February 3, 2008
An open letter to the left and progressive community
on my resignation from Fire This Time;
I’m writing this letter to inform the left and progressive community that I have broken with Fire This Time, MAWO, and all other related groups. Through this letter I also hope to begin to stand accountable for the many irresponsible and destructive things I am responsible for having done when I was a member of these groups.
I have been an activist in Vancouver for more than ten years. In 2002-03 I helped to found the Fire This Time Movement for Social Justice. FTT formed out of an ugly split within the Anti-Poverty Committee. I also played a big part of this split and remained in FTT, Youth Third World Alliance (Y3WA), Mobilization Against War and Occupation (MAWO) and other related organizations* as an active member and organizer until the beginning of January last year. I resigned quietly in January 2007, but did not send an ‘official’ resignation letter until October 2007.
This letter has been a long time coming. For better or for worse, I’ve not been up to writing it and going public until now. If it is necessary to explain why it’s taken a year to write, I will just say that leaving FTT was very hard. Emotionally and personally, my experience in the group really messed me up.
There are three things I want to deal with in this letter. And I’ll keep it as short as possible:
1. Why I left FTT;
2. The Fire This Time and the damage done (an apology);
3. What I believe in now.
Over the last two months I have had some discussions with some people in the left about these general themes. While I have apologized to these individuals, I feel that there is a lot of ground left to cover. These apologies have really only been openings to a longer rectification process involving a lot of responsibility-taking and work.
I understand that even those who have never had a direct negative experience with me or withFTT have been negatively impacted by the lousy, sectarian, and confrontational atmosphere kicked up by FTT groups. If you feel that you are owed more than a general apology from me and feel that I should (or have neglected to) contact you directly; I am probably planning to and am just working up the nerve. If you want to, please feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
This letter is meant for the broad left-progressive community. There is one additional group that I’d like to speak to that is sadly separate from this community: the remaining members of FTT/Y3WA. However, this group has been forbidden by the leadership (ie. by Ali Yerevani) from speaking to or even receiving emails from me. This letter, as well as another letter directed specifically to them is posted here: http://ivandrury.wordpress.com
WHY I LEFT FTT
In January 2007 I did not have a clear or well reasoned idea of my differences with FTT. A great deal of doubt had been building in me for a long time. I had gotten used to suppressing such doubts as part of the general emotional shut-down that I had performed for the four years I’d been a member of FTT. It took me by surprise when these doubts grew to such a weight that I could not think of anything else.
The main doubt that plagued me was at the foundation of FTT. The principal analysis of FTT is that the entire left in Canada is hopelessly corrupt (the “Status Quo Left” – “SQL”). For me, this analysis made sense based on my frustrations with my experiences up to that point in the activist scene. From my feeling that the activist community was too insular and too much of it self-satisfied, I was able to draw conclusions that I now see as bitterly sectarian. FTT took an extreme view of this “Status Quo” view of the left and reduced the entire left to a homogenous entity identified through the ‘unprincipled unity’ of mutually fulfilling self-interest. Taking a broader historical view of the left today, within a very low point of class and social struggle overall in Canada, these signs of what FTT called the “SQL” seem both inevitable and temporary.
The reductive “Status Quo Left” analysis led to the basic organizational program of FTT: to form a new revolutionary leadership capable of taking over and leading the inevitable revolutionary upsurge in Canada and thereby save it from the corruption of the “SQL”. From this program flowed an endless string of justifications on the part of FTT – from ultra-centralist, abusive internal dynamics to petty disrespectful conduct towards other leftists, to profoundly sectarian sabotage acts. For approximately six months leading up to my initial resignation, I felt that these acts and their justifications were fundamentally wrong. I felt that it was not working and would not work. I lost faith in FTT. And I left when I realized that the group could not be reformed.
With time and space from the group I realized how deeply my differences run – and how massive was the four-year long mistake I had made.
I came to understand that the basic program of FTT is sectarian. That the group itself is sectarian. FTT has never involved itself in a coalition or founded a committee or worked on a project or written an article or taken on a campaign or done anything for any reason other than for the purpose of cadre building. The construction of a ‘pure revolutionary cadre’ has stood above all other purposes as the driving motivation of FTT.
