Westlin Grey Sullivan is someone I’ve been following online for a number of years, whose uncompromising attitude and strong preferences and tastes in general are something I’ve loved witnessing turn ever-more towards community actions and mutual aid in his home state of Michigan. I chatted with him on May 28th, 2020, about manifesting your desire for burgers and revolution.
JARBOE: What was the last thing you had a huge craving for and did you get it?
SULLIVAN: I spend a good amount of time at coffee shops for reasons having almost nothing to do with caffeine, so over time my go-to drink became an iced chai latte. A few weeks ago a friend enlightened me and let me know that you can just buy chai mix and mix it with your milk of choice at home, which made me feel a little ridiculous but also that much more equipped to cope with quarantine.
I also had been really, really wanting a burger, and while my first ever attempt the other day was successful, it left something to be desired, but I don’t know that I’ll overcome any anticipatory guilt about ordering food if I don’t really need to anytime soon.
JARBOE: Where is your favorite burger from?
SULLIVAN: Sometimes it’s hard for me to know whether I want a fast food burger or something more ‘elevated,’ and I find that Five Guys is a good compromise haha, but that might be less true for people who grew up in bigger metropolitan areas or exposure to more cuisine than me. Best burger I ever had, though, was a peanut butter & jalapeño jelly burger from a local brewery on my birthday last year. Very sad I can’t have that again [this year].
JARBOE: That sounds great and powerfully weird. Even though peanut butter and meat are a very common combination in many cuisines, with American food they’re always, like, an Elvis reference. Was it something you sought out to order, or was it a new flavor ~experience~ for you?
SULLIVAN: I’ll admit that actual peanuts in more savory foods was really jarring for me at first haha, but peanut butter or the peanut flavor itself has become really enjoyable. It was a new flavor experience! But it’s something I had sought out and had intended to try a few birthdays prior, but the only place I could find a peanut butter burger locally was that brewery, and there’s a big part of me that despises how that industry has saturated the local landscape (we’ve been dubbed Beer City USA).
I can’t claim to be an expert on gentrification and whatnot, but that’s pretty blatantly what it is, here or in any other city, or with other kinds of businesses, it’s just that breweries are one of our big draws. The bottom line is always ‘economic growth’ and making us the kind of place where people want to live or take a trip, which inevitably expands an already extremely racially and economically segregated city. As of a few years ago we were one of America’s fastest-growing cities, while at the same time having the largest wealth gap of any city in the state.
Lots of ‘development’ happening in historically Black, poor, and working class neighborhoods by the DeVos family and their friends.
JARBOE: How did you start getting involved in actions and mutual aid stuff? Was there ever a point where you were outside these kinds of efforts and made a choice to get involved, or was it already immediately around you?
SULLIVAN: In West Michigan the landscape is pretty dominated by the CRC (we’re very Dutch) and their non-profits and their ‘compassionate capitalism,’ so it can be hard for any efforts outside of that to gain traction and stick around. The groups I personally have been working with, mostly in the realm of immigrant justice, were formed (like many similar organizations) in the early days of Trump in 2017, but I didn’t get involved until 2018.
At the risk of being corny, I had spent the couple years prior to 2018 having a ‘come to Jesus’ moment and doing a lot of healing from 20+ years as a fat, gay, trans, crazy, traumatized person. I hadn’t ever been in a place where I could care for myself let alone people I loved or people in my ‘community.’ But of course there was a big surge of awareness that summer around the so-called border crisis and immigrant detention, and I had another ‘come to Jesus’ moment re: actually living out my beliefs and not just reading books and articles and hot takes on Twitter. I was variously acquainted with some of the people involved in those groups and finally went to a training, and the rest is history, or something haha.
JARBOE: It’s interesting you say that, because I feel like I encounter a lot of people who get really prickly when asked to actually do something—not due to like centrist apathy but due to the sense that they’re vulnerable and traumatized and feel like IRL anything is putting themselves in harm’s way. I have sympathy for this, and I don’t think it’s a baseless attitude, but it also feels sometimes like a convenient out? But again, I don’t want to judge: working on my internalized ableism also means asking myself what I mean by assuming what people “can do”.
SULLIVAN: Right, it can be easy to feel bitter or question peoples’ motives, especially when you’re trying to do organizing work, but in that same way this work has been part of what pushes me to try and have more compassion towards mine and others’ limitations, and in some cases our excuses and fears. I don’t always want to be the guy that says “it’s nuanced!” and leave it at that, but it’s my Geminian nature ;~)
JARBOE: Happy Gemini season. Could you say more about what helped you with those come to Jesus moments, or like even just the process of working through those defenses without just telling yourself to buck up like the typical ableist narrative goes?
SULLIVAN: I think my first come to Jesus moment really paved the way for my second! As a person occupying certain marginalized social positions, you (the general you) come from a place where you very literally don’t have control, where maybe you’re a burden or too much, where you’re undesirable. You aren’t given the tools that help you discern between ‘this is all my fault’ and ‘I’m getting a raw deal,’ so you just kind of vacillate wildly between them, and you never become a person who really, truly takes responsibility for or takes care of themselves. Perhaps obviously, this is trauma, this is learned. This false dichotomy is taught to us by our families and by ‘professionals’ and by the state and by our peers.
It all sounds very dramatic but it’s true! It’s hard to say what came first for me, the chicken or the egg, but it became very hard to sit there and say ‘this is what I believe, these are my politics’ and then not give myself the same kind of compassion.
