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Health Rights Are Civil Rights is a truly wonderful book on bodily harm, state violence, and struggles for justice. Tightly focused on Los Angeles activism in the 1960s and 1970s, it is also sweeping and multi-layered, drawing together seemingly disparate issues such as urban spatial form, geopolitics, and access to medical care. It is not only that we cannot understand these activist movements—their issues, demands, approaches, successes, and failures—without placing them in wider context. Rather, it is by investigating how activists themselves made wide-ranging connections among aspects of life commonly held apart that we gain a better understanding of things like cities, wars, poverty, health, and justice. What makes the book so impressive is that Loyd not only analyzes activist movements, but in so doing she treats these activists as themselves analysts. These movements—these activists—are so damn inspiring! Of course there is something depressing in how far we have not come in the forty years since, but in Loyd’s lovely, detailed accounts of specific actions and campaigns we also see how incredibly smart and energetic and creative and strategic these people—often women, especially women of color—were and are. These movements were brilliant (though not perfect) and, as Loyd shows, we still have much to learn from them today.
What we have to learn is precisely the interconnections that Loyd draws out and insists on—the interconnections she shows are what make this activism so important and unique. These interconnections are about, as Loyd puts it, the bodily harms of state violence in all its valences—of war, racism, poverty, and patriarchy. These activists—the very people seen as being deviant and ignorant and pathological—were the ones able to reject divisions between homefront and warfront, between race and class, between bodies and cities, between health and austerity. Loyd’s focus on health holds this all together: from struggles over health services to welfare rights to abortion to nuclear war to Black freedom and more, this is about health in the sense of a multi-level notion of well-being and self-determination.
Further, these are not simply metaphorical or parallel connections, but are about material connections: the ways that these various issues are mutually imbricated in practice. For example, it is not just that investment in the military and warfare led to a disinvestment in social services, leading on the one hand to state violence (“not healthy for children and other living things”) and on the other to lack of urban infrastructure, including health services. Rather, one of Loyd’s key contributions is to show how the investment in militarized suburban development across southern California (anchored by the defense industry) was not a disinvestment in social services so much as an investment in racism; it was an investment in racial segregation and racialized poverty. It was the production of deviant and unhealthy black and brown bodies and urban neighborhoods, who could then be blamed not only for their own problems but for everyone else’s, thus securing the ongoing investment in militarized suburban development (the white home) that secured a patriarchal white supremacy.
This book also resonated personally for me—and resonated in ways that demonstrate that the activist movements of Los Angeles around 1970 had a much wider, longer lasting reach. I recognized these politics from my own experience as an activist college student, when I attended the University of California, Santa Cruz in the late 1980s (a decade later and several hundred miles north of Los Angeles). I arrived from the east to be an environmental studies student, and to go mountain biking in the redwoods and skinny dipping in the Pacific Ocean. I also became an anti-nuclear activist, helping to organize actions at the Nevada nuclear test site. My activism also included protests against the wars in Central America, actions for farmworker and immigrant rights, sit-ins for Ethnic Studies at the university, massive anti-war protests in the build-up to the Gulf War, and efforts by my all-woman (and I might add all white) affinity group to reclaim our reproductive health through the power of the speculum (unfortunately, a rather disastrous effort). That is, the anti-nuclear activism in which I engaged was never narrowly focused on environmental and health concerns regarding nuclear warfare and toxicity, but instead was linked to all these other issues via concerns about racialized militarism and efforts at self-determination. The ability to make such connections is the legacy of black freedom, welfare rights, “mothering underground,” and urban and peace activists who forged these connections long before I did. What I think is important here is not my own experience, but rather the debt my own radicalization owes to the people and movements that Loyd recounts in this book: their legacy did indeed live on.
