What happens when a media organization formerly run by white men who claim to be radical leftists falls into the hands of a black woman? Do they accept the change in ownership and move on with their lives? Do they offer their support and encouragement at this opportunity to promote a much-needed space for women of color in the community? Or do sparks start flying as said men become hellbent on shutting down the collective under the guise of stopping “privatization of community resources”? If you guessed Door #3, you’ve won today’s grand prize!
Welcome to Media Island International, a longtime media collective in Olympia, WA housing an independent radio station, a social justice library, space for meetings and events, and much more. The group has existed for years as a gathering place for Olympia’s activist networks. It offered resources for local organizations to meet and hold fundraisers. Sounds like a sweet deal, and it was for a while. But despite its honorable mission, Media Island fell into the same bureaucratic traps that so many progressive organizations stumble into in failing to confront their own capitalistic tendencies.
The rabbit hole runs deep on this madhouse, but here are some cliff notes. Media Island operated under the control of a board of mostly white men for much of its existence with this dude Rick Fellows at the helm. The group’s activism, while legitimate, focused on causes one would expect out of a collective of white men, and many community members outside this identity reported feeling unsafe and unwelcome at HQ. Reports of needle-swapping that brought undercover cops to the party, sexual assaults by visitors, and an unrestricted guest policy that created potentially dangerous situations for younger female visitors in a town with an underground sex trade continued to alienate these communities for the next years of this leadership. These concerns went unaddressed by the board.
Enter Shawna Hawk, the woman now running the joint. Lisa Ganser wrote an excellent piece on Shawna’s rise at Media Island in the street journalist outlet Poor Magazine. That piece will bring you up to date on the slug, but here’s the short version. Hawk became involved with MI as part of a project with the local Hip-Hop Congress chapter. She was later invited to join the board by the sitting powers and became the only woman, the only black person, and the only person of color to hold a spot in this pit crew. Through a series of scandals involving infighting, monopoly control of finances, and sexual assault allegations, the old boys of the board faded away and plans to sell the property emerged. Hawk stepped up to take over the space instead of allowing it to fall into some rando’s hands and shifted the focus to its current mission: to provide a welcoming space for women and people of color and their accomplices in an over 85% white town.
And boy did some heads roll when this power transfer happened.
Suddenly our main man Rick became concerned about the “privatizing of community resources.” No mention of this during the years he’s owned separate property a couple blocks over that he rents to others; no self-reflection on this principle when his posse intended to sell the house; no objection from the rest of the sausage fest when he received a regular stipend as board chair from a resolution Hawk supported; no concerns about profit motive when he turned down an organization’s ask for use of his bus because they didn’t fork over his asking price. When a black woman assumed control of his little boys-only hideout, Ricky boy blows an artery. The timing alone would be suspect, but in the face of these other hypocritical factors, we see a trend that plays out all the time when the old (white) guard of past progressive movements is confronted with the intersections between race and other forms of oppression.
At the heart of all this is the fundamental topic of reparations, or compensation, for the wealth stolen from slave families during the centuries of the slave trade. This concept is summarized in the American phrase “40 acres and a mule”, which refers to some early proposals of this idea before the end of the Civil War when General William Tecumseh issued an order to deliver 40 acres of land and the loan of an Army mule to each former slave family. The order was never obeyed. Black intellectuals and organizations took up the issue over the next several decades with many lobbying Congress for some form of wealth restoration around the turn of the 20th century. Plans for reparations now catch mainstream attention as they have become a core element of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
Several proposals for how to fulfil these obligations exist and it remains a complex and much-debated issue, but any adequate reparations plan must include an economic component. The American Humanist Association calculated that descendants of slaves would control a much larger share of the country’s wealth had their ancestors been permitted to keep the profits of their labor. Instead, the typical white household now controls 16 times the wealth of a black one as reported in Forbes magazine in 2015. Closing that wealth gap cannot be done by simply wiping the scoreboard and pretending that everyone is now on equal footing regardless of past events. Such an argument is not that different from the symbolic racism of neo-conservatives who insist racial discrimination does not exist in today’s America.
