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Ronald Reagan, AIDS, Nancy Pelosi, & Palestine: From Political Impotence to Cultivating Belonging

Who do we want to be and how do we relate in times of genocide & dehumanization?

The continued war and genocide against Palestinians by Israel and the United States of America occupies my be-ing daily. Each morning, I wake to some other atrocity paid for by my tax dollars. It makes me feel helpless and often politically impotent. And when I tune into what my elected leaders are directly spewing from their podiums, I feel rage swell inside me because I've heard these dehumanizing talking points again and again over the 48 years of my existence.


This past spring, I listened to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, my representative from San Francisco, praise Ronald Reagan, the man who let my kin die of AIDS. She called him someone she admired. It made my blood boil, and I immediately wrote an open letter to her.


I sent it to her office. No reply, of course. And I also posted it on social media. Here it is for you, dear reader.


 

I was also invited by Edward Gunawan to design an artistic activation as part of his Born a Problem: A Multimedia Exhibition with Paula Te at Gray Area Foundation. In dialogue, we co-created a blackout poetry workshop, where participants were invited to bring texts of exclusion (e.g. political speeches, policies, books or literature, news clippings, Supreme Court rulings, etc.) and transform them into something new in community with others. It was an invitation into brave space, radical vulnerability, and deep connection among comrades.


In the lead up to the workshop, I had to create my own blackout poetry. The question became: What text do I want to transform, or what subject matter feels especially important in this here & now?


There were so many things to explore, including political speeches about Palestine and votes for military aid to Israel, the Supreme Court Ruling overturning Roe V. Wade, California Propositions 21 and 8, and even Dan White's defense of his murder of Harvey Milk.


Then, I stumbled on Ronald Reagan's speech about AIDS he gave at the AmFAR Dinner in 1987. It was a speech I was familiar with from my early days of coming out, and it made me flashback to Nancy Pelosi's comment about her admiration of Ronald Reagan. I chose to blackout his speech (and Elizabeth Taylor's invitation to Reagan to speak) as a warm up for the workshop.


Here is a photo of it and a recording of me reading it (originally posted to Instagram.)

Blackout Poem from Reagan's 1987 Speech at the AMFAR Dinner.

 

Between creating this blackout poem and the workshop, protests for a Ceasefire Now and a Free Palestine took place across college and university campuses. So many, in fact, that President Biden was forced to address the protests at a press conference. I turned his speech into another blackout poem.


Here it is (originally posted to Instagram):


 

The workshop itself was an incredible experience. Edward, Paula, and I gathered a handful of additional artists and writers in the lobby of Gray Area. We took the time to take in Edward and Paula's Born a Problem exhibition as people arrived.


We opened in circle, calling our whole be-ings into space before we even began engaging with texts. Edward shared some about the inspiration of his blackout poems.

From Born a Problem:

In 1965, a CIA-aided military coup marked the beginning of a tumultuous period in Indonesia. The new authoritarian government, perceiving a "Chinese Problem," initiated a series of anti-Chinese policies from 1967-2000: Chinese language names barred on official documents, Chinese language media and schools shuttered, while public celebrations of cultural festivals such as Chinese New Year were banned.

These exclusionist and forced assimilation laws, echoing the Indian Treaties & the Removal Act, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Immigration Act of 1924 in the United States, fostered resentment and discrimination that led to massacres and sexual violence against the Indonesian Chinese community in 1965 and 1998.

This multimedia exhibition by artist Paula Te and writer Edward Gunawan (who are both of Chinese Indonesian descent) takes the form of erasure poems based on actual laws from this dark chapter of history. The large-scale interactive installation contains the context behind the redacted text, revealed through augmented reality (AR) to investigate the invisible historical forces that impact present-day culture, society, politics–and ultimately, our sense of personal flourishing and communal belonging.

Participants were then invited to share what they need, want, and desire in order to engage with texts of exclusion. Participants offered each other concrete strategies, like making sure to take breaks and reading the text multiple times before editing it, and one participant even decided that they need to eat something before they could continue.


By the end of the workshop, everyone had created something and shared it with one another. It was an act of deep witnessing between peoples who've been harmed by US policy and empire, White Supremacy culture, and cisheteropatriarchy.


