If at first you don’t succeed…

This week in North Philly Notes, Ann O’M. Bowman, author of Reinventing the Austin City Councilwrites about the persistence of Austinites to change an electoral system.

You know how sometimes you try to change something and it doesn’t succeed. And then later, you try again maybe once or twice more. At that point, you might be tempted to throw in the towel, taking some solace in the fact that at least you tried more than once. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be, you tell yourself. Well, in the case of the efforts to change the way city council members were elected in Austin, Texas, it was the seventh attempt before the efforts were successful. Six previous times, ballot propositions that would have replaced the old electoral system with a new one were defeated by voters. Then came lucky number seven.

But it wasn’t luck that changed the outcome. Instead it was perseverance and commitment. And a plan. And sure, maybe a little bit of luck.

Reinventing the Austin City Council_smReinventing the Austin City Council tells the story of how Austin replaced its election system and what the change has brought about. At its heart is the issue of representation. In at-large elections, which Austin used for more than a century, candidates competed citywide and voters could vote for as many candidates as there were seats. A large number of local governments continue to elect their governing boards in at-large elections. In district elections, which Austin approved in 2012 and implemented in 2014, candidates compete in geographically-defined districts and voters who live in that district cast a ballot only for a candidate running for that district seat. This creates a more direct representational connection between the city council member and the constituent. Because of this, district elections are increasing in popularity in localities across the United States. Why does this matter?  Because the electoral system affects who gets elected to the city council. And who gets elected affects the policies that the city council adopts.

In Austin, a grassroots organization, Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR), was the engine that propelled the district election issue to victory in 2012. AGR was an amalgam of individuals and groups, some of which had been on opposite sides of political issues in the past. But they shared a belief that a district system could be beneficial to their interests in rapidly growing Austin. AGR worked tirelessly to develop a bottom-up campaign, keeping the district question in front of local residents. Organizers hammered away at the issue of fairness, showing that for many years under the at-large system, most council members came from the same part of the city. Many parts of Austin, especially those in which African Americans and Latinx lived, had never elected a city council member from their area. AGR made the argument that this was unfair, and that the concerns of residents of those areas were often unheard and seldom prioritized by the council. Some opposition to AGR’s district proposition emerged, but it was unsuccessful in defeating the ballot question. On November 6, 2012, after rejecting a district electoral system on six previous occasions, 60.2% of Austin voters approved the district plan supported by AGR. In 2014, for the first time since the early 20th century, the city held district elections for the council.

The proverb, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” seems especially apt.

A musical journey with Psychobilly author Kimberly Kattari

This week in North Philly Notes, Kimberly Kattari, author of Psychobilly: Subcultural Survivalwrites about the significance of subcultural music communities.

Since seventh grade, my identity has often revolved around my interest in some genre of popular music. First it was heavy metal. The first cassette I bought was Metallica’s self-titled album (known as “The Black Album”) and the first song I learned to play on the guitar was “Nothing Else Matters.” Then came grunge, then punk rock, and many other styles, all of with which I resonated strongly. I’d signal my interest in that style of music through my fashion and style choices—long thermals under band shirts or flannel for grunge; dyed hair, fishnets, and safety pin “jewelry” for punk. It felt great to be on the same wavelength with others who shared my passion for that style of music, were invested in what the lyrics were about, and felt that our musical taste said something about who we were.

I think my deep desire to be part of a musical community stemmed from the fact that I was once completely not in touch with popular music. As a kid, I was mostly exposed to the classical and world music my parents listened to. I regularly attended concerts with them at university concert halls, the Hollywood Bowl, and the philharmonic. In the fourth grade, while my peers danced in the schoolyard to songs by New Kids on the Block and giggled about which member of the boy band they had a crush on, I was clueless. I was listening to Robert Schumann, Ladysmith Black Mambazo (an a cappella group from South Africa), and KODO (a taiko drum ensemble from Japan). By the beginning of seventh grade, I still hadn’t branched out from the music my parents listened to. On the first day of my English class, the teacher asked everyone to introduce themselves and share their favorite musician or band. I froze. I didn’t really know any “popular” bands that someone my age would like. I blurted out the only musician’s name I could remember—Rod Stewart (my mother was a fan). Let’s just say this was not a “cool” choice. My classmates laughed. I was completely embarrassed.

