"It Didn't Go So"

"It didn't go so," she said under her breath. —Erna Brodber, Myal, p.84.

What Katrina taught me - 27 Aug 2015 18:09

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I wrote this two years ago for a Katrina anniversary event I agreed to speak at but couldn't attend.

Good evening everyone. Thank you to Nancy for inviting me to speak at this event. Unfortunately, a little disaster prevented me from attending. On my way back from training health workers in the Four Corners region of Colorado, the clutch gave out on my car. While I try to put together $900 to remedy this situation, I'm stranded far from home, far from this event and my job and everything I had hoped to do this weekend.

My little personal disaster is not a bad place to start thinking about what it means to weather a storm like Katrina's aftermath. The subjective experience of a catastrophe is in many ways like that of a million little disasters repeated across space and through time, with those who are vulnerable no different from those vulnerable outside of disaster.

I remember the emptiness of major streets in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans after the winds and rain of Katrina had been replaced with impossible stillness and impossible heat. I remember who stayed in my neighborhood: disabled residents and elderly residents and a few of their caregivers who could not bear to leave them — and a handful of neighborhood leaders who felt a responsibility to stay to ensure the survival of the neighborhood.

I remember the forces that wanted us gone: the cracker squads who declared "open season on niggers," the police who closed the parish border to blacks, trapping disaster survivors in, the 82nd Airborne and 1st Cav soldiers who evacuated the Fischer Housing Project a week after the storm as if it were an insurgent village on the border of Pakistan. The flying vees of unorganized New Orleans Police who kicked in doors and settled scores. The politicians who staged a land-grab, promising 80,000 property lots to developers, then had to ensure that 80,000 property owners remained displaced.

Most of all, I remember why a ragtag group of people who believed in the right of black communities to practice neighborhood self-defense established and developed the first civilian healthcare services in the city, a free clinic on the corner of Teche and Socrates streets in the Algiers neighborhood on the West Bank of New Orleans. I think those of us who nurtured the clinic through its first months had many different reasons why we did so, but we met on one.

The City of New Orleans was built by its residents. It is its residents. The world owes New Orleanians for the vibrant life they made from the scraps they've had to work with, the music and way of life that makes the world smile. The city could only be rebuilt by its residents. In the aftermath of the storm, its survivors and heroes faced dispossession, state terror, and casual murder. Those who wanted to stay might benefit from a health corps to attend to their medication refills, listen, and advocate for them as they strove to hold ground against dispossession and rebuild. We knew how to do health work.

Every day was like a year after Katrina. I don't talk too much about it anymore, because once I start it is hard to stop. Maybe you're lucky that I'm stranded with a broke down car in a national forest, because it means I can't overwhelm you with stories of the horror and the hope I lived through. Some day, if you see me, stop me on the street and ask about Katrina. For as long as you want, I'll tell stories that have come to define my life.

For now, I have three goals. I want you to imagine catastrophe in a way that makes it familiar, not foreign. I want you to know the degree to which disaster survivors rise to almost any occasion and totally outclass organized relief efforts. Finally I want you to know how even the organized relief I loved most suffered from a failure of the imagination. I will say this now, and again after I make those three points: in a catastrophe, our hope does not come from the hills, it comes from us.

To make the familiar foreign, I want you to imagine that your house burned down. No one died in the fire, thank God. You lost your essential documents, your mementos, your bank card, checkbook, medications, eyeglasses, food stamp card, phone — everything. The Red Cross puts your family up in a shelter for a while. Some of your family and friends help; some avoid you. You try to deal with your insurance and your financial institutions. Most of what you lost can never be replaced. Even years later, a certain pain and alertness remains.

Now imagine that your bank also burned down, and the local Red Cross. All the hotels, and all the pharmacies, all the grocery stores and food stamp offices burned too. Your psychiatrist's office burned, the emergency room burned, The Lighthouse for the Blind burned, and so did the homes of everyone you've ever known and everywhere you've ever been. Everywhere you could walk to is burnt to smoking ruin, but you can't even see to walk. What would you do?

I don't know you, but I'll wager money I know what you'd do. Within 24 hours someone would find you, and together, the two of you would find someone else to help. You'd help them dig through the wreckage of their home. You would canvass the neighborhood, meet neighbors you never knew you had, look for survivors. You would give away food you found and share information. You would begin to self-organize, prioritize, and surprise yourself with your collective ingenuity.

When the soldiers were sent in to New Orleans after Katrina, they were told to restore order, to establish a jail, to clear houses, to stop looting, and to fear disaster survivors. The guardsmen who stayed long enough to properly see for themselves, saw a New Orleans safer and more egalitarian than was imaginable, self-organized for survival, with bitter enemies working side-by side. In my neighborhood, when our detachment of guardsmen realized this, they knew they had been misled. By mid-September 2005, they began to ignore their orders and ask survivors how they could help.

It is harder to show the ecological toll of Katrina, because I don't know it well enough. I was inside a clinic for 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, so never saw the effects of the Murphy Oil Spill in St Bernard Parish, or the land loss in native communities of lower Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes. I didn't get to see the massive hazardous waste dump in New Orleans East where a city's worth of building material was deposited. I wasn't with my cousin when she encountered a quarter million dumped refrigerators. The human toll — and human potential — that I saw from the clinic took all my attention. Our biggest environmental illnesses were a nonspecific rash and the Katrina Cough, a difficult-to-treat upper respiratory infection that everybody had for a while.

After Katrina, I saw only people, and the bonds between people. At first I saw people who lived on a fixed income and depended on medications to manage their asthma, blood pressure, diabetes, chronic pain, or schizophrenia. The storm came on the 29th, so their check was gone and so was their medication. Then I saw people who needed to talk through horrific experiences, terrible fears, and the impossible challenges ahead. Then I saw hundreds of Sewerage and Water Board workers who needed tetanus and hepatitis vaccines before they returned to work. I saw people who felt safer sitting in front of the clinic than in their homes because of the constant danger of state violence. I saw our clinic volunteers decompensating and finding no one who could understand the burdens they carried after all they had witnessed.

