Amin Husain. | ARTISTACTIVISM.ORG
Donald Trump: Rounding up immigrants, pissing on transgender bathroom rights, barring press from press briefings… The only good thing he’s done is to galvanize millions of people into political outrage. For months now we’ve gone to dozens of marches and rallies. Of course, this isn’t enough, but what more to do?
Then I happened on a Facebook post by Amin Husain: “I wish I could share what’s wrong and what’s missing in how we’re handling the Trump era without many of my dear friends thinking that I am just being a downer on the ‘resistance.’”
I had to hear more.
Husain is a Palestinian artist and political organizer, who has helped form Occupy Wall Street, Decolonize This Place, a project for indigenous movements, and MTL, a collective joining art with politics. His film about Palestine, “On This Land,” is scheduled for release this July. Here is a condensed version of my conversation with Husain:
SUSIE DAY: So what’s wrong in how we’re handling Trump, politically?
AMIN HUSAIN: Everyone’s looking for momentum. Where is it easiest to mobilize? How can one issue or targeted group unite everybody? But I think that type of politics is expedient. If the enemy is Trump, why are we separated into single issues, when we know these issues are connected?
Trump is a coup, a corporate coup. The days in which a US president needs to look political and not like a businessperson are over. The veneer is gone. We have opportunities to build some kind of frame or infrastructure — beyond just Trump. Because Trump could go, he could get impeached tomorrow, a million things can happen: but the time on the clock of the world says “Fascism.”
SD: So you’re looking past Trump?
AH: We know from history that at radical moments any number of coalitions can happen, like protesting the Vietnam War. Power corrects a little, but then the most oppressed are left behind. History is important because we still haven’t figured out how to both resist and build. How to get away from false binaries like violence-versus-nonviolence and do multiple things at the same time.
When I wrote that Facebook post, I was thinking how there’s not much organizing happening. This moment is similar to Occupy in that new groups are forming. The moral legitimacy of our institutions is in question, which means the entire population is available. These questions are big. If you don’t think about them and what you’re doing, you’re missing opportunities.
SD: Such as?
AH: We have to open up. Here’s a rudimentary example. When something happens like the Yeminis running bodegas go on strike, the question for us all is, “What does solidarity look like?” The answer is different for everyone. If you have a store and you’re in support, you shut it, too. If you’re a worker who can’t get out of work, fine. If you want to march, and that’s the only thing you can do, that’s fine, too.
SD: But there’s more activism now than almost ever before.
AH: Activists are like NGOs [non-profit, non-governmental organizations] — they’re part of the problem.
First, let’s distinguish an activist from an organizer. A good organizer should be accountable to a community, facilitating what people want, giving it shape. An activist is rarely accountable to a community. They’re individuals who just take action. Look at the Yes Men. Let’s say they do an intervention against the war — who are they accountable to? “Activist” segregates you from the population. Everyone should be fucking active, right? But “activist” reduces your role and shifts responsibility other people should also have. “I’m an activist — I did this!” “Oh, you’re the activist; I’m the ordinary person.”
The organizer works with a community. They get support from an informal network. Like families against police brutality; organizing around ICE; around sanctuaries. Also, community actions can be more radical. Like the shutdown of the George Washington Bridge last October by undocumented people. It looked like activists, but it was actually organizers.
Amin Husain and his father, shortly before the older man’s death, in Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street presence there. | TASHA DHILLON/ MTL
SD: Do you see certain alienation in the folks you’re addressing on Facebook?
AH: People march when they have time. And most of these marchers have jobs. They also have debt. Housing debt, consumer, healthcare, education debt, right? Are you free, when you have debt? What’s everyone doing right now? Exploiting themselves. You’re working two or three jobs to pay for a therapist, for someone to listen to you. You’re also giving your money to the pharmaceuticals.
I sense that people want to do stuff but don’t know how. They don’t realize their issues can fit into a broader structure, where your issue informs my issue, and that’s a positive thing. Like maybe 22 percent percent of students are in default on their student loans. Those people could be on strike. What does that demand? A declaration. But the moment you declare a strike, its ramifications are different from “activism,” in terms of consciousness, people power, possibility. It’s easy to come up with 9,000 people joining your Facebook group. Is a Facebook page power? Is a rally power?