It is a group that has taken an exceptional view of itself. Regardless of the state of class or social struggle, regardless of the level of organization of the left or of the forces of oppressed people FTT stands exceptional as the ‘one-true revolutionary group’. The philosophy of the group is that an individual must be ‘exceptional’ to be a member of this group, to be a ‘true revolutionary’ in a time and place ‘like this’. If the group is the revolutionary exception, and if the members are all the revolutionary exception then surely they stand as exception to all the rest of the left. Thus, you are with us or against us. Thus, one rule applies for what is done to Us and another for what We do to our Opponents (especially in the radical left). Every single principle that is traditional or expected of the left (or, hell, of a decent person) has been systematically sacrificed in order to build the cadre under the umbrella of exceptionalism.
The rationale of exceptionalism is deeply reductionist. It glosses over the multi-faceted complications and complexities that make up the politics of society and the left and pretends that one group can voluntaristically ‘fix’ these problems simply through the will of a ‘small determined group’ with a ‘correct political program’. This reductionism is visible in even the most basic political lines of FTT. From opposing the occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan through the slogan: ‘all the people of ____ demand: OCCUPIERS OUT!’, to approaching Cuba as model society with a model democracy where everyone is happy, to the question of the defense of John Graham against extradition, this reductionism appears again and again in FTT’s practices. The question of John Graham’s defense is a significant example. Only an isolated sect could overlook the broad political principle of not allowing a colonial state to extradite an Indigenous man and political organizer to another colonial state to face a necessarily unjust trial because of ‘working class principles’ against ‘violence in the movement’. I won’t attempt to go into the details of this case or incident: I had already resigned from the group when it was decided to bring Robert Robideau for a tour. But I will point out that the trial Graham is now awaiting in the US has already been conducted (without even the most basic legal rights) by FTT. Is this the job of a revolutionary group? To hold court over oppressed people?
However, while there are sectarian ‘vanguard’ groups all over the world, there is something particularly problematic with FTT. FTT is the production of the vision of one man: Ali Yerevani. He did a one-man entry into the Anti-Poverty Committee (as he had in numerous groups before) with the purpose of dragging out with him some recruits for his own ‘vanguard’ group. Unfortunately, I was among those who left with him.
Since APC I watched Yerevani (and helped him) employ the same tactics in every group or coalition we were (allowed to be) members of. The same stood for student groups, like the Social Justice Centre at UBC. While recruiting, Yerevani would use his charm and charisma to make young people, and predominately young women, feel important and exceptional. However, this sense of exceptionalism came with the steep price of complete devotion to Yerevani. Impatient for his cadre to develop into ‘professional revolutionaries’ he drove these recruits’ political development in his image with a constant one-two of Yerevani-dependent confidence building and Yerevani-dependent ‘ego-smashing’. When a potential conflict arose in a left-progressive coalition or group he would do everything in his power to escalate the situation into a ‘principled’ showdown. If he came out of such fights with new recruits ‘steeled’ in battle; then it was a success.
The APC split? A success, it was where the initial FTT cadre came from!
The Stopwar.ca expulsion? A success, it was where the expanded Y3WA cadre was ‘consolidated’!
That these recruits were more and more dependent on Yerevani’s political leadership with every passing conflict and factional fight did not bother him. Yerevani considers this dependency, above all, the sign of what he calls an “advanced element”. He even rationalizes his authority by citing the lineage of his revolutionary ideas back to Lenin, evoking the tired claims of being the one-true-inheritor of the Bolshevik legacy. Yerevani enforces the idea in the group that rebellion against him is egotistical, and a sign of ‘petit-bourgeois tendencies’.
Inside the group Yerevani is a tyrant who tolerates zero dissent to his absolute control. “Discussions” in meetings consist of two or three hour lectures from Yerevani. “Democratic centralism” means agreeing with and enforcing his often arbitrary and mood swinging political rulings on the fly. “Organizational norms” mean constant phone contact with him to receive constant marching orders on everything from speakers’ lists and the admission of ‘opponents’ to events, to which button to wear on which side of your coat. No joke. These “norms” also address every aspect of personal life, like how to hang car keys, what clothes women members are allowed to wear, how to invite someone to coffee, how to flush a toilet. Yerevani actually (shortly before I left) forced every member of Y3WA to sign up on a schedule to clean the bathroom in his house every day for a month because someone had clogged the toilet! (OK, I’m ranting now.)
