Why Elitist, Privileged, Secretive Activism Stinks

Many thanks to the friends who gave me input in the writing of this article

[Note: While some of the events spoken of in this article were not officially done or put on by AW@L, they were dominated by AW@L members. However, it must be understood that AW@L has a history of creating front organizations when it does not want the AW@L name associated with something. So for the sake of this article they are all treated as the same, because they are. Also, I know that there are people within AW@L who are good people, but unfortunately they either do not stand up to the rest of the group, especially the leadership, or they are actively silenced. In either case I do not understand why they remain within AW@L. Further, to clarify, as there has been some confusion over this, the term “member” here is used to refer to anyone within the sphere of influence of AW@L, not just cadre]

Something is Amiss in Kitchener-Waterloo

Anti-War @ Laurier, better known by its acronym, AW@L, is one of the more well known and established white “leftist” organizations in south west Ontario. It is based out of the Tri-City area (Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge), specifically coming out of the activist matrix of Wilfred Laurier University, the second of two major universities in the city. To many activists outside of the Tri-City region they are known for their indigenous solidarity work, anarchist inspired politics and, most recently, the legal troubles of many of their members, especially one of their most prominent former leaders. But to many of us who live in the area, and who interact with them on a regular basis, they are known for their array of other, less desirable traits: entrenched white nation privilege, elitism and an inability to handle criticism from actually oppressed people.

A Little Bit of History

In order to best understand the current state of the activist scene in the Tri-City, one has to understand some history first.

Issue #1: Voice Theft

I first came to be aware of AW@L through speaking with other members of the local Native community, and it was in these early times that I was told upfront that many people considered them to be serious voice thieves. While being a settler and speaking out in solidarity with indigenous people is not in and of itself a bad thing (in fact, it is a good thing, and I encourage white people to engage it and other acts of genuine internationalism), a voice thief does this in such a way that it excludes actual Native voices. It is a a fundamentally colonizing practice. Through the use of words it allows white people to take leadership on non-white issues and struggles, at the expense of the organic leadership developed from within an oppressed people.

AW@L is often profoundly guilty of this. Other than myself there are a number of known Native activist individuals and organizations present in the Tri-City region, yet AW@L organizes events and the like without input or consultation from them. Often they are not even made aware that these events are taking place. AW@L is also not just guilty of doing this when it comes to Native struggles, as they have done it a number of times with the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is absolutely unacceptable in any organization that styles itself as made up of solidarity activists, much less revolutionaries of any kind. It is false internationalist and opportunist to the core.

Issue #2: Symbol Appropriation

Other than their voice theft of Indians, Palestinians and others, they are also symbol appropriators. AW@L and its related organizations insist on using the Kaswehnta (Two Row Wampum) as a primary symbol of their organization and their events. However, and this leads on from their lack of any real kind of relationship with the local Native community, many, if not most, people in the local Native community feel that their use of the Kaswehnta is inappropriate at best. They take the Two Row, which is a sacred Native symbol, and incorporate it into the symbolism and rhetoric of their white “left” settler organization, which lacks any kind of Native membership, and has, as was already noted, no real relationship with the local Native community. Coupled with the voice theft of Native issues, their appropriation of the Two Row symbol is basically a fuck you to the Native community in town.

Issue #3: Selective Support of Struggling People

AW@L also has a bad habit of only backing oppressed groups that they view as having similar politics to them. Case in point: Native struggles and issues (again).

Several of their leading members have expressed in conversations with my friends and comrades that they only back particular Native groups and struggles because they feel that those people’s politics are closest to theirs. They are dismissive of other groups, even going so far down the white rabbit hole that they call Native activist organization not adhering to their particular brand of settler anarchism as being colonized. Again, this is a way for white “left” activists to try and give and appoint leadership to the struggles of indigenous people.