Marching doesn’t build power, but it can be a kind of barometer. When there were few people in Tahrir Square, the government was legitimate; when there were a million people, the government was illegitimate. Numbers matter that way.
So we march because it feels good. We want to be bodies in the street together. Fine, I’ll march, too. Just the act of saying “No” alleviates alienation. Other people saying “No” with you is huge. But we also need spaces. To organize, to meet each other, to support each other, to offer mutual aid. Like, imagine the churches. They’re losing people, that’s why they’re selling to condominiums. Those churches could be spaces of resistance and building.
SD: So you’re describing forms of power that reside in so-called ordinary people?
AH: Yeah. Without typing people, without judging them. Immigrants came to this country to eat, but they’re also settlers on stolen land. There’s an essay, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” that says each one of us is the oppressor as well as the oppressed. We’re all complicit in exploiting workers, in gentrifying — let’s just get over that. We’re also dealing with race and gender and patriarchy. But knowing that allows for responsibility and agency, without resorting to a correct line.
We need loose organizations, like autonomous groups embedded in communities, that work together. Look at just one block: there’s a barbershop and a salon and a bodega and a landlord and tenants. Those are our sites to build power: How do we stop ICE from coming in? How do we support each other? You have groups like Take Back the Bronx, or groups about Section 8 housing. We have to know there could be violence. We have to push hard to break laws and rules.
Because there’s a strategic use for the government becoming unable to control people. But how will that happen? Not just by riots. By building a base, ultimately, in our communities. We’re talking about self-determination, about democracy.
SD: When did you become politically active?
AH: My awareness got formed during the first Palestinian uprising in 1987 when I was 13. My dad tried to stop me from going on demonstrations. He told me if I didn’t get killed, I’d go to prison. I got jailed twice and shot once. Friends of mine went to jail and many friends got killed. I come from a background where colonialism makes Trump clearer, because the power is more brute, more present. You can understand it better and see your choices.
I was brought up with the sense that you throw a rock, and you may die — and it’s worth it. Not that anyone wants to die; we love life. But believing in justice requires us to be willing to sacrifice. So our struggles are more connected than people understand. The gap between us and the wealthy is ever expanding. To paraphrase Robin D.G. Kelley: “When colonialism comes home, it looks like fascism.”
But we’re used to thinking that single issues, single demands, are more effective. Power, in fact, better understands upfront belligerence: Fuck you and your power. You can’t do that without being organized. It’s not slogans and it’s not glamorous, it’s real work. There’s no solution, other than to engage.
When I went to the Yemini strike, one of their chants was “America is great.” Now, I don’t think America is great but I joined in because I understand why they wanted to say that. That space of generosity is important, right? We’re separate but together. And block-by-block, our relationships shift. Because if you’re trying to upend an entire system of oppression, why wouldn’t you recognize all the people being oppressed?
SD: How does Occupy Wall Street fit into this?
AH: Deciding to name it Occupy was expedient; the land was already occupied. Five years later, we’ve learned. When we organized Decolonize This Place, the first banner we put up was “De-Occupy.”
That said, I purposely didn’t push the Palestinian issue front and center because I knew what I was doing in Wall Street was helping Palestine. That was my engagement. And when my father was dying, he couldn’t go to an Israeli hospital. He couldn’t get a permit, since he’s Palestinian. Good doctors are hard to find in Palestine, and he didn’t have insurance. They told him he had pancreatitis. In fact, he had pancreatic cancer.
It took me months to get him to New York. I cashed out my 401K and took a tax hit to get him here, and then he lasted about four months. But before he died, he came to Zuccotti Park. My dad finished fourth grade, not an educated person. When he got to the park, we were feeding the pigeons. I have a beautiful picture of that moment. He’s like, “This makes sense.”
Because this is power. This is what makes things happen.
Susie Day is the author of “Snidelines: Talking Trash to Power,” published by Abingdon Square Publishing.