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"What shall we build on the ashes of a nightmare?"
A New Year's reflection on radical imagination
We don’t need another hall of finance, wealth, and exclusivity; no more symbols of class, power, and privilege. We don’t need another gargantuan modern-day mill where some working people slave over mops and vacuum cleaners in the wee hours of the morning, and others over computers and fax machines way past sundown. Yes, jobs are valuable and necessary in a world where everything—even food, shelter, and clothing—is a commodity. But now is the time to think like poets, to envision and make visible a new society, a peaceful, cooperative, loving world without poverty and oppression, limited only by our imaginations.
Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams
Welcome to the end of 2020, friends! This is the time of year when people do things like list accomplishments, or resolutions, or alternatively, complain about the listing of accomplishments and resolutions. Whichever path you choose, or if you fall somewhere in between, no matter— New Year's Eve is upon us, like it or not. Time is a conveyer belt, or more accurately: time is a planet hurtling through space, moving us all ever-forward, and ever in circles.
New Year's stands like a semicolon in the dead of winter, a pause when we have the opportunity to look at the directions of our lives, and course correct if we want or need to. Personally, New Year's is one of my favorite holidays (second after Halloween, which should honestly sit the competition out because it's unfair to ask other holidays to compete with costumes and candy). I love the coming of the new year because it is completely arbitrary: There is little besides tradition that says that the year starts or ends when it does, it's not explicitly tied to any particular religion, it doesn't glorify colonial history, and it can be celebrated either quietly or in messy, debauched chaos. You could spend New Year's with your family, but you're not obligated to; you could give someone a present, if you wish, but no one is expecting one.
Perhaps the best aspect of the new year is that it is a moment when we proactively open space for imagination. Daydreaming— the waking practice of imagining that one is somewhere (or someone) else, or otherwise in different circumstances— is usually considered frivolous. Capitalism tells us that it is a waste of our time, that to daydream is the opposite of productivity, that daydreams are as beyond reach as all dreams. Convenient that it would, too, because daydreams are the seeds of better futures, and giving them oxygen, nutrition, and sunshine only makes our will to reshape the world and ourselves more powerful.
Each year, immediately before and after New Year's Eve, we are asked what aspects of our dreams we would like to turn into reality. New Year's "resolutions" are the crystallization of that dream into the budding tip of a plan. We might not know how we will make the resolution come to pass yet, but we have resolved to make it so. As my godmother would say, we're "fixin' to get ready to do it"— that is, we're not doing it yet, we're not quite getting ready to do it yet, but we're fixin' to.
Last New Year's, I resolved that I wanted to have closer connections to the vibrant activist community here in Chicago. Astronomers usually have career paths that force us to pull up stakes and move around every few years, and I'm no different— which has been fun in some ways, but also left me with little connection to my local community. While I've attended lots of protests here in Chicago, I've been a participant rather than an organizer, while almost all of my organizing has happened with friends and fellow astronomers who aren't nearby. I felt like there was a missing link between me and my city and community, and I wanted to bridge that gap.
Well, as you might imagine, here at the pointy tail end of Satan's year, that turned out to be a taller order than I had thought it would be. I went to one transformative justice book club at Chicago Freedom School in February, and then my resolution fell flat on its face as everything closed, and suddenly it wasn't safe to be indoors with anyone new. Like everyone else, I felt the horrible build of momentum as we all tumbled downhill into the collective loss and grief of the pandemic. Then, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor hit the public consciousness, and everything popped off. In a normal year, I would have marched in the streets with everyone else— but as a person with an autoimmune disease in a pandemic, all the familiar ground was frustratingly off limits to me. Because I personally often think about change-making as answering a simple question— how can I be useful?— I suddenly felt that I wasn't useful at all (there's probably an entirely different essay here in my tying my notions of self worth to my utility, but that's for another day, or perhaps just my therapist).
