The African American Studies program in which I majored at my university was founded–like countless other Black, Brown and Ethnic Studies Departments–as the result of student, staff and faculty organizing. In 1969, after four years of alienation, tokenizing, failed communication and outright racism, the first admitted class of Black students lead a serious campaign for the prioritizing and enfranchising of Black bodies and histories on the all-white campus. Aided by the guidance and direct support of specific staff and faculty, a core of Black students took over a main hall on the center of the campus, and refused to leave until a set of their agreed upon demands had been met by the university, including the founding of a Black Studies department. Though, naturally, there were a myriad of factors and forces which ultimately led to the program’s establishment, it would never have been possible without the militant efforts of alined bodies of oppressed students and faculty.
Last year, after a conservative student group on my college’s campus staged a racist and misinformed “anti-affirmative action bake sale” in the student center, multiple oppressed student groups organized a demonstration in response to the event. Hundreds of students gathered midday in the same space where the bake sale had taken place to pass out pamphlets correcting the false information given during the sale, to galvanize support for the student populations who had been attacked by the event, and to vocalize their reactions. Students took turns standing on tables to speak, making countless eloquent and empowering statements. In the midst of these speeches, a professor of American Studies and Native Sovereignty Politics joined in the fray, shouting to the crowd, “Queers bash back! Students of color bash back!” until the entire student center was chanting with her. She next stated that in citing the motto of the radical queer group Bash Back, in no way was she advocating physical or emotional violence against any individuals or organizations, but that she was advocating violence. She was, she explained, advocating retaliation against the systems which establish oppressed people as abject, which denounce our histories, silence our voices, and expect us to make peace with disenfranchisement. Violence, she stated, creatively and productively administered, is an appropriate response to the systems and bodies which do violence to us on a daily basis. As students and as oppressed people, she informed us, bashing back was a duty which we owed to the safe survival of our communities, one which we should direct on the university frequently, not just in particular moments of crisis. Her words remained with me long after the rally was over.
In our modern educational discourse of acceptance and diversity, oppressed populations often seek institutionalized and diplomatic means of addressing their grievances. I have on many occasions heard oppressed groups of multiple backgrounds express the fear that, given their community’s history of activism, any other type of retaliation might be read as militant. My sincere response to this worry is: What’s wrong with being militant? Where did we learn this fear of militant organizing, and a shame in the radical histories of our communities and the incredible victories won through their militant efforts? Militancy is not an archaic feature of past activism, relevant only to a time when “real political issues” existed. The myth that militancy is a thing of the past is part of what continues the silencing of our voices and the devaluing of our communities, and halts our potential to advocate for ourselves and each other in radically new and effective ways. We need to take pride in our militant legacies (for queer, brown, working, immigrant, women, poor, and disabled communities all have militancy in our recent and immediate histories) and see those legacies not as distant histories which inevitably opened the door for our current moment, but as the efforts of our ancestors which we must actively keep alive and pass on if we want to arrive in a truly just world.
Militancy does not signify hatred or malice. It does not mean modeling our movements with uniformity or standardization, nor should it be associated with totalitarian or undemocratic military regimes. Being militant means actively opposing systems of normativity and oppression where they exist, and working to hold them accountable at every turn. It is a willingness to threaten the status quo, to be confrontational, to undermine business-as-usual through organizing and action. It is a commitment to radical politics which extends beyond talking and writing about them to initiating them in the real world, before real opposition. It exists in a bond with respect and compassion, and finds enemies only in the institutions which dismantle the health and well-being of our communities. But it is necessary for radical change, it is a part of our history, and we as oppressed people should work to invest ourselves in it as a political tactic instead of distancing ourselves from it.