After that day, I started to pay more attention to the music that my peers listened to. I still love classical music and “world music” too. I went on to earn my doctorate in ethnomusicology after all (and began to understand why the term “world music” problematically reinforces colonialist legacies). But I also became fascinated with understanding how and why people identify with different types of popular music, why we resonate with one type and not another, and how we feel connected to others who share our musical interests because we usually have more in common than just our musical tastes. Music says something about us.

Psychobilly_smFast-forward to 2007. I had just finished writing my Master’s thesis on reggaetón, exploring why fans across the United States felt that the music expressed their bicultural identity and values. Then a friend invited me to a show featuring a psychobilly band called Nekromantix. I had never heard of “psychobilly.” Intrigued, I went to the show and was stunned by what I saw. The fans blended aspects of 1950s rockabilly and punk rock. They looked like a hybrid of Elvis and the Sex Pistols. Some had a greased-up pompadour, while others had an exaggerated flattop mutated with a Mohawk. Clothes and tattoos featured symbols that signified an obsession with the macabre—coffins, bats, skeletons, monsters—done in a cartoonish, horror B-movie camp style. The music matched the fashion: it sounded like a harder, faster, more “punk” version of rockabilly with lyrics about “getting horny in a hearse” and running scared from the “gargoyles over Copenhagen.” The lead singer played a stand-up bass (a rockabilly staple) but it looked like a coffin. He rolled his eyes back into his head, looking psychotic, while growling lyrics about dancing with the dead in a graveyard (“Dead MoonWalkin”) (2004, Dead Girls Don’t Cry, Hellcat Records). Here, in a dive bar in Austin, Texas, was a whole subcultural community I never knew existed. I was having flashbacks to being in seventh grade: how could I be completely clueless about this whole other world that some people were clearly committed to? I was intrigued to learn more about why people identified with this particular combination of vintage rock ’n’ roll, punk, and campy horror.

Psychobilly: Subcultural Survival explores how and why members of this subcultural community identify so strongly with it. I spent more than ten years interviewing musicians and fans about their participation in this scene. Above all, psychobillies expressed to me that this scene gives them a place to freely express their non-mainstream identity. As one interlocutor put it, “Psychobilly is the only place where I feel like me.” Most of my interlocutors said that they don’t normally fit in with others and have been socially and/or economically marginalized in a variety of ways. So they free themselves from normative expectations at psychobilly events: they “wreck” (erratically mosh around in a pit while throwing their fists every which way); they dress in ways that might scare “normal” people; and they sing along with tongue-in-cheek songs about killing the cheerleader (which aren’t meant to be taken seriously but still express a defiant and rebellious attitude).

The hybridization of stylistic elements of rockabilly and punk started to make more sense to me as I talked to members of the subculture: psychobillies combined aspects of two genres that had each represented working-class expressions of rebellion against the status quo. But psychobillies rebelled even further by rejecting the clichés that characterized rockabilly and punk by the early 1980s. Instead of singing about pink Cadillacs and bopping on a Saturday night (typical rockabilly) or political rage (conventional punk), psychobillies celebrated their defiant attitude in songs like “Scum of the Neighborhood” by Batmobile (Batmobile, Kix 4 U Records, 1985): “We’re the scum of the neighborhood, going out tonight / We like to walk in small streets and get messed up in a fight / Crushing skulls and pulling knives, we care for nobody’s life.” Influenced by horror and science fiction, the lyrics allowed fans to escape reality and fantasize about an imagined world where they yielded the power and inverted social and economic hierarchies.

This book not only illustrates how subcultures represent important spaces for people to resist hegemonic expectations and imagine an alternative to their daily lived experience, but also how they help participants stake out their own way to survive tough times. Having been rejected or excluded from traditional avenues for economic success, many psychobillies lean on each other for social and economic support.

In short, this under-the-radar subculture exists because people rely on it in meaningful ways. It’s an important vehicle through which members of this community express a non-normative identity and draw on the support of others who share their experiences, values, and interests. The subculture survives today because it helps people survive. It allows them a place to be—in their own way and on their own terms.

