Gilets Jaunes: A slap in the face of our vocabulary

Photo: Aurélien Adoue

by shrese

Since the 17th of November 2018, a very intriguing movement started in France: The Gilets Jaunes (GJ, or yellow vests, after the high visibility vests that participants have been wearing). Much has already been written about this uprising. I am French, but live abroad, and many friends have asked me for my take on it. This is an expanded version of what I have been sending them.

This is not a “history of the movement”, relating its inception and different stages. That can be found elsewhere (although mostly in French). I just want to list some ideas that I have found interesting along the way. You will probably find that some ideas are in contradiction with others. That’s ok. It’s mostly because I am still unsure what to think of this movement. I have not been part of the movement although I have paid a couple of visits to a small group of GJ on a roundabout in a French village I passed through in late December 2018. This was mainly written mid January 2019.


The demography of the movement and its consequences
I am aware of two studies (one by Centre Emile-Durkheim and the other by Collectif Quantité Critique, also see this interview by sociologist Yann Le Lann) on the GJ movement trying to understand who the GJ are and what they want. One of them has been strongly criticised for its methodology and biases. The other one seems more solid statistically but I haven’t come across reviews of it.

However, both of the studies agree that the main demographic component of the GJ are people constituting the “first layer of included”, that is to say, not the poorest in society, but the layer above: workers and employees. Somewhere between the lower middle class and the working class (classes populaires in French sociological jargon). It is notable that for a large number of people (50% according to one study), this is the first social movement they have participated in.

The other main interesting point from these studies is that all political sides are represented in the GJ movement. This seems to be quite a unique feature compared to past movements. The two studies disagree in the numbers, but the most solid one shows (see below): 15% of the participants identify to the Left (shades of red on the left hand side), 11.5% to the Right (blue), 3% in the centre (yellow) and 51% are a-political (neither Left nor Right, dark grey). On the right hand side is shown who the respondents voted for in the first round of the last presidential election. There has been much debate around the influence/role of the far right in the movement. My take on it is that (1) the Far-right (or at least people identifying with the Far-right) has been instrumental in getting the mobilisation off the ground, at least in some regions (2) there are indeed local groups of GJ that are explicitly far right, (3) the National Front (now Rassemblement National) was and still is very strongly supportive of the movement and (4) opinions on migrants usually associated with the far right seem to be widespread in the GJ1. For all these reasons, many who identify as left-wing were quite reluctant to join the GJ on the blockades (at least at the start). I will mention here (as people specifically asked me this question) that there were racialised people on the roundabout I went to visit, as well as in the demo I witnessed in another city. There was also a very interesting call from a decolonial group to join the GJ movement in Paris. So, as far as my experience is concerned, this did not seem to me to be a white-only movement ripe with racism.

Source: Collectif Quantité Critique


What it says about the outdated rhetoric/practices of the Left

I will summarize here (or just plainly translate) one main argument developed in an article especially helpful to decrypt this movement.

The GJ movement, rather than being based on ready-made ideas, or on a shared class consciousness, depends above all on local socialisations, historical or present day, in cafés, associations, sports clubs, housing blocks, the neighbourhood… There are no certainties nor ready-made interpretations of the world, it is constantly on the verge of explosion or dissolution, fluid and adapting, free from the Left’s pathological intellectualism and idealism, and their fantasies of proletariat, historic subject and universal class.

In the same way that the election of Macron was another signal of the crumbling of social-democracy, the GJ movement shows the crumbling of the “communistes, (in)soumis, gauchistes, anarchistes, membres de l’« ultra-gauche » et autres professionnels de la lutte de classes ou porte-paroles radicaux chic” (I wanted to leave the French version here, it reads better. It’s essentially a sarcastic list of the different sections of “the Left”). The tenacity and early victories of the movement reveal the ongoing decomposition of the leftist movements and their obsession and rigidity with their own heritage/practices/language/posture.
Far from being an obstacle, it is precisely the ideological impurity of the mobilisation (which has been decried so much) that has, until now, allowed its extension and rendered obsolete the calls to convergence and unification coming from specialised activists and organisations. To the professionals of the leftist order and of the insurrectionist disorder, the GJ movement simply answers with an invitation to a journey. An invitation to a free participation as whoever one may be, disentangled from the material heaviness and past ideologies of instituted collectives.

On a separate note, it is worth mentioning that this article also suggests a central theme to the movement, mobility. The GJ movement is the first mass politicisation of the ecological question in France. This is why “labor” should not be thought as being at the centre of the situation (as the outdated left keeps on trying to). It reveals the ecological injustices (the rich are way more responsible of the environmental catastrophe than the poor) but mostly, it reveals major differences in relation to mobilité (as in, mobility, circulation, flow or movement, it is a difficult term to translate): “Rather than expressing a social position, it brings up mobility (and its different regimes, constrained or chosen, spread or concentrated) as the principal aim of the mobilisation, and, in blocking it, as the principal instrument of the conflict.”

Photo: Thomas Bresson

Gilets Jaunes, a right wing movement?
Drawing on this last point of “ideological impurity”, some interesting arguments coming from the Left have been made in fierce criticism of the movement. I have found these analyses useful, but I am actually not sure I agree with them.

