Cohabitation / Alex Werth

“What [Adolf Eichmann] failed to understand, according to [Hannah] Arendt, is that no one has the prerogative to choose with whom to cohabit the earth. We can choose in some ways how to live and where, and in local ways we can choose with whom to live. But if we were to decide with whom to cohabit the earth, we would be deciding which portion of humanity may live and which may die. If that choice is barred to us, that means that we are under an obligation to live with those who already exist and that any choice about who may or may not live is always a genocidal practice.”

-Judith Butler, “Precarious Life, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Cohabitation”

It’s like Eichmann in Ramallah. We cannot choose with whom to cohabit the earth. But Goddess, do we try. 

The fantasy of elimination. Once it drove the genocide of my people, the Jews of Europe, and others deemed unworthy of life in the Third Reich. Now it drives Israel’s suffocation of Palestine, its subordination of African, Arab, Mizrahi, and other(ed) migrant groups. I see this morbid fantasy—cohabitation’s inverse—in occupation, settlement, removal, incarceration, abandonment, and countless other operations of geo-sovereign power.

But what about in Oakland today? Is there anything more fraught than living together? Anything more stained with the memory of an outmoded multiculturalism in our post-Ferguson, post-foreclosure, post-post-racial moment? 

We cannot choose with whom to cohabit the earth. Formed in the mouth of one particular person, in one particular place, this mantra can sound like an ethic of unconditional love, a call for radical dignity. But in another, its meaning can become ambiguous, muddied. In Oakland, say, it can sound like an admonishment to those struggling to stay put on this beloved but coveted patch of the planet. 

In her 2015 State of the City, Mayor Libby Schaaf censured the local anti-displacement movement: “We can’t build a wall around our city and stop people from moving here—nor would we want to. In fact, that sounds a little like a certain presidential candidate.” Listen, child, you don’t get to choose who can or cannot move here, who can or cannot be your neighbor; it’s a free country. Spoken like a Good Liberal. 

Israel, Oakland. The two are not the same. Still I wonder: What kinds of conditions do we place on our commitments to cohabitation? When, if ever, is it ethical to refuse it? I offer this as a question without clear reply. For clarity is often the cousin of purity. And what’s more caught up in the fantasy of elimination than that?

I offer up the question of cohabitation because it’s a part of my story. Because it offers me a way to navigate the muddy waters of being forced into diaspora, and also forcing others from home—of being victim and victimizer. I could try to decide which of these polarized positions defines my identity. Or I could try to exit this narrative, write a story devoid of violence.

I offer up the question of cohabitation because there’s something about the intersection of people and/in places that can push our collective forms of consciousness and modes of life in new directions. Because it’s in neighborhoods, political meetings, and 

Oscar Grant Plazas; during rituals, lunch breaks, and laps around the lake; on dance floors and matatus that we can experiment with others worlds—together. It’s here that we can practice, even play, with forms of economy and sovereignty that emerge out of but against the systems of Self and Other served up by European Empire. Here that we can confront our traumas and misgivings. That we can try to trust.

For we’ve inherited disinheritance, a landscape of scars. Is it not radical to share a dance, a song of praise? Is it not radical to share our labor, our listening, our love and feel good about it? To feel our voices and hearts, hands and feet, work in concert versus combat? To differ—honestly and ardently—but without reverting to the logic of elimination or expulsion? 

In other words, to cohabit?

But real talk. We cannot simply dance, sing, or wish this world into existence. A poetics of living together is only part of the process. Under current conditions, our cohabitation is undoubtedly precarious. No amount of trust-building and loving-kindness between me and my neighbors can preserve our tenuous relatedness if their ability to reside and thrive is rendered every day more insecure through predatory lending, racial profiling, for-profit systems of mass incarceration, school disinvestment, and public officials and policies that trade welfare for the poor for welfare for property developers.

So I offer up the question of cohabitation as a horizon of possibility: a heart’s desire, an orientation toward action, a memory/myth of a different future. I commit to it because it calls us to the drum circle and dominos game, just as it calls us to the fight for collective control of housing and abolition of cages. Without the macro, the micro is unsustainable. Sentimental and anemic, Martin Luther King called it. But without the micro, the macro is soulless. Unlovely and unloving, it’s precarious in its own right. 

Our kindness is never enough. But neither can we carry ourselves and our communities through the demanding work of collective transformation without allowing ourselves to experience the pleasure of one another’s company. That sustenance, however small, may provide the fodder for a new story, one that plows a landscape of justice.

In that vein, I see the matatu as a container for encounter, an experimental place and time of cohabitation. Here stories can be shared, hard truths heard, jokes cracked, eyes made, romances indulged, plans hatched, groups formed, relations restored. Here we can act as a collective. But only if we honor our differences. For we may all ride the bus (a dubious assumption in the Bay Area), but we don’t all drive it. We don’t all sit in the same place. We don’t all get off at the same stop. We can’t all afford the fare without foregoing other needs. We aren’t all welcomed or watched the same by the driver. We aren’t all treated the same if we cross an international border. So it is with the city. So it is with Oakland.

Yet here we are. And I feel blessed to be here—with you. So I ask: What do you need so you can stay, so we can continue to pass the time and build together?

Thank you for trusting me enough to be honest.

Alex Werth is a geographer and dj.  Currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography at UC Berkeley, his research looks at the regulation of expressive practices, spaces, and groups within the framework of “public safety” as a driver of cultural foreclosure and communal displacement in Oakland, CA.  It also looks at how many of those same practices, especially music and dance, enable forms of coordination and collectivity that run counter to notions of “the public” written into law, ordinance, and capital.  He dj’s as Wild Man.