Activism by Parents of Children with Disabilities and the 30th Anniversary of the ADA

This week in North Philly Notes, Allison Carey and Pamela Block, two of the coauthors of Allies and Obstacles, write about the accomplishments of parents in the disability rights movement as well as how disability activists are coping with COVID and Black Lives Matter. 

July 26th 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One of the nation’s most important and innovative civil rights acts, the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability across many spheres of public life, including in education, work, transportation, telecommunication, and the provision of public services. In doing so, it also mandates the provision of accessibility and accommodations to enable full participation in society by people with disabilities. Upon signing the ADA into law, President George H. W. Bush declared, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

Allies and Obstacles_smThe anniversary of the ADA calls for reflection on where we were and where we are now. In our book, Allies and Obstacles: Disability Activism and Parents of Children with Disabilities, we detail the struggles of many disabled children and their families prior to the ADA, times when disabled people were systematically excluded from access to transportation, communication, education, and employment. We also document the ways that parent activists worked together with disability activists to bring the ADA into being. Thanks to these efforts, parents raising children in a post-ADA world experience a different landscape—one with far greater attention to access and that is more likely to recognize people with disabilities as full citizens worthy of inclusion.

Despite the incredible efforts of activists, however, we have a long way to go to actually achieve equity and inclusion. Parents are both allies and obstacles along this path. For example, in Olmstead v. L. C. (1999), the Supreme Court drew on the ADA in its finding that people with disabilities have a right to live and receive services in the community and to avoid unnecessary institutionalization. Many parents have fought for deinstitutionalization and to build community services, and they praised this decision. Other parents, though, fought to preserve institutions. Indeed, the language of Olmstead prohibiting “unnecessary” institutionalizations bows to the pressure placed by parents and professionals to leave intact the idea of necessary institutionalization as determined by professionals and parents/guardians with almost no avenues for disabled people to challenge their confinement. Data from 2011 indicated more than 89,000 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and more than 178,000 people with psychiatric diagnoses still reside in large-scale, congregate settings (National Association of State Mental Health Directors, 2017; Scott, Lakin, and Larson, 2008).

New challenges also continue to arise, built on long-standing inequalities. The spread of the Coronavirus hit the disability community especially hard, exposing stark and persistent inequities. People with disabilities were infected with and died from COVID-19 at higher rates than the general population (Kennedy, Frieden, Dick-Mosher, & Curtis, 2020; Turk, Landes, Formica, & Goss 2020). In New York City, residents of group homes were more than five times more likely than the general population to develop COVID-19 and almost five times more likely to die from it (Hakim, 2020). Despite the high risk for disabled people, medical ethicists created guidelines for medical triage and technology access that restricted access to lifesaving measures to some categories of disabled people. Disability rights groups had to sue, drawing on the ADA, to defend themselves against medical discrimination. Throughout the pandemic, parents have fought for additional funding and clearer guidelines to ensure the delivery of support services in the community, including adequate testing and protective equipment to protect their loved ones and the support staff. But parents-led organizations are also among those that continue to run congregate care facilities and failed to protect people from the risks of congregate care including the rapid spread of disease.

Attention to police violence by Black Lives Matter activism put a spotlight on the fact that disabled black, indigenous and people of color are especially vulnerable to being hurt and killed by the police. Those who should be protecting  the rights of disabled citizens, instead use “unexpected” and “noncompliant” behavior to justify violence and pre-existing conditions to excuse fatality that occurs in the course of that violence. Here too we find parents on the front lines of these struggles.  Activist and blogger Kerima Çevik, for example, recognized years ago the dangers her son, a mixed race, autistic and nonverbal teenager, might face if he encountered the police. She works with a range of organizations to build community capacity to protect him and others. The work of minority activists, however, for too long was overlooked and de-prioritized by national parent-led disability organizations, which have majority white leadership and membership. These organization tended to sideline issues of concern to minority communities, such as police violence and the disproportionate labeling of minority youth in special education, and instead focus on an agenda seen as most politically palatable.