In essence, the idea goes like this:

  • This movement shows a strong rejection of political parties, unions and “the system” in general,

  • In the polls, as well as reclaimed by numerous GL themselves, the category defined as “a-political” (neither Right nor Left) has strongly emerged,

These two characteristics reproduce, or are reminiscent of, the neoliberal project, a project that:

  • Aims at delegitimising (and destroying) the institutions of regulations of the economy, the unions, the social security and the welfare state in general

  • Is hammering in our consciousness that politics is dead, ideologies are useless, there are no limits to anything (“nothing is real!” as the parody of postmodernism goes).

Another way to put it is that the GJ is the mirror response to Macron who, during his election campaign, presented himself as the theoretician of the “en même temps” (“at the same time”), as in: I am on the Left and on the Right at the same time, implying that these are old and useless categories, the “Old World” as he put it.

When there is no -ism, we adopt colours”: the yellow vests, the red hats (another past struggle in France), the Orange revolutions in Eastern Europe, the red scarves (the recent counter-GJ mobilisation in Paris)… This absence of political tradition could also explain why so much of the imaginary of the French revolution is called upon during the movement: a return to basics (ie, to the official history learnt at school).

A further interpretation is to find similarities between the GJ and what is now deemed as “populist” (commentators tend to put all sorts in this populist bag: “illiberal” democracies, Brexit, Trump, Orbán, Putin, Mélenchon, Podemos etc.). The similarity lies here in this shared narrative of the “good” people set against the corrupt elite/cast, the rejection of the “system”. What some see as problematic is that, here, the “people” is seen as some sort of a homogeneous group, and the main confrontation in society is between the people and this “elite”. The other lines of potential conflict (class, sex, race…) are not considered, hidden or consciously put to the side.

This is more or less what I was told on the roundabout: “We do not talk about the sensitive stuff”. In contradiction to that, I did witness discussions on “hot topics” (sexism for example) in that same group, and even though there were some quite contradictory points of views expressed, there was an amount of care, ability to listen, non-judgement and non-resentment that exceeded a lot of the activism-related spaces I have been into. The people I talked to said that they wanted to avoid arguing because they want to be as open as possible, and they do not want to be divided. As if the fact of being together on the roundabout meant much more than the political identity of the group and/or its demands.

These three aspects (the vision of the people as a homogeneous group where the only line of contradiction is with the “elite”, the self-identification as “a-political”, and the rejection of ideologies) is also problematic for another researcher, Samuel Hayat. For him, it is an imaginary where politics is replaced by a series of policies, the neoliberal dream. Both the GJ and neoliberalism are telling us that we should rid ourselves of ideologies, and that politics should be seen as a list of problems to solve, separated questions to answer, boxes to tick. Another problematic aspect of this is the denial of the positive role of conflicts and contradictions within a movement and for “democracy”. However, Hayat is on the whole very supportive of the movement and hopes it will find a way to use its internal contradictions to build power.

Some on the Left push this interpretation to the extreme, for example the Collectif Athéné Nyctalope. They see the GJ movement as essentially reactionary. They interpret the original impetus of the movement, and most of its demands (including the now most visible one: the inscription of a kind of Citizens’ referendum in the French constitution), as owing to the Far-right. Because portions of the Left are supporting/taking part in the movement, this would be tantamount to making alliances with the Far right and fascists, basically using the principle that “the end justifies the means”. As a support to this view, this collective draws extensive comparisons between the GJ movement and the M5S in Italy.

In this vein, the following point is also interesting. To increase one’s available income, there are two main options: increase your pay, or decrease your tax. The GJ have mostly focused on decreasing taxes, which could be argued is a typical right-wing demand, facilitating the kind of disturbing alliances seen on the ground (with shop owners, heads of small companies, local right-wing politicians, far-right…).

Its tactics, practices and “victories”

The blockades

As far as I know, these were used on the roads/highways, at tolls and, most famously, at roundabouts (which are very numerous in France). This tactic of blocking the fluxes (transport of goods, people, money, information…) was particularly pushed by the Invisible Committee (see The coming insurrection and the Chapter “Power is Logistic. Block Everything!” in To our friends), and it is now particularly interesting to see it taken up so “naturally”. So you could say: “the Invisible Committee was right!” or “the GJ are highly politically conscious of the situation and know what to do to influence it”.

Decentralisation

This has been the practice as much during the big national days of action in Paris (every Saturday since the start of the movement), as well as at the national scale. In Paris, as far as I could gather, there was no real central banner, no head of the demo, no core group, no stewards (this has actually changed recently, with main banners and some sort of stewarding in places, but the last Saturday in Paris still saw five independent demos). The level of militancy reached very high levels, including in previously untouched areas of Paris (even in the protests of 1968, the rich quarters of Paris stayed intact). But Paris has not been the centre of the movement by any stretch. All regions, cities and towns of France had their group of GJ, strongly anchored in their territory. It has so far been impossible to establish some kind of physical, organisational or even symbolic centre to this movement.

Refusal of representation

A reflection of this decentralisation is the knee-jerk reaction of hatred by the GJ for any attempts at representation (no legitimate representatives, no official spokespersons etc.). Despite many efforts, self-proclaimed leaders have so far been quickly de-legitimised and even threatened, unions and political parties very much pushed to the side. Some interesting calls for coordination (as in, not convergence nor unity nor centralisation) were proposed, but I don’t know how much they were followed and how big the risk of institutionalisation/recuperation would be if they were2.