The Media Island fiasco highlights a chronic problem with leftist organizations run by whites of the old progressive movements. In their wars against the capitalist institutions they (rightly) criticized for predatory hoarding of wealth, they became blind to the privilege necessary to hold an absolutist view of socialism. They believed they could secede from an economy based on private ownership and be free of the racial oppression that economy caused. Their approach collapsed when resource control of these organizations inevitably funnelled to the pastiest dudes around in addition to an inability to recognize that it is necessary to operate within capitalistic frameworks while living in a capitalist society, especially if one lacks the resources needed to secede in the first place. You can’t run a grocery co-op without electricity to keep your grass-fed beef cold or without lights so your customers don’t ram into shelves. You ain’t lasting many rounds if your management team is more concerned with ideological purity than pragmatic accounting, and that’s exactly what happened to the socialist co-ops, publishers, and radio stations who failed to open their eyes to the real world around them. Employee-owned cooperatives can and do thrive in the 21st century United States, but these collectives succeed because they recognize the need to engage with the monetary system to cover their operational needs. They also tend to be more conscious of racial wealth disparities caused by historical trauma than their forbears and they incorporate this insight into their management structures.
People of color do not have the privilege to indulge the secessionist fantasy because the stripping of their wealth remains central to the oppression they face over a century after the “official” end of slavery. Karl Marx identified socialism as the product of advanced industrial economies and argued that such a society was only possible after the structures of capitalism had grown to their fullest extent. Debate still rages in economist circles about how true this teleological interpretation rings, but the fact remains that socialist collectives can only grow when they have the resources to build a foundation based in capitalist principles. Whites tend to have these resources and are therefore in a better position to separate themselves from the larger capitalist framework, and even that will only succeed until the tax man comes knocking with an order to kill your lights. People of color, and slave descendants in particular, lack these resources. The Center for Economic Policy Research reports that black households suffered some of the greatest losses in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis at a 33% decline in wealth in real terms compared to 12% in their white counterparts’ households, and this wealth gap remained unchanged for the next eight years (https://voxeu.org/article/decline-african-american-and-hispanic-wealth-great-recession). This trend began decades before 2008 and black wealth has never matched white wealth since the Abe Lincoln flicked that pen in 1863.
Restoring the wealth of people of color is necessary for a multiracial society to leap forward into socialist organization, yet this reality is cast aside by white liberals of past decades as “divisive” and “the hoarding of community property.” Black people controlling their own spaces with private capital isn’t a takeover of community spaces as this old guard would have you believe; it’s black people’s attempt to catch up after centuries of having their assets pillaged from their homes and communities.
So when Rick Fellows and Co go storming the gates of Media Island demanding a black woman relinquish property they were planning to sell before she took the reins, releasing the address of the house in a town that saw white supremacist rallies at the nearby college only two years ago and dishing out lines like “we have to do something about this” in a way reminiscent of lynch mob battle cries of the last century, they perpetuate the racist structures that ensure the gap between white and black wealth never closes. Though not as overt as the burning crosses in the Bible Belt countryside, this rhetoric of class struggle trumping all other forms of oppression still carries white supremacist undertones that can only come from a place of privilege where one’s class status paints the only target on their back.
Many of the socialist collectives and businesses of the ‘60s and ‘70s no longer exist because of their unrealistic approach to how to maneuver in a capitalist society, hinting that it isn’t a good model to replicate. Rather than see the intersections of oppression in horizontal terms, they created their own rhetorical hierarchies and assigned their own woes to the op of the pyramid. Socialism needs to be a goal in moving towards a more just society, but as Marx argued, that can only be achieved by operating within capitalist frameworks until the great leap forward can be made, and everyone must be on a comparable level of wealth control to ensure that smooth transition. We certainly don’t get there by running bandos and overlooking sexual assault allegations as the old boys’ club did at Media Island for years. A woman of color now has a space to give a silenced community a voice and offer the faintest hope that people of color can reclaim the astronomical wealth stolen from them. Think about why that bothers you, and stuff your argument about it being “privatization” where the sun don’t shine.