Here is a transcription of Rachel Herzing’s speech at the Catalyst Project’s Anne Braden Anti-Racist Organizing Panel on Visionary Politics. Rachel Herzing is a long-time organizer with Critical Resistance.
Below is a transcription of Rachel Herzing’s speech at the Catalyst Project’s Anne Braden Anti-Racist Organizing Panel on Visionary Politics. Rachel Herzing is a long-time organizer with Critical Resistance.
I just want to thank the Catalyst Project and the Anne Braden Program for inviting me back. I’m a three-peater—I’m becoming like the Allen Baldwin (laughter), I feel like, of the Braden Program. But every time I come back, I’m really happy to be here. And I’ve learned a lot, actually, from being on these Visionary Politics panels, both about, kind of, the work that’s happening in different parts of the country, but also it has helped me look at the work that I do in really different ways. So, I’m grateful for that.
I am here today to talk from the perspective of two different organizations I’ve had the pleasure of working with. One is called Critical Resistance. Could I just see hands of anybody who’s heard of Critical Resistance? (assesses audience) Alright, good. So I’m not going to talk a lot about what we—what we do. There’s lots and lots of people in this room who have some relationship to this organization, some of whom goes back really, really far.
For those of you who don’t know, just to go over really briefly, we’re a national grassroots organization that is dedicated to abolishing the prison industrial complex, and by that I mean imprisonment, policing, courts, surveillance, the whole shebang. That’s the goal, right? And we talk about it as visionary politics because it—we understand it to be a long-term goal but we also understand it to have concrete steps that we can take today in that direction.
We have been around for a little over—I guess this is our tenth year as an organization. So, I’m one of the co-founders of the organization. I started working with what was then a network, I guess, in 1999, and it’s been my primary political home since then.
I also am going to talk a little bit about an organization called Creative Interventions. Has anybody heard of that organization? (Raises hand and assesses audience.) Oh, that’s good. Okay. Great. It’s a smaller, lesser-known, a little bit more low-profile kind of organization that’s a community resource that was developed to establish and practice means of preventing, interrupting, and eliminating interpersonal harm. And mostly what we’re talking about when we were doing that work, is sexual violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, etc., and the goal of that was to figure out how to do that from a community-based perspective that did not rely on imprisonment, policing, or traditional social services. So, we weren’t trying to start a new kind of shelter system; we weren’t trying to start a new hotline kind of situation. We really believe that people every single day are taking steps that can interrupt, prevent, and eliminate violence without having to call the cops to do that, because we often find that the cops make things worse rather than better.
So, typically I would spend time talking about all the glorious things that these organizations are doing, but one of the things that’s been on my mind a lot, actually since the last time that I was here because people were asking about how to sustain the work, was how to sustain a visionary politic. And my goal in thinking about that is actually to extract it from myself—so, what makes me happy and what makes me want to go on and on, but really, like, what does it take to sustain a politics that has a very, very long view. And so that’s actually want I’m going to talk about today.
So, to do that, I’m going to talk about a couple core concepts that are similar to both of these organizations. And they’re not the only ones, but they’re some of the ones that stick out to me as a way of helping frame my thinking around that.
The first one is self-determination. And this is like the big winner concept for me, right? Because the goal of the work that we do, both at Critical Resistance and Creative Interventions, is self-determination for those people who are systematically denied access to. And we know who those people are, right? We talked about some of those people already. We’re talking about people of color, poor people, queer and gender-nonconforming people, young people, people with disabilities, indigenous people—you know the list, right?
And the goal for the work of both of these organizations is not necessarily to eliminate violence, or the prison-industrial complex, as much as it is to liberate ourselves. So, in the words of Beth Richie, who some of you might know, who’s one of the advisors for Creative Interventions, she would say, “Our goal is not to eliminate violence, it is liberation.”
So, it is true, we want to eliminate violence, we want to eliminate the prison industrial complex, but it is as important for us to be clear and operating from the position that allows us to move toward what we want to build, what we want to live in, as much as what we want to tear down.
Working toward self-determination also gives us the ability to honor our identities and our communities without getting hamstrung by the limitations of identity politics. For me, it also implies a commitment to struggling against all of the barriers that limit our ability to be self-determined, like capitalism, heteropatriarchy, xenophobia, etc.
Rejection of the idea, for instance, that cops, or courts, or prisons, the very systems that are employed to repress and kill us—and I actually say that quite literally, I’m not being metaphorical there—the rejection of the idea that they can be employed in our liberation, is central to kind of sustaining this idea that our goal is to resist that, even as we’re moving in the short-term to undermine its ability to have a hold on us. So, it’s kind of a toggling back and forth constantly between what’s right in front of us and what we’re trying to build.
Concept Two: Praxis. I’m going to talk about praxis in super-simplistic terms. There are lots and lots of complicated ways of talking about it and lots of people who have opinions about what it means. And when I’m talking about it, really what I’m talking about is the, a practice that’s formed by both reflection and action.
My work with Critical Resistance and Creative Interventions is rooted in the idea that reflection and action must be in a dialectical relationship with each other. So, for Creative Interventions, for instance, our work gathers examples of what people are trying every single day to intervene in situations of interpersonal harm, so that we can not only reflect on the quantity and variety of things that people have tried, but we can also apply those lessons when harm is right in front of us, so that we have more skill, we have more confidence, we have more ability to intervene.
