Last month, I posted about Wade Rathke's self-seving, racist attack on Curtis Muhammad, Community Labor United, and the People's Hurricane Relief Fund. Though I posted Open Letter to the Labor Movement, an important response from a group of activists, I never got around to the further commentary I had promised. In the meantime, one of the signers of the Open Letter, Marsha Steinberg, has written a response of her own, much stronger than anything I could have done, in the wake of a supposed apology from Rathke to Muhammad. Immediately following Marsha's comments is the "apology" from Rathke, to which she is responding.
Marsha Steinberg to Wade Rathke:
Your apology to Curtis Muhammad again badly misses the point!
It is not personal attacks that are the most relevant although I personally doubt your explanation of "being over the top" because Chalabi was a liar and a thief, facts which I am sure you knew when you wrote the piece. It is the attack on CLU and The People's Hurricane Relief Fund ("couldn't organize a two car funeral") that deserve an apology. I personally believe that the attack was done in a personal fit over the fact that a coalition of community based, African American led, groups without staff or union money had out organized you and you felt free, as a white male, to attack them without fear of rebuke. How could they have accomplished some thing that you hadn't; specifically getting recognition in the national progressive movement here and in Europe as the legitimate voice of the poor backs of New Orleans which you think of as your personal turf. The arrogance and racism of the comments continue to send me "over the top".
As a SEIU staffer I see the same syndrome every day. White, mostly male, leadership at the top, feel free to plan for the lives of the membership of a union that is overwhelmingly poor, mostly female, people of color. They remain convinced that in every situation they know better than the members themselves and the field staff, what the members need and should care about. Only they know how to plan and build for the future. Again, what racist crap!
At some point the continued top down approach of the ACORNS and SEIUs will either have to be abandoned and genuine leadership be allowed to emerge and be nurtured with real education, training and sharing of the members resources or this country will continue it’s descent into fascism and barbarism.
I call on all white progressive activists to see this approach for what it is and understand that we must be prepared to relinquish the privilege and the right to lead that has come to us from a racist and classist country built on the labor of those without power or privilege. We must ask ourselves: if we're so smart and have all the answers, how come the movement is so small? We must accept the right of community-based groups to lead and speak for themselves. We must share our skills and resources generously. We must call racism when we see it. “If not us, who? If not now, when?”
Still today, white areas of New Orleans have electricity at least part of the day while the adjacent black areas have none. Whites are returning to the city while black males convicted of no crime are held hidden in jails throughout the South. Wade, why don't you write an over the top piece about that?
I came to labor as a long time community organizer because with a dues base, that's where all the money is. I was actually shocked to see the disregard for the members’ priorities and the 'we know what's best' attitudes.
I call on organized labor to examine its practices openly and honestly and to share the resources with community folks and their organizations. Rhetorically we say that our members and the community are the same people. Let's make that real. Let's admit that labor does not have the right to pick the leadership of community based organizations or expect them to follow labor's lead without true coalitions of equals. One start would be to post this message on your blog which I doubt you will do. Let's have an open dialogue about the nature of our organizations and labor's obligation to freely share resources and relinquish leadership.
In the meantime, I will send your "apology" around to my lists with my response.
Looking forward to an honest dialogue.
Wade Rathke's "apology" to Curtis Muhammad:
Posted by: Wade Rathke - November 3, 2005 02:38:04
When I wrote these comments a month ago, I was searching for a way to grieve for my city. It is amazing to find how few people really care about what happens to New Orleans on one hand and the level of opportunism from many folks who couldn’t find the city without a map. I still feel that way.
Nonetheless, there were 3-4 comments we received from people several weeks after the blog ran either posted to the blog or sent to me directly. All the ones to me I answered.
Their message was that the treatment of Curtis Muhammad was wrong. They took particular umbrage at the metaphorical comparison with Chalabi.
Chalabi after years in exile returned in hopes of running Iraq. Though that has not worked out exactly as he – and some of his supporters -- dreamed, he has been a constant presence in the political life of the country since the occupation. He in fact is now a member of the ruling government with a significant position in the coalition arrangements and a base in various sides of the religious power blocs.
Feelings about Chalabi are obviously intense. My point was lost here and insult was taken, where observation and metaphor were meant. I am very sorry for all of that. My train was going one way and ended up on a side track. Reading the piece again one is reminded of how dangerous a form of communication these unfiltered, unedited blogs can be. There is a lesson for me to remember there, but my lesson should not have been at the expense of others, and I’m deeply sorry it occurred. I played with fire, and I got burned.
Curtis also contacted me directly by e-mail indicating his unhappiness with the piece. I sent him back an email offering to get together with him and straighten it out directly. I did not receive a reply.
I did see Curtis while I was visiting the October 29th rally in Baton Rouge on the capitol steps. I walked over to visit with him. He was still understandably not happy about all of this. He asked for a public apology.
I meant no harm to Curtis and in my ham handed and inarticulate way, I thought I had expressed that even in the piece. Obviously I failed, therefore I agree with Curtis that an apology is warranted, and here he has it, because I am sincerely sorry for any inadvertent insult I have given him and any offense he has felt. None was meant, but to the degree some was taken, that’s on me, and I hope over time perhaps he will come to accept my apology, because he certainly has it here, exactly where the offense was rendered.
This post-Katrina syndrome is real. There is no question that I am "over the top" these days, and more than one person has pointed it out to me. My boiling point is very low. My judgment is not as sound as it sometimes needs to be. I bet I am not the only one in the same situation. All of which makes this even more regrettable. Untoward comments, like mine, blurted out thoughtless to the full impact, are perhaps felt more deeply and taken more hurtfully than normal times would allow.