This brings me to our failure of imagination. Our little clinic, established by nonprofessional movement first-aiders and disaster survivors in a mosque, was for a year the busiest free clinic in the nation, ranked in the highest tier of clinical care. Thanks to volunteers and donations, we provided care at the lowest cost per patient. All very exciting.

However, in our exuberance, we replaced disaster survivors with out-of-state volunteers, dropped our initial model of being a medical support corps in order to emulate Federally Qualified Health Centers, and failed to provide adequate mental health support to our volunteers. The clinic did not close. It is still at 1401 Teche St, and still sees patients. It is a long-term commitment to the health of a black American neighborhood it joined in a time when the oldest and sickest stood their ground against a militarized land grab.

However, I also learned the toll that disaster takes on those that come from out of town, who leave their lives to spend months or years participating in relief and recovery as unpaid volunteers. New Orleans was a citywide support group for a while. Survivors were invited, but out-of-town responders were not.

After listening to hundreds of survival stories, becoming deeply involved in people's lives and struggles, and living under extreme state violence, responders found that their families and friends away from the disaster could not understand their struggles, and neither could disaster survivors. The toll that the clinic took on its volunteers was too heavy. We needed to understand our own vulnerability and collectively provide for our own recovery, and we did not.

The disaster of Katrina only began with the storm. It continues with the deadly depredations of real estate vultures. Their land grabs mete out more destruction than the flood could. Those who want to help may find it too difficult to do anything now, unlike in 2005 when it felt like we could do everything.

Whatever form your concern for affected family, friends, or strangers may take, remember who always does most of the relief work — devastated people who need something to do in times of crisis. Not the Guard, not the Red Cross, not even the little clinic I loved and helped to build.

In times of catastrophe, follow your gut. Your help will never come from the hills, only from you. Despite governments' proclivity for repressive violence and business's proclivity for anti-human opportunism, in times of crisis people self-organize and demonstrate a strength that could turn the world right-side up.

I am sorry I was not able to be here in person, but thank you for allowing me to share my experiences. - Comments: 0

Finding people arrested in Charlotte - 22 Aug 2015 17:36

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I recently had to find some people in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, NC system. This post is a quick tutorial on how to find your people.

Finding Arrestees

If your friend was arrested in Charlotte, and you want to find out the charges and bond amount, see the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office Inmate Search page: http://www.mecksheriff.com/inmatesearch.asp

"Arrest inquiry" search info is updated shortly after the arrest, and includes charges and bond amount. "Inmate Inquiry" information is usually available within six hours of arrest, and includes the arrestee's Prisoner ID #, where the arrestee is being held, and (if you click the "view charges" button), the next hearing date.

Making Bail

If you go to a bail bondsman, you will be required to pay 10% of the bail amount, and someone with a job will have to "secure the bond," or sign that if the person does not show up for court, they will be on the hook for the rest of the bail amount.

If it says they're being held at MCJC (the central jail), you can wait for their release at 801 East Fourth Street, Charlotte, NC 28202.

Finding Court Dates

To find upcoming court dates in an ongoing case, check the North Carolina Court System calendar. You can enter a Citation Query by Defendant Name: http://www1.aoc.state.nc.us/www/calendars/CitationQueryByName.html

When entering someone's name in the NC Court citation query box, do not insert space between the last name and the first initial. For instance, to search me, type in "Keller,A" with no spaces. You will find the court date, county, courtroom, and session (morning is 9 am, afternoon is 1 pm). You'll also find the charges, and the name/agency/badge number of the arresting officer. - Comments: 0

Bad parents - 21 May 2015 15:31

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In the United States, many psych and substance abuse services have been pushed to become more trauma-informed as a result of the profoundly influential Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. Advocates push this discursive shift: do not ask "What is wrong?" Ask "What happened?"

In the midst of this discursive turmoil, tidy categories like "serious mental illness" leak and rupture and are called into question. I wonder about the usefulness of such categories and classifications. Do they allow more effective government of disabled personalities, or do they co-produce these personalities? Most likely, they accomplish many contradictory things at once.

First, a caveat: Mental illness is not a predictor of violence. It's a predictor of victimization. People diagnosed with mental illness are five times more likely to be murdered and significantly more likely to be assaulted, raped, mugged, and arrested than controls. They die 25 years earlier than people without psych diagnoses.1 Now, on to the show.

Foucault and his students looked into the discursive turmoil around a famous case of parricide 150 years ago, at the beginning of the construction of categories that trauma-informed critiques now challenge. That conversation is documented in the book I, Pierre Riviere, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my brother: A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century.2 The debate around modern Pierre Rivieres revolves around whether they are mentally ill, terrorists, or common criminals. The terms in 1835 were very different. By resurrecting the case of Riviere, Foucault showed how our categories are not eternal; how they have an outside.

More recently, Mark Ames covered Michael McLendon's 2009 workplace killing spree in Alabama, which included what Ames called a "mercy killing" of McLendon's mother and her dogs. Ames needs an editor, but his courageous take on parricide and workplace violence also seeks an outside to the classification of McLendon's character. By investigating the scene as well as the killer, Ames highlights the legitimate desperation caused by horrific everyday violence of chicken factory workplace conditions, routine wage theft, lack of legal recourse against local oligarchies, and the costs of municipal bankruptcy due to unpunished white-collar crime. This context clarifies the cognitive dissonance when someone — who believes that free, white, male, 21, and American entitles them to something — finds that they are in fact fungible. Is it serious mental illness? Terrorism? Common crime? Desperate, pointless guerrilla resistance by isolated individuals?