However, I am not saying that the members of FTT/Y3WA do not have agency. They all choose to remain where they are. They are all accountable and responsible for what they are part of. FTT does function like a cult, but it is still made up of a group of young people who voluntarily contribute their time, money, and effort completely to the group – just as I did as a founding and leading member for four years. There are problems with dismissing FTT as a “cult”. This designation denies the role of the young people who are the activist workers of the group. Regardless of the negative impact of this group, it is not a universally negative group. The members of this group have committed themselves completely to work that they believe to be revolutionary and have done important work in forcing discussions on campuses and in some communities about issues of war, social and class struggle, and internationalist solidarity. Merely dismissing their work as simply the machinations of a cult is unfair, and it further isolates the group, closing even more the psychological hold that Yerevani lords over the rest of the membership. In other words: if it’s not a cult now, the continued stigmatizing of FTT by other left groups is only going to help bring FTT members into an increasingly vulnerable and dangerous situation.
However, on the other side of the coin is the qualification that many supporters of FTT or MAWO or VCSC have made: if the group is so bad, why are they so active? They’re the most active group in the city! And they’re attracting so many new activists and young people!
I held many of these justifications throughout my membership in FTT. The breakthrough I reached, shortly before I resigned, can be summarized as follows:
1) FTT’s hyper-activity is for the purpose of ‘cadre building’ and not for the sake of anti-imperialist or pro-Cuba education work.
2) FTT’s ‘cadre building’ is done outside of and exclusive to the dynamics of class and social movement in Vancouver, so non-FTT/Y3WA people lose the opportunity to learn from their own experiences and actions. Instead they are fed ready-made actions and lines.
3) FTT’s energy is directed in these actions only at those who are deemed ‘recruitable’ or otherwise imagined to be of service to the group.
4) FTT’s actions take up space that might otherwise be filled by the organic self-action of oppressed people (rather than this small group of wannabe ‘professional revolutionaries’)
5) Thus the group has stolen a new generation of young activists out of more authentic, spontaneous, organically occurring movements and brought them into this ‘exceptional’ state. Here, they are cut off from the dynamics of society to be burned out through such hyper-activity or (in select cases) to be permanently recruited into Yerevani’s sub-universe. Therefore, they are unable to play the important roles of instigators and counterweights to older and more conservative activists in coalitions such as StopWar.ca. FTT is not building ‘revolutionary fighters’, it is building a ‘good cadre’. What exactly that means can be left to Yerevani’s therapist. Mine thinks it sounds like the construction of automatons.
A focus on cadre building to the exclusion of movement building was rationalized in the days when “small vanguard party/group” meant one had a membership of 100,000 (like the Communist Party of America in the 1930’s) or 10,000 (like the Socialist Workers Party around the same time). Extending this same rationale to a group holding steady at around fifteen members in one city in one country is absolutely absurd and unforgiveable.
There is no easy answer to the question of whether FTT should be isolated or not, as has been called for by some people in the left. If other left groups completely isolate FTT then the walls of their little nightmare world close tighter. But it must also be acknowledged that if they are allowed to participate in some actions or coalitions, their presence can be incredibly destructive. I believe that, as much as possible, these two dynamics should be assessed and balanced out on a case by case basis.
THE FIRE THIS TIME AND THE DAMAGE DONE
Rather than accuse FTT et al of this and that atrocious act (which they will then refute or deny or parry with a slander of me), I think it best to illustrate FTT by talking about those things I know best—the things I was myself responsible for. I am nervous about admitting to this stuff, but there have been questions about nearly every one of these matters and I also think that the dishonesty and lack of accountability that FTT has taken is one of the worst or most telling signs of its sectarianism. So, here’s a list of (some of) the worst things I was responsible for as a member of FTT:
//I manipulated and abused members of Y3WA and FTT.
Usually I was just along for the ride, but occasionally I would lead assaults on ‘petty bourgeois tendencies’ of other members. I carried out “exit meetings” on members who resigned or tried to resign. These involved attempts to humiliate and degrade these people so that whatever was left of their confidence would be broken so badly that they would not get involved in any other group and become our opponents. Usually the meetings worked and these people left politics altogether.