But here is the thing about changing the world, and specifically the movement for abolition, which has come to front and center in such a profound way this year: there is room for all of us, in our way, to be useful. Because the language of removal ("abolish", "defund") is so prominent, I suspect that many people don't at first see the movement for the truly imaginative act of creation that it is really is. Most people have never tried to imagine a world without police, or prisons, not because they cannot, but because the carceral system is so deeply ingrained in our society that we can't imagine how to live without punishing others. Abolition— creating a world without these systems— requires a radical leap of imagination that such a world can be possible. Furthermore, it asks us to realize that such an imagination is actually an every day act: for example, any time we ask whether someone struggling with addiction would be better served by getting mental and physical health care than by being locked away, we imagine an outcome that values them as a whole human being. What's more, that which is beyond imagination for some is a reality for others: as I write this, US lawmakers are mired in a debate over whether to send some of us a "stimulus payment" that amounts to less than the cost of the clothing Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, or frankly most of our representatives wear on a single day. In other countries, people have been essentially paid to stay home, or in some cases compensated for the additional hazards to their health if they are essential workers. These decisions are not merely about our subsistence-- they are about survival, and they have costs us the lives of our friends and loved ones.
Imagining better futures, one in which individuals are treated as whole human beings-- and particularly abolition-- is based on the intellectual work of Black people, Indigenous people, and other People of Color, including those who embody additional aspects of identity (e.g. queerness, disability). To these communities, as Audre Lorde once said, survival is— and has always been— a radical act.
By contrast, for not only white people, but anyone whose identity allows them breathing room from the winnowing claws of racial capitalism, working towards radical futures that include all of us must be something we embrace. For example, I am a white person— and while my health issues also make me, by definition, a disabled person, most of the time I have the luxury of navigating the world with a lot of able-bodied privilege. You can't look at me and see what my immune system or brain chemistry are trying to do to me, or what that feels like. I'm also queer and non-binary, but those identities aren't necessarily legible to others at a glance, and so I escape most of the looming threats of violence that other gender non-conforming and/or queer people experience. I am afforded safety and survival where others are not. As the sharp edges of this year have drawn boundaries for all of us, for me, part of that has been redoubling my commitment to making change, and embracing the tradition of radical imagination that I have learned from BIPOC thinkers. Can we imagine a world in which people are treated as their complete selves? Where people are not summarized by their worst acts? Can we imagine a world in which our differences make us more complete, instead of flawed or broken? It may sound difficult, but it is possible.
While last year's resolution didn't go as I'd planned, it did happen. When I couldn't march in the streets, I drove my van to help provide protection and roadblocks for those who were marching. I delivered food and supplies not only for protests, but for neighbors who just needed to eat and live without fear of not having what they need. I helped grow food in one of Chicago's many community farms. I called and texted my fellow Chicagoans, and asked them to imagine what we could do if we spent the Chicago Police Department's billion dollar budget on what our communities actually need (e.g. health services and food) instead. With one old friend and two strangers (now two new friends), I learned more than I ever expected to know about imagining better futures through abolition, via our Study and Struggle reading group (where I learned the Kelley quote that begins this blog, and the one I will leave you with shortly). Around the election, I even ended up connecting with other organizers both in and beyond Chicago, a lifeline of hope during a particularly anxious time. And of course, I still managed to make some of the usual trouble with my fellow scientists.
None of the above happened easily, and frankly some of it was a frustrating pain in the ass (one day maybe I will write about the non-joys of being hounded by police while you try to strap an 8-foot long wooden stage to the roof of your van in pouring rain, but this newsletter is long enough already). But it happened, and it happened at least in part because ours in a future in which there is room for us all. In the end, it didn't matter that I couldn't fit myself into the mold of what activism had looked like for me before— there was and is room for me, and there is room for you, too.
We don't need New Years to imagine a better version of our world, or ourselves. We can start anytime, because every day we are still flying through space on planet Earth, ever into the future.
I'll leave you with this last quote from Kelley, from Freedom Dreams, which you can read in its context on the Study and Struggle site.
Struggle is par for the course when our dreams go into action. But unless we have the space to imagine and a vision of what it means fully to realize our humanity, all the protests and demonstrations in the world won’t bring about our liberation.
In solidarity to the stars,