The conversation about adverse childhood experiences has begun, but the presence of routine social violence in lives like Riviere's and McLendon's curiously drops out of court, media, and scholarly narratives of massacre. When the righteous suffer, they can cling to stories like Job of the Bible, the Catholic saints, or Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad. But when those who were born unrighteous and will always be considered guilty suffer, attempt to resist, try to breathe, what is their narrative? That they had bad parents? - Comments: 0

Nursing apprenticeship - 28 Apr 2015 18:03

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Thank God for Mo

Mo saw me come down the road into the Western Shoshone prayer camp in southern Nevada. The incessant dusty spring wind cracked my lips. I was dejected and sore after walking the last eighteen miles of what began as a straightforward freight train ride from Cumberland, Maryland. Later, Mo told me she was about to tear me a new one for being a day and a half late, until she got a good look at me.

"Grace," Mo said soothingly, as she helped me out of my pack and shoes, "Soak your feet. You look like you've been through hell." She got me a cup of water to drink and poured hot water into a foot soak basin. "Rest yourself today; you're going to get a piece of my mind tomorrow."

I spent much of the year I turned twenty finding my way to Mo's field clinics and learning from her. Mo worked as an ER and ICU nurse in a small-town Montana hospital, but what she loved was home care, hospice, and running field clinics for people engaged in confrontational politics. She was a gentle, stable role model in my tumultuous life.

Mo and other health workers mentored me as I learned to organize and manage health workers, do basic assessment, care, and education for physical injuries, and provide individual and community care after sexual assault and mental health crisis. I learned by doing and reflecting. During an E. coli outbreak I learned basic epidemiological methods and aggressive rehydration. After a backcountry suicide I learned basic forensics and camp-wide trauma counseling. After a meningococcal meningitis death I learned to work with health departments to do contact tracing and multi-state health-messaging.

Mo has a humble, quiet determination to be a good nurse and to constantly teach non-professional health workers like me. There is something profoundly moral about her ability to accompany people through the turbulent waters of political upheaval and end-of-life care with her simple, practical toolbox: two pillows, a blanket, some water, and non-latex gloves.

Finding a scope of practice

In the late fall of the year I turned 20, I settled in the inner city of Pittsburgh. For ten months, I did free wound-care and lay social work for a small clientele of homeless white men who drank and black women who rented rooms in abandoned buildings around the projects. The next year I organized a neighborhood lay mental health and substance abuse support network. I identified natural caregivers and got us together for regular continuing education, peer support, and meals. The group continues to meet eleven years later. It never incorporated, professionalized, or had its direction set by funders.

In 2005 I worked with Mo again, in New Orleans, where we were among the organizers and founding staff of the city's first post-Katrina civilian health clinic. Called Common Ground Health Clinic, it is now a nine-year-old Federally Qualified Health Center. During our time there, it was the busiest free clinic in the United States (~22,000 patient visits logged in our first year), and was recognized for its high quality of care.

Mo and I guarded the centrality of health education, creative problem-solving, and home visits during our time at the clinic. We dispatched a volunteer carpenter to build a ramp and make other accessibility modifications to the home of a diabetic man who lost his second leg in the storm waters. We sent brown-bag lunches and cleaned the badly roach-infested home of a World War II veteran who lived across the street. We also visited him with oxygen and the clinic's albuterol nebulizer when his asthma required clinical management.

Enduring friendship

In the years since I left the clinic I continued to do health and mental health work inspired by Mo and other mentors. I have enjoyed a privileged freedom of spirit and a court-side seat to significant historical events, but I have also become frustrated by the small-scale, reactive, and difficult-to-replicate models for health work Mo and I helped propagate.

Mo now trains nurse aides in her valley in southwest Montana. We still talk regularly. How can we scale innovative health initiatives without abandoning people's priorities for those of funders? What makes some practices self-propagate while others die out? How could seeking better health save poor people money in the short-term and the long-term? How can health work strengthen political organization, challenge local inequities, and enter local traditions? These are some of the questions we are asking now. - Comments: 0

Defending our women - 05 Mar 2015 07:40

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I'd like to make an obscure, maybe even pedantic, point about the convergence of forces in the political battle over nondiscrimination ordinances in the city where I live. A recent civil rights proposal quickly became a clash of civilizations. At stake in the proposal was the grounds for civil rights lawsuits. At stake in the debate was a contest between the vulnerability of "wives and daughters" and the vulnerability of transgender women, in order to advance fundamental claims about the nature of gender and government.

The story of the battle over the proposal is narratively simple but discursively complex. I will tell the story first, then graze the surface of the story of warring discourses as I understand it.

Birth and death of an ordinance

The story of the proposal began in November of last year.1 A Human Rights Campaign member proposed adding marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity to the characteristics protected by city nondiscrimination ordinances. Charlotte is one of only three out of the 20 biggest cities in the US to not protect these categories. The proposed change would give lesbians grounds to sue if they were denied a room at a hotel, or gay men grounds to sue if a taxi wouldn't pick them up.

City council asked the city manager and the city attorney to look into the proposed changes. In February, the city attorney explained federal, state, and local legally protected characteristics to the council, explained the extant ordinance, and drafted the proposed changes. On Monday, the proposal was put to a vote and "the most controversial ordinance [city council] has considered in years" failed.


Prior to the city council meeting, people (many from outside Charlotte) sent almost 40,000 emails supporting or opposing the proposal. Almost 120 people delivered nearly four hours of passionate public comment. Hundreds more rallied in protests. A Charlotte Observer reporter tweeted, "Never seen a crowd like this at #cltcc [Charlotte city council] before." The battle became this week's top local news story.