It is not the place of white activists to tell non-white people how they should struggle, or which particular anti-capitalist or anti-imperialist ideology they should follow. If they truly supported self-determination for colonized peoples then they must support the right of the colonized to develop their own revolutionary politics and praxis.

In my view, it is just strait up ideological imperialism to require colonized people within North America to adhere to a white “left” understanding of anarchism instead of supporting their right to self-determination in all areas including in the ongoing development of revolutionary science. Again this is fundamentally false internationalist and opportunist.

Issue #4: Internal Marginalization of Oppressed Voices

A number of prominent AW@L members also have a history of making people from various oppressed groups feel uncomfortable within their organization. In one incident of AW@L needlessly excluding the voice of a marginalized person within their organization, one very good and close comrade of mine was basically run out of them because she is a (Native) poor as hell, single mother of two. This person expressed to the group that she was having a hard time with the meeting times because she has to take care of her two children. However, the then AW@L leader proceeded to tell her, “I fucking hate kids. You aren’t bringing them here.” He then took it even further than that, indicating that there was far too much drug paraphernalia laying around the AW@L meeting space for my friend and comrade’s children to be there. Essentially this person and the other’s drug habits were allowed to take priority within AW@L over the including of the marginalized voice of a poor Native woman. This of course is to say nothing of the stories related to me by others about feeling excluded from the group because they do not partake in drugs and/or alcohol, which are often prominently present at AW@L socials.

Issue #5: Entrenched Privilege and Lack of Self-Reflectivity

AW@L is primarily made up of highly materially privileged people, in particular folk from the middle and upper classes of the white settler nation. However. as I pointed out earlier, This should not have to be a problem though. Where problems arise with AW@L is that they are false internationalist and opportunist with regards to the struggles of actually oppressed people because of their material privilege. Even worse though is that they have at many times actively tried to deny the privilege they have.

This is always best shown for me in a story I have been told by a couple radical comrades, and which I have related before on this site, of an encounter between one my friends and an AW@L activist and leader – who is exactly the kind of highly white nation privileged and false internationalist activists we are talking about here.

The setting was a “know your rights” type of event. The encounter took place when a friend of mine approached one of the white folk putting on the event and queried as to why they did not have any apparent input from actually oppressed groups, meaning the people who really do have to deal with police violence and oppression on a regular basis. My comrade then pointed out the activist’s white nation privilege and how it was implicitly racist and colonizing to exclude colonially oppressed people from the event. The response from the highly privileged AW@L activist was that he knew what it was like to be oppressed. Why you may ask? Because he is an anarchist (I am not fucking kidding you).

This for me is exemplar of the fundamentally twisted perspectives of these white activists. Rather than say, “you know what? I didn’t even notice that,” and then proceed to engage in self-criticism and self-reflection over why this was the case, and how it can be righted, the person attempted to actively deny the privilege they are accorded by mainstream society. They created a fantasy world where they exist as an oppressed person in order to counter the inevitability that someone would notice and point out that they are privileged in our society and that it clearly effects their views and actions.

Current Issues

So that is where I, and many other local activists, are coming from when it comes to AW@L. However, the current situation is rooted in two recent events: a so-called “anti-colonial harvest dinner” that also doubled as a fund raiser for their rather wealthy white former leader’s G20 legal defence, and an upcoming Six Nations “solidarity teach-in.”

The Harvest Dinner

I was invited to the harvest dinner that was being put on by an AW@L supporter through Facebook. I turned down the invite on principle because the symbol selected for the event was the Two Row, which as usual was not accompanied by any kind of Native presence or input etc. What I missed by not following the event though, and only caught on to later was that a close comrade of mine had become engaged in a heated (and at times quite dirty) war of words with the AW@L members and supporters on the event page.

