A People's History of Trash: On Rejecting Anti-Blackness In the Most Racist City You've Ever Lived In
Perhaps you know what I affectionately refer to as trash as the precariat: that portmanteau of “precarious” and “proletariat.” Or as the lumpen, the disregarded (ahem!) class whose potential was overlooked by earlier revolutions, but recognized by the Young Lords and the Black Panthers. In short: trash is a political position of abject disenfranchisement, who’s not here to make the neoliberal phoenix look good. To be trash is to not be pandered to, or courted.
The mythical White Working Class is not trash. To be trash is to be forgotten, disposed of, razed, evicted, poisoned, gaslit. Policed. It is to be detained, incarcerated, deported, murdered. We are living in a now spectacular trash fire, surrounded by ourselves being burned at the stake. I say “spectacular,” because while yes, this fire is eternal, it only seems recent that others have taken notice and watched our destruction.
What makes trash so dangerous is that it has absolutely nothing to lose.
In August of 2014, protesters in Ferguson laid 750 roses along the street where Mike Brown’s body lay for four hours after he was murdered by on-duty cop Darren Wilson. In Oakland, protesters demonstrating in solidarity with the Ferguson Uprising held mirrors up to a line of cops fully decked out in riot gear. This action forced the police to look themselves in the face while engaging in their day to day schema. Imagine aiming a gun, a teargas cannon; and then realizing that what you’re aiming at is yourself. I am not making some kind of Occupy era argument that “cops are workers” (they are not) or some such bullshit. This morning over coffee, I leafed through Konrad’s copy of Culture and Value by Ludwig Wittgenstein. “A beautiful garment that is transformed (coagulates, as it were) into worms and serpents if its wearer looks smugly at himself in the mirror.”
It’s not out of any kind of aestheticization of protest that these gestures interest me. I even want to limit political analysis of them, to just admit how deeply moved I was. And perhaps that is their point: recognizing that visceral, emotional sector of the self in which you begin to regard the Other as human.
As a non-Black person of color, I’m expected to engage in anti-Blackness to accelerate my own advancement; ironically, I am also encouraged to adopt “Blackness” as a means to assimilate to US American culture, since WASP-ness is out of my league. As I’ve gotten older (at press time, I’m eleven days away from turning twenty-eight), I’ve moved away from positioning myself in relation to whiteness, and instead have started identifying as non-Black. I have found that this re-framing has allowed me to more fully articulate my relationship to power. Through this lens, I am able to acknowledge my own oppression, but also see how much I benefit from the ongoing oppression of Black people. It’s helped me realize how critical Black liberation is: when Black people are free, we will all be free.
Carla says that San Francisco is the most racist city she has ever lived in — and we both grew up in Los Angeles. It is a place so racist, it can’t even admit it. The truth is in the numbers. The Black population of San Francisco has dipped in recent years to less than five percent. Despite that, the homeless and incarcerated population are overwhelmingly and disproportionately Black; 32.5 percent of Black San Franciscans live in poverty. While only making up five percent of births in the city, Black babies have a mortality rate of 9.6 deaths per every 1,000 births — in contrast, it’s 2.1 for whites. And who can forget the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency coup of the Fillmore District in the 1970s? Effectively destroying what was known as the Harlem of the West, this urban renewal displaced 50,000 Black residents, demolished their homes, then left the bulldozed lots vacant for over thirty years.
I’m willing to bet San Francisco now has more Black Lives Matter signs than Black people. At my service job, I am occasionally asked by white customers to call the police on (disproportionately Black) unhoused people either in the throes of mental health crises or trying to catch a nap on the sidewalk in front of the laundromat. These are the same people who thank me for writing “Neighbors don’t let neighbors get deported” on the chalkboard. Having coffee with my friend Lena recently, we stumbled upon some pins and postcards in the café windowsill advertising the San Francisco Giant Sweep, a call to encourage the proud citizenry of this world-class city to keep it a world-class city by picking up litter and sweeping in front of their houses. LOVE, in puffy retro font, the ‘o’ cut through by an industrious broom conjuring up a cloud of dust, is the motivation. Love of what, of whom? I wonder. Certainly not love of one’s neighbors. I look out my bedroom window, onto my beloved and cutty alley. Some of my neighbors live in my building and buildings next to my building; and some of my neighbors live on the sidewalks outside of it, in tents and other improvised shelters.