The proposal was drafted as a shield for people who can litigate. Middle-class married couples with children would probably be its primary beneficiaries. Crystal Richardson, a Charlotte lesbian, told the council, "I stand before you as someone who can be thrown out of a Charlotte hotel for who I am." Edward Garrett said, "This is not a hypothetical debate. I have experienced discrimination because of my sexuality." The proposed changes would have given those two recourse. As you can imagine, their straightforward and reasonable testimony didn't capture any headlines.

They also weren't the subject of the vitriol of the organized opposition, who absurdly framed the debate as solely about whether the proposal would give transsexual women legal cover to sexually assault women and young girls in public restrooms.


"Protecting our daughters is at stake," said Bryan Boyles. Chris Glenn said his 14 year old daughter will not use public restrooms out of fear of being molested. Hal Jordan said the city hasn't taken into account teens sneaking into women's restrooms pretending to be trans. A speaker showed a map of sexual offender homes and said restrooms will become fertile ground for molesters. Kim Moore said she was raped and can't believe she has to ask the city to protect her and all the women in Charlotte. Roberta Dunn of Mooresville told the council, "I'm a transgender woman, not a sexual predator."

By centering trans womens' bathroom use, the opposition baited supporters into publicly explaining gender theory instead of defending the bill on its own merits. Some supporters took the bait, and the culture war between two identarian conservatisms was publicly enacted. In the one camp, the head-of-household virtuously defended his women against predators; in the other, the educated expert virtuously defended oppressed trans women against bigots. Neither discourse defends anyone: they both serve to highlight the virtue and nobility of the defender, and his sovereignty over a territory constructed of identities. Your allegiance is determined by who you hate more: autocratic fathers or bureaucratic pedants.

Defending our women

The "defense of the feminine vulnerable" discourse has deep roots in this country, but reached a pinnacle in the Jim Crow era. In his hugely influential 1944 study An American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal wrote that sex was "the principle around which the whole structure of segregation of the Negroes — down to disenfranchisement and denial of equal opportunities in the labor market — is organized…. The Southern man on the street responds to any plea for social equality, 'Would you like to have your daughter marry a Negro?'" (p. 587). Myrdal argued that the popular argument against social equality of the races was based in white men's paternalism of white women's sex lives.2

By directing the powerful fear of rape onto their opponents, the "family values" patriots used the strategy that once justified de jure apartheid to great effect. Their use of the strategy was straightforward and unambiguous. A man's home is his kingdom (and cuius regio, eius religio); a man's wife, children, and employees are his property for him to dispose of as he likes; a man's right to defend himself and the property in his realm is absolute; and the federal government is a competing state. His hostility to LGBT claims to rights are as unrelated to rape as was white planters' hostility to the enfranchisement of slaves and women.3 His hostility is to federally-protected rights that diminish his authority.

How does the "defense of the feminine vulnerable" rhetoric drive current "social justice" discourse?

"A vast nonprofit industrial complex, and a class of professional 'community spokespeople,' has arisen over the last several decades to define the parameters of acceptable political action and debate. This politics of safety must continually project an image of powerlessness and keep communities of color, women, and queers 'protected.'" —Croatoan, Apr 20124

Unlike Richardson and Garrett, whose straightforward comments were about about desiring legal recourse for discrimination,5 Sam Spencer of Davidson lectured the council on concepts with no more relevance to the proposal than the family values patriots' rape fantasies:

"The idea of gender as a spectrum and non-binary is actually quite ancient at this point [but] it's new to many people — including many Charlotte City Council members. However, the scientific and social consensus is that biological sex may be between your legs, but gender is between your ears…. Trans folks suffer every day because of our society's legal and political framework."

Remembering martyrs6 and making your opponents feel stupid doesn't protect the people you claim to speak for. Those are strategies for bolstering the power and position of experts.7 I don't mean to pick on him personally, but Spencer's rhetoric says: it's all very complicated to you, but not to me, so hire me.

It's not about that

I appreciate the people who worked on the proposal to expand protected categories in Charlotte's city nondiscrimination ordinances, and I'm sorry their work got undercut by this vicious culture war. The changes should have been enacted 30 years ago. I'm sure this isn't the last we'll see of it.

My point is that the people crowing about bathroom molestations aren't talking about molestation. They're talking about an erosion of their sovereignty. Similarly, the people talking about gender as a spectrum aren't talking about transsexual women. They're talking about an extension of their own sovereignty. The former discourse is no more a solidarity with wives and daughters than the latter is a solidarity with trans women. In each case the object of false solidarity is used to advance the interests of their false defenders.

Yeah, so what?

If you've read this far, thanks. I made my obscure point. Why should you care? My guess is, because you care about yourself, your wife or daughter, or your trans woman friend, and I mischaracterized you because you actually want to help. Thanks, you're awesome. Don't look to me for all your answers, but here are some thoughts:

  • Emphasizing the vulnerability of women you love might make them feel more vulnerable, or might make other people see them as more vulnerable. That doesn't help.8
  • Highlighting your own virtue or what an expert you are doesn't help either.
  • Lecturing the general public about queer theory and making trans women more visible causes them to get harrassed more often.
  • Telling your daughter that there are molesters lurking in every restroom probably scares her.

Preventing molestation and rape of all women, and making life easier for trans women, starts from understanding the actual situations in which problems happen.

  • About 6% of men in their early 20s have already raped at least one woman. In the U.S., women are mostly raped by friends and family, mostly while under the influence of alcohol.9
  • Life is hard for trans women mostly because of issues with criminalization, housing, education, and employment, not pronouns or restrooms.

Most solutions happen in the context of relationships. People who help their friends navigate the difficulties of life aren't experts. They usually don't even know what they're doing, but they stick around long enough to learn.