Reflection allows us to assess what contexts and situations may be impacted by which approaches. We value an informed practice that’s constantly adjusting and adapting to what we’re learning through testing things out. In CR, similarly, study has been really a cornerstone, and it continues to be a cornerstone, of our work.
We reject anti-intellectualism, and we recognize how important clarity of thought, a really firm understanding of historical context, and strong theoretical grounding, makes our work stronger—not instead of doing the work, amplifying the work, making the work stronger.
A visionary politics cannot be sustained only by dreaming wildly, although dreaming is essential to staying focused on a vision, nor can it be sustained only by acting. What sustains the ability to strive for visionary politics is to maintain a practice that understands the relational nature of thought and action. So, both of those things, I think, are necessary to keep visionary politics moving.
Next up is discipline and accountability, and those of you who work with me know that discipline is my—my little stump speech lately, so I apologize in advance for those of you who work with me. And I also want to say that it’s the hardest one, for me, discipline and accountability is absolutely the hardest one. So even as we acknowledge that our work and our practice is happening within the very systems and dynamics that we’re opposing, the challenge is to be disciplined in our politics and accountable to our principles. And it’s because we’re enmeshed in what we’re fighting that discipline and accountability are so crucial to the long-term sustainability of our political visions.
So, don’t get me wrong here—by discipline, I’m not talking about inflexibility or rigidity, I’m not talking about political purity, I’m not talking about sectarianism. What I mean is that our politics must lead us, and they must provide the frame around our work.
Prison industrial-complex abolition is, for me, that frame. I imagine the vision to be kind of like a horizon—it’s a fixed point ahead, which concrete steps can be taken towards. Except in my version of a horizon, you can actually reach it, right, so it’s not kind of the never-ending story, but it’s like, oh and then I got there. But you know, just like the horizon, it’s fixed but it’s also expansive enough to allow lots of different kinds of approaches and many, many points of access and entry.
To keep a focus on that visionary horizon requires a fearless discipline to understand the difference between compromises that expand our ability to fight with broader alliances, versus those that create obstacles that we’ll only have to tear down later. And some of the examples that we use in terms of thinking about prison industrial-complex organizing are gender-responsive imprisonment, community policing—that’s a devil, right?—or hate-crimes prosecution, and I know that one’s a little more controversial, but, we can talk more about that.
We also have to be accountable in the exercise of our political practice. And I really like, Carla, how you talked about showing up, right. I think that’s a lot of what being accountable to your political principles is. We need to act in ways that are consistent with our vision: in our organizations, in our coalitions, in our movements, and in our personal lives. And I will cop to it… that this is the absolute hardest one for me. Being politically consistent in my personal life is incredibly difficult and incredibly important.
And I want to stress we try to do that without getting caught up in perfectionism, and to understand that living your politics as completely as possible and not relegating it to a job, or a campaign, or a specific set of work that you do with an organization, is really crucial, and to be okay to try and to fail. But to try.
It is essential to sustaining us in the long-term. And as much as that practice is important to my vision, the vision also inspires me to want to live in that way.
And organization. I’ve come to believe that strong organizations are really, really essential to sustaining visionary politics. And in this, I don’t mean that there’s some perfect organizational form, or that I believe some organizations should last forever. I think that organizations have life cycles and that they respond, you know, to the conditions in which they exist. And I liked Miss Major, how you were talking about what’s appropriate now, right, you need to be able to assess what the conditions call for.
They also respond to who is in them at any given point and what is being required of them at any given point. For Critical Resistance, I’ve found that we’re the strongest when our organizational form is strong. What I meant to say is we’re made up of chapters. We have a chapter model that operates across the country. And with weak chapters, or with individuals scattered across the country but without local chapters through which to exercise discipline and accountability to our praxis, we’re less effective. So you can think about the herding cats allusion there. It’s much harder, I think, when you don’t have a little crew of people to be accountable.
Alternately, Creative Interventions is an example of an organization that followed a model of planned obsolescence. Because one of our core principles is that we don’t want to create a reliance on social services, we didn’t want our organization to become another social service that people went to, to figure out how to intervene in situations of violence. So, we created the organization in such a way that the work became tools that could bolster other organizations’ work, rather than something that had to be sustained in and of itself to be effective. And again, we can talk more about what worked and didn’t work—that’s not, you know, a slam-dunk example by any means, but we did a lot of good stuff, I think, in that regard.
Organizational formations, whatever shape they take, can provide homes, containers, and catalysts for visionary politics. Their strength, their ability, and their vitality, allow visionary politics to thrive. So clearly these concepts are just the tip of the iceberg of what sustains political movements with goals that sometimes seem unachievable. In my case, that’s a world without violence, that’s a world without cops, prisons, or courts, or surveillance cameras, or people punishing each other. Our ability to continue to think expansively about what we want, our liberation, instead of what we think we can get, these small-term victories, or what the state tells us we’re entitled to, right, allows us to both reflect and act, to exercise consistency and rigor in our praxis, to build strong organizations, and set the stage for what I think is necessary to sustain us for what proves to be an incredibly long and hard fight.
Thanks a lot. (applause)