Anthropologists have long been engaged in resistance and activism. “Social movements have been important spaces for generating anthropological theory,” Leith Mullings insisted in her bold 2013 presidential address, entitled “Anthropology Matters.” After participating in the 1963 March on Washington, and watching in horror as her fellow civil rights activists were beaten and attacked with dogs and fire hoses, Mullings found that anthropology mattered to her because it offered comparative and historical perspectives on issues of war, violence, racism, and poverty. Mullings maintained, “Anthropological theory and methodology are uniquely positioned to make a decisive contribution to solving human problems through education, advocacy, and empowering subaltern groups.”
During my own anthropological fieldwork, I also situated my research within a movement for justice and peace. After witnessing a series of massacres in
Even while testifying as an expert in Congress and working to shape policy, I studied the dynamics of power in
The Monday after Donald Trump’s election I found myself back in
The atmosphere was more subdued in the office of John Conyers, who is the longest serving member in the US House of Representatives and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Conyers’s aide shared my shell-shocked feelings on his first day back at work after Trump’s election. I thanked him for the continued support of West Papua, and I asked how a semi-empowered intellectual like myself might help accomplish parts of the Progressive Caucus and Congressional Black Caucus policy agendas under the Trump Administration. Rather than just play “whack-a-mole,” and simply fight every controversial administration policy, Conyers’s aide suggested that the moment was ripe for forming progressive intersectional political coalitions behind important pieces of legislation. We talked at length about H.R. 40, a bill that Representative John Conyers has introduced every year since 1989. This bill would establish a “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.” It is very unlikely that this bill will pass in the current Republican-controlled Congress, or be signed into law by Trump, but it stands as an example of an imaginative piece of legislation that could be possible if Democrats regain control of the legislature in the next electoral cycle.
Policy conversations in
With these convictions in mind, I helped assemble a group of 23 anthropologists at the AAA headquarters in May 2017 to explore the contours of power in Washington, DC. Donning suits and ties—and following the vague Republican rules on “proper decorum” for women—we fanned out into the office buildings of Congress to study the policy process as participants and observers. Our group included an organizer in the Movement for Black Lives, Native American scholars who were involved in Standing Rock, archaeological experts on cultural resource protection, medical anthropologists who were already working to protect the Affordable Care Act, queer scholars, experts on Latin American immigration, and environmental justice, and Mullings herself. Our aim was to meet congressional staff members who were working on policies related to our research interests, and advocate for concrete policy changes.
Fanning out across Capitol Hill—in groups of two or three—we had over 40 congressional briefings. Some of our meetings were in offices with a popular following: Senator Al Franken (D-MN), Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA), and Representative John Lewis (D-GA). Other meetings were with staff members of lesser known politicians. Throughout we took careful notes about issues where anthropological expertise could matter. We learned about the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, introduced by Ted Lieu (D-CA) as the first federal bill prohibiting “conversion therapy”—dangerous techniques that aim to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. In the office of freshmen Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), we learned about a series of environmental justice bills to address the disproportionate impacts of climate change on communities of color, low income communities, people with limited English proficiency, indigenous peoples, and people living with disabilities.
We met with Bertha Guerrero, a senior staff member who led Congressional support for Standing Rock in 2016 while working for Grijalva, the Co-Chair of the Progressive Caucus. Shortly after Trump issued the Executive Order in January to expedite pipeline construction at Standing Rock, Grijalva joined protestors in front of the White House, saying: “Even for a president who mistakes his own whims for the rule of law and corporate profits for the public interest, these orders are irresponsible….The damage to water quality, public health, and eventually our climate will be on his hands.” Guerrero told us that cultural anthropologists and archaeologists have an important role to play in responding to a lesser known Trump Executive Order about Bears Ears National Monument—a site where millions of acres of land have been designated for protection from drilling, mining, logging and ranching.
Congressional officials are quick to recognize anthropologists as experts, particularly on issues related to indigenous peoples. And, like many publics that we address, they are quick to connect with narratives of lived experience that illustrate situated knowledge. Nisrin Abdelrahman, an anthropology PhD candidate at Stanford University, accompanied me in a meeting with the office of Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), my own congressional representative. Nisrin talked about how she was among the very first people detained under Trump’s “Muslim Ban,” while returning home from her dissertation field research in
Anthropologists can play an important role in policy debates on mainstream issues—like immigration—by decentering the debate and recentering it on issues that are central to structurally marginalized communities we study or represent. Nisrin deftly did this work, focusing the conversation on a relatively obscure immigration policy—Temporary Protected Status or TPS—that impacts many people who are already in the
The AAA members who gathered in Washington, DC, last May joined Nisrin and advocacy groups around the country in asking their congressional officials to support an extension of TPS for Haiti. Weeks after our visit to
On other issues, our advocacy was less successful. AAA members also worked with Grijalva’s office to help gather support for
A new group of AAA members, the Congressional Action Network, has emerged to identify and track policy initiatives that are of direct concern to the field of anthropology and the communities we study. Our aim is to draw on the body of anthropological knowledge to influence contemporary policy debates. We will host a workshop, “Congressional Advocacy 101,” at the upcoming Annual Meeting in Washington. Alongside experiments in practical advocacy, we will be creating spaces for generating anthropological theory. In Washington, we will also report back to the broader AAA membership about our work as participants in and observers of overlapping political spheres during the Executive Session “Reimagining Political Horizons.” While discussing near-term political possibilities against the backdrop of hostile forces, we will also consider more sweeping changes on future horizons.
Eben Kirksey is associate professor of anthropology at Deakin University. Duke University Press published his two books—Emergent Ecologies (2015) and Freedom in Entangled Worlds (2012)—as well as The Multispecies Salon (2014), an edited collection.
Cite as: Kirksey, Eben. 2017. “Reimagining Political Horizons.” Anthropology News website, November 3, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.662