It's not a bad time to be a friend. The circus this week has temporarily made entering a public restroom more stressful for most everyone who uses the ladies' room in Charlotte. Without real, dependable, friendships there is no foundation for freedom. - Comments: 0

A non-state political theory - 27 Feb 2015 21:25

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Ibn Khaldūn

One of my favorite political theorists is the fourteenth century Arab scholar and juridical activist Ibn Khaldūn, because he theorized state politics without forgetting the politics of the steppes, desert, and wastelands.

Ibn Khaldūn was born to a family of Yemeni aristocrats and indigenous Berbers in Andalusia fifty years after the height of the Mongol Empire, which conquored a quarter of the world's population. He worked in northwest Africa during a time of intense political instability and worked in Cairo while the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur beseiged and sacked Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, and Ankara.

At 32 years old, Ibn Khaldūn was put in charge of a mission from Granada to Castile to ratify a treaty between the Christian King Pedro the Cruel and the Arabs. Near the end of his life he met many times with Timur during the 1401 seige of Damascus and amazingly negotiated the release of Mamluk prisoners, though after he left Damascus it was brutally sacked.1 He was a thinker well-aware the power of many forms of state and non-state politics.


Ibn Khaldūn's basic political concept was asabiyah, which is something like solidarity/consensus. The word comes from the roots ‘asab ("to bind") and `asabah ("union"). The concept owes something to Plato and something to pre-Islamic Arabic tradition, but Ibn Khaldūn’s use of it is very original. Asabiyah is strongest outside the state among nomads and rural people (such as fourteenth century bedouins, slavs, turkomans, and barbarians). It is strongest among the camel-herders who range the greatest distance from the state. It requires blood-relation (real or mythical), and is tested in the ability of nomads and rural people to decisively defend their group against any threat that has a weaker asabiyah. "The asabiyah that unites a group of people against strangers simultaneously reinforces the values and norms of the group."2

Among primitive communist non-state actors, royalty emerges only on the basis of asabiyah. A person only becomes royal through eagerness to cultivate good qualities: "generosity, the forgiveness of error, tolerance toward the weak, hospitality toward guests, the support of dependents, maintenance of the indigent, patience in adverse circumstances, faithful fulfillment of obligations, liberality with money for the preservation of honor, respect for the religious law and for the scholars who are learned in it,"3 and a dozen more.

Royal authority in a state (city, kingdom, or caliphate) can maintain power through force; not so in the desert or steppes. Sometimes a non-state actor becomes strong enough that it sacks the state and takes it over. Within four generations any royal lineage with state authority becomes decadent and is overthrown.

The city and the desert

Ibn Khaldūn's political philosophy, with its acceptance of non-state politics, contrasts with Greek and Roman traditions in political philosophy.

Greeks and Romans…invented two forms of political life that the world had never before seen, the polis and the republic, and two concepts of law. In both cases what stands outside the law, either as a boundary or as an organization of alliances, is a desert. The law makes possible the world contained within the polis and the greater world that for the first time arose between formerly hostile peoples incorporated into the republic.4

What Ibn Khaldūn knew was that the desert beyond Greek and Roman law was inhabited.

I think it is widely understood today that the state does not have a monopoly on politics. The political and governing power of investment banks, insurance companies, narcos, tech/surveillance/defense industries, terrorist networks, big faith-based organizations, and powerful humanitarian organizations is too naked to ignore.

Anarchist anthropologist James C. Scott theorized the politics of dominated people. Is there a common-sense political philosophy today that, like Ibn Khaldūn's, provides robust concepts for theorizing the domination of a state by non-state actors? - Comments: 0

Teaching mental health - 23 Feb 2015 07:37

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Disputing convention

I don't like how most street medic trainings teach mental health. There is generally something about recognizing "serious mental illness," screening for suicidality in distressed people, and referring the person into the psychiatric system by some route or another. Other "red flags" in some medic trainings include (as I've heard medics describe it), "someone who does not share your reality" or "someone who has gone off their meds."

These messages go against more than a century and a half of civil rights agitation by people who have been subject to mental health systems (and their allies who work in the system).1 The approach of medicalizing distress and preventatively calling 911 is counter to current national best practices of trauma-informed and recovery-focused care.

Training agenda

I teach "social health" when I train. If I framed that section as mental health, I would teach:

  • Recovery-affirming and trauma-informed attitudes
  • HALTS and wellness planning
  • Helping someone make a decision
  • Understanding and using warmlines, hotlines, and other crisis resources
  • Setting good boundaries, using your own support, consent and disclosure

I would briefly touch on basic harm reduction and recovery options for alcohol and other drug use, and highlight sexual assault crisis options. I might teach some basics about helping when someone is suicidal and about learning to be okay with self-inflicted violence.

Good resources

The National Empowerment Center is a great resource for trauma-informed, recovery-focused approaches. Their crisis alternatives page links to information about Emotional CPR (including a free archived webinar) and Intentional Peer Support trainings, and to warmlines and peer-run respites. The rest of their website is also a treasure trove. Check out the archived webinar on alternatives to suicide support groups and the video on Afiya house.

If you learn by reading, see the 36 page PACE manual for a good introduction to recovery. It's part of a curriculum (like Intentional Peer Support) for people to provide support based on their own recovery stories. I think all medics could benefit from a look at the diagram on page 16 to see mental illness as temporary and a civil rights issue.


The 96-page Engaging Women in Trauma-Informed Peer Support manual goes way beyond what we would teach in a medic training, but it is really useful for evaluating whether your attitudes and approaches are trauma-informed, and answering your questions about taboo subjects like self-inflicted violence.2

Moving Toward Healing: A Nunavut Case Study is a sensitive and practical 37-page examination of a very low-cost, trauma-informed, peer-run program that is the de-facto mental health, sexual assault, and domestic violence program for an Inuit community in Northern Canada. I think it digs the deepest of all the resources on this page into fundamental questions about healing without professional help.3

Finally, many people (including me) have found wellness planning to be an essential part of their recovery process. My favorite guide, despite its medicalizing language, is the 13-page Action Planning for Prevention and Recovery. To do wellness planning with someone (or yourself) in crisis, start out with a post crisis plan.


