Exile, World Systems Analysis and Anarchism with Andrej Grubačić

Exile, World Systems Analysis and Anarchism with Andrej Grubačić

Professor Andrej Grubačić
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Andrej Grubačić is a former teacher at the University of Rojava, founding Chair of Anthropology and Social Change at the California Institute of Integral Studies, author of books such as Don’t Mourn, Balkanize!, co-authored Wobblies and Zapatistas with Staughton Lynd and most recently the co-author of Living At The Edges of Capitalism: Adventures In Exile and Mutual Aid with Dennis O’Hearn. Andrej is also the editor of the Journal of World-Systems Research as well as the Kairos imprint at PM Press. For the hour we speak about anarchism, the Yugoslav experiment, exile, World-Systems Analysis, Rojava, his friend David Graeber and other topics.

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A couple of Grubačić pieces referenced, found online:

Some further reading suggestions include (more references in upcoming transcript):

Announcement

Anti-Repression in Asheville

As a follow up to the episode we did about protests against the homeless sweeps by the city of Asheville, the Asheville Police appears to be serving arrest warrants to people for charges like felony dumping and aiding & abetting felony dumping in relation to the Aston Park protests on Christmas, when the Asheville police arrested multiple journalists from the Asheville Blade as well as others present in the park prior to cufew. If you think this is bullshit and want to help, consider a donation to the Blue Ridge ABC bail & legal defense fund via their venmo, @BlueRidgeABC. You can also send funds to any of The Final Straw’s accounts, found at TFSR.WTF/Support, and mention ABC Bail in the comments.

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Transcription

TFSR: I’m very pleased to welcome Andrej Grubačić onto the show. Andrej is a former teacher at the University of Rojava, a Founding Chair of anthropology and social change at the California Institute of integral studies. Author of books such as don’t mourn balkanize, and most recently co author of living at the edges of capitalism adventures in exile in mutual aid with Dennis O’Hearn. Andrej is also the editor of the Journal of world systems research. Thank you so much for coming on to The Final Straw.

Andrej Grubačić: Ah, my pleasure, good to be here.

TFSR: Do you want to introduce yourself any further? I don’t know. Say a few words about yourself your preferred gender pronouns any anything else?

AG: Oh, nothing really? No, I usually just say that I’m from Yugoslavia. That’s fine.

TFSR: Well, first up, I wondered if you could say some words about your identity as a Yugoslav a nation that one cannot any longer find on a modern map? And if you could you talk a little bit about the Yugoslav experiment and how you became an anarchist.

AG: This is why I don’t like modern maps. And you are quite right. Unfortunately, the countries no longer in terms of the states, but Yugoslavia, I was always a little bit more than just a country a little bit more than just a state. And I think you’re quite right to say that it is an identity and identity that is in a certain sense, also, a way of rejection, or opposition to identities that were imposed onto us after the breakup of Yugoslavia. And the breakup of Yugoslavia, as many of your listeners probably know, was extremely violent and it happened in the 90s. All of us who were who grew up in Yugoslavia, and who were actually Yugoslavs, who were identified as Yugoslavs and who identify as Yugoslavia, we have found ourselves in what I call my first exile, which was the loss of a country that I loved. I still remember the moment, when I was in Belgrade at the time, my entire family’s from Serajevo from what today is Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belgrade is now capital of Serbia. It was the capital back then of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia established in the end of the forest… But the problem, of course, was I remember watching that, that footage of shadow ever being besieged and the civil war breaking in Serajevo, and it was absolutely heartbreaking. And that’s the moment when I realized in tears through tears, that I have lost something that was precious to me, and something that was extremely important.

It was something that informed again… I said, I am thinking about this as my first exile, second example would be coming to United States also not my choice, not my first choice, certainly, and not something that I did quite willingly. But let me answer your question, I think in a way that is probably more informative for the listeners who are not familiar with Yugoslavia, or maybe even not familiar with anarchism. So, I blame anarchism on my grandmothers, two grandmothers and both of them were communists.

When I say communists, that for us meant people who believed either in Tito, who was the leader of Yugoslavia, and who was the founder of what we might call Tito-ism or Titoist communism, which was a dominant form of communism in Yugoslavia. It was considered to be socialist self-management plus, Non-Aligned movement as a political orientation, external political orientation. And there was of course Stalinism, which was the opposition to Titoism in my family was split sharp half of my family were teachers communists, the other half were closer to standing back in the days before 1948 which was a very important moment in Yugoslavia history because that’s the moment when the Yugoslav Communist Party split. The majority of Yugoslav communist and basically saying no to Stalin, the famous historical “No”. Yugoslavia was choosing its own way, its own path to socialism, which involved again, socialist self-management. It was proclaimed in 1950 by a man named Edvard Kardelj, who wrote the first draft of what was to become “Socialist Self Management”, in which included many anarchist, guild socialist and even Trotskyist components.

And then, of course, Non-Aligned movement, which part of my family was very involved with, and they were building together which anti-colonial movements and states like Nasser’s Egypt, a new internationalist perspective and new anti-colonial perspective that Yugoslavia was actually the founding state of the Non-Aligned movement. And the first conference was in Belgrade, 1961. So all of this is to say, it was a fascinating country in which, to which one family had two different shades of communism. And the grandmother who was, shall we say, closer to the Stalinists side, but of course, lost the faith in that form of bureaucratic socialism, suffered a lot because of her choices. I asked her at some point, what does she think and how did she feel about communism right now? And that was a long time ago, I think I was 13 years old. And she told me “Listen, I believe in communism, I will always believe in communism, I think the problem is that my generation has chosen the wrong path to communism. And the responsibility of your generation is to find the new one not to give up on communism, but to find a new path to communism.” And that, you know, left me scratching my head and thinking what this different path can be.

Again, I was 13. So I was still pretty innocent in the ways of the world and political ideology. So this is where my other grandmother came to help. And she gave me her favorite book, which was soon to become my favorite book, which was Alexander Ivanovich Herzen’s My Past And Thoughts, it’s called in English. And My Past And Thoughts is Herzen’s memoir, in which he delineate and describes the fascinating history of the romantic exiles of 19th century, which included Bakunin. There was my favorite anecdote of Bakunin in being chained to a wall somewhere in the Russia, having to repent in front of the Tzar, but somehow escaping. He swam across the frozen Volga, jumped on a ship, ended up in United States and Caribbean and finally in London, where Hertzen was waiting for him. And Herzen said, “Well, welcome, what are we going to do first?” and Bakunin responded “Do they have oysters in this place, or do I need to go back to Siberia?”

I loved that response. There was, you know, everything I was looking for was there. You know, you’re 13 years old and you read something like this, and it’s absolutely amazing. And I said, “Well, okay, this man was an anarchist. So let me explore anarchism and let me see if this could be that other path to communism that my grandmother was actually referring to.” And ever since then, I started reading things about anarchism and reading Noam Chomsky was very important. Noam Chomsky was extremely popular in Yugoslavia for different reasons, he was somebody who gave a qualified support to Yugoslav self-management as somebody who was translated. I also started translating Noam Chomsky’s books into Serbo-Croatian, because then the name of the language. And through Chomsky, through Daniel Guérin, and through my first anarchist mentor, who’s name was Trivo Inđić (who recently passed at the beginning of COVID) I learned most important things about anarchism. Trivo used to say that anarchism is this noble attempt of trying to approximate or achieve freedom using the means of freedom itself. That was one of the ways that he was describing anarchism. And perhaps the most important thing that I learned from all three of them, my early introduction into anarchism, my early mentors Chomsky, Trivo and Danielle Guérin, was an actual distaste for any kind of political sectarianism. I have no patience for anarchist sectarians and I have no patience for sectarianism to begin with of any kind.

And I have even less patience for nationalism. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, we were sort of forced to choose and people have their own identities, nation state identities that they have chosen. Identified with Serbs, Croatians, Montenegrans, Bosnians, Slovenes, Macedonians… believe it or not, these are all now independent states out of one. Seven, we now have Kosovo as well. Basically, I refuse to identify with any of those and I became an anarchist (so, a man without a state) but also Yugoslav (which means man without a nation). And Yugoslavia for me became a sort of identity that I claimed with great pride for two reasons. One, because I was raised a Yugoslav. So the fact that Yugoslavia as a state doesn’t exist anymore, it doesn’t really concern me. But also Yugoslav in a sense of a political project.

Yugoslavia was always a sort of a truncated version of something that in the region was known as Balkan Federalism, and Balkan Federalism, which was inspired by the ideas of Serbian socialist, Svetozar Marković, a number of Greek and Romanian and Bulgarian friends of his in 1871 and after that, was this idea of not a federation of states, but a regional federation that was horizontal, that was state-less and it was built on agricultural and working units of working people, most notably on something that was called Zadruga, which was the village commune and of Obscina, which will be short of village administrative unit. Similar to Chernyshevsky in Russia, similar to Russian populists, and also later anarchists, we were there, we were talking about things and we were thinking about things that were not related to capitalist forms of organization of life. But we were actually referring to something that predates, negates and to certain extent, escapes relationships of capital and the state. Which led me to my preoccupation with what, in time, I started up to call it “exilic spaces” spaces of escape from capitalist modernity, spaces that escape a concentrated spatial forms of mutual aid. That was a nod to Pietr Kropotkin, famous anarcho communist. Spaces that escape at least to an extent, relationship of capital, capitalist law of value, and also of regulations and regulatory pressures of the state, especially of the modern capitalist nation states.

This led me eventually to embrace World-Systems Analysis, and different other ways of looking to avoid methodological nationalism, and state-fixation in social sciences and conventional social science. So at the point when I actually had to leave, what at that time was, I believe, Serbian-Montenegro (the name of the country kept trained during is the counter revolution was progressing after the war, neoliberal right wing counter revolution), I think was the country that I had to leave and I was forced to leave because I couldn’t find any employment. I was a young historian who was perhaps a little bit too outspoken, politically. So, Chomsky brought me to United States, he became my PhD supervisor, and he introduced me to a man whose name is Immanuel Wallerstein. And I’m forever grateful to two of them because they brought me to a place called the Fernand Braudel Center, which was in upstate New York and was a place where I was allowed to participate in research working groups. And in something that was an extraordinary experience of collective work, and thinking politically about limits and limitations of social science, and the ideas of social science that would be completely different than whatever it is that we have right now. I don’t know how much you want me to go into that or if you would like me to talk about something else.

But that is, again back to 13 years ago, when I was 13 years old, that was the beginning of my love affair with anarchism, which is still ongoing. And with my absolute dedication to the anarchist cause, which identified with democracy, very early on and this idea of prefigurative attempts and notion of prefiguration or anticipation, anticipatory politics, which for me was very important and to try was able to find already in Chernyshevsky, in which you have to enact in the present the kind of the future you would like to see. And you have to I think this is a quote from Rudolph rocker and other important and anarcho-syndicalist “You have to build the facts of the future in the present.” That is what I think the most important thing about anarchism is your theory and practice of self-management, which was another way that I would refer or maybe even define anarchism. As a theory of organization, more than just an attitude, an anti -authoritarian perspective on things.

TFSR: Thank you. That was a great answer.

I do want to talk more about what values you found and give an explanation to the audience, and me, of what world systems analysis is as a framework, but I had a couple of questions about your experience at the time in the Balkans, in Yugoslavia and former Yugoslavia. I’d love to hear if you had difficulty as you were coming up finding material about anarchism, there was a place in the sort of genealogy of the development of the socialism that the government imposed, or that was provided around you to say “Oh, yeah, people like Kropotkin were deeply influential, but they were idealists, but you know, here, we follow the materialist trend…”

And also a guest that we had on the show a few weeks back, who lives in Belgrade, spoke very briefly about sort of difficulties of organizing now, in the Balkans, in former Yugoslavia, because of the rise of ethnic nationalisms, that the imposition of those sorts of thing. But also, that any sort of like leftist philosophy can be looked at by many people as polluted. And today, currently, being a leftist and trying to organize around labor or around Mutual Aid, or these sorts of things, has sort of sharpness to it, that a lot of people, you know, refuse upon sight. I wonder if the NATO contribution to the war that was in the Balkans at the time, the neoliberal approach has been to claim that forces like the United States government are bringing democracy when they’re dropping bombs. And what they bring is is a neoliberal model of capitalist management as opposed to democracy. So I wonder also, if the term democracy you found is a bit like tainted or polluted, or they have to fight for a meaning of it?

AG: Oh, it’s an interesting question. A man asked who was the guest from Belgrade

TFSR: The name that he used on the show was Marco. And he’s currently involved in the anarcho syndicalist initiative of the IWA-AIT in Belgrade. But he didn’t give a last name.

AG: Yes, sure. I think your questions are really interesting. And they do make me think.

Back in Yugoslavia, this is a very important thing to mention, it was a very different world than the one of the Soviet communism. Soviet communism was in say, Romania, Bulgaria… It was different in Romania, and it was different in Bulgaria and different than in Russia and other parts of the Soviet communist universe. But basically, these countries were called the Second World countries. I don’t know if you remember that. First World countries were countries your freedom and as you say, democracy of a particular kind. The Second World was the name given to those countries that were part of the immediate Soviet sphere of influence. And then the Third World (which funnily that for European country, or at least geographically European country, like Yugoslavia was a part of), the Third World was the world of Non-Aligned countries, countries that were neither West in terms of liberal democracy, nor East in terms, or the Second World I guess, in terms of what was known to be communism, mistakenly, of course, but countries of “real socialism.” Now, Yugoslavia was different, and Yugoslavia had much more space for liberal, for dissidence, for all sorts of activities that were not completely or not at all in accord with the State, were dictats of the states, but more tolerated for many different reasons.

In Yugoslavia, there was always a coexistence of bureaucracy, we used to call it Red Bureaucracy, and the New Bureaucratic class a term popularized by Milovan Djilas, one of the Yugoslav early dissidents, not my favorite figure by any means. But it’s a useful way of thinking about a new, Red Bureaucracy and an emerging clash that assumed power in Yugoslavia, including, of course, members in higher ups of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia or the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. That was the name that was used after the reconstruction of the party after 1948. But there was a significant space outside and counterbalance of dissidents.

One of the most important parts, and I don’t know if Marko spoke about this, of that dissidency was a group called Praxis Network. And Praxis was a Humanist-Marxist, or one might say Marxist-Humanist, or I would say Libertarian Marxist group, that organized cultural a school Korčula, after the island in Croatia, and Praxis journal published all the important names of what is what became known as the Western Marxism. The term Western Marxism was popularized in Germany in the 70’s, it builds upon the idea of the school known as the New Reading of Marx. These are Adorno students, but also Eastern Europeans like one, especially one who was very important for me, Karel Kosík. Some people who are in the United States like Karl Korsch that you probably know is Libertarian Marxist, or Council Communists. And many of the people who became known important names of the New Left, like Herbert Marcuse, who was coming fairly often and many others.

So, all of them participate in Praxis, and Praxis was a fantastic critique of Yugoslav bureaucracy, providing space for all sorts of possible reinventions and reinterpretation of Marxism of that we that was practiced and that was cherished and imposed, implemented in many ways in socialist Yugoslavia. They were all insisting on the partial success and partial failure of the Yugoslav self-management system. They were all in favor of self-management, but they provided very important and very nuanced, intelligent critique. People like who are today famous like Slavoj Žižek, for example, who was never a part of Praxis, but he gravitated around it. He was in Slovenia, and he was latching on to the Lacanian interpretation of socialism, show he was looking more into French. Many people in Croatia were looking to Germany and German interpretations for the Marxism and other things are plenty of space for ideological and very creative ideological engagement. It ended in 1968, when eight of these professors including my friend, Trivo Inđić, my first mentor, were fired from the University of Belgrade and punished, rather severely for disagreeing with the Titoist, the official bureaucratic party line. And that in many ways, was the beginning of the decline of Yugoslavia.

Now, many of the people who participated in Praxis were also favorable to anarchism because they were looking for different ways to reinvent, reinvigorate Yugoslav self-management, which was an alliance of selfmanagee economy and state. It was something that anarchists, who were the pioneers of thinking about self-management… Proudhon was probably the first person who wrote cogently and coherently about self-management known also as “the father of selfmanagement”… He never imagined it it coexisting with the political states, let alone been run by people who were Bolshevik, or Titoists. So, this was an uncomfortable marriage, shall we say, or alliance. And in that particular political space interventions were made to introduce anarchism, left libertarian thought, libertarian socialist thought. As you probably know, in most of the world, we use the term “libertarian” to talk about anarchism. There is no idea of right wing libertarianism, it doesn’t exist. So when we say libertarian, we actually mean anarchists. And one of the groups that I was a member of was called Belgrade Libertarian Group. And these were mostly people who are the left wing of Praxis. And these were the people who were interested in this libertarian reinterpretation, not only of Marxism, but promoting anarchism as a possible way of solving some of those deficiencies. So, out of this group, out of this milieu, out to this political space came many translations of Pietr Kropotkin such as Mutual Aid, Memoirs Of A Revolutionary and other books were translated. And this now sounds a little bit ridiculous, but by a man who is the former neoliberal minister or prime minister of Yugoslavia, Zoran Đinđić. There was a time in the life of Zoran Đinđić, himself assassinated by mafia by different other elements of the, we used to call them dual power… The dual power in Serbia after 2002, 2001 was really mafia and organized crime. They assassinated a prime minister who was in his youthful days and anarchists who translated parts of Kropotkin, and even entire books by Kropotkin. So, we have a number of younger people who identified with the libertarian tendency within socialism. And some of them, again, will later come to power and both become very important much of the establishment. Even my mentor, Trivo Inđić, became the ambassador. He was an anarchist Ambassador, an anarchist who was an ambassador in Spain.

TFSR: That must have been a very difficult thing to deal with the Francoist regime, or was this post-Franco?

AG: Oh, this was post Franco. The reason he was given Spain was not only because he spoke Spanish but because he was somebody who was developing within Praxis network and within this libertarian space political space relationships with Spanish anarchists and relationship also with Latin American libertarian movements. So, Trivo was the first one who actually told me about Edvard Kardelj, while composing this new program that became known as “Yugoslav Self Management”, was consulting anarcho-syndicalist texts and reading Diego Abad de Santillán and many other people who were anarcho-syndicalists. And who were thinking about shelf management, including Proudhon. So, it was an uncomfortable task for the father of Yugoslav Self Management to have to relate to the father of anarchist self management and tried to call him a Leninist, or a Marxist, or just trying to somehow reinterpret this in a Leninist key.

In any case, these were the strange spaces and strange times of Yugoslavia, which was very different had very different political culture and much less suffocating, more open then the culture of other socialist states. We were watching American movies and Soviet movies. We were delighting in Czechoslovakian cinematography and beautiful movies that they had. And film culture, there was a whole thing called Prague school and many Yugoslav directors in those days went there and learn their craft in Prague. This includes Emir Kusturica, Goran Marković and many others. And Living Theater, I remember, used to come quite often to Yugoslavia. An anarchist theater from New York who had actually much more popularity in Yugoslavia than United States. Yugoslavia was a very interesting, open political space, of course contradictory because of the presence of the Communist Party, because of the elements of state violence, which we cannot ignore.

But they were many interesting elements there that allowed for the development of that political space that Marko was referring to these we bought your original question was about anarchist literature, which we could find without problems. I remember absolutely being delighted reading can be Albert Camus and his book, The Rebel, which was also very important in those formative days. And of course, other anarchist literature, which existed. Some of this most Marxist takes like biographies of Bakunin, but you know, you could read against the grain and you could read in a certain sense and discover many different things about the anarchist tradition by reading the Marxist critique. And again, there were books by actual anarchists published and translated. So, Yugoslavia in that sense was unusual difference and for me the space where you could actually learn a lot about Marxism. Marxism was something that I had in my elementary school matches and was a class that I had to take in elementary school and I had Marxism in high school. And then I had Marxism at the university. And now of course, that particular kind of Marxism that we had to learn was what I came to call in time “right wing Marxism,” that was the Marxism that begins with the Second International in Germany, developed further by the another right wing deviation in the history of Marxism, which is Lenin and Bolshevism. And then goes to Tito, Mao and other people who in the third world, mostly, who developed it further, and that was an interesting experience.

Of course, it made me this stage, you know, it made me dislike Marxism a great deal. But I was able to find books and especially because I was, you know, trained as a historian I was able to discover the wonderful world of British Marxism a British Marxist historians. So I was able to read EP Thompson, who was translated of course and Eric Hobbeswan, and but more than Eric Hobbeswan, whom I will not call the historian from below, he was a British Marxist historian but not exactly a historian from below. EP Thompson and Christopher Hill were really important. And when I was reading the two of them I, this is all that I wanted to do back in those days, I was thinking about writing a history from below.

My first published academic work was actually related to the history from below of the Anabaptists, the first communist right people who said “Omnia Sunt Comunia” or “Everything Belongs to Everyone” and created this beautiful communist experiment in Münster for which they were punished severly, tortued and caged. The city of Münster still has cages of macabre monuments to the killed, assassinated, tortured Anabaptist. So I was trying to trace the movement of Anabaptists from Germany, to the Balkans, and to see whether they left because they were fleeing the oppression. And it was a fascinating thing. And in those days, I was very skeptical of the Fernand Braudel, who was the historian famous for historical structuralist approach or maybe…

TFSR: The Annales School?

AG: The actual Yes, he was the third grade and Annaliste. The first was Lucien Favre and Marc Bloch and then the third one that the editor of the Annales was Fernand Braudel. They created something called “Total History”, which was a perspective that was relatively popular in Yugoslavia in those days, but I just wanted to study pirates, Anabaptists and runaway slaves. And, you know, I was interested in innate agency and resistance and all of that. And only later, I discovered Fernand Braudel, after moving to the Fernand Braudel Center in upstate New York in Binghamton University. State University of New York at Binghamton, I think is the full name and this is where Immanuel Wallerstein was a director. And through Immanuel Wallerstein, but especially through the very first recruit of the Fernand Braudel Center. Immanuel used to recruit people, both historians, sociologists, social scientists, and students. So, both professors and students were recruited by him in a certain sense. I was probably his last recruit. I don’t think that anybody came after me. I think the Center is now closed. But I met Dale Tomich, who was the first person that Immanuel recruited. And through my relationship with Dale even more than with Immanuel, I learned how to appreciate Braudel, and I moved away from EP Thompson and Christopher Hill and Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, and all of those historians of resistance, historians from below. I started to develop my own Braudalian history and my own broad area and approach to history.

Now, your question had another part, which was about the difficulties of organizing the former Yugoslavia, or what now I still insist on calling the Yugoslav political space, because of the NATO bombing. NATO bombing concerns two countries, one was Bosnia, where Bosnian Serbs were bombed, the other place was Serbia where I myself was bombed by the American NATO forces in 1999. It wasn’t pleasant. And it definitely left an extremely difficult wound, not only in terms of psychology and trauma and all of that, that definitely was the case for those of us who had to suffer through that. But in terms of how do you organize in the midst of all of this. The nationalism in Serbia is not something, ethnic nationalism, is not something that begins with NATO bombing. I think the “great counter revolution”, as I call it started really in the 80’s, and especially the end of the 80’s. And then with the Yugoslav civil war in the 90’s. Serbian nationalism, which was important because in those days, I was in Serbia and I assume so was Marco, created important limitations in being able to actually speak about any kind of leftist politics. So speaking about leftist politics, in face of either neoliberal capitalism or neoliberal modernization, or Serbian ethnic nationalism which was it’s alternative, oppositional and I would say symbiotic political option. They will complementary in many ways, although challenge counterintuitive, these were the, you know, huge conceptual blocks blocking the horizon of possibility of creating a new politics of emancipation.

And anarchism, which again, it has each moment and there was a possibility for actually articulating the new perspective that would be libertarian, and that would be anarchist. It was really hard. And I think that many of us made the mistake of not doing more to push for the anti-authoritarian socialist option in those days. However, it was really hard. I mean, you have to think about should be a nationalist paramilitaries, the war is over. There are people coming back from the war is a lot of street fighting, there’s our of violence everywhere. Mafia / organized crime is basically running the country. In relationship, a very intimate relationship, not only with political structures, but also with the ever powerful secret police in Serbia. And the countries, other countries or former Yugoslavia suffered a very similar fate. So it was really hard to fight for anarchism or any other kind of genuine leftist idea back in those days, and then referring to the end of the 90’s, beginning of 2000’s.

TFSR: So switching gears a little bit, you’re currently the editor of the Journal of World-Systems Research. We haven’t talked about World Systems Analysis on the show before so I wonder if you could give us an introduction to the framework of what it is how its approached relates to internationalists or inter-communalist, anti-capitalist struggle in and beyond academia?

AG: Well, that’s an interesting question in terms of relationship, and I think under explored why the relationship between anarchism and World-Systems Analysis. You know, there is the new issue of the journal for systems research will feature a special issue dedicated to non-state, anti-statist and anarchist movements in the capitalist world economy in the modern world system, but let me, let me try to explain what was so useful, for me at least in terms of thinking about political ideology and ideas within that framework. Immanuel was, and you can see this in the four volumes of his book Modern World-Systems, but also in many other books where he was popularizing or making more accessible all the historical arguments, that are very dense that he made in those main books, four volumes… Now, the important thing for me was that Immanuel was talking about 500 years of capitalism, 500 years of what he called “Capitalist World Economy”, “Capitalist World System, a historical social system that had its own, and this is an important term,Geoculture”. And that the geoculture, meaning a dominant, hegemonic idea of constellation of ideas. He called it “Centrist Liberalism”.

And it basically all of it begins with the end of the French Revolution, which introduced something completely new in the world and that novelty was called “social change”. Namely, before the French Revolution, the idea that change is possible, change is normal, change is even something that is good, has been universally rejected by traditional monarchistic ways of thinking about the way that the world works and the way that history moves. So, with the “dangerous classes” as Immanuel called them, or the French Revolution, this is the first moment when really the ruling classes people in power had to deal with the dangerous classes. And they had to somehow respond to this great pressure coming from below that was felt all the way to Haiti. And the Haitian Revolution was very much part of the French Revolutionary experience. Usually you don’t learn about the Haitian Revolution in American universities or high schools which I had to learn when I moved here. But the thing about this is that geoculture means that people in power had to figure out a way of how to respond to this pressure, also intellectually and this is where intellectuals come in handy and this is the birth of modern intellectuals, but also of modern ideologists. And of course of social sciences.

So the greatest novelty according to manual of French Revolution was that it created the idea that social change is normal, social change is desirable, but social change needs to be somehow managed and controlled. And the forum through which social change can be enacted and experimented with is the State. So, what capitalist modernity means, basically, is the organization of the world in which centrist liberalism occupies a central and most dominant place. However, the part of the whole world of capitalist modernity is not only occupied by the dominant real culture of centrist liberalism, but also by other modernist ideologies that are also part of capitalism. And these are, of course, modern conservativism, but also the dominant, mainstream forms of Marxism. They all deployed and accepted the liberal notion of Time, which was the linear notion of time, a progressivist notion of time. Unquestion belief in the idea of progress, linear temporality and organization of space through Nation States and through a political system of representative democracy, identified again with the space geographic space of the states, with a dominant nationality and ethnic group and dominant language. Now, many of us began to call this a Jacobin solution and Daniel Guérin has this famous and beautiful essay, De-Jacobinized Revolution, perhaps would be translation from French. I’m not entirely sure if this has been published in English (It is, it’s linked in the show-notes, -TFSR).

And the idea, basically, is that the Jacobin Revolution and temporality and Jacobin idea of the state and Jacobin idea of modernity has only one enemy: and that enemy was anarchism. And it gives the most anti-foundation of which, in a sense that it refused to accept all the foundational elements of capitalist modernity: Authority of the state; authority of the modern nation; authority of liberalism; and authority of the intellectual. So, what people in power did in order to manage social change, they invented the university. The university was a moribund institution, medieval University, of course, before the 18th century, when it was reinvented very carefully. And eventually in the 19th century, the disciplines were created. And all of this was a political enterprise. This was an attempt to again manage and explain social change. So your head all of a sudden social sciences, created with a particular political task. The first one that was transformed into science was actually history. And the reason why history was created was basically respond to the challenges of the Paris Commune of 1871. And then history, especially with Leopold von Ranke who said famously that “we have to study the history, the past, as it really happened,” became really a form of change that legitimizes the state and legitimizes the nation. And when I say legitimizes it also mean to a certain extent, creates the state and creates the nation. Historians, the new historians, professional historians, Ranke and others, were actually given a task to create states and nationas. States were already brought into life, now we had to invent… As the famous saying goes, “we have France, now we have to invent French people.” And for this, we needed history. So history was given that particular task.

Liberal ideology is organized around a trinity of concepts. It’s organized around very violent abstractions: one is called the state; another is called economy or the markets; and the last one is society. Society was left to the sociologists. Sociologists were there to study the society. Economists were invented in order to study the market. And finally political science and political scientists were created in order to study the state. Those people who were left behind the liberal political universe were known as Primitives, you know people who don’t really have the state. So, the stateless population of savages, barbarians, primitives were a domain of a new social science discipline known as anthropology. And finally, we have people who, once upon a time, used to have great empires, great cultures and great civilizations. And like people in Persia, like people in China, and they became the domain the field of study of Orientalists. People who were mostly philologists, but who were using all ways of studying different cultures that are supposedly frozen in time, meaning that they do not belong to the goals of Eurocentric liberal modernity.

And again, most of the ideas, most of the ideologies against centrist liberalism, what Immanuel Wallerstein calls “antisystemic movements”, movements against the system,, were very much embedded in that system because they accepted the same premise of progress of certain unqualified celebration of the enlightenment, or certain ideas of the Enlightenment, codefied by the State. And there was only one that was misfitting and that was anarchism. So what World-Systems does for me in terms of understanding anarchism, it opens up a space to speak about two periods in the history of anarchism. The first one is what I call the “First Anarchist Century”. And that is, I would say, roughly between the 1870’s and either 1917 or 1936, the Spanish revolution. Depending on when you want to think about the ends of the first anarchist century, which was the period and this is the reason why I’m calling it the anarchist century, is the period when anarchism was the dominant perspective in the Global South, and in basically all the countries except Western Europe.

In Western Europe, you had the absolute triumph, absolute predominance of hegemonic Marxism, which was the Marxism of the Second International, the Marxism of the steam engine and Marxism of the guillotine. Which was developed by people in German Social Democracy and later on improved upon, in a certain sense, by Lenin and his comrades. You had a few dissonant voices like Rosa Luxemburg, and like people who became known as Council Communists, Libertarian Marxist, but they were a minority. In most of the world, the dominant anti-capitalist tradition, was the tradition of anarchism. And you can read Benedict Anderson’s wonderful book called Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (later republished as The Age of Globalization, now out of print, but a pdf linked in the episode notes -TFSR), Sho Konishi’s masterful work, Anarchist Modernity, and of course Ilham Khuri-Makdisi, who is from Lebanon, and her work The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914. And in all of these books, and many others, which are treating anarchism from this perspective, you could see that this period (1870’s to Russian Revolution, or perhaps the Spanish revolution), was a period where anarchism was really the only game in town in terms of an anti-capitalist politics. It served as a sort of gravitational force between revolutionary and anti-colonial struggles on different sides of the Atlantic. So, you had thes incredible situations in which Filipino nationalist (meaning anti-colonial fighters) would meet anarchists. and exchange ideas, would borrow from anarchist repertoire of anarchist ideas, which was very flexible because anarchism always gave more primacy to life than to the text. So this anti-authoritarian eclecticism of anarchists was something that the anticolonial revolutionaries in India, the Philippines, in Japan in China were all using for different purposes.

There were a series of communication network, which involved in many, many different journals from Belgrade to New Jersey, the most important one was you Paris, Les Temps Nouveaux. And all of these journals were sort of communications network of that anarchist century, but there were also other spaces. Anarchists were absolutely brilliant in using the new public spaces like taverns, cafes, but also theatres, to propagate anarchism. And of course schools. This is the beginning of Modern School Movement with Francisco Ferrer. But anarchism, actually, in terms of education begins with Paul Robin, who was an anarchist who created the first educational program for the Paris Commune, the only one, known as Integral Education. So, integral education and you will notice that the police were it to school California Institute of Integral Studies, integral education for a long time was the anarchist perspective on education. Tolstoy was very close to anarchism was very close to all of these, they were known as Model Schools. They were created all over not only Europe, but the entire world because anarchist organized through networks.

And networks were a preferred model of anarchist organizing, you know, in those days. So, Pietro Gori, Errico Malatesta, the fabled names of European anarchism, were all of a sudden in Paraguay and Argentina. And there’s a reason why… There was a very intimate connection between Caribbean, Pacific, Mediterranean networks, where anarchists were circulating their ideas. We know of translations of Malatesta in Cuba. We know of Malatesta, for example, trying to come to my part of the world, the Balkans to fight against the Ottomans. In in the late 19th century. We know that he was with Sergius Stepniak, who was a famous Russian populist. After that they went and they plundered the countryside of Italy, repurposing, or I guess the term would be expropriating many of the village properties there. Stepniak, then goes to Russia, assassinates the minister of the police, comes back to England. He is killed ,unfortunately, in Chiswick of all places in train accident. So, this is a time where anarchism is traveling everywhere. Francisco Ferrer was a famous anarchist educator was murdered by the states in 1908. His project which was known as Modern Schools, and the modern school movement becomes extremely popular. In the United States, you had modern school movement and many modern schools. But the Fransisco Ferrer Affair, as it was known, became a play, they used to be known as Martyr Plays. And this theater play, I think, premiered in Alexandria, or in Beirut, I can’t remember, and then later in Buenos Aires.

And then of course, you had the Mayday. Immigrants, anarchists who created the May Day and who, I guess to those two events are really kind of the connective tissue or the most celebrated events of the anarchist century. Marx was important. And I will say that anarchists in many ways were more faithful to Marx then majority of the so called hegemonic Marxism or the mainstream or right wing Marxism as they call it. Bakunin famously translated, in prison Marx’s capital. But anarchists were always skeptical of Marxism, because Marxism was a modernist ideology. The majority of Marx’s in those days were people who were tinkering with engineering, and the idea of creating the great locomotives of the future, fascinated with tractors and modernist progress. Anarchists were always skeptical, anarchists thinking about Russia Mir and the different, other forms of organization, self-organization of people in Russia. Not as pre-capitalist, in terms of a relic of the past, but as non-capitalist, in terms of traditional forms that, again to some extent, deform and avoid capitalist relations. And I believe very firmly that Marx at the end of his life, the most libertarian Marx, was the Marx who wrote to Vera Zasulich actually, the famous Russian populist, and who basically agreed that there is nothing inevitable about capitalism. However, Marx was not always read by the Marxists. And again, I think that anarchists and, later, feminists develop some of the most important and libertarian insights of Marx, and understood that Marx is far more complicated than it is presented by the Orthodox Marxist doctrine.

So, all of this is possible to understand if you think about World-Systems. You think about the first anarchist century which ends with a triumph of state socialism. And it basically ends with, and this is how Immanuel Wallerstein explains it he says… Well, during the anarchist century, he doesn’t use those terms, I do, but during the time of anarchist dominance in the capitalist world-system as an anti-systemic configuration of ideas there was a two step strategy that people accepted. Which is, first you change the society, you create new possibilities, you create new social relations, you create a new civilization basically, outside and against capitalist modernity. And then you destroy, or you replace, or you dissolve the states in those relationships. The two step strategy became reversed with the Russian Revolution, and it was: first, take the power of the state; then, create a new socialist humanity. And that two step strategy was felt all over the world. Dominance and overwhelming acceptance by the radicals of the two step strategy is part of what we can call the “Marxist century”, which in my analysis leads to 1968, the time that world-systems theorists called the “world revolution of 1968” that simultaneous exploded in many different places. And it basically questions, that fundamental premise of anti-systemic movements, which was that you have to first conquer the state, take the power, and then create a new society. And what was created instead was basically a validation of the anarchist insight, that you have to do it exactly the other way around. This was formulated in sort of clumsy way with a New Left movements and New Left political culture following the 1968 Revolutions during the 70’s. But finally, after the 1989, 1990’s, the end of Soviet Union, I think, the you can recognize the first symptoms of the triumph of all of those ideas that anarchists traditionally champion. And David Graeber and myself wrote an essay, I believe, sometime in the 90’s, Anarchism, Or The Revolutionary Movement of the Twenty-First Century, I think it was the name of that essay. That had an interesting career, and it’s still being read and widely disputed, and you know. But the basic idea that we had is that after this period after the Marxist century, the new anarchist century, the second anarchy century, is coming. In a sense of the anarchism, which was insurgent common sense, as we defined it in in the article, insisting on the ideas of self-organization, self-management, direct democracy, libertarian socialism, all of these ideas were becoming dominant. And again, a sense of a sort of a common sense in politics that we could see Mexico in other parts of Latin America, Europe, in the United States. The antiglobalization movement was profound, the I think, influenced by this libertarian impulse, as well as the Occupy movements.

So, right now I think we have this uncomfortable situation in which I can see the pernicious and short of frightening resurgence of statist, bureaucratic socialist ideas, and people who should be truly a shame for peddling this nonsense. Who are again, once again, trying to bring the state in and are trying to reinvent this cadaver of bureaucratic socialism, in this necrophiliac maneuver, to make us again, read all the people who we should really not read anymore. Is it Bernstein, or is it Kautsky? Is it Lenin or is it Trotsky? Or is it, God forbid, Stalin? All of these ghosts, demons from the past, are being summoned in order to make an argument that we need to be realistic, and we need to demand the possible. And the possible seems to be, again and this is such a colossal failure of imagination, but also any kind of historical nerve, is a resurrection of state bureaucratic socialism because we supposedly have no choice but to again commit a suicide in terms of radical politics. So, I think the great challenge for the new generation of radicals is to refuse any, and I mean any idea, political idea associated with the State. And to say farewell to the ideas and traditions of capitalist modernity, and to look at places like Rojava, and places like Chiapas, but also so many other places where libertarian ideas have been practiced and have been improved upon improvised and so forth. And there is a reason why ideas of World-Systems theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein, Giovanni Arrighi, and many others actually read in Rojava. If you read Rajala, the Kurdish part of Syria, which is the part of experiencing libertarian social revolution, well, the most important people are Murray Bookchin, an anarchist from United States. And the other most important reference is Immanuel Wallerstein and Fernand Braudel. Same with Chiapas. When you go to Chiapas, you will be escorted to the Immanuel Wallerstein library. So there is a reason why these theories actually being recognized as people who have something interesting to say, to the movements that are, perhaps, the most significant movements of our time.

So, all of this is a very long answer to your question that world-systems analysis, in my view, offers to people who identify with anarchism and libertarian Marxism, what we can call libertarian socialism or libertarian communism, a lot of space to rework politics in a way of understanding the world that is not the world of nation states. And the main premise of world-systems is that we live in a singular historical system, organized by an actual division of labor, there is a periphery there is a core there is perhaps something called semi-periphery. The way that this the world is organized through the division of labor, through the world markets, and through the interstate system. And in a certain sense, it is a direct assault against the usual nationalism, of conventional social science, that fetishizing the nation state is the main unit of analysis. In Worldsystems, it’s exactly the opposite. The main unit of analysis is capitalist modernity, capitalist worldeconomy, modern worldsystem, or now there is a new interpretation, Capitalist World-Ecology, associated with the work of Jason Moore and his school. Meaning, there is a historical system in which states are nothing but instances of political organization and we should study the way that different instances are being produced within historical space that we call capitalist world-system or capitalist world-ecology. And we should not fetishize the state as a unit of analysis, we should try to study them and understand them, but they should not be our unit of analysis.