Victories

Because of all this, the media don’t doesn’t know how to report on all this. Most of the GJ are not the usual suspects of social movements/unrests (lefty activists, students, trade unions, the youth of the banlieues etc.), so journalists are lost and cannot use their usual clichés. They don’t know what to say, nor how to understand it. The movement is really popular and enjoy large support (even after the very riotous Saturdays) so it’s difficult for them to completely bash it. As there is no central organisation or official spokespersons, the media need to go to random people to know what’s happening. So you end up hearing voices, accents, seeing bodies that you never find in the media. This is the case in terms of class, but also of gender. Indeed, official representatives of social movements tend to be mostly men, therefore women are more visible now than in previous movements. The previously cited studies show that there are as many women as men involved in this movement, there has even been a Women’s GJ demo on Sunday 7th January.

I have never seen a government showing so much fear. They talked about insurrection, an unprecedented crisis, a toppling of the republic, about risks of death during demos, they warned and even threatened people not to go to the national days of action in Paris. Of course, the rhetoric of fear could also just be an act, but it’s the first time I have witnessed this. The repression is extremely violent, fierce (many documented severe injuries due to shots of rubber bullets to the face, for example) and orwellian (thousands of pre-emptive arrests on charges such as “gathering with the intent of committing violence”), this could also be a sign of fear. The government also seems totally lost with the decentralised aspect of the movement: They tried to get delegates to come and negotiate with them. So some self-proclaimed people went, but were immediately repudiated online by other GJ. However, interesting to note, when these self-proclaimed spokespersons had their meetings with ministers and others, they filmed and livestreamed it, which was a first.

To stay on the subject of the repression, there is something with the GJ movement and its relation to the police that seems quite interesting to me. As already mentioned, the movement shows a wide diversity of political opinions, including far-right people. Therefore, a lot of people on the blockades do not necessarily share this natural hatred of the police, they may see them as their “comrades”, talk to them, feel connected to them (although I’m not sure how widespread this still is after the violent police repression). On top of that, as the GJ can hardly be perceived as the usual suspects of social movements, it must be confusing for some police to bash at people they would never expect to face (including other fascists). Is it possible that at some point some police will refuse to keep on gassing and beating them up?3 It is also interesting to hear police unions saying that they are at breaking point, exhausted etc. (they even threatened to start their own movement in December and got immediate pay rises).

Photo: Patrice Catalayu

Conclusions

To conclude, it could be argued that the GJ have a very acute strategic sense of the political situation. A first sign of this are the actual victories/retreats from Macron that the movement achieved. These are more impressive than most of the concessions secured by the social movements I can think of in the last three decades (even though, given what is at stake, they are of course pretty insignificant).

This is without mentioning the other kind of victories: the level of militancy and confrontational practices, the obvious fear instilled in the government and the state (hard to measure how much businesses and neoliberal proponents were scared), the social question put at the forefront of the ecological question (i.e., the ecological transition has to include the social question, not just increase tax on fuel that will mostly impact on the poorest without any systemic change), the significant and meaningful human relations (and “political consciousness” for lack of a better word) created during the movement.

Let’s focus a bit more on this latter point. This was very much confirmed by my visit to the roundabout. Not only were the local groups of GJ based on already existing relations (neighbourhood, village, social or sport clubs, families…), but what seemed to be essential to the people there was to finally get to talk to new people around them, break the isolation, discover each other: “I don’t know them but we talk to each other”. Anything that helps us filling the emotional desert we find ourselves in everyday… even better when it’s in confrontation with a system, or rather, a mode of life. One GJ said on a TV debate: “Mais tout est scandaleux ! – But everything is outrageous!” when asked what kind of reform the government should make to appease the movement. I loved this. It’s about everything, the way we live, the way we relate to others and the world around us… (I realise that I am here suggesting what could be “the” central question of the GJ movement, but actually I’m struggling to find the usefulness of debating this central question. Everything has already been said and proposed anyway: mobility, recognition of work, arrogance of the elite, feeling of not being listened to and humiliated, living in regions abandoned by the state, contraction of wages and “spending power”, populist/far right agenda…).

Following from this, a useful text argues that, because the spirit of a movement sits more in its tactics/practices than in its demands/ideas, the GJ movement has brought to the forefront the political potency of the localité (locality in English, the text also uses the term commune). As already mentioned, the localité is where the movement started, but the movement also “made it the central point of emancipatory politics again”. It is the “potential nucleus of a coming political subjectification, antagonist to the present and future spheres of representation”.

Shrese is from France, has lived abroad the last decade and is sometimes involved in the housing movement, amongst other things. He likes the Invisible Committee a lot and tries really hard to not treat their books as the bible.

1. This is based on a general impression and on one of the questions asked in the study of the Collectif Quantité Critique: 48% of respondents think that, when it comes to employment, priority should be given to a French person over a legal migrant. So all in all, my point (4) may not be so strong.

2. As an update, as of the 29th January 2019, it seems that this initiative was a success, at least in terms of number of collective present (75), but from the sound of it, the discussions sounded complicated.

3. There has already been signs of solidarity to the GJ by the police. Eric Hazan says that the successful uprisings are the ones where, at one point, some police/army forces have flipped in favour of the movement.

There is no wilderness in Kiruna

Kiruna at midnight. Photo by Rut Elliot Blomqvist

by Rut Elliot Blomqvist

Kiruna/Giron, July 1st, 9 pm. The sun won’t set tonight, nor for another couple of weeks.

