQ. These alternative events are rooted in DC’s queer communities and are committed to the radical foundations of the LGBTQ movement.

No Justice No Pride already pointed out that an executive producer of Capital Pride, Bryan Pruitt, had penned a transphobic column in 2016 that said activism centered on trans access to public facilities such as restrooms was based on a lie, arguing that “there is not an epidemic of trans people being denied access to public facilities” because “if they are truly trans, other folks don’t even notice.” Pruitt was fired after No Justice No Pride brought this to light.

That is a step in the right direction. But Capital Pride offers only small concessions and has refused No Justice No Pride’s broader critiques of how the parade is run. While Pride should center the diverse gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and queer communities that are a part of this movement and this city, the event seems more focused on giving platforms to sponsoring corporations, many of which benefit from the status quo and even contribute to the oppression of queer and trans people rather than work towards a more equal future. Here are just some of the reasons that Capital Pride is not something to be proud of.

The Metropolitan Police Department is included in the parade despite the fact that policing as an institution has always preyed on the LGBTQ community. The modern gay rights movement began after a police raid at Stonewall, and policing of queer spaces, trans bodies, and gay rights in general continues across this country. MPD in particular has been accused of disproportionately targeting and harassing trans women [pdf] through its implementation of “Prostitution Free Zones” in the past (the zones were repealed in 2014) and a 2015 report noted that the violence that the trans community in DC suffers includes “inhumane treatment of trans persons by members of the police” (49).

That same 2015 report, from the DC Trans Coalition, notes that “certain segments of the trans community are not only at a much higher risk of violence but are also at a significantly higher risk of violence at the hands of police and other agents of the state” and that “over a third of respondents who had interacted with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) as a trans person reported experiencing disrespect” (76). Crucially, “among all respondents, and not exclusively those who had interacted with MPD as a trans person, the majority (56%) reported not feeling comfortable approaching the police” (76). A review of MPD’s Hate Crimes Assessment Task Force found that, with the exception of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, “most transgender people do not trust the police” and that “the reported treatment of transgender people by MPD officers is a matter of serious concern” (4). These same police will be participating in Capital Pride, meaning that Capital Pride is not welcoming to the trans community. Capital Pride would rather help pinkwash the police than listen to trans concerns.

But, while it is not a safe or welcoming place for people who are trans, Capital Pride is very welcoming to corporations. Pride in many cities has become less about celebrating the progress of gay rights and more about celebrating capitalism. This led one writer in The Advocate to denounce that “the only audacity in modern pride now is its naked devotion to the almighty dollar. No better examples of this is Washington, D.C.’s Pride celebration and parade, Capital Pride.”

Several corporate sponsors of Capital Pride include banks such as Wells Fargo, which is not only well-known for a history of redlining, illegal foreclosures, and preying on poor communities, but is also a direct investor in private prisons. The criminalization of trans people is an ongoing problem that has resulted in the mass incarceration of the trans community, especially trans people of color. The National Center for Trans Equality reported [pdf] in 2015 that 1 in 6 transgender people have spent at least some time in jail, including nearly half of all black trans people. If LGBTQ liberation means a world without police and prisons, then Pride should model that vision, not promote those who invest in and benefit from oppression. Wells Fargo is also an investor in the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens the land, livelihood, and sovereignty of indigenous communities, including people who identify as LGBTQ or two-spirit.

As one critic of the corporatization of Pride argued in 2015, “As queers become ever more accepted into mainstream society, we should use our newfound political and economic clout to demand equity for the least privileged among us, not abandon those still marginalized in our quest for a bigger, badder party. If Bank of America wants a Capital Pride sponsorship slot, let it fund a shelter for homeless trans youth first.” As one No Justice No Pride organizer put it, queer and trans people should be able to attend and participate in their local pride march “without funding our own oppression.”

In 2012 and 2013, protesters interrupted the Wells Fargo float in Capital Pride for these exact reasons, cutting off the float in the middle of the parade and dancing in front of it. Last year GetEQUAL submitted a petition demanding that Capital Pride drop Wells Fargo to “get prisons out of pride.” These critiques are not new, but nothing has changed. When Capital Pride says that No Justice No Pride’s critiques are being received too late to make changes this year, this dismisses years of organizing in the DC community that have been saying the same thing over and over again.

Defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Gruman are also sponsoring Capital Pride, despite the fact that they have proudly done business with countries where homosexuality is punishable by death, such as Saudi Arabia, for decades. Some of the money they give to Capital Pride comes from these governments, states that kill people for being gay or gender-non-conforming. On top of all of this, the pinkwashing of military contractors tries to convince us that bombs made by a gay-friendly corporation are okay, when we should be fighting to end all wars.

Another prominent sponsor of Capital Pride is Maryland Live! Casino, owned by real estate developer The Cordish Companies and the vision of Reed Cordish, who is now an adviser to the Trump White House. Trump is, of course, no friend to the LGBTQ community, having recently rescinded federal protections for trans students through the Departments of Education and Justice. Just as people boycotted Uber over its CEO’s involvement in Trump’s transition team, people should not shy away from telling Cordish that cozying up with an administration that hurts trans people comes at a cost.

In response to requests from No Justice No Pride that such toxic sponsors be replaced with local, community-centered groups working directly with the LGBTQ community, Capital Pride has said that it would not be able to function without big money corporate sponsors. But saying that Pride would not be possible without the money of banks and corporations assumes a particular type of Pride – one that is not rooted in the community. Pride can be a protest and a celebration of the LGBTQ community without being sanitized and corporate. All you need is the community.

Capital Pride has also justified its refusal to change by insisting that it is an apolitical event, ignoring the history of the LGBTQ movement’s politics. But this assumes that striving for an “apolitical” parade isn’t itself a political decision. It assumes that shunning queer and trans voices is not political; it assumes that giving platforms to corporations and police is not political. But every decision involves taking sides. The problem is not whether Capital Pride is or isn’t political – the problem is its bad politics.

The truth is, Pride would not be possible without the radical gay, queer, and trans activists who have built the LGBTQ movement into what it is over decades of intersectional work that was often explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-police. The truth is, Pride is and has always been political, and should be committed to ending oppression. Today, protesters are calling for a truly revolutionary Pride and a return to the LGBTQ movement’s radical roots. Today, protesters are trying to imagine a more equal, safe, and just Pride for this city. The theme for this year’s parade is “Unapologetically Proud.” No Justice No Pride is unapologetically siding with the marginalized. It is unapologetically political and unapologetically radical.