TFSR: I think it’s really interesting that the two examples that you brought up of some of the revolutions that are currently going on, both sprung out of, to some degree, an initial Marxist impulse. Whether it be the, I think Stalinist at the time, PKK that went through the changes after the fall of the Soviet Union. And, and as he said, like, you know, brought in ideas from Brunel, and from book gin from Wallerstein for many other people, as well as studying what was happening in Chiapas. And then what was happening in Chiapas: Marxist guerrillas going into the jungle and intermeshing and building something new with Mayan people. And the synthesis that comes out, the unorthodox, largely indigenous answer to neoliberal capitalism that has been created in both those instances while distinctive of each other, there’s a lot of resonance between them. And I think that the fact that the impulse was directed by indigenous folks (not to say that indigenous folks aren’t a lot of different things, not to say it’s a monolithic thing)… But the fact that it’s such a break with this, modernist progressive worldview, that these other systems that, you know, academia has been pushing in that the states have been pushing. It provides an example that says, “it’s not like it moves from this state, and stage of development into this stage, and those people are back here. It’s, you know, it, it is what people make it.” Does that make sense? Sorry, that was going rambly…

AG: No, not at all, I think absolutely makes a lot of sense. And, you know, I’m right now writing an introduction to Öcalan’s book called Beyond Power, State and Violence, which is going to be published very soon. And it’s a huge book, which has 700 pages, I think, and the book was fascinating because he has all of these… It follows him changing from a person who might be called an old leftist, a Maoist, probably closest to Maoism. And you know, a person who believes in Statism and national liberation. And he does this thing that Maoists often call Critique/Self-Critique. And he does this in such a way that you see that he responding to the analysis made by Wallerstein and others, Bookchin, of course. But also responding to his own experience. He now imprisoned in the prison on the island of İmralı in Turkey, he is able to completely reinvent and creating a completely different system that is profoundly libertarian. You know, and I’m reading this book, and it’s an fascinating book. He speaks about his “curious marriages”, as she calls them, about his relationship with his brother, his love of the mountains. And at the same time he speaks, he criticizes analytical intelligence, and lack of dialectical method employed by many Marxists and gives this masterful overview of Kurdish and Ottoman and Turkish history. It’s just an incredible book. But you can see how incredibly difficult it must be for somebody to change. And then to enact a change, or to participate in the enactment of change in the entire movement, which is huge. I mean, the Kurdish Freedom Movement is probably the most numerous leftist in terms of numbers, at least leftist force that I can think of right now. And all of these people are now identified with a form of libertarian thinking, inspire may be formulated by Öcalan, in prison. So, it’s a mind boggling experience just observing this.

And David Graeber and myself had become acquainted with this experience in 2012, not without some initial skepticism. We were at the beginning, as two anarchists, very confused by the strange and somewhat skeptical. And it took us several trips to Rojava to actually be able to see that this is real, that this is not for show that this. And then of course, delving into all of this literature and reading, Öcalan‘s books, and even more importantly, meeting Kurdish activists, internationally, but also in Rojava and other places, in the Middle East was actually a profoundly enlightening experience. This was the first time, and I think I told you again, my grandparents have witnessed a revolution, they believed in revolution, that revolution was possible, that social change is possible. And I came of age at the time when people, mostly young intellectuals, were saying that no such thing is possible anymore. We have to have to stop having these great dreams, Imperial Napoleonic dreams of great change. And we need to think about whatever, lifestyles and different other kinds of impossibility of thinking and about revolution. It became codified in certain forms of post-structuralism and other intellectual interventions that were, you know, very popular that all discounted generosity, altruism, mutual aid, and revolution. And then coming to Rojava and seeing what’s happening there, I actually experienced firsthand what it means to be a part of a Social Revolution, of a revolutionary transformation of the entire society on the basis of a non-state democracy Democracy, that is, as any democracy, democracy cannot be compatible with the state, you either have the state representative government, or you have a democracy. You can’t have both at the same time. So we are seeing a non-state space and emerging there in the middle of a very complicated, confusing, contradictory social revolution, in which revolution once again becomes possible.

And I think this is very important. And I think that we should think about this and think about this incredible strength and courage that it took the Kurdish revolutionary movement to transform from a sclerotic, statist organization, to respond tp challenges and promises and perspectives of the new moment, of the new anarchist century and to reinvented themselves. And give us what is now probably the most impressive example of revolutionary uprising or revolutionary restructuring of a society that refuses to become a state anywhere.

So, I think that also confirms certain insights of worldsystems tradition, and I don’t know how interested you are in in my own way of dealing with it. You know, I told you that when I went to the Fernand Braudel Center, I was not exactly friendly disposed to Fernand Braudel, which was somewhat uncomfortable, as you can imagine. I was looking into histories from below and then, you know, through my exchanges with specially with the Dale Tomich, I understood that world-systems is by no means a coherent set of things. World-systems can be understood as a theory, which some people unfortunately do, which I think is a big mistake, or as a method, which is far more interesting way to think about world-systems. And it also led me to understand Marx in a different way. And it took me back to Marx, but not the Marx from my high school or my college, my university, different kinds of Max. A Marx, who actually, let’s say, a kind of unusual… And I mentioned at the beginning Karel Kosík and his book The Dialectics of the Concrete which influenced me deeply. A Marx, who actually opens up space for thinking, together with Braudel, about history in a much more layered and complex ways, opening up space for new temporalities that difference, antagonistic temporalities, to the dominant temporality, sense of time, of liberal modernity and capitalist modernity. It allowed me to grasp the Zapatistas and the courage, not as some kind of a precapitalist relic, again, not as people who belong in some kind of non-modern past, who need to be modernized, but to a group of people to two examples of this distinct, antagonistic temporality that Kurds had a term for. This inhabits democratic modernity, a different kind of modernity, a different kind of temporality that can only be understood if we employ a very non-conventional social science. And that led me to this interesting, I think, or weird perhaps, way of combining Hegelian Marxism, anarchist anthropology, and Braudelian history as a way of understanding what world-systems is and world-systems analysis could be.

And, to conclude with this, in response to this question of yours: I think this is also something that has very significant political consequences, including for the country or to the region that I come from, I introduced myself as somebody who is not only a Yugoslav but a Balkan Federalist. And when you think about the notions of federalism and regional organization, the principles of non-statist federalism… Well, that’s exactly what is coming out of Kurdistan right now is the idea of Democratic Confederalism. And I think that people in the Balkans should be in dialogue with these ideas. And I think this is definitely where my politics and political energy goes these days. To create these possibilities of political translation, in which the ideas of federalism that of course, will be different in Kurdistan and in the Balkans, and the possibilities of these Federalist ideas in other parts of the world, can be somehow placed in a dialogue. And we can actually learn from all of these experiences and struggle for what was, for a long time, a signature accomplishment of anarchism, which is the anti-authoritarian, federalist political idea, and self-management as a way of organizing society.

TFSR: I’ve had you on for a long time, and I would love to continue talking. I think I just have time for one more question if that if you don’t mind, but I’d love to talk again sometime in the future.

So, you’ve brought up David Graeber a couple times and anarchist anthropology. 2020 saw the passage of your friend and colleague anarchist anthropologist activist, author and professor David Graeber. I feel like a lot of the impacts that he had on liberatory movements haven’t yet been measured. And I wonder if you’d say some words about your relationship, and what of his works left their mark on you most. And if you have any suggested starting places for people that aren’t familiar with his writings and contributions…

AG: Yes, David was my best friend since the end of the 90’s until his passion in September last year and something ago, show it was probably the greatest loss of my life, and somebody who I profoundly mourn and miss every day. And David was not just a best friends… just… Not only a best friend, but also a political companion. And I don’t think I’ve ever had an idea that I did not run by him first. We used to talk on the phone every day, we used to meet to discuss these things, and it’s hard for me to talk about David. But it’s also important, I think, to talk about David, because David should be celebrated as, to my mind, the most original anarchist thinker of the contemporary period. And also a brilliant anthropologist.

What has he distinguished? Well, he’s distinguished by his… First of all, his contribution to anthropology has been immense. And I think people are going to spend a lot of time assessing he his contribution to anthropology and other historical social sciences. He was not troubled by trends in anthropology, he was actually quite traditional in his taste, in terms of anthropology. And he wanted anthropology to go back, not to its colonial roots of course, but what made anthropology so rich.

And that is the idea that anthropology could be understood as a catalog of political possibilities. Possibility was a key word for David and perhaps the first book that I would recommend to people to read collection called Possibilities published by aka presh, sometime around 2008. That book contains all the germs of the ideas that David would continue to explore. And that coalesced around the idea of a dialogue. David believed in dialogue, something that he called dialogical relativism or dialogical anthropology and also dialogical politics. He believed, for example, that anarchism is, more than anything else, premised are made possible by the idea of dialogue. Anarchism is profoundly dialogical. We come together, because we want to solve a particular problem and then we talk about it. We don’t first define social reality and then we have all to agree about what social reality and political reality and so forth is, devise a correct line, and then proceed from there. That is the political horizon of Orthodox Marxism. His idea was anarchism was a situation in which we have a particular problem that we have to solve and people who might have completely different views of what the world is like, come together to figure out how to solve that problem. Out of which he developed something that he calls “low theory”, which is different than “high theory.” Low theory is the way of grappling with all of these consequences of practical, political projects.

Anarchism, in that sense, is profoundly dialogical, and anarchist anthropology, which is the term that David has been associated with, which is elucidated in his pamphlet, Fragments of An Anarchist Anthroopology, published in 2001. A brilliant piece of work, that pamphlet. Something that I have tried, and I think this is my way of honoring David, was to build it intp my department. I was invited to California Institute of Integral Studies in 2012, to build the department, and they asked me what kind of department you would like to build. I said, “Well, I would like to create a department of Anarchist Anthropology,” and I really thought that I was going to throw me out of the room or maybe through the window. But they actually said “Yes, ok”. And one of the reasons was that David made anarchist anthropology something that people were able to refer to and understand that something that is actually valuable.

One of the ways that he spoke about anarchist anthropology was suspended dialogue or an active dialogue between ethnographic research and possible utopias or utopian possibilities. So, ethnographic research into utopian possibilities, places, experiences, cracks that are created in the here and now and that already exist. And then using all the gifts and possibilities of offered by the technique of ethnography to actually study those people those practices and those spaces, is what makes anthropology anarchists. This is what we do at the department of Anthropology and Social Change at the California Institute of Integral Studies, we try to use ethnography and by ethnography, I mean militant ethnography, militant research activist ethnography in order to study these utopian possibilities. And again, for David’s anthropology was study of human possibilities, showing people, showing the audience, showing his readers that humanity and the possibilities are always much larger than we are led to believe. And discovering them, and bringing them to light, emphasizing them, preventing them from rescuing them, as EP Thompson said, from the condescension of posterity. It’s something that anthropologists should be doing and anthropology should be doing. At its best, it’s all about enlarging the sense of political possibility.

David, as a political theorist, I hesitate to call him that… as a political… David as an anarchist intellectual, is somebody who has inspired anarchism by pushing us to think about anarchism as a not as a dead set of ideas, as something that sclerotic and belongs to the 19th or early 20th century, but something that continues to develop. And he recognized social sciences, anthropology in particular, but social sciences more generally, as an important vehicle in expressing anarchist ideas, and developing anarchist insights. David as an anthropologist and David as a political anarchist, usually people talk about them in separation. I think that’s a mistake. I think that David was one of the most serious and dedicated anarchists I have ever met. And he is definitely the most brilliant social scientists that I was likely to meet, a privilege to meet and call the a friend. And he is someone who was able to show us a way that social science need not to be neutral, or anarchist have nothing to be ashamed of. There is no intellectual deficient, inherent in the tradition of anarchism. Quite on the contrary, anarchism can be used in a way that is profoundly intellectual. And he defied those foundational principles of capitalst modernity, talked about in such a vigorous intelligence, and creative way that is hard for me to find words. The loss is immeasurable but the books that he left us, including The Dawn of Everything, which we co-authored with his friend, David Wengrow, are absolutely breathtaking in the ambition, scope, and consequences for thinking about world history. And David used to say that he thinks about the past and writes about the past because people who write history, write about the past in a way that hides, obscures the possibilities. In a way that it prevents it to be written in a way that prevents us to think about the future. So he was very interested in finding a way of writing about the past, so that a new kind of future and possibilities would be revealed. And I think that in doing this, he was remarkably successful.

So you’re quite right, his political legacy and intellectual legacy, the two of which cannot be separated, is something that’s going to be rediscovered and celebrated, I’m sure many, many decades from now. And perhaps to end with this, he was just one of the most joyful, one of the most generous and one of most dedicated people I’ve ever met in my wife.

TFSR: Thank you very much for sharing that, Andrej. Well, thank you so much for this conversation. I’ve learned a lot. I’m very excited to share this with the audience.

In closing, I guess we mentioned And the Journal of world systems research where people can find your editorial work. Where else can listeners find some of your books, or if you have a blog or anything like that, aside from the Journal?

AG: Well, one thing that I do is I am one of the people involved with PM Press publishing. And it’s a project that I care a lot about. And it is thanks to another brilliant and exceptional person whose name is Ramsey Kanaan and the group of people that he brought together, we have a publisher that exemplifies I think, all that it’s best in thinking about anarchism and radical politics today. And with PM Press, I am an editor of an imprint, or series editor I guess, called Kairos. The term mistaken from Immanuel Wallerstein and the way that he uses the term Kairos, which means the right moment, the idea that this being: now is the right moment to think about social change. Right? So Kairos is an imprint of PM Press. And people can go to PM Press website, and see Kairos. And see the books that we publish with Kairos. And of course there is a blog or there is a page that they have there. That is part of the PM Press website. And of course, California Institute of Integral Studies, Department of Anthropology and Social Change. We also publish things there

TFSR: Is Kairos where people can hope to see the translation of Öcalan’s work that you’re doing the introduction for?

AG: Yes, so kind of is where we have published so far, I think, four books by Öcalan. And at least two or three books about the Kurdish freedom movement and the Rojava revolution. I edited all of them and I think these are really important documents for understanding what is happening with the Kurdish freedom movements and struggles in Rojava in particularly,

TFSR: Again, thank you so much for taking the time and for all the work that you that you do. I really appreciate it.

AG: Thank you for having me.

The Battle for Abortion and Reproductive Autonomy with Bay Ostrach

The Battle for Abortion and Reproductive Autonomy with Bay Ostrach

A pregnant person in blue with a red womb, held up by red tinted small people, red tinted flowers growing behid them (by Marne Grahlman)
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This week on the show, we sat down with Bayla Ostrach, an activist, anarchist, longtime defender, provider of and researcher around issues of reproductive healthcare. We speak about experiences researching and working on the issue in Catalunya, the battle for abortion and reproductive autonomy in the so-called US, the challenges faced by independent clinics against the business model of clinic chains like Planned Parenthood, legal and material pressure and attacks by anti-abortion extremists as well as the cultural and political struggle to defend and expand the ability for people to get safe, affordable, full spectrum and stigma-free abortion and reproductive care more broadly.

Illustration by Marne Grahlman

** Content warning, because we are discussing a stigmatized series of medical procedures adjacent to sexual, social and political violence, listeners should be advised and we’ll put warnings in a few places during the episode. If you are hearing the radio version and want to hear a longer version of this show, and to listen at your own pace, check out our full podcast at our website, to be followed in about a week by a transcript for easy reading & a zine for printing. **

A list of people, works, and resources mentioned by our guest:

Good sites:

Citations for two shared documents co/authored by Bay:

Another document we can’t easily share:

  • Singer, E., (Elyse Ona), and Bayla Ostrach. “The End of Feminist Abortion Counseling? Examining Threats to Women’s Health.” In Transcending Borders, 255–70. Palgrave-MacMillan (Springer imprint), 2017. http://link.springer.com/.

Announcements

Anti-Abortion & Fascist Over in DC

Fascism must be opposed, Reproductive Autonomy must be defeneded and there are many ways to do this. As the interview mentions, the neo-fascist masculinist dance troupe known as Patriot Front (or the Blue & Khaki Man Group) joined the anti-abortion “March For Life” in Chicago on January 8th and were heckled from within the march and surrounding Chicagoans. According to leaked audio, they may appear in Washington DC at the “March For Life” on January 22nd. A little info is available at PatriotFrontMarchForLife.NoBlogs.Org or by checking out sites for local anti-racist, anti-fascist & pro-choice and feminist groups in the DC area.

Sean Swain Support

So far as we know, Sean still isn’t out of the woods on an inter-state transfer despite the hearing board recommending him not be transferred out of state. 2 years ago he was transferred to Virginia with no hearing or warning and lots a bunch of his property in the shuffle. Now he’s back in Ohio and wants to stay near his spouse, his lawyer and many supporters. You can contact Interstate Compact Coordinator Earlena Shepherd at earlena.shepherd@odrc.state.oh.us or

Earlena Shepherd
Interstate Compact Coordinator
ODRC
4545 Fisher Road, Suite D
Columbus, OH 43228

More contacts at SeanSwain.Org

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We’re now over a year into transcribing each weekly episode, which you can find alongside select older shows at https://TFSR.WTF/zines for easier reading if that’s your spead. You can print out zines and mail them to prisoners you support or distro or share them where you are. If you translate an interview, let us know and we’ll promote it.

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Transcription

William – TFSR: To begin, would you just say your name, if desired, your pronouns and any affiliations you have, either politically or socially?

Bayla Ostrach: Sure. Thank you so much for having me. The name that I write under and do research under is Bayla Ostrach. In activist spaces, most people know me as Bay and my pronouns are they/them. And affiliations… I was thinking about this when I saw your email. These days, my affiliations are pretty hyper local. So I think for the purposes of the show, I’ll just leave it at that.

William – TFSR: Cool, so we’re here to talk about the overarching topic of abortion and abortion access. And I know you’ve written a bunch about this. How did you come to be doing the work you’re doing around this topic?

Bayla: Right. I had written up some notes about the work that I have done in abortion care and abortion research. But the way you framed that… I had to think back of how I actually ended up working in my first clinic, and I was trying to remember. I started working in abortion care in 1999. I think it was because a friend that I had grown up with was working at the clinic, it was a feminist clinic. Way back then there was a whole network of what were explicitly called “feminist women’s health centers.” It did unfortunately have the name women in it at the time, we weren’t as aware of language around gender in those days, but it had been founded by something called the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers. And there were a bunch of these clinics. There’s only one left, it’s in Atlanta. But this was in Eugene, Oregon, and a friend was working there and they needed somebody bilingual. And she called me up and she said “Hey, do you want to come work at this clinic with me? We need somebody bilingual.” I think I didn’t think very much about what the work would be, I just was in a job that I didn’t love and I thought, sure that sounds great. And I went to the interview, and they asked me a lot of questions about what I thought about abortion. To be honest, I hadn’t thought very much about it. I was a feminist, I considered myself pro-choice and I just hadn’t thought that much about it. And I started working in an abortion clinic. Then the rest is history.

I’ve worked directly in abortion care starting in 1999. And since then, I’ve worked in – I was doing this math – I’ve worked in seven clinics in two states in two countries. That first clinic that I worked at very abruptly closed in 2002. Pretty much we were not even told that it was going to close. We just came to work one day and the clinic was shut down. And so those of us who worked at the clinic started a fund and hotline, and that still exists. It’s now called the Northwest Access Fund. And then I went on to work at another clinic and nine years into working in abortion care and funding advocacy, I was recruited to start doing research as an applied medical anthropologist. And so since then, I’ve been doing that research., mostly about how migrant and low income pregnant people access abortion through state funded systems in the US and in Catalunya. And I was doing that as my primary research focus until I moved to North Carolina in 2017. I’m still analyzing some of the data that I’d already collected in Catalunya. And I’m also developing a book based on interviews that I did with people that worked at feminist and independent clinics from the 80s, up until 2012, about experiences that they’ve had with anti abortion violence.

Bursts – TFSR: Cool. We totally would like to ask a little bit more about some of those experiences and definitions of terms like “independent and feminist clinics”. I had sort of a big overarching question to begin with, though. So the US white supremacist settler colonial state has a history of on the one hand denying people of marginalized communities reproductive autonomy through forced sterilization, lack of access to resources, forced separation of families and youth. And, on the other hand, by being able to use the state to withhold access to birth control. To the degree your experience allows, can you talk about abortion and birth control access currently, how it’s weaponized either rhetorically or materially around marginalization in this context?

Bayla: Yeah, this is a really important question. I’m glad you asked it. And I will speak to how I think about this. I can’t talk about it very much in terms of my own work other than specific pieces that have touched on it, but I want to lift up the work of other people who do this work and are thinking and talking about it in ways that should guide all of our work on it. And specifically, what I want to mention is what you’re talking about and how we should all think about it, which is Reproductive Justice. The framework that was founded by Loretta Ross and is being championed by Loretta Ross and a lot of other women of color. An organization that I hope people are aware of it’s based in the south and it continually works on this topic: Sister Song. They do this work and they challenge other social justice movements to expand their work to include Reproductive Justice.

I imagine that y’all have talked about it and I think your listeners probably have heard of this. But I think these days, a lot of other important terms, “Reproductive Justice” and “Intersectionality” kind of get thrown in without people necessarily having thought through all the things that it means. So if you’ll indulge me, I wanted to give a definition of Reproductive Justice, because I think that starts to answer a lot of different pieces of what you brought up.

So there’s the general definition from Loretta Ross and from Sister Song. But I found a kind of a longer explanation from the Illinois Caucus of Adolescent Health website that I can share with you all to post up in the show notes. But I really liked how they spelled more of it out, and I think it speaks to what you’re asking. And so Reproductive Justice broadly, is a framework to address how race, gender, class, ability, nationality, and sexuality intersect. But this website also defines it as “a movement guided by the belief that real choice and control over ourselves in our bodies is achieved when we have the power and resources to make our own decisions. RJ seeks to build space in which individuals have access to the rights and resources they need to create the families they want. Furthermore, recognizes that the fight for reproductive freedom is linked to the struggles for immigrant, worker, and queer rights, economic and environmental justice, an end to violence against women and girls, and access to health care and education that affirms our identities and our bodies.” And the three basic tenets include: the right to have children, and to decide how many and under what conditions you could birth”; ”The right to not have children”; “And the right to parent one’s own children in safe and healthy environments.” And again, that was from the Illinois Caucus of Adolescent Health.

I think that’s directly linked to abortion access and access to safe and effective contraception. Because for any of us that are physically biologically capable of getting pregnant, until we’re assured of universal housing, universal health care, universal basic income, freedom from state surveillance, etc, I could go on and on… there are always going to be people that because of structurally produced poverty, because of state sanctioned disproportionately racist violence, then it’s enacted by agencies like Department of Social Services, Child Protective Services, there are always going to be people that would like to parent but know that they’re at increased risk of having their children taken away. And just generally not being able to parent the way that they wish to. So as long as there are people that would like to parent now, or at some point in the future, but know that there are all of these forms of state violence, that are going to make it so they can’t parent the way that they want to or can’t parent safely, there has to be the option of safe, effective and accessible contraception, and the option of safe high quality abortion, whether it’s legal or not. And I would add to that, not just safe high quality abortion, but safe high quality abortion especially beyond the first trimester, that has to exist. AND for anyone that just doesn’t want to parent. So it can be that you don’t want to parent now it can be that you don’t want to parent at all, and that’s fundamental to Reproductive Justice.

I was thinking about this, it and it reminded me of a thing that has come up over and over in my research in Catalunya has been pregnant people that will say the same thing over and over. And this is the context of the global recession. I was doing my research there initially, after what’s being called the global recession there people kept calling it “la crisis” – the crisis – the economic crisis. And people would say to me, while they were seeking a publicly funded abortion, often people already had one child would almost verbatim over and over many different people would say, “I’d rather have one child and care for it well then have two that suffer.” And I was hearing that through five years of data collection, in a setting that has one of the better social safety nets that we could even imagine. Theses are folks that have universal health care, right? There’s national health care. There’s a national health care system, that’s part of what I was studying. This is a place where free public education starts at age three. So people aren’t having to pay for preschool, they’re not having to pay for kindergarten, there’s much more subsidies for childcare, there’s much more subsidies for housing. It’s a much better situation, arguably, in which to parent and yet people were still saying that they didn’t feel that they could economically afford to have another child.

I mentioned that it’s a different situation than the US but I think I was hearing so much from people about economic reasons why they didn’t feel that they could parent or parent another child. And so whether it’s abortion, whether it’s contraception, whatever it might be, if people are in a situation where because of the circumstances of the state, it is not safe or appropriate, or you just don’t want to parent there has to be a way to avoid doing that. Either before you’re pregnant or once you’re pregnant.

William – TFSR: Thank you so much for that answer to that question. I think that there’s so much there. And obviously this has been a topic of discussion for a long time in anarchist and Reproductive Justice communities.

One thing that comes up immediately to mind, at least for a lot of folks when thinking about abortion access is the issue of clinics. But sometimes I find for lots of folks, the thinking begins and ends with Planned Parenthood and clinic protests. Would you talk about why clinics are important as a public space of encounter and symbolic presentation of the audacious sharing of reproductive autonomy?

Bayla: Thank you for asking that. Absolutely. And I put together some stats on independent clinics. Because you’re right, so often for liberals, and for antis, right? Planned Parenthood, it’s like Kleenex, right? It’s the name brand. An important corollary to that, I will say, one of the clinics that I worked at the longest, one of my favorite clinics that I ever worked at, we referred to Planned Parenthood as Walmart. It’s the Walmart of reproductive health care. Most people that I work with in the United States that do abortion work, that’s how we talk about Planned Parenthood. It’s everywhere. It’s the thing that people know. You can go there. You can get reproductive health care there. It is going to be low quality. You’re not going to get good care. It’s a business, it’s a corporate chain. That’s what Planned Parenthood is. It’s the corporate chain of reproductive health care.

Similar to Walmart workers are not necessarily treated well. They’re not necessarily trained well, you’re not going to get the highest quality product. And much like Walmart, it tends to put the local small business independent clinics out of business. And so this is kind of like a two part answer. This is tricky, right? Because abortion clinics are absolutely important, because without abortion clinics we don’t have access to safe high quality abortion, especially beyond the first trimester. But not all clinics are created equal. Not all clinics are the same. They need to be protected, they need to be defended. Because if we don’t have clinics, we don’t have abortion, it’s that simple. If all we have is Planned Parenthood, we don’t have access to safe, high quality abortion beyond the first trimester, because that’s not what Planned Parenthood is.

And clinics, I think people aren’t aware of them. They don’t know that they’re there, so they don’t know to protect them. Because there’s been so much anti abortion violence. There’s been so such a threat against clinics. That it’s sort of the M.O. of clinics to fly under the radar. We don’t tend to have big banners outside that say “get your abortion here.” That’s not super safe. And so from the perspective of protecting clinic, staff, providers, and patients, an independent clinic is likely to be pretty nondescript. It’s not likely to have really obvious signage. Whereas a more corporate clinic might have more obvious branding and more obvious signage. And so the clinics that have a bigger budget, the corporate chain clinics, the clinics that have a bigger overhead and admin, they can afford to be a little bit more visible. Then that’s what people are going to know and be aware of.

So people are less likely to be aware of the feminist clinics, which is probably why they’re not around anymore. They’re less likely to be aware of an independent clinic. They’re not as many of them anymore, they’ve been closing down. But any opportunity I can take to make people aware of independent clinics… 60% of clinics in the United States that offer care beyond the first trimester are independent clinics. Independent clinics provide care to three out of five patients who have an abortion in the United States. To 79% of all clinics that provide care at or after 22 weeks of gestation are independents. And 100% of clinics that provide care after 26 weeks are independents. That being said 113 independent clinics closed between 2016 and 2021. And 34 independents were forced to close just in the past two years. 74% of those provided care after the first trimester.

So on the one hand, the majority of care and especially the majority of later care is being provided by independent clinics. But that’s also the clinics that are being forced to close down and that’s what we’re losing. So we are losing access to this incredibly important, independent, high quality care. That is also sort of the only option for care after the first trimester. When people think of Planned Parenthood, they’re thinking of the thing that is sort of most visible, but is actually not where the majority of care and especially where later care is being provided.

What Planned Parenthood primarily does is offer something called medication abortion or what I refer to as “pharmacologic abortion.” So what Planned Parenthood primarily does – 51% of their clinics only offer pharmacologic abortion. What we know, there’s research there’s published research on this, so this is not just anecdotal. There is published research that very often medication abortion is offered without adequate counseling, without adequate informed consent, without people really being told what to expect, without being told that it has higher complication rates. So the promotion of medication abortion in the United States has actually been part and parcel of losing access to later abortion care and losing access to high quality – what gets called “surgical,” but I prefer to call “instrumental” abortion care – which is the aspiration procedure that’s very quick. It’s in clinic. You walk into the clinic pregnant, you walk out of the clinic and you’re not pregnant anymore. Which is not the case with medication abortion. With medication abortion, you take two medications that induces a miscarriage, and that can go on with bleeding and cramping and other side effects, often for several weeks. And so these days, when people think of Planned Parenthood, they’re thinking of something that while visible, is actually not offering the majority of high quality safe abortion care, and especially is not where you’re going to get later care.

William – TFSR: Thank you for that framing. I was really influenced by having talks with you about Planned Parenthood and all of these distinctions between the different kinds of clinics that are out there. And I think that often in the anarchist imaginary, the response to the inaccessibility of clinics and sort of the corporate nature of Planned Parenthood itself is to employ at home or independent treatments. In your opinion, how can folks approach this topic? And how do you approach this topic? And how does it fit into the wider topic of clinic access?

Bayla: So, I want to acknowledge first of all, this is a tricky topic. And so I want to be very clear that as a feminist, as an abortion provider, as an anarchist, I absolutely support anyone listening to do whatever is best for them and their body. And I’m not here to tell anybody what to do. So if there’s somebody out there listening, who has done an at home abortion, has had a medication abortion… whatever you’ve done is great. I am super happy for anybody to do whatever is best for them in their body. And I’m not at all here to tell anybody that their experience wasn’t what it was. I have handed people the medications to do a medication abortion, I’ve been a provider for a medication abortion. I have been present for 1000s of instrumental abortions. I have assisted with all these different kinds of abortions. So what I’m speaking from is research. I’m also speaking from my experience as a provider. And I am speaking from talking with many people who’ve had both kinds of procedures. My focus in what I’m about to say, is about access for everyone. So thinking not just about one individual person making a decision, but about resources available to everyone.

The concern that I have about at home abortion, and in particular, when it gets framed as “self-managed abortion” is that if people begin to see that as a solution, whether it’s a solution to legal restrictions, which I know we’re going to talk about. Whatever it is that we see that as the solution to, in many ways that contributes to the problem that Planned Parenthood has already created, which is pressure on independent, full spectrum clinics that are providing later procedures. The pressure on them to close and the numbers of clinics that are closing. The more that we start to see medication abortion, which is what at home or “self-managed abortion” is the more that we start to see being by yourself taking pills, inducing a miscarriage, letting that pregnancy pass on your own. The more that we start to see that as the only option, then we are not fighting to keep clinics open. And this is the fear that I have.

There are still independent clinics. We still have independent clinics. There are clinics out there that are providing abortion all the way from as soon as you find out you’re pregnant, four weeks from your last mensuration, all the way up to whatever is considered the legal limit, which right now is 24 weeks and beyond. When I was talking before about clinics that provide care after 26 weeks, there are circumstances where you can get an abortion after 24 weeks, depending on different medical situations, depending on fetal death. There are situations where you can get a later procedure and you have to have somewhere to go to do that. And the more that people order pills off the internet, get a friend to get pills across the border somewhere. The more that we have that phenomenon going on and people see that as the answer. That is going to be the answer for some people. There are circumstances where that is a great option.

An example I cited when we talked before in situations of intimate partner violence, if it absolutely has to look like a miscarriage, I think that is one of the situations where I have counseled people and encourage them to consider medication abortion. If it needs to look like a miscarriage. There’s a lot of places in the world where there truly is no legal instrumental abortion available. There’s just not a clinic to go to. And so being able to get those folks pills is going to be a great option. I’ve talked to people who’ve had an instrumental abortion and they’ve had a home birth and they really know what the experience is like of going through a birth or miscarriage at home and they are 100% down to do that. I think there are situations where it’s fine. What I worry about is folks that have never been counseled on what it is actually going to be like, how long it’s going to take, the 5% chance that you’re going to have to have an instrumental abortion again afterward, because you have retained products of conception that you haven’t completely passed, the possibility that you’ll still be pregnant afterward…

I’ve had patients where they did a medication abortion at four or five weeks gestation. And then I see them at the clinic when they’re 17 or 18 weeks pregnant, because it didn’t work, and they didn’t realize it. And then they’re having a second trimester abortion, also. And so in particular, I worry about people who are having a medication abortion, because they have had medical trauma, which is a real thing. I’ve had a lot of people who when they come in for medication abortion, they say that the reason they want a medication abortion is because they want to avoid a pelvic exam, which is 100% real. I totally understand why people would not want to have a pelvic exam. But I really worry about the people that have a medication abortion, because they didn’t want to have a pelvic exam and then if that medication abortion doesn’t work, then they’ve gone through that entire process, and still are going to end up having to go through with an instrumental procedure, because you definitely can’t carry the term after a medication abortion.

So there’s all these things. And I know I’m saying a lot of things here. So let me try to back up and make a more coherent statement: My fear is that if we start to see at home “self managed abortion” as the solution, a couple of things will happen. It’ll be another reason that full spectrum clinics that provide later care won’t be able to stay open, because if a lot of people that otherwise might have gone to an independent clinic and are instead getting pills off the internet, and having an at home miscarriage… it’s a weird thing for me to say as an anarchist, but that’s losing business for clinics that we really, really need. We need independent clinics for the folks that can’t take pills and have a miscarriage at home. For somebody that isn’t just four or five weeks pregnant, for somebody that is beyond the first trimester. And that’s not an option for them.

So a little bit of this is thinking about everybody else and thinking if there’s an independent clinics that you can drive to, there’s an abortion fund available that you can call and they’ll pay for your procedure, they’ll help you get money for gas. If you can get to an independent clinic, and you can go there that is going to keep that clinic open for everyone else, for the person that’s further along, the person that can’t get those pills and take them at home because it’s not going to work.

I also just feel like there’s a lot of people who don’t know what it’s going to be like. I think there’s a little bit of language around it right now where it gets romanticize as this empowering thing that you can have this abortion by yourself on your own. I would love for people to also think about how empowering it can be to be in an independent clinic, where there’s somebody there with you, letting you know that, “this is what’s happening, do you want it to be this way or this way?” And you’re getting to make a lot of decisions about what that looks like. And also, there’s somebody there telling you “hey, that’s completely normal. This is okay, that amount of bleeding is normal. This is what you can expect to happen next.” As opposed to being at home where you may not know what to expect. You may not know how much bleeding is normal, you may not know how to recognize if there’s a complication. And so I think there’s this little bit of, I would say, even sort of neoliberal framing of saying self managed and the idea that Why is it only empowering if it’s something that you do by yourself?

Bursts – TFSR: Yeah, I think that’s really well put and I really appreciate the framing of using the term neoliberalism in there and how just how alienating that can be. And for you giving space to say that people should be able to access this how they want to. but as you say, if the infrastructure isn’t there to access, if somebody does want the counseling, does want the support and the in-person interaction, then we need to support that infrastructure existing.

Because you’ve brought up the terms “feminist clinic” and “independent clinic,” can you talk about the distinction between these, and why it’s an important line to draw? And also, just because I like really complicated questions… What’s the relevance of these models to keeping workers a part of the discourse of their safety in their work environment? How do these shape the clinic’s operations? And can you talk about the importance of leaving space for patients to decide what type of specific procedure or be supported coming out of the clinic environment with the decision to actually not get an abortion if that’s what’s right for them?

Bayla: Absolutely. And I feel incredibly privileged and lucky. I think my timing was just lucky that I happen to have gotten to work in both feminist and independent clinics. I want to be clear, too. Not all Planned Parenthood’s are the same. I think there actually happens to be a really good Planned Parenthood affiliate in Asheville. We’re lucky that way. And I think that’s because there have been now two clinic managers in a row there that have been really committed to having that clinic be different than other Planned Parenthood’s. And they’ve really invested in a lot of time and staff training and thinking a lot about how to run a truly patient-centered clinic. How to not have it be so focused on the business model. So, I also want to say Planned Parenthood as a corporation is what I have a problem with, not necessarily a specific individual, Planned Parenthood clinic or particular staff. And so also, if there’s people out there who’ve had a good experience out of Planned Parenthood, I’m so glad for you. I’m really glad for you. And if you have been to Planned Parenthood, where you feel like the staff treated you well, and you’ve had a good experience, and it was high quality care, let people know. Spread the word! Same thing, if you’ve been to an independent abortion clinic, and it wasn’t good, complain. Contact the management, also let your friends know about that.

So just because there are these kind of generalizations and terms that overall, in my experience as a researcher and working in clinics that broadly, I believe better care is provided at independent clinics and broadly, I believe that Planned Parenthood’s business practices are terrible and that broadly, I believe that Planned Parenthood as a corporation, is reducing the quality of reproductive health care… That doesn’t mean that someone individually hasn’t had a good experience, right? What these terms mean to me…

Feminist clinics: that was a very explicit movement. It was a very specific, intentional movement that started in the late 70s, through something that is sometimes referred to as the self health movement. HEALTH not self help, but self health. And there’s an excellent book about this by Sandra Morgan, it’s called Into Our Own Hands. And again, gendered language, it was called the women’s self help movement. But you know, folks weren’t thinking as much as they should have been about it. I will also say the first place that I ever learned anything about gender-affirming care, or transgender health, or really the first place I ever heard anything about trans anything was in a feminist clinic. Some of the first places I ever heard about, like, queer-affirming health care was at a feminist clinic. The feminist clinic that I worked at in the late 90s, there was something called the lesbian friendly provider list that was literally a Word doc with a list of providers that somebody could call us and be like “hey, I want to go to a provider that’s not going to be super homophobic. Who should I go to?” Then we would pull out this list and say “are you looking for primary care? What kind of care are you looking for?” And we vetted these providers to make sure they weren’t going to be homophobic.

So, feminist clinics came out of this movement in the 70s, where folks got really tired of not being believed about their bodies and not being trusted about their bodies. And having mostly cis men physicians, tell them that they were wrong or that they were crazy. And so a bunch of folks across the United States, there’s a few kind of like, well known names (Carol Downer was one of the founders of this movement) got together, and we’re like “we’re going to start our own clinics.” And they brought in physicians, and they basically treated the physicians as hired techs. So it was mostly women running their own clinics and being lay health workers. They called themselves lay health workers, they didn’t necessarily have any medical certifications, but they kind of learned everything they could about how bodies work. And they decided what were the things they needed physicians for and what were the things they didn’t need physicians for. And when they needed a physician, they told the physician “we’re in charge, you do what we tell you to. You are not the boss.” And they would bring in the the physicians as hired techs, really.

And so to me a major distinction of the feminist clinic is that it’s a different power relationship. It’s a different hierarchy. The physician doesn’t run the show, and the patient is in charge. I mean, I think that’s really what’s very different. And it feels different in a feminist clinic. The patient is always given a lot of options, the patient is told, sometimes, in too much detail, everything that’s going to happen and asked a lot of questions about it. I mean, that is one thing that looking back, what I’ve interviewed a bunch of my former co-workers who worked at feminist clinics in independent clinics, and one of the things that people have said, looking back is “Wow, we took up so much of people’s time. We assumed that everybody wanted to know everything about everything. And maybe one of the choices we could have given people is “do you want to know absolutely everything about everything? Or like how much information do you want.”” Because often would take hours to do just a pretty like basic appointment.

I think one of the tenants of the feminist clinic is that it might be what we now gets referred to as patient-centered, that now is a basic expectation in healthcare, but back then was pretty unusual. There didn’t used to be a lot of explaining of medications or procedures or what was going to happen. And so I think in the 70’s and 80’s, and even into the 90’s, to have a healthcare provider talk to a patient and say “This is what we think is going on. Here are the options for treatments. We could do this, we could do this, we could do this, here are the side effects, what would you prefer?” That was not typical. So that was feminist clinics, and there were many of them across the United States. And there was a whole Federation of them.