It also feels important to say, and here I draw specifically from Fred Moten and Fred Hampton, that when I do this work, in whatever capacity, as a white person and a US citizen, that my liberation as a fat, gay, trans, crazy/disabled person is inextricable from this work and from anyone else’s liberation, right? I can’t come into this work just as a ‘helper,’ I have to do it for myself, on a micro and macro level, I have to acknowledge that my motivations are selfish, too. That’s the point of solidarity and mutuality and collectivity.
JARBOE: Right, versus the charity model that leaks over into radical thinking in the form of this linear idea of labor, or a really misapplied sense of service/”emotional labor” where it’s a resource that just goes out. The sense that if you do it, you will have less/be more vulnerable, instead of, if you do this, you actually stand a chance of being more powerful or whatever? Do I understand you right?
Sometimes people, even very left people, dismiss collectivism as a utopian ideal that people are horny for but is naive or something, and that probably seems true if you interact with a lot of charity-model activists before and after they inevitably burn out… But it’s like, no actually, this is also a very “selfish” individual thing we’re trying to do, and the group-ness is just practical.
SULLIVAN: Absolutely. On the individual/micro level it’s immensely rewarding and enriching and empowering, and on a collective/macro level there’s no ‘solidarity,’ no victory, without sacrifice or risk. And also in a more….abstract sense, for lack of a better word, there is no poverty without wealth, there is no humanity/whiteness without the inhuman/other/Blackness. Whatever I/we (depending which position you’re occupying) have is built on what someone else does not. I’m thinking of Frank Wilderson and W. E. B. DuBois’ work here, and how on a collective level that is so damaging and traumatizing from both sides (albeit in very different ways and with one side materially benefitting).
Like, our souls are in the balance here, this is our obligation, to ourselves and to others.
What does it mean when your position, your self, your humanity, is built on the oppression and death and disenfranchisement of others? What are you going to do about it?
JARBOE: I think something I’m still chewing on is when to know sometime is actually exploitative/unfair/running on instead of by some constituent group, versus like, yeah of course it doesn’t feel fair to be in pain and also be asked to do the work… it’s NOT fair, it’s just necessary… And then that loops around to, like, pretty legitimate concerns about power and stakes…
But sometimes when people are asking me about, for example, some trans-embodiment nightmare of reality, I really try to emphasize “trans people don’t, like, own this problem.” On the one hand there’s a dominant arrogance that assumes one can have access to “human experience”—the arrogance of whatever axis of power that presumes to empathize. And then on the other hand, is this defensive mindset—you see in a lot of separatist impulses—this sense that “no, only my group knows this and no one else can have it, it would hurt too much if i wasn’t right about being alone and unique here.”
Like with TERFs for example, if you actually did disprove bioessentialism they’d grab onto something else, because it’s not actually about biology, it’s about territorial pissings. “The pain of patriarchy is so great and my trauma so all consuming that I’m willing to suppose that my oppression is almost inevitable and inescapable, and never mind anything about race or class or whatever, but I simply need to own this or else.”
I worry sometimes about what it does to people to fall too deep in love with their sense of powerlessness!!! Like, get off your ass to prevent a slide into fascist thinking???
SULLIVAN: Right! And I think many of us have been there lol. And it becomes the thing where you’re ascribing moral value to certain social positions, ie ‘what makes me good and right is how much I suffer in comparison to others.’ Or on the flip side, doing things out of guilt and acting in total deference to people who might in one way or another have less power than you, such that you tokenize them and absolve yourself of any responsibility or introspection.
JARBOE: Yes! It’s so hard to talk about this stuff especially online because it seems like “[personal] responsibility” has become almost a right wing dog-whistle for society-wide callous indifference?
SULLIVAN: It always comes back to that false dichotomy, right? This is either my fault or someone else’s. When in reality it’s just….I know you’re doing your best buddy but sometimes our best is utter shit.
We can talk about how bare bones our welfare state is, but a huge part of it is just lack of information—what is available to me? how do I get it? how do I keep getting it? what if there’s a problem?
JARBOE: It’s so opaque! Even navigating “simplified” UI right now is baffling.
SULLIVAN: You have to be your own advocate and even when you know some of the rules you still get fucked because in reality, of course, the state is just a bunch of bureaucrats with MSWs making it up as they go. My resources/expenses have been largely the same since 2014, and yet last year my case worker decided to slash my EBT by more than half.
As you can tell by the erratic path of this interview, my politics kind of amounts to “pretzels is the same” lol. I admit part of me knew there would be minimal food talk happening.
Whenever I remember the title of the series I just think about my post-op appointment where the doctor remarked that my drainage looked like a cabernet.
JARBOE: I love that.
Is there anything else you wanna say before we wrap up? Shout outs, projects, links, whatever?
SULLIVAN: Ummm, there’s a lot, but I’ll have to choose a few!
I’d love to give a shoutout to the National Bail Fund Network, and specifically the Minnesota Freedom Fund who are supporting people on the ground in Minneapolis right now; the Kent County I-BOND Fund; Movimiento Cosecha and their fund for undocumented workers & families; No Detention Centers in Michigan who are, among other things, organizing with & supporting people incarcerated at North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan; and the Lansing Tenants Union.
I’d also just generally encourage people to find any way they can to support those most vulnerable right now—checking out the #FreeThemAll hashtag on various social media platforms is a really great place to start for ideas if, like me, you feel particularly passionately about prison abolition and the well-being of incarcerated people. Or maybe join a tenants union, or deliver groceries for your local mutual aid network! Just do your best, a better world is possible, etc! ❤
JARBOE: This rules! Thank you so much!!!
SULLIVAN: No problem! Thanks for the interview :~)
Cover illustration by Flynn Nicholls.