Politics of Scenes and Introducing a Chicago Student Neighborhood Social Map

Removing radical politics from the exclusive grip of social scenes and subcultures to expand its appeal is a popular topic of discussion. What is often missing however is a clear understanding of how critical scenes are to the communication and expression of political ideas. Everyone’s life is composed of the interaction between the different scenes they participate in, from their own family scene, to their school friend scene to their work friend scene to possibly an explicitly cultural (punk rock, hip hop or jazz scene etc.) or political scene (anarchist, socialist, obamaist scene etc.). At the lowest common denominator, scenes are just social networks of people who share similar interests, situations and relations. There’s nothing particularly insidious about scenes, its more important how individuals balance their engagement in scenes and how they deal with personal and social identity.

Political ideas are usually introduced to individuals in two ways, they can either be introduced into an existing scene or social network through someone they have a relationship with, essentially politicizing a scene or a politicized individual can participate in creating an entirely new scene centered around political engagement. Discussions of the exclusivity of scenes do not usually include the dynamic of the particular scene being discussed and whether or not such a scene was created explicitly around political relations. Unrealistic expectations about the appeal of newly created political scenes can lead to cynicism when the scene doesn’t realize the expected levels of growth and participation. These expectations of explicitly political scenes have to be tempered with the understanding that many people who are receptive to politics already have a full plate so to speak of social networks and scenes and that they may not be willing to neglect other social relationships to engage in a new and unfamiliar political scene.

An important task of the political organizer therefore is to learn how to identify existing social networks and scenes. We need to politicize such networks and attempt to connect them with explicitly political scenes to increase the capacity for mobilization of our political movement. The radical catch phrase, “meeting someone where they are” is an expression for pushing someone who is outside of an explicitly political scene to become more political. Although most politicized individuals will eventually either becoming related to, or participate in an explicitly politicized scene over time; their initial interaction with political ideas should not have to hinge on adopting a social identity. Identifying social networks is a useful exercise for political organizers because it allows the organizer to understand relationships of influence between people. If the goal is political mobilization and political consciousness then relationships of influence are important to influencing people’s attitudes towards mobilization and their commitment to political ideas. While such ideas are nothing new to the science of organizing as practiced by most labor unions, they have largely have fallen outside the purview of radical political organizing.

One such story of frustration that is familiar to many other white anarchists is the dilemma of the punk scene. Like it or not, the anarchist scene in Chicago has a strong relationship with the punk scene. At different times over the past five years of my political organizing I’ve found myself with my punk rock friends banging my head against the wall, “why aren’t there more anarchists/anarchist punk rockers?” The anarchist punk scene in Chicago was an example par excellence of a scene created explicitly around political ideas, though we didn’t grasp that during those frustration sessions. Being in such an explicitly political scene was helpful for our personal, political and social development and helped to reinforce our commitment to a better world. What we needed to understand however was that such participation came with a high social overhead. People who may have sympathized with us politically but did not have the extra energy or time to participate would not join the scene. As organizers we need to create an organization that can value the positive aspects of an explicitly political scene while consciously expanding to connect itself to other social networks based around other situations and relationships.

One example of how political organizers are successfully mobilizing political and non political scenes towards political goals is in the neighborhood of Pilsen. In Pilsen many of those in the radical political scene have made conscious attempts to create social spaces where those uninvolved in the scene can come and be exposed to political ideas. These social spaces include house parties where the neighbors are invited and encouraged to stop by, events like block parties and progressive programming held by community institutions like Radio Arte. While the immigration attacks have helped to cement the neighborhood’s largely Hispanic and liberal white communities together, much of the credit has to go to the conscious effort of political organizers. Political mobilizations reflect the diverse constituencies and networks mobilized, from punks, to gangbangers to families and hipsters. The vibrancy of the political movement is due to the efforts of political organizers to expand their social networks, talking to social networks on the block, family networks, punk and hipster networks and radical political networks etc.