I don't expect medics to be professional mental health workers, or even to get training beyond a 20-hour; I'm just thinking about how we organize the 2-4 hours in the training devoted to these topics to be less diagnostic/stigmatizing/ineffective. I think many medics are excellent with people in sometimes overwhelming distress; our trainings should reflect our best practices, not our worst. - Comments: 0

Chicago at night - 05 Feb 2015 19:13

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This is a letter I wrote to my mom in April 2012. I had moved to Chicago and was staying Uptown in a house with my old friend Mo. Mom thought I should share it.

Hi Mom,

I want to tell you a story about the context of my life here in Chicago. Not the actions, conferences, trainings, consulting, or mentees, but the world around and over it all, vivid enough that you can fly out your office window and be here with me for a moment.

I live in a beautiful house in a beautiful city with my beautiful mentor, Mo. Beauty is about looking, but it is also about knowing something deeper.

When I look and know, I am looking and knowing from someplace, from a particular position, from a place and experiences, full of blind spots and full of my own truth. My vision and knowledge is partial and incomplete, but it is mine.

In this neighborhood, rabbits hop and wait in the grassy strips beside roads and the grassy lots where houses used to be. everywhere someone seems to be standing determined with defiant dignity. The wind blows my skirt around while I wait on the elevated platform for the train or walk a long way at night or try to get warm by the fire in the half-barrel barbecue pit across the street from the Woodlawn Clinic.

The lake is always to the east, and so are you and dad and Caleb, further east, and then the ocean. That is my geography, how I stay anchored, like awareness of the location of the river in New Orleans. But the lake is broad, a whale, an enormous creature, while the river was a slithering and deadly snake, unsettled and moving against its confinement in artificial levees. I like the silent bulk of the lake, especially at night, and the sleeping breath of it on the wind.

Mom, this city is like when you stretch out and yawn before you get up. It is a spreading pool of slow but living blood. I love its embrace.

Broadway at night

About 5 L stops north of the Loop on the red line, you exit the train onto the crumbling 150 year old platform. The track workers lay straight lines onto disintegrating piers, and later in the year they will tear up that deformed, settled track and lay straight lines again. The woman in the station booth is always there at this time of night, friendly but preoccupied.

On the street, under the nighttime sky, closed businesses hold their ground behind plate glass, not crowding in, just waiting patiently for the morning. Tank Noodle. Trang Viet. Hairdressers and barbershops, corner stores and groceries, Vietnamese restaurants and an asian medicine shop.

Across the wide expanse of Broadway is my neighborhood, quieter and more residential behind the library, with lillies of the valley and trilliums and violets planted at the bases of the trees, and bunnies under the street lights. One of the houses is mine and Mo's, and up a few steps you could find me typing this from my place on the sofa in the first floor apartment. The window behind the radiator is open a little to let in the cool night breeze, and Tiny the fish has pushed himself between an artificial frond and the glass of his tank to rest.


An hour ago, Mo got home from a long day of meetings. I made myself a salad with green leaf lettuce, Italian peppers in olive oil, cherry tomatoes, carrots, and asaigo cheese. I covered a chunk of crusty bread from the oven with butter. I ate my salad and bread while she stepped outside to smoke a hand-rolled cigarette and we talked through the open door.

She told me about the people she stayed with at past actions. The woman in the Cleveland ghetto on 13th street in 2000 who worked from her home doing phone sex. The woman in Quebec who did internet sex. The horribly hot garage in Miami where she slept with bugs crawling on her after a 4 day train ride from Montana and waiting 5 hours in the rain for Mackel to pick her up from the train station in West Palm Beach.

She also told me about her beautiful first husband who she met in Baltimore when she was 20 and he was 28. How much love they had, and how they had to split up after seven years because of the violence a racist society throws at interracial couples, no matter how deep their love.

A lot of what I like about living with Mo here in Chicago is being with her when she is at a time in her life when she is reflecting back over her 57 years. I can listen to her for hours, and I laugh, and my heart breaks, and I wonder about things.

She is in bed now in her room, watching her "trashy British mysteries" on her laptop in her nightshirt until she falls asleep under her wool blanket with the galloping Montana wild horses printed huge and brown on it.

I'm on the sofa, about to roll out my bed and crawl under my old quilts, where I will hug a pillow and sleep.

Love, Grace - Comments: 0

Book notes -- What is the political? - 26 Jan 2015 02:49

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I'm pursuing a qualitative research project about concrete practices of street medics, and discovered I needed to learn more about what it means to be political, to build a politics, or to help people "move forward politically." So I read some books and talked to some people. Here are notes on some books I read.

Hannah Arendt (2005) "Introduction Into Politics" in Hannah Arendt (2005). The Promise of Politics. Jerome Kohn, ed. New York: Schocken Books, pp. 93-200.

I read part of Kohn's introduction and learned that the book was put together of two parts: the first five chapters were an unfinished project examining the intellectual roots of Stalinist totalitarianism, and the last chapter a consideration of the category of the political, which is what specifically interests me. Arendt's essay goes back and forth between meditations on the end of everything due to the threat of totalitarianism or mutually assured destruction via the atomic bomb — which I found achingly dull — and a geneology of European politics and war.

The geneology traces European political space, goals, means, and ends from Homer's ancient epics to modern statecraft. The ancient Greek polis enacted the freedom equal men found in war and adventure within the walls of the city, and opened it to all citizens: men who by virtue of their domination of the women and slaves of their household (zoe) were free. Plato's Academy demanded freedom from obligation to the polis, and got it. Later the Roman res publica was a relationship between Rome and the formerly independent nations it conquored but did not annihilate, and the Church demanded freedom from obligation to the polis (as reconstituted in the res publica), which became freedom to govern. After that I got confused.