The recorded voice of Hans Forssell, a state attorney, booms from the speakers of the festival stage Cityscenen. A group of people are shouting “Jannok, Jannok!”, drowning out the contemptuous, racist crap from a 2016 court case between the Girjas reindeer herding community and the Swedish state.

Sofia Jannok enters the stage to the sound of the cheering audience. Kiruna has been a mining town for 127 years, and the state-owned company LKAB—Luossavaara Kirunavaara Aktiebolag—has long been and is still a key contributor to Swedish state wealth. Jannok’s stage at Kirunafestivalen has a view of both the Kirunavaara/Gironvárri mine and the surrounding mountains and woods where Sámi people lived for about ten thousand years before the crown and state of Sweden took an interest in these lands, and where Tornedalian farming settlements coexisted with Sámi culture for several hundred years before Swedish colonial settlements were established in the 17th century.

The Kirunavaara mine. Photo by Håkan Sandström

 

Jannok’s drummer hits the snare drum in the march-like intro to the song “This is my land – Sápmi”. Jannok points to the mine and sings: “If you want to ruin it all with big wounds in the mountain, then you’re not worthy listening to this song”. This line leads into a power yoik—yoik being the traditional Sámi vocal style which Jannok mixes with pop music, creating an evocative and original sound—which seems to me to embody both the anger and the joy someone feels when they fight to protect what they love. Her voice and her eyes express grief and loss, and then happiness and love; despair and anger, and then a fierce, euphoric fighting spirit—moving seamlessly between these inseparable feelings. In “I ryggen på min kolt” (“Backstabbing my gákti”), Jannok again points to the mine, singing: “Att sälja landet åt gruvor kallas folkmord”, “To sell the land to mines is called genocide”.

Before the song “Čuđit – Colonizer”, Jannok talks about the last time she arrived at Kiruna airport where she remembers a sign that read “Välkommen till Europas sista vildmark”, “Welcome to the last wilderness of Europe”. She observes that wilderness means unpopulated; the sign at the airport suggests that Sápmi and Tornedalen were empty before they became part of the Swedish state. Jannok says, “there is no wilderness”: “Who do you think named these mountains, in several languages?”. People were living with the land and gave places names in Sámi and Meänkieli (Tornedalian) before others came to colonise the land.

Čuđit – Colonizer”

Never empty, she was never wild

Stolen cruelly away from her child

Taken care for thousands of years

In seconds she’s ruined seas to seas

Kiruna, or Giron in northern Sámi, means ‘snow grouse.’ Not incidentally, Jannok sings a song called “Snow grouse – Ii leat ivdni mus” which is about surviving:

Invisible though I’ve always been here

Like a snow grouse I fly though they want me to die

 

The crowd at the festival. Photo by Håkan Sandström

To my left, three young people in colourful, patterned gákti—the Sámi regalia—are dancing with a Sámi flag.

Behind them, there are a few older women in blue gákti.

To my right, a middle-aged man is standing alone, dressed in a smart checked shirt, jeans, and a black cap decorated with reindeer and a small Sámi flag. He removes his glasses, to wipe away what seems to be tears.

When I turn around to view the huge crowd, two women behind me who are dressed in contemporary European fashion speak—to me, I think—in a northern Swedish accent, saying “Hon är så jävla bra”, “She’s freaking awesome”.

Closest to the stage by the fence is a line of young girls, many with Sámi handicraft—Duodji—handbags.

A few people in their twenties and thirties, seemingly a bit drunk, are dancing in front of me without paying much heed to the people around them, and two of them know the kids by the fence and sometimes hug and dance with them. Some of the kids don’t seem entirely happy about this.

To the left of the drunken dancers, three people form a kind of line by hugging each other, watching and listening intently to Jannok.

A bit behind me on my right there is a group of people whom I read as queer. One of them is wearing a “don’t assume my gender” t-shirt.

Between two of her songs, Jannok talks about “the strong souls who held on so that I can stand here now”.

Sofia Jannok. Photo by Håkan Sandström

Before one of the last songs of the gig, Jannok says, “Whatever happened yesterday, you are still here”.  She presents the song through a powerful image: When horrible things happen, you take the hate this awakens and you close your fist around it like around a small stone, and you hold it there until it has become love and then you open your hand and let the love come out. You spread love. That’s how you survive; that’s why diversity and goodness still exist in a colonial world; that’s how we are still here. Then Jannok sings “We are still here – Mii leat dás ain”—which is also the name of the tour.

After “We are still here”, a big group of people near the stage shout what I would venture to guess is “one more time” in Sámi. Someone comments in Swedish that half of Sápmi is there at the gig.

I feel a bit introverted, hiding in my hoodie, wanting to be in a quiet place to think and feel everything Sofia Jannok’s concert has made me think and feel.

I don’t know if the people around me are representative of Sápmi, or of Tornedalen—the Torne river valley—or of Kiruna/Giron. Regardless, these people remind me that there are all kinds of people everywhere: in Gothenburg in the south where I currently live, in Sápmi and Tornedalen, in Kiruna; in an urban core, in Indigenous and other local communities, in a mining town.

I think about something Jannok said during the concert: “I wish that no one would ever have to argue with the state or with anyone else, saying ‘yes, I do exist’”. All of us exist and we are all different. She called the audience her rainbow and sang “Jag är regnbågen på din näthinna”—“I am the rainbow you see”, or “I am your retina’s rainbow”. This is a theme Jannok returns to over and over again, like in “I ryggen på min kolt” which concludes with the words “Colours exist because everyone’s here”.