And another thing about the the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers, they didn’t just provide care, they also did a lot of advocacy. So they taught things like cervical self-exam. There was a slideshow that used to travel all over the United States showing people pictures of a whole bunch of different cervixes. The biggest diversity of people you can imagine to just kind of normalize different bodies and normalize people seeing their own cervix. I think it’s become very stereotypical thing in a lot of TV shows and movies about cervical self-exam, but that’s where it came from. And it also taught people a lot of alternatives to hormonal contraception. It taught people about kind of learning their own cycles, and alternatives to, especially for people of color that felt like there had been a lot of coercive sterilization, and coercive contraception, and perhaps were very leery of mainstream contraception, what were some alternative contraceptive practices that didn’t rely on hormones. A lot of that came out of feminist clinics. And I think of independent clinics in some ways as being kind of the offshoot of that. When the feminist clinic business model didn’t survive the 90’s, and largely didn’t survive because of the anti abortion violence. Because the costs of securing clinics against bombing and arson and attacks and killings of doctors, when it became so expensive to do everything that needed to be done to keep clinics safe, and feminist clinics kind of couldn’t stay open, many independent clinics were started by doctors who had been trained in feminist clinics.

So, independent clinic just means… it’s what it sounds like, it’s not a chain, or it’s a small number of clinics, maybe owned by the same person. But independent clinics more often tend to be either physician run, or managed by a smaller group of people. But it’s not. It’s not like Planned Parenthood, it’s not corporate. When is it independent and when is it a chain? Like, if you own more than a certain number of clinics are you still independent? But I guess partly I know it when I see it. I don’t know if that’s fair to say.

There’s something called the Abortion Care Network, which is the National Association of Independent Clinics. So I’m sure they have specific criteria by which they define independent, but I tend to think of independent clinics as there’s still a large degree of informed consent, patient decision making. It’s more about the quality of the care and not as much about the revenue that’s generated. It’s much more about the care that’s provided. That it’s full-spectrum, that includes second trimester. Often independent clinics also offer other care. Often independent clinics have gender-affirming care, often have other reproductive health services, some independent clinics also do prenatal care and sometimes they’ll also have like birthing services available.

Bursts – TFSR: Yeah, that’s all super helpful information. And I’m glad that you brought up the term informed-consent. That feels like a total game changer between some of the different models and how healthcare was administered to people, as opposed to the shift that people pushed really hard for the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s, for actually having a say in how medicine was practiced on their bodies.

So the area that we live in is really interesting, interesting is pretty terrible, in some ways. We may have pretty good administration of the local Planned Parenthood at the moment. But also in the 90’s this was an area that had Eric Rudolph, who bombed the Olympics in Atlanta, also had been conducting violence against clinics throughout this part of Appalachia, before finally being caught by authorities. That’s a story that can be told all across America, the violence that occurs by right-wing extremists against clinics, and as you said, against clinic doctors and employees, and just intimidating people on the way in. Not to say that there is not a difference between someone who actually engages the violence versus someone who intimidates but I think that’s a spectrum. Can you talk a little bit about what clinic defense to your understanding looks like right now either around here around the US and how it’s changed its appearance?

Bayla: Yeah. Thank you for that. And I have this very strong memory of…. If people know what a fax machine looks like, the faxes that would come in from the National Abortion Federation that were our security alerts of the clinic. I remember the fax that came through with the picture of Rudolph reminding us probably daily that he hadn’t been caught yet. That picture is very clear in my mind, letting us know that he was still on the loose. So it was very interesting to me when I moved here and realized how close I was to where he had been caught. And just these moments of my life that connected. I remember standing there in the clinic reception area, getting the faxes off the fax machine, looking for somebody’s insurance verification form being like oop… “there’s Rudolph again, he’s still on the loose.” Yeah, if that tells you anything about what it’s like to work in a clinic, you’re just kind of going about your daily patient care, and then also getting these constant reminders that there’s somebody out there that would try to kill you.

And that’s part of what motivated the project that I was speaking about before where I’ve been interviewing people that worked in feminist and independent clinics over a 30 year period about anti-abortion violence. And really the question I’ve been asking people is, “how do we do this? What is it like to go to work every day? How do you make sense of it?” That was really my question. “How did you, how did we make sense of this kind of constant threat of violence and harassment? And how did we keep doing this work? What was it that allowed us to continue doing this work, knowing that there were this constant waves of violence, constant threats, and knowing that there was always this potential for violence directed at us because of this work that we do?” And so that’s what I was really interested in. Because I sort of knew how I was doing it. But I didn’t know if that was the same for my co workers. And so this is a really interesting question. I think. Is it different? Has it changed? Or does it just kind of come in waves and sometimes it dies down sometimes spikes again. I don’t know that a lot does change. I think it’s just sometimes we pay more or less attention to it.

What I tend to think is that we pay less attention to the anti-abortion violence, when there’s more legislative attacks in the news. And then when there’s not as much of a legislative focus, then maybe there’s more energy to pay attention to the anti-abortion violence, I think there’s a lot more attention when there is an actual, you know, act of violence. And then we kind of get lulled into a false sense of security, when there hasn’t been a clinic attack for a little while. But I don’t I don’t know that actually has changed a lot. It’s been a little while since I’ve updated it, but I sort of have this timeline, going back to the 80’s of kind of some of the major attacks, and where, and when, and who. And it feels more like it’s just kind of this ongoing pattern that rises and falls and rises and falls.

One interesting thing, that it makes sense when you think about it, is that anti-abortion violence, the targets clinics, the waves tend to follow Democratic and Republican presidential administrations, so they tend to increase under a Democratic presidential administration in decrease under a Republican administration. The one exception to that is that anti abortion violence didn’t actually decline under Trump, which is not surprising. And so in terms of how we defend clinics, a lot of what happened, as I alluded to before, is that in the 80’s, and 90’fss, clinics had to spend a lot of money responding to these attacks. So you would hear of another clinic that was attacked in a particular way, it would make you realize a gap that you had in your security. So, an example that a lot of people mentioned to me in interviews was, there was a particular attack that made a lot of clinics realize that they didn’t have bulletproof glass around the reception area. And I think this was the attack in Boston where receptionist was killed. So that’s when a bunch of clinics were like “Oh shit, we have to have bulletproof glass on the reception area.” And so it was this very reactive thing. Okay, this thing happens, and someone is hurt in this way. And a bunch of other clinics realize “oh, well, we need to be prepared for that thing that we hadn’t thought about.” And so it was sort of this constant whack-a-mole.

Well, every time you’re having to spend a bunch of money on cameras, or fencing, or bulletproof glass or a buzzer system, or you decide that you need to have one of your staff people specifically checking IDs, that is suddenly resources that are being devoted to that piece of the work, to that kind of addressing staff and patient safety, that is money that you might otherwise have been spending on going out into the community and doing sexual and reproductive health education in a particular community that hadn’t had access to that that might have been money that you’d have been spending on having a fund to subsidize procedures for survivors of assault. It might have been money that you had been providing transportation grants for patients that were coming from further away. It might have been money that you had been paying your employees more or you might have been able to pay your employees more so you might have had less turnover. So you might have had staff that were less burnt out and more resilient. It might have been money that you could offer services other than just abortion, you might have been able to add gender-affirming care, right? So I think it’s kind of this calculus, especially for feminist clinics, where there was a point for some clinics where they’re like “We just can’t do this anymore. Like we’re having to think so much and spend so much money on security, that we’re not able to continue operating in the way that we want to and provide the care that we want to provide.”

And that was something that I heard a lot from people who’d been there kind of towards the end of a lot of feminist clinics was, it just felt unsustainable. Because we never knew what was going to be the next thing that would happen that would either be a direct attack on our clinic, or that would happen to someone else that meant we would have to then think about how we would prevent that happening to us. And we weren’t getting to provide care that we wanted. And I think this is also another way that for independent clinics, they never know where the next attack is going to come from, is it going to be anti-abortion violence? Is it going to be a legislative restriction? Is it going to be Planned Parenthood moving in down the street and starting to offer medication abortion, and then that full spectrum independent clinic can’t stay open. And so kind of never knowing what the next thing is going to be is another form of stress. Then at the same time, you have protesters outside harassing your patients, and so then every patient that walks in the door, you have to spend the first 10 minutes of their appointment deprogramming all the things that the protester just told them is going to happen to them in that appointment.

So what I’m saying altogether, is I don’t think clinic defense is necessarily different. I think every clinic having to figure out what are they dealing with in that exact moment, and it’s a lot of reaction, and that just becomes very exhausting. It can become very expensive, it’s very time consuming. What clinic’s defense might look like, wherever a person is at any given moment, it can vary in the moment, but I think the constant is that it just is incredibly time consuming and exhausting for clinic staff. It’s very hard to plan for. I know part of how we started talking about doing this interview is there has been an undercurrent locally of very, very well intended, radical folks wanting to support the local clinic when there had been an escalation in protest activity. And there was some talk of people wanting to show up and counter protest and I was chiming in saying “please don’t do that. That is actually very stressful for clinic staff. It often escalates things. That is what you don’t want to do”, because then that’s another unknown. That’s another “oh no, now we have to figure out what this is.”

In terms of clinics, events, the things that we know actually are helpful is something that is a very organized, coordinated escorting effort. In places where I’ve seen this work really well, it’s often a group that’s “Medical Students for Choice” in a place where there’s a medical school. It’s like a formal national organization called Medical Students for Choice. And one of the primary things that they do is advocate for medical school training and abortion practices. Then they’ll also go and escort at local clinics. They’ll organize medical students to escort. I’ve seen other places where there’s an organization approach was clergy. I kind of doubt we would get that here, but you never know. If people really are wanting to do something about anti-abortion protesters harassing a local clinic, the first thing to do would be to contact the clinic where you notice protesters and ask clinic leadership what they would like in terms of support, ask them if they are interested in having escorts, ask them if there’s any kind of existing organization that is coordinating that. Think about whether there’s an existing local organization that you could work with, but definitely don’t just show up because then you’re kind of one more unanticipated entity, one more wildcard that the clinic is having to figure out “who are you,” otherwise, it can just kind of escalate things. I can think of plenty of other things that people can do that might be helpful.

One of the hardest things, every clinic I’ve ever worked at as a staff person, is figuring out where to park. You don’t want to park at the clinic, because then the protesters are gonna see your license plates, they’re gonna see you coming and going every day. If they get your license plate, they can get your home address. So we were constantly trying to figure out somewhere nearby that we could park and walk to the clinic that was a short enough distance that we weren’t leaving ourselves vulnerable for a long time walking back and forth, but where our car was kind of out of sight. So honestly, if you live near a clinic that’s getting a lot of protests activity, if you’ve got a spot where clinic workers could park next to your house, in your driveway, somewhere that’s less visible to the protesters but near the clinic, that would be something to offer the clinic. And then beyond that, one simple thing that people can absolutely do, if they’re in an economic situation to do it is to donate to abortion funds. Because you have to assume that any independent clinic near you is having to put a lot of money into security. And that means they aren’t able to discount procedures for people that absolutely need to come for care but can’t afford it. So the more that you can support abortion funds that can offset some of the money that clinics are having to spend on security.

William – TFSR: Thank you so much for going into how people can support or engaged this issue. We did have a question that was a follow up to what you were talking about about clinic defense but I think that you answered that question really well and we’ll post those suggestions in the show notes too.

Is there anything to say about… well maybe not… when you were talking me and Bursts we’re going back and forth in notes to each other about how reproductive issues are being hyper focused on by the burgeoning modern fascist formations. It’s easy to inflate how much influence those formations have, but they do tend to dovetail somewhat with the religious far-right. And also there was that Patriot Front leaked audio that they were going to show up at the anti abortion march in Chicago yesterday and next week in DC. And also there was recently a fire at a clinic in Knoxville that I don’t know if they ruled as arson, but do you have anything to say about how the focus on anti-choice, forced-birthers or whatever, how that is changing right now given current political context? And it’s okay if not.

Bayla: No, I appreciate that. Thank you. Yeah. I’m glad that you mentioned Knoxville, because I’d meant to bring that up. And I forgot that. I think it has been determined that it was. I don’t know if it’s been determined arson, but I think it was determined that it was not accidental. It seems like it was it was a fire that was set. And that is a clinic that’s been a target of a lot of harassment for years. I was trying to think back. I know there was some point in the past few years, around the same time that there had also been a lot of harassment here locally at Firestorm… I’m losing track of years because of COVID. But it feels like it was maybe late 2019, or that summer that there had been a lot of Proud Boys that were showing up in Asheville, and there seemed to be some link between some of the Proud Boys and then some other militia groups. Some specific Christian militia group that had been seen in both Asheville and Knoxville. And there was some thought that that had been part of who had been harassing that same clinic previously.

So, I do think there’s something to this. But there’s also a long history of this, right? Like a very, very, very long history. Like if we want to go way back. Part of the Third Reich was they had awards that were given to Aryan women that had more than a certain number of children. There was a specific emphasis and monetary award for German women who had more than a certain number of children, I forget how many. But this is in the same era, as the very sort of earliest days of the Holocaust was this rewarding the right kind of childbearing. And then if we go back, not as far, some of the largest, most violent anti-abortion organizations in the 90s were things like “the Army of God,” where people were showing up at huge anti abortion protests with all of their children and people with many, many, many children would put all of their very young kids in the very front lines of these anti-abortion protests, and have small children standing in front of law enforcement vehicles and stuff.

Again, we can talk all day long about how we feel about law enforcement being involved in clinic defense, which is a thing I have complicated feelings about. But you know, this is not a new thing for the sort of… I don’t even know what you call them, but the kind of Christian fundamentalist pro birth people to be anti abortion, and to have that kind of link up with the scary, violent militia element. I don’t have a really well articulated analysis of where the ideology lines up, other than it meets in some pretty obvious misogynistic, white supremacist, not wanting to be outnumbered, wanting the right kind of people to have more babies sort of rhetoric.

We can think of things like the Quiverfull movement. There’s a very far right Christian fundamentalists who think that it is a sin to have an opportunity for pregnancy that does not result in pregnancy. So I’m sure there’s something there. I don’t know of it specifically, but it would not surprise me if there’s some links being made.

Bursts – TFSR: Yeah, and I think that group that you were thinking about in the Knoxville area is the Legion of St. Ambrose, which is a Romanian Orthodox influenced far-right group that kind of splintered off of the Traditionalist Workers Party that was based in eastern Tennessee for a bit. And yeah, this is generationally, even from back in the 70’s or 80’s, when David Lane of the white nationalist terrorist group The Order coined those “14 words.” It’s about territory. And it’s about… I’m not gonna repeat them… But it’s about gaining territory, that the sovereignty is in the hands, specifically of white folks, and reproducing, more and more white folks. A thing that’s been getting more traction throughout the global far-right has been this idea of the great replacement. Which is a French New Right idea that’s been influencing all sorts of groups from Atomwaffen and The Base and League of the South. It’s all across there.

Yeah. Anyway, reproductive feature-ism. It’s all freaky, I don’t know…

Bayla: And it fits in really well with all the very anti immigrant stuff, too. I always think about what are the parallels in Catalunya and in Europe, generally. And this is Vox’s whole thing, right? This is another conversation I would love to have another day is how the terms Fascist and Neofascist are very relative, depending on where you are, because people try to refer to Vox as Neofascist, and I’m like “no, they’re just Fascists.” I don’t know why you bother with Neo in front of that. But Vox is this extremely far right party in Spain that’s been gaining in popularity. They’re incredibly anti-immigrant. People that are at Vox rallies will be doing the full on Fascist salute. They’re wandering around in Falangist outfits and have the old Falangist flag. There’s some wild stuff there. They’re very into Franco, and they hang out with the old school pro-Franco folks. And they’re super anti immigrant, and also very anti-abortion. They’ve been trying to get the law that liberalized abortion access overturned. And they’re working closely with the traditional far right party to do that. Nothing ever stays within borders. We often think that these trends are specific only to one country, or to one continent, or whatever, and really should probably be paying more attention to trends globally.

Bursts – TFSR: Thank you for that on-the-spot question.

So, the last 50 years has seen the growing of a strange amalgam of the religious far right, which we’ve been speaking about, in particular in the so-called US formulating of a culture war against a gambit of other issues including: sexuality, bodily autonomy and gender parity. That right wing movement has heaved huge amounts of money and political power to stymie access to reproductive choice through local state and federal law, to reverse Roe v. Wade, or disentangle access to abortion or birth control, even from international humanitarian aid that the US provides. Can you talk about the impact of things like clinics zonings law, heartbeat bills, trigger laws, and the stacking of the Supreme Court. All these like legal issues that feel well beyond the scope of in some ways, a direct action approach towards things? How might an anarchist approach to these issues look?

Bayla: That’s such a hard question. I’m struggling with this. Because when y’all first reached out about this, it was in the midst of some of the Supreme Court stuff that was going on. And I was like “I don’t want to talk about the legal stuff.” Because this is hard for me, right? So much of my work has been about access in places where there aren’t legal restrictions. I’ve been doing research in two settings where there were basically no legal restrictions and where abortion was paid for in a public health system or the equivalent thereof.

I did research in Oregon, where Oregon is one of… I’m not going to get the number right now, but at the time it was one of 36 states where the state Medicaid program covered abortion. And there were no legal restrictions. There was no waiting period, there was no counseling, there’s no nothing. If you could get to a clinic, you could get an abortion. And in Catalunya, the law had just been liberalized. So, it was much more accessible, it was legal under many more circumstances. And it had just been included in the public health system. I was doing research into different settings where it was as easy as it should be, as it could be and yet, I still documented a lot of obstacles and people having to wait long periods of time and make a bunch of different visits to social services offices to get the paperwork that would get that public funding.

And so, it’s very hard for me sometimes. A lot of the conversation around abortion is about legal restrictions. And then I stepped back and I think there’s a lot of times where legal kind of doesn’t matter. Legal doesn’t matter if it’s not accessible. Then also, sometimes access doesn’t matter if it’s going to take a long time, right? Especially if you’re somewhere where the legal restriction is about how far along you are. As an anarchist, it’s funny to me to spend time thinking about legal restrictions, when it’s so much about the practicality and I don’t know what the answer is practically, if it isn’t “self managed at home abortion.” Because what I want to do is say “we’ll just open our own clinics.” Because I know that clinics are what we need. I know that what we need is a place where people can get full spectrum abortion, including in the second trimester. I know we can’t give up clinics, and I don’t know what it looks like to have our own clinics, and to maintain high quality full spectrum abortion outside of a legal framework, and without the state interfering. This is a constant point of confusion for me. So, I don’t have like a clear or good answer.

I do know that everywhere I’ve ever worked with people in an abortion setting. We’ve talked a lot about wanting to open our own clinic. That’s an ongoing conversation that I have with people all the time, “How are we gonna open our own clinic? If Roe falls, how do we open our own clinic? What does that look like?” And I don’t know the answer. I think it is important for people to keep in mind that if the Supreme Court decision goes the way that people are afraid it will and the way it looks like it will there still going to be 24 states that will protect abortion rights, at least for now at the state level. And then it’ll be even more important, then, to protect abortion rights in those states and not let them be further undermined, either legally or practically. Then it’ll be even more important to keep those clinics open in whatever way that looks like. By defending those clinics physically. By not letting them go out of business by having a whole bunch of Planned Parenthood’s offering medication abortion down the street. But I think we’ve lost a lot of ground by focusing just on legal rights for so long. I don’t know what the answer to that is. Because it’s really hard in this country, when most of us have not had an experience of being somewhere that has a different political system to imagine what that would look like. Right?

William – TFSR: Yeah, indeed. I think that’s such an important perspective, though. Hyper focusing on legality… I think you don’t really have to look very far to see legal structures which don’t really serve anyone, because you can’t put them into practice, because it just materially doesn’t work that way often.

I did want to talk about this sort of cultural shift that’s been happening, or that we’ve located within the last little while, and I do want to give a **content warning**, I’m going to be just mentioning the unfortunate realities of rape and incest in this in this question.

Would you speak on the shift, which has occurred from sort of the goal being so called Free and Legal access 100% of the time, to quote, access only after certain processes, such as counseling, or after certain circumstances, such as rape or incest? What is happening here? And what does it mean in the context of access and how we as a culture are thinking about abortion?

Bayla: Thank you. Yeah, that’s super important. What is happening here? I think part of what’s happening here is, again, having lost a lot of ground by focusing on the kind of chipping away at access. It feels like there’s been this very gradual giving up ground by buying into a hope that “well, if we let them get this, then we can keep this.” So the calculus of “well the waiting period is maybe the necessary evil to still be able to have abortion be legal, maybe this counseling thing is the necessary evil” and sort of not seeing the encroachment that is happening over time. I don’t want to second guess, in any given state, in any given legislative fight, in each of these moments, I am sure that people were fighting really hard to not have to let that happen and that at the end of the day in whatever backroom, whatever lobbying was happening, whatever calculating the likely votes, that in that moment, it felt like that was what had to happen and the alternative was that there would be no legal abortion at all. And that’s really hard to say. I wasn’t there. It’s really hard for me to make that call of “Would it be better to have legal abortion with all of these contingencies and all these hoops? Or to have stood ground and been willing to give up legal abortion and then figure out what we do without it being legal and the thing we keep putting off.”

But I think you’re absolutely right, that we’ve now backed ourselves into a corner like there’s so many places where there’s so many hoops to jump through. And there’s so much that has to be done. That it’s effectively as though were not legal because it’s not accessible. And so it kind of doesn’t matter. These things that people have to go through. And I think that that’s done a larger thing, which is to reinforce so much abortion stigma that now people who are getting an abortion, believe that they’re doing something that’s wrong. There’s so much internalized abortion stigma. Abortion stigma has become so culturally normalized. Because the way that it’s talked about in the media, the way that it’s covered in the news, so much of what happens, makes it appear as though you have to be having the right kind of abortion, for one. So there’s this sense that the only persons that are okay, are the ones that meet all these criteria. There’s the idea that you have to tell the right kind of story to get an abortion. And I think in particular, some of what happens is that when people have to go through this mandated counseling, that almost always consists of completely inaccurate, biased information. When people are forced to see an ultrasound, obviously, that is reinforcing all kinds of ideas about “fetal personhood.” What someone then has to go through to get that abortion by the time they’re actually getting that abortion, rather than it reinforcing an idea of autonomy or empowerment, it is many times probably just reinforcing a lot of internalized stigma.

And so I wonder, if we now have a generation or a couple generations of people who were able to get an abortion. Most people in the United States that are able to get pregnant will have at least one abortion in their lifetime. That has been true since at least the 70’s. For as long as we’ve been keeping abortion statistics. Every clinic that performs abortions, has to report abortion statistics every year. And so we know at least since 1973, that everyone in the United States who’s able to get pregnant has at least one abortion in their lifetime. And half of those people have more than one. Those numbers have not changed. Those numbers are really not changing.

What I think probably is changing is how people feel about that experience. I want to be clear, I’m like not quoting research right now. I’m going completely off the cuff. And I don’t want to say that people regret their abortion, there’s very clear research on that. The primary feeling that people feel after an abortion, 99% of the time is relief. The small percentage of people that feel anything other than relief, it’s largely because they were either dealing with a ton of harassment from a partner or family member or protesters. So most the time when people feel something other than relief, it’s because they were not supported in their decision. But I do wonder if the experience of what people have to go through to get the abortion changes what that experience is like. Where we may have had a generation soon after Roe, where it felt more empowering, where it felt like “Oh, I’m able to do this thing. Now it’s legal. Now it’s a choice.” Which is also problematic, I’m saying choice in quotes. If it’s something I can do now, and I have the ability to do it, and I wonder now if you’re somebody that’s having to go to the clinic three different times, you’re having to go through mandatory counseling, you’re having to look at the ultrasound, you’re having to be told all these things that are not true.

I have not worked in a clinic where I’ve had to put someone through that, because I’ve only worked in settings where there aren’t all those restrictions. But I know what it’s like to sit with someone do informed consent for them to have the opportunity to make a lot of decisions for them to tell me what they want certain things to be like, to be able to tell them what’s going to happen. And to see the look on someone’s face when the experience is not as bad as they thought it was going to be. When they assume that it’s going to be awful and then they say to me at the moment they’re leaving “Wow, that was way better than I thought it was going to be. I actually feel pretty good about this.” And then I’m imagining what it would be like to have to put someone through all of these things that happen in a lot of states. And I wouldn’t want to have to put a patient through that. And I can’t imagine that it makes it a very positive experience.

So I do think we’ve given up a lot of ground. And again, like the last question, I don’t know what the answer to that is. And it feels like that’s something that isn’t just coming from the right it feels like some of that is the responsibility of a liberal, left giving up ground and and bear with me because I’m thinking this through out loud. It feels a little bit like gay marriage. It feels a little bit like taking what we can get that’s like the lowest common denominator, instead of actually fighting for what everybody needs and deserves. We still have legal abortion, but for who? And who actually is able to access it? And who benefits from it? People were so excited about gay marriage, but who did it primarily benefit? White gay cis men. There’s a lot of people for whom that doesn’t do as much good. I think there’s some interesting economic parallels of like, who do you have to be to be able to jump through all those hoops and actually benefit from legal abortion in the state that still has a ton of restrictions?

Bursts – TFSR: Yeah, and maybe to unpack just a tiny bit. I know critiques about the push for gay marriage, such as the publishing project Against Equality was making was that a lot of people are making the argument that “look if we have gay marriage, we can have access to visitation rights for people that we care about. We can have easier access to children that we are co parenting that are not maybe our biological own, but our partner’s, or access to a means for citizenship, or better being able to share money and pass on money after we pass, or to make medical decisions about the person we care about.” And yeah, gay marriage doesn’t answer those things or share health care access that somebody has in their job, that the HMOs offer to spouses. Sure that works if you are someone who has a job that gives you access to health care that can be shared with your family members. But for everyone else, that doesn’t help with immigration issues, it doesn’t help with access to health care, and these other things. Is that right, what you’re pointing to?

Bayla: Yeah, and I think actually that helps me draw a clearer conclusion than I even had before, which is great. So gay marriage does that, why can’t everyone have that without gay marriage? That shouldn’t be something that is reliant on marriage. Why can’t everyone have those things? And I think that’s part of what I’m thinking too about abortion is if the only way that someone can get an abortion is by going through all of these hoops. Is that really the kind of abortion that we want to have be legal? And I’m not saying that I would prefer illegal abortion. Let me be very clear. I’m not saying I’d rather that it not be legal so that we have to figure out what to do, because I still don’t have an answer to that. But I think it is really troubling. If we keep giving up more and more ground, and we keep… Again, this is not a perfect parallel, but if the only way that you can decide who visits you in the hospital is by being married, is that what we want? And if the only way someone can get an abortion is by having to jump through all of these hoops of waiting periods, and mandatory counseling, a mandatory ultrasound, I should say mandatory viewing of ultrasound. So that’s another way that that’s twisted as though we don’t do an ultrasound otherwise. But we’re sort of allowing there to be an idea that you can only have something in a certain way rather than demanding that everyone have access to it, no matter what.

Bursts – TFSR: And also, just to add in, I really appreciate the fact when you can say “I don’t have an answer to this.” Because you’re doing so much to enrich my personal knowledge on this, and you’re making really interesting arguments and bringing up really interesting things that I think is super fruitful. So I just want to say on record that not having the answer is a great thing to be able to say. It’s complex.

One thing that we were talking about the impacts that shame has on people and the experience that they have out of getting an abortion and maybe if they have feels about it afterwards and and having to jump through the hoops. There’s a concept, I think it’s called “syndemics” that talks about the actual biological effects in addition to or in connection to the psychological impacts of having to go through stressful situations, such as jumping through a bunch of hoops, being overly scrutinized, having to face people going through the door of a clinic, pelting you with stuff or yelling terrible things at you or whatever. Can you talk a bit about the sort of biological outcome of the social state that people who want to get an abortion, what they’re put through?

Bayla: Yeah, this might take a minute because it is part of a larger theoretical framework that was developed by my doctoral advisor and mentor, and continuing co author and friend, and then I extended upon it with another colleague. So I all kind of want to back up and like define the framework and then talk more about it. And for folks listening, this is also probably going to be the most sort of researchy part of this. So if you’re not into explanations of biological interactions caused by structural conditions you can can fast forward. But what you’re referring to is some work that I shared with y’all on abortion stigma syndemics. So syndemics, broadly, is a theoretical framework developed by Merrill Singer, who’s a critical medical anthropologist. And he’s founded several theoretical frameworks going back to the 80’s that are explicitly Marxist. He was well known for developing theoretical approaches within medical anthropology that explicitly examine power relationships within healthcare, and that affect health through power inequality. So within that, he developed a concept in the late 80’s, or early 90’s, called syndemics, which is it’s a blend of the words “synergy” and “epidemic.” He framed this to give us a way to look at times when multiple diseases or biological conditions interact in a way that makes both worse. And that that is caused by a structural or social condition.

And generally, those occur in circumstances of inequality, as you can imagine. There have been hundreds that have been identified. This is now a huge body of work in anthropology and public health and other fields. It’s complex and it’s not always done accurately. I would say that there’s a lot of things out there that are referred to as syndemics that actually don’t meet the definition. There’s some examples on the CDC website, because they’re so good at everything lately… But this particular syndemic, I’ve worked with him quite a bit in this area. And this particular one is one that I identified with my colleague, Roula AbiSamra, who’s in Atlanta, and actually does excellent work with an abortion fund there. I’ll make sure to share the website with y’all.

Roula and I both worked in abortion clinics for a long time. And she also worked with the National Abortion Federation for a while. And so she and I were talking a lot over the years, it’s been decades now, about abortion stigma and some of the effects that it has that we had noticed. Then we started talking about why some people do or don’t come back for follow up care. Many clinics will encourage everyone to come back for a follow up appointment, or people can come back for a follow up appointment if they’re concerned that they have any complications or anything that’s not resolving. This, to me, is one of the hallmarks of a feminist or independent clinic is telling people here are all the things you can expect “this is what would be a normal amount of bleeding or cramping after a procedure. If it lasts longer than this amount of time, or if it’s more than this amount, if we would like you to call us. This is when it would probably be a good idea to come back…” And then essentially trusting the person to know their body enough to know whether or not they feel like they want or need to come back.

So one of the things that Roula and I talked a lot about was like what seems to determine when somebody is pretty clearly having a complication that is outside the range of what we have indicated would be typical, and when they do or don’t come back. And it was very clear to us that stigma had a lot to do with that. So for example, somebody who had not gotten a lot of support, or had actively been being pressured by a partner or friends or family beforehand, somebody had not wanted them to have the abortion, we were noticing a trend in our clinics and with our patients that if somebody hadn’t gotten enough support for their decision in the first place, it seemed like they were less likely to come back for follow up if they were having complications. And then some other things that we would notice is if there were a lot of protesters and someone had had to walk by a ton of protesters the first time they came in… are you gonna want to go through that again to come back for follow up? Maybe, maybe not.

And the way that that fits into a syndemic, what we started thinking through is: for something to be a syndemic, there has to be at least two biological factors that are interacting in some way. And that has to be occurring because of a larger structural condition. And so where we propose this as an abortion stigmas syndemic is that I was working with Merrill Singer and another colleague. Cher Lerman and I, we were putting together a collection of chapters about different stigma caused syndemics, basically different disease interactions that were caused by stigma as the structural condition. And so I went to Roula and I said, “Hey, do you want to dig deeper into this? Let’s think about what are some ways that there are biological interactions that are caused by abortion stigma?”

And the first thing we had to reckon with was: is pregnancy itself a disease? It’s not, right? Feminist scholars have fought for a long time to de-pathologize pregnancy and to say that pregnancy in and of itself is not a disease. And so we had to first kind of like revise the definition of syndemics a little bit and say “it doesn’t just have to be a disease it can be a biological condition.” So we can talk about how pregnancy as a biological condition, interacts with possible abortion complications. Which also want to say from the get go are very rare. Abortion when performed in a safe setting, when it’s high quality care is extremely safe. Complications are very rare. But when they do occur, the types of complications that are most common are: an infection which is easily treated with antibiotics. or continue bleeding. Typical and I should probably have done a content warning for talking about abortion complications and bleeding. So if you’re squeamish, this is maybe also not for you.

But pretty typically after a high quality, safe abortion, it would be pretty typical to have some cramping and bleeding. Cramping for a couple days, and typically bleeding similar to a menstrual cycle for a week or two weeks, depending on how far along you were. But more than that would be not very typical. And that, again, is speaking about instrumental abortion. Medication abortion is a totally different story. People tend to have much more cramping and bleeding for a pretty long time and it’s much harder to give people an idea of what’s normal, because it varies a lot. But I’m talking specifically about instrumental abortion.

So we started talking about what are the specific interactions between pregnancy and any of these complications that we think are caused by abortion stigma. And what we started realizing is that there’s something specific that happens to pregnancy because of abortion stigma that the pregnancy itself becomes pathologized. That’s kind of the first piece of this. In the context of abortion stigma, even the pregnancy itself is pathologized. That unplanned or ill timed or unintended pregnancy itself, from the get go is already pathologized. So somebody who might otherwise go to the emergency room for care, for example, or go to their regular doctor for care. Often, people who’ve had an abortion, don’t ever tell their primary care doctor that they had an abortion. They’re not going to seek care in regular circumstances. They’re not going to go the places they would normally go for care, because there’s such pervasive abortion stigma in our culture and in society, that they don’t want anyone to know that they had an abortion. And so if someone is having abortion complications, if they’re in that very rare category, where they have continued bleeding, or they have an infection, or something is going on., they’re much less likely to seek care in the usual venues. So in that way, that complication might get worse, or it might not resolve, they might not be able to get the care that they need, because the pregnancy itself has already been pathologized by the stigma. That’s one of the ways that this works.

Another way that it can work is abortion stigma itself can mean that people are further along by the time they get care, because it can take longer for them to figure out where to go because information about where to go is not easily available. Like we talked about before, there are fewer clinics that offer later care, so it can take longer to raise money for transportation to get there, you have to take time off work, you have to figure out childcare. So because of abortion stigma, somebody might be further along, and they’re going to be fewer places for them to go and though the risk of complications is very low, it does increase in later weeks of pregnancy. And so someone is slightly more likely to have complications in a second trimester procedure. There’s this catch 22, where, because of stigma, you’re more likely to be further along, because of stigma, you’re more likely to then need a procedure that has a slightly higher risk of complications. And so in that way, also, there’s this interaction between the gestation of pregnancy and the risk of complications.

And then finally, another way that this works… what I’m speaking from here is a whole chapter that we wrote about this that’s a 30 page long chapter where we walk people through kind of each of these dynamics. Another way that this operates, is kind of specifically what I’ve been talking about what this Planned Parenthood phenomenon where, in some ways abortion stigma has contributed, I think a little bit to this promotion of medication abortion, to the exclusion of instrumental abortion, because of the idea that medication abortion is something you can do privately by yourself, no one will know. So then you’re doing something because you think it can be made more concealable, fewer people, maybe will find out, nobody will see you walking into the clinic, but then you’re also doing a procedure that has a higher risk of complications. And then if you need follow up care, it might be harder to find somewhere to go because more clinics are closing, because of the emphasis on medication abortion. So I know that’s complicated, and I’m happy to explain more about it. But it’s also this very specific kind of academic description of something. So I’m happy to talk more about it, but we also don’t have to.

William – TFSR: Thank you so much for going into it. Super, super fascinating work and I am really stoked personally just to read more about it and understand it further because it’s just such an undeniable fact that these things have such a profound impact on people’s bodies, people’s minds, which is a part of their body and all of that stuff.

Those are all the the like pre-scripted questions that we had. And I really just want to thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to speak with us about this topic. Can you tell folks how they can read your writing? Are there any resources you would recommend for further reading and research? And are there any projects or networks you would recommend folks getting involved in?

Bayla: Totally, thank you. Yeah, this has been super fun. This is not an area of my work that I have gotten to talk about as much lately, so I really enjoyed it. I’m kind of doing other work here and so I always love the opportunity to come back into this part of my work. I’ll start with the resources and other things that I’d recommend related to this. And then I think, as far as my work, we can talk more about that I don’t know what your capabilities are of how much you can post or share things. There are things I can share that you could just directly post and then otherwise, some of it is on websites that are not entirely accessible, because they’re academic types of sites. But I can also probably make some things more accessible that are the specific pieces of work I talked about here.

The sites that I would recommend are the Abortion Care Network. Absolutely. It’s just AbortionCareNetwork.org. That’s the National Association of Independent Clinics. And that’s where they have a lot of information of what I was describing about the role of independent clinics, how much and what type of care they provide, and how threatened they are, how many clinics have been closing. It’s kind of like a good reality check, and a good picture of the actual landscape of care and full spectrum care in the United States. Another site that I recommend is AbortionFunds.org. Just practically speaking, in terms of if you or anyone you know is looking to get an abortion now or at any point in the future, that’s a great resource for finding funding. And I should back up and say Abortion Care Network also has a listing of all of their clinics. So if you need to find a clinic, Abortion Care Network is a great resource. I mentioned Sister Song before their website is SisterSong.net. They’re fantastic. And then locally for people that are listening in North Carolina or this part of the country. We have the Carolina Abortion Fund, which is our specific local fund, and that’s just CarolinaAbortionFund.org And then kind of more regionally, there’s the Access Reproductive Care Southeast Fund, which does not include North Carolina, but I think it’s South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, and I might be forgetting another state. But that is a fund that the person I was just speaking about, Roula AbiSamra, who co-wrote the chapter on abortion stigmas syndemics with me. She co-founded that fund and does a lot of work with them. They’re fantastic. And their website is ARC-southeast.org.

And then otherwise, I have links that I can share for y’all to put in the show notes. There’s a summary from the Guttmacher foundation – that is an assessment of what would happen in different states if Roe falls. With the caveat that the Guttmacher Institute has excellent and very accessible summaries of different research on abortion and sexual and reproductive health but their employment practices are garbage as an organization, they’re very problematic. I’ll share a link, kind of an exposé of what’s been going on with their toxic work culture for a long time. So I feel very complicated about recommending them. They’re an important resource for information, but they are treating a lot of workers there very badly. So I never quite know what to do with that. And then I can also share links for the website where I have those quotes about Reproductive Justice, and also link for the book that I mentioned about the history of the self health movement.

And then I’d also say in general avoid just Googling abortion because most of what is on the internet is bad and stigmatizing and inaccurate and scary. Like when I was talking before about having to deprogram patients from things that protesters say… the other thing that happens a lot is people coming into the clinic have been googling. If this does not illustrate what people go through to get an abortion, I cannot tell you how many patients I’ve had who I am literally doing their intake for them to have an abortion and then they asked me questions that are like, “so is it true that…” and then they say something that they’ve read on the internet that they believe is going to happen to them that has permanent lasting effects. And they think it’s going to happen to them and they’re there in the clinic anyway. Luckily they asked and so I have the opportunity to debunk it and say “absolutely not.” We would never do that to you. That this is not going to have that permanent effect and then I can give them the accurate information. But the amount of stuff on the internet about abortion that’s just not true and super horrifying. I encourage people, just don’t even go down that road. I think that answered that question.

Bursts – TFSR: Yeah, very well. And we can host files, either between our archive.org account or on the website, depending on the size. Are there any topics that we missed, which you wanted to cover just in closing?

Bayla: I think this was great. No, this was great. Thank you so much. Awesome

Bursts – TFSR: Bay, thank you so much for having this conversation and all the work that you do. I think is going to be a really good resource for folks.

William – TFSR: I have such a deep appreciation for you taking the time and for you doing the work that you do on such a culturally sensitive topic, and I want to recognize that and thank you so much.

William C. Anderson on The Nation on No Map (new book)

William C. Anderson on The Nation on No Map

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This week we are really pleased to feature Scott conducting an interview with author and activist William C. Anderson about his new book The Nation on No Map: Black Anarchism and Abolition which is out now from AK Press. In this interview they speak on the book and its many facets, and Black anarchism more broadly, some of the failures of euro-centric and white anarchism, and many many more topics.