The solid success of Pilsen’s political organizing can be contrasted to other neighborhoods with significant radical political scenes like the Wicker Park/Humbolt Park area and Hyde Park. There are many committed political organizers in both the Wicker Park/Humbolt Park area and Hyde Park, but what may be missing are the social spaces where different networks can be exposed to each other. Since I haven’t had the same kind of exposure to either neighborhood I can’t speak very precisely about the political efforts going on in those communities, but there is significantly less cross pollination of social networks compared to Pilsen.

Answering the question of why some neighborhoods are more politically vibrant than others (or why Chicago is the center of attention when (gasp) far more people live the suburbs) first requires an appreciation of how individuals can become more politically effective. One resource that identifies a process on how to overcome obstacles to communicating to others is the book Becoming a Moral Cosmopolitan by Depaul professor Jason Hill. It is a philosophic work but has many insights on personal and social psyches that can encourage or discourage one’s organizing potential.

Hill recognizes that the only permanent feature of the human condition is the potential for adaptation. People however, frequently discourage themselves from adapting to change through the adoption of a tribal identity that reinforces set characteristics and stereotypes on a person or group. The remedy to overcome one’s tribal identity is the process of moral becoming. Moral becoming is a process where an individual creates a critical distance between oneself and their tribal identity, challenging assumptions based on morally arbitrary differences about those outside of the tribal identity. Hill emphasizes that overcoming tribal identities is not only a moral imperative and mental exercise, but a social activity.

Moral masking is the social process advocated by Hill where the individual constantly pushes themselves to explore relationships with others through masking one’s tribal identity, forgetting inherited constructions and abandoning moral assessment based on arbitrary qualities of a person. Personhood is defined by the process of moral becoming for Hill, with individuals pushing past their inherited identities and expanding their networks of friends and acquaintances.

Being socially proactive in connecting other people is a moral obligation for Hill because it’s the only way to avoid stereotyping others. One can see how such a moral imperative can be a useful for new organizers trying to build a lasting philosophic foundation for their work and life. Such a philosophy has many practical applications and is easily translated into situations we face everyday.

Political apathy in America is derived from a sense of skepticism, but also from a sense of isolation and alienation. Reinforcing apathy has been a breakdown in the sociability of Americans. More time than ever is spent by youth doing activities that are essentially anti-social, or reinforcing clique behavior, like watching tv and playing game systems. Digital technology has also created many more opportunities for clique behavior on otherwise social mediums such as through fantasy sports leagues, online forums and myspace and facebook applications. There’s obviously nothing wrong any of these outlets in moderation, but these activities insular nature limits an individual’s potential for participation in broader communities. Our technology and how it has been applied has created a society of introverts. Its problematic because insular people and insular groups of friends are not interested in messages of social power since they don’t want to participate in the wider community. Throw in existing class, race and sexuality barriers and you have political stagnation from disenfranchised youth.

Massive public spectacles have ironically contributed to the increasing insularity of American society. Rock concerts drawing tens of thousands like Lollapolloza at first glance provide an opportunity for thousands of relationships to be built and for communities to be created and strengthened. Only the opposite has happened with these enormous events, cliques are not broken down and communities are not built up, the dynamic more resembles just a massive collection of insular groups all being passive spectators to the same acts they previously watched on tv or played on guitar hero.

Struggles to change people’s psyche’s towards each other and sociability are nothing new, it’s the same struggle Saul Alinsky faced when trying to organize extremely insular neighborhood communities in Chicago. The suburbization of Chicago has multiplied the difficulty of the task of bringing people together because the suburbs were intentional designed to be insular communities. If we are going to be successful in reversing this trend of insularity in American society we need to explicitly oppose it. Organizers have to emphasize that it is not only a personal goal, but a political necessity that we break down cliquish boundaries separating and dividing communities.

Diving into unknown territory and going to spaces where one doesn’t know anyone isn’t an act of social desperation or social inauthenticity but an opportunity for building relationships that will pay dividends in community political power. Organizers and leaders within Student for a Democratic Society need to legitimate these new social norms through actions and explicit appeals for such sociability from the rest of SDS’s members. For the most part SDS members share this insular nature with the rest of society, we have to strategically leverage SDS’s organization and identity towards changing ourselves. We have to have a doctrine of personal transformation that creates better and more effective organizers.

