Combating Oppression Inside And Outside

Note : Z Magazine’s January issue carried a report on the 2004 School of the Americas protest led by SOA Watch. This article concerns the anti-racist work done at that event by SOAW’s new Anti- Oppression Working Group. 

T here is a promising new development among social justice activists aimed at overcoming racism, a longtime barrier to unity. In the anti-war and global justice movements, activists from mostly- white organizations have been challenging oppression politics in their own practice. That means racism, in particular, but also sexism, homophobia, and other destructive forces.


Professional anti-racist training projects for whites have long existed. There is the 25-year-old People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, based in New Orleans, which offers intensive sessions conducted by experienced activists and organizers of color. There are church- sponsored projects like Crossroads, born in 1986. In San Francisco, the 12-year-old Challenging White Supremacy (CWS) workshop has regularly offered anti-racist training to thousands of primarily white social justice activists and others who want to get involved. 

 The new efforts are different. Most importantly, they emerged out of movements. The successful mass actions against the WTO in 1999, followed by the widely read article "Where was the Color in Seattle?," opened up movement debates about white privilege and organizing on a scale that had not existed in decades. The CWS workshop recruited younger generation global justice organizers to develop an anti-racism training program—the Catalyst Project, in the Bay Area—specifically for this new upsurge. Catalyst Project joined with thousands of white global justice, and later anti-war, activists around the country. Together they were struggling to understand white supremacy and bring anti-racism into the structure, strategy, and vision of their groups. 

The Colours of Resistance network, formed in 2000 in the U.S. and Canada, brought together activists of color and white anti-racists in the global justice movement to advance multiracial, anti-imperialist politics in their movement. The COR website has became an important tool, collecting essays and perspectives from what they refer to as "a collective liberation tendency." 

Over the past five years, dozens of organizations and networks have made commitments to anti-racist work. These efforts have often included training and support from groups like Catalyst Project, CWS, and People’s Institute. But activists within the groups have formed the organizing cores to lead the internal change process. Frequently people of color have played leading roles in the process. 

Some examples—and dozens now exist across the U.S.—include the Ruckus Society, United Students Against Sweatshops, and Young Religious Unitarian Universalists—all national organizations. Even some long-established organizations led by mostly older people have been moving to challenge oppression politics within their midst, like the War Resisters League. What is critical to understand is that for most of the activists leading these efforts, anti-racism isn’t just consciousness-raising. It’s an important step in developing a multiracial left movement in this country. 

SOA Watch offers one of the most recent examples of an organization incorporating anti-racist politics. For 15 years it has worked to close the U.S. School of the America in Ft. Benning, Georgia, which trains the Latin American military in all forms of brutal repression against their own people. Its graduates have directed and conducted torture sessions, assassinations, and massacres, with thousands of victims. SOAW’s annual protest at the School, which included 16,000 people last November, always attracts a wide range of people in terms of age, gender, geography, ableness, and, to some degree, sexual orientation. But it has always been almost totally white. 

SOA Watch Combats Oppression Politics 

S ince the organization’s goal is to abolish a powerful instrument of monstrous oppression, SOAW realized it had to look at any oppressiveness within its own policies and action. It had to develop an institutional analysis rather than just focusing on individual behavior. Failure to do so would prevent evolution of an anti-oppressive organizing practice. That, in turn, would not only be a violation of the commitment to social justice but also a strategic error, undermining the alliance building so vital to victory. 

SOA Watch, therefore, launched its Anti-Oppression Working Group three years ago, with a booklet, Compilation of Anti-Oppression Resources, a sexual assault team, and work on physical accessibility. Since the beginning, it has hosted anti-racism training at every major fall and spring event.

It was then decided to host an open forum where 80 SOAW people came together as a multi-racial, multi-generational group for a wide-open discussion. Participants raised many problems such as arrogant leadership, favoritism toward those who had done SOA jail time, women of color saying they felt marginalized, people of color wanting respect for different communication styles, and frequent disagreement about SOAW’s strict nonviolence guidelines. 