  • Transcript
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If you would like to see more of Anderson’s work you can visit https://williamcanderson.info

To see his books The Nation on No Map and As Black As Resistance, you can visit akpress.org and search his name, or visit firestorm.coop and do the same to support a queer and trans run anarchist book store in Asheville <3

Some works and people mentioned by our guest, in order of appearance:

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Transcription

(see links above for more context of some of the people and documents mentioned)

Scott Branson – TFSR: I’m very excited to get to talk to William C. Anderson today, whose new book The Nation on No Map: Black Anarchism and Abolition was just published by AK Press. Thank you so much for spending the time to talk to me today. If you want, can you just first introduce yourself with your pronouns and any affiliations or background that you would want to share with the listeners?

William: Yeah, my name is William C. Anderson. I am a writer, activist, and just a person from Birmingham, Alabama. My pronouns are he/him/his, and I’m really excited to be on the show with you today, I’m happy to be talking with you.

TFSR: Likewise. I think this book is a really important contribution. I want to just delve into it. In the book, you’re locating Black anarchism as a practical development in revolutionary action, both in the history of movement work, but also I think, individually, in individual consciousness. I think that’s a super helpful intervention and contribution, thinking about our history, and also strategizing for the future. So I want to talk about both of the moments, movement stuff and individual stuff. I also just want to acknowledge and appreciate that the book is clearly grounded in your own experience. It doesn’t seem like top-down theorizing that often happens. I’m thinking sometimes of ways that white leftist anarchists use Afro-pessimist texts to talk about blackness without being grounded in movement work.

Okay, first, what do you mean by Black anarchism? I see you using this in relation to the legacies of Black Liberation movements of the 60s and 70s. I just want to use this quote, because I think it’s really important. You say “Black anarchism is a break away from the revolutionary Black Power movement, as opposed to simply being an effort to diversify or revise classical anarchism.” I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about this development in Black revolutionary thinking and why it often gets overlooked for the different ways that the Black Power movement gets represented?

W: Well, this really all starts with Martin Sostre introducing Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin to anarchism in 1969 and federal detention in New York. Lorenzo was a Maoist who fled to Cuba after hijacking a plane where he was imprisoned alongside other Black radicals who were fleeing during that time. He was essentially deported to Czechoslovakia, where he was imprisoned again. Then he fled to East Germany, where the federal authorities caught up with him. He was fleeing originally to Cuba because he had trumped-up charges against him. It was a frame-up for being accused of threatening to bomb a KKK judge. So he decided to flee, he goes to Cuba, he’s in prison there, he goes to Czechoslovakia, he’s detained there, he flees to East Germany, and he’s detained again. He’s tortured in East Germany, too. He is sent to New York. In federal detention, he is clearly upset by his experience with the state socialist governments he had gone to look for a safe haven. With that frustration, he meets Martin Sostre, who is a famous political prisoner at the time, he’s an imprisoned intellectual. He’s a jailhouse lawyer who is repeatedly suing the prison system and actually creating new reforms and gaining new rights for imprisoned people. Through his lawsuits, he completely transforms conditions, almost single-handedly through his litigation. He is talking to Lorenzo about his frustrations and he tells him there is more than state socialism. He tells him, it’s not the only form of socialism, he tells him about stateless or libertarian socialism, which we know is anarchism. Lorenzo starts doing the reading.

A decade later, he writes Anarchism and the Black Revolution. That is the real start of this development in many ways. Other former Panthers and members of the Black Liberation Army are also becoming interested during this period. They’re all thinking about their frustrations within the Black Power movement, with the Black Panther Party, with Marxist-Leninism, with Maoism, etc. They’re all writing and moving accordingly and asking questions. So I don’t think that you can exactly place a location and a time on the birth of Black anarchism because I don’t like to think about history in that way. I think that history is a lot more complicated than trying to place official stamps on things. But that’s really a great way to think about its beginnings with Martin and Lorenzo. You can also complicate that a little bit more if you want to bring in someone like Lucy Parsons, who was obviously doing a lot of writing and speaking about anarchism much earlier, in the early 1900s, late 1800s. This is a formerly enslaved Black woman. But I think what makes a person like Lucy distinct is also that her relationship to her blackness, and to race was a bit more complicated. When we’re thinking about Black anarchism, we’re really thinking about this break away from the Black Power movement, in terms of questioning and disturbing this idea that revolutionary Black nationalism and state socialism together were the only solutions in terms of ways to think about pursuing Black liberation.

TFSR: That’s really helpful. I like how you’re grounding it also, specifically in the material conditions, like the people at that moment were like this, we need something else to look towards. But also the way that you frame it in your book, you’re saying that they’re not just taking on European anarchism, but actually, you make this really telling statement that Black anarchism represents a failure of the anarchist movement in terms of the European tradition of anarchism. I have my understanding of this as what you also talk about in the book, is that Black anarchism isn’t a diversity and inclusion effort of a white anarchism or something like that. It’s actually a critique of anarchism that Black anarchism delivers. So I was wondering if you could expand a little bit on what you see as a failure of European anarchism, and then how a Black anarchism would add what you call “precision”. I really like that word.

W: I could talk about this all day. Historically, I think European anarchists have been self-involved and focused on how they were/are right about the nature of the state in a way that actually limited their appeal. It may be arguable that state socialists were much more effective and thoughtful about bringing Black people and oppressed people of the world into their efforts. Now, that’s not to say that Black people were not met with hostility for bringing up historically what’s known as the race question or the Negro question. There were certainly confrontations that had to be had around race and class that required Black Marxists to challenge conventional white state socialism and Marxism. So I consider, actually, those efforts are part of the legacy of Black autonomous radicalism too. That’s why I draw from an autonomous Marxist like C.L.R. James and my writing. Classical anarchism was not as effective in wrestling with that and it didn’t develop in the same way.

Now, there’s also the factor of the Russian Revolution and other revolutions that were claimed by state socialists, that global impact can’t be ignored in terms of influence. So all of that has to be considered. But Black anarchism isn’t a diversity effort or an effort for inclusion, because it draws influence from the experiences that precede it. Lorenzo was a former Maoist, Martin was a nationalist, former Black nationalist member of the Nation of Islam. Ojore Lutalo had been wrestling with Marxism before Kuwasi Balagoon brings him to anarchism. They didn’t completely discard classical anarchism. Lorenzo, for example, revises it in a way that we can observe parallels, the way that Marxism is revised in the Black radical tradition. What makes it so special is that Black anarchism does that with Marxism too. That’s an important thing to know: it does that with Marxism, with Black nationalism, and with anarchism.

So, in my opinion, because of the way it challenges all of those forms, it transcends the left almost entirely. It rises above conventional leftism. That makes it special. That’s how I’m reading it in this book, it is one of the only places on the left where this confrontation and these revisions happen in so many ways that it actually creates something transformative that shows us how to rise above conventional historical leftisms, and dogma and orthodoxy, to think about creating something completely new. I think that that’s really beautiful. That’s why I’m so just blown away by the writings of Black anarchism, the thinking and the way that they were approaching the left, and the way that they were approaching Black Power and thinking beyond. I think that that’s a beautiful example.

TFSR: What you just said makes me think of this line you have towards the end of the book, which is: “Talking about Black anarchism, it looks at the whole of history and works to uproot oppression by asking the most basic questions about what power is and what gives anyone the right to control or oppress others, even those we share space with. The question is simple, but its implications are vast, influencing the totality of our lives, from race to gender to class and all the many aspects of existence into which power insinuates itself.” I thought about that when you’re talking about these basic questions about our life that anarchism is addressing, but it has this more expansive vision in a way than other approaches. I thought that was really helpful. What you said resonated a lot with that to me. I look to Black feminist writings, and I see versions of anarchism in there that aren’t necessarily called that. That’s something that you talk about in the book, too, that Black thinkers and movement workers have done anarchist work without necessarily calling it that.

I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about what that term means or claiming anarchism or Black anarchism? What value there is in that? Because I know you have a particular relationship to the word itself.

W: Well, there’s a couple of things there. I think the first thing to address is the fact that I have an interesting relationship with the label “anarchist” because I’m not attached to it. I say at the beginning of the text that is not something I run from, and it’s not something that I run to. I’m actually appropriated that from Modibo Kadalie. Because I think that Modibo gets called an anarchist a lot, but that’s not something he necessarily lays claim to. One time I was talking with him, and he said, “I don’t run from anarchism, but I don’t run to it, either.” I adapted that as my outlook. What I mean by that is anarchism, for me, even Black anarchism is not the point. The point is liberation. I think that Black anarchism has amazing insights, that give us important direction to try to come closer to liberation. So, with regard to Black people, Zoé Samudzi and I wrote The Anarchism of Blackness. That led to us writing As Black As Resistance, which leads to this book. What we were talking about in The Anarchism of Blackness, at least one of the core insights of that essay was the fact that Black people have always engaged in these anarchistic, anarchic struggles across the Americas and across the world. That is something that doesn’t require people to lay claim to anarchism as a set of politics.

People have made movements, organizations, and waged fights that didn’t require them to lay claim to anarchism or have some ideological devotion. Many of those things precede anarchism as a political ideology. So, when we look at it that way, it tells you that claiming anarchism is not something that has to happen in order for people to do that work or to do things that are going to make conditions better. I think the most important thing is creating movements that have the principles of anarchism, not laying claim to anarchism as an identity. The last thing I would want to do is try to encourage people to have this rigid, unbending loyalty to dogma and to doctrine, rather than the principles that make those things appealing in the first place. So I think that that’s what’s most important.

TFSR: One of the ways I relate to anarchism is that it teaches us to let go of things that don’t serve us or aren’t useful to us and teaches us how to dissolve things. I think that would have to include anarchism itself as a label. When I was listening to you talk also about the European tradition, it made me think about today, where there’s another blind spot for, say, white anarchists in the inclusion of analysis of racial capitalism, of the history of Black struggle, anarchists are so often wanting to dissolve identities as this effective liberal / neoliberal state, and yet cling to this idea of anarchism as an identity, and to such an extent that it excludes people being able to find an entry point into the work itself. Yes, exactly. In a way, it seems like some of those blind spots from the classical anarchism that you were talking about persist, just in the new form of us.

W: Yeah, they do.

TFSR: Going back to history, you differentiate Black anarchism from other Black Power movements, but you’re also drawing the connections between them. One of the things you talk about in the book is Black nationalism, also Black capitalism. And these are two attempts to find empowerment for Black communities. Now, your book is totally critical of nations and states, but you also caution against just dismissing Black nationalism, or Black nationalist movements, and also specifically try to differentiate between Black nationalism and the white supremacist state and that nationalism. What are your thoughts about what role Black nationalism plays? How there might be potential collaboration? If you want to talk to just about the threat of nationalism more generally?

W: There are different types of nationalism. When we’re thinking about Black nationalism, you have revolutionary nationalism, and you have reactionary nationalism. I think that both need to be wrestled with, I don’t make a distinction between them in the book because I find troubling currents in both. However, I don’t compare Black nationalism that utilizes troubling and even homogenizing rhetoric in any form to white supremacy, that it does it in response to. So for example, I talked about [Marcus] Garvey in the text, and he said that he was the first fascist, he said that Benito Mussolini got fascism from him. Even though he said that he was the first fascist, did he do what Benito Mussolini did? No, he didn’t. I don’t think that Black Fascism is impossible or non-existent. There are certainly Black fascists now and there have been historically. But it’s important to observe what they’re responding to, and what their intentions are. There are parallels and distinctions. I wrote about this some years back, actually, with regard to the Nation of Islam, and I’m thinking about the Nation of Islam’s Black nationalism, specifically. The Southern Poverty Law Center used to have them, I’m not sure if they still do, I think that they took them off, but they used to have them on their hate group listing. I always found that disturbing, because white supremacists have always run this country. You can’t compare that and equate it with Black nationalisms that develop using rhetoric and reasoning that is similar to white supremacists.

In the book, I’m arguing that before it gets to that point, we have to stop now and observe history. We have to not glorify everything and depart from this idea that we’re all going to fall under the form or formation of a nation. The nation and the state are different things. But what many Black nationalisms lean to is the idea of a Black nation-state. That’s not something that comes with no risk for violence, because there’s no essential innocence, as Paul Gilroy says in his paper “Black Fascism” that makes this endeavor holier just because we’re Black. I quote Aimé Césaire in the text as well saying, “one of the values invented by the bourgeoisie in former times that went throughout the world was man.” He says, “we’ve seen what happened with that,” he said, “the other was the nation.“

This idea that the nation, and this idea of the state, even in a Black form, that these things are going to liberate us, this isn’t ours, it’s not ours to say that this is something that we can even use in this way, it is destructive. We’re talking about trying to lay claim to ideas and to forms that we really shouldn’t be trying to own. So, if we look at history, and we even study post-colonial independence movements, it helps us see the atrocity that can occur even in the name of self-described liberatory state-socialist ventures and nation-building is not something that is just this, “hey, this is going to work. This is always good.” It’s not that simple. I’m bothered by people who treat it that way without being honest about a lot of the history and atrocity and really horrific things that have been done in the name of nation-building and state-building. We have to observe that honestly.

TFSR: Yeah. One of the things that you iterate in your book in a few different places is that the stuff that we do has to not only serve survival but struggle against capitalism in the state. We could think that Black nationalism and Black capitalism, both as things that come out of Black movement organizing, have also been not necessarily, like there have been white people in power who’ve been like “Yeah, that sounds okay. It’s not as big a threat as something that’s fully autonomous from those power structures,” which I think is in line with what you were just saying, about not owning those terms.

But on the other hand, when you’re looking at Black capitalism, in the book you talk about how the limited forms of autonomy that have existed within Black communities in the US historically, – specifically you talk about the massacre in Tulsa in 1921, – that the state just will not allow that to persist because to a certain extent, it is completely inimical to the nation itself. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Black capitalism historically and how it shows up today because it comes up a lot. People like Killer Mike and Beyonce are spouting it. They also claim some affinity for leftist movements in certain ways. So I’m just wondering if you could expand a little bit on the role of Black capitalism?

W: Black capitalism really comes from Nixon. It’s this idea that Black people can utilize capitalism to achieve some betterment, some freedom that we wouldn’t be able to attain otherwise without capitalism. So I think it connects with what I was just saying, in the sense that we’re talking about trying to lay claim to ideas, and two forms of violence that shouldn’t be ours to try to lay claim to, to try to make use of. Black capitalism is connected to the state and this form of violence, that we know is doing us a lot of harm. To try to say that we’re going to make use of it and to achieve our liberation that way is all a part of the bigger picture I’m trying to illustrate using Black anarchism. It’s to say that you cannot reform and change the inner workings of violence that has been structured against us historically and then make it work for us.

That’s the truth with the state. That’s the truth with capitalism. We’re not going to get free by saying we just need to take this pre-existing form of violence that was not created to serve us and paint it black, or paint it red, or whatever the case may be, and say that it’s going to be different, and that is going to be liberatory that time, the gears and the mechanisms that are built into it are going to do what they are intended to do. With regard to the state, that means having a monopoly on violence that is always self-preserving. With capitalism, we know that means an unfettered, unrestricted desire for accumulation and exploitation. So those are not things that are going to help free us, and putting a Black label on them doesn’t do any good for us either.

TFSR: Yeah, and again, your looking to post-colonial Africa shows that clearly. One of the things I’m hearing what you’re talking about now, and this connects to another question I had prepared was the way that blackness gets used often as this monolithic or single-minded thing. But one of the chapters in your book talks about this rewriting of Black history in a relationship to a lost history, of history that is stolen through a mythology of what life was like for people in Africa.

You also connect this to a critique of celebrity, which is slightly different, but I was really excited that you took these things on in your book. But one of the things that I’m really interested in is that you allow for history to be complex and messy, right? You talked about African people who participated in the slave trade knowingly, they didn’t perpetrate the same institutions that the European colonists did, but it isn’t this Black-and-white thing easily. So I was just wondering if you talk a little bit about this mythological use of Africa and the cultural imaginary or if you want to talk about the cult of celebrity, too? Also, how do you think we can not keep simplifying everything or flattening everything out?

W: I think the narrative that’s been created around the slave trade that you can actually see historically and in many forms of white nationalism, that we are royalty fallen from grace, and that we need to reclaim that royalty. It feeds into iterations of Black capitalism that we see now. That’s why I bring both up. Because I don’t think that you can separate the two. You have someone saying that we’re descended from kings and queens and that we come from royalty. What they’re doing is they’re feeding into the idea that wealth and royalty are what gives someone worth and value. So that’s not something that you can separate from Black capitalism now, which argues the same thing in many ways, saying that by accumulating or having large amounts of wealth, we’re going to be free, and that we’re going to be liberated.

I think that it’s important to disrupt this idea that, even if we were descending from kings and queens, that that makes us good, or that makes us better, or that’s why we’re deserving of respect as people. I think that we have to push back against that. So when I look at that connection, it leads me to say, we have to complicate history a little bit more and be a little bit more honest, if we’re going to disrupt it. We do that by looking at what actually took place during the slave trade, which is very complicated and very complex.

There were a lot of different tensions, there were a lot of different relationships between African people that show us that it wasn’t just as simple as many would hope to make it. I think that people give European slave traders too much credit. They were not as efficient as I think some narratives might make them, and not as intelligent as many narratives might make them. So I bring up the example in the text of Liberia and the formation of Liberia. I talked briefly about the fact that formerly enslaved African people went back to the continent and engaged in some heinous, very disturbing things that included using the backing of the US state to acquire land, to force servitude, and to expand a settler process on the continent, in the name of forming a Black nation. You can’t separate that history from this idea of trying to form a Black nation now and say that it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t compare. There’s something there and that history that has to be looked at closely and observed in terms of what it means for Black capitalism, but also what it means in terms of Black nationalism. So those are things that I like to bring up because it’s these overlooked aspects of history that I feel would help people challenge this automatic response of just embracing what conventional leftism has told us, and conventional radicalism has told us is the way to go.

TFSR: That probably comes back to the quotation from Gilroy, I mean, even just proclaiming that innocence in a way evacuates, empties people out of the way that they actually operate in the world, which is not just one thing or the other.

W: And something that it does, too, that’s important to note, is that it actually, in my opinion, takes away from looking at Black people as people. It’s like when you try to create this myth of this essential innocence and make Black people into this uncomplicated homogenous group, you’re actually doing something that is really disrespectful to Black people. That’s an important takeaway here: by trying to make Black America into this exceptional group that is innocent and incapable of doing anything harmful, you’re actually feeding into another sort of violence and disturbing rhetoric against Black people.

TFSR: Right. Because in the end, that’s not even super different than some of the racist stereotypes that have been imposed upon Black people historically in the US. This might actually be a good place to pivot to this question I had about popular culture because you talk about celebrity and stuff, but I just wonder what your thoughts on how we relate to pop culture, because it clearly is inspirational to a lot of us, but it’s also super captured by the structures of capitalism, individual gain, there’s a hierarchy. You made a really amazing playlist that goes along with your book, for example, there’s a lot of political music on there, too. But I’m just wondering, how do we engage with this cultural production from an anarchist lens. The history of American pop culture is a history of a lot of theft of Black cultural production. But it’s also a place that historically, I think, Black improvement has been relegated to and the way that white consumers relate to it is another version of this flattening out, which you see also in writing and stuff. James Baldwin talks about this a lot. So I just wonder what your general thoughts are on pop culture, because it’s there, it’s inspiring, and it also has problems?

W: I think the relationship that we have with celebrity culture is also tied to the critique I make of Black capitalism and Black capitalistic rationale. So much of the value that people put on celebrities has to do with the wealth that they’ve acquired, the visibility that they’ve acquired, and these forms of capital that people seek out in social ways. When we’re thinking about celebrity culture and what fame means, a lot of times that feeds into this disturbing interruption that occurs within our movements, because activists end up becoming famous organizers, they become celebrities. That ends up being a distraction and a counter-revolutionary seed in our movements because it becomes more about what this one famous person, who’s a famous activist has to say and what they think because they are the leader.

Black anarchism, I think has a lot of really great insights, obviously, with regard to the historical critiques around hierarchy, and vanguardism, and the way that those things are problematic in our movements. That’s one aspect of it. But there’s also the way that people who are famous for other things, be it music or sports or whatever entertainment, the way that those people are viewed automatically as leadership and the Black vanguard or as someone who has some expertise on activism just because they’re famous. So fame also generates this idea that there’s an inherent intelligence and understanding that comes with the ability to accumulate. So it’s to say that this person is famous, so they must know what needs to be done, they must know what we should do, we should go to them. You end up having these celebrities who are commenting on things that they know nothing about, that they have no understanding of, with regard to movements and politics. It’s really absurd and really dangerous for our movements because you end up having people following the words and the direction of someone just because they’re famous, when they have no clue what should be done, no clue what’s happening on the ground, what is happening in communities.

So, Black autonomous radicalism, Black anarchism helps us to see that the people who know what needs to be happening are the people who are in those conditions, the people who are actually in their communities. It’s not just about the famous activist, it is not just about the celebrity. It’s not just about the famous revolutionary. That’s another point I try to make the text because I think that a lot of leftists would have a critique of a celebrity in “stan” culture and these cultish relationships that people have with certain celebrities, but they have those sorts of relationships with dead revolutionaries and people who they’ve turned into saints, and people who they’ve turned into infallible politicians and leaders of the past. They look at these people, and they have a fandom of their own, with regard to the way that they view history, and they treat their favorite historical figures as perfect, flawless characters that are unquestioned because of their historical fame and their noteworthiness with regard to revolutions of the past and efforts and fights of the past, that also escape critique because of their fame and the way that we regard them in this fantastical, mythological way.

TFSR: It makes me think, if we relegate our politics to the politics of representation, which was a huge response by corporations to the uprisings of last year, George Floyd uprisings to be Netflix Bookmarks series, we really get politics to that. Then also the representation that comes from having Black artists, Black actors, Black creators of culture be the spokespeople, like you said, ends up reifying that monolithic version of the race that is what the struggle is to destroy, right? By saying that someone could speak for a whole people, that are identified by this power structure as belonging together. So representation gets talked about a lot as a route of freedom, but it ends up being such a trap so often. As a teacher, I always get caught up with people who really stick to these things. Megan Thee Stallion is a feminist or something like that. Because we have such a simplified view of what it means to be political, it is just doing some basic form of empowerment.

W: I hope that people will understand that I’m not saying that a famous person can’t contribute to a movement. I’m also not saying that a person who’s a celebrity has nothing to give or nothing to offer or can’t know what’s going on or have an informed analysis. That’s not the case. I bring up Paul Robeson as a historical example of someone to look to that actually had a lot of amazing things to contribute to movements and had done a lot of work that is actually really impactful historically. But rather than thinking that fame is something that we should use to try to build movements, I’m saying that it’s actually a problem because it feeds into a lot of hierarchical arrangements, and a lot of disturbing notions of leadership and vanguardism, that we need to move away from, in my opinion. After all, I don’t think that we should be looking for some elite to guide us, be it a revolutionary elite, be it an entertainment elite. I think that what’s happening amongst everyday people who are self-organizing, who are building autonomy, and who know their own unique conditions, that is who needs to be focused on. The actual people doing the work in their own communities, in their own neighborhoods, and understanding their own conditions better than anyone else, would try to tell them that they should be understood under the guise of whatever ideology they might do that.

TFSR: One thing I hadn’t really thought about a lot, but I heard you saying is that it also connects to the ideology of capitalism, that there’s a meritocracy, like the people who we know, we’ve heard about are there because they deserve to be there rather than whatever luck brought them there. I think that’s really important to keep in mind also. Whatever becomes super mainstream and popular isn’t going to give us the full story. If it’s so popular, it can totally be a threat anyway. In that line, I want to go to the way that you talk about the legacies of Black freedom movements of the mid 20th century, and how they’ve been rewritten into a nationalist story, and I’m gonna quote you say that “it’s been made into a singular struggle with one line of thinking”, and that you call a state project that attempts to give Black people a stake in the violence of the US. So what is called Black history becomes everyone’s story. Then a source of pride for the US, not shame, for example. I was just wondering about that process and how it affects Black people, Black radicals differently than white radicals who are trying to struggle against racial capitalism and the state, too.

W: The way that this plays out, and has played out for some time now, historically, is that the state is able to absorb the Black struggle, by making it into something that is a necessary gear or mechanism to make it better. What I mean by that is I’m saying that the way the state has absorbed and taken the story, for example, of the civil rights movement, and made it about an overarching effort to just reform, the intention, and the direction of the US state, that’s something that has completely been normalized. That’s what we get in education in school and grade school, we’re taught that from the earliest moments that we enter into the education system. We look at that and see how the state is using Black history to maintain itself by saying that Black people have only ever wanted to make the state more efficient and more inclusive and better, rather than looking at the whole of Black History, where we can come into a much deeper understanding that that’s not the case.

One of the examples that I bring up in the texts, as I talk about Lucy Parsons, again, a formerly enslaved Black woman, who’s an anarchist, and she’s arguing against voting at a time where she doesn’t even have the right to vote. She couldn’t even vote and she said, this is worthless. She couldn’t even do it. You look at an example like that and you say, “That’s amazing for Lucy to have had that insight into the symbolism and the emptiness of US electoral politics at a time when she couldn’t even legally engage in it. That history really pushes against this idea that Black people were just a single movement, Black radicalism was just a single movement full of people just trying to fight to be included and treated better by the state. That’s not the case. So, we obviously see what this can turn into when people lean into that reasoning. You know, we have things like the 1619 Project, which said Black people made the US a democracy or something like that. But it’s not a democracy, it is not a project that is even doing what it claims to be doing in terms of, again, for example, voting. We still don’t have a guaranteed right to be able to cast votes as Black people in the United States. To say that Black people made the US a democracy and to feed into this idea of a more inclusive US project is actually doing a disservice to our movements by saying that the state is something that is redeemable, and that can be fixed if we just keep pushing and trying to make it better.

Now, whether people want to talk about it or not, that’s happening also from the left. And when we look at it in a more global context, what a lot of the politics that we see from many versions of state socialism are saying is that we need to just have a better state and that there are states that we need to be trying to be more like, because if we’re able to reform the state to a socialist economy, that’s going to solve all of our problems. Then, traditionally, obviously, there’s been a line that the state will wither away, and then we’ll have a stateless society, and that’ll be communism. But again, when we’re truthful about history, and we see what has happened historically with state socialist projects, you cannot just lay blame for everything going wrong at the hands of the imperialists and empire. There have also been betrayals, there’s also been atrocity, there’s also been corruption, there’s also been a lot of horrible things that have happened, that have contributed to why those projects haven’t done and achieved what we’ve been told by the conventional leftist narrative that what we’ve been told that they were supposed to do. So, when we look at those things in a much deeper way, we can begin to actually start to create and craft movements that think beyond the state, that think beyond trying to reform and fix all of these really dangerous structures that people are trying to wrestle with and lay claim to. In the context of us nationalism, so much of that takes place in really insidious ways, whether it’s the classroom, the museum, or television, popular culture, we are always being told that we can lay claim and reform what’s oppressing us and what’s killing us. I’m trying to write against that idea across the entire spectrum and say that these things are not for us. They’re not going to free us. People have already been trying to do this for long enough for us to say, “this is not working” and for us to do something that transcends the left and all of our ideas of movement and left radicalism entirely and historically.

TFSR: One of the convenient things about the narrative that we’re talking about that makes it something that’s over, which obviously, as you point out, contradicts the material reality of people’s existence, that struggle for freedom is over. Or even if it was just limited to voting, while the Supreme Court or whatever could say, “there’s no longer a threat to Black people voting”, that is clearly not true.

W: One thing I would add to that, too, is that for me to say what I just said, for example, about state socialism and how the promises of liberation are not completely achieved by just transitioning to a socialist economy. What I’m saying there is, again, similar to looking at the history of the civil rights movement and of reform and of legislative efforts. Because what is true is that there have been gains that have been made, of course, with state socialism. But there have also been gains that have been made through reformism and through some of the liberal efforts of liberal activists in the civil rights movement. I’m not saying that reform has never achieved anything. But what I’m saying is that it’s not enough. I’m not saying it’s never done anything. I’m not saying that Black nationalism has never done anything. I’m not saying the state socialism has never done anything. I know that they have, I recognize it much. But what I’m saying is, we have to be honest about the limitation when we see, the patterns that have occurred historically and push for something greater. That’s the point that I’m trying to make. So you say these things and people get defensive because they know about gains that have been made. But I’m saying let’s push for something much greater than the table scraps of liberalism. Let’s push for something much greater than the limitations and the violence of the state.

TFSR: Yeah, whether it’s from a performance perspective, or the authoritarian left, or the statist left, there’s this “realism” that gets invoked against our aspirations of freedom. But what you say in the book is that there have been some gains, right? I like the way you say “liberalism’s table scraps”, but they’ve also been gains that plug us in further to this killing system that’s continuing to kill at the same time.

W: Exactly. Because when you make those gains be a complete totality of everything, and when you overemphasize them to such an extent, you end up feeding into the system in such a way that you start working to preserve the system rather than exceed it and go beyond it. So when you overemphasize what has been done, you might start to lose sight of what could be done. You can look at the history of the Civil Rights Movement, or the Black Power movement, or any movement and act like it was perfect, and then just that it just needs to be mimicked. Because it’s not good to start getting caught up in this idea that that was it, that’s what we need to do again. Because when you’re doing that again, and again, and again, you’re not working to break free of it.

TFSR: Yeah. I think that was beautifully said. One thought that came up, a connection that I hadn’t made before. There’s something that I think is a really important connection that you make in the book is that you take a look at the great migration historically as a continuation of a diaspora that’s ongoing and connected to gentrification. I’m thinking about this also in relation to the statist leftists who can’t deal with the fact of stateless people, if their solution is the state. You use the migrant status of Black people within the US and also around the world as a point of solidarity, and you even talk about your own radicalization through migrant defense work. So I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about your reading of the great migration, because I think it’s something that maybe needs to be spoken about more, and also how you see that fitting into the current moment and in places of solidarity in the ways that the state is threatening most vulnerable people.

W: Yeah, the interesting thing is that that actually played a lot into my interest in anarchism, too. I was really frustrated with the left, but I also was thinking about anarchism because I was doing this organizing work that made me think a lot about citizenship and the state. In the immigrant rights movement, I’ve gotten involved because I understood that I was not a citizen, I was taught that growing up, my parents told me, you’re not just a second class citizen, you’re really not considered a citizen at all. I internalized that in a way growing up that became a part of my politics now and my understanding and thinking around statelessness, and the ways that Black people experience it across the Americas. With regard to all of that, I know that in the immigrant rights movement, there is a lot of subtle and overt racism against Black people. Black people are not the face of the immigrant rights movement. Despite experiencing disproportionate rates of deportation and incarceration, Black people are not seen as undocumented, or immigrants, or as migrants. What that ends up doing is it takes away from a type of solidarity and a type of struggle that could be built, it actually undermines that movement significantly. I used to try to point that out in that movement, where people didn’t really have a lot of understanding of why I was participating. I was trying to find a language to explain this back then. But it didn’t always come out the way that I can express it now, because I had to take a lot of time to think and develop the understanding that I now can claim. But you hear people talk about migration struggles, and they totally neglect the Great Migration.

To be more specific, they neglect the Great Migrations, there was more than one that has occurred with regard to Black America, forced and otherwise. They’re all forced in the sense that I’m talking about migrations of Black people who had to leave because maybe they got priced out or gentrification happened now. And historically, you had migrations during enslavement, whereby people were forced to move en masse to other places in the country because of the demand of the slave-holding class and what their desires were for agricultural production. When you look at that history and pay attention to all of the times that Black people have had to move and have been pushed out of places and forced around this country, it creates a pretty stunning example of what we can see on a global scale that’s happening domestically, which is there is no real place to run to find this absolute safe haven and asylum that we can lay claim to that’s going to protect us from state violence.

When you bring that into the history of Black anarchism, you see someone like Lorenzo, who’s fleeing to other countries, looking for that asylum and not finding it. Lorenzo’s story is one of many. I highlight his specifically because I’m talking about Black anarchism. But there have been plenty of other times where Black people have historically gone to other countries looking for liberation, looking for freedom, and did not find them, including under state socialism. That’s something that’s happened both domestically and internationally. I’m trying to draw that connection there. Obviously, domestically, we’re talking about under the oppression of the US state. But then when you start thinking outside of the US state, there’s a discussion to be had about what Black people and migration tell us about the state generally, here within the US context, but also outside of the US. There’s something there that needs to be unpacked very much, needs to be observed deeply and internalized.

TFSR: I appreciate it in the book that you draw the connection that those conditions that force Black migration within the United States aren’t different in kind that forces the other migrations around the globe, whether it’s Black people or not, but it does include Black people, and, as you rightly point out, that’s often overlooked. But building on that idea that you said came from your parents, too, in terms of your relationship to citizenship as a Black person in the US. That’s something that is going back to your work with Zoé Samudzi, the idea of Black and anarchy, that being Black in the US positions someone into being potentially this internal threat to the coherence of the state, that doesn’t necessarily translate into radical organizing or radical consciousness.

But one of the things that I see you really working on in the book is how do you move from that space of being potentially a threat by definition from the state to actually working towards generalizing that ungovernability or whatever a process of that radicalization is; how do we get people to see those conditions and then politicize their actions. You frame this also just in terms of the Black Panther survival programs, which weren’t just like feeding people, but also politicizing them. So I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about what insight you’ve gained about individual radicalization from a position of blackness, and also how to frame the survival programs that you talked about Black people having been doing historically for generations and centuries even, but like how to frame those as explicitly antithetical to the state.

W: I think that one of the best things that we can do is discourage people from positively identifying with the US project. We can do that by illustrating all of the different times that state violence has targeted Black people historically. We can do that by talking about statelessness. We can do that by talking about how Black people have been positioned as inherently seditious, inherently “alien”, or inherently criminal. Those sorts of realizations help us highlight that this is not something that is going to be fixed through reformism. When we were writing The Anarchism of Blackness and talking about the way that Black people have had to work and think outside of the state and engage in anarchistic practices without laying claim to anarchism as a set of policies, necessarily, what we are saying there is that highlighting those examples historically and talking about how they occur repeatedly throughout history, even today, that is telling us and that is informing us about what the state actually is and what it means with regard to Black people. So rather than trying to reform it, or seize it and lay claim to it and reform it, we’re discussing what we can actually do to delegitimize it in our minds and move away from trying to make it ours or make it better or make it more efficient. It’s important to advocate for that, in my opinion. Because if you get caught up in this idea that you can actually reform the state, what ends up happening is you get this overarching patriotism, that creeps in there and starts encouraging people to try to find value in what it is they’re putting efforts towards reforming and trying to fix. If you’re doing all that work, you might start saying, “Well, this is something that’s redeemable and it’s something that can just be adjusted.”

That’s one of the things I think is really important for anarchists to challenge specifically because you hear a lot of conversations among anarchists and around mutual aid, you hear a lot of people saying, “I’m not trying to let the state off the hook, or I’m not trying to fill in the gaps for what the state should be doing.” But I think that what we were trying to get at back then with The Anarchism of Blackness was saying the state is not on the hook. The state is not malfunctioning, it’s not doing something wrong when it commits state violence against us, that is a part of its core function. It has a monopoly on violence. It creates a system of haves and have-nots. It has a ruling class, it has core intentions that tell it to do what it’s doing, that give it instruction and give it life through doing those things. So rather than trying to fix them, we should actually be encouraging people to remove ourselves from the idea that it has something for us in it that we just haven’t discovered yet.

TFSR: Do you have any thoughts on how to make our mutual aid projects not co-optable? Because they do fill in the gaps in terms of making people survive and I’m thinking in disaster relief, and particularly in the long COVID period where there’s been a lot of survival programs put in place by people, and they may be done by anarchists, but I don’t necessarily see how they’re a threat. A lot of disaster relief work around hurricanes and stuff could be claimed by the state after the fact. I mean, that’s something you talked about in the book, that that’s something that we need to do. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that.

W: Well, I think that one of the most important things to observe is the history of revolutionary intercommunalism of the Black Panther Party. That’s one of the reasons I’m bringing that up in the text. And that’s where we get survival programs. That’s where that comes in. So survival programs and mutual aid are obviously distinct, and they have different meanings. I’m not trying to conflate the two. But one thing I’ve been saying when I talk about this book is that these are both things that work. They can complement one another. Because of people’s dedication to dogma, to ideology, to doctrine, they look past things that could work to their benefit. So the intercommunalism of the Panthers and the survival program is something that offers a lot, a lot, a lot of valuable, good history, good organizing, good work that can be done to actually be much more effective now. I don’t think that people have a real deep understanding of what it was that the Panthers were doing with intercommunalism and what the survival program was.

What needs to be done is going to be specific. First and foremost, I want to say that it’s going to be specific to every community, and I’m not going to try to be a person that is doing exactly what I tried to speak against, saying that there’s a one-size-fits-all approach that is gonna save everybody, I’m not going to talk like that, or at least I want to try to avoid talking like that. But one of the things that we can see with the survival program, for example, was that Panthers were creating a systemic approach to meeting the material needs of people and communities across the country and doing things that were absolutely necessary to sustain everyday life for Black people. They were not just doing it to just be doing it. That’s an important thing to note there. Because you can have a program, or you can have a mutual aid group, and just give out food, or give out clothes or do whatever the case may be. But if you are not politicizing that word, undermining capitalism, talking about state violence, and rejecting and fighting back against it while you’re doing that work, and through that work, then that takes away from what you’re doing. If I give somebody some groceries, and say, “Hey, here’s some groceries, I know that you need some food,” it is not the same as giving somebody some groceries that have some propaganda in there, that say, “I’m giving you these groceries because of this capitalist system creating a problem where you don’t have access to them in the first place oppressing you.” Those are two completely different things.

So, you can be giving someone groceries every week. But if you’re giving groceries with that intention, and with the political education, and the radical information you can distribute with it, it’s a much different thing. These efforts have to be politicized and be radical in a way that actually is doing the work, which makes it a threat. The Panthers were targeted because their work was a threat. What is going to make our work threatening, what is going to make us ungovernable, to quote Lorenzo, a lot of that has to do with the political intention to actually undermine the state and to undermine the efforts of the state to maintain power. So, you can’t just do it just to be doing it. There has to be that intention behind it. I think that that’s one of the most important things, and when you look at different Black anarchist approaches, one of the things that’s going to come up is “Okay, if everybody does start doing it with that intention, where do we go from there?” Again, that’s going to be a different answer depending on who you’re talking to, or depending on who you’re reading in terms of Black anarchists historically. But if you talk to somebody like Lorenzo, Lorenzo is going to talk about dual power, he’s gonna talk about building dual power.

Again, that takes us back into the history of Black anarchism drawing from that which informed it, but that which it also critiques. So that dual power that’s coming from Lenin, and I will tell you right now, Lorenzo has plenty of criticism for Lenin. But he’s drawing from dual power. You can talk about Pierre-Joseph Proudhon outlining dual power before Lenin. You can keep going back with the history there, that it’s more complicated, but Lorenzo’s conception of dual power, he’s drawing from Lenin and talking about building a complete economy, a complete network that is taking these efforts to actually counter the state and making them so effective, that it is actually posing as a real challenge because it’s connected. It’s not just happening on these individual bases, sprinkled throughout the country and isolated. It’s being connected in a way that begins to actually pose a challenge to power. That has to happen globally, too, when we’re thinking about this, this isn’t just about what’s happening within US borders.

TFSR: And that’s how you pull on Huey Newton’s intercommunalism as a replacement for internationalist thinking as a way of linking struggle without that nationalist idea. I think that’s really important. I’m grateful to you for teaching me about that. I’m going to characterize this as a white leftist utopian idea that defers revolution to another time, but also it’s always thinking about catastrophe is impending, not here yet. But when you listen to the Black anarchists, indigenous anarchists, there’s this awareness that we’re in the middle of it, right? It’s not it’s not about to happen. It’s been happening. You say in the book that the race war isn’t coming, we’re not just looking at white supremacists and Nazis preparing for the race war, it’s here through the state. So, I’m wondering if acknowledging that survival-pending revolution doesn’t mean the revolution is always to come, but it means that we’re in the midst of it right now, maybe. How does that help us reframe these dual powers, mutual aid, survival programs as more effective at the moment rather than preparatory to something that’s going to come?

