Wilson Sherwin is a native New Yorker and a PhD candidate in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her work centers around Marxist theory, feminism, social movements and the sociology of labor. She is currently beginning dissertation research on solutions to unemployment that foster autonomy from waged labor, and on current proposals for Universal Basic Income.
Omar Sirri is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Toronto. He is currently an Affiliated Scholar at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. His doctoral dissertation is an ethnography of urban checkpoint practices in Iraq’s capital city, entitled “Scarecrows of the State: Security Checkpoints in Contemporary Baghdad”.
Jillian Schwedler is a professor of political science at the City University of New York’s Hunter College and the Graduate Center. She is a current member of the editorial committee and former chair of the board of directors (2002-09) of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), publishers of the quarterly Middle East Report. Schwedler is the author of the award-winning Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (Cambridge 2006) and most recently editor (with Laleh Khalili) of Policing and Prisons in the Middle East (Columbia/Hurst 2010).
This event features three presenters all investigating how different groups in civil society respond to conditions of precarity. This discussion explores solidarity, mutual aid, performance, and political participation in the face of increased political, societal, and capitalist pressures.
“Theorizing Mutual Aid in Precarity” by Nidhi Srinivas
Abstract: Current global conditions of precarity may uncover new forms of solidarities and organizational forms. The Covid 19 pandemic, and its changes to the global social and political landscape, have been theorized in structural terms, such as state authoritarianism (Agamben), groups defined as necropopulations (Mbembe, Shah & Lerche), the role played by infodemics in making disasters comprehensible (the Comaroffs), and presaging an enduring crisis of accumulation, moving from the “edges of capitalism” to its centers (McNally and Tyner). What would it mean to theorize differently, by attending to questions of organization and agency during this pandemic, not solely structural and social failures? An interesting response has been mutual aid groups, relying on extra-market transactions and socially enriched relations, comprising people otherwise marginalized or excluded. The term ‘mutual aid’ originates in 19th century anarchist traditions in which it represented a counterpoint to organized forms of capitalism. Mutual aid stood both for an alternative to dominant organizational forms, as well as a means of resisting them. For instance, it could be argued that mutual aid groups ameliorate the pandemic’s consequences today. But they may also signify an organizational alternative, that could become more urgent as the 2020 global recession worsens. Mutual aid is an alternative to abstracted market ties and describes enduring (and endearing) responses to the pandemic, globally: people helping each other out, even through barter, enhancing social engagement by singing together from balconies. My current research tracks groups that declare themselves as ‘mutual aid’ in three distinct settings, Hyderabad, India; New York City (Astoria); and Turin, Italy. My expectation is that ‘mutual aid’ signifies different relational configurations in these settings, shaped by local histories and power arrangements.
“Precarious Bodies Using Precarious Materials: Radical Street Art” by Kristen Miller
Abstract: Theater has long been a venue for reflecting on the social world and radical street performers have continued this tradition, using performance as a space to playfully rethink the current world order. This presentation will examine contemporary performance artists Stephen Varble and Dance to the People (DTTP). In the 1970s Varble was a trailblazer of genderqueer performances, using guerrilla tactics to disrupt New York City street life, banks, gender roles, and much more. Dance to the People is a New York City based performance collective founded in 2014, consisting mostly of immigrants, women, and people of color. In examining these performers I will answer the following questions: How do these contemporary performance artists interact with and engage the public spaces where they perform? And, how do these performances create a desire for what theater scholar and practitioner L.M. Bogad (2016) explains as critical catharsis, that which can only be achieved through political participation? To answer these questions I will explore both artists’ playful use of public space as a way to highlight social injustices, their shared decision to use trash as both a prop and a metaphor for the effects of capitalism, and the relationship between the body and precarity. I posit that performance is uniquely positioned to address issues regarding precarity due to the direct relationship between precarity and the body, exemplified by Stephen Varble and Dance to the People, whose queer immigrant bodies place them in precarious life positions. Their performances agitate audiences, creating a desire for critical catharsis and ultimately lead to new and creative ways or resisting the status quo. By using an absurdist aesthetic—both with regards to their performances and the found objects contained therein— these performance artists call attention to the fundamental absurdity of human precarity inherent in their positionalities, thus revealing injustices and oppressions that too often go unseen.
“Solidarity vs. Charity: Putting Fridges in the Street” by Jacob Rosette
Abstract: As states and markets have failed to meet basic social needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, as supply chains broke down and food systems were reorganized, as one in five people in New York City lost their jobs and up to 2 million face hunger every day, activists, community groups, non-profits, and collectives organized a decentralized network of solidarity fridges (or community fridges) under banners of mutual aid, distributing free food at almost 100 sites across the city (see map at nycfridge.com). Located outside bodegas, public housing complexes, community gardens, churches and mosques, businesses and restaurants, each refrigerator is maintained by a semi-autonomous group, connected and coordinated through social media and messaging apps. Food in these fridges comes from donations and fundraising, state programs, “food waste” recovery efforts, from kitchens reorganized around ‘food relief.’ A tension of “charity vs. solidarity” in the movement describes a contradiction: what many view as revolutionary direct action (“decommodification”) and dependence on capitalist (commodity) food systems implicated in the massive inequalities made visible by the pandemic. This presentation outlines the theory and practice for ongoing research focusing on a subset of groups that organize twenty fridges in Harlem, Washington Heights and the Bronx, using a framework of social metabolism to locate these fridges within a social process of exchange and transformation and social reproduction to describe a process organized both inside and outside of cycles of capital as a means to examine questions of power contained in this tension.