Major insights:

  • Politics is freedom — the freedom to act a new act, to speak a new word, to see from another's point of view without coercion. In order to protect political space, force (which is apolitical) is used to dominate the household, freeing citizens from domination by work; and to dominate enemies, freeing citizens from domination by enemies. The end of politics is the miraculous irruption of free action, speech, and insight; freedom is its base substance.
  • Academic freedom and religious freedom asked for a guarantee from the polis, degrading politics into the vouchsafing of the freedom of another, and eventually the institution of government.
  • The free action/word/insight is a genuinely new thing that does not flow deterministically from extant conditions. Wherever political space is created, free action can "miraculously" change the course of history.

Pierre Clastres (2010). Archeology of Violence. Los Angeles, CA : Semiotext(e); Cambridge, Mass.: Distributed by the MIT Press.

I read the introduction and the titular essay ("Archeology of Violence: War in Primitive Societies"). Clastres is better known for his more ethnographic book Society against the State. In this essay he critiques his teacher Levi-Strauss, Hobbes' justification of the state, and naturalist and economic/Marxist tendencies in anthropology, offering a conception of the political not far removed from Carl Schmitt's.

War in so-called "primitive" societies served to maintain difference. Alliances were necessary in war; thus exchange happened. But exchange of all with all would undermine the dispersal of societies, generating a state, and war of all with all (without temporary alliances) would create dominated people, undermining nonhierarchy. War was how stateless societies safeguarded egalitarian political space. Clastres died in the 1960s, but his political anthropology was a major influence on Gilles Deleuze and anthropologist James C. Scott.

Leo Strauss's (1933) Notes on Carl Schmitt's Concept of the Political and Three Letters from Strauss to Schmitt in Heinrich Meier (1995). Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue. J. Harvey Lomax, trans. Univ of Chicago Press.

I read the introduction and Strauss's material. It complicated my understanding of Schmitt's concept. Strauss was very closely acquainted with the work of Hobbes, and argued that as Schmitt tried to make a way out of liberalism from within liberalism, Hobbes made a way into liberalism from outside it.

Strauss suggested that Schmitt's emphasis on establishing enemies (of the state) and friends (of the state) — which derived from an affirmation of man's dangerousness, or man's animal nature, and thus of man's need to be dominated — was only a negative Hobbesianism and thus also liberal unless employed to a specific end. The end to which he suggested Schmitt's conservative polemic was employed was against technology and a century of technicians, and for theology. What Schmitt feared was the loss of humanity along with politics.

Invisible Committee (2014 Oct). "Fuck Off, Google."

Suggests that economics was never a reality or a science, but a post-17th century art of governing that has been partially displaced by cybernetics. Homo economicus is being displaced by a subject without interiority who does not need to be trusted because control and transparency reign. Transparency was established with sensors, statistical models, technicians, and people who are encouraged to communicate as much as possible, so that they can be better policed.

Because computers are not equal to life, life must be impoverished. Hackers understand the physicality on which the virtual world is built. Techniques and tools form the world and constitute forms-of-life, but we only notice them during discovery or breakdown. Technology is the systematizing of the most effective techniques, and a leveling of worlds at the hand of the sad and servile engineer. The hacker asks how things work, experiments, and asks what techniques mean ethically.

Individual freedom and surveillance belong to the same paradigm of government. Free and friend come from the same root: freedom is something that happens between people.

What I got from these readings as a whole:

  • One group's politics can be guaranteed by the thorough depoliticization of another by force.
  • The force relationship depoliticizes all parties involved in it.
  • Forceful refusal of depoliticization can be pre-political.
  • Techniques for establishing political space must develop a space for noncoercive relationships betwen "friends" and continually exercise those relationships.
  • "Friends" are those who share enemies.
  • Politics consists of noncoerced thought, action, and seeing from another's perspective.
  • Coersion includes directly by another or by life iteself for wont of basic necessities of life.
  • Archos means both the ruler and the originator of a political space or an influential free action from within political space. Anarchist politics refuse coercion by life, coercion by enemy, coercion by friends, and (except as necessary to establish political space) coercion of others by self. - Comments: 0

Review of research about the buddy system - 08 Jan 2015 20:59

Tags: recovery training wellness

Do you have any written resources about the buddy system? Perhaps any studies done on effectiveness or other background material? I am putting together a proposal for assisted living/nursing home facilities to work with the direct care staff on mindfulness and self-care and I think the buddy system could be a useful tool to consider. —a reader

These notes are based on the seven most useful papers I found in a quick literature search. One paper attends to preventative stress management in a corporate environment, one help-seeking during suicidality by college-age youth, one stress in the military, two veteran mental health, one disaster mental health, and one child welfare worker safety.

People use buddies

The literature suggests that a person is more likely to seek help for a buddy than for himself, and more likely to seek help from a peer than from a professional.

Curtis [Bibliography item cur10 not found.] found that while youth suicide is common, youths seeking help for themselves is uncommon. Students were more willing to seek help for others than for themselves. Furthermore, "Participants expressed greater willingness to seek help for another if they were not a close friend" [p. 699]. Rings et al. [Bibliography item rin12 not found.] discussed the everpresence of the buddy system in the military ("the main benefit often is safety or survival; buddies work together to provide monitoring, assistance, or even rescue during a crisis" [p. 103]).

"In a study surveying U.K. peacekeepers, 98% of personnel felt able to talk to military friends or peers in the same deployment and only 8% had used formal support networks (such as the use of medical or welfare services). Furthermore, only 15% had spoken to the chain of command about their experiences" [Bibliography item lan07 not found., p. 932]. I wouldn't be surprised to see similar numbers for civilians.