These examples highlight that, although the ADA opened many doors and created many protections, there is still much more to do both legislatively and in regards to resisting and changing societal prejudices and structural inequalities. Parents play a complex role in this struggle. They often ally with disabled activists to fight for inclusion and empowerment. However, continued support for congregate care and dismissing the intersectionality of race and disability contribute to some of the most pressing problems we face today.

Allison Carey, Pamela Block, and Richard Scotch are having a virtual panel to celebrate the ADA’s 30th anniversary on Aug 6th at  7pm. Visit: https://mi-ada.org/ for more information

Living amidst constant disruptions that keep on taking new forms.

This week in North Philly Notes, Ghassan Moussawi, author of Disruptive Situations asks, What kind of everyday life strategies can we use in these times?

Since March 2020, we have been living in uncertain and troubling times due to COVID-19, where our lives, everyday routines, and sense of safety have been heavily impacted. However, as we have witnessed, the global pandemic has and continues to affect peoples’ lives differently, where the most precarious people have most been affected by the pandemic. For example, there are higher death rate among communities of color, especially Black, Indigenous, undocumented, queer and trans people of color and communities in the U.S.

What came as a shock to many is the sudden interruption of everyday life as we know it. People are lost, confused, and mourning the loss of their routines and the stability in their lives. While some might say, we are living in “a new normal;” the definition of “new” and “normal” keep changing to the extent that the term “new normal” fails to account for the moment we are living in. The majority of people living in the U.S. today have not encountered such sudden shifts and disruptions in their everyday lives. For queer people and communities of color, however, pandemic and government neglect are familiar; the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s wiped out an entire generation while the Reagan and Bush administrations looked the other way.

We think of these as exceptional times, however, how do scholars account for people’s lives in places where everyday life disruptions and uncertainties about the present and future are normal and normalized? What kind of everyday life strategies can we use in these times?

Disruptive Situations_smMy book Disruptive Situations answers the question above, by looking at the everyday life strategies of LGBT people living in post-civil war Beirut. I ask readers to take a step back and think about what it means to live amidst constant everyday life disruptions that keep on taking new forms. Disruptive Situations comes at a time when we are all experiencing a sense of loss and disorientation, and my hope is that the book might shed light on how people survive constant and imminent disruptions, caused by wars, civil unrest, and everyday violence.

The idea for the book started in 2009, when I found many Euro-American media outlets advertising Beirut as a new destination for gay tourism. Though life in Beirut remains highly precarious, such representations downplayed such realities. My book looks at the period 2005-2016, which was marked by a series of assassinations, an Israeli war in 2006, suicide bombings, a shortage of basic services (such as electricity and clean water), and a garbage crisis. Drawing on fieldwork I conducted in Beirut among LGBT people between 2009-15—during the height of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s suicide bombings in Beirut and Lebanon—I ask how we can account for people’s everyday lives amid uncertainty and violence that has no beginning and no end. People in Beirut have devised the term al-wad’ or “the situation” to capture the complexity of these everyday violence and disruptions.

Using the concept of al-wad’, or “the situation,” I raise questions about spaces beyond Beirut, by asking what it has to say about queer life in contexts where precarity and disruptions are the conditions of everyday social and cultural life. Though the book draws on LGBT people’s strategies, these queer strategies are not necessarily enacted only by LGBT people.

Disruptive Situation highlights these and other issues:

  • How and in what ways has Beirut been marketed as a “gay friendly” destination? For whom, is it “gay friendly? It is class and race—and not gay friendliness—that determines who is able to experience Beirut as “gay friendly;” In Beirut—as now amid the COVID pandemic—race and class primarily determine who gets to experience safety and precarity
  • LGBT individuals’ various negotiations or “queer strategies” in navigating everyday disruptions, with a focus on mobilities and access to space. These includes movements within and across the city, to crossing neighborhood borders, and access to “gay-friendly” spaces and communities of organizing
  • Queer strategies that people use, like accepting contradictions, and creating bubbles as both metaphorical and physical spaces of respite to negotiate life
  • What can everyday queer tactics tell us about the local and regional politics, and everyday life violence and uncertainty? This current pandemic also illustrates how it affects LGBT communities differently based on race, class, gender, and documentation status. Similarly, State and interpersonal violence in the U.S. remain heavily determined by marginalization, with Indigenous and Black communities particularly targeted even in the midst of the pandemic
  • What does it mean to conduct ethnographic research at times of violence and disruption? What does it mean when one’s research gets constantly interrupted and one has to leave their research site due to violence and bombings?