Despite my own shameful abuse of other members, the most painful memories are of those many moments when I did not speak up against Yerevani’s abuse of others. He organized mafia-type meetings on a regular basis. If a member was letting their ‘petty bourgeois tendencies’ show— whether in a political mistake they made, or by how they dressed, or if they looked tired or were feeling grumpy—Yerevani would show up at their door or call and demand a “meeting”. This meeting would usually take place in his bedroom, and he would bring along a witness, like me. The last of these meetings I attended was in the living room of the house that six of us lived in. Yerevani had three witnesses at that meeting, and let them do most of the interrogation. The subject was being berated for her ‘petty bourgeois tendencies’. The specific charge? That she was too attached to her parents. The evidence? That she was refusing to steal from their credit card to buy a computer for “our movement”. The meeting lasted over three hours. In the end, she caved to our extortion. I sat through the entire meeting and never spoke out against what was going on. I knew that I should have, even at the time. But I didn’t.
The consequence of such events repeated nearly daily for over four years is a terrified and emotionally shattered group of young people. They are completely dominated by one leader and forced to crawl over one another and anyone else for his approval.
//I never opposed Ali Yerevani
My gravest responsibility and greatest mistake in four years of membership in FTT/Y3WA was my consistent support of Yerevani’s consolidation of power inside the group. This little-man’s power has placed him in a position of zero-accountability; that is, he can and does get away with anything inside the group. It has meant that the members of this group are routinely terrorized by a man who considers it his duty and burden to educate them about revolutionary politics and organizational norms—down to the tiniest fixed detail of what Our position is. Of course, there is no debate or discussion on these points. The reading lists of members are strictly controlled and even discussion of these readings is restricted to sessions under Yerevani’s control. Yervani knows—from his own experience—that this is centralism without the democratic, but waves away such considerations with the justification that the membership is too “inexperienced” and “immature” to handle democracy. That is, they will not yet think what he thinks without his control. They require conditioning. With silent complicity, and even with active enforcement when necessary, I helped to establish this indoctrination as tradition.
//I helped Ali Yerevani assault Mike Krebs
When another founding member named Mike Krebs resigned in 2005, I harassed and threatened him over the phone. I drove Yerevani to the grocery store where both Mike Krebs and I worked. I stood guard at the back door while Yerevani went in the front. I watched from the back door while Yerevani assaulted Mike Krebs by the cash registers. While it was not a planned action, and though I was shocked and appalled at what I’d witnessed, I said nothing at the time nor when asked about it by a skeptical member of Y3WA afterwards. I defended Yerevani to another founding member, Nasim Sedaghat, when she confronted him at a meeting days after the assault, and then I remained silent when she resigned on the spot. And I lied about this series of incidents every time I was asked by others in the left.
//I helped to create a hostile atmosphere in StopWar.ca
While on the road to expulsion from the StopWar.ca coalition, I accidentally hacked the email account of StopWar coordinating committee member Derrick O’Keefe. While joking with Yerevani and Mike Krebs that most far-leftists in Vancouver probably used some combination revolutionary names as email account passwords, I tested my joke on Derrick O’Keefe’s account… and the account opened. What was done afterwards was no joke or accident. With the justification that we were “defending ourselves”, Yerevani demanded that we read Derrick’s emails and publish them in our “defense campaign”. These emails chronicled an ongoing discussion between Derrick and other coordinating committee members of StopWar.ca. Nearly all of them included personal and confidential notes and information about and from coordinating committee members and some general members of StopWar such as Lawrence Boxall, Sid Schniad, Mabel Elmore, Haseena Majeed Charlie Demers, Jef Keighley, and others. As with everything else, I went along with this against my better judgment. I cooperated with the publishing of these emails in critical documents distributed at coalition meetings, to the media and then by the thousands in FTT newspapers and on the FTT website (where they remain).
This is only one example of the constant ways in which I was responsible for the creation of the hostile climate in StopWar.ca that led to the polarization of the coalition around personal rather than political grounds. The sight of me standing, document in hand, yelling about the Status Quo Left betrayal of the anti-war movement was familiar to everyone in the coalition.