Some roles of buddies

The basic role of the buddy system is to promote safety and prevent physical and psychic injury. As such, it is a primary prevention method [Bibliography item har11 not found.]. Hargrove et al. [Bibliography item har11 not found.], in their literature review of preventative stress management in professional environments, list roles buddies play and outcomes they promote: "[buddies] may provide direct aid in dealing with a stressor, or may help individuals reframe their stressful experience. Social support may reduce the intensity and duration of stressors by buffering or protecting individuals from sources of stress… developing interdependent workers with healthy attachments to each other leads to more sound psychological contracts and a pipeline of individuals who can sustain themselves in stressful environments without becoming distressed" [p. 188].

Training to establish buddy systems

Buddies can be trained, their training should teach them to provide practical support, and workers who enter dangerous scenes or who have faced an on-job assault should be entitled to a buddy.

Pfeiffer et al. [Bibliography item pfe12 not found.] focus on treatment resistance among veterans, and the role of peer networks in promoting help-seeking. They find that "formal peer-based programs may assist soldiers not sufficiently benefitting from natural peer networks" [p. 1471]. Hargrove et al. [Bibliography item har11 not found.] summarize literature which finds training that improves peoples' coping resources "enhances satisfaction and well-being," but caution that support should be practical, not just emotional: "Informational and emotional support should be coupled with instrumental support that helps individuals meet job demands, and appraisal support that facilitates role clarity and provides concrete performance feedback" [p. 188].

Scalera [Bibliography item sca95 not found.] documented the 9-point plan he instituted for child welfare worker health and safety as director of New Jersey's DYFS. Point one was mandated "teamed response" (buddy system) for a variety of potentially dangerous circumstances. Among these circumstances, "workers who were previously assaulted are entitled to a buddy until such time as the worker and his or her supervisor jointly decide that one is no longer routinely needed" [p. 342].

Who makes a good buddy

Military, police, and emergency medical buddies are field partners within a squad. In human service professions, it might be harder to figure out who makes a good buddy. Scalera writes, "Buddies might be other DYFS staff members or supervisors, or other helpers, such as a mental health/crisis team worker, a family preservation services worker, a pediatric nurse consultant, or other professionals involved in the case" [Bibliography item sca95 not found., pp. 342-3].

More applications

Other papers I looked at (not cited; find them yourself if you're interested) discussed:

  • how suicide occurs in clusters in Australian indigenous communities, and an intervention in which a pre-planned buddy system becomes active with at-risk people after a suicide to decrease their likelihood of following suit;
  • a randomized controlled trial of a buddy system involving people with psychiatric or cognitive disabilities buddied with nondisabled adults in which the disabled adults showed improved social functioning and self-esteem;
  • emergency responders promoting the standard practice of a buddy system among the "walking wounded" in mass-casualty incidents in Iraq;
  • a buddy system used as part of a secondary trauma healing intervention for professionals who assisted Hasidic settlers injured by rockets in the Al-Aqsa Intifada;

MSF (Doctors Without Borders) used buddy systems and family groups as a first-stage intervention after cyclone Nargis in Burma, followed by more formal training of community health workers: "…they designed a 'buddy system', through which MSF teams could provide support and counselling to staff and help them cope with working in arduous conditions. Staff members were divided into 'work families'—teams working together in the delta region, each with a 'father' and 'mother' who help the team solve its problems on its own…" [Bibliography item ste08 not found., p. 16].

Other papers discussed buddy systems for HIV and TB medication compliance / lifestyle modification, obesity interventions, suicide prevention in a deployed military unit, preparation and support of transplant patients, emotion-focused therapy for incarcerated offenders of intimate partner violence, and rural home care nurses' cold-weather self-monitoring for frostbite and hypothermia.

A note

"The objective of primary intervention is not to eliminate all stress, because the elimination of stress in organizations would lower individual and organizational performance. Managers should attempt to eliminate only those extreme stressors, which have no possibility of producing positive responses, e.g. violence, hazardous conditions, etc. Because eradication of stress is not the principal goal, primary intervention should seek to reduce stressors to levels that promote positive stress responses and create conditions of eustress. Primary interventions, in addition to reducing stressors, may also be effective at developing psychological capital among employees and improving employee well-being" [Bibliography item har11 not found., p. 188].


This was just the result of a brief literature review on EBSCOhost, looking at the first 80 hits for one search string. These papers are by no means the most influential or important on the topic: they're just a taste of the literature available.


Curtis, C. (2010). Youth perceptions of suicide and help-seeking: 'They'd think I was weak or 'mental''. Journal Of Youth Studies 13(6), 699-715.
Hargrove, M., Quick, J., Nelson, D. L., & Quick, J. D. (2011). The theory of preventive stress management: a 33-year review and evaluation. Stress & Health: Journal Of The International Society For The Investigation Of Stress 27(3), 182-193.
Langston, V. et al. (2007). Culture: What Is Its Effect on Stress in the Military? Military Medicine 172(9), 931-935.
Steffens, M. (2008). After the deadly storm. Mental Health Practice 12(2), 14-17.
Pfeiffer, P. N., Blow, A. J., Miller, E., Forman, J., Dalack, G. W., & Valenstein, M. (2012). Peers and Peer-Based Interventions in Supporting Reintegration and Mental Health Among National Guard Soldiers: A Qualitative Study. Military Medicine 177(12), 1471-1476.
Rings, J. A., Alexander, P. A., Silvers, V. N., & Gutierrez, P. M. (2012). Adapting the Safety Planning Intervention for Use in a Veterans Psychiatric' Inpatient Group Setting. Journal Of Mental Health Counseling 34(2), 95-109.
Scalera, N. R. (1995). The Critical Need for Specialized Health and Safety Measures for Child Welfare Workers. Child Welfare 74(2), 337-350.

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