I hope Disruptive Situations will help us better understand both how people negotiate constant major life disruptions and how we can come up with creative ways to conduct research when we live in uncertain times, such as the ones we are currently experiencing.

What the American Irish faced in the nineteenth century

This week in North Philly Notes, Howard Lune, author of Transnational Nationalism and Collective Identity among the American Irish, writes about Irish immigrants in America.

Before I got too far into my early research on Irish nationalism, and before I had recognized the nature of transnational organizing efforts in supporting the long campaign for Irish independence, I was curious about the surprising success of the American Irish in public service fields such as police and firefighting squads. The answer to that puzzle turned out to center on fairly straightforward jobs-for-votes deals with the Democratic Party. But looking into widespread anti-Irish, anti-Catholic activism in the United States in the nineteenth century I was stuck by two patterns. The first was that the language and tactics of “othering” the Irish strongly resembled the tactics used to deny African Americans freedoms and citizenship rights at the same time. The second was that the same ideas have been resurrected with only slightly different language to attack other immigrant groups and African Americans under the present American regime. The continuing existence of discrimination is not surprising. I guess I just expected that we would develop more sophisticated forms of it.

The essential starting point for all of these organized acts of hostility is to present an unquestionable assumption that whenever we say “we” in America we all know that “we” are white, Christian men. Of course, in the 1800s, Christian meant Protestant while Catholic was part of the other, but they still preferred the term Christian. Few nativists ever argued that America was supposed to be white. They simply argued that the non-whites were “invading,” “taking over,” and “replacing” us. They never had to say “our kind” is supposed to dominate in all social, economic, and political institutions. They only had to say that “those people” would be infiltrating all of our spaces if we didn’t stop them. This business of the unexamined “we” sounded like a call to community, solidarity, and fellow-feeling while actually building walls, mobilizing violent mobs, and, especially, preventing others from voting.

Transitional Nationalism_smOther familiar patterns followed. “We” destroyed their schools and claimed that we couldn’t help them when they were so ignorant. We denied them jobs and claimed that we didn’t want such poor people bringing down the quality of life in our cities. We held up the example of the most successful of the whole (in this case, the wealthy Irish Protestants) in order to claim that the rest could obviously succeed too if they weren’t so lazy, or criminal, or whatever frightened us at the moment. We relegated them to slums and then said that no one who lived like that should be trusted with civic responsibility. We passed new laws about labor, vagrancy, and debt to target them, and then declared that they were mostly criminals and scofflaws. Our people raise families. Their people “breed.” And, in the more extreme publications that were commonly read but rarely acknowledged, we lamented the threat to the sexual purity of our white women if those people were allowed to run free.

In the 1800s we depicted the undesirable other as drunks. Today we describe them as probably using drugs.

These patterns, and so many others, demonstrate that the white, Protestant, male center of American life hasn’t really got any tangible complaint with any particular other group. If it did, then we would focus on different supposed attributes of each group pertinent to any given time period. Rather, it seems that the privileged core of the nation desperately fears having to share with others. This fear seems to be just as strong among those who have too much and those who have too little. Either way, the smallest excuse, the least supportable claim, and the most minor differences are enough for members of the culturally dominant group to band together to collectively degrade anyone and anything that could threaten the idea of their dominance. We are willing to allow anyone into college now, as long as they don’t get to be our bosses. We feign shock at each and every obvious example of racist violence but we hate it when people try to address “systemic” inequalities. We admit that the justice system isn’t always just, but we built it up that way in order to keep other people in their place, and we’re not planning to change that. We don’t hang signs that say “no Irish need apply” anymore, but try getting a corporate job interview without a white-sounding name. The Irish are accepted as white now, which almost implies that we have improved as a culture. Yet, with increasing globalization, we have no shortage of “other” people to casually disregard or openly hate. As a people, we are remarkably similar to our forebears, in the worst sense of the comparison.

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