About the Presenters:
Nidhi Srinivas is an Associate Professor of Management at the New School. His research mobilizes critical theory to study a variety of topics, including management history, international development, mutual aid, ecological politics and civic design. He has published widely and been awarded several fellowships.
Kristen Miller is a second year PhD student in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her work looks at performance art, and the role of the body in deepening desires for freedom, furthering social movements and alternative world making. Prior to attending graduate school Kristen worked within the Movement for Black Lives as a Senior Campaign Manager at Color Of Change. She received her BA from Northeastern University.
Jacob Rosette is a graduate student at the City University of New York in the Applied Social Research Program at Hunter College. He has worked in kitchens in and around NYC since high school in the late ‘90s, including as a line cook to support his BA in Sociology from CUNY in the ‘00s and more recently as a freelance chef and culinary operations consultant. Jacob’s research focuses on the political economy of urban food systems and the culture of kitchens. His MS thesis explores the phenomena of “ghost kitchens” and the mediation of digital platforms in the organization of food production in pre- and post-Covid-19 geographies of work.
Moderated by Prof. Frances Fox Piven, The Graduate Center, CUNY
The theme for this semester has been violence and civil society. Our initial panel suggested, at the very least, some ways in which politics itself depends on violence, and is not separate from civil society. Subsequent sessions bore this out in sometimes direct, and sometimes indirect ways, with consideration of the homeschooling movement’s foundation in racist resistance to school integration—into the 1970s—as well as elements of violence internalized in the limits on demands of LGBTQ+ activists, and consideration of the ways that academic writing often understands and relates the relationship of violence and protest in significantly different ways than activists themselves understand it.
In the final session, we ask people who are on the frontlines of struggle about violence and movements in a moment in which both protest policing and counter-movement strategies have become increasingly violent and intertwined, but also in which a global pandemic has exposed the everyday violence of the crushing inequality of urban spaces: from Hong Kong and Minnesota to New York , three organic intellectuals of contemporary struggles offer their reflections and suggestions for researchers with one foot in the academy and one foot in the trenches.
About the Speakers
Soren Stevenson is a recent graduate from Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ International Development Program. His background is in health and healthcare but has recently shifted focus towards foundational issues like housing and the environment. In the George Floyd uprising, Soren was shot with a rubber bullet by Minneapolis police while nonviolently protesting.
Brian Leung is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. His research interests include the political economy of development, authoritarian institutions, and political violence. He is also interested in a wide set of computational methods and causal inference techniques, including survey experiments, social network analysis, and text analysis. He received his B.Soc.Sci. and LL.B. from University of Hong Kong in 2017
Nova Lucero is a Tenant Organizer at The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and an Adjunct Instructor at City College of New York, CUNY. Nova works with tenants in the Bronx to create tenants associations and fight for better housing conditions for tenants across New York State. She previously worked with Northern Manhattan tenants and residents creating tenants associations and fighting the city proposed rezoning for Inwood, as well as an Eviction Prevention Case Manager and Housing Specialist in the South Bronx, with families facing eviction and currently living in the shelter system. Nova graduated from Fordham University with a B.A. in Political Science.
Frances Fox Piven is a Distinguished Professor in Sociology and Political Science at The Graduate Center, CUNY. She is an internationally renowned social scientist, scholar, and activist whose commitments to poor and working people, and to the democratic cause have never wavered. Piven is the author or co-author of more than 200 articles published in academic journals, books, popular publications and journals of opinion since 1965, including Poor People’s Movements (1977), Regulating the Poor (1971), and Why Americans Don’t Vote (1988) (with the late Richard A. Cloward), and Keeping Down the Black Vote (2009).
The concept of “civil society” has a long and varied career. Often used to refer to the kinds of civic associationalism that is necessary for democracy to flourish, it has equally often been understood as a battleground for consent, and not nearly as distinct from the violence at the center of state projects as democratic theorists might imagine. In similar fashion, the term “social movements” has often denoted a mainly nonviolent protest repertoire of contention, such that scholars could chart the rise of the social movement closely with the rise of liberal democracy. And yet scholars of movements would also never suggest that coercion is ever far away from social movements, even at their most ostensibly nonviolent. Further, it can be argued that any contest of political power, even those that take shape in the more associational spheres of politics, necessarily involves some measure of, or dream of coercion and violence. The current discussions of property damage, movement-countermovement violence, and the roles of organization among protesters and forms of policing by the state all touch on these more basic issues. In the inaugural session of the Society and Protest workshop at the CUNY Graduate Center our panel will discuss how scholars can interrogate interactions between civil society, social movements, and violence in our contemporary period.
About the Panelists:
DR. ANDREW K. THOMPSON
Andrew K. Thompson is a Visiting Professor of Social Movements and Social Change at teh Department of Sociology, Ithaca College. Primary research interests include Social Movements and Social Change, Critical Theory, and Visual Culture
PROF. CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT
Christian Davenport is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan as well as a Faculty Associate at the Center for Political Studies and Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). Primary research interests include political conflict (e.g., human rights violations, genocide/politicide, torture, political surveillance, civil war and social movements), measurement, racism and popular culture.
PROF. DONATELLA DELLA PORTA
Donatella Della Porta isprofessor of political science, dean of the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences and Director of the PhD program in Political Science and Sociology at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence, where she also leads the Center on Social Movement Studies (Cosmos). Among the main topics of her research: social movements, political violence, terrorism, corruption, the police and protest policing.
PROF. JOHN KRINSKY
John Krinsky is associate professor of political science, with an interest in labor and community organizing in New York. He specializes in urban politics, the politics of social movements, and the politics of work, welfare and labor.