// I dishonestly and disrespectfully interfered with the organizing of other groups and communities
The level of defensive sectarianism was so high in FTT over the last two years of my involvement that the most repulsive of actions became possible. At an event in 2006 featuring a panel of Indigenous speakers, including Aaron Mercredi—a member of Y3WA—another panelist made a comment about cops posing as activists. This particular activist, who is a prominent native youth organizer in Vancouver, was in continual conflict with Mercredi throughout this period. Mercredi was having a hard time standing up to him and was continually being disciplined in Y3WA for not being strong enough when facing off against other people or groups in the Indigenous activist scene. I nudged Mercredi to respond to what I took as an attack on him and Our movement. Aaron did not respond. And then suddenly the discussion was closed.
The whole crowd was invited on stage to participate in a Mayan ceremony (run by some visiting guests) to close the meeting. The moment the ceremony was finished and people started to leave, I called out that there was something still to be discussed. I accused this native activist of calling Aaron a cop, and said that this was COINTELPRO-type activity.
In an unrelated but similar event, I did more to sour relations between the Indigenous community and the Marxist left. When the Six Nations struggle against illegal colonial land development broke out, solidarity campaigns began all-across Canada. FTT immediately felt the pinch of the negative reputation we had built up in Vancouver—including in the Indigenous movement. Regardless of the strain this put on the newly formed solidarity group, FTT (through Aaron Mercredi and I) pushed hard against its exclusion. Even when we were not called for a meeting, we would determine to hunt down the location and attempt to crash the meeting. Mere days before the big Vancouver action, we succeeded in distracting the entire organizing group to focus instead on a long discussion of whether or not FTT would be allowed in the meeting. We were not.
Then, even after being very respectfully dealt with by a leader of the group (whose advice I really should have taken) in a small meeting facilitated by elders from the DTES Women’s Centre, we crashed the demonstration with banners high. I accepted an invitation to help out as a security marshal—an exclusively Indigenous position in the march. Foolishly, I took every position that we had clamoured for like gulls and been allowed out of decency, or pity, or concession, as our “success,” having convinced myself that FTT was integrated and playing a real revolutionary role in the Indigenous movement. Of course, we were not.
When Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, it became clear that FTT was disconnected from the organizing that was already being done. A new group—the Coalition for Justice in the Middle East (CJME)—was organizing mass actions through a close collaboration between some activists and some members of the Lebanese and Muslim communities. Because of our reputation, there was no way we would be able to get involved in this incredible effort. So the question of how to intervene rose up.
Through our (only) contact in the Muslim community, I had visited many mosques in the Lower Mainland. When this contact began to introduce me to people as “Abbas” I did not object. Yerevani had instructed me early on to “just go with” whatever came up in the mosques. He said that I should not ever “out” myself as a leftist as that would surely destroy our contacts. So I proceeded to attend prayers, go through the motions, and look for any openings in an ongoing attempt to catch up to the CJME as though it was some sort of contest. When anyone asked me if I was Muslim, I’d say, as though ashamed, “No…but I’m interested in Islam.” But when occasionally I was introduced as a “convert,” I would not correct people.
Like this, FTT was able to hold a single moderately sized demonstration with some members of these communities. Ours was a pale— completely opportunistic, dishonest, and disrespectful—copy of the achievements of the genuine coalition built through the CJME.
During this period I led “tactical operations” in StopWar.ca organized marches to ensure the MAWO banner was visible at the front of the march. I appeared at the scene of endless sectarian battles with FTT/Y3WA affiliated campus groups against student union and social justice centres, at events of the Palestine Community Centre, No One Is Illegal, the STATUS Coalition, the Coalition for Justice in the Middle East, etc.
The macho sectarian spirit that took over the group leaked out, poisoning the air in every atmosphere we entered.
//I helped to engineer a split in the Anti-Poverty Committee
I went along with Yerevani when he emerged from the backseat of APC to lead a charge for a complete organizational overhaul from a community anti-poverty group to a Marxist vanguard group. We emerged as “APC Members for Restructuring and Reorganizing”, in the most obnoxious, arrogant manner imaginable, with a ‘revolutionary’ “Action Program to Confront the Liberal Government and Crisis in BC”. Along with the thirty-page program came an ultimatum: accept the program in principle and in entirety, without discussion, or we six signatories will resign. Of course, our move was taken as an assault on the organization from within, and we resigned.
