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Bay Area Intifada: Identity Politics with a Capital ‘I’

"Oakland City Of Dreams" Oakland Graffiti Art Dream. Photo by A Syn (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Oakland City Of Dreams” Oakland Graffiti Art Dream. Photo by A Syn (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s four in the morning, and we are sitting on my rooftop in Istanbul with Jabar, overlooking the Golden Horn. The conversation is racing at a mile a minute, from Taksim Square to Tahrir Square, to Jerusalem, Cape Town and finally, Oakland, California. We talk about the good friends we had, and good friends we lost along the way. Those with whom we shared the same opinions and barricades are recalled in kinship terms.

There are plenty of things to compare, too.

Jabar tells me how white anarchists who recently settled in Oakland feel intimidated by the exuberance of the local people of colour in their “safe spaces”.

I tell him how middle class Turkish professionals who were teaching yoga at Gezi park in the summer of 2013 got all the credit for the protests, while it was in fact Kurdish militants who were manning barricades day and night to make the occupation possible.

Our common concern is with “white allies” who show solidarity on their own terms, ignoring the counsel and opinions of those they are supposed to be showing solidarity with, and taking credit for actions they cannot own.

Jabar sees these white anarchists as settler pioneers who have spearheaded a tide of gentrification in his city. Not only have they gentrified Oakland, but they have also taken over the movement and diluted its potency. Their expressed desire to be well-meaning “allies” of the anti-gentrification movement has not detracted from the fact that their very presence has been damaging to the community.

Just like the liberal Turkish intelligentsia, who have the temerity to “demand” that Kurds lay down their weapons when they are being systematically persecuted by the Turkish Armed Forces.

“It is a colonial approach to activism and organising,” Jabar says.

These allegedly well-meaning allies force themselves into others’ movements without invitation and stumble around destroying everything they touch, like King Midas in reverse.

We run through the litany of failures presided over by Western political activists, journalists and NGOs.

To them, pushing for change is an institutional pre-occupation carried out on behalf of some nebulous and distant oppressed other whose welfare can be reduced to a pie chart or a catchy concept.

To us, it’s about our own flesh and blood who self-medicate to alleviate the depression of living in a nation which undervalues and persecutes them on account of their ethnicity. People who struggle to find work because of their accents, religious beliefs or the melanin content of their skin. What we need, rather than faux solidarity, is a space to come together.

The Bay Area Intifada project started after long conversations between Jabar, a long time resident of Oakland, and a Palestinian comrade. It provides an online environment where global discussion involving everyone who has an active interest in the politics and culture of decolonisation can take place. It is simultaneously an information hub, a sprawling network and a reporting project.

It might seem contradictory to hold faith that Facebook pages and Twitter accounts can achieve anything of substance, especially in this age of slacktivism. But Bay Area Intifada has emerged as a place for those who are looking to learn about the struggles of others, in order to better guide their own.

Their reporting from Turkey has been insightful indeed, especially in the aftermath of the deadly explosions at a peace rally in Ankara. After I had checked in with everyone I could think of in my hometown, I saw the Bay Area Intifada report:

It meant a great deal to have a brother on the ground who knows the fight from his own neighbourhood, who could extend solidarity to ours. It meant that our struggle lives on in Oakland, and Oakland’s struggle lives here. Rather than just passing on news, Bay Area Intifada has also done its own original reporting from Turkey:

For me, though, the most uplifting Turkey update has been pointing out how white settler colonial mentality is a common global problem all over the world:

The most moving aspect of Bay Area Intifada is its embodiment of a practice which poses a fundamental challenge to colonisation. We people of colour know very well what it means for our culture to be exterminated, our faith trampled for being “oppressive” by white liberal standards.

We are forced to feel ashamed of our names, our language, our spiritual connection to the world. But the same people who rob us of our traditions also appropriate them for profit and prestige.

Eastern religions are stripped of their significance to become add-Buddha-and-stir instant fixes for middle class Westerners looking to find their true north. Africans with cornrows or dreadlocks are branded as potential criminals in the eyes of polite society, while white people sporting the same styles are being celebrated as brave and cool.

To be truly effective, decolonisation has to take a different approach to fellow struggling cultures. Bay Area Intifada creates a hearth for people of colour to gather around and gift to one another the wisdom of their forbears. This is not the politics of half-hearted “allies” who pontificate under the cover of solidarity. This is the politics of kinsfolk.

At the end of our long conversation, as I walked my brother Jabar to a cab, he briefly summarised the spirit of Bay Area Intifada with cheerful succinctness. “Well,” he said, “it’s all about planting seeds.”

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