The forum had great impact. For the first time, it was not just the working group raising the issues. Suddenly there were way more people calling for support of the group’s anti-racist and anti-oppression initiatives. Now called the Anti-Oppression and Accessibility Working Group, it has published educational reading materials bilingually along with programs in Braille, in large print, and sign language (ASL) at all major events. 

Anti-oppression work was a centerpiece and a priority of the November 2004 SOAW gathering, with the usual agenda modified to make time for its various activities. The first day featured training in resisting sexual assault. Emphasis was then placed on whites learning to understand white privilege and other aspects of white supremacy, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. 

With that goal, the program included showing the documentary The Color of Fear and then a discussion led by Darren Parker, a Black activist and intellectual from Philadelphia. At least 350 mostly white participants attended. 

Near the end of the discussion, an important and universal message came from Rev. Graylan Hagler, senior black minister at two Washington, DC churches, who gave a fiery speech blasting the failure of many churches to educate their congregations about horrors like the SOA and take a stand against the repressive forces that prevail today (including "Christian Supremacy"). Given the strong religious presence in the SOAW, why aren’t church leaders doing more and what should be done to get them going? His message needs to be heard by churches everywhere.

Later came a paired presentation by this writer and Chris Crass, again to a primarily white audience., but smaller in number. After emphasizing that our goals were not what the "diversity industry" of corporate origin promotes, I offered a historical, systemic review of white supremacy and the militarism it has sustained as seen at the SOA. Then Chris Crass, a longtime white anti-racist trainer and Catalyst Project coordinator, stood on a chair and demonstrated vividly how white supremacy upholds white privilege. He placed his experience growing up with white privilege in a historical and institutional analysis and explained that while white people are structurally positioned to maintain their privilege, they also have a responsibility to end supremacy and join multi-racial movements to build a just society.  

None of the presentations drew signs of defensiveness from whites and some 20 people expressed appreciation after the second set. The smaller workshop seemed more productive in terms of interaction. 

People Of Color Caucus 

A t the end of the evening until almost midnight, some 40 people of color came together. There were twice as many women as men and participants’ backgrounds included China, Korea, India, Kenya, Argentina, Ecuador, three U.S. Blacks, five or six Latinos mostly from Chicago, and a Jewish-Mexican. At least six to eight were undergraduate students. 

Topics they wanted to discuss included internalized racism, identity issues, coalition building, and relations between Puerto Ricans and Mexicans/Chicanos. Individual recommendations to the Working Group included:

  • better outreach with more information to people of color about upcoming SOAW events including this gathering 
  • better Spanish translation 
  • having more grassroots Latin Americans come to speak about conditions in their country rather than U.S. visitors 
  • scheduling more times for people of color to get together 
  • a policy change that would mean "less of a we are saving them and more of a working together" 

One suggestion was to set up an Anti-Oppression People of Color Working Group to collaborate with organizations of color to close the SOA. 

Later a Latin American urged that the SOAW build closer relations with organizations in Latin America—let’s not forget they are the primary victims of the SOA and imperialist oppression. Latinos in the U.S., he said, can be doing much more in that direction. We could, for example, be supporting efforts to pressure Latin American governments to stop sending anyone for training at the SOA, a step that Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez recently took. 

The weekend saw small but important steps forward in the Working Group’s activity. You could feel a solid sense of commitment from dedicated white organizers, like Jackie Downing in the Bay Area, to mention only one person whose work sets a great example. 

Future work will move the struggle against internal oppression forward and bigger steps can be predicted. It won’t be easy or quick. There are few models or blueprints for this work. There is a lot of commitment and some good analysis out there, but not a lot of tried and proven strategies for transforming organizations. Those advocating it, as in SOAW, remain a minority. More dialogue between groups trying to do this difficult but important work could be a big help. Darren Parker’s comments (see box) make clear what are some of the other problems facing us all. But there is a new awareness among white activists in SOAW and other organizations across the country that the job must be done.

Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez is a Chicana activist, author, and professor. She has organized against racism and U.S. imperialism for 50 years and has published 6 books about social justice struggles in Las Americas. Thanks to Chris Crass for all his work on this article.