W: I’d say, if we’re being honest about conditions and what has to happen, there’s no real choice other than to be building these programs. Because if we don’t, people are going to perish and people are going to suffer. If we’re honest about the fact that the state is not for us, it’s not serving us, it’s not benefiting us, then there’s a core truth that comes with that, that this system which is ruling over our everyday lives is a part of the crisis that people seem to have this cinematic idea of. It is a part of this crisis at the current moment. It’s not something that is a destination that’s far away. It’s something that is here now. It’s connected to our everyday lives in this present moment.

So, rather than trying to portray it as something that is this end-of-the-world apocalyptic moment, we have to look at what’s occurring on a day-to-day basis. I would encourage people to read Professor Bedour Alagraa’s work because her writing on catastrophe has been pretty influential around my thinking here. But it’s not something that we can just look at as a final event that’s going to take place and just fall on our heads. It’s something that’s playing out day to day. And for us to actually work against it and to fight these systems that are dropping terror on our lives regularly, we have to recognize as much and try to undermine and work against this repetition that is playing out in this destructive way, rather than treating things as if they are going to play out in this cinematic film-like fantasy way that there’s just this one explosive thing that’s going to happen. A lot of the history and a lot of the events that we think of as a part of that film-like fantasy are things that have already occurred before and are things that are going to occur much sooner than would happen in that play in our heads.

TFSR: The subtitle of the book is Black Anarchism and Abolition, and one way you define abolition is that it is one step within a larger project of the revolution. How you’re talking about this makes me think that it changes the timeline of revolution, like abolition is this thing that we’re doing right now within this larger horizon. I wonder if you want to talk about how you see abolition, and how it relates to a Black anarchist project, too, because those words get linked, but they’re also seem to be distinct, right?

W: When I was talking about abolition, I was talking about it because, obviously, abolition became much more widely discussed in a very quick amount of time. I wanted to take abolition beyond the state for more people. Because I think that what abolition meant to a lot of people when it became so much more widely discussed and embraced, the way that it did during the uprisings of 2020, I think what abolition meant for a lot of people was no more police and that’s it. I was trying to complicate it in this text by saying that the police are just one aspect of state violence, they are not the entirety of it. Ultimately, if you want to get rid of state violence, you need to get rid of the state. Black anarchism is already been having that conversation for a long time now. So I was just trying to bring abolition to that point for some people who may not have been there yet.

TFSR: It’s so important, I think always to include the state in our project of abolition, not even just police and prisons because they all uphold each other in a way.

W: Even if you were to get rid of the police, that’s just one form of policing. That’s just one form of systematic violence that the state uses to inflict terror on people domestically and globally.

TFSR: Exactly. One thing that comes up for me is going back to migration, diaspora, and the relationship of diaspora and indigeneity. I’m Jewish, I am from a diaspora position, and specifically, as a Jewish person I’m against Zionism as the solution to diaspora or something, because it’s another violent settler state, a racist settler state. But I’m also like a settler in the US. So I was just wondering, from a Black anarchist perspective, how you might relate the conditions of diaspora and the support of indigenous struggle, without turning them into some argument between the two, which I see also happening sometimes. Because a distinction that has been drawn between the conditions of blackness and conditions of indigenous people in the US is like landlessness and stolen land or something like that. I’m just wondering what you think are connections of support and solidarity between a Black anarchist perspective and support of indigenous struggles in the US and worldwide? I was framing it through a question of diaspora because diaspora and indigeneity could be seen as some oppositional position. If it doesn’t really make sense to you, that’s fine. I’m struggling a little bit with how to articulate it, it was something I’m interested in.

W: There’s this thing that happens that people don’t see Black people as indigenous people. In a way, that parallels what I was describing with the way that Black people are not seen as migrants or immigrants. I think to put them in proper conversation, you just have to recognize that Black people can occupy that category and do occupy that category, and to have a more complete understanding of indigeneity, rather than trying to make blackness and indigeneity mutually exclusive. So, when I’m talking about bringing a more full and complete understanding to Black people and blackness and migration, then what happens is you start doing the work of getting away from undermining what could be a stronger movement when you have that more comprehensive understanding of all of the intricacies that can take place under that term. In the same way, I was talking about how the immigrant rights movement undermines itself by excluding and having racism against Black people, rather than seeking to be included and to diversify, just being honest about what is actually taking place. It’s not just about including me in this movement and making me a part of it. I’ll have representation rather than saying, “Why is this movement not including and why is it not recognizing this,” and then trying to do better and go beyond and push for more. I think that the same thing could happen for sure with indigenous and anarchisms, rather than having this conflict around inclusion.

TFSR: The other thing that I would love to hear you talk about is the title of your book because I think it’s a really beautiful, evocative title. You’re critical of the nation, but in the title and in your writing, there’s this idea of a nation beyond the state, and map, too, has been a tool of colonialism, but also holds some mystery. I’m just wondering what you’re saying with the title and what your inspiration here and how that phrase “the nation on no map” frames blackness in relation to the state?

W: The title of the book comes from Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem about the gang that was once called the Blackstone Rangers. She has this line in the poem where she says “their country as a nation on no map.” When I first read that poem, it really stuck out to me, it was so beautiful, the way that she constructed that. It was something that I included in As Black As Resistance when we’re talking about the complexities of gangs in that text. Part of what’s being said with the title is that there is an acknowledgment of that statelessness that is there and that phrasing “the nation on no map”, but there’s also another thing that I’m trying to do, which is to say, what if we’re not only a nation on no map, what if we’re not a nation? And what if we’re not on a map? Because we know that those things are not for us. It’s really about acknowledging our position but letting that lead to more questions about why that position is what it is in the first place. So I’m not trying to advocate for nationhood in any way, I’m actually questioning it with that title. So I appreciate Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem as well because I think that gangs and organizations that formed on the streets have a lot to say and form a lot of my thinking about how things could potentially look in the future in terms of the way conflict I feel is going to play out in this country. I think that a lot of the left ignores and doesn’t recognize gangs, and doesn’t think and try to approach gangs in the way that needs to happen. But there’s a lot of revolutionary history there. So much of this is about overlooked history. There’s a lot of evolutionary history there that has to be acknowledged, and I wasn’t trying to go back down that path, because I felt like it was already covered a lot in As Black As Resistance. But I was trying to bring back that thread.

TFSR: I think that’s super important to look at gangs and how it gets overlooked. Thanks for breaking that down. In the book, you also have included photographs, and I just wonder if you can talk about how you see them interacting with the text. They are beautiful and haunting clearly. How you chose them or what their role is in that text?

W: Those are just all my photos. I took those photos over years. There were just a lot of different moments, when I was writing this text, that I saw something and I took a photo, and I was writing the text and thinking about how those photos and what I was taking an image of how it relates. For example, somewhere within the chapter where I’m talking about the narrative around kings and queens and the mythology and the way that history is mythologized to make Black people into all descendants of African nobility, I thought about that with regard to a Slave Rebellion Reenactment that I attended in Louisiana, and I took a picture of one of the re-enactors on his horse. I put it in that chapter because I think that is absolutely connected to what I’m saying. I wrote an essay about that, that also exists on Hyperallergic. I wrote that, but I thought about it and its connection in the sense that the way that I was seeing this idea that by glorifying this former slave rebellion, it will restore a certain pride and a certain revolutionary spirit in Black people. It made me wonder about the connections between the past and what we tried to communicate through emphasizing certain history. I thought that it was really interesting to witness that at the Slave Rebellion Reenactment that I went to. So I put that picture there, just because I thought it was connected. I didn’t go into the detail, obviously, that I went into just now, but it’s just something that I was thinking about when I was there.

Many of the photos in that text… I talk about bombings, I talk about Dynamite Hill, I’m from Birmingham, so I took a picture of Angela Davis’s childhood home on Dynamite Hill in Birmingham, and also took a picture of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, which was also subject to that violence. They’re just there to illustrate connections. But they’re also there because I like to include as much imagery with my writing as possible. I try to be very thoughtful about images, whether it’s an essay or a book, there are no images in As Black As Resistance. But I definitely will try to put images wherever I can, because I think that they make it easier to read. I think that people like to look at things and see images while they’re reading. I think that it also helps try to take away from this idea that the type of writing that I’m doing has to be really plain and not interactive. So I’m trying to make it more fun to read something that’s not necessarily a fun subject, if that makes sense. Maybe fun isn’t the right word, but at least just make it more interactive for people.

TFSR: I totally get what you’re saying. I really appreciate you unpacking that particular connection. But it’s almost an invitation to the reader. Because it sparks your imagination and be like “Well, what is this picture? What is it doing here? How does it relate to the text?” It invites interactive reading.

W: I write about photography, a decent amount. I have multiple essays out there in the world about photography that I’ve done with Hyperallergic and the British Journal of Photography. So photography is really important to me as an art form, but also as something that can be violent, and used for really horrible and disturbing purposes. So I think about photography a lot. It’s always something like music, it is just a big part of my life and my work and I try to interact with it whenever I’m doing these things.

TFSR: You’ve entertained a lot of questions, and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me and think about all this stuff and present some of the ideas from your book to the listeners. Is there anything else that you’d want to talk about or cover that we didn’t get a chance to?

W: Not at the moment, just want to say thank you for this interview and for reading the book. Thanks to anybody that’s listening for listening or reading the book or thinking about reading the book. I’m really grateful for all of it. Everyone that’s listening, be safe and be good in your community and try to do what you can, and solidarity.

TFSR: I really appreciate your thinking and your work and I think it’s a huge contribution. Thank you for taking the time and we’ll include in the show too, how people can connect with your work and you if you want.

W: I appreciate that.

Housing Struggles in Asheville

Housing Struggles in Asheville

Housing activists occupying the lobby of Downtown Asheville's AC Hotel - Photo by Elliot Patterson (permission of Asheville Free Press)
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This week on the show, you’ll hear from Doug, Onion and Papi, three folks involved in the Aston Park Build, a daily event to hold space in Aston Park in downtown Asheville, creating art, sharing food and music and a wider part of organizing here to demand safer space & redistribution of wealth to care for houseless folks and relieve the incredible strains on housing affordability in Asheville. We talk about the park actions, the housing crisis and service industry wage woes, local government coddling of business owners and police repression of folks on the margins.

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Sean Swain’s Transfer

This week’s segment is Sean’s statement given to the Interstate Compact Hearing he was to face before the foregone conclusion of his transfer far from his spouse & support base. If you want to write to Sean, for the moment it’s a good idea to send to his Youngstown address until his support site says otherwise, but also to hold on to a copy of your letter in case he’s been moved and ODRC doesn’t send back your original. You can find info on how to support his legal campaign (Donations can be made via CashApp to $Swainiac1969), his books and past writings at SeanSwain.org or find updates on Swainiac1969 on instagram or SwainRocks on twitter.

We got an update that the Interstate Compact Committee, during their hearing this week, recommended that Sean stay in Ohio (but they didn’t quit their jobs).

Feel free to reach out to the following public officials to express your concern at the moving of Sean Swain out of Ohio based on the word of a former ODRC because Sean spoke out about torture he suffered in Ohio prisons. More details in the statement at [01:04:19] in the episode…

Biologica Squat in Thessaloniki

The Biologica Squat at the School of Biology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, has been open for 34 years and is now under threat of attack by the New Democracy government and their new campus police. There are calls for solidarity at Greek Embassies, businesses and other places around the world during the up til and through January 10th & 17th of January 2022. The original post can be found in Greek on Athens Indymedia or in English at EnoughIsEnough14.org

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Featured Track:

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Transcription

Doug: Hey, my name is Doug. I used to be homeless, now I am not. I have an apartment. And yeah, that’s pretty much it.

Onion: I’m Onion. I use they/them pronouns.

Papi: I’m Papi. I also use they/them pronouns.

TFSR: Would y’all maybe talk about what brings you to talk about the housing crisis in Asheville and the way that the city and the police are dealing with homelessness. Some might think that, Doug, if you’re in a place right now… that since you got yours, you could just kind of chill and wouldn’t be worried about the stuff that the city is doing?

Doug: I could, but that’s not me. I worry about people that I know out there. I worry about if I was homeless again. I would want things to be fixed better, you know? I don’t want to be treated bad like we used to be – when you’re homeless getting kicked in the head by cops. I think if I was not to care, or just to give up to be in my apartment, or whatever, I wouldn’t feel right. Because there’s a lot of things wrong in this scene that have to be fixed.

Onion: I’ve been evicted twice myself. I’m a single parent. It’s kind of a miracle that I’m still able to live in Asheville. So I feel that it’s personal for me. But it’s also a collective issue that if we don’t push hard on right now, it’s gonna get extremely worse.

Papi: I’ve lived in western North Carolina all my life. This is my first time being on my own, can’t afford it… can’t do it. I’m actually living with… well, my family’s living with me now. My family can’t really own places on their own because of documentation status and being immigrants here. So that’s like a whole thing on its own. That’s where I’m at right now.

TFSR: Could someone give a definition or a description of what’s happening right now in Aston Park in downtown Asheville? During the summer Asheville police, for instance, evicted of a bunch of camps around town. And that was during milder weather, despite the fact that it was also amidst a pandemic. Also, could someone give a definition of what Code Purple means?

Doug: Yes, Asheville did. They did a lot of people earlier this year. They put some people in hotels, and if you weren’t on the list, you were just basically stuck out in streets. I was on the first list of people to be in the hotels, and I still haven’t gotten a hotel. All the hotel stuff that happened when COVID first hit was because Buncombe county got money to put to put us in housing, hotels, or create tent cities for us that were safe with toilets and washing. That never came. Came and went, we never had any of that. So we’re still stuck in the woods. Some people are in hotels now. The Ramada, I guess. But it’s institutional living, it’s not happy there. So scratch that.

Code Purple is when it’s gonna be 32 degrees or below freezing. They say it’s unsafe for people. So they provide emergency shelters – a men’s one and a women’s one. Usually we go out, pick people up at night or have a ride to get you there. Last year we got dinner in the evening and breakfast in the morning. I don’t know what they are getting this year. But I haven’t heard anybody complaining. So Code Purple is basically just to keep people alive – from freezing.

Papi: This year was different. Last year, and I guess 2020 shelters didn’t want to open for Code Purple because of the pandemic. So the city decided after a minute to open one up in the civic center. It was a more centralized bigger space. And this year, they didn’t do any of that. No one opened. So there was Code Purple happening. The city calls it when the weather hits. They call Code Purple, but there’s still nowhere to go at the beginning of the winter this year. So it lasted for a bit of time. People can die or lose their limbs or all of that. We decided to start pressuring the city to create and find Code Purple shelter so that we wouldn’t see loss of life.

Doug: Code Purple is weird because if it was 33 degrees and raining or drizzling or just wet outside. There’s no Code Purple. There’s no shelter. But 32? You are in there. Last year the VRQ did it – which is the Veterans Administration Quarters. But they kind of hate homeless people. And I get it because some of my comrades out here are just rude, crude, and they have no respect. But if you offered a service, like VRQ did, no matter what people come into the door you still have to keep your composure and put your hat on and say “Come on in. How are you today?” Yeah, I was gonna go off on a tangent there.

I wasn’t done answering your question, but I got to thinking about the way that we don’t hold ourselves accountable for our own actions out here. People just do what they want and screw people over. Rob and steal, some call it survival. Survival would be like stealing a rabbit or some meat from the store, not my backpack. And we act obnoxious, and we do drugs in places where we probably shouldn’t do them. And people don’t like that. So they hate us, and they don’t help us anymore. And that’s not cool.

Papi: Another thing with the Code Purple is that the city might put some funding into it. But oftentimes they wait. And this year they waited and so the only Code Purple for a minute when it was super cold around Thanksgiving, or before that, was volunteer run, and they had no funding. So there’s a bunch of people running it that are just signing up for shifts overnight and everything. It’s totally inappropriate. It’s not well done or safe, or careful. So, the city is sitting on $26 million of federal funding that they got for relief, specifically this year. They still haven’t, to my knowledge, apportioned it. So they’re just sitting there on piles of money. And people are dying. Right now. They’re dying around us in the streets, like… currently.

Doug: Yeah, not just from the cold. Other things, too. COVID and sicknesses, illnesses. It’s just like, are you gonna wait till there’s five of us left and then help people? Or are we gonna put this thing in action now? I know things cost money but it’s not really hard to say to a bunch of people “come line up and get your shots or get a checkup. Here’s a house.” There’s plenty of abandoned buildings out here. I know a lot of people, even myself, who has taken over abandoned houses. Go inside, black out all the windows, and some have electricity, just live in there. It’s kind of scary, because you’re trapped. But it’s a nice place, but still it’s illegal. The city could take this house and offer the person money.

We need shelter for everybody. So this house is not being used or your family is not using it? Why can’t we? Require us to keep it clean, and to keep it up, just to not be like, disgusting pigs. I myself have been a disgusting pig. And I recommend people to do this stuff. Because as homeless we already got a bad look and then we’ll just do this other stuff. Sorry, I went off again.

Papi: Well, Asheville is full of money, there’s no lack of money. You know, there’s a lot of money moving through this town via tourism. And it’s just that we don’t see any of the money it’s ported. The Tourism Development Authority has a budget of I think it’s $15 million a year for advertising to bring people, tourists, to Asheville. We don’t see any of that.

Doug: Yeah, that’s why a lot of crime doesn’t get reported. Or a lot of cases get dropped. I believe this. If it was all be reported and everybody’s get charged the tourism would stop coming. They would be like “this place really sucks, I don’t want to go there.” We need to get some of our people off the street because they walk around, not in their head, they’re out somewhere. Just go one day to Pritchard Park. Sit down in the corners and just watch the show. You can just see why we need help. If they got the money they gotta take that money and if you want to budget it? Get a bunch of military tents. Make a tent city for us. They were supposed to do that two years ago. That’s not asking for much. I mean I’m asking for a house and walls. I mean, I am. I want that. But we’ll be happy with a canvas tent and a cook. I’ll cook for them!

TFSR: It seems like a lot of those things are intertwined with each other. Like if someone has easy access to privacy, they’re not going to be doing drugs and public. Plenty of people with houses do drugs. You know, if you’ve got a shower and a place to wash dishes, you’re not going to stink as much you’re not going to be walking around. You can do your own laundry. And you’re not going to probably be suffering from as many mental health crises. If you have a place to lay your head and you’re not going to get rousted in the middle of the night or get your backpack stolen or whatever else. It just contributes to this problem.

But the city as Onion said, and as both of you have said – has the money to spend on it, but it’s just choosing to hold that back. It would rather use a bludgeon against people that are on the street than actually help them out of that situation.

Doug: Yeah, they make it worse. I don’t understand why they don’t do anything. They can still keep a lot of money and still help us out. We’re not going to go anywhere. We’re not gonna die off. And quite frankly, a lot of people here do have mental illnesses. That’s why they’re here. They need medications, they need a good safe place. Not necessarily a hospital, or a house. A house, but like a maybe halfway house type situation, where there’s somebody there to give them their meds every day to help them clean their self or their whatever. Some people need to be retrained into life.

TFSR: Or assistance with addiction issues or counseling or access to medication or… right. There’s solutions out there. Folks’ camps have been getting broken up by the city. I wonder if ya’ll could talk about that and what’s been going on in Aston Park and some of the solutions that people are calling for immediately that we could do to resolve the unsafe situations that folks are in right now. If they want to find shelter, what could the city or mutual aid be doing to provide some sort of alternative to what’s going on now.

Papi: So the city of Asheville has gotten some flack this year for sweeps. But the thing is, most of the sweeps that they do aren’t public knowledge. It’s a policy that the city has, to do them constantly. So we’ll hear about one every once in a while if it makes the news for some reason, or if it’s in a prominent place. But it’s kind of ongoing all the time. So it could be in any weather. If enough people call in, in a neighborhood or whatever to complain – they’ll sweep.

There was an encampment underneath the overpass, and one tourist made a complaint through this complaint website to the city. And they decided to sweep right then, right before a cold snap in February. With extremely cold temperatures that day. The larger city found out about that one because people were witnessing people having to walk away from that site and having their tents destroyed by the Department of Transportation and Asheville Police Department. They were bulldozing all their possessions and people were walking away without shoes with nowhere to go. And so that is obviously violent and deadly. The city caught a lot of flack for that. But the thing that most people don’t know is that it’s customary. It’s their policy.

Doug: Yeah. Not to be on the side of the city. What they’re doing is very wrong and very bad. But they are doing it a lot better now than they were two years ago. Like two years ago, they would just come in and slice your tent up and throw all your stuff everywhere and make you go. Now they’re not giving us enough time but they are giving us some time. Tents aren’t being slashed, but they don’t let you take it.

When they closed down the camp by Haywood Street Church. They got people and their bags and put them in cars and took off. I went by there later that night and it was like a free for all with everybody’s left over belongings. It was like a free flea market. I collected lots of it. Everybody was pilfering all the stuff. Why would you kick them out of there and say they can’t take their stuff and leave the stuff there. When they kick us out they don’t have a contingency plan. I don’t know if they’re supposed to but they should because they have to take care of the people. They say they do. But they don’t.

“You have to move. You can’t be here. We’re gonna put you here. You have to go, We don’t know where you are gonna go.” And that’s that. There’s a lot of land out here. This is western North Carolina. I know BeLoved got a big donation a couple years ago. They were going to build a tiny home village and Buncombe County didn’t want to have it in Buncombe County. So they had to go outside of Buncombe County somewhere. I don’t see why that would be the problem. I would live in a tiny home homeless village. But that’s cool. Like, we want more of those. That’s a whole ‘nother story.

Papi: Yeah. So what we’re trying to do now is open up space that’s safer and that’s sanctioned by us. So that’s why we decided to start holding space in Aston Park, which is south of downtown in Asheville. It’s a central location that’s convenient for people and it’s good for camping. We’ve got a lot of flat space and it’s accessible. So we are focusing on that space to create sanctuary camping which a lot of other cities have done in the so called United States. It should be a done deal. It’s very easy to do. It’s been done. It’s not complicated, but the city is holding out because they would rather basically enact social cleansing.

Doug: All they have to do is put in some hand washing stations it’s important out there. And garbage pickup. They will not pick up people’s garbage. Their job is sanitation, to keep the place clean. Every time there’s a homeless encampment, the garbage sits there for weeks. I’m like “well, you guys complain that we look bad but you’re leaving the garbage here after we’re gone.” People know it’s us, but it’s like the tongue to a wall. They’re complaining and complaining but they don’t do anything about it. Like they’re just showing up, shut them down and take off. Couple weeks later, same thing happens again. Who’s door do we gotta go knock on to get this done. All they have to do is put tents in Aston Park… it’s flat. Just throw some Port-a-Johns, a hand wash station, and a dumpster.

Onion: I feel like we kind of skipped where we were saying, why we’re doing this or something about what brought us to this.

Papi: I think a lot about what Doug said about what the city could be bringing, and how the city is not going to do shit. So it’s like, “okay, just let us do it.” Because we’re capable of resourcing and finding things. And if it’s so bothering… just get the fuck out of our way. City don’t bother us. Cops don’t bother us. We’ll put hand washing things there. We’ll put Port-a-Johns there. We’ll put things there and we’ll take care of it. And I mean, people have been showing up every weekend to Aston and been doing that. So we’re capable, we’re very capable, the community is capable of coming in and taking care of each other. and continuing that.

Doug: They are coming in and make us look bad. Like they come in to throw their shovel in there. We’ve done all the work. But they take all the credit and make us look bad. But you know what? Ya’ll know where Hopey’s was? You know it’s empty now. There’s a nice building where people sleep. I don’t know they have plans for it. But that could be a shelter, a temporary shelter.

Papi: We could make plans for it.

Doug: We could just go in there and claim it. But we gotta do it right, though.

TFSR: Well, if you plan on doing that, I can cut that portion out of the radio broadcast. One of the ways that this has been framed recently: the taking space in Ashton Park despite the police evictions has been under the name of Aston Art Build. And I’m wondering if ya’ll could talk about how there’s public invitations for people to gather and create art and to make it a multi generational space.

Papi: Yeah. So when the invites went out… by the way the invites are so cute! I love them! They’re very fun to me. We should make some more. We started Sunday. It’s been pretty fucking cool. I think before we even had donations come in, everyone’s been able to resource around, calls out. Before calls out to social media we were just asking friends and people that we see “bring anything and everything that you can.” It’s pretty cool how quickly people can find furnitures everywhere. I want to bring a bed. There’s been multiple beds brought and built. And a house to put it in. And there’s lots of art. There’s lots of art and very large banners. And so far it’s been very cool. Just yesterday, there was music finally, because we were really lacking in the music area because it’s kind of awkward.

Doug: There wasn’t just music, there was a DJ there.

Papi: It was really nice.

Doug: They were spinning records. I don’t know if this will help Asheville or the conversation but online a while back I saw in other countries. They have homeless issues too, right? So they take a dumpster. And it’s a small living area. It’s clean and they put a little bench or something in there. And it’s like a little home for a person. But they have these little boxes. More than just tents. We should look….

TFSR: Like storage containers?

Doug: Something like that. Yeah, smaller ones. And I mean, some of them were small as a coffin. But I wouldn’t want to sleep in there. But we want to problem to go away. We want housing, we want things in the meantime, we can’t housing like that. So we need shelter till we wait for housing. What are we doing for that? Are we just protesting? Are we actually trying to get some shelters going?

Papi: Yeah, this is a direct action. So we’re creating this solution. I mean, it’s gradual, because of the way the cops are enforcing the issue right now. They’re fudging the law or their own policy that they have been doing which is giving seven days notice to vacate. They decided to stop doing that. And they changed their policy internally in a quasi probably illegal way. Now they’re saying they have the right to just evict people from from camps immediately and arrest if people don’t leave.

Also the issue with it being an art build is pertinent to the culture of the city, because Asheville likes to pride itself on being a creative zone for people to come and listen to music on the street and art festivals and all these sorts of things. Yeah. But that is accessible for some people as a way to be in a city and it’s not accessible for other people. So we decided to make art central in what we’re doing to sort of make that point that it’s important for everyone to have the ability to live creatively. And that’s part of direct action too.

Also the fact that we are prioritizing this being an intergenerational space, because that people suffering right now they don’t have a particular age. It’s from elders to babies. So we need to include everybody in our solutions. That’s how we’ve been organizing, we have childcare for all our meetings, and children are extremely welcome in all our spaces, and parents, and so on and so forth. We try to make the most accommodation for everybody that’s around.

Doug: That’s for sure. You talking about ASP? Or just us in general. Yeah, we definitely help make everybody stay comfortable, more comfortable. I’m very grateful for that. Because when COVID hit it was bone dry. There was nothing. You couldn’t get a cup of coffee. And then one day, in comes —- and I think it was — and —-, —— was there. And here we are today. We are doing big things. So do they have a problem with the art because we can go to beer because it’s also the beer city. We can star making beer! We could make a homeless ale. [laughter]

Papi: If art is controversial…

Doug: Yeah, bring out the little… What do you call that? A still?

Papi: We could just call it a hotel and then they would let us do it.

Doug: Right? Do we have people going to these meetings where they vote? Like zoning meetings? If nobody ever goes to the meeting then zoning gets passed.

Onion: I think the zoning meetings aren’t necessarily up for a vote all the time, like they are a council that kind of like rubber stamps.

Doug: But these policy changes, they should be open to the public. So we have to get a team to go in there and suit up in their best Under Armor hoodie and jump in there.

Papi: I think it’s been interesting to see people going to like the mayor’s lawn and stuff here and just kind of skipping meetings.

Doug: There’s no “No Trespassing” signs on the courthouse. We can camp there. But it’s concrete.

Papi: And I know people have gone to city council meetings. They give you so many restrictions in order to talk. And it’s because they know that they don’t want to hear us. Like I remember people would sign up and they would cut you off after a certain time.

Doug: You have to beat them at their own game, we have to get our words in a certain time. It shouldn’t have to be like that. But we’re stepping up to the plate. So we are doing a lot anyways. I’m not trying to sound bad, because we do a lot.

Papi: I think it’s a question of who calls the shots. And you know, this is our city and we can call the shots and they can listen to us, right? We don’t always have to fit into their framework, they can fit into ours.

Onion: It shouldn’t be the other way around. Right? This is our city. We live here. They’re the ones who should be listening to us. But they don’t they just care about all of our money.

Doug: I mean, if we had guns and cars, we can make them listen, but we’re not doing that. [laughter]

Papi: They will listen.

Doug: Yeah, they will. They will. I see the future of ASP changing a lot of things for homeless people. Not just in Asheville, but like we’re gonna set up in Asheville. It’s gonna be city to city to city. We literally can set the standard to better the homeless all over the United States. And then the world, I guess.

TFSR: Y’all were mentioning calling the shots. And it’s one thing to demand and say “yeah, we’re the people that live here.” Can you talk a little bit about some of the pressures that maybe people from the outside like Onion mentioned the amount of money that the county and the city budget towards advertising towards the tourist industry? But can you talk about some of the motivations on city council and on the county commissioners that are keeping forward motion on actual solutions with public funds to solve the crisis for houseless folks, as well as the cost of housing for regular folks.

Onion: So the city of Asheville is run by a gang and the gang is not publicly accountable. That’s what I mentioned before, the agency called the Tourism Development Authority. They’re not elected or anything like that. It’s a private agency. And so, for example, they have this thing that they call “Heads in Beds.” And it’s their way of saying, of all the hotel rooms, because I don’t know how many 1000s of actual hotel rooms and beds in Asheville, but their push is to get all the beds full.

Their way of measuring that is “Heads in Beds.” And so this is to say, they are completely focused on housing tourists in this town and making accommodations for certain people. If they want to put our heads in beds, there’s no resources for that. But all of a sudden, they have millions and millions of dollars to fill the other beds and build other hotels for all these thousands and thousands. Basically, they have a huge priority of creating space for white wealthy people to come in and visit and social cleansing and hyper gentrification for the poor and the struggling.

So the thing is, is this agency runs the city. City council rubber stamps whatever the TDA wants. They might debate it publicly, or there might be a little bit of dissent. But eventually, they just agree to whatever it is. City council is not calling the shot. They are agreeing with a larger entity, a more powerful entity. So the city manager and the planning and zoning office and other city staff work very, very closely with the tourism development entity. And then you have the Biltmore on top of it, which everyone kind of like forgets about, but it’s like a huge piece of land in the middle of town that’s being privately used for huge amount of profit. That’s basically a feudal type of situation. I mean, I’m saying, let’s take the Biltmore. You know? It’s literally a castle in the middle of Asheville.

Papi: And it’s boring!

Onion: It’s super bad. Yeah.

TFSR: Yeah. So for folks that maybe haven’t heard of the Biltmore Estate, the Vanderbilt family built a huge mansion. It’s the largest private residence in North America. It’s run by a foundation now, so that they can, you know, siphon money through a nonprofit, I think it’s like 60 or 70 bucks to get a visit to the actual house. I’ve never been there. I hear the land is really beautiful. There’s like a dairy farm. There’s a winery. There’s the gardens. It’s also apparently got a really, really intense biometric surveillance system, through the cameras that they have there. I just heard about that.

Papi: It’s a lot of money, and they don’t even pay their employees well.

Onion: Exactly.

TFSR: There was an article that was published a few days ago by Barbara Durr of the Asheville Watchdog. It’s based on a 2021 Bowen national research piece that was commissioned by the Dogwood Health Trust. And I’ll put a link in the show notes to it. But the numbers are not pretty in terms of how much people spend on housing here and the availability of “affordable housing.” Would you all talk about your experience? Papi already mentioned rooming with family now because it’s gotten so expensive And because buying property is so difficult and Onion mentioned being evicted twice. So what does it kind of look like? How does how does housing actually pan out for the people that live in work in the city where the tourists kind of take over the rest of the time?

Papi: Well, just from my experience with housing, and the people that I work around and live around, people kind of have been stuck where they’re at. Working three part time jobs, just to make it as is. Also, it’s now very common to just depend on community which is not bad. Which is what we should be doing. But always it’s like “oh, it’s the first of the month, let’s ask for mutual aid. Let’s ask for some rent assistance. Let’s get some money in our hands that we can afford to survive and live here in this apartment for the next month.”

I know that’s the thing with housing. And then I just see that and hear that a lot. I’ve had friends who try to game with roommates or things like that, but they don’t work. There’s just so many things. Because if you can’t work or live where you’re at, then how are you going to get transportation and then the bus pass.

Doug: Right now my rent is free for a year, because that’s the program I’m in. But after that it goes up to like $895 for a two bedroom, one bathroom in the projects. You know, it is what it is. That ended the median in Asheville is $350,000 per house. That’s the average cost. I couldn’t work two full time jobs and my girlfriend were two full time jobs and sell anything on the side and afford that!

Onion: Yeah, it’s like turbo gentrification up in here we are one of the most gentrified cities in all of the United States. And we’re also in a region that is historically under organized. There’s no housing advocacy organization in Asheville. It’s just us. There’s no resource center for renters. There’s no pushback against the landlord’s. City council and other entities don’t do anything. So the City manages to get away with really intense gaslighting, even when they describe what their idea is of affordable housing. What they call that is not really affordable to people that are working class, it’s kind of more accessible to the middle class.

So you have a situation in Asheville, where the conditions here and their decision making on the city level. In name, it’s progressive people on city council, they’re liberals and Democrats. But it’s not in line with that. It’s more in line with the city in California about the same size that had a bunch of wildfires, and half the houses were destroyed. And after people felt generous for a few months, they started to get irritated that there were so many displaced people around them. And so their city council went from progressive, got voted out, and it was a bunch of Trump supporters that got up in there. But their policy that they’re enacting over there, in their city where there’s really immense amounts of people that are completely precarious and have absolutely no resources. Their policy is the same. The same exact policy that our city council is doing every day. So you know, essentially, we have a right wing city government that calls itself liberal somehow.

Papi: I was just thinking about how, in this past year alone, I moved to Asheville last year around this time, and how right now, for a two bedroom apartment where I’m at, when we first started, it was like about 1,000 – 1,200 for a two bedroom apartment. That’s not including all the utilities and everything. Now I’d looked again after six months, for a one bedroom apartment. It’s at 1,400 right now. 1,400 to almost 2,000 for a one bedroom apartment. And no one’s gotten pay raises at all.

All the jobs I’ve worked at are like… what was it called? What did they call people who worked at grocery? Essential? I’ve been working in essential working jobs for all the entire pandemic. And no, I have never gotten a hazard pay or anything like that. Working at one of the hottest tourist restaurants downtown who caters to tourists, and they came around maskless and everything. I have no more money, not gotten more money. Rent has skyrocketed, and they’re like stealing from us practically. That’s all my money right there.

It just fucking sucks. And then eating here also kind of sucks. I always remember going to Walmart and it kind of sucks seeing a lot of the shelves really empty. And then you go to Earth Fare or something like that, and shits three times as much. And it’s like “oh my gosh, I can’t even eat healthy” or whatever that is. I don’t know, everything is already so much and it’s getting worse.

Doug: A loaf of bread is almost five dollars.

Onion: It’s totally getting worse. Especially I feel like since like the summer, it was like August, maybe July. I don’t know, it was like every week. How many friends are getting pushed out their housing? Their landlords are selling the house from under them. They’re living in their cars. They don’t have a new place to go. There’s literally like 20 slots on Craigslist for 300 people looking.

So there’s just absolutely no housing and nowhere to go. And more and more people getting displaced because the market is just benefiting selling right now, so much. And selling to people that are coming from other places in the country are also converting to Airbnb market. So they can make like $300 a night and city council has just kind of let that go wild. So, you know, it’s basically mass hysteria around money.

TFSR: So the last decade or so that I’ve lived here, it’s been consistently getting harder and harder to find housing. There was a 2014 study that showed that the vacancy rate was less than 1% for Asheville. And that’s not even talking about the cost of that housing and my ability to afford it or anyone else’s. But yeah, it’s kind of interesting because the hotels have been such a power player in terms of Tourism and in terms of pushing the city manager to make decisions that are going to be taxable income for the city.

With more and more of these “short term rentals” like Airbnb…There’s a couple of other companies just gobbling up all of the, in a neoliberal style, just further privatizing all these little spaces that some of us could have long term rental in. So much that it makes sense economically for the owners to hold them off the market and leave the house the room empty for a couple nights so they can charge that $300 A night. It’s weird to see how the city council has bent, instead of how they would have before protected the interests of the big moneymakers in the hotels, and now they’re feeling the pressure of all the little individual bourgeoisie that own the little mini feudal spots. Ah, it’s so frustrating.

Papi: Yeah, it really is a petty bourgeois situation with that. By the same token, I feel our struggle is becoming something more like the landless struggle in other countries where it’s about land, the bottom line is. With so many people without access to a place and without access to resources, we just have to do what we’re doing, which is go where there is land and take it and sit there and do our thing.

Onion: It makes me really angry to have the cops and DOT come around and evict people while saying things like “Y’all can’t be on city property. Y’all can’t be on this.” When it’s like “okay, well, first off, fuck city property. This isn’t city property.” This is land that’s first off stolen. We’re all living on fucking stolen land. And it’s not the city’s. This is new, no one can own land. I’m still learning a lot about land stewardship and what it would look like to… not not buy land necessary, but to literally give land back to indigenous people. To have indigenous stewardship.

Hearing about how there are people coming in to Asheville. I don’t know if ya’ll have ever been on *beeped out*. Which is just a housing thing that people post that they need housing or looking for something on Facebook, and it’s so irritating to be on there. Because a lot of people are like “Oh, my gosh, I’m moving from Atlanta to Asheville. I’m moving from California or something.” And they are a bunch of white couples who aren’t even from here who are making like three times more than what we all are making.

And then it’s funny when they post because then people are like “yeah, so this thread… this thing right here is for people who who can’t pay more than like 1300 for rent.” And all these people are like “Oh, I can do like $2,000 a month for a two bedroom apartment” and all this shit. And I love watching them get torn up in the comments. I do

Doug: There are people who pay $2,000 a week to come stay in Asheville for business or for a doctor’s appointment. They pay, I don’t know, maybe anywhere from like 500 to $1,000 for the week, they’re here for two or three days, probably sits empty.

Papi: Exactly. Exactly. And how many second homes are here? I have a job where I work for homeowners doing land care and I have a lot of clients that don’t live in their houses. They’re sitting there. There’s a huge number of properties that are under or un-utilized in this area.

Doug: And we need each other. We need the tourists because they provide jobs for us. And the tourists need us too because we got to wipe their butts and cater to them.

TFSR: It’s interesting, that report talks about how y’all are saying about 48 and a half percent of the population of Buncombe County pays 30% or more on their rent every month, something like a third of the population pays 50 or more percent of their income on rent. What’s recognized as being an affordable amount is a quarter of your income, tops on housing. So that you can pay for food. So you can save money. So you can pay for medical bills. So that you can pay for education for yourself or for your kids or whatever. All these things. It’s not budgeted in.

And what they’re doing is they’re creating a circumstance where in a couple of years and they’re already seeing it, there’s so many employment signs up all around town. Places can’t hire people and won’t pay them a wage that will actually allow them to live here. And I think like Papa said… they’re not going to have anyone that’s going to be able to actually work the jobs are willing to work the jobs. They’re digging their own grave in terms of an economy.

Doug: So you can only get a fast food job or a restaurant job. You’re gonna max out maybe $300 a week take home. So that’s 1200 dollars a month when your rent is 1100. I mean, how do you pay your electricity? How do you pay?

Papi: The actual condition of housing that people are in, too, is really, really messed up around here. Because of the climate so many people are dealing with intense mold issues and suffering from black mold. Their kids are living in that and they can’t get repairs because landlords just won’t do anything and there’s no one making them do anything.

Because City Council’s is, this is not on their radar. It’s not something they care to talk about. But at least half of us are living in that situation. And you know, we’re all like doubled up and tripled up and 10 people to a house, and we’re still paying $400 a month. So it’s getting to a point where the living conditions aren’t livable, even when we’re housed.