Leaving the festival, walking back to my father-in-law’s flat in the midnight light, I wonder if anyone wearing a gákti will be harassed or beaten tonight, remembering the line from Jannok’s song “Čuđit – Colonizer”: “Go gávtti biggo šaddá návddiin diggot”, “Wearing your gákti means dealing with beasts”. I wonder if anyone will be sexually harassed or raped tonight—sexual harassment and rape have haunted Swedish festivals this summer, as they have always done. I wonder how many lonely people will get wasted and break down tonight, here in the area called the Vodka belt where talking about your feelings isn’t always a priority. I wonder how many angry, underprivileged men will bond over racist comments about the Sámi and refugees tonight.

I wonder why some people, in particular here in the north, channel their despair, grief, loss, loneliness, and anger in the form of hatred towards the Sámi. That very few Sámi people have minor, relative privileges compared to some other underprivileged groups in the north seems like a simplistic explanation. I wonder if this hatred isn’t also about a kind of jealousy: maybe people envy the Sámi for the Sámi sense of community. I know that, when Jannok sings about her love for the land and her people, I find myself longing for being in a community of people and land.

If a sense of community is what you want, no hatred is going to fill that empty space. Instead of spreading hate, it makes so much more sense to hold it in your fist until it becomes love and then spread that love. It makes so much more sense to build a local community with the people around you; to create your own story about injustice, extractivism, and colonialism; to define what you would demand from the state and other sites of power, and then join the Sámi in their struggle for local autonomy and land rights.

Just outside my father-in-law’s house, from the parking lot, I can see the closed Luossavaara/Luossavárri mine in the distance. The name means Trout mountain. I wonder who gave it that name once. It looks lonely.

Rut Elliot Blomqvist is a songwriter, musician, writer, and PhD student in literature and environmental humanities who thinks a lot about environmental justice, degrowth, and the mythologies of contemporary Western society. Ze particularly likes to combine storytelling, music and analysis with activism and farming in searching for ways to describe and build a good life for hirself and others.

Climate change is the social reality now

by Aarne Granlund

We are in the middle of November and I am writing an extended paper on Arctic hydrocarbon resources. Carbon budgets, temperature targets. There’s a low pressure system off the coast, hurricane-strength winds were measured on the Lofoten Islands.

I can see the stormy Norwegian Sea from my student flat window. Gale force winds pound the glass and horizontal rain pops against the building. I just took an online course on weather forecasting by the Royal Meteorological Society and University of Reading. I know what is happening.

Visualisation of a cyclone which shrank and diminished sea ice in the Barents Sea in the winter of 2015–2016 (NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio/Alex Kekesi).
Visualisation of a cyclone that shrank and diminished sea ice in the Barents Sea in the winter of 2015–2016. Source: NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio/Alex Kekesi.

The cyclone I am under will move along the Norwegian Arctic coast toward the anomalously warm Barents and Kara seas. More warmth, more ice melt, more ice melt, more warmth.

Weather is erratic in other Nordic countries too. Friends tell me Helsinki just got almost half a meter of snow, earliest onset of winter in decades. Today I’ve learned that all of it melted in days.

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Recent temperature anomalies in Bodø, Northern Norway. Source: Norwegian Meteorological Institute and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.

Scientists are worried. The story on Arctic weather and climate anomalies runs through the press against international political turmoil on the United States election of a climate change-denying president.

All of this feels unreal, chaotic and imminent.

I think we are past both hope and despair here. This is it. Control of the earth system is way beyond human reach. Arctic climate change has taken on a life of its own.

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Snow on the coastal mountains. I was fishing on the Norwegian Sea coast during the week. Photo: Aarne Granlund

The complexity of telling a story about climate change is staggering. It seems that many people bargain with their emotions, trying to make sense of the situation, looking for leadership.

Yet, all the routines of life seem to go stubbornly on, almost untouched by the news cycle. Maybe this is psychological adaptation, perhaps denial, distancing.

Again, it is hard to tell the story about climate change. I go to student parties, people ask what I study. Climate change and politics. Conversations are long, winding towards the fuzzy territory of hope and despair.

Will our thinking shift and our action become guided by rationality or by emotion? Which option is preferred?

Today, on the 27th of November there is a blizzard going on and the university campus is covered in fresh snow.

This article was originally published on Medium.

Aarne Granlund (@granlund_aarne) is an MSc Student in Climate Change and Politics at Nord universitet (UArctic). His research focuses on polar climate change, evidence-based mitigation, adaptation, and security. He enjoys fly fishing.

Regeneration and revival, beyond survival

corncobs_edit1
Photo: Sam Fentress

by Shaina Agbayani

(1) land

“Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.”

-Malcolm X, 1963


When I was in Luzon this past year, burning sambong allowed me to connect & celebrate the two sacred lands that have given me life. Sambong is a philippine plant medicine, a cousin of Turtle Island sage.

*Turtle island is the name given by several Indigenous cultures to what Europeans have called “North America” since colonization.

Burning sambong became a ritual that reminded me of my braided creation story, raised by a Turtle Island aunt and Philippine mother that have both given me life. Amongst many other medicinal plant beings that connect Turtle Island to the Philippines, partly as a result of Spanish colonial trade relations, are tobacco and corn, both of which hold their places in the stories of my elders’ childhoods.