Being uncomfortable in a social situation is largely due to not being familiar with the people or etiquette of a particular scene. Such awkwardness is a natural part of personal and social growth and should be seen as a challenge by organizers instead of as reason to stay home. Sometimes however, people do legitimately feel uncomfortable, especially when there’s open bigotry in social spaces. Almost universally every social group, clique and individual, to quote an SDS conference, “has some work to do,” on anti-oppression, but again as organizers we have to be mature enough not to be mortally offended and break off from the rest of society. Instead we have to build relationships with people and leverage moral and social arguments to turn social spaces into safe spaces free from the negative –ism’s fragmenting our society.

The most effective organizers are cosmopolitan, they move fluidly between scenes, cliques and work to construct social identities and spaces that encourage participation. Being so committed to a particular identity, whether it be hipster, jock, bro, punk rocker, etc. that one doesn’t see a need to expand past it to reach other communities and if one is so bound up in one’s identity in a particular scene that crossing over to others is impossible, limits the resources available to the organizer and the organization. Its not asking individuals to be inauthentic or pretend to be some identity they aren’t; its about learning enough and participating in other identities enough to feel comfortable around those you don’t primarily identify with.

Our strategy must be one of using our individual actions to build new social constructions. We don’t want a society of introverts holed up infront of HDTV’s playing Grand Theft Auto. We want a vibrant community where people know and care about each other enough to be willing to die for each other’s freedom and liberation. Cosmopolitan organizers have to engage insular groups and scenes and connect them with inviting social spaces. Sometimes we need to create our own explicitly political spaces and sometimes we need to work to politicize existing ones. Social spaces in the context of organizing are like spokes on a wheel connecting different scenes and people, those that have influence and participate in constructing these social spaces will have the ability to mobilize a community for political liberation (though the same principals work if your goal is reactionary).

Introducing a Chicago Student Neighborhoods Social Mapping Project

The creation of new social spaces and the connection and politicization of existing social spaces have to be priorities for SDS. We need to stitch together communities that can wield enough power to topple the institutions we are fighting against. In order to consolidate our progress towards these goals and to sustain the momentum of our movement we need to envision systemic ways of data collection and organization so we encourage participation without overwhelming new organizers.

Chicago SDS has a significant network of organizers who have expressed interest in the organization. Each organizer undoubtedly is a valuable source of insight into the communities they are embedded in. We need to start systemically collecting this information and make it accessible to other organizers. Collecting information about social spaces in neighborhoods would be an invaluable tool towards helping us plan campaigns in neighborhoods and would be invaluable for mobilizing large numbers of students. In addition, knowledge of such neighborhood social spaces would be our primary ways of comfortably interacting with more insular groups that may be willing to stop by a nearby party or show but not drive across the city for a book discussion.

This is a call out for anyone interested in creating social maps of student neighborhoods in Chicago. Ideally this should be a national SDS priority. Information on different social spaces can be collected and compiled into spreadsheets, and visual representations of these can easily be mapped onto google maps or any number of other graphic design applications. As much data as possible should be collected on the social spaces of neighborhoods, as organizers we need to become social scientists and experts on the communities we want to build and mobilize for political change.

Hyde Park, Wicker Park, Humbolt Park, Lincoln Park the South Loop and Pilsen are solid initial candidates for this project as there are large numbers of students living in these neighborhoods and many social spaces that are not always accessible to organizers unless they are “in the know.” Any neighborhood with organizers and students however would be a good candidate for this type of work. In Chicago there are already allies working on similar “mapping” projects and the synergy between our projects should be mutually beneficial. These social spaces will literally be the launch pads of our future campaigns, no matter what their goal, and are our most valuable assets as social and political organizers

If we can start organizing with a working knowledge of the communities we are embedded in, we will have an incredible advantage. This social mapping project will be an absolutely necessary resource to overcome the obstacles presented by insular scenes and cliques to forming a unified student community and  towards political mobilization for a participatory democracy.

If you are interested in participating get in touch with me, mrsituationist@gmail.com

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