Doug: And when it breaks, it’s gonna be not good.

Onion: Something’s got to give.

TFSR: It has to stop being us.

Doug: I’m 45 years old. I got an apartment with my girlfriend who… she got some issues going on there and I love her to death, but she can’t really work. But even even with her, if I got an $1,100 security check, and she got a little $1100 security check. It’s 2200 bucks, that’s really not much. We get over $500 a month in food stamps. And usually about five days, six days at the end of the month, we’re not shopping. That’s plenty of money to be a lot of food. I have no day of the month that we don’t have any food.

If I get a job, it’s gonna be part time. All these places are hiring. They say they’re hiring, but you fill out an application online. somebody like me who didn’t graduate high school doesn’t have no really real education on paper it just gets tossed out. It’s just deleted right away. So if I went and sold myself to the company, got the job, still would only be &350 a week.

Papi: Yeah, it’s like they want it both ways. They want to own their restaurants and pay you a pittance and still make their big profits. The result from their decision making, which is that we don’t have housing, and we are on the streets. They won’t accept us on the streets. And so they sweep us. So they want to have their cake and eat it too. And they don’t understand that this is something that they’ve manufactured.

Papi: Oh, and also with COVID with a lot of places hiring, as well as not being paid enough. People are getting long haul COVID. People are getting sick and employees are not letting us have time off. They don’t care about us. And what are we supposed to do? I remember seeing these things and hearing things of like “oh, like nobody wants to come to work or anything like that”. It’s like, “No, it’s because you don’t pay enough. You don’t give us sick time. You don’t give us time off.” And it’s like we have to be there constantly like 45-50 plus hours of our lives working and giving your time and energy. And then once we have the money, it goes right away to rent or living necessities. We don’t have the energy to do anything else. We don’t have the energy to come out and into the park and make art. We don’t have that energy.

Doug: You can’t even go to the Chic-Fil-A and get yourself a chicken sandwich because you earned it.

TFSR: There’s been a push, it’s a North Carolina wide push. And I think it’s backed by the SEIU. But the NC Essential Worker Movement and the Fight For 15 has really been pushing around North Carolina. I think the Burnsville Bojangles has been striking because of the conditions around people getting infected with COVID and not being given time off. And the managers not paying attention to safety standards inside of the place in terms of customers coming in without masks and co workers without masks.

Plus people tell their stories on the social media of like people working 80 hours a week between two jobs and having a kid and not being able to afford to make ends meet. But these little franchise fast food shops make hella money. And it’s not even like the fancy restaurant that Papi works in downtown. That’s that’s one end of the scale, but even places you don’t have to go in a white shirt or whatever. It’s yeah.

Doug: The Chocolate Shops downtown. I don’t have clothes nice enough to go in that damn shop. Like they must make a million dollars off of chocolate. That’s crazy.

Onion: Yeah, that’s another thing because that place got off to its start by having the community kind of sponsor them. They were like we pay a living wage. We’re community supported business. And what? Two years later? They changed that to where they were not paying a living wage. And they put all the money that they made into capital resources to build a factory so that they can manufacture their own chocolate and they’re paying worse than they used to.

And that’s really familiar in Asheville to have businesses start out as like, “Oh, we’re socially responsible, small businesses” and then they become these engines of pure exploitation. And so everyone that I know that has worked at that place is like “it’s the worst place to work in town. It’s so exploitive, it’s transphobic it’s disrespectful, the clientele is horrible. It’s it’s a terrible work environment.”

Papi: Or stuff like a decade ago was claiming to paying a living wage or whatever. They were claiming that a part of their, they were paying medical to people by giving them kombucha for free. Yeah, their own product.

Onion: Pay a living wage with parking space. They consider that part of the wage.

TFSR: Or like when you consider the tips getting figured into it.

Papi: Exactly. Yeah. And then there’s no enforcement. So it’s not really a thing. It’s not a real thing.

Onion: I love riots. I’m tired of being like, palatable. I don’t care to be looking nice, being pretty and telling people like “Oh, can you give us this pretty please?” No, I’m gonna scream. I’m gonna yell until you give me what I want. Like, give me more money, stop having rent like this. Stop killing our friends in the streets. I’m ready. I’m already screaming.

Doug: We’ve ain’t even gotta get more money. We just got to stop your price of things going up.

Onion: I mean, all of it. You know? It’s time for us to call the shots. I remember during the uprising here, when downtown was full of anger and we took downtown and the cops couldn’t handle. You were there? Well, there’s a lot of video. And so it was pretty amazing. Because downtown, which is always full of tourists, like completely dominated. Like 95% of people from South Carolina or Atlanta or Knoxville or some shit. Well they were gone. It was just us. And you would never see the surface of the… what’s that hotel called the IRIS? It’s a big fancy new hotel in the center of downtown that spared no expense. That shit was covered. It was covered in tags and people were having a time of their lives. Windows did get broken.

TFSR: So much anti ICE graffiti.

Onion: It was a happy group of people until we got tear gassed.

Doug: I would have been helping y’all smash things and loot and carry stuff out. (laughing)

TFSR: in Minecraft.

Doug: Our buddy got caught in that riot and he ended up dying in Buncombe County Jail. Yeah, shout out to Jacob Biggs. He was a good guy. He just gets lost like most of us. We fall. Some of us stumble and we get back up. Some of us fall and we’re like, “I’m still falling. I can’t get up.” And we don’t need much. Just like hope, like a job, paycheck or something to look forward to. Like the promising of a house. I finally maced somebody at AHOPE because he was threatening me, he attacked me. And that same day is when they told me I had an apartment.

Because if you go through floating like regular “Hey everything is cool” you’re not in danger, your life is not at risk. But if you go in there stressed out every day, and you’re suicidal, and you want to kill the dog you want to kill and you start being irate they will move you up faster. And I don’t see how one person’s life is more or less than another one’s. Some people just lose their minds in the streets because they’re waiting for housing.

Papi: For housing. Yeah. For years.

Doug: I just want a roof over my head.

Onion: That’s the thing at this point. The city doesn’t understand where we’re coming from, which is that we’re not leaving the park. We’re not stopping. You’re not going to push us out. We’re not budging. So, you know, they’re going to have to find some way to compensate and open up their wallets and deal with us because we are here to stay. We have nowhere else to go.

TFSR: Yeah. And the “not in my backyard” approach doesn’t work anymore when people won’t stop being pushed away. Yeah. So y’all are holding space, you’re doing direct action by holding space publicly. You’re inviting families. You’re making art, taking the opportunity to make public art and make statements about it. We’ve already talked about how city council and county commissioners will do their best. People are trying to engage it, but they’ll do their best at silencing people actually making any changes and the city manager calls the shots anyways who is an unelected official. Do you want more people to show up at the park? What do you want people to bring? How long do we expect y’all are going to be out there? What’s the next stepping stone that y’all are reaching for?

Onion: We’re out here, you know. So by the time this airs, Friday will probably be over but it’ll be after Christmas. We’re going to have a big Christmas party and with lots of music and stuff like that. So this is ongoing. And yeah, I think that by the time people hear this on the air, they can just come on out at any time. We’re oftentimes picking up the festivities around four o’clock.

Doug: Yeah, if they don’t have anything… They can come with nothing. They can come with themselves or something, but just as support. They don’t have to bring sodas. A lot of people bring donations. Great. Because we can use them, but if you don’t have anything still show up. A big crowd is better than a little one.

Papi: It’s a nice big park. So there’s space for really a lot of people.

Doug: You play pickle-ball and tennis. They took the tables out. So we need a picnic table.

Papi: We got to bring tables in. But yeah, like anybody’s Welcome. Come over. You don’t have to bring anything. Everyone brings a little bit something. If you have the means and the money, yes, bring something, bring furniture. We people like to sit. We like to be cozy. Bring that. Drinks are always appreciated. Hot warm food. Very appreciated. Of different varieties, please, not all of us can eat everything.

Doug: Bring your Christmas tree.

Onion: Yeah, we like to like build things too, we get really crafty. And so we usually build structures every day. Engineering and stuff like that. And so we go high up in the trees, and we make our art and it’s really a cool scene.

Doug: Yeah, we want to make a birdhouse.

Papi/Onion: Ladders, you want to donate a ladder? Give us a ladder.

Papi: Bring a ladder, bring your client climbing gear!

Doug: We can go get a ladder tonight. I got a big one. Well, I think it stretches. Tools! Bring ingenuity. Bring a good attitude. Just be genuine and sincere to be there helping some people that need housing. Don’t just come for the show. Cuz you’re gonna love that.

TFSR: Musicians bring their instruments DJs bring their setups. It seems like a lot of the more inspiring things that I’ve seen in town around housing… I feel excited having conversations like this with people, because it’s just real that living in the city is much more difficult than it needs to be. And there’s people on the top that are skimming off. And then there’s tons of bureaucrats and cops and whatever and middle management in the middle that make their money off of keeping us out of empty buildings and keeping us from getting the food that we deserve.

And not only that, but also because this city sometimes feels like it doesn’t have actual community. It’s got the drum circle on Fridays, maybe. Especially during pandemic, the uprising felt to me, like the first time for a bit in that year that I felt a real sense of community and inviting people out to a space to share music to share food to be inspired by each other. That’s amazing. Personally, I feed off of that.

Doug: Yeah, and it’s not just in Asheville, it’s a lot of cities. A lot of big cities, small cities, it’s happening everywhere. People need to pull together and get it right. And because if we don’t, then not just us, we’re all gonna be a load of crap. I don’t know how people don’t see it. It’s totally gotta be flipped. Put us in power and power underneath us. I love people that want to challenge people to come out here with us for an undisclosed amount of time. Depending on their attitude they can leave tomorrow go home, are they can leave in 30 days.

You have an undisclosed amount of time of how long you are going to be in the streets like we are. You’re stripped of your whole life and put on the streets and you’re homeless. And then what? Anybody can survive if they know they are going home within a week. Like I can last all week. But if there’s no hope for tomorrow, no, stale sandwiches or nothing. You really get down and hate life. And I would challenge them to come see how we do it. We don’t want to live like this. To see how hard it is to survive some situations.

It’s cold. I don’t know if any of y’all have been outside all day in the winter, but I hated it. I was warming my tent. Because I don’t like the cold. I moved from New England, because I thought it was cheaper here. And when I came from Connecticut here, the only thing that was cheaper was cigarettes. Meat was the same price. It was terrible. I had $1,000 month rent up there, it was a two bedroom. Everything was $1000 month, pay utilities, all your bills to come here and be homeless.

Onion: We also want to make the explicit invitation of people that have nowhere to go to come and visit if they can and see if there’s anything there for them that they want to build with us. So it’s hopefully a space that welcomes people that really don’t have anywhere else to go right now.

Doug: You see our community. See how we shoot, we love each other. How we try to look out for each other. I’ve given people the shirt off my back out here. The food off my plate.

TFSR: Well, I guess if you’re new to town and having difficulty keeping up on stuff. It’s a good place to come and meet people and also to find out about resources that are available. And Doug mentioned ASP before, that seems like a cool place to interface with that with the street side of ASP or the Free-store.

Doug: They talk to us with sincerity, not condescending. I love this group. Like, I’ve never met anybody like that, the people from ASP. I guess that would be me too, I volunteer to help. They’ve taught me a lot. I learned a lot. They keep me in check. I’m grateful for them. Grateful for everything that we do,

TFSR: Where can people keep up on this if they’re not in the area and they want to apply pressure. Or if they want to get involved, but maybe don’t want to show up immediately? I know there’s some Instagram accounts that have been broadcasting news about when police have been coming in or the really cute flyers that have been being made. Yeah, how can people find out more?

Papi: It’s kind of an autonomous group that is forming this project, but it’s being supported by a coalition of collectives and groups. And so you could go to any of those pages to find out about what’s going on. Those could be Asheville Solidarity Network that has a Facebook and an Instagram. There’s Asheville Survival Program. Same thing Asheville For Justice. DefundAVLPD – the movement to defend the police here. So yeah, check those out. And that’s a really good way to get in touch and plug in and find out what we’re doing.

TFSR: Cool. Is there anything that I didn’t ask about that y’all want to bring up and mention?

Papi: I do have something. I remember asking some folk because I’m pretty new to just a lot of stuff. So I was like, anybody want anything to be said, and someone brought up about just what happens when when sweeps happen, and friends and family are displaced Is that you no longer know where your friends are. You no longer know where your family’s at. And it just makes it a shit ton harder to get yourself okay. And shit around you okay. If you’re constantly being removed from your area, and you can no longer make appointments, and you can no longer take care of your dog or go to doctor’s appointments, or go to school or anything like that. And the main thing that someone had told me that they were really thinking about was how you can no longer find your friends and family. And that’s very scary. Fuck sweeps. Fuck DOT.

Onion: I think I wanted to say Fuck them all. Yeah, definitely echoing that. I wanted to say that, to city council, we see you. We see what you say and how what you do doesn’t match up with it. And so we’re coming for you. There is not anybody that’s safe sitting on the city council, because the furthest left member of city council on the first day of Code Purple, when there was no shelter, put up a Facebook post saying “it’s my birthday. Oh, it happens to be Code Purple. What you can do is donate to this tiny nonprofit who doesn’t even do emergency housing support. Give them money, because the city can’t handle our shit.”

And basically, that’s the furthest left that it gets in Asheville is like passing the buck. And so we see you passing the buck. Kim Roney. We’re here watching what you do every day. And you haven’t shown up at Aston Park yet. And we see you. So there’s an invitation for city council to open up your wallet of the city coffers, and give us what we need. Or we will come for you.

Papi: For city council to come down and to shut up and not say anything and hear houses folks and hear them at every single thing they have to fucking say. Everything.

Doug: We want your routing numbers! To your bank accounts,

TFSR: And do a damn thing about it, not just show up and listen and go back to their heated offices, right?

Doug: No, I want them to just come and listen. They’ll hear something but they just come and they’re not listening.

Onion: They hate having to listen to us. They hate it.

Doug: When you’re able to put up a tent and be homeless. That means you’re comfortable there, it’s feel like a safe spot. And then when the police come and sweep it or tell you to move, it’s like you’re being evicted from your home back to first time being homeless. Every single time. I went through 18 tents in two years. That’s ridiculous. You know, police take them down or weather. it just sucked. Fuck the police.

Onion: Yeah, and how many campsites have been burned down in the past couple of years. People need a safe place to go where we have folks watching out. There’s just been a lot of danger for people living outside in every every kind of way.

Doug: Unfortunately when there happens to be like an OD or something. And they shut it down. Like take the OD and deal with it, and not police it but support. Not just beat us down and make us want to go get high. Iv’e been clean for a couple weeks now. It’s a struggle. When they get on me and bad days, I’m gonna want to go out there and you know, do that bad thing. Stay warm.

When I was homeless, I ain’t gonna lie I got high everyday. Because I needed that to get through to get up and get my food for the day, my clothes, my shelter for the night. Take care of my girlfriend’s dog. God they don’t understand. Sometimes you wait 4 hours for a shower at AHOPE. And for lunch, more time. We’re not just sitting around doing nothing with our time, twiddling our thumbs. So this is the south and we are in the Bible Belt, right? This is the holiday season. We need some love like Jesus from these people. I hate to bring religion into it, but show us where your hearts are.

TFSR: Congratulations on keeping sober.

Doug: It’s a little easier with an apartment I can just stay in there and eat and not have to go outside. But I hate it for people who don’t have housing. I was just there not too long ago. And I could be there again. If things were bad, but I’m gonna do my best not too.

TFSR: I guess any of us could. It’s kind of the point, right?

Doug: Most of us are one paycheck away from it. me. Me and my ex-wife we we’re doing fine, two jobs, kids in schools, both the cars, and then both cars died. We were off the bus ramp. But then, here we are. Yeah. Well, she’s not here anymore. She’s here but not here.

Papi: Yeah, I was living outside to after leaving an unsafe relationship. And I had an infant. And so I was in a really precarious situation. And so I was living in a vehicle for a while and you know, it can happen to any of us.

Doug: People lived in a tent with their children. It was okay.

TFSR: Yeah, thank you all for the work that you’re doing and for being willing to come on this and talk about it. And I really hope that it it gets more folks out there. And yeah, thanks for sharing your perspectives.

Papi: Thanks for having us.

Doug: Yeah. Thanks, man.

Onion: Thank you.

Ecological Uprising, Antifascism and Anarchist Organizing in Serbia

Ecological Uprising, Antifascism & Anarchist Organizing in Serbia

Crowds block a bridge in Belgrade, Serbia during the December 2021 Ecological Uprising
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Serbia has been rocked by recent, mass blockades in the streets to challenge changes to the Law of Expropriation which would allow the state to take farm lands and other private property to open space for constructing mega projects and extraction like the proposed Rio Tinto lithium and jadarite mine in the Jadar Valley. This is building off of earlier ecological protests in 2021 against the building of private mini hydroelectric power plants along rivers in Stara Planina (aka the Balkan mountain range) threatening access to and health of drinking water. These protest in December forced the 12-year ruling right-neoliberal SNS Party to backtrack and modify plans for the Expropriation and public Referendum laws and put an undefined pause on Rio Tinto’s mine.

For the hour, we speak with Marko about those protests, the influence of western NGOs in politics, the Linglong Tire Factory scandal, labor and solidarity organizing with the Anarcho-Syndicalist Initiative of which hes a member and which is a part of the Internatioal Workers Association IWA-AIT and challenges faced by leftist anti-authoritarian organizers in former Yugoslavia. He also speaks about his experience of the covid pandemic in Serbia, the politics of anti-lockdown protests, anti-vaxers and the far right in general around Serbia, the impact of US-born neo-nazi Rob Rundo of the Rise Above Movement and Media2Rise who has returned to Serbia despite being deported to Bosnia and has been organizing fight clubs, international ties and solidarity between various fascistic groups around Belgrade.

Covid Mutual Aid in Serbia

Belgrade 6

Ecological Uprising

Labor Issues

Anti-Fascism

Announcements

B(A)D News Episode 51

The 51st episode the the A-Radio Network’s monthly anarchist news roundup is online and ready to hear. Check it out!: https://www.a-radio-network.org/bad-news-angry-voices-from-around-the-world/episode-51-12-2021/

Phone Zap for Rashid

New Afrikan communist and Minister in the Revolutionary Intercommunal Black Panther Party, Kevin Rashid Johnson is being punished at Nottoway CI in Virginia and there’s a call-in & email campaign starting on Monday, December 20th to get him:

  1. That he be released from segregation and be given access to general population property and privileges
  2. That he be put in an actual quarantine unit if quarantine is legitimate
  3. That he not be subjected to a retaliatory transfer AND that his classification level NOT be raised as retaliation for beating the write ups/charges.

More at bit.ly/rashidzap122021

Phone Zap for Comrades Easley & Turner

Hunger Strike: December 17th, 2021: Calling all comrades. Easley & Turner will be going on hunger strike at ToCI due to the fact that Warden May is holding them beyond the policy associated with Restrictive Housing & Level E Status. Policy in question is DRC POlicy 55-SPC-02, e,(6)

Call-in request for David Easley #A306400 & Frasier G. Turner #A753786 at Toledo CI in Ohio as they begin a hunger strike beginning 12/17/2021. Folks are asked to call Warden Harold May & ask why he is not following ODRC policy pertaining to Easley & Turner and others being held in ToCI Restrictive Housing Units beyond the policy associated with Restrictive Housing & Level E Status. Policy in question is DRC POlicy 55-SPC-02, e,(6)

Warden Harold May, ToCI(419) 726 7977drc.toci@odrc.state.oh.us
ODRC Headquarters contact form: www.odrc.gov/family

ODRC Director Annette Chambers Smith
(614) 387 0588

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Featured Tracks:

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Transcription

TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with whatever name, gender pronouns, political identity, or affiliation that you’d like for the audience? And tell us about where you’re based.

Marko: Okay, I’m Marko, from the Anarcho-Syndicalist Initiative, IWA section, International Workers Association. I am from Belgrade, Serbia. And I have lived here pretty much all of my life.

TFSR: I do want to ask about the Anarcho-Syndicalist Initiative. But first, just because it’s universal, how has the pandemic been in Serbia? Have you had vaccines available and accessible? Has the government imposed lockdowns? Is there much in the way of either right-wing anti-vaccine movement or left-wing social mutual aid projects to fill in where the health infrastructure hasn’t?

Marko: At the beginning of the crisis, of course, our government is a bit similar to Trump, it reacted as if it is something not so serious. We even had doctors who were approaching this problem as not serious. They saw it as something not so dangerous. But when it came, it was pretty much panic, as I guess, the whole world was more or less in panic. Even in our structures, or some imaginary free society, we will have the same difficulties to handle all these situations. I think it is a challenging situation for humanity. Also, it is a populist government that likes to be connected with the West but also with the East policies. And the only good thing about the government is that we got all vaccines from all over the world, even much more than some other Western countries in Europe. It happened that at one point, even people from Western Europe were coming here to get vaccinated. On the other hand, here, people are not used to getting vaccinated. In this sense, it’s pretty bad.

We have also these conscious anti-vax people. In the beginning, we had a lockdown. We had a state of emergency. It was pretty tough because the state apparatus could practice all these authoritarian principles in the highest manners. But on the other hand, [an emergency response] was something that was needed, but it’s different when the state does it and it looks pretty bad. In April, we had the first lockdown which lasted till May in 2020. In June, we already started to open up little by little, and then these protests came up with the far right-wing people that are anti-vaxxers. But the thing with this is that this just started as the anti-vax protest. Other people protested against police repression. And a lot of people that are not anti-vaxxers came out to protest against police repression. We cannot say that it was an anti-vax protest, there was just a minority in the beginning. At one moment, the leftist groups and anarchist groups took over the protests, a lot of far-right people were defending the police. They wanted to say “We are antivaccine but don’t attack our police”, and para-police and fascist forces were trying to make a group that is protecting the police. But at one moment, some anarchist groups started to throw things at the police and everybody accepted this, and the far-right groups were defeated in a way. I see this protest as our victory because we were able to organize in real action. It was direct action and we practiced organizing there. Later, there were a lot of events under this far-right protest, but not as you see in France or other countries, even in the Balkans. In Croatia, Slovenia, there are a lot of big anti-vaxxer protests. With anti-vaxxers we have here, the scene is big but poorly organized. The far-right groups are not organized in an anti-vaccine way. In this sense, we didn’t have a problem.

The other thing that you asked about, the mutual aid, we had a solidarity kitchen and it’s still going. It is a leftist initiative that was made for people who are homeless and hungry people. During the pandemic, these groups organized mutual aid actions, bringing food to the elderly who couldn’t go out. And that was during the whole pandemic, even with lockdowns, those people were pretty busy with this and they’re still active in different struggles. But all of them are connected either with minority groups, elders, and even the last one was with some workers, like those at Linglong Factory, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. It was a big scandal that the government accepted a Chinese policy that made a big company that is making tires for cars. And they have Vietnamese workers there in very bad working conditions, some of them are forced to work like complete convicts that were brought there to work. This solidarity kitchen also contributed to the struggle against the repression of these people.

TFSR: To clarify that, is it that there were people from Vietnam, that got certain visas that allowed them to work for this company on Serbian soil in a “free trade” compound? It’s basically an off-site Chinese manufacture that employs imprisoned Vietnamese people in Serbia?

Marko: Yeah, but those visas are not actually working visas, they are just travel visas. If you’re from Vietnam, you need a visa to stay in Serbia. I think it is not even a visa, they took their passports, they didn’t even have visas. The Chinese company stole their passports so they cannot go home. It was a big scandal. The government didn’t react at all, it was pretending that this is normal.

TFSR: That’s terrible. That must be so scary for those people, even if you get out of that place, then unless you happen to speak Serbo-Croatian or maybe English, or German, some other language that’s in the region is a general economic language, where do you go?

Let’s talk a little bit more about the labor organizing work that you’ve been doing there. You mentioned that you were involved in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Initiative in Serbia. Can you talk about the work that you all do? What are some of the campaigns going on? We’ve had guests in the past who have affiliated with other networks, like Anarquismo or the Federation of Anarchist Internationals, but I’ve never talked to someone from the IWA-AIT. Could you tell me more about that as well?

Marko: With ASI, IWA-AIT member organization, I recently joined, but I participated in actions for a long time. A lot of people from there were my friends from the past. ASI gained full membership in IWA-AIT in 2004. But it was originally established in 1999 or 2000, I’m not sure. ASI was very active as an anarcho-syndicalist movement concerning the workers’ problems, but also, it was active in university blockades, which is one of the things that is actually where maybe 80% of the left scene in Serbia originated from. It was three students blockades in which ASI introduced direct democracy principles. In this sense, ASI was very important.

Also, I was involved with some ASI members and some other people in a political scandal before I was a member. We were arrested. It was a solidarity event for an arrested guy from Greece, Thodoros Iliopoulos, arrested for an uprising when Alexis Grigoropolous was killed. We got arrested for international terrorism and they were trying to charge us for 15 years or something in prison, but these charges failed. They accused us of attacking the Greek embassy but it was politically instrumentalized action and they didn’t have any proof that we did it. All these claims failed and everybody was released. After that, I was from time to time active in organizing with those comrades, but just last year I joined the organization.

TFSR: One of the things that you mentioned that ASI is doing is to help to coordinate campaigns to get people’s stolen wages back.

Marko: This was something that was actually announced, I think, by the Polish sectionn last year or two years ago. For different contexts, different places the idea work differently. We have a lot of trouble organizing, motivating people to organize on their workplaces but this action was pretty successful. We made some announcements on social media that we are doing these actions, helping people to get their wages back and a lot of people contacted us. We were surprised, really a lot of people. We managed to deal with a lot of these problems, not all, we are still working on some, but a lot of these problems are actually very easy to solve. Usually, we contact the owner, we just contact with the letter, seriously written, with all kinds of threats. Of course, there is a legal way but we also say that we are going to picket in front of their stores, or whatever, but most people who contacted us are restaurants, the service industry. Those problems are very easy to solve. It’s looked funny how owners tried to avoid always, they didn’t answer and in the end, they would say, “No, we were answering, we wanted to pay this worker, but she quit and didn’t call us.” But we record the whole thing. They admit in the end, when they say they want to pay the worker back and we always return to this working place with the workers so that they cannot get manipulated. We see that they are ready to pay the back wages, the owners agree that they will pay the salary, they really want to avoid our threats. Each time we had success, and this success is mainly because we have these threats that we are going to protest in front of their stores. In the past, ASI did such protests, and it was successful. Before this last event that Polish comrades announced, we had experiences doing this. We are pretty sure that we can manage to convince the owner to pay the salaries in this way, and we’ve improved in our writing, how to write a good message to the owners. We have to protest less often these days.

TFSR: That sounds like my experience here in the US of Solidarity Unions, not necessarily labor formations, but you’ll go to a landlord, you’ll go to a boss, and say, “Do you want to be embarrassed publicly? Because we know that you did this, and you’re going to lose friends, you’re going to lose customers.” It’s amazing how much embarrassment it can actually do, and it’s also so poignant how when someone is isolated, either as a worker who hasn’t gotten their wages, or that isolated worker going to the workplace afterwards, when the boss is, “Oh, yeah, just show up, we’ll give you the money.” That’s so good that you make sure they’re not isolated because they can be intimidated so easily.

Marko: Exactly. This is our focus. But in terms of a sense of business, I used to live in the US in 1998-99. But it’s pretty much different because Serbia doesn’t have capitalist history. It was a very long period when we were socialist. So the owners are not sure… In the US, I know “the customer is always right” but here, it is not like that. In these terms, the US has much bigger potential in these protests. It’s easier to convince the owner. I know there are some other problems for sure. But in this sense, even in syndicalism, the US has much better potential than Serbia.

TFSR: I hope that people in the audience in the US hear that.

Marko: Also in Chicago, there is one section that is about to be accepted by IWA. I hope that will be soon.

TFSR: Is that the IWW?

Marko: No, not an association, just some section group.

TFSR: Oh, cool.

Marko: IWW is a separate association. But this is a group that is going to be a full member of the IWA.

TFSR: In November and December of 2021, we’ve seen tens of thousands of people taking the streets to block traffic and cities across Serbia. Can you talk about the ecological uprising? What’s inspiring it, who’s participating and what the limits are, and what’s happening now?

Marko: In this ecological uprising, in the beginning, there were several problematic cases. For example, micro electric river dams being built that are destroying the streams, smaller rivers [in the Balkan Mountains, Stara Planina]. And the first initiatives were established on those struggles. And then later, mining companies came up. In the beginning, it was small organizations, local organizations. They united and made bigger organizations and alliances. They’re usually NGOs but there are different organizations. These groups and their motivations can be hard to understand. Here, a lot of people from the left have trouble recognizing those struggles as worker struggles, because it’s an environmental thing. But also, a confusing thing with this last struggle was that the government wanted to introduce neoliberal capitalism, because the government was about to announce a new law for the appropriation of private property, which is not abolishing private property, but expropriation by the state in order to give the land to bigger private companies. So they wanted to appropriate smaller farms from people so they can give that to the mining companies. In this sense, I think the struggles are really anti-capitalist. A lot of people were organizing because of the environment. But I think we should recognize those struggles and be in solidarity with those people because they’re also anti-capitalist struggles.

TFSR: Just to step back a little bit. The hydroelectric dams that were being proposed on some of the rivers would have flooded people’s farmlands, would have damaged the water tables, would have forced villages to move probably. What was that power production for, was that for domestic use, or was that for export to another country?

Marko: That was small private companies that are making small river dams that destroy the whole water infrastructure in terms of drinking water, but also the biodiversity, animal and plants. A lot of these dams were also going to be built in protected areas for biodiversity [noted in the Red Book published by Biologia Serbica journal from the University of Novi Sad]. But because corruption is very big, this is nothing for them, the government never mentions this.

TFSR: You may not know this, but in the US we have a thing called Eminent Domain where the government comes in and appropriates people’s private property or the apartment building where people live, gives them a “fair payment” and then gives it over for the development of another capitalist project. That sounds like what you mention.

Marko: It’s kind of like this, but when I compare Chilean appropriation, I can see this. Because in Chile, you have something similar was happening and at the end of the 70’s, when they announced a whole package of new agricultural laws, they announced the appropriation law, which was announced not for appropriating and distributing property to everybody. It was an appropriation for the distribution to private companies, that now own the whole drinking water. All these multinational companies own water sources in Chile. This is something that I recognize here also with this new law and probably what’s in the US, it might be something similar.

TFSR: Yeah. You were saying there was resistance from a lot of local farmers to the micro dams and then to the wider Law of Expropriation. That was coming on the books. Can you talk about some of the mining initiatives that have been especially bringing a bunch of people into the streets, because of the pollution that would be coming alongside them?

Marko: This last one was about Rio Tinto, it’s one of the biggest companies in the world owned by Australia and maybe Canada. They have a history of making a mess in a lot of countries. Probably somewhere, they didn’t make a mess, but in the end, those are the ones who get profit, not the people. Even some Western countries like France didn’t allow them to mine and here, the government allows those companies to mind because it sees opportunities. Not only opportunities in the sense of making some money out of it, but the whole infrastructure, then invest in infrastructures. They are building roads, they paid for big roads in advance. They didn’t even get permits to build on this mine, but they already invested in building roads. I think the government also sees opportunities in this sense.

There were a lot of people bothered by it in the last struggle. A lot of people came out. And there were threatening the government that people would block the streets. Of course, the government didn’t bother, they were even laughing. But when they blocked the streets, the government changed their mind. The problem with our government is that much of their support base are working class, often not the people we see in ecological protests. And they saw that a lot of working-class people were out in the protests, so they had to change the policy. They froze the law, but they didn’t totally stop it. Probably, they will start it back up. But right now something is happening, I don’t know in which direction it will go. They announced plans for a real reorganization of this area in which the mining industry was supposed to be built but just yesterday or the day before, they put down this plan of reorganization. We shall see.

Pretty much a lot of leftist people in some sense are not aware of the importance of this struggle. And a lot of leftist people see it as a middle-class struggle and this is a symptom of the 90’s because, in the 90s, people were betrayed by the new government after the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević. Everybody was expecting something to happen when we overthrew socialist populism but actually, liberals came and privatized everything. There is a lot of this fear in the leftist scene that NGOs are instrumentalized by Western countries and are taking over the narrative with these environmentalist ideas, Green ideas because here in Europe, there are a lot of Green parties, the German Green party has their affiliations here also. I even know some people in organizations that are running for the campaign and they are directly affiliated with the German Green Party. They claim they are left also, but the German Green Party was in coalition with different far-right groups. In this sense, there is a lot of fear that people who came out will be instrumentalized for the parties again. But in reality, it’s not like that, because a couple of times, even some of those people who are members or leaders of these parties showed up in those protests, and they were boo’d out. So I cannot say that this makes sense.

TFSR: I don’t know how much that theory that the Western EU liberal establishment is trying to control is a product of the ruling party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Aren’t they also saying that the protests are a product of…

Marko: Yes, but those two narratives are compatible. The opinion of some of the leftist people is almost the same as the ruling party’s view. In this sense, it’s problematic. But I think also, that even if there is a narrative like that, even if it’s true that some Green Parties or some Western establishment want to use this protest, we shouldn’t recognize that as their struggle. It is our struggle, and we should fight and take it, not pacify ourselves with this idea.

TFSR: There was another law alongside the Expropriation Law. That was another point of contention that the government seemed to back down on, that concerned popular intercession in the process. Wasn’t there a public mandate?

Marko: That was a referendum. The problem with this Law of Referendum is when this referendum is legal, and when it is not? If there are only 100 people, they can make a referendum, it doesn’t matter if other people are boycotting the referendum. And that is a problem. But the biggest problem is the idea to pass the Appropriation Law. I think this is an introduction to the neoliberal economy.

TFSR: Again, tens of thousands of people in the streets, the government laughed and said, “this isn’t going to happen”. But in fact, Belgrade and tons of other places were shut down for hours at a time. It seems like quite a victory for pushing back the appropriation law, but is Rio Tinto still hovering as an option?

Marko: To make it clear, the blocking of the streets was only two weeks. It was two weeks’ weekends. It was not two months, but before that, there were different protests in the streets. In the end, the government saw it as a danger because they saw their target groups are involved also in this protests, not only, as they thought, the western and liberal citizens but there are also working-class people. And they have the vocabulary of the working class when they are talking to the people. They saw it as a danger because elections are coming in April. They stopped it immediately. There is still potential that something will come up. People aren’t stopping. Some organizations stopped, but still, a lot of people are protesting. We will see what will happen at the end.

TFSR: Fingers crossed.

Could you talk a bit about the work of resisting the far right in Serbia? What sorts of formations are around? And what sort of problems do they make?

Marko: We have a couple of pretty problematic groups. We have a lot of small groups that don’t have big political danger, but they are still dangerous in terms of attracting people. We also have this organization that was running for elections and they now they accepted some new strategies to introduce the far right, like animal liberation, etc. That is something new here in Serbia because it’s a more traditionalist country, which is used to engage in socially accepted struggles, but now these far-right groups introduce Western ideas, because I saw it in the West, here I’ve never seen it before. One of the dangerous groups is Leviathan/ Levijatan, which is an animal protection and a Nazi group that has lots of opportunities to go on state media. They have opened doors to state media and they use it well. They have pretty bad language, they have a mafia style of talking. Some of these groups are connected to the mafia, historically, it was also like that, all Nazi groups were connected with the mafia and with some social struggles. They are introducing this mafia language, which is interesting to some kids, how they talk, how to be tough, which is dangerous in a way. On the other hand, they have an intellectual limitation and they will fall apart pretty soon, even though they have existed for five or six years.

TFSR: Can we stick to that for just a moment? Because it’s interesting, the Leviathan movement is an interesting thing. Being an animal rights organization that is distinctly anti-human immigration? It seems like maybe they have this idea that there’s a Pure Serbia, where humans and animals and plants, it’s like the ecological fascist crossover.

Marko: You can say that. You are right, when you say these groups are anti-immigrant, they’re pretty much active in marching and hunting immigrants around the city. They have an idea of animals, pure race, things like that. They were even going to some minority groups like Roma groups, taking their dogs with a pretext of them not being treated well.

TFSR: Do they participate in the anti-vax movement also?

Marko: The Leviathan group was in coalition with one of the most famous anti-vax parties, but as themselves, they don’t talk too much about it. There are other far-right groups. Leviathan is no longer in this coalition. The grandfather or the leader of the group was a famous internationalist partisan, he participated in the Spanish Civil War. He was a member of the German Communist Party and Yugoslavian Communist Party. He was also a publisher, before World War II he owned bookstores all around Serbia. With the privatization, his grandchild got it all back. All these companies were appropriated by the state and were used for the public good in the socialist era. But after socialism, they had to give it back so this guy has a lot of money.

TFSR: Did he get that big communist publishing money?

Marko: Yeah. [laughs] And he claimed he never saw his grandfather as a communist. He has a very strong stance against communism. The other thing, his family is a very famous Jewish family, and he’s also a Jewish guy who claimed that he’s not Jewish, he was baptized in Orthodox Church, and he changed his beliefs. This is maybe something psychological, which all Nazi people have in common.

TFSR: Thanks for going with that. You were gonna say about other groups that are causing problems?

Marko: Yeah, there is a group called Kormilo Srbija [Serbian Helming], another is Belgrade Nationalists, and Zentropa Srbija [Central Europe, Serbia]. Kormilo started their activism back in 1916, or something. And they are affiliated with Italian Nazi movements, the CasaPound squat. A lot of Italians come to visit them. But in later years, they’re mostly doing some humanitarian work, trying to be socially accepted and introduce their work to young people who want to fight for Kosovo.

TFSR: They’re like autonomous nationalists inspired by Ezra Pound, right?

Marko: Something like that. Zentropa evolved from Kormilo. It’s a new group that has some people from the old group. For example, Gajinovic, these people are pretty much lifestyle, which is also interesting for Serbia, they have introduced a lifestylist nationalist thing, like alt-right. They’re using a lot of ideas from the leftist scene, they even admire Makhno and sometimes Marx. But they’re a far-right group.

TFSR: Are they third positionist, you would say? Like they draw in some of the social elements of those?

Marko: Something like NAM. I don’t know if you have it in the US. I know there was National Anarchist Movement. I think something like that. When I read those ideologists, it was actually the same. It’s something new here and it’s very exciting for the younger population because they have stickers etc. This is also bizarre, most of these stickers are Western, they have like this “Boer Lives Matter”, like South African nationalism. Nobody knows about South Africa, especially in this scene, you know. Even “Kyle Was Right” and so on, about Kyle Rittenhouse.

So, now we’ll talk about the famous far-right guy from the US, Rundo. He also is responsible for getting into the scene. But it’s interesting if we are mentioning Rundo, that he was able to connect all these groups because of his charisma. Some of these groups are totally un-connectable because a lot of pro-Kosovo groups are more into Russian side of imperialism, they even advocate uniting Serbia with Russia. Rundo is coming from the West, he went to Ukraine, participating in joint actions with Azov Battalion, some fight clubs, which is totally opposite. He was fighting a lot of those people from the far right in the front in the war against the Ukrainian people for the Russian side. But he was able to connect them. That was something very interesting. People started to paint graffiti in English, which is unimaginable here because nationalists are generally pro-Cyrillic, anti-Western. It’s unimaginable how he made it.

Also, the guy who brought him here is one of the guys who is also a Western-oriented Nazi who lived in Sweden and the US for a short time. I think he brought Rundo here and they have clothing companies, both of them. They have pretty much their security, their income, and their activism through different clothing companies. But not only that, they introduced these “antiantifa” slogans, not only to right-wing groups but now they are accepted even in some football fan groups. We have two biggest football fan groups in Serbia, which is Partisan and Red Star. Now they have started wearing these T-shirts, which is totally bizarre. I’m telling you about this for you to imagine the impact they have. I cannot say that they made many street actions except graffiti but only the distribution of brands has a big impact.

TFSR: That’s cultural intervention.