The more i reflect on my relationship to these two lands, the more i come to relate to Turtle Island as an aunt who was forced to take me in under conditions of violence & force, and yet still has loved and given so much life to me, and the Philippines as the mother whose many children have left her because colonial pillage has fragmented, objectified, and violated her in ways that make it hard for her take care of many of us.

After spending committed time in solitude with mother earth in my ancestral lands for several months this past year, I came back to Turtle Island with a deeper sense of reverence for this Aunt who has taken so much care of me and enabled my life under conditions of settler colonial violence.

 

(2) life

I keep returning to the question of how i can integrate practices of love and care into my everyday survival in a way that will allow me to go beyond surviving to regenerating my self, ancestors and an-sisters, cultures, and the communities and lands that allow us to be. For me this has meant that prayer, song, connecting with plant and element friends, dance, and other body connection practices form intentional rituals in my life. They have become forms of regenerative medicine,  my body being the land that cultivates and carries them regardless of where i am in the world. More broadly, i ask myself how communities and lands impacted by deep colonial harm can not only survive but regenerate in the context of systemic subjugation, extraction, and violence.

At this year’s annual March for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, I noticed the powerful smell of burning sage and the use of other sacred medicines. This, as well as the presence of song and dance, brought spiritual, emotional, physiological healing to the march while reviving Indigenous ceremonial practices. It reminded me of how incorporating traditional practices of care and creativity—specifically when these practices are led by people from the communities they are indigenous to—can transform the often sanitized, colonized, cold spaces of marches. I often wonder how spaces of mourning and loss can be transformed into spaces of cultural revitalization. The singing, dancing, and burning of plant allies at the march felt like forms of cultural resurgence as people viscerally connected to their creation stories through medicine and their bodies.

At the march, Ellen Gabriel spoke of how we cannot wait for the state and the law to protect and honor Indigenous womxn. She also stated that the protection and celebration of Indigenous womxn’s lives requires a cultural shift whose embodiment the law cannot ensure. In this way, she speaks to how politics based on gaining visibility and recognition under the legalistic terms of the nation-state is limited in its capacity for revitalizing indigeneity, healing inter-generational trauma, and ensuring the regeneration and celebration of Indigenous womxn’s lives.

Photo: Stacey Gomez
Photo: Stacey Gomez

In the same vein in the paper “Anger, resentment and love: fuelling resurgent struggle, Leanne Simpson asks us to reflect on this connection between the violence against Indigenous peoples, the land, and the politics of recognition under the state .

“I am a bigger threat to the Canadian state and its plans to build pipelines across my body, clear cut my forests, contaminant my lakes with toxic cottages and chemicals and make my body a site of continual sexualized violence. What if we collectively and fully reject the politics of recognition in politics with the Canadian state? What if we collectively and fully reject the politics of recognition in our mobilizations and organizing? What happens when we fully reject the politics of recognition in education? Where do I beg the colonizer for recognition in my own life? Why?”

 

(3) body

“Our backs tell stories no books have the spine to carry”

-rupee kaur, poetess and spoken word performer. From the poem “Women of color”

While in the Philippines, I felt on the deepest level the truth that our bodies are the land. The silent time of solitude i took to be on the sacred Mt Banahaw and in other spaces of unconcretized, respected earth were truly the most powerful and transformative times of connection to my body & ancestors.

As a queer femme filipinx performer, provider of emotional labour and care work, and as daughter, niece, cousin of many filipinx people who have worked dedicatedly as care & domestic workers, I’ve experienced how my body and other racialized feminized bodies become sites of consumption, fetishization, and energy extraction through, for example, underpaid, unpaid, and industry-specific labour that tends to be domesticated or sexualized.

As a performer and as someone who is often asked to do emotional labour in specific ways, I’ve experienced how the values and stereotypes ascribed to my brown feminized body as a site from which to extract energy connects to the way that colonial-capitalist institutions relate to the body of our mother earth as a site for resource extraction through, for example, mining and fracking.

And so I feel what many Indigenous womxn visionaries like Leanne Simpson and Amanda Lickers of Reclaim Turtle Island have expressed in different ways—that asserting the bodily self-determination and sovereignty of womxn and queer folks, especially those most impacted by colonialism, is intricately linked to asserting the self-determination and sovereignty of the land. As such, both womxn’s bodies and the earth are sacred sites through which communities, cultures and institutions can be made to reproduce colonial values. Womxn play a distinct role as culture-bearers, and the cultures we bear reflect and are enabled by the lands we inhabit.

Image: Shaina agbayani
Image: Shaina agbayani

 

(4) remembering womxn and land through song and dance

The babaylan in Filipino Indigenous traditions is a person, usually a womxn, who, according to Leny Strobel, director of the Center for Babaylan Studies, “is gifted to heal the spirit and the body; the one who serves the community through her role as a folk therapist, wisdom-keeper and philosopher; the one who provides stability to the community’s social structure; the one who can access the spirit realms and other states of consciousness and traffic easily in and out of these worlds; the one who has vast knowledge of healing therapies.” As noted by Grace Nono in “Songs of the Babaylan”, many babaylans integrate song and dance as part of their healing, spirit, and land connection practices.