My comrade, a radical, queer, Native, poor as hell mother of two, adult student had approached the privileged organizers of the event with a legitimate and well stated concern about the validity of hosting such an expensive fund raiser (it was 25$ a plate, a price well out of the range of many activists in town) in a poor folk safe space (community kitchen). Despite the honest nature of her query, she was was met instantly with ridicule from the AW@L members and supporters on the event page. The organizers who had created the event obviously did not take the time to think of the shame in creating an event that poor folk, who are mostly (im)migrant, Native and POC, could not even attend, especially as it was taking place in one of the few spaces that welcomes everyone on a daily basis for the most simple act of eating, and eating together as equals.

The rhetoric of the event itself also stated, in a condescending way, that if people were too poor for the cost, they could serve them anyway. The implication was that this would be done off that backs of those white people with the money to actually afford it. As a single mother with two small children, my good friend and comrade couldn’t afford this meal for herself, and definitely could not do so for her whole family. This was despite the desire to assist in raising funds, and despite it being in one of the few poor people safe spaces in town. She was left miffed that her only access to this dinner (which was vegan, and prepared by volunteers, so therefore was being done on the cheap) was through the service of white settlers with money.

Eventually though the dialogue on the event page went from ridiculing her and others who spoke up about the anti-poor people nature of the event, to outright attacking them very quickly. Though my comrade was not going to, and did not, back down in the face of these attacks from these privileged elitist white “radical” activists, the vicious attacks on her created a situation where even though she had many people agreeing with her on the wall of the event, several others only felt that they could approach her in private, due to fear of being attacked in a similar fashion.

Being silenced by ridicule, attack, personal slander & slights, and prejudice, after expressing a well formed concern about a possible injustice being carried out by a self-identified social justice group has permanently turned my comrade away from this group, as she had already had apprehension about them stemming from similar experiences in the past. When I was alerted to the exchange on the event wall I checked it out immediately and was so disgusted by it that I felt I had no other choice but to speak out against the group in a public forum, which in short fashion lead to the writing and publishing of my article White Nation Privilege and the Ability to be Arrested. Other local activists who also eventually caught wind of what had gone down were also left disgusted by the actions and words of these supposedly radical activists.

The Teach-In

I wrote about this event yesterday, in my article The KW White “Left” is at it Again, and how the event is an afront to the Native people of the Tri-City, through its voice theft, symbol appropriation and the the way that the organizers tried to force discussion of these things underground, and how they felt the elitist need to lecture two Native activists about Native issues. So I will not rehash all of it again for you. What I feel is necessary though is to put this upcoming event in the context of the aftermath of the harvest dinner mess of less than a month ago.

So, as I just noted, this latest mess of an event comes right on the heels of the last one perpetrated by this group of people. In the wake of the harvest dinner my comrade who had kicked that all off and I were approached by someone who made themselves out to be an intermediary between the people who had attacked my comrade, their associates, and us. This individual supposedly wanted to set up dialogue between us and them in order to foster the creation of a more inclusive progressive movement in KW, or at least build an environment in which were not at each other’s necks. We agreed to meet with this person on an individual basis, but before we could even meet, this person, as well as people from AW@L decided to put on this “teach-in.”

So enter the teach-in. As I explained yesterday, as it currently seems to stand – and these thoughts are drawn from the private-made-public response to my query regarding this event – which is billed as a Six Nations solidarity event, will have little to no Native presence or involvement, in either its organization or in the actual putting on of it. I think it is also quite safe to assume that little to no Native input went into the formulation of this event either. This event of course speaks directly to their voice theft and symbol appropriation.

