Prelude to an Activist

16 Oct

by Erin Conley

I’ve been thinking a lot about activation lately.  Each time I wander over to Occupy Los Angeles I inevitably overhear someone talking about the thrill of being involved in a political protest for the first time.  My feeling is that for many people camping out by City Hall, the Occupy movement is the first time politics has felt accessible and real.  They may have been angry before, but it took something bigger than a feeling to spark their participation.  I can sympathize with that.  I keep wanting to identify an origin point for myself.  I keep needing to rationalize the decisions I’ve made in the last few months to sacrifice sleep and school, to worry my parents, and to constantly wonder if I’m doing enough.  I don’t think I’ve pinned down exactly what made me run for office last spring, but I have some thoughts that I wanted to share.

When I was a kid, my dad would respond to uncertainty and conflict with two maxims: never make a bet you aren’t sure you can win, and always treat people the way you would want to be treated.  As a secularized Golden Rule, the second maxim stuck with me the most as I got older. That second maxim is why in the tenth grade my debate team started calling me Buffy the Cheerleader Slayer after I defaced a spirit banner urging the Emporia High Spartans to “Scalp the [Wichita East] Indians.”

But it’s a long way to jump from Buffy to activism.  At the University of Kansas, I joined the TA union, ignored an organizer pleading for people to be on the bargaining team, and sat back while others fought for my gains. Things were different when I moved to California.  At the urging of a friend I attended my first monthly membership meeting and it was a terrible experience.  Palpable discord sullied any sense of productivity at the meeting, but afterward I headed over to Brewco with some people I learned later were AWDU activists.  We talked together about the problems we saw in our departments—the uneven workloads, the growing class sizes, the decreased funding.  And we talked about the problems we saw with the union—the lack of transparency, the weak contract, the bureaucratic collaboration.  That’s when I wrote my name down on a sheet of paper where someone had scribbled “Head Steward.”  Something inside of me was stirred by that membership meeting—a feeling of powerlessness, a sense of being screwed over, I don’t know.  But that’s when I signed on.  It was scary and empowering, overwhelming and exhilarating, and for the first time I felt like I was part of something important.

This self-reflective fugue of mine has made me realize how much traction my dad’s first maxim has held in my life.  I’ve made countless pros and cons lists and carefully calculated every major decision to correspond to a privileged idea of success.  I never took a real risk because I only made sure bets—and those were only sure bets because I took advantage of a system set up to help me succeed at the expense of others.

There were no lists when I decided to sit in the UAW office for two weeks waiting for those ballots to get counted.  Every time I’m in that building I get an intense feeling of anxiety coupled with deep affection for the people who sat there with me.  There’s a strong social motivation for sticking with AWDU.  I care about these people in a very profound way, but I’m also here because I have this feeling that I’m finally acting in a way that reflects the lesson I always wanted to embrace, that second maxim of my dad’s.  I would want people to fight for me, and so now I fight.  Sometimes I think about the courage of my new friends who know so much about labor and social justice, who’ve been arrested and beaten by cops, who take honest-to-god risks for their convictions every day.  I feel like I’ve walked into the middle of their conversation and I’ll probably never catch up.  What I don’t know always seems to overwhelm what I’ve learned.  But I’m trying, and that’s why I need to eject the first maxim from my life.

That’s also why I’m excited about our local’s support of ReFund California, a statewide movement to expose how deeply unpopular and harmful “austerity” cuts are for most Californians.  Partnering with community groups, faith based organizations, and labor unions, ReFund California will stage a series of actions in cities across the state to demand Wall Street pay for the havoc it continues to wreak on Main Street.  Recently a group of activists marched on the Bank of American in downtown LA and tried to cash a check for the amount of money it would take to help save California families from foreclosure.  In the same week, ReFund California activists marched on the Bel Air home of one of California’s wealthiest bankers and crashed an exclusive meeting of bankers at the Balboa Yacht Club in Orange County to make the same demands.  Little by little people are taking action, and very soon, I think, we’ll start to see some change.

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2 Responses to “Prelude to an Activist”

  1. Brian Riley October 16, 2011 at 11:18 pm #

    Thanks for writing this, Erin. Very well put and apropos.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Meditations in an Emergency « awduucla - February 12, 2012

    […] hard to imagine that only a few months have passed since I sat down to write this essay about my political activation at UCLA. Since November, student-activists and union organizers […]

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