The babaylan were seen as a threat to colonial powers because of their strong connection to traditional cultural practices, their dedicated and intimate relationship to the land, to spirit worlds and to plant and medicine allies, and their commitment to preserving all these land-based connections.  Christianization and colonization involved the regulation and removal of Indigenous community connections to the land and suppression of philippine Indigenous spiritualities. As part of this, babaylan traditions were forcefully regulated, and babaylan were demonized as witches or brujas and subjugated—forcing many to go into hiding or minimize their visibility.

In September, I was present at the Babaylan Conference, themed Makasaysayang Pagtatagpo (Historic Encounters): Filipinos and Indigenous Turtle Islanders Revitalizing Ancestral Traditions Together. It was hosted in Coast Salish Territories—an unceded territory within what settlers call British Columbia. The conference has been happening in Turtle Island since 2013 and strives to “build and strengthen our Filipino communities in the diaspora through the sharing of Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices (IKSP)”. This year’s theme focused on questions of how to meaningfully connect with Philippine Indigenous knowledge systems and spiritualities in a way that engages with the realities of our presence on Turtle Island.

Photo: Maileen Hamto
Photo: Maileen Hamto

During the conference, I co-guided “Queer Earth”, a session by and for queer participants. A central intention for me was to invite reflections on the role of song & of queer folks (and queer song!) in movements of re-indigenization. Specifically, I wanted to reflect on (1) how we might re-connect to our intuitive, embodied ancestral knowledge to return energies to mother earth through ritual and specifically song and (2) how my relationship to being queer is deeply rooted in a relationship with the earth which embraces fluidity, diversity, connection, negotiation, and reciprocity not just in relation to gender and sexuality, but in my relations to all beings, and (3) how these two might intersect.

Photo: Nicanor Evans
Photo: Nicanor Evans

What ended up organically emerging was a collective grieving of our queer ancestors—from our unknown queer ancestors, to our queer aunts and uncles within our blood and chosen family—which was marked by spontaneous song, lots of crying, prayer, and oral reflections of what brought us to the room. While communally mourning the lives of those passed, we also collectively and musically affirmed our queer selves, and held one another’s queer stories and the emotions and hopes that sprung from them. In the session I felt a release of grief through my own mourning, a release that seemed to be collective as I witnessed others’ mourning, and shared reflections with participants about the session afterward. One of the co-facilitators, Will, mentioned this was the first markedly queer congregation at the conference since its inception, which left me feeling like this process of queer mourning of lives passed was also inherently a process of queer resurgence.

For me, the organic emergence of song with the percussions we made out of our bones and tongues deeply reverberated through and revitalized my emotional, physiological, spirit self. I felt the truth held by many Philippine Indigenous knowledge systems that storytelling through song is a way of connecting to and enabling the survival, return, and celebration of our an-sisters. As Grace Nono notes, in many babaylan Indigenous traditions, song helps to connect to the spirit world in a way that can and does bring back our an-sisters and ancestors, revitalizing our connection to our selves, the earth, our ancestors, and cultures.

At the conference, I also reflected on the role of dance in revitalization while  witnessing the collaboration between two dance groups. Butterflies in Spirit is “a dance troupe made up of mostly family members of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that raises awareness of violence against Indigenous womxn and girls across Canada. BIS commemorates the victims of violence in Vancouver and across Canada”. During and prior to the conference, Butterflies in Spirit collaborated with the Kathara Philippine Indigenous Dance Collective in a fusion of contemporary hiphop with traditional dance choreographed by PowWow dancer Madelaine McCallum and with live musical accompaniment by Kathara.

Photo: Maileen Hamto
Photo: Maileen Hamto

The dances at the conference re-created many stories of rebirth and renewal through depicting the metamorphosis of butterflies, the migratory flight of birds, difficult journeys through sacred waters, and the welcoming of nations after long journeys. Dance can be a form of community practice that celebrates cultural life through remembering creation stories in movement, nurturing communal bonding, and affirming relationships with spirits & the land through connection with the body and with emotions. The embodied stories I witnessed reminded me that amidst all the dispossession and violence against brown bodies and lands, communal practices of re-connection with body, culture, and land are well alive.

The collaboration reminded me of what Leny Strobel, director of the Center for Babaylan Studies, said during the conference that “we are not people separated by land, but people connected by water.” I viscerally felt this as I witnessing the dance against the backdrop of the Sunshine Coast’s waters, which summoned my inner waters to well up through my eyes as I watched.  I left the conference being reminded of the regenerative role that song and dance can play in our movements for healing and justice.

 

(6) (in)visibility and (ir)recognition beyond the nation-state

“While theoretically, we have debated whether Audre Lourde’s “the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house”, I…I am not so concerned with how we dismantle the master’s house, that is, which sets of theories we use to critique colonialism; but I am very concerned with how we “re” build our own house, our own houses. I have spent enough time taking down the master’s house, and now i want most of my energy to go into visioning and building our new house” -Leanne Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back

“The inner resources of the people that cannot simply be reduced to resistance. This – cultural energy – is also power – but it is a power not meant to dominate nor resist but creatively for a people to become themselves.”

-Albert Alejo, Generating Energies in Mount Apo

In my experience within the social justice communities of Tio’tia:ke—the Kanien’keha or Mohawk word for Montreal which means “where the currents meet”—creative & spiritual practices such as our song & mourning circle in the conference—are less valued forms of activism than more visible, outward, street-based, masculinist, and legally-oriented forms. Activism is often based on making certain peoples, identities, communities, movements, and goals visible and legitimate within a legal, nation-state framework that measures value through positivist, hyper-visible, masculinist, standards. This often looks like demanding for “rights” on the streets and in the courts, on the terms of the nation-state’s legal and political frameworks.