This is pretty par for the course though when it comes to these people. So that is not what has gotten us so angry at them this time. No, it was not just the condescending response to our, again, valid and honest concerns about the event. It’s not that this event is yet another product of their entrenched white nation privilege and exclusion of actual oppressed voices. No, what has really gotten to us this time is that this ridiculous event comes just about a month after their last disaster of an event, where they were called out for their white nation privilege and the exclusion of oppressed people. One month! The fact that they think they can get away with this again, less than a month after their last event devolved into a total mess, just goes to show the complete and utter disconnect that these people have from actually oppressed people and communities.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

What it goes to show is that these self-professed radicals actually do not give a shit about people who actually face oppression each and every day, or at the very least are deeply disconnected from them and their day-to-day struggles. They will not listen to our voices, and actually excluded us or attempted to drive our concerns and questions underground. We are not willing to stand for this any more. We have been shit on enough times and we are mad as hell. On top of that, as far as most of us are concerned, these people are highly unlikely to change their ways. Because of this reconciliation is out of the question for most of us, and generally not something we would want to peruse any way.

The result is that for many us any relationship that was there has been irreparably broken. Because of their actions and their words, an unbridgeable chasm has been built between them and us. However, even if it could be bridged, many of us would not choose to at this point. As far as I am concerned, AW@L needs to die and dry up as organization so that a real revolutionary organization can be developed in its place in KW.


Posted on November 10, 2010, in Indigenous Struggles, White Leftism & Neocolonialism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. My name is Kai Kai Kons and I am from the Loon Clan and come from an Anishinabe Ojibway Community 2 hrs north of Toronto and have been active in our Resistance Movement for a while and have networked with such “Elitist Left” Groups.

    I have suspected and observed certain things amongst our solidarity group of friends and I thank you for writing and acknowledging this.

    I recently went with my very close sister who is also a well known “Native Activist” amongst our solidarity friends to visit a certain incarcerated comrade in toronto last month. I took time away from my under paid labor job where I was making money for my family to eat to go and show support.

    We stayed at a “solidarity” friends place and in the morning we would go show support along with other solidarity groups. The vehicle that came and picked up was to full to allow me to attend with them in Scarborough, my sister went though because she carries more clout than I with these people, So I had to hang out in Toronto for 6 hours by myself until my Native Sister who came back gave me money to go back home on to the reservation. I was pissed that they couldnt find me a ride or hitch with another vehicle.

    While we were at these “solidarity friends place” the night before, they were talking about an event in Toronto their group was hosting in support of my sisters community Grassy Narrows. They sent out a Press Release which had no input from members of the community in which my friend asked to see before they put it out.

    When women from my community and myself initiated Direct Action last summer in a protest to protect our water in our territory a certain group came and showed support. Although they didnt help block roads and gates their support did indeed help. I also found this group “cultish” where two apparent leaders of this group gave of this effect and the freedom of their members in their group seemed at question.

    Well there is more but I got to go, TTYL

    In Community Spirit,

    The Big Bird

    • One event a solidarity group hosted was a march to voice concern on our Stolen Land. What was funny when we shut down a city street and as we marched along, onlookers laughed and commented as they stared at me “Look the only Native in the Whole Protest” LOL Kai Kai Kons

  2. An Event was organized by another leftist elistist group a couple years back regarding aboriginal rights at queens park, A certain Haudenasunee Two Row Wampum Community located near the Grand River was not invited because a certain organizing member significant other wasn’t a fan of recent violent incidents in their communities Direct Action initiative.

  3. When the AW@L group first started in my community, I was excited to join. I was told it would be a consensus group that would work for “social justice”. Having been an activist for many years without the advantages of working in a group setting, I thought it would be a great chance to work with like-minded individuals.

    The meetings I went to were anything but consensus, with a certain leader rambling and ranting on for hours without listening or allowing any real space for dissent. I also felt like he was testing the group for their toleration of certain levels of violence– by having the group do a litmus test of violence by moving to one side of the room or the other based on how violent we thought a statement was (where one side of the room represented “most violent” and the other side represented “least violent”). There was also constant secrecy to the upcoming events, with people pledging to commit to them without even knowing the full details of what would be happening. This scared me. I was told that an upcoming event would be happening soon on a particular social justice issue within the city that was an issue very near and dear to my heart, so when they were asking for volunteers, I raised my hand. However, I was never told any details of what the actual event would be, rather the volunteers were sectioned off into those who were willing to get arrested, and those who weren’t. The day before the event, I still had no details, and decided that I was not willing to put my reputation or name on the line for an event that I didn’t even necessarily agree with since I had NO idea what it would even amount to. I also had issue, as a recovering alcoholic and addict, that all the social events planned at the time seemed to be alcohol or drug related.

