“It’s Murderous” : Reflections from the Trenches of the Social Justice War

by Rachel van Geenhoven

The Crux of the Problem

Baltimore. December 7th. The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health Conference (COSHCON).

I’ve been in the nonprofit world for almost two years now, and the same thought has been needling me this whole time: there are so many of us, fighting on so many fronts, all battling the same simple yet tenacious problem.

I look around the banquet hall, impressed with the diversity of the faces I see — the wide range of skin tones, ages, the various markers of background and personality.

I happen to know that the gentleman beside me is a pastor, and he very much looks the part, a dignified and well-dressed Black man with a white beard. A young Black woman with multicolored dreads was featured on a panel for her brave organizing efforts at her Waffle House job. Three older white folks and a Latino at my table all wear the insignia of the same industrial union. There are elegant elders and gorgeous roughshod folks and genderqueer youth, folks who work in airports and folks who dress like they’re on a fashion runway. Some of us have tattoos and dyed hair; some of us look more buttoned down.

We’re united over a simple concept: that every worker deserves safety, health, and dignity. It ought to be uncontroversial. It oughtn’t be an uphill battle to achieve this, not within a society that considers itself “civilized.” And yet, even this simple, obvious right is a struggle.

Why? Because this vast room, full of passionate and caring people, who represent such a wide and varied swath of humanity? We’re not the ones who make the decisions.

You can trace most social problems down to the fact that we live in an oligarchy. It’s mighty hard to acquire wealth–especially generational, politician-controlling levels of wealth– without repeatedly deprioritizing the well-being of humans, and this order of priorities is apparent in the fundamental structures of our society.

The decision makers, the “job creators,” billionaires and magnates, politicians and legacy leaders, are ultimately just humble creatures of flesh and bone just like us, with their own array of strengths and flaws. Unfortunately for the rest of us, they benefit from the ancient concept of divine mandate — the idea that power is granted to certain people by some innate and mysterious force.

If this were true, we’d have to question the virtue of a divine will that systematically exploits and treats with brutality, ignorance and disrespect those least positioned to defend themselves; that lacks any evidence of wisdom, compassion and accountability; that concerns itself primarily with ensuring that supremacy of an elite few is preserved.

Either way, these pampered and hallowed untouchables continue to be entrusted with decisions that touch all of our lives, and like clockwork, they continue causing massive amounts of harm. Harm we must work day in, day out to repair.

This is the nature of the social justice war. Working long hours alongside people of all beliefs and backgrounds who, by the simple fact of their concern for their fellow humans, are far more qualified for power than those who actually possess it. Toiling alongside millions of capable, caring people, year by year, rebuilding and healing and comforting and assisting all of the millions who have been hurt, broken, destroyed and discarded by these bad decisions made by the wrong people.

Trying desperately to discern the weaknesses of these terrible, ancient, calcified systems of power. Trying to understand where they might be moveable after all; how they might be changed.

The Right to Exploit

In a workshop on climate change and worker safety, we are discussing the climate-related risks faced by workers in each of our regions, and someone mentions the recent repeal by Texas Governor Greg Abbott of a law mandating that construction workers get water breaks while working in triple-digit temperatures.

“It’s murderous,” says the white-haired man sitting next to me–a longtime advocate living in Cincinnati. “People are going to die because of that repeal.”

“Why isn’t there a law that says worker protections must be directly linked to science about what the body can endure?” I add. “It’s infuriating bringing scientific standards to the regulating boards, watching business interests make their case, and then a ‘compromise’ comes out of it, with cutoff temperatures and limits that are empirically too much for humans to safely endure.” There is no possible justification for that kind of compromise. The body needs what the body needs. But all of us have seen it.

And because we work intimately with (and/or ourselves are, or have been, or have family/friends who are) the people affected by these bad situations–by lack of regulations, lack of enforcement, lack of concern on the part of employers–we understand what an outsider could not: this fight we’re fighting is not some kind of competition between the well-being of employers and employees. It’s a fight over whether or not employees’ lives and health get to matter less than money.

Too often, strikes and collective bargaining and protests are framed (by the publications of the wealthy) as a tug-of-war between the “deserving” and “burdens on the system” — a shockingly warped lens. Whether we’re on the side of the desperation that relegates people to dangerous, difficult and thankless jobs with severely substandard wages, or the comfort that allows them to pad their own pockets and enjoy a posh lifestyle without any accountability for how little they consequently force others to get by with, it’s typically a matter of being born into one set of circumstances or another. The deservedness of these situations is an a priori matter, not a reflection of effort, dedication or merit.

In the social justice world, we understand that, contrary to the favored framing of the elites, our laws and regulations do not simply dole out advantages or disadvantages in some grand, social competition. Our social standards, norms, regulations and laws all seek to establish the basic value of human life.