I am forced to adopt these frameworks of being recognized by and visible to nation states for purposes of mobility whenever I travel across the border and am asked for my passport which upholds my “Canadian” nation-state settler-colonial status, and when I apply for my passport and must choose one of the two genders recognized by this nation-state. The nation-state’s visibility and recognition are part of my existence. Its laws and institutions impact my existence even if i would like to opt out of and become invisible from them.  

In some ways, I value making visible the invisibilized, for example in remembering those who have been made missing and murdered by the settler colonial nation state, and in making visible the invisibilized, un(der)paid emotional, spiritual, labour of the black, brown, Indigenous, racialized bodies on which the nation-state depends. I cannot refute that visibility does matter when nation-states regulate many of our lives, and that visibility can be an important way for people to, for example, survive through accessing resources that the nation-state is a gatekeeper of.

Yet we need to remember that these are by and large resources these institutions, and their agents, have violently extracted from the labour, lands, and communities of those from whom they gatekeep these resources. And as as I move toward a place of imagining how to commit to regeneration (of the lands, waters, self, culture, ancestry, and communities that give me life) beyond survival, it becomes undeniable to me that nation-state legal frameworks are based on upholding and glorifying the state as a place to merely ensure the bare survival of racialized people, especially Black and Indigenous womxn. The movements to grant the earth and queer people recognition and protection under the law, such as the global movements toward legalizing and decriminalizing queerness and the “granting” of “people status” to lands and rivers are done in an unequal, western, human-centered power relations where the state at the end of the day gets to set the terms of who is granted protection from state violence itself.

The nation states of Turtle Island have been built on systemic violence against racialized, specifically Black and Indigenous, peoples through impoverishment, dispossession, disappearances, killings, mass incarcerations through the prison industrial complex, resource extraction, and food apartheid that sickens and poisons—slowly and fastly kills—communities. And the more that these realities of this nation-state violence are revealed to me, the more clear it becomes that the legal framework of rights and recognition through which it operates is invested in the bare minimum of survival for Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.

So the question this begs for me is: do I actually want visibility from the nation-state, or is it precisely invisibility that I want? Of course, the answer to this is very contextual. Nonetheless, I feel strongly that the choice of invisibility and un-recognition from the nation-state as forms of surviving and thriving is invaluable in our recognition and rights centered political/social/spiritual landscape.

Invisibility from the state can enable the conditions for survival, sovereignty, and self-determination, and therefore resurgence and revitalization. During the Japanese occupation of her village in World War 2, my grandmother was given a medallion from her grandfather to make her and her home invisible from Japanese soldiers. Her home was the only one not burnt down in her village. She’s here, I’m here (and queer!), and we’re hella regenerating, fueled by our love for one another and our communities. It is precisely in invisibility from the state that many off-grid Indigenous, Black and Brown communities are co-creating for themselves the conditions to thrive and regenerate beyond the conditions of regulated survival on which the nation-state is built.

 

(7) regenerative medicine: love & creation stories

“You can keep your political purity. I choose love.”

-Lindsay Nixon, an anishinaabe-nehiyaw writer, curator, community organizer, and researcher currently residing in Tio’tia:ke/Mooniyang (Montreal), Facebook post. May 23rd.

Normative political activism for me has too often been devoid of the loving—nurturing, caring, sustaining, (re)creative—energies that make the process of working toward justice feel loving, just, life-giving, regenerative, sustainable.

Activism that celebrates what has been made invaluable and invisible—from all the emotional, cooking, cleaning, & care work that sustains us to the spirit world with whom we co-exist—not only complements legalization efforts to recognize and protect, but is necessary if we want to go beyond survival and de-colonization to regeneration and re-indigenization. I want to commit to an activism that celebrates our connection to all the invisibilized lineages, labour, histories, her-stories that transmit to us and enable our (re)creation stories of past, present, and future.

Of course, there is no one linear, one-size-fits-all way to survive and thrive under all circumstances for all peoples. A diversity of tactics makes sense for the unique, dynamic, fluid, ever-changing times and spaces that call for the heterogeneous “us” to survive and thrive. I am not here to tell people to stop petitioning nation-state governments when the state has a real, violent, impact on our lives. Rather, I am affirming the value of acknowledging and challenging the systems of harm that often prevent us from surviving, and inviting us to reflect on how we can co-create conditions to sustain and regenerate ourselves through harnessing love within our communities independent from the nation-state. This is a call to transmute the (very valid) rage against destructive systems that harm us into energy that allows us to regenerate and sustain one another through nurturing love for ourselves. This regenerative self-love requires knowing, remembering, and re-creating ourselves.

Perhaps through taking the time to mourn and remember those who have enabled us to be here, by breathing, by offering our sisters food and feeding ourselves, or offering our ancestors food on our altars. Perhaps this knowing comes through story-telling, perhaps through song, perhaps through dance.
#waterislife, we cannot dance without water

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Photo: Nicanor Evans
Photo: Nicanor Evans

Shaina Agbayani is a queer femme broom-wielder butterfly-singer, film-maker, dancer, cook, fermentation-fairy, cleaner, and co-creator of beat:root and re:bodies. She resides between different parts of luzon and tio’tia:ke in kanien’kehá:k, haudeonsaunee lands. She keeps offerings at https://queererth.wordpress.com


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