Agency, Trauma, & Pepper-spray: 6 Year Later

The other day while styling my hair, I accidentally sprayed some hairspray into my eyes.

Don’t get me wrong — it hurt. But not in the grand scheme of things.

For those who don’t know this about me, back in 2011 I was involved in a viral protest that became an international news story.

Sometimes — among Leftists in Northern California — people will tell me how that incident helped shape the way they see the world and how it was important for their development.

The incident was important for me too. It was seriously traumatic (on top of being physically and mentally traumatic, I had paralyzing social anxiety at the time which did not square well with the worldwide attention we were receiving). And in a not so small way, the pepper-spray incident truly defined my life, my actions, and even my thinking for a good few years afterwards.

Trauma is weird like that. Trauma can consume your very essence. Then — potentially, after a hell of a lot of self-work — you can potentially grow out of that trauma stronger. Eventually, if you heal from it, sometimes you can even get it to where trauma becomes something way in the background and totally in your control.

I used to organize out of this weird, compulsive desperation. Nowadays, I don’t even really *need to* organize — I organize out of inspiration.

For sure that’s a privilege. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been extremely lucky to have had the career I’ve had as a union organizer in the labor movement these last 5 years. But my career and even the fact that I can organize out of inspiration nowadays are a privilege also informed by a lot of hustle that I’m proud of too… not that hustle isn’t also a privilege. But both hustle and privilege are both simultaneously totally valid and even interact, and — this is key — agency can exist (even if it’s difficult) and can interact with the self even after traumatic incidents in which your agency is totally stripped away, like when cops pin you down after macing you excessively in the face. The human condition is weird like that. It’s all nuances, and it’s complicated.

I don’t think about that day 6 years ago very much at all nowadays. If I’m being completely honest, I experience those memories almost like a weird dream — even as I’m glad that incident may have impacted a lot of people.

I don’t really know if I had a point to this post, other than to lay out some of my feelings as I am so often wont to do. In years past, I’ve shared political analysis on this anniversary date. That didn’t feel right to me this morning. I think in general nowadays, the complex interactions among the social, the emotional, what some might call the “spiritual,” and this concept of “agency” captivate my attention a lot more than political theory or even organizing theory do.

Anyway, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.

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