After the workshop, I made a reflection video about it and posted it to instagram.


 

Then, came the Israeli airstrike on Rafah on May 26, 2024, that killed 46 Palestinians. There was a video shared of a man holding a beheaded baby pulled from the carnage of the airstrike. I will never forget his anguish, the charred headless body, and the wreckage behind him. Here was photographic proof of war crimes, and my mind, heart, and spirit wailed and raged.


I also couldn't get Pelosi's, Reagan's, or Biden's words out of my head. They kept echoing a core principle of the US project: dehumanizing, enslaving, and annihilating mass groups of people for economic ends. Also seared into my visual memory are the photos of other (elected) USAmericans signing bombs and missiles headed to Israel. Together, these words and images further entrenched my understanding of the intricate web of complicity in the genocide of Palestinians.


Having recently filed and paid my taxes, I know that my tax dollars are paying for the missiles signed by elected officials. I am complicit. This truth sank like a rock in the pit of my stomach. I needed to know which Californian (the political lands I occupy) Elected Leaders voted, and thus approved, the slaughter of Palestinians. Who is complicit?


On April 20, 2024, and April 23, 2024, the US House and Senate, respectively, voted to approve $15,000,000,000 for the Israeli military. They also voted for $2,400,000,000 going to additional US military operations in the region. To put this in perspective, this is the size of San Francisco's annual city budget. We are sending a municipality-sized budget to Israel on what appears to be at least a quarterly basis (and increasing in frequency).


I looked up every single elected Californian who approved my money going genocide. It astounded me how many voted in favor of (and how few mounted resistance to the vote or even disrupted business-as-usual to halt in any way) funds going towards war crimes. I took down names, pulled photos from their websites, and got to work designing a graphic that could be shared on social media connecting all of the people I have the closest relation to to the beheading of babies. Then, I posted it all to Instagram.


 

Later that morning, I reached out to fellow comrades. I needed some time and space to process the rage, grief, and impotence I was experiencing. How do really undo the work of empire? How do I not remain complicit? How do I not just resist but abolish?


A few dear comrades answered the call, and later that evening we all gathered in my home. We broke bread, exposed our chests, and began making connections between our local dehumanizing politics (especially towards unhoused neighbors and neighbors who are substance users) and the national politics of dehumanization. All of our issues and oppressions are interlinked, and working towards the abolition of one requires us to also explore how to abolish all of them collectively. We cannot undo US empire without also addressing anti-Blackness, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, colonialism, White Supremacy, corporatism, and climate change.


We stayed in this intersectional conversation for a while, and it was helpful in processing the rage, grief, and impotence we felt in the face of genocide. We began brainstorming local interventions that call attention to everything from Palestine to oligarchic-rule in Congress to local businesses and elected officials that support genocide and dehumanization. And an international issue became a local one.


My beloved (and also an amazing comrade) Keval formatted my digital post into a physical flyer. He went around the Mission posting them on poles alongside event flyers, tear sheets for cleaning or painting, and other community marketing ephemera. It was an action to bring attention to our complicity through electoral poltricks.


 

This past Spring has been one full of deepening relations and finding my be-ing (and my deepest relations) within intersections that connect (and thus relate) the personal to the collective to the plural to the interdependent. How I look inward, what inquiries I explore, how I co-create with comrades, and what oppressions I notice / name / work to abolish all matter deeply.


As my beloved and comrade and co-creator (of Tree of Change) Crystal Mason always says, what comes after abolition?


In this here and now, I am deeply grateful to a younger self and current self for cultivating belonging within intersections that are working towards the abolition of all systems, behaviors, and ways of oppression. It makes possible a responsiveness to grief, rage, and political impotence that truly relies on one another, not just one's singular be-ing, to co-create (or shall I write manifest) the change not just we wish to be but that we are here and now.


This particular reflection regarding Reagan, AIDS, Pelosi, Palestine, political art and poetics, and deep camaraderie reveals that, indeed, everything is connected. And how we relate to our be-ings, all our relations (human and more than human), and the cosmos right now is how we will relate after abolition.

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