    After a few weeks of this, and feeling my voice (non-privileged, poor, mixed-race) wasn’t being heard, I requested a private meeting with the leader. I voiced my concern over the way the group was running, and that I didn’t agree with certain actions– and felt that the vast majority didn’t entirely agree either, but was too shy or nervous to speak their dissent. I was subsequently told that I should basically either follow the party-line or leave the group. That this is what the group is doing, and that if I wasn’t part of it– I should go elsewhere. I never attended another meeting with the group again. Is this how consensus works?

    That being said, not all the members of the group are intolerant, or incapable of understanding their privilege and many *genuinely* are willing to listen and learn from their mistakes, desiring to do the best they can for marginalized groups and in the name of social justice. Unfortunately, many of these persons also seem to be blindly following the leadership, afraid of dissenting in the slightest.

    In my opinion, a “social justice” group that is exclusive in any way, immensely secretive (even from its own members), or has a rigid intolerant leadership is incapable of actually doing any real form of social justice.

    • Thank you so much for posting your story. I feel solace in reading what you have written here. It is meaningful to read something so balanced and well thought out.

    • Just wanted to point out that what felt to you like a “litmus test” is actually a classic exercise designed to explore the way different people might view so-called violent acts differently. It is a way to get people to question internally and confront their own assumptions. Also, given the recent infiltration and what has resulted from it, it seems to me like a certain level of secrecy makes perfect sense. Also, every group that I know has something along the lines of a ‘basis of unity’, outlining the politics and beliefs of a group that all members are supposed to be in a greement with. I think this is very useful in a consensus model to ensure that a person, or group of people, could not join a group and hijack all of its decision making proccesses.

      All that said, I think it is extremely problematic that you and others have been made to feel marginalized and unwelcome by a group that strives to be anti-oppressive. Hopefully your comments and those above (and below) can help AW@L be a better group.

  4. I am so happy to finally know that I wasn’t alone in these feelings, although I had had some discussions with some members after leaving the group that the leadership was almost dictatorial at times. Those members, however, had chosen to stay in the group without speaking out, which made me feel like I was the one with the problem.

    The comment above about it being “cult-like” resonated strongly with me. I feel that those who had been tested as more tolerant of certain levels of violence to “get the job done” were groomed to certain status, and those that weren’t were weeded out. Now, several years later– it seems that this was reality. I also felt like many young, freshmen– just out of their parents homes –were gradually coerced into exceedingly violent stances and intolerant behaviours that they didn’t initially present with. Once part of the “community”, I saw them becoming increasingly unable or unwilling to take strong stances against others within the “community”, even if they disagreed with them, for fear of being rejected from that community. Even being on the fringe of that community, I felt that fear– which is why I have not used my real name in these comments. I feel like if they knew who I was– I would no longer be welcome, tolerated, or talked to– for speaking my truth.

    Having never met the author of this post, or being part of the current situations described above, I can’t attest to their truth– but feel from my own experiences, that they are probably not far off. AW@L members, if you are reading this– something needs to change. No social justice is being done if you are excluding those who don’t agree with you or see things as you do. No justice is being done if you blindly follow the leadership of a person who is intolerant of other paths. No justice is being done if you ignore the voices of those who are oppressed. No justice is being done if you are teaching “anti-oppression” through filtered lenses.

    I have to say I am also quite enraged by the outpouring of emotions and support for Alex while those who are less powerful and jailed or oppressed are silenced and barely mentioned (if at all) in your posts and writing. Selective support indeed.