Just to say a few words about Rundo. This was the founder of the Rise Above Movement. He was facing federal charges for crossing state lines in the US to engage in violence on the West coast in 2017 in the Battle of Berkeley, as well as in, I don’t know if he was in Anaheim, but a few other spots around Southern California. And those charges had been dismissed in a federal court. But in the meantime, he went into international exile and someone from Bellingcat thinktank had been able to track him down to Belgrade and get him deported to Bosnia beginning of this year, supposedly for three years. But then Bellingcat just did another expose where they said, “Actually, he’s still in Belgrade. We found these videos of him and these promo photos from his clothing line that show graffiti and we can see him working out on his balcony”. The Federal Court has rescinded the dismissal of his case. He now could be extradited to the US to face charges. A bunch of the other Rise Above people are in prison right now for fighting in Charlottesville in 2017. It’s really interesting to hear about how the trash from the US got brought to Serbia and is polluting the scene in Serbia. But also networking the far right in these ways, also the Patriot Front group that just did a march in Washington DC and then I guess got attacked or something. One thing that Rob Rundo does is runs Media2Rise, it’s his media company and they were videographing the march, they do the video for far-right groups like Patriot Front. There’s this really clear international connection.

Marko: He was on the run from all these charges from the US, and then he went to South America. He was active there and in a couple of countries in Europe. I’m sure about Ukraine, and I think Bulgaria. This is something that contradicts the narrative here. We weren’t aware for maybe eight months that he was here. Actually, there was some funny graffiti of his US Nazi group, Rise Above Movement.

So he made some graffiti with their faces. I have a lot of friends from the US who live here. The graffiti has that Rise Above website, so we checked up and we saw something strange and then we saw him, we were not sure who he was. At one moment, we saw an American antiantifa graffiti. An antifa group from Berlin destroyed it and he repainted it the next day and recorded himself. This is something very important for American far-right groups to show that they can do graffiti because graffiti here is not forbidden like in the US. There are no strict laws, you can get some minor offense for that. To me, he seems like a total no-show guy. I cannot talk explicitly about what we all know here about his movements but he is a very funny guy.

Even if he’s here now, I don’t think he can be active anymore. You mentioned at the beginning of this year, he was expelled from Serbia to Bosnia. And now there is new information that he is here. Even if he is here, he can not go out because he is forbidden here. So his activism is not impacting too much. I’m following all these Nazi groups that are active in Serbia. He’s not active. He is active in producing t-shirts, and in the sense is dangerous, he’s bothering a lot of people. After all, he’s a symbol of fascism today, because he’s a very charismatic person that impacts a lot of people, has this closing company, but right now, many more other groups are more dangerous. He’s totally passive. I think he doesn’t know yet that his career is done. The biggest thing he can do is this public showing off, like “I can do this, media follows me, I’m very famous”. Of course, you can do this for some time, but then you have to be really underground if you’re willing to do these kinds of activities. But we’ll see, I cannot predict.

His important role here was that he united these different groups of Belgrade nationalists, which involve four or five different Nazi groups, and they are doing Mladic graffiti, war criminals graffiti. These groups are more dangerous here and have much bigger political potential. Lately, we are concerned much more with those.

TFSR: Well, definitely connecting them up and sharing tools between the groups is a scary proposition for anyone.

Marko: Also, when he was expelled from Serbia for the first time in March this year, all these groups stopped their networking, they’re still active, but not so much as when he was here. They split again, even if they’re together, they’re a much smaller amount of people.

TFSR: The far-right seems to really need one individual to focus on. And when that collapses, their focus on status and having a pinnacle or a leader seems to break down into little groups then competing to be the big dog.

Marko: Exactly. This was a perfect example of it. When Rundo was there, you could see their political potential, their will to act. But after this, you don’t see that. They are doing a lot of stuff, but they are not focused as they were when Rundo was active here.

TFSR: I wonder if you have any insights or want to say some words about the state of the left in the former Yugoslavia, and some challenges that you’ve seen, and what you see as possibilities?

Marko: I wanted to share some knowledge about the context here because Serbia was part of ex-Yugoslav National Federation, and those were socialist countries with an authoritarian leader, but at that period, despite that, the sense of unity and nationalism… There was no nationalism at the time, you couldn’t be nationalist, which is like a big thing today. In terms of equality and equity is was a pretty high standard. But also, under the Titoist regime, people didn’t follow the USSR side, he split and wanted to make his own socialist country, he didn’t believe in a real communist idea in those areas in Serbia and the Balkans because people are not so educated, and they believe it’s easier for people to believe in some imaginary personality icon, than in being organized themselves under communist principles. He understood this. He made it all his own way but the problem is he couldn’t do it alone. So, the US government some Western countries also supported him. There were a lot of problems in terms of how this ideology will survive. In the end, it split because of nationalism, it was not strong. When Tito died, everybody was thinking that maybe Tito was supporting only Serbs or only Croats, and nationalist tensions emerged in this area. People generalize communist ideas and something bad that produced a very bad reputation and it is not an accepted idea anymore. Something that people don’t believe, they were betrayed.

TFSR: That’s like people have difficulty promoting anti-capitalist politics because they get painted with the same brush and Titoist Yugoslavia?

Marko: Yeah. Even if you’re using terms like anti-capitalism, they see something wrong. Then after Tito, you have ex-Yugoslav countries split into two sides, the Western countries and the eastern bloc that are like using an anti-imperialist idea to advocate their own capitalism. And then you have countries that are okay with capitalism, but they promote socialism in some cases, but they’re with these western countries. And then, in Serbia, the biggest problem is that people would rather accept this anti-imperialist agenda of the current politicians because they believe that they are anti-capitalist but actually they are not. They’re capitalists because imperialism is always here, whether it’s Western or not. People are struggling to choose a position, they’re confused. They view politics very polarized, either you’re Western or anti-imperialist. Which is a problem of maturity. They are not politically mature yet.

Then, from the Western side we have too many Western-funded NGOs which gives other people from the Eastern countries a right to say, “we don’t want that”. It makes sense. But in the west-oriented ex-Yugoslavian countries, Croatia and Slovenia, there are some pretty good anarchist organizations, especially in Slovenia, that are active for a long time. They’re doing really well. But, for example, I have a lot of friends in Croatia from the punk scene. I know a lot of people there. And they are pretty much into this like reformist ideas, lifestylism, which is not good enough for the struggle. In Montenegro, it’s very bad. You have an anti-fascist movement, but it’s pretty much national liberation oriented, it’s not oriented to the liberation of the working class. And then Macedonia has some groups that are okay. Mostly, I’m focused on Serbia, so I can talk much more about the Serbian struggle. The biggest issue is that people who are influencing others by social media are much more focused on anti-imperialist struggle, which I think at the moment is not the right way because they’re not oriented against capitalism. Rather, it seems that they protect state capitalism and the status quo as fighters of the anti-imperialist country.

TFSR: Little bullies are still bullies, right? Even if they’re not the big ones.

Marko: Yes, but I think Serbia is not a little bully. Our culture is impacting all other ex-Yugoslavian little states. They view us as a little imperialist state. But this is very hard to say in the leftist scene here. It’s problematic when you say this, you are totally not right because other states are protected by Western countries, imperialist states. But it’s not all black and white.

TFSR: You start where you’re at geographically and because you have a shared history with a lot of people that are in Montenegro, or Slovenia, Croatia, or Bosnia and Herzegovina. There’s a shared past of a period when people had an imagination that we didn’t think about our ethnicity, the particular accent that we had, and the religion that we practiced, we were just all together. And I wonder how things like the Balkan Anarchist Book Fair that was going on for a few years that seemed to move between different places – was that a good project for building more solidarity between different scenes in different places?

Marko: Yes, for sure. I was in pretty much at most of these book fairs. This is something that helps our scene in general. Of course, there are some divisions, and some misunderstandings are always there. But I think is something good to have, although it wasn’t happening last year. When you mentioned Bosnia, I can say that right now it has a pretty strong anti-fascist group that is very important for us, because in World War II, resistance against Nazi occupation started from Bosnia. And it’s also someplace where you have the most diversity in terms of national identity, religion. They have a pretty pure revolutionary line, which is very interesting to see. They were very wounded by these wars. In terms of building a strong movement, they don’t have too much financial support, but there is probably something that we can learn from them. Because I see that they are rising from nothing there and there is a big future in Bosnia, we’ll see.

TFSR: That’s inspiring. Cool, thank you so much. It was really nice to meet you.

Marko: It was very nice to meet you, too.

The Perils of Prison Mail Digitization

The Perils of Prison Mail Digitization

"The Perils of Prison ail Digitalization with Prison Books Collective" showing bird cage broken free & bird escaping, "TFSR 12-12-21"
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Leigh Lassiter from prison books collective in Durham, North Carolina, a nonprofit project that sends zines and books to prisoners in Alabama in North Carolina prisons and jails comes on this week to tell us about recent changes by the NCDPS to use the private company TextBehind to scan all incoming and outgoing mail track, their contents surveil the outside users and mailers, and to make a profit on an already indigent population. We also talk about the work of sending literature, to incarcerated folks privatization and digitization of other services, and what literature gets rejected. More about the press books collective at PrisonBooks.Info or check out their linktr.ee

You can also check out local books to prisoners projects in your area that you could get involved with by visiting PrisonBooks.Org/PrisonBooksNetwork. There’re also a couple of really good articles from The Intercept about this and related surveillance services topics within you as prisons and jails.

Or check out the following resources:

Zine Updates

Just a reminder, a comrade’s been compiling our zines into a catalog, for easy mailing into prisons. You can check out the latest, December 2021 list at the top of https://TFSR.WTF/Zines as a pdf.

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Featured Track:

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Transcription

TFSR: Could you please introduce yourself with whatever name, pronoun, and affiliations you want to share?

Leigh Lassiter: Yeah, my name is Leigh Lassiter. I am fine with any pronouns. I work with Prison Books Collective publishing distribution, based out of Durham and North Carolina. However, I speak on my own behalf as an activist and an individual rather than a representative of Prison Books.

TFSR: Cool. And could you talk a little bit about Prison Books? How long has it been around and what y’all do?

LL: Yeah, we started in 2006. I was not there then. But we have gotten in touch with some of the people who were involved in the original starting of it. It started in someone’s garage. And it has grown, although we’re kind of in the equivalent of a garage still. But as I said, in 2006, it wasn’t recognized as a nonprofit until about a decade later. But we have been able to keep it going. We’ve just been sending books to North Carolina and Alabama, and zines across the country for all that time. We meet every week to answer the letter requests and send packages out to people and talk to each other. It’s not as anarchist as it once was at its roots, more service-based space now, there is a variety of political opinions. But as a group, we still share the vision of alleviating the tremendous cruel pressures of the prison industrial complex on the incarcerated people that we serve, and generally feel that incarceration in this country is done poorly and has overkill. If we weren’t needed, if our mission was served either by prisons or there weren’t prisons to incarcerate people, we would prefer that. But while people are locked up, we get them all the books that we can.

TFSR: And what kind of requests do you get? Is it for technical manuals, dictionaries, religious texts? There’s a lot of religious groups, for instance, that do outreach into prisons and send in materials that tend to have their specific religious bent and view on the world, because they’re missionizing? What does the normal packaging party or packaging event look like for Prison Books?

LL: In regards to what the event looks like, we just pick up the individual letters and start reading for what they request. Sometimes we do get requests for specific books and specific authors that we have in donated stocks. So it’s rare that we can answer someone’s specific request with the exact book that they want. Sometimes it happens, though. We just look around to find something usually, under 2 pounds, two books that we send, print off some zines and staple them. Fill in an invoice, send our information, write a little note, and pack it up neatly and tape it up to be taken to the post office later on.

People request all sorts of books. The most common being a dictionary or legal dictionary, and DIY sort of things and career books are often very frequently requested. A lot of people want to start food trucks or build their own houses, or learn to weld or repair cars, do plumbing and carpentry, that sort of thing. Which is extremely understandable for both jobs inside of prison and outside for whenever they get out. Those, of course, are very hard to find. We often get a lot of requests for coloring books and drawing books, lots of thrillers, biographies, and autobiographies of, particularly, African-American activists. We have everything. So we try to send everything from classics, to how to start your own business, or histories about things, rock stars’ biographies. It’s whatever we can get. As I said, this specificity of requests can vary from “please send me some books” or people misunderstanding our mission and just saying, “I’d like to sign up for your book club, just send me books every month”. Then we have to say, “Oh, you have to write it every time, we have a limit of how many books we can send, but you can request them”. We have some publishers that we dealt with who would occasionally give us a whole box of books that they want to donate for a cause. Usually, because the subject matter has to do with prison or social justice. We’ll try to send those to the people who seem interested. But a lot of it is volunteers trying to read what fits their needs most. Because we can only send so many so quickly to people. And of course, usually prisons only allow them to have so many at a time. So there’s a little bit of art to figuring out how to get them what they want. I believe in the questions you sent over, you also asked what wasn’t allowed, if you want me to talk about that?

TFSR: Yeah, that’d be super helpful.

LL: We mostly send to North Carolina state prisons. And this is true for Alabama prisons, too. However, for the state prisons, anything that can do with tattooing is not allowed. Nudity is not allowed. They say “artful” nudity like Michelangelo or something would be allowed in, but in my experience, any nudity is not allowed, because that line is gray enough that they just err on the side of “No, we’re not going to let that in”. Things that are gang-related or could enable crime in whatever way they interpret are not allowed in. Hardcovers are occasionally allowed in, but it depends on the prison, so we just don’t carry them because trying to keep track of where we can send certain books is just a real time-drain. Spiral-bound books usually aren’t because they could take the spirals out and use them for whatever. Those are the main restrictions, but we still get occasionally weird bannings and rejections very often from jails more so than state prisons. Federal prisons are at the level of state prisons in terms of what they allow. Jails have the worst policies, generally speaking, it’s just sort of determined by the warden in charge there. If you want to talk later about some of the rejections that we’ve gotten over the last couple of years, I can speak to that, because I usually handle the appeals process as it exists.

TFSR: Yeah, I would like to hear about that.

I’d also like to hear though, you’re filling a need. I get a picture that at a certain point, maybe in the 1950s or 60s or 70s, that prisons maybe didn’t always have – it is dependent on the prison – but prisons had a more robust legal library for people to research their cases, or for writing appeals, or more literature, that at some point, education as a part of the “rehabilitation” part of prisons was a bit more funded and a bit more focused. And so a project like yours may be – unless a group had a specific ideological mission of like, “we want to get more Muslim books in the prison, or we don’t want to get more pagan books in the prison” – maybe there wouldn’t be as much of a demand. But that’s changed. And I wonder if you could give a sense, as you understand it, of what prisons libraries look like, and what prisoners’ access to educational resources or reading for pleasure looks like in North Carolina prisons.

LL: I will try to the best of my abilities. I have not seen a prison library, but we hear about them pretty frequently. I should mention that doing the COVID pandemic, which is still ongoing, libraries have often been shut down. We’ve heard that across the state many state prisons have shut down their libraries, or that sometimes they shut down visiting the libraries and then had a cart they took around, but maybe the person who took the cart around died of COVID. And then no one is there to take the cart around. So some people told us we are the only access point for getting new literature right now. So right now it is in a particularly dire state in North Carolina.

However, in general prison libraries, I can’t speak to the 1950s. But given the boom of the incarcerated population, I’m not surprised by the amount of need that is not being addressed by libraries in prisons, particularly legal needs. We get a lot of requests where people are either suing the state or trying to appeal their own case or going through other cases, and they have access to almost no legal help. They can’t communicate effectively or to their satisfaction with their attorneys, if they even have one yet, they don’t understand all the terminology or what they have to do. We have an extremely limited stock, as you might imagine, and paperback up-to-date specific accessible law books are not widely provided and easily accessible by us. We try our best and the number one thing on our wish list is always the intro to criminal law and defending yourself. If anyone looks at the Prison Books wishlist that we have up, but we go through those extremely quickly. People are very poorly informed by the system about their rights and the ways that they can appeal or sue and try to protect themselves. So that’s, unfortunately, something we see a lot of, but that we, as just a small group of volunteers sending books for education, entertainment don’t really have to resources for, and there’s a huge need for legal help within the prisons.

It’s something that you mentioned before that I had forgotten, the religious outreach. I’ll say that we do get not a huge amount of requests for spiritual and religious literature. As you said, there are lots of organizations willing to provide that, and no other kinds of books but literature about that. We do get requests often for religions that do not have as many groups, who are less represented inside of prison, like Rastafarianism, paganism, satanism, that sort of thing. There’s often a pastor inside of a jail or prison, and you’re not going to have that for Rastafarianism or something.

TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about the stuff that that gets rejected? I’ve spoken with other folks that do books to prisoners and hear about books by Franz Fanon, or George Jackson, or Angela Davis getting denied because the content relates to prison and is critical of prisons. What stuff gets kicked back to you and why?

LL: I wanted to add a little bit of perspective on rejections that we had gotten. Firstly, zines, because we send zines all across the country, just as a glimpse into the reasons that institutions all over the country might reject things. One of the most recent rejections that we got was of a literary magazine Words of Fire which has publications of art and literature from incarcerated people across the country. And therefore, we think it’s very important that they also have access to read it all across the country, whether they are authors or might want to be authors. We had a rejection in Connecticut of it, because it was on printed paper and was not considered a real publication. And we’ve been doing several weeks of phone calls and some letter-writing to try to appeal this. Because they are worried that “having anything beyond what looks to be easily printed or copied paper will have inmates calling their families to send them copied paper, or printed paper, straight out of books”. And the mail then will be flooded, and they won’t be able to deal with all of the rejections and appeals of rejections. We’ve had it also rejected before, from Florida when I was trying to get it to an author we’d published because it supposedly contained commercial content, which is incorrect. Because we don’t get paid for any of our services. And they also supposedly continue to quote “disallowed content” with no description of what that would mean. That was in 2019.

Some of the other things that we’ve gotten rejected across the country include the GURPS, the General Universal Role Playing System, which we sent out, it was rejected from Texas for having fighting styles in it, which, by the pages given, was referring to rolling dice for hitting another character or doing damage or having a bomb go off as an example for this role-playing system’s damage. We’ve also had rejections for supposedly promoting insurrection or posing a threat to safety and security for things like The Lectures On Liberation by Angela Davis. Florida is definitely one state where it’s very bad to try to get things in. And we’ve had things like Tai Chi being lumped into martial arts, for example, over this. Some of the other bannings: The Art of War has been consistently requested and consistently banned in North Carolina. It’s not currently on the banned list, but we’ve still had so much trouble sending in the past that we haven’t challenged it this year, because of the number of rejections we’ve gotten over the years in the past. The New Jim Crow was banned but that was overturned in 2018 because it was a national outcry about it. And that being overturned actually got them to redo their system of how they banned books. So they looked at that list again every year, and it actually overturned, a lot of other things being banned. Although you can tell from the banned list, including Twelve Years of Slave and Malcolm X books and things like that, that they have not fully fixed the system, which some might argue shouldn’t exist.

A lot of our rejections, as I said, aren’t bannings, they are actually just blanket blocks that do not care about the content that you are trying to send. For example, we had a jail recently write that we do not accept books on a package, despite having talked to them within a month about them accepting our books, and having word given to us that they did still. Sometimes it just depends on who’s in the mailroom. There was a federal institution in the state that just rejected something and then I called them, I was just told that was probably the other post and “I understand what your packages are, we’ll take them in”. One instance, in particular, it’s really been an odyssey over something like three or four months this summer and the fall was that there was a state institution that was allegedly having issues with drugs being smuggled in in packages. So they cut off all outside packages and then re-approved vendors and distributors like ourselves on a case by case basis. And we had not yet been re-approved, so I called the captain and we had a few discussions. And he said, he went up the chain and got us re-approved after a little less than a month. And then when we sent books to the people who had written to us from there, half of them were rejected, because those inmates, in particular, hadn’t filled out a form and been approved to receive books. So we had to set up a system where every time we got a request, I called them after that person was approved to receive books or not, and sent them. Except for the two packages that we initially got in to people, every time I called the person was not on the approved list. And I asked whether maybe, since they heard from us that we have requested them and they want to receive books, maybe they could get that form to the people that I was calling about, but they told me that’s their initiative and they should know.

So that’s been a pretty frustrating time. I’ve just had a lot of detention centers and jails in particular not consider us to be legitimate or not know what zines are, or give us differing statements about whether we can get things in or not. As I mentioned, Durham jail hasn’t given us issues about us as a publisher but was just blocking books for several months because of the amount of, apparently, extra material that was built up and was a fire hazard in the cell. So there’s a lot of obstacles to face in bannings and rejections that can’t really be predicted and can apparently only be solved by weeks of phone calls. I hope this helps. Thank you.

TFSR: Do facilities ever have an approved book list that’s the inversion of the banned list?

LL: No, I have not seen an approved books list except in the case of one jail that went back and forth on a policy where I was initially told that they were going to have reading tablets and not allowing any books, any books besides the Bible or Quran, but then they said that was incorrect. And they would be allowing in certain books, but only new books, no used books, and also have e-readers. The E-Reader thing is a thing that we are extremely worried about, I say we, in this case, for all Books to Prisons groups across the country, because that is an approved list of books, that is what that is functionally because they have a catalog of books that they said, “No, these are okay for them to read. And they will pay per minute to use these expensive, breakable e-readers and not have access to any other literature”. So you can imagine people looking for specific legal help or niche interests, for example, someone looking for Rastafarianism, there’s probably not going to be a book about that listed inside of this e-tablet that they also have to pay to use.

So that’s very concerning to us because usually, in the case of prisons, digitization and technological advancements, which can look like progress in the outside world, is not progress inside of the prison. For example, changing from having in-person visitation to having a digital video visitation is not an improvement. Changing from having books sent in for free, that you can request on any topic, and having that be disallowed in favor of e-readers, is not an improvement. Or as we’ll talk about in a second, having your letters be scanned and reprinted is not an improvement of what we’re seeing with the letter. So a lot of times people will think, “Oh, things are going more digital, they’re going more virtual and online, this is advancement, this is progress.” And in the case of prisons, it isn’t.

TFSR: Yeah, and each of these steps basically shifts the whatever it be: the medical treatment, or the books, or the mail, or the phone calls, or the commissary, it shifts them into monopolies by specific corporations, that are prison industry corporations, that not only are they siphoning money out of the prisoners and of whatever supporters they have on the outside… In North Carolina, they changed the law about three years ago where people can only get money added, at least on their Jpay accounts, for spending inside of prison, they can only have people on their visiting list. Therefore people who have not, for instance, been convicted in some cases of felonies in the past. A bunch of limitations. Anyway, back on topic, as you say, you and I got in touch to talk about the changes to the North Carolina prison system that we’re snuck in a couple of months ago, we got a letter from a prisoner in the middle of the state, just sort of being like “Heads up. I can’t hear your radio but I have heard of your project and this change is coming”. Can you talk a little bit more about the privatization and digitization of prison mail in North Carolina and how it’ll affect prisoners’ communication with loved ones on the outside?

LL: Yes. On October 18, North Carolina state prisons switched for all personal mail – that’s letters, photos, and art and cards – they switched to having those be sent to the people who intended for incarcerated in state prisons, to having to send them to Maryland to be scanned by a company called TextBehind and then have copies reprinted by the prisons and redelivered. The announcement of this was subtle, I only found it because that was on the state prisons homepage looking for something else and notice the little pop-up that said: “Mail policy changing on October 18” and I happened to click on it. Otherwise, we would not have known. I should admit this doesn’t affect prison books operations so far. Although we are worried about the possible ban on physical books being sent in. Now it affects the loved ones of incarcerated people who are trying to communicate to them.

TextBehind is not alone in this. There are a couple of companies who are trying to exploit this very captive market of people who are trying to sustain relationships across the miles and across the bars and charging their money to either get their physical letters back if they send physical mail hundreds of miles away because otherwise, they’ll just be shredded. So you have to pay to get that back. Or if you want to do it easier, of course, they have an app. For using their app on TextBehind, letters are 99 cents, you can add photos to 25 cents each, greeting cards are 99 cents, and Doodle for kids. So you can draw on your computer and send that at 99 cents. And that’s only for partner facilities, it’s more expensive if the facility is not partnered with them. And you may not think that sounds like a lot but if you are trying to keep up a relationship with someone or start a relationship with someone inside, then 99 cents a letter, 99 cents a card, 25 cents for a photo – that’s very expensive. If you are sending physical mail, it’s a flat rate to get it back, I believe at around $3 or higher to get that sent back to you. So this could add up really quickly, even if you just sent one letter a week or a couple of letters a month or something like that. People don’t really have a choice in the matter if they want something that feels personal to be sent behind bars. And we just find this immensely worrying and honestly also unjustified. Because there’s really almost no data provided for why this switch is being made. But we can talk about that in a second with drug policies.

As a prison book volunteer, I have received countless letters telling us how important it is to have a lifeline to the outside where they can hold on to that letter that someone else wrote and see the signature and look at this and say it someone out there wrote this for me and intended it for me. Not to mention if it’s a kid’s drawing or something like that, it’s going to mean so much more if you’re holding the crayon drawing that your son or your daughter, your child drew for you. And it’s one of the things that sort of keep them sane in there. If correctional facilities, as they’re titled, were truly invested in making people more connected to humanity, kinder and more willing to invest in society, they would absolutely not be supporting this cut off from the people who are trying to keep relationships going across the bars, because it’s incredibly dehumanizing. Not to mention probably riddled with errors. Wisconsin also just announced that they are using TextBehind as of December 1. They put in their announcement that they’ve experimented a lot with TextBehind and there have been errors, they admitted cut-off letters where you can’t read the whole thing.

I know from my own experience of keeping records in prison books, that a lot of things don’t scan so great if someone wrote in blue pen, or on white paper with pencil, it just doesn’t scan correctly. The number of letters that TextBehind must be handling, I don’t think that it’s going to be 100% accuracy rate, which looks fine on their numbers, but for the person who gets a messed up, cut off or barely scanned letter or drawing, it’s going to be devastating because that matters so much. The people who wait for the mail, there’s a huge emotional investment in it. And it’s just really saddening to think about that being taken away from them. Not surprising, but extremely saddening. And unfortunately, it looks like North Carolina is going to be continuing that policy for the foreseeable future, despite so many people protesting it.

TFSR: TextBehind is a new project to me, but for the last few years, I’ve noticed that Pennsylvania prisons use a company in Florida called Smart Communications to scan and email their letters to print on-site at the facility. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, according to an article recently by Lauren Gill of The Intercept, appears to be moving forward from just scanning mail in-house to having a company called Mailed Guard do the same service for them. We’ve already mentioned this trend generally in the proliferation of private companies that are profiting from incarceration. This seems to be a rather frightening and growing pattern to capture that data and increase the costs.

LL: Smart communications is another one. And I just want to mention that the Pennsylvania ban initially also banned physical books, but there were enough protests that they changed that. So it’s only mail right now. And so there was some worry from Books to Prisoners groups that the ban on mail is going to continue to try to ban books as well.

TFSR: That’s quite frightening. I have to admit that I’m not very knowledgeable about drugs in prisons. I’ve heard that you can get many things if you have money and resources inside of prisons, especially depending on what state you’re in. But most ellicit items I’ve heard about prisoners getting a hold of have come through corrupt guards and other staff as they shore up their personal accounts because they don’t get as much scrutiny as generally incoming mail or visitors and loved ones who are coming in. When PA started using Smart Communications, it was after mail staff, screws on the inside, basically, were supposedly dosed by letters containing the drug K2 in the paper. But then again, this other Intercept article about the privatization of prison mail references talking to a director of toxicology at a major medical institution in Pennsylvania. And that person saying basically, you can’t get high off of that, it’s not like Angel Dust where it’s going to just go into your skin by touching it, you have to increase the temperature, and you have to inhale smoke, basically, for that K2 to get into your system. So it seems like an unrealistic expectation that was a major source of drugs coming in.

LL: Yes. North Carolina, in their announcement about TextBehind included a couple of sentences saying “the new mail process will also prevent drugs from entering the prisons in the form of paper coated in Fentanyl, K2, Suboxone or other dangerous drugs, these are harmful to breathe or even touch. This is something you would expect to have a citation. It doesn’t. The only spot of data that is mentioned in the announcement of this switch to TextBehind is the sentence “In the year following use of TextBehind in North Carolina’s four women’s facilities infractions for drug use, and possession dropped by 50%. Now, 50% is a pretty round and impressive number but there’s a lot of missing context here. They say the number of infractions for drug use and possession dropped. They don’t mention actual numbers, for example. This was also taking place during the pandemic for most of that year. Because most of that was 2020, so the number of people in prisons across North Carolina went down by a lot, you might think that would potentially affect the numbers of infractions, not to mention the staff being able to investigate that sort of thing. And they also did not provide any numbers for cases of drugs causing any hazards to the people inspecting the mail. There was no citation for that. And as you said, there’s been medical pushback from people saying that K2 and Fentanyl don’t come into the skin. I looked this up a little before the interview, and the American College of Medical Toxicology and American Academy of Clinical Toxicology agreed in a 2017 statement that you can’t inhale and get high from Fentanyl without really high, really long exposure to it, and that you can’t just absorb it through small unintentional skin exposure, it would not affect people. So I am almost impressed by the boldness of NCDPS just stating that flat out as a reason without citations in the announcement.

We have a Freedom of Information request that is making its way through the bureaucracy right now in trying to get any information about the hazards to people in the mail-room and how many drugs have come in through the mail. But, like you, I am skeptical about that being the way that most drugs make their way in. Texas saw a ban on mail for the same reasons, but their drug infractions didn’t go down because, as it turned out, they were mostly coming in through guards still. Some people say there’s a connection between that and guards having lower pay and they can make a lot on the side by carrying in drugs. When I went to a prison in person and got the tour when I was in college, I was told by a Captain that they mostly have to be careful about the guards bringing in contraband, that was just stated outright to the group. So this policy seems to be not only dehumanizing, but also not based on fact, and to make this huge of a change, there’s a burden of proof that they should make. But this wasn’t a law. This was simply a new departmental policy. People started commenting on our social media posts, when they put this out, like let’s call the lawmakers or something, but this was just something that was handed down and decided. The fact that privatizing prisons and prison services is just getting more and more popular, is very concerning to me. Because they can’t negotiate. And also the poverty of incarcerated people and their loved ones on the outside is statistically much higher than the general population. So they don’t really have alternatives other than to go to these services.

That’s my thoughts on that, but there are plenty of things to read about, particularly, the drug claims, investigating whether Fentanyl can actually give you an overdose just from touching it, or where drugs come through. There are lots you can read online, I suggest at least starting with the Prison Policy Initiative because they’re a good resource to keep track of the different policies going on around the country and their factual bases.

TFSR: That’s super helpful. Thank you. I do have another question about the implications of the privatization and tracking of mail coming in and out. But you did mention that when people started commenting on your social media page saying, “Hey, call politicians chant, challenge it,” the NCDPS is a part of the executive branch. So I guess you could put pressure on the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, but how do you suggest that people try to apply pressure, whether they’re in North Carolina or in any of these other states that are being affected by similar policies and some of the same corporations across the country?

LL: Well, we haven’t had success yet, it is my addendum. But I would find at least one phone number, one email, and one physical address to call or to write to to express your opinion, I’ve usually heard that phone calls are the best political weapon out of those three. But I know from personal experience that trying to get through the phone trees and the various extensions you have to press and voicemails you have to leave can be extremely confusing. So an email or a letter could also work.

Prison Books is not as an organization calling for people to do this push because we have to keep our services separate from this. However, I can say as an activist, that I would love it if people started writing to, for example, the Commissioner of Prisons, Todd Ishee, who is quoted in a lot of articles about the digitization policy change, to express your opinion, or writing to the general NCDPS mailbox, the address of which is at the bottom of every page of the NCDPS website, in Raleigh. What you basically want to do is make it obvious that it’s a lie to say people don’t care about this or that this is fine, this doesn’t affect people. You want to get the voices that are shouting out individually to be able to unify and be heard together. And we’re still working on that. But anyone who wants to be involved in the Free the Mail movement that has started forming between Wisconsin and North Carolina activists, because we’re both being affected by TextBehind in these most recent months, then they should, first of all, start looking through the hashtag of #FreeTheMail, and second of all, potentially email just to get the information where to go prisonbooks@gmail.com. Prison Books is not organizing this, but has information of people that you can get connected with to try to organize something against this,

TFSR: I have to say that a hashtag is confusing and also very catchy, since a lot of us use the #FreeThemAll. And those two look very similar.

LL: Yeah, I would suggest even for screen readers, you should be capitalizing letters for hashtags because otherwise, it’s gonna be a jumble of letters. It does look like that, but I looked it up on Twitter to do a little research about it, it was used for the Pennsylvania issue as well. There were some ideas thrown around of “don’t jail the mail”, but it’s prisons, not jails, that’s incorrect. Hashtags are going to leave some meanings out, unfortunately.

TFSR: We’ve been talking about the limitations that people on the inside experience with their mail getting scanned and sent to them and not being able to physically touch a picture that your child or that your sibling or whatever drew, getting an actual picture, these sorts of things, very sentimental, very charged with emotional energy and feeling, smelling a piece of paper that someone else has touched… Prisons are all about cutting people off from the outside and making money off of them.

The other side of this, as you say, the majority of people that are inside of prisons, or that are inside of a part of the carceral system, tend to be poor. And whether that’s because of survival crime, or because people have less access to lawyers or bail to be able to get themselves out, to be able to make a better argument to avoid charges, or because police tend to hang out in poor people’s neighborhoods – all sorts of reasons. And these industries, like Smart Communications or TextBehind are literally siphoning money out of poor people’s families when they’re trying to keep those connections.

And surveillance inside of prison, the panopticon idea, that’s a pretty common idea. But when you download an app on your phone that you’re paying for, and there’s the chance in this Lauren Gill article on the Federal Bureau of Prisons talking about them switching over to this privatized scanning and emailing of letters, talks about the amount of metadata that gets also put into the database of that private corporations so that they can market more stuff or sell that information if they want to to another third party that provides other “services to prisoners”, or that information is also available to the BOP or to whatever prison administration there is for tracking and surveilling the person on the outside that’s keeping track. Suddenly, there’s a permanent digital copy of this letter that somebody wrote to someone that could be used in some case in the future or to build a case or something like that. Can you talk a bit about the concerns of surveillance when people aren’t even necessarily committing crimes, but just trying to stay in communication with friends behind bars?

LL: Well, I think the article writers are probably more informed about that than I am, but I do know that TextBehind on their Services page does advertise a variety of their investigative tools and that includes communications, monitoring and looking for gang connections, and they keep the records. Not just the pictures, but the scanned text and the addresses and names of those who sent mail in their system for years, to possibly give away to other prison systems, the federal system, things like that. Yeah, they are using the people that they already have under their thumb and can watch with this panopticon set up to extend surveillance outside and try to make connections and look for patterns in a way that they probably think is very efficient, but which is frightening to any of us who are concerned about our right to privacy. But because it’s a human connection to people who are incarcerated being held hostage, people are going to have to make the choice about do I want to be able to talk to this person or do I not want to be put on a list of possible contacts to a third or fourth party to something that they think exists within the prison system. Having to choose between those two, that’s our choice that should exist, that should not be something that writing a letter to someone starts for you. That’s very concerning.

I’m always concerned about the privacy of people incarcerated as well. But I think a lot of people maybe aren’t aware of this extension of surveillance to those who were just in contact with and care about the people who are incarcerated. As you mentioned, Jpay’s changes, now you can’t send money unless you’re in the visitation approval. That requires getting approved, but also giving them information about you. This data harvesting and surveillance is really getting hooked on people on the outside as well.

TFSR: Well, is there anything that I didn’t ask about that you want to mention, or that you want to broach as a subject, Leigh?

LL: I would like to mention, for people who are looking for what they can do, that jails are often where a lot of bad policies will be implemented first because they have far less oversight. They are county institutions, so they don’t even have the state looking out at them. So if you’re concerned about privacy, education, cruel and unusual punishment, pay attention to a local jail, the sheriff, the warden, their policies, and if they make changes like “no one can send books here anymore,” or a lot of jails in North Carolina now have to send your letters to Texas to get scanned, call them, and deluge them because they have even fewer resources to dedicate to supporting what I suspect to be a lie of the danger that letters and books pose. In your elections, vote for a sheriff who has concern to incarcerated people, if that’s possible. And keep an eye on your local jail. And then also keep an eye on state policies. But if you want to start somewhere local, that’s where to start.

TFSR: And if you’re not much of a voter, you can still apply pressure during the period when there’s more scrutiny on what sheriff is running for office. Or if they’re working with ICE are just a couple of the potential…

LL: Yeah, that’s a big one. Everyone who’s closer is easier to reach. Make some noise when you can, when these policies get implemented near you.

TFSR: In my understanding, a lot of the Books to Prisoners projects are pretty independent and they keep in touch with each other and share news and resources from time to time. The project that you’re involved with covers North Carolina and Alabama, the prison books here actually, I can’t even speak to what APBP covers… But for the most part, don’t cover national stuff. And they pass off things in other states to people that are closer to them. Tranzmission Prison Project covers a lot of the US but mostly is in the southeast, as I understand. How can people find a prison books project where they’re at if they want to start getting involved in this sort of way?

LL: People can find local Books to Prisoners groups by looking at https://prisonbookprogram.org/prisonbooknetwork/ and searching for their state. If there isn’t one serving their state, then perhaps they can start their own. It’s not that difficult. Contacting really any of those listed on the directory will get you some advice on how to start up. Luckily, books are something that a lot of people want to donate. It takes not as much effort as you might think, I would say particularly X Books in Georgia started up about a year ago and have been doing very well and probably have a lot of advice for newcomers. For supporting us and particularly for Prison Books Collective, I have to say probably what a lot of nonprofits say, which is that money is our first need. Postage, in particular, is what costs us money, sending those packages out and every year the rate goes up. So if you have money to donate, donate it. If you don’t have money, then give us your time, if you can. We just started accepting volunteers again, as long as everyone is vaccinated and masked and we are still limiting the number of people that can come in.

And if you can’t do either of those, there’s probably online work that you could do if you got involved, whether it’s social media, applying for grants, reaching out to bookstores for partnership, helping with email. There is a lot of activism that you can do remotely, that isn’t just discourse on Twitter, necessarily, but actively working behind an organization to help them enhance their capabilities and do reaching out and things like that for them. Of course, we also take books for Prison Books Collective. You can email us if you have books to donate. However, I have to say we’re doing pretty well in terms of books right now. And we have most genres pretty well stocked. But as usual, law and DIY stuff is always in demand. If you have any books on homesteading, farming, fishing, or trying to appeal your case in court, then send them our way. We have a PO Box:

Prison Books
PO Box 625
Carrboro, NC 27510

You’re welcome to reach out to us on our Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, or through our email prisonbooks@gmail.com to ask us for more things you can do. A lot of people have come in with new ideas that have been very exciting to us. We hope that people can engage remotely or in person again, because we are an organization that works as a collective and we’re only as strong as the collective is. So we’re excited to have new people join us. And of course, I personally would advocate for everyone to just keep their ears and eyes to the news and look for a variety of news sources, not just the mainstream news sources about what’s going on, and to advocate for the destruction of the prison industrial complex as we know it. Thank you.

The Case of Daniel Baker: Online Speech and Community Defense

The Case of Daniel Baker: Online Speech and Community Defense

Painting of Daniel Baker with a scarf
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On January 15th, 2021, two men received a knock on the door of their Tallahassee apartment from someone claiming to be delivering a Postmate parcel. The two hadn’t ordered anything and raised suspicion that someone was trying to break in and rob their home so they said they didn’t order anything and refused to open the door. Moments later, their door crashed open and a percussive grenade ignited as FBI swarmed in with guns drawn, yelling.