Much of the criticism in that we made of APC was correct, but it was not ours alone. APC had serious limitations that were exposed most clearly through the successes and failings of its work in the Woodwards squat. The great crime of the future-FTT was that most members of APC also had a sense of these problems and were in fact willing to discuss them. Much of the “Action Program” actually came out of recent organized discussions, reflections, and strategy sessions that all of APC took part in. The confrontation and split interrupted this learning process, hijacking the organic development of the activist group and what it symbolized for the Vancouver young left movement.
There are many details and incidents that I have not included here out of respect to the privacy of the people who were wronged. And there are less specific general occurrences that are no less shameful and that will have to be addressed through my future activist practice. Generally, however, unnamed as well as for those names above, my actions as a member of FTT are to be explained in terms of a cult of exceptionalism. When I believed that everything was being done for the construction of a “revolutionary cadre”, I could explain and justify any, and I do mean ANY, action. However, with that ridiculous shroud dropped from my eyes, these things are all incredibly shameful. All a series of terrible mistakes, for which I am incredibly sorry.
WHAT I BELIEVE IN NOW
I am a Marxist. I believe that capitalism cannot be reformed. I believe that capitalism must be replaced with socialized property and production through socialist revolution. I believe that it is only through the self-action of oppressed people that revolution can occur.I believe that ideology alone does not determine the effectiveness of activism today. Activists and organizers from many different ideological traditions have made great contributions to the cause of social justice. There are innumerable ways for individuals to add their efforts to this international movement against capitalism. Yerevani’s rigid definition of what it is to be a revolutionary is a dead end.
I believe that Trotsky’s analysis that the great historical gap between the objectively ripe conditions for revolution and the subjectively weak position of the working class and oppressed people cannot be overcome through simply invoking the problem of ‘leadership’ in the sense of political program and cadre building. I believe that the historical moment that spawned this recipe for sectarianism has passed. No longer do Stalinized Communist Parties command the support of hundreds of thousands and millions of workers in imperialist countries. I believe that the historical crisis confronting the masses of people of the world today—especially in imperialist countries—is a crisis of organization. We, as a class, as a people of many sexes, sexualities, and abilities, as multiple nations with a shared enemy and shared historical interests have never been more fractured and atomized than we are today.
I believe, therefore, that sectarianism and hollow sloganeering is a cancer in our movement. I believe that we as leftists must overcome the historical divisions between us and engage in regroupment—but not as mutual entrist experiments, and not to win over others to each of our “correct” lines on this or that question. We must regroup in order to rebuild the shattered left. We must regroup in order to regain a relevant position in society and in order to fight against the extremely reactionary imperialist order that is tearing our world apart.
Finally, I am for the complete dissolution of FTT and Y3WA, and for the freeing of the membership to do important work within the left as it exists in Canada.
I hold a lot of regret and shame about my four-year mistake in FTT. I understand that the majority the political work I have done in my life has led in the very opposite direction from what I now believe is necessary. If there is anything I am glad to have taken from my experience in FTT, it is to have been humbled by the enormity of my capacity to error. So, to begin my new life in politics—I’d like to begin to say: I am profoundly sorry.
With the hope of real and lasting solidarity, and love;
* In the interest of brevity I refer throughout this letter to the following groups as “FTT”:
FTT, Y3WA, MAWO, Vancouver Communities in Solidarity with Cuba (VCSC), the Free the Cuban Five Committee-Vancouver, and Courtenay (FC5), Indigenous Rights and Action Project (IRAP), The May 1 Organizing Committee of 2005, Communities in Solidarity with Hospital Workers, Coalition for a United Latin America (which formed after I left), etc.
And the student groups:
Coalition Against War on the People of Iraq and Internationally (CAWOPI-UBC), Langara United Against War and Occupation (LSUAWO), Capilano Students Against War (C-SAW), SFU-MAWO, Douglas Students Against War and Occupation (DSUAWO), Student-Youth Committee Against War, etc.