Maybe you noticed that the sentence “The mythical white working class is not trash” is struck through. That is because when I texted a draft of it to my friend Elaine Kahn, she wrote back that she disagreed with it. “To me,” Elaine texted back while sitting in Los Angeles traffic, “one of the things about the white working class is that mostly they tend to think of themselves as either middle class or encroaching on middle class…but in reality I think they are absolutely treated as trash, in all regards except political semantics that reassures them they are not trash because they are white.”
I agree with Elaine! But I want to explain why I left the sentence.
It’s necessary to point out that the identity of “working class” is often denied to sex workers, prisoners, and Black people. Prisoners, in particular, are denied it through their enslavement under the thirteenth amendment; forty percent of those incarcerated in the US are Black, while Black people only make up thirteen percent of the general population. Whites make up the group with the next highest rate of incarceration at thirty-nine percent; however, whites make up sixty-three percent of the general population. The enslaved Black people who built this country were not referred to as working class; and neither are the incarcerated individuals who are expected to maintain the very facilities where they’re imprisoned. Nor are they even regarded as human. Things such as the mid-seventeenth century turn to race-based chattel slavery, extreme criminalization of sex work, and current disenfranchisement of ex-cons demonstrate this. The crux of the ongoing (and largest in history) national prison strike’s demands is to simply be acknowledged as human beings, for prisoners’ rights to be understood as human rights.
Today on BART, an elder who happens to be a homeless Black woman asks me for change. I’m holding two dollars, which I give to her. Across the aisle, a middle aged white man in a cowboy hat shakes his head at me, making eye contact. I wonder if he thinks of me as foolish or guilty. I’m neither: she asked me for something that I have, and can easily give; so I gave it to her. In its desire to be the best transit system a sandblasted police state can buy, BART asks riders not to give people who rely upon panhandling any money. This is in addition to overworking its murderous police force. “We all have to pay reparations, my friend,” I say (okay, yell) to the white man. It sounds weird coming out of my mouth, but I say it, and I do believe it. I get up and wait to get off the train.
I don’t care about the white working class — I don’t care about whiteness. In both my writing and art practice, I try to not make room for it. It’s something that is already so obsessed with itself, it assumes itself to be the natural, prime audience. In the wake of the 2016 election, how many reading groups did cowed and traumatized white liberals start, reading about their angry brethren across the aisle who sent “us” on our journey to this fresh hell? Well, excuse me: this hell is not fresh. In the words of my friend, the poet and bookseller Simon Crafts, “this is why we’re fucked, everybody’s reading the wrong shit.”
My teenage niece was living with me when Nia Wilson was murdered on the MacArthur Station platform. A light-skinned Latina skateboarder growing up in a small, segregated farm town in California, she openly identifies as anti-cop and anti-white. She’s seen the cops fuck with her darker skinned friends at the skate park, and witnessed the way the wealthier white people of her town look down on her and our family, among the other Latinxs. She also gets her feelings hurt when the Black kids at the Boys & Girls Club call her “white girl.” While singing along to songs, she sings the n-word (soft a ending) casually; Angel and I try to explain to her why she can’t say it (Angel tells us how he replaces the word with “poets”). Finally, I give up and say, fine, say it. Say it to a Black person, and see what happens. This is the Sunday night we get back from the Yuba with Lena and Anya, the same Sunday Nia is murdered and her sister is critically injured, maybe while we were sitting in traffic, listening to Junglepussy.
I tell her the next day via text message, and ask if she wants to accompany me to the vigil at the station. Yes! she replies. Later, she posts a screenshot of our exchange on her Instagram story: And people ask me why I hate white people because of this shit.
We go, and are immediately overwhelmed by the drums of the mixed race danza crew making an ofrenda in front of the massive and growing altar to Nia. Her gaze drifts off. I see that she’s looking at a crew of Black teenagers, close to her age; who, like her, were enjoying their summer vacation until this. An announcement is made: they caught Nia’s murderer — on BART, nearly twenty-four hours later. I look at my niece. She looks extremely pissed; and I know that she understands that this same system that will tackle a Black teenager hopping a gate within seconds just let the white murderer of young Black girl ride the rails. On the ride home, she says nothing, but lays her head upon my shoulder.
Elaine quoted Fred Moten when we were texting, and I will use the same quote here: “I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”
Thank you for another story that needs to be told. Maybe someone will finally hear.
@James S. Henry
You already hate black people, so…
“And people ask me why I hate white people because of this shit.”
Ok, so I can hate black people when a story comes out about a black person assaulting a white person? Also, you called the death of Michael Brown “murder” even though it was proven that it was self defense. He tried to take a gun from a cop and his friend lied about it and you and many others have just closed your eyes and only seen what you want to see.