Do we want each child valued and nurtured, each adult protected and valued, each elder valued and cared for?

Or should the favored few be allowed, in their pursuit of ever more, to trample those who could not manage to get out of their way?

The suffering, struggles and impoverishment so widely evident in the world to this day are a reflection of the maddeningly disproportionate and persistent power (and legacy) of the few who just don’t care.

Nearly all indications that we do care about one another (outside of grand, sweeping bandaids like libraries and foundation endowments, gifted by industry giants to distract from the trail of viscera they left behind them) are evidence of the dogged persistence of the masses to be allowed to prioritize what really matters: each other.

Everything is Possible

We are collectively discouraged from believing in the possibility of something better. Though there are countries we can point to which quite successfully care for the least of theirs (Nordic nations come to mind), many believe that the U.S. is too diverse; that it’s not possible for people of so many different ethnicities and backgrounds to build together (the least racist version of this sentiment).

All of the greatest, smoothest, most beautifully operated spaces I’ve ever witnessed benefitted from the great diversity of the folks within them. And despite many nonprofit spaces suffering from a legacy of tight control by the folks from whom they get their funding (i.e. those least interested in significant change), we are seeing a gradual liberation take place. The typical power dynamics of the world are still reflected in these spaces, but the folks at the helm (typically more affluent and/or educated at more prestigious institutions) are getting much better at listening to, learning from, and centering the experiences of the most marginalized, and moving slowly but surely from the ugly dynamics of a hierarchical, exploitative world to those of a mutually respectful and interdependent one.

Another common retort to the idea of a more respectful and loving world is the specter of the violent socialist and communist regimes of the past. “Utopia is fantasy,” detractors say. “If you aim for a society that innately values people, you’ll land instead in a nightmare of sameness, violence, and poverty.”

Reality check: we already live in a world of violence and poverty and sameness. Furthermore, the fact that guillotining or eating the rich remains the province of funny memes and wry tweets, rather than real-world attacks, offers decent evidence that the rising tide of human-centric sentiment is not a violent one, and need not be paired with violent implementation. And looking around at this room at the Baltimore conference–at the vast diversity of faiths and backgrounds and cultural values and personalities–it is more than apparent that the world will only become more colorful and varied, not less, as we move towards more reasonable, just, and compassionate distributions of power and resources.

Utopia is a fantasy only because we haven’t gotten there yet — at least not on a global scale. This world has known something close to it in the various indigenous cultures who established sustainable and mutually respectful systems of interaction, destroyed by the invasion of violent and extractive empires.

These same violent empires have long dictated the definition of “civilized,” grandfathering in the exploitation, rape, and murder of those deemed less worthy.

But millions of us (probably billions, by now), know this is a gross oversight, and we will continue doing our damnedest to create a truly civilized world–one where exploitation and dehumanization are nowhere to be found. And just as the Gutenberg press revolutionized the world by educating the populace, we now have the internet, and instantaneous communication with each other across the world–which is opening up possibilities we can only begin to imagine.

Dance for Joy

My mother wanted to watch a Christmas movie, so I find myself in my hotel room in Baltimore, streaming It’s a Wonderful Life while we video chat. The heartwarming scene at the end of the movie, where George Bailey’s entire community dumps cash onto his table in gratitude for his sacrifices on their behalf, inevitably reminds me of the awards ceremony I’ve just attended, in which labor heroes were honored, and a legend of the cause, Jaribu, sang and danced as folks pledged donations to help their fellow workers.

There is so much more joy possible for all of us in this world. The spaces full of humans who consistently value and invest in one another are invariably brighter, more convivial and more joyful than any elite banquet or glittering conference space. We are blessed to enjoy glimpses into what is possible each time we convene together to listen and teach and share and learn how to do more to protect and serve our fellow community members. (But don’t fall prey to the comforting myth that poverty equates to simple joys–the stress of it carves years from people’s lives).

I hope that, if you have felt pessimistic about this world, unwilling to align yourself (/unconvinced of the efficacy of aligning yourself) with your fellow humans in pursuit of something better — I hope you will reconsider, in whatever small way. Even in an oligarchy, our votes count for something. Even our small influence can either serve to uplift or to put in the way of further harm the people who are born at the bottom.

The faster we achieve the world we seek, the safer and more joyful every single one of us will be. Even the folks currently at the top of the heap. Maybe especially those folks. Because while exploitation may look fine and sound grand and feel resplendent on the come-up, it rots the soul. Like small children gorging on candy, the worst offenders would benefit from external discipline.

And in the meantime, the folks who should make the decisions, the ones who choose to benefit our fellow humans instead of hurting them, will keep doing our work. Day by day, year by year. In solidarity.



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