That said, it is also from my experience that some of my ongoing questions regarding these issues emerge. Let me first state my question in the broadest of terms, and that is about the double-edged sword that Loyd acknowledges throughout this book. How is it that what we want most desperately—the radical self-determination and autonomy that Loyd writes about—can become its other? Can become the very things we most definitely do not want? To pose this let me return again to my early 1990s activist self; I had been checked out of popular culture for several years, but someone tells me that I must watch Terminator 2. And I am totally fascinated and utterly confused by this Schwarzenegger extravaganza, because it is shot-through with an anti-government, self-determination message that resonates and yet I clearly recognize to be a racist, right-wing, highly militarized vision. How, my friends and I wondered, can this be? Of course now I easily recognize such anti-government messages for their radical neoliberalism—part and parcel of the Reagan-era racialized austerity that I had been protesting all along. That I was surprised by this then speaks volumes to my young, white, middle class naiveté.
But I think this sort of moment of existential shock is part of what animates how I read Loyd’s book. How, I wonder as I read, do we understand calls for self-determination (a major framing of Loyd’s book) in light of today’s Tea Party, anti-government, self-governing politics? What does it mean that the volunteerism of the right, including as practiced by many evangelical churches today, looks like Black Panther survival campaigns of the late 1960s (as described in chapter 3)? What does it mean that demands for contraception and abortion rights as part of women’s autonomy pushed back against abortion as population control in the 1960s (chapter 6) only to be reinscribed in a new “population justice” movement today (Sasser 2013)? I am not at all saying that Loyd does not address these questions. In fact this is a major theme running through the book: without a strong analysis of class and race politics and state violence, movements for health, civil rights, peace, and justice can easily be coopted.
But even without cooptation by the New Right and defanging of critique, it seems to me that some of what we want is still a double-edged sword. That is, we might take the similarities in discourse between the left of the 1970 and the right of today as more than signs of cooptation and take seriously that there are continuities that should be analyzed and understood. Michelle Murphy (2012) asks how such activism might be at once an important diagnosis—or critical analysis—of the patriarchal, racist, militarized social formations it was counteracting, and also a symptom of it, entangled with those very social formations. Murphy’s book focuses on the struggles for reproductive freedom that Loyd, too, identifies as being problematically liberal. Yet I think the larger point—about activism being both a critical analysis and an entanglement— is important for helping us better understand both the successes and failures of past movements (left and right) and provide ideas for moving forward.
As I say, these are not questions that Loyd avoids, yet I was still left at times unsure about how to think about the double-edged quality of some of the demands of these movements—especially where they leave us today. The place I saw this most strongly in the book was in the focus on access to healthcare, which runs in various ways through the book. Poor people, especially people of color, are sicker and die earlier because they lack access to doctors and medicines and emergency rooms. They lack health insurance. There are no facilities. This is clearly an example of injustice, one that remains as much an issue today as it was fifty years ago. But it is also clear that access to the health system is not justice, because access to the health system means becoming a subject of the health system, disciplined in the name of health: at once overmedicalized, overtested, overdrugged, overoperated and so on, and subject to healthist expectations of self-care in the form of diet, exercise, and so on. What are the alternatives when demands for healthcare and control over our bodies become enormous opportunities for capital accumulation, individualized responsibility, and new forms of racialization (Roberts 2011; Happe 2013)?
As I hope is clear, these questions the book raises for me are offered less as critique and more as comment on the conundrums (political and intellectual) to which the book points me, especially as I read it inevitably thinking about my own experience and current work on race, health, and environment. In my own research this takes the form of questions about environmental exposure. On the one hand I want to hold onto the idea that racism produces uneven environmental exposures that cause differential ill-health: killing the black and brown body not only through acute poisoning and cancer, but by damaging brains and endocrine systems and metabolic systems. On the other hand, I also want to call into question the racialized normalization that goes into defining what counts as an optimal healthy body and what is a damaged or disordered one. Pathologizing bodily differences—treating difference as bodily deviance-- is a form a racialization, not an escape from it.
This conundrum of environmental health seems to me a similar double-edge to the ones Loyd raises in her book. Intellectually stimulating, the political potentials and their pitfalls are often overwhelming. Loyd’s book beautifully raises these questions, and through her inspiring accounts of brilliant activists, she helps me think about them in productive ways.