I Saw What The Revolution Would Look Like And It Was Beautiful
First published in OOMK, Lena Mohamed writes about her experience travelling from London to Chicago earlier this year to attend the Incite! Colour of Violence 4 conference, ‘Beyond the State: Inciting Transformative Possibilities’
Under the global system of violence we are subjected to, white cis-gendered able-bodied straight men can exercise power unchecked. They are granted the ability, among other things, to control borders, police women’s bodies, carry weapons. They get to practise this violence at every level, in both immense and intimately personal ways.
The US border is a space of confrontation – a staging point of these intersections of power, ironically brought into sharp relief by the reason for my travels: attending the Color of Violence 4 conference (COV4) in Chicago on seeking justice beyond the State. With an organising committee of Incite! members, its core principles of challenging colonial, racial and gender-based violence were the antithesis of this particular moment (every moment) at O’Hare airport that I was to experience.
Every interaction I have with a white person carries with it a legacy of violence (what historical traumas ripping through ancestors’ homes, bodies and souls have brought me to this moment?) The echoes of this resonate over and over again, filling the space between my body and theirs. So this white man who pulls me aside in the airport does not need to literally pull me aside for this to be yet another enactment within the trajectory of colonial violence.
When asked to press my fingers to the glass panel so as to make an imprint of my identity for them to scrutinise and own forever I am reminded of the photographs they took of my ancestors when they colonised our land. They categorised us: ‘tea picker’, ‘hindoo’, ‘snake charmer’. The mode is the same, if the labels have changed. This time: ‘terrorist’.
But while this airport marks the terrain of the world we know – one founded on violence – I came to see COV4 as a counter-space. It was not a perfect conference; there were obvious errors made, but it was an attempt at conceiving of another world. Because non-violence is not the opposite of violence. COV4’s proposed starting point was one of love. Not romantic love, or Hollywood love, but a love that binds people together in a way that is generous, just, and transformative.
The Muslimness of my skin exposes my body as a threat. White supremacy does a good job of constructing our bodies to subvert the authenticity of our flesh. I think that the fabric wrapped around my head is a site of resistance, but sometimes I can’t work out if I do in fact make them nervous or if I’ve just made myself an easier target for their cameras, rifles and drones. But I take comfort in the example set by my sisters at COV4 with the visibility of their attire as a marker of resistance. In a world that seeks to silence our voices and erase our bodies, these women (many of them queer and trans women of colour) have forced their way into spaces that would not even have them exist and have demanded that they are seen and heard.
This visibility was a major element of COV4, which attempted to create a space in which women and trans people of colour could feel safe just being. It is the commitment of starting all social justice work and community organising from a place of love that envisions what the world will look like if the revolution is brought about by those most marginalised in the existing order.
So when the officer asks me to open my bags and he starts pulling my bras out it is a reminder of intimate and sexual violence women of colour experience every single day, many in the most appalling ways. If I had been black, statistics indicate the likelihood of me leaving similar encounters with law enforcement agents assaulted, possibly with gunshot wounds, possibly dead.
And when the officers take issue with my book choices it is a reminder of the ways in which we have been refused the right to build our own knowledges on our terms to challenge the historical and contemporary epistemicide of our peoples.
And when the officers put me into a waiting room with only brown people (mostly Mexicans, South Americans, and non-Black Muslims), it is a reminder that this nation state – just like every other white supremacist state – marks its territory in opposition to the Other and secures its borders by lining them with the presence of black and brown bodies desperate to get in and the ghosts of those who failed to do so.
I speak English well and I have a job to go back to (that they have been able to Google), so I am not made to be one of these. I can spend money within their borders, so they will take the risk with me (although they do seek reassurance that I will not be partaking in any protests while in Chicago). The absence of black people in this waiting room is also a reminder that anti-blackness is foundational to white supremacy. Black bodies governed by the United States do not line the country’s borders; these black bodies are so often left to lie in the streets.
All of these modes of violence intersect at COV4 and we talk through and analyse them, learn from and critique each others’ successes and failures, and celebrate the women who have come before us having given their lives to the struggle for justice.
The panels at the plenary sessions were peppered with legendary survivors of the prison industrial complex: Angela Davis, Rasmea Odeh, Cece McDonald (the latter by far the most impressive of all the speakers at the conference). But in the quiet corners of COV4 was where the real radical activism was being thrashed out. Workshops covered issues surrounding non-profits and the funding traps that result in ineffectual work, to the violence within diasporic homes being a replication of the colonial violence experienced back home. Other workshops looked at models for establishing justice and accountability within our communities that reject any need for police, to the ways state-level racism and Islamophobia result in our communities concealing internal realities that disadvantage and silence women, to the need for self and community healing as a radical form of resistance. COV4 ensured a breadth of analyses and strategies for moving forward with the revolution .
One of the frustrations with conferences on radical politics is that they engage in complex rhetoric and language tricks that encourage enthusiasm in attendees but in truth provide little to equip us with the reality on the ground. COV4 appeared to embody the politics that people spoke about. It was clear that their discourse came from the grassroots, a rejection of academia’s attempt to force narratives from the top down. So when the organisers had little option but to hold the conference at the monster of a hotel, the Hyatt Regency (where a corporate finance conference ran concurrently), they facilitated training for the staff on LGBTQIA+ rights. This led to the hotel agreeing to alter some of its bathrooms to gender-neutral facilities. There were also funding options for those struggling to attend, free childcare facilities, healing physical therapy sessions, prayer spaces, and counselling available to those affected by some of the discussions being had.
There was also an agreement with hotel management to ensure that staff would not call the police if an incident occurred. Organisers pre-empted any incident in recognition of the fact that black people are targets of this armed wing of the white supremacist state, and are at risk of death when in contact with the police. When an incident (inevitably) occurred it was de-escalated by the on-call safety team, on-call lawyer-allies, as well as conference attendees.
COV4 was not perfect. It was messy at times, problematic at others, and while some transparency was implemented it could have been done more effectively and the issues raised could have become workshops within the programme itself. There was also sometimes a worrying flattening out of some of the issues at hand, for instance, the indication that non-white people could segue out of the racial hierarchies we are trapped in and into a class structure that was only designed for white people anyway.
That said – without hyperbole – those four days with those 1400 people were the most beautiful, energising and transformative I have ever had the privilege of experiencing. The radical work being done on state violence, intimate violence, and transformative justice is embodied by those practicing it. Mistakes are recognised, and ways to be better, more loving to the people around us and fierce in the face of those who oppress us are put into practice. Despite the internal fractures Incite! is currently experiencing, the women around me were living their politics, and I cannot envisage a better strategy for a revolution that allows us not just to survive, but to live.
One of My Kind (OOMK) is a highly visual, handcrafted small-press publication. Printed biannually its content pivots upon the imaginations, creativity and spirituality of women. Each issue centers around different creative theme, with more general content exploring topics of faith, activism and identity.