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Seeing Beyond the Trees: Review of "Collective Liberation on My Mind"

Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

Collective Liberation on My Mind: Essays
by Chris Crass
Kersplebeded in Canada & AK Press in US, 2001

This tight little book makes very clear why Chris Crass has become widely respected for his passionate patience and total, yet humble, commitment to making another world possible. A San Francisco writer and organizer originally from a middle-class suburb in ultra-conservative Orange County, he seeks to bridge anarchist theory and practice with an analysis of power involving the topics of race, class and gender.

He spent 8 years with Food Not Bombs and more recently has been working with Colours of Resistance and the Challenging White Supremacy (CWS) Workshop. The goal of his book, Crass says, is to advance debate and discussion about some of the challenges facing the contemporary anarchist/social justice movements.

He draws on personal experience in helping to shut down the WTO in 1999 and demonstrating at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000 as he explores several challenges.

Among them, he gives special emphasis to anti-racist organizing based on his belief that racism/White Supremacy is a system of power that keeps our movements from achieving the unity needed.

Crass takes on those big questions that often confront organizers, such as, “how can we speak radical politics in a way that will be both understood and appealing to the people most negatively affected by global capital?” and “how is an anti-racist, multi-racial movement against global capitalism developed?”

His approach is practical. In response to the question of why the successful Seattle action was so white, for example, Crass and Sharon Martinas (CWS founder and leader for 10 years) launched a new workshop on “Challenging White Supremacy in the Movements against Global Capitalism.”

Generating change

Crass’s perspective does not focus on recipes for involving more people of color: “multiracial doesn’t automatically mean anti-racist,” he says. He also understands that “organizers of color have enough work already” to make schooling white organizers about racism a priority. In a similar way, he draws on his Food Not Bombs experience to assert that “men cannot expect women to educate them about sexism and heteros cannot expect queers to give them the homophobia 101 class.”

The author also emphasizes the need for more movement-wide discussion about strategy, vision and goals, as well as the need to think more deeply about our goals. He feels it is important to get beyond the inevitable “how many people came to the demo?” question or asking how much media coverage an event garnered.

From goals flow strategies that see past immediate actions or campaigns. The one serious void in such discussions, as somewhat reflected in this book, is grappling with the role of class, while avoiding the bad habit of opposing race (or gender) to class in developing any strategy.

In setting forth models and useful analyses, Crass prioritizes the work of women of color. He cites Helen Luu, an anti-global capitalism organizer, on how white privilege operates in the movement; Barbara Smith as a black lesbian pioneer with an inspiring anti-racist, radical vision of feminism; Chicana lesbian author Gloria Anzaldua on the need of whites to understand “the images in their heads,” how they have internalized racism; and my own anti-racist, anti-capitalist work over the years that led to a focus on alliance-building between peoples of color.

Not surprisingly, Crass finds Ella Baker at the top of any list of organizing models. In all of her work and especially with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she continues to inspire organizers with her insistence on developing a sense of power in the people directly involved that can enable them to build a sustainable movement with vision.

Whatever the subject, Chris Crass addresses it in a thoughtful, generous, undogmatic spirit. At a time when sectarian squabbles, backbiting, defensiveness and a host of other ailments plague our movements, here is a writer/activist who keeps his eye on the prize: to work for collective liberation, remembering that mine is interdependent with yours. And “have a damn good time” doing it.