With less than a month to go until Donald Trump and his bevy of far-right appointees take the White House, communities across the United States are preparing for a potential escalation in immigration raids, police repression, Islamophobic targeting, corporate exploitation and climate chaos. Many of those taking to the streets to protest fascism and preparing mutual defense plans in their neighborhoods were also actively organizing throughout the Obama years, which saw a record number of deportations, open-ended wars and the highest levels of imprisonment in the world.
In the following interview, activist, scholar and movement lawyer Dean Spade takes stock of this harrowing political moment and offers frameworks to help social movements navigate the treacherous waters ahead. Spade is an associate professor at Seattle University School of Law, founder of the the legal collective Sylvia Rivera Law Project and author of the book Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. His writing and organizing spans issues from prison and police abolition to queer resistance and global anti-militarism. Spade told AlterNet, “We need to support the people getting killed in the current systems, and figure out how to build the systems we need to get everyone everything they need. This empire is crumbling and we’re going to keep losing the crappy, insufficient infrastructure that exists. We need to build infrastructure we want.”
Sarah Lazare: You’ve argued previously that we should understand the U.S. government as being in a constant state of war. Can you explain what you mean by this?
Dean Spade: For the last several years, especially throughout Obama’s second term, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, writing and connecting with others about the ways that major institutions and politicians co-opt ideas or symbols or words from left struggles and deploy them to shore up the very institutions of oppression that left struggles are trying to take down. For example, toward the end of Obama’s first term he came out in favor of same-sex marriage and repealing the ban on lesbians and gays in the military to make his presidency look progressive when under criticism for drone warfare, targeting whistleblowers, not closing Guantanamo, deporting records of numbers of immigrants, continuing U.S. military imperialism globally and more. Obama used gay politics to brand himself as progressive, just as the U.S. military used the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the ban on women serving in combat to rebrand itself as a site of liberation and freedom when it is the most significant source of violence on the planet.
Understanding this way that institutions, public officials and corporations manage public relations is essential right now. Whether it is a bank promoting itself as gay-friendly or an oil company promoting itself as green, grabbing left movement ideas, symbols and words is a widespread, effective propaganda tactic right now. Especially during the Obama administration, I was interested in how we could fight this form of propaganda, how we could build tools to discern when various ideas and symbols from our movements were being cynically used to cover over the ongoing operations of violence our movements exist to dismantle. Especially when I saw straight people who are usually very clearly anti-war celebrating gay military service and all the pro-military propaganda that came with it, or feminists who usually recognize marriage as a mechanism of gendered social control celebrating same-sex marriage as a moment of liberation, I felt concerned about how harmful institutions that are under attack from our movements can rehabilitate themselves through shallow “inclusion” strategies.
One frame that I think can help us through this, which has been central to so many left movements across time, is to understand the relationship between the United States and both targeted populations and resistance movements as a relationship of war. Movements have articulated that the U.S. is at war with targeted populations, and that the U.S. government uses counter-insurgency strategy when approaching our movements. In other words, the U.S. acts like this is war, so we should, too.