Not Cleaning Dishes, Not Listening to Cops: Because Sometimes the First Thought is the Worst Thought
Yesterday my partner J came over and we planned to go for a walk. I had left a lot of dirty dishes in the sink and I wanted to clean them before I left the apartment. Right after I told J I wanted to clean the dishes she started to walk over to the sink and so did I. We both reached for the sponge but then suddenly she stopped reaching. She turned around. She sat down and played on her phone. “J you don’t have to help,” I said, “it’s my mess. I made it.” “I know,” she responded, “I thought about it for a second and then I changed my mind.” When we talked about this situation later in the day she said that at first she felt like she should help but then she realized she really didn’t have to and she didn’t want to. We agreed that the reason she initially felt she should help is that we live in a culture that teaches us that domestic labor is the responsibility of women, even if the need for that labor wasn’t created by them, but by another person, usually a man. Women are taught to clean up men’s messes. So J had an initial thought, it’s my responsibility to help clean the dishes. She started to follow through with that thought. Then she realized that her initial thought was deeply influenced by a sexist culture. So she came up with a second thought actually I don’t need to help with this, it’s not my responsibility. She immediately abandoned the first thought for the second thought.
The situation with J reminded me of another situation that happened on July 2nd, right outside of the ICE building in San Francisco. That was the day that #occupyicesf started. After a symbolic action where hundreds of people formed a human chain around the ICE building in SF, a smaller group of people set up tents in order to create a constant display of dissent. A committed group of folks have been sleeping there ever since. And the place has become a gathering spot for anti-ICE activists. I decided to stay while they were setting up in order to help out a bit, take pictures, and spread the word. It didn’t take long for the place to feel like a home of sorts. People coming together who are all committed to something you and they really believe in can help make a place feel that way. People sat on buckets and read books, talked with each other, kicked a soccer ball around, made banners and signs, ate food. It seemed like pizza was being delivered non-stop. Journalists and folks delivering would ask “who is in charge?” and would get a response of “I don’t know,” or “no one.” It seemed like no one was in charge and everyone was having fun.
A few hours into the occupation a cop approached. I bet there were forty people there, mostly anarchists and communists. As he approached people were laughing and talking but by the time he arrived we all suddenly got silent. The cop began explaining the laws that the encampment was breaking. He was trying to be calm and friendly. He wasn’t exactly bossing people around but by even allowing him that space we were submitting to a top-down authoritarian attitude. We were showing respect to a person who had no respect for what we were doing. A person who, at a moment’s notice from his boss, would tear down everything we built and possibly kidnap us. Why were we even listening to him? We let him speak for what must have been less than a minute when someone, I didn’t see who, called out “Hey why don’t we just keep talking?” Then without missing a beat, that’s exactly what everyone did. We ignored the cop. When he walked away we chanted “Don’t come back!” It was funny how our whole attitude changed so quickly collectively.
I think the reason a bunch of communists and anarchists initially listened to that cop is similar to why J initially thought to do the dishes: our culture teaches us that’s the thing to do. It’s familiar and in a way comfortable to do what we’re used to and taught to do. It’s almost like muscle memory. Law enforcement approaches, you automatically pay attention. If I were by myself and a cop approached me, that's still probably exactly what I’d do, but for safety reasons. He’d get my attention out of necessity, because if I didn’t listen I could get hurt or killed or kidnapped. Yet, in that moment, we massively outnumbered the cops (there were only three there) and they didn’t pose much of a threat. Still we all defaulted to our initial thought we should pay attention to this man because he is a cop, until someone introduced a new thought we have no reason to listen to this person or show him respect right now.
Radical thinkers often default to thoughts that are influenced by the exploitative capitalist hierarchical culture because we were raised in a culture that didn’t teach us to be radical. These thoughts effect and shape our actions. People say to go with your gut. Allen Ginsberg used to say “first thought, best thought.” But what if your first thought is totally full of shit because it’s been shaped by the dominant culture? If you want to work to change the dominant culture, doing what you really believe is right won’t always feel natural and/or instinctual. It might feel unnatural. It might go against your instincts.
July 7th, 2018