  5. @formerAW@Ler:

    Thank you for sharing your personal stories with us. I know how hard it is for people to speak out in this community against the injustices committed by a troup that is avowedly radical.

    I myself kept my mouth shut for a number of years about what I had heard about AW@L and had also experienced directly myself (I was never a member, by I worked with them on some events). I only took the step of speaking out when my good friend was viciously attacked by these people for daring to speak out. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I wasn’t going to watch these jerks tear someone close to me apart because they can’t take criticism.

    So again, thank you so much.

  6. Do you see Red Path as an alternative to AW@L? Ie, do you guys fill the niche that AW@L could have if they didn’t kinda stink? or is it apples and oranges.

    What can AW@L do to reform, if there is hope for such a group? Are you trying to attract their members with a superior group, or encourage reforms from within?

    Have what measures are built into Red Path to prevent it from going that route when you’re gone, if you do intend for this to be a longstanding group?

    Has AW@L ever actually DONE anything? Or is it more a cliquecult?

    What can be done to combat the Elitist stream in Leftism? The most popular and loudest of the left are frequently criticized by the Right, the liberals, etc for this sort of thing. The image of the left is often that of intellectuals and paradoxically, slackers. Why does the common man not see the Left as looking out for their interests? And more importantly, is this due to the Aw@L mentality?

  7. @ Jacob:

    In a sense we see the RPS as alternative. A lot of the people who were involved in beginning it, and who have come to it in the last while are people whose experiences with AW@L left them jaded. We will also probably cover a lot of the same ground. If that makes us a proposed alternative, then I guess we are.

    As for the question of reform, for me personally, I don’t care. It won’t matter to me much either way whether the end result of calling them out is the reforming or the destruction of the group, or even the continuation of the status quo. The reason for us speaking out is so that people know.

    As for Red Path potentially going down the same path after I gone, there is not much that be done structurally to prevent that. It is really up to the people who take up the torch after us to carry the organization forward.

    As for AW@L doing any thing, they do, in fact they do lots. The problem is with how they do it.

  8. @ not an AW@Ler:

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    I agree with you on the idea of points of unity, but from how I read the comment from formerAW@Ler, and informed by others experiences (which have not been presented in the post on this matter) it seemed to be more of an implication that AW@L was a centralist, top-down run organization rather than a true consensus based group.

    As for the secrecy, based on talking to other people who used to be in the organization, both as actual members, as well as people in the general sphere of influence, it seems like an issue that pre-dates their infiltration by the cops. More so, as I understand how clandestine organizations work (my mother’s family was in the American Indian Movement and I have friends who used to be in the original Black Panther Party), there is a difference between working underground and having an inner party – outer party structure. AW@L seems closer to the latter, with the way even full on members are given only the foggiest idea of what an event will entail going into it, with only the leadership knowing an real kind of details. This way of working is authoritarian, top down, and, to be blunt, quite reckless as people have a right to know what they are getting themselves into before they engage in something.

  9. @ not an AW@Ler

    Yes, Rowland is correct. This secrecy was FAR before any of the police infiltration and it is more of the concern of a top-down run organization than anything. I feel that AW@L is anything BUT consensus. Those who disagree are argued into oblivion and made to feel like imbeciles for having differing points of view. Then others stop speaking out at all. I heard other people after a meeting who expressed disagreement with the way it was run, but who said NOTHING during the meeting. Again, this is partly because of conformity, partly because of fear, and partly because they were not given any real chance to speak or saw how others were treated when the spoke out. That is not right.

    As the the “litmus test”, is it also routine for the person leading the exercise to take down notes on who moved where during the exercise and then later “promote” those who are most in line with the leader’s personal philosophy to positions of “power” within the organization?

  10. If it weren’t so harmful and insulting to everyone involved, I’d bef entertained by the inrony. I want to suspend their anarchism liscence, cuz they’re doing it totally wrong.

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