This was the arrest of US military veteran, YPG volunteer medic and instructor of yoga and jujitsu Daniel Baker on charges of inciting violence at Florida’s state capital. This may sound like a familiar story of government arrests across the country since the January 6th far right riot to stop the counting of votes that Trump supporters and avowed white nationalists engaged. The difference lies in the fact that Dan Baker wasn’t calling for the storming of anything. The FBI alleges that he made posts online calling for people to resist an attempted coup that elements of the far right had been promoting since the failed acts of January 6th in DC, where armed putschists would take State capitals and public officials hostage. So, why did the FBI targetting Mr Baker? Why has he not been allowed private meetings with a lawyer since his detention? Why was he kept in solitary since his pre-trial time at the Federal Correction Institution at Tallahassee begun?

On October 12th, 2021, Dan Baker was sentenced to 44 months in Federal Prison for “interstate communication of threats” for his facebook posts and his militant anti-fascism, including his time fighting Daesh or ISIS in Rojava. His defense is appealing the ruling, otherwise he’s expected to be released at the soonest in March of 2024.

For the hour, we’re sharing our March 7th, 2021 conversation with Jack and Eric. Both are anti-racist activists, students of Daniel’s yoga and jujitsu instruction and Eric was the roommate that was present at the time of the home invasion by the FBI. You can find links to articles about the case in the show notes at our website and in this podcast and more information on Daniel’s case is at the instagram account, @FreeDanBaker, you can contact support at DanBakerDonations@gmail.com, donate to his support on paypal with that email and find his amazon wishlist on the instagram.

You can write to Dan Baker at:
Daniel Alan Baker #25765-509
FCI Memphis
FEDERAL CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION
P.O, BOX 34550
MEMPHIS, TN 38184

Some media coverage of Dan’s case:

Other related reading:

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Transcription

TFSR: Would you all please introduce yourselves with whatever names pronouns or affiliations that make sense for this chat?

Eric: My name is Eric, he/him. I’m a visual artist, and I was Dan’s roommate at the time of his arrest. We had traveled together for a while.

Jack: My name is Jack, I use they/them pronouns. I am studying biomathematics and computational science, and I’m an activist and organizer in the Tallahassee Community.

TFSR: And are y’all on the support crew for Daniel?

Jack: I’d say we’re probably the two main folks on the support group. We were all training jujitsu together at the time of Dan’s arrest, jujitsu and yoga.

Eric: Yeah, we just started a workout group thing that they’re trying to criminalize him for. They came after a yoga teacher.

TFSR: Would you all give listeners a thumbnail sketch of who Daniel is, and your relationships or how him?

Eric: We crossed paths a few times over the years. I think the first time we actually met was around 2013, we had crossed paths in the Krishna Temple in Chicago while I was traveling around, he had just come from a Rainbow Gathering. And he was traveling, visiting some different temples on the way back to the East Coast. We only met for a couple of days. And then we had reconnected on Facebook years later, after he had returned from Syria. I didn’t even recognize him at first. But I reached out to him because I wanted to learn more about his experience, I had already been studying some related Political Science type stuff and I wanted to try to get more insight into what his experience was like. He had also had some training that would be very valuable for all the different protests that were going on. So every once in a while, I’d kick down and send a donation here and there when I could to keep him going. And then eventually, we just decided to take a road trip.

I guess we connected online, maybe a couple of years ago, late 2018, early 2019. We had known each other for about a year just online, we traveled together. He had just been in Tallahassee for maybe five or six months when he was arrested. He had some roots in the community here. We were trying to make friends and network with local activist circles, and participate in the best way we could. Dan had gone through the Combat Lifesaver training with the army and had applied it during his time in Syria, so he was very valuable as a street medic. I’d just been traveling around painting on and off full-time for years, so we both would just fly signs sometimes and do a pop-up exhibition. I would live paint, we saved up to get a room. We were camping for a while. We got off the street and got a small apartment. We’re able to save up and put him through a BMR course. He knew all the material pretty much but he just needed the certification to be able to work in that field. So we were on the way to getting him reestablished here and then dudes kicked our door…

Jack: First they said they were the Postmates Delivery Service. The FBI knocked on the door and then said, “Postmates Delivery”. And then Dan was “We didn’t order Postmates” and shut the door. They kicked down the door, threw in a flashbang, and then said, “FBI”. Obviously, you have Dan and Eric sharing it separately, Dan had a very difficult time being able to communicate with anyone. But I think that the FBI wasn’t expecting the blind landlady who’s 80 years old and was in the room next door to corroborate the story. And so once that came out, she was in the room next door and heard them announce themselves as the Postmates delivery, and was able to independently verify that this happened. And they haven’t responded to that. They didn’t even deny it when it came up in the public hearing. The FBI agent went first and then said, “We announced ourselves and they resisted arrest”. And then Eric was up and he was “They didn’t announce themselves. They said they were the Postmates delivery service”. If you get a knock on the door, and it’s a delivery and you know you didn’t order something I don’t think anybody wants to answer that door. And I think everybody thinks they might think that they might be getting robbed.

Eric: As I said, we were trying to start a workout group, we had been traveling and I was trying to pick up some first aid stuff from him. He had also done some training in jujitsu, he had competed a decent amount, he had some gold medals, I think he’s about purple-belt level, he was upper-intermediate. And he was just helping me pick up some of the basics. We’re going to the Ashtanga Yoga primary series for the yoga teacher training. He had the first certification in that. He was working on building up his second certification. And I was going through getting my first. So we started inviting some other people out, and getting some more folks involved, because I would never be able to afford to learn all that stuff without somebody who’s giving that access. So I just really wanted to help him make that available to the community here. Jack was one of the first people who was coming regularly to the groups we were doing and I guess it was helping them move past some recent difficulties.

Jack: When I started training jujitsu and yoga, I have just gotten out of an abusive relationship. Training with Dan and Eric was actually a really healing practice for me. Dan and Eric created a safe space, which sometimes, as a non-binary person, can be really difficult, especially with cisgender white males, but they were both really, really, really compassionate and understanding. Dan and Eric are both really strong feminists. And I just really appreciated how comfortable they made me and how supportive they were while I was going through this process. So that was just really fundamental for me to move past this relationship and the pain that I had gone through. I feel like I owe Dan so much because he was just somebody who is very understanding,

TFSR: There are a few things that I’m noting, in addition to the descriptions of you both talking about how Dan’s been someone who works to create space, who works to build skills in order to share them, those sound like some pretty fundamental parts of who he is, as a person. People would join the military for a lot of different reasons, in part, maybe because they want to further a career, get out of a bad situation, maybe some more nefarious perspectives that people can have sometimes joined the military, but to train up to be effectively a combat medic, or a medic in what could be deadly situations, is a great skill set, and then going on to continue to apply that by volunteering, to participate in the struggle against ISIS is another show that someone is applying this life-saving tool. And the fact that Dan was bringing it back and bringing it into these dangerous protest situations that the far-right and the police create more and more so as time goes on in the US, seems to say a lot about Dan’s character.

Eric: Yeah, at least from what I understand, whenever people come back from Rojava, often they’re briefed at the airport. And a lot of times, they’re just discouraged from getting involved in politics or activism or anything like that. But Dan was very committed to his beliefs and to social justice. And he is one of those rare individuals who are willing to go to prison or put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of protecting others. And I think that’s a fundamental part of his character.

TFSR: And so you all were finding some stability at the time when this raid happened. I mean, being housing unstable is not, sadly, a unique situation these days, but especially during the pandemic is a very difficult time, that must have been very emotionally, impactful, and frightening to have somebody bust through the door and throw a flashbang and suddenly hear FBI with guns drawn out of nowhere. That’s a traumatic experience.

Eric: Yeah, it’s was the last way I was expecting this trip to turn out, although we had a feeling something like this could happen because we had also been previously stuffed by the FBI in Seattle during the time we were there. They had just rolled up to us in a parking lot after this one shooting had happened to question us about things that they had seen online. He just told them that he had already made his public commentary on Twitter. And that was basically all he had to say about it. So they let us continue on. As far as I know, they’ve been observing him for as long as I can remember, I think he got back in like 2018. He said they’ve been pretty much observing him and I’ve seen him post about being stopped a few times already. So it seems like he’s been under regular surveillance for a long time.

TFSR: And y’all were up in Seattle, where he was doing medic work around the autonomous zone period, right? There were a few shootings I know of that it seems to make sense that he would be around when there’s some violence showing up, running towards the trouble in order to mitigate the harm that’s been caused, to help save lives.

Eric: Yeah, I had been stranded out of state when COVID happened and quarantine started, I was homeless at the time, I was staying in a shelter, and I just ended up getting some seasonal work, and then got the stimulus. I sold some paintings also. I was able to get this car. And we had both been following the Unicorn Riot and talking about how we wish we could be there and support. And once we got the ability to do so it made sense to just take a trip.

TFSR: What were the reasons that the FBI immediately gave for the arrest, if they gave any? What has the federal prosecution sent to the US attorney or whoever it is that’s conducting prosecution? What arguments are they giving as to why they thought it was necessary to bust into the apartment and arrest him?

Eric: I’m not even really sure about the justification for breaking in. The justification they’re using for the entire case is just them seeing some Facebook posts and some flyer going around. Apparently, he was indicted on two separate charges. But his public defender is saying that they generally only rule as one charge, if even that, so hopefully, it won’t be as bad as a maximum sentence.

TFSR: So the posts that appear to be the main source of the FBI’s argument were related to after January 6, after the right-wing riot that occurred at the National Capitol in DC. The far-right was claiming that it was calling for people to have similar actions taking over space, damaging property, threatening people at state capitols around the country. Is it correct to say that the posts that you’re talking about are one saying “We as community members need to show up and resist the violence of the far-right and what violence they might bring into our communities while they’re doing that”? Was that the nature of the posts on social media?

Eric: Yeah, allegedly it was a reaction to the situation. It’s not like he was taking some initiative to instigate or harass anybody or anything, it was due to these pressing events and these threads coming up, which a lot of us had been expecting for a long time, at least on some level. We were anticipating that we might not see a very peaceful transition of power. And especially after what we had seen in DC, it was reasonable to assume that something similar could happen at the state capitol as well, especially that the FBI themselves were circulating warnings about what could happen.

TFSR: I think there’s a fundamental difference between somebody going to another place, going to DC, for instance, to protest or to counter-protest, as opposed to saying, “Hey, there’s a very strong danger that militia or some other group or proud boys or whatever are going to be coming to our hometown and bringing some of the same violence that you’re seeing in this other place”. Just to go back, if Daniel is the person who will run towards danger, because he has built the skills and because he’s courageous enough to put himself on the line in order to act as a line of defense as well as to help people who are in harm’s way, it seems a little illogical that the FBI is making a point of attempting to prosecute this individual who was trying to mitigate harm.

Eric: The instinct is you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe it is just a mistake or something. But I guess by now, there are so many of these cases.

Jack: I don’t necessarily hold the FBI in the highest faith. But then even just the whole thing where they pretended they were the Postmates delivery. What is the rationale for that, what did they gain by pretending they were the Postmates delivery service? One of the criminal complaints against Dan was that he said he was getting funded by George Soros. That he had an Antifa card from George Soros. Then they use that to try to prove that he’s this international “terrorist”. During the public hearing, the public defender asked the FBI agent, “Do you know who George Soros is”? And the FBI agent said, “No”. I laughed really hard, because what the fuck? I was even told to not laugh. And then the public defender said, “Do you really think Dan was getting funded by George Soros”? And then the FBI agent said, “Well, since I don’t know who that is, I’m not sure”. Either he’s really stupid and doesn’t know who George Soros is, or he is really bad at his job and doesn’t know who George Soros is and isn’t aware of the QAnon conspiracy that right-wing extremists ascribe to, or he was lying and playing dumb. Either of these options is not good, for why he doesn’t know who George Soros is. It’s like saying I don’t know who Bill Gates is.

TFSR: Yeah, it’s been coming out more and more, especially in the last few years, but this year, in particular, with BlueLeaks, the amount of information that’s being pumped into the intelligence infrastructure of the US from these fusion centers, that pulls in a lot of conspiracy theories, whether it be about Antifa lighting fires in the Pacific Northwest, or just similar things to that, that the FBI agents didn’t even necessarily need to know who George Soros is, although it does say a lot about their disconnection from popular culture and conspiracy theories. But it’s not surprising if there was pumping in of far-right conspiracy thinking and disinformation to the local FBI chapter. And then they decided to act out of that.

As you say, there’s a history of the FBI attacking anti-racist movements, particularly focusing on Black and brown activists, but also disrupting and incarcerating tons of activists who act in solidarity against white supremacy and against anti-Blackness. This administration has made a point of – as I said, it was during the last administration anyway – but they had the whole statement about the events in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017. I think that, especially after they had conducted extrajudicial killings of anti-fascist activists, if they were going to be going after and arresting people on the far-right who had participated in January 6, they probably had to pick up some people who would have been “opposition” to show that they’re not some deep-state, leftist Campbell Soup, whatever conspiracy group.

Jack: Yeah, DemocracyNow! had a really good interview with Benjamin Crump. And then they were talking about the new information that’s come up with Malcolm X, and he was saying that they’re now calling Black Lives Matter protesters “Black Identity Extremists”. Have you heard about that new terminology that’s being thrown around for arresting Black Lives Matter protesters?

TFSR: Yeah, they’ve been introducing that more and more since the Ferguson uprising. It makes sense for this not to come up in that conversation that Benjamin Crump was engaging, but they’ve also been using the term “anti-government extremists” to be able to lump in anarchist, anti-fascists & Black Liberation activists alongside white nationalists and Nazis. As opposed to focusing on white supremacists, they say, “Oh, well, the problem is not about the specific ideology. It’s about extremism, that’s extra-parliamentary where they’re going to go and do actions in the streets or attack people or whatever. We’re in a ‘post-racial society’. So we can say that, well, these people are extremists about whiteness. And these people are extremists about Blackness” as opposed to the centrist ideology that the US government is supposed to uphold. So yeah, Black identity extremists are being put on members of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club or the Not Fucking Around Crew or the Black Women’s Defense League as armed groups for Black liberation. I disagree with the politics at least one of them does, but they have some sketchy views in terms of antisemitism, but this flattening of any opposition as being a threat to the Democrat and Republican parties basically. Sorry, that was ranty. I didn’t mean.

Jack: No, no, no.

Eric: If they can just pile up a whole bunch of Facebook posts and make the case out of that, that’s bad news for everybody.

TFSR: Yeah, absolutely.

Jack: Some of the things in the FBI complaint literally made no sense. In the criminal complaint, they had that Dan had posted YouTube videos showing basic first aid. And we were just “Why is this in the criminal complaint?”. This is not illegal, this is not harmful. This is literally Dan trying to educate people on how to help each other, how to literally heal each other. That was bizarre. There were other things too, in the public hearing, they were trying to “prove” that Dan was a flight risk. And they pulled up Eric’s Facebook and found a status where he said, “Things aren’t looking great in the country, really want to get the fuck out”. And that was back in August. And then they were “They have plans”. And then our public defender was like “When Reagan was president, I said I wanted to get out of this country”. To pull up a post from four months ago, and then have somebody that says, “I want to GTFO [get the fuck out] from this country” and then say, “That’s proof of plans of a flight risk” is just… The number of people who said they wanted to go to Canada, now they’re all flight risks. It’s really grasping at straws at that point.

TFSR: I was gonna try to make some joke about how far of a stretch that was in yoga, but I couldn’t.

Jack: It was so appreciated either way. There’s so much about it. We’re aware that Dan is a white male. So he is somebody who wants to defend Black lives. And he essentially wants to use his privilege to defend Black lives. He’s the type of person to run towards the sound of gunshots, he is the type of person who wants to use his white privilege to protect Black and brown lives from white supremacists. I want to say that just because we’ve been drawing a lot of parallels between the Black Panther movement, Huey P. Newton and a lot of the examples that we’ve been giving describe the FBI involvement has been with Black leaders, Black civil rights leaders. Obviously, Dan is not Black, and it’s still very nuanced and different. But I think that the criminalization of leftist ideology, in general, is still a common thread for all of these movements.

Eric: One of the things that terrify them the most is these types of Rainbow-Coalition- style initiatives that grasp the attention of people from a vast spectrum of backgrounds.

TFSR: Currently, Dan Baker is sitting in a federal prison in Tallahassee. Have you been in contact with him? How are his conditions? How are his spirits?

Eric: I got a couple of phone calls. I got a call the last couple of weeks. And then maybe two-three days ago, I just got another whole bunch of letters that I think had been delayed in transit. It was probably over a dozen letters, some of them are things that he wanted to share about his condition in there and the way he’s holding up.

Jack: Actually, I stepped out to check the mail really fast while you guys were talking, but I realized that I had bought Dan a bunch of greeting cards to give him some color in his cell. And then I see that effective August 15, all incoming general correspondence envelopes, including greeting cards must be white in color only. So now I’m realizing that none of my letters have actually gotten to him. It’s been very difficult to actually communicate with him. He wasn’t able to make a phone call for weeks. And when his lawyers asked the warden about it, the warden said, “Talk to the prosecution”. When they talk to the prosecutors about it, they’re “You got to talk to the warden”. So they were giving the public defenders the runaround. We didn’t hear from Dan for several weeks, it was very stressful. And then the color of the envelope… They scan all of the letters in the first place and then send them copies of scanned letters. So I have no idea why the envelope would matter at all. Because they don’t even send them the envelope in the first place.

Eric: There are a couple of complaints that he sends. They’re inmate requests to staff, he’s just trying to get access to his funds and being able to communicate with everybody. Basically, he’s just trying to request information on how we can access those things and it took him a long time, maybe another few days at least, before he even figured out how to be able to access the funds that he had available. He was trying to get phone calls, he couldn’t even really get phone calls with his lawyers. A lot of times, they had him on a three-man hold. I think it’s the FDOE regulation. They’ll have three people hold them on a chain with a lieutenant there. Every time he has a phone call, or every time he meets with his attorneys…

Jack: He hasn’t been able to have a private conversation with his attorneys. He’s been in the detention center for a month and a half. And he hasn’t had been able to have one private conversation.

TFSR: Because there’s always simultaneously these other prisoners that are being…

Jack: There are these three armed guards with him at all times. And they’re trying to present him as if he’s this evil criminal.

Eric: “Antifa super-soldier”.

Jack: Yeah, antifa super-soldier, evil criminal mastermind. As Eric said, he’s won six gold medals. But that’s training within his level and his division, he’s a purple belt training against other purple belts in his weight class, not somebody who’s a Black belt training against all these other Black belts. He is very skilled, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not a ninja.

TFSR: Are they afraid he’s gonna attack his lawyer? They put him into a room with his lawyer, what’s the possible danger except for extracting him from the room afterwards?

And a quick content warning, the next section has a reference to sexual assault. So if you’re concerned, I would skip ahead about two minutes.

Jack: I think they just really don’t want him to be able to have a private conversation with his lawyer. There have been so many sketchy things about this whole thing. The fact that he wasn’t able to make a phone call mysteriously.

Eric: Yeah, we had been trying to make phone calls for two weeks or so before anyone was able to get through and even got in contact with his counselor. And he just hung up on us, we had to pay subscriptions even just to register a phone number in the system. Even then, I think they initially put him in solitary. They were saying it was for a quarantine measure, 14 days of solitary confinement. But then others were saying it was because they thought he was gonna start an uprising or something. Also, I think after he had spent some time in there, he was saying it would be preferable to go out into the general population because he was just a concern for his own safety.

Jack: One of the things that he wrote in his letter is that somebody was raped with a broomstick handle. When you think about the conditions of jail/prison or anything, it’s a place that breeds hostility environment, and the guards encourage it. That was in one of his recent letters is there is a person who is struggling with some mental issue, and the guards are saying that he’s faking it and encouraging the other prisoners to bully him and antagonize him and hurt him. Dan is not sure what to make of it, except that he realizes that somebody is being bullied and intimidated and harassed. And the guards are encouraging this behavior amongst the inmates.

Eric: I just got a couple of these letters from him over the last couple of days, the most recent ones were marked “urgent”, he was concerned because he was rotating his cell. And apparently, when he got into the new cell, it was covered in feces, and there’s blood in the sink and someone used the toothbrush in there or something. He wasn’t sure if somebody was going after him or trying to intimidate him, or what the situation was, but it was extremely unsanitary. He’s not given access to even antibacterial soap or anything like that. Apparently, it was another inmate who is suffering from some mental illness and he’s done this also in other cells. So it doesn’t seem like anyone is targeting him specifically. I think he has gotten threats from other people that he’s mentioned, but I was just discussing this with his attorney the other day, and some of these things are probably pretty common in a lot of these institutions. It’s hard to even tell exactly what action to take short of abolishing them.

TFSR: Can you tell me about the support crew a little bit like how you mentioned like you two are some of the most active people in it? What infrastructure have you been building or how’s it been trying to talk about the case? There’s been a few pretty good articles that I’ve seen online and Jack, you mentioned writing a bunch of op-eds. How’s that work going?

Jack: I think the way that it started is some of our Black community activists, Black leaders, actually reached out to us about trying to support Dan. And they recognized what Dan was trying to do and appreciated that he was trying to fight against white supremacy. Then we grew it to include some more of the different prison solidarity groups across the state, across the nation, actually. We have some people from Philadelphia, New York, Indiana, and then we also have people who are with the Rojava Solidarity Network, they just all reached out. And we were really grateful to have this solidarity. We just talk about different news articles that come out. I appreciate everyone’s perspective, like I said, it’s been really helpful to have Black activists give feedback because this is something we want to be very mindful of.

Eric: So it’s been important, this whole trip to defer to Black leadership.

Jack: Yeah, Black leadership and local leadership, especially since we’re talking about protecting Black and brown lives, we wanted the perspective of Black and brown leaders in the community.

TFSR: I know that during a past interview with Coffee with Comrades, Eric, you talked about using your existing artwork as a platform to talk about Daniel’s case. Is that still ongoing?

Eric: Yeah. Basically, Dan and I had started that project. We would live paint in public spaces. We started a page called the Guerilla Gallery. It’s a common thing that a lot of artists do, a pop-up exhibition. I revived that page because I hadn’t really had it running before. So I decided to dedicate it as an info hub for his case and to use it for future prison solidarity projects. Anyone is welcome to check that out if you want to keep up with it. It’s on Instagram, Guerilla Gallery TLH, it is in Tallahassee. So I’ve been tried to post the relevant addresses mailing addresses, and some of the guidelines for sending mail, any relevant articles, I’ll probably post this article. And then once it comes up, and it’s just like a place where I can, at least until we get a website going, we’ve just been using that. We do have a website in the works. But we got shut down by GoFundMe pretty early on. So we’ve been working with some other groups set up like an independent fundraiser. So hopefully that’ll be online shortly at that one hearing scheduled for I think it was last Monday, it was supposed to be a state case, a hearing for an arraignment for whether he gets to keep his firearms. But instead, they took him before a grand jury and tried him with I think it was just the prosecutor there. And so they ended up getting him with two charges, instead of just the original one, even though the public defender doesn’t think it’ll stick, but his state case is still coming up as to whether he gets to keep his firearms. So I was just able to hire a lawyer just the other day to assist with that case and represent him because I feel like that’s important if they’re also trying to take firearms away from people that they’re harassing in this way.

TFSR: Yeah, particularly people that haven’t been convicted of a crime. One thing about Florida is that Florida is the cousin to the rest of the US South where they give you guns or shove them into your hand when you’re an infant. That’s not fair and not true. But it’s just difficult to consider the idea that the state of Florida is looking to deny someone the right to bear arms when they have “served the country”, and also when they haven’t been charged with actually conducting any violent criminal act, let alone when conducting of criminal acts in which a gun is a part of that.

Jack: The whole thing is bizarre. Exactly like what you’re saying that he hasn’t actually been convicted of anything and they’re already trying to make this decision.

Eric: If we can do some art exhibition pretty soon to draw attention to this, it’ll also show up some of the systemic issues of how these types of laws can be used to take away people’s voting rights, their ability to protect themselves. And there’s just like so much wrapped up in it.

Jack: Also the absurdity of having social media posts be criminalized that were obviously jokes. Another one of the things of the criminal complaint was that Dan had pictures or posts about eating the rich, and these are fucking memes, this is absurd that they’re including “eat the rich” memes as part of a case against him to say that he’s a threat to society.

TFSR: I’m just looking at the statement, the press release from the Northern District of Florida US Attorney’s office right now. It is saying two counts of transmitting a communication in interstate commerce containing a threat to kidnap or injure. So this is one of those instances again, also not only is that, but they’re out of context social media posts, that it’s not even actionable if it doesn’t post some recipe about how to prepare the rich for consumption. But they tack on the interstate commerce because it’s being done over the internet, even though this is about stopping a far-right incursion or attempt to putsch against the government in the town that you live in. The fact that there are communications about how we need to resist violent actors coming in and causing violence upon ourselves and further reducing whatever “democratic government” there is in the world. They’re saying that it’s now a federal charge because it’s over the internet. It’s so ridiculous. Some pretty decent coverage, there was an article on Jacobin that came out in January…

Jack: I think the Jacobin article by Branko Marcetic is probably my favorite of the articles that have come out so far. I encourage everyone who’s listening to read that one specifically. Because I feel like that really captures the absurdity of the case.

TFSR: And I was surprised too, there’s also a pretty decent article “Coming from Prison”, which is a libertarian…

Eric: Yeah, I saw that too. I was about to post that one up the other day.

Jack: Okay, I actually haven’t seen that one yet.

Eric: I was surprised about that, too, to be honest.

TFSR: It’s making some pretty cogent arguments in a legalistic framework of the government attempting to suppress the right to bear arms based on the political speech of an individual. And it probably doesn’t hurt that again, he’s a white dude.

Jack: I’ll definitely have to read on that one.

Eric: It’s easier for the prosecution to go after Dan Baker than it is for them to prosecute Donald Trump.

TFSR: So another coverage’s come up and hopefully there’ll be more, but this situation reminds me of the case of Loren Reed, he’s Diné man in Arizona facing 10 years in federal prison for joking comments in a private Facebook chat during the uprising. Does there seem to be a trend in this application of speech on social media platforms like Facebook being taken out of context and used to criminalize people on the left? I don’t know if any other cases remind you of this thing or if you have other thoughts on that?

Jack: I mean, I would say, absolutely, there is this pattern of taking jokes, taking private messages, I think in the case of Lauren Reed, they’re really trying to slam this arson charge, which, for what I remember reading in the Al Jazeera article about it, it was born out of the Civil Rights Movement as a way of penalizing civil rights activists and these federal charges are almost exclusively used to punish civil rights activists, but I definitely see that there is this pattern. I can’t think of any other cases right now.

Eric: They have these laws ready await, they will pass them under the pretense of preparing to protect against right-wing violence. And then once the public focus dwindles, they’ll use it against leftists as soon as they get an opportunity. There were some other examples listed in that Al Jazeera article, there was Evan Ellis. I think he was a BLM organizer in Evansville, who got a two years probation and psychiatric evaluation and got three counts of felony intimidation for posting a little clip on Facebook of him making a gun gesture.

Jack: Oh, wow.

Eric: He was talking about allegedly some officials or something like that, I don’t know, some policies that he didn’t like. There was a Samuel Amara also. He was charged allegedly for threatening a racist counter-protester. He could get up to five years. Those are felony arson laws that were invoked against Standing Rock protesters that Jack was referring to. There’s also a recent case here in Tallahassee, do where Baker County is? I think it’s somewhat close by to Tallahassee, but there’s another local activist named Kevin Connor, who was arrested recently. They’re trying to present it as if he was acting inappropriately with minors or something like that. He was just an organizer who was helping students, he was invited to speak to them about how they could organize in their schools and their campuses.

Jack: Even just as far as a local example is in Tallahassee, 19 people were arrested for protesting on the sidewalk. And they tried to slam some of them with felony charges. One still has felony charges, which haven’t been dropped. In Tallahassee, we had a man driving a truck through the crowd, no charges were pressed against him because he said he feared for his life. And we had a guy who actually pulled out a gun and pointed it at protesters. And he also had no charges because he said he feared for his life. So this is a counter-protester, just some white dude. But you just have a rainbow coalition of Black and brown and white activists fighting for Black Lives Matter protesting on a sidewalk and a 19-year old get arrested.

It’s just the laws are not equally distributed at all. In Florida, there’s this anti-protest bill. And they’re saying that it’s going to be DeSantis, the governor introduced it during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, it got a lot of backlash. And then he reintroduced it after the events that unfolded at the Capitol on January 6. And he’s saying that as to fight extremism. But the way that some of the speakers at the most recent protests explained it is there are already laws against rioting, there’s already laws against looting. And what these anti-protest laws, these felony charges do is make it more expensive, and keep making the sentences longer for anybody who breaks those laws. And then they are unequally distributed and used primarily against left-wing activists, but most recently, they’re coming out of this idea that it’s to stop right-wing extremists.

Eric: Recently, some courts have ruled that portions of the Federal Riot Act are unconstitutional. So even people who encourage or promote riots are legally free speech currently.

TFSR: I didn’t know about that. I’m looking forward to reading up on that after this. These are really good examples that you’re bringing up that I don’t know about. So I’m gonna do a little research and link some articles.

Jack: It’s also called the Anti-Protest Bill, if you look up Florida anti-protest bill, but the thing is 26 states have introduced bills like this since what happened on January 6, and what’s being introduced in Florida isn’t even the worst one, there are some that are actually trying to make it so that it is a 30-year prison time felony charge for organizing a protest. And then the way that DeSantis bill is defining a protest is a group of nine or more people blocking traffic at an intersection, which would include every demonstration that the Black Lives Matter protest had. And it also tries to make it so that there is no option for bail for people who are arrested for these protests, charges that try to make them felonies, which, in addition to stripping people of the right to vote, also makes that they can’t work state or federal jobs. The way that felony charges are used against people in Florida is just really disastrous. Many bills like this have sprung up in over half the country as a result of what happened on January 6, but they’re going to be disproportionately used against leftist activists versus the right-wing extremists that they’re claimed to have started from. Oh, actually, Eric just pulled up a good infographic.

Eric: Also the bill protects anyone who does bodily harm to protesters. So they’re already willing to make allowances to protect property. But if anyone tries to protect another person, that’s terrorism. Really, what he was doing is counter-terrorism. But If they admit that, then they’ll have to admit that Trump is a terrorist. And he appointed that. But also damaging a statue can be punishable for up to 15 years. And it also allows the state to override any municipality that wants to decrease police budgets.

Jack: Yeah. So the way that they have it is if a municipality votes to decrease their own police budget, it has to be approved by DeSantis, in order to defund the police, which when you think about it, there’s this whole argument about states rights and civil rights and local rights, and then suddenly, no, just kidding, we have a dictatorship where we have one person that gets to decide this decision for everybody. If there is a protest, and if damage happens, the state of Florida can sue the municipality for not adequately supplying their police officers. So if anything is damaged, they can say that the city needs to increase its police force. It’s a very problematic bill. And it’s not even the worst one that’s out there.

TFSR: If January 20 popped off the way that it was threatened to, for instance, and if this had passed, then police standing by and letting right-wingers go and do whatever they were going to do could be a reason for the police to just get more funding.

Eric: And in a sense, the real coup is just them seizing control of or trying to ram through all this anti-protest legislation. And ramping up all these surveillance programs.

TFSR: It’s not really a coup if they’re already in control, though, right?

Eric: Yeah.

Jack: Yeah. I wish I could find more specific info about that last bit that I was saying, I’ll have to look it up later.

Eric: Well, there’s also the federal level measures that are also being passed by Biden and Pelosi, as far as I know.

Jack: Patriot Act Two.

TFSR: Yeah. Aren’t we on number three by now? Yeah, definitely. All the security state discussion is in discourses, at least a lot of people are recognizing it for what it is that it’s just using whatever political capital they were able to… I’m sure that some individuals and employees were quite frightened on the 6th when the windows were getting smashed and people were coming in and fighting the cops and everything. And that sucks for cleaners or employees or whoever was working up there. But the fact that January 6 has been framed as another September 11. It is just so ridiculous, par for the course.

Eric: It doesn’t address the fact that the only reason they’re able to get in there is because all the cops and military were complicit and politicians.

TFSR: As far as supporting Daniel, how can people find out more about the case? How can they support the work that the crew is doing? How can they support him personally?

Eric: So far, it seems like his attorneys are doing a good job, they’re really well-known here in the community. I think they’ve also worked with other activists, so we lucked out in that regard. We’re focusing right now on letter-writing as much as possible. All of his information is on the @GuerillaGalleryTLH Instagram.

Jack: I also want to emphasize, as far as letter-writing is that the paper must be white in color, envelopes must be white in color. And they can only use blue or Black ink, it makes no sense because like I said, they scan the letters anyway.

Eric: There are screenshots of the guidelines and on there as well. And some links to the website with more information.

TFSR: Well, Eric and Jack, thank you so much for this conversation. Get at me with some of those links and I’ll definitely include them in the show notes about related cases. That’s a lot to think about and I really appreciate the research that y’all are doing. And the support work that you’re doing for Daniel, it’s super important even beyond him as your friend, as you said, these tools that are being turned on him are ones that are often turned on other people and are in danger of being used against all of us.

Eric: He’s so upset about his situation right now. He said he’s about to start a vow of silence, except for his allies. So I still have to find out if he’s following through with that, but it’s really crucial that he gets letters and that he just feels supported and that people are following his case and watching his case so at least that he’ll be less likely to suffer some abuse or something while he’s in there, at least they can be held to account for already what he’s been experiencing in there.

TFSR: To reiterate, as has been said, a lot of times on this show and in other discussions around supporting prisoners, sending letters to a prisoner is not just a kind act or a way of making a friend, but it literally is a measure in prisons of how much support or how many people are paying attention on the outside. And it literally means that not only Daniel, but the people that are around Daniel, for guards or administration to fuck with them, they have to know at that point, that all these people are, who are on the outside are going to have concerned about this, is it worth me messing with this guy, or the people around him if these many people are going to make a ruckus on the outside?

Eric: That’s what I’m really trying to focus on right now is creating some situation for him to be able to reenter, potentially even maybe in a better situation than he started. And just now that people have a better idea of who he is and what he stands for I hope that more people in the community will come together. And I’m trying to get him set up maybe with some platform to continue his yoga and jujitsu training and groups, and I’m hoping, you can hit the ground running when he gets out. And we can hopefully leverage this network to create some opportunities for him as well.

TFSR: Is there anything that I didn’t ask about that you want to mention?

Eric: Coming to that place is serious, it’s a class war against all of us, we’re all potentially at risk here. So, I feel like everyone needs to show solidarity in their different communities to connect where they can and then to unify whatever groups are able to get together because that’s the only way that anyone will be able to protect themselves or each other.

Grief, Storytelling & Ritual in Liberation Struggle with adrienne maree brown

Grief, Storytelling & Ritual in Liberation Struggle with adrienne maree brown

cover of "Grievers" novella by amb
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Today we’re excited to share a conversation with adrienne maree brown, the writer of such books as Holding Change, We Will Not Cancel Us, Pleasure Activism and Emergent Strategy. adrienne’s recent novella, Grievers, the first of a trilogy, was published by AK Press’ new Black Dawn imprint of speculative fiction. In this conversation, we dig into the book which is set in Detroit where a new illness that seems to only effect Black people (spoiler alert). We talk also about the role of speculative fiction in liberation movements, spirituality, ritual and grief in our organizing and holding space for inter-generational struggle.

You can support us by sharing our content in real life and on social media, more info at https://TFSR.WTF/Social!

Check out Scott’s prior conversation with adrienne on We Will Not Cancel Us.

Zine Catalog

You can find a catalog of our transcriptions to this point (Oct 2021), thanks to a zinester comrade. This could be good if you run a distro to prisoners and want to see if any zines sound interesting to them:

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Featured Track:

  • Locusts (feat. Finale) by Invincible from Shapeshifters

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Transcription

amb: I’m adrienne maree brown, I’m a writer. I write speculative fiction, science fiction and nonfiction that is about… maybe it’s called transformative fiction, transformative nonfiction. I’m really thinking about how we transform our conditions and transform ourselves to transform the world around us. And I recently moved this year from Detroit to Durham. Although I still feel my roots in Detroit and I’m shooting new roots down into the ground here in Durham, and I’m an auntie and a Virgo and a voracious feeler.

TFSR: That’s really exciting to hear. You’re in the same state as where we’re based in this podcast. I’m over here in outside of Asheville right now. So… welcome!

amb: I keep hearing I need to go there.

TFSR: Yeah. It’s a place. There’s a lot of good people there.

amb: It’s a place. [laughs]

TFSR: It’s beautiful.

Well, yeah, I love that idea of transformative fiction and I’m also thinking about speculative fiction. I first came to your work through Octavia’s Brood which is a collection of science fiction. It was so exciting to see fiction by people who are grounded in movement work. I use the stories when I’m teaching around liberatory science fiction. I feel like from that time, you and your co editors and contributors are making the case that science fiction and liberation work go together to envisioning a new world. And then you also kind of develop that in your nonfiction by kind of like theorizing through Octavia Butler, who’s a very wonderful science fiction writer. So I just want to start kind of generally, because I know people, especially people who are committed to changing the world will sometimes dismiss fiction as not important or escapist. I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about what you think stories can do, and especially stories outside of strict realism and how they help us?

amb: Yeah. I think that a lot of people throughout history, who have been trying to organize and change the world have realized that ultimately, what we’re trying to do is change the entire narrative inside of which we live. And that the narratives inside of which we live are what allow us to either accept the oppression, accept the oppressive conditions we’re in and participate and become cogs in them, or to see ourselves in resistance to those systems, or to see ourselves as transforming and creating something beyond those systems. And Gloria Anzaldua said that “we have to dream it before we can create it,” I’m paraphrasing. I also think the work of Toni Cade Bambara and the thinking of our work as artists is to make the revolution irresistible. That always comes into play for me here because anyone who’s organized for any period of time, we learned very quickly that if we don’t have a story that people can see themselves a part of, it doesn’t matter how good our data and our facts are, right? People are not going to radically change their climate impacting behaviors, because we’re all going to die because of what’s happening to the climate. We need a story in which we fall back into right relationship with this planet and what that can look like.

So I think, every advance that we have made for human rights, social justice rights, economic and environmental rights, there’s a story in there about how humans are changing that helps us to make that advance. So then the work of writers becomes really important. It’s actually on us in some ways to figure out what are new stories that feel compelling for people to move towards a future that involves changing themselves. And that’s one of the things I think Octavia Butler did really really well. I think she is like the master class of that because she did not write easy futures. She did not write utopias. But she did write worlds where we could imagine ourselves still wanting to persist and wanting to figure it out and wanting to form the kind of relationships that could persist through change. I hope that’s the lineage that I’m picking up and that there’s a whole generation of writers who grew up reading Octavia. Who are shaped and inspired by her and by so many other Black speculative fiction writers. And Ursula Le Guin – feminist science fiction writers and other folks. I hope that that field grows and grows. I want to see lots of people who are up to movement work also writing the stories of our future.

TFSR: I love how you’re talking about that and it made me think about people sometimes talking about how we need, on the Left, some kind of myth that is compelling. But there’s often a feeling of danger with myth, because we’ve seen myth be motivated, obviously, for horrific violence and fascism. And I’m wondering if you have thoughts about myth-making. Myth is a spiritualized story in a way. It has has kind of ritual and practice, that’s often part of it. I’m wondering if you think spirituality is connected in this fuller vision of the world that our movements need to engage with?

amb: Yeah, it’s interesting, I feel like I’ve come back around to it. I feel like this past two years has really been kind of a shock to my system as an organizer, and someone who has just deeply loved and cared about humans. Watching what this last two years has looked like, and how far we are from a future in which we could think collectively and make decisions for the community and not just for ourselves. So, I have been driven back to the spiritual realm, more in this period, in the sense of, I don’t think it’s enough to have a great case and a great set of information and a great even set of practices or a road map. I think that we have to attend to the aspect of humanity that thinks of ourselves as having some kind of destiny, some kind of purpose, some kind of calling for being here. I think, if we don’t, we cede that territory to the purpose of capitalism, the Manifest Destiny, the destiny of colonial efforts which is: we constantly grow and we accumulate more and more territory and material and then we die. You’re just trying to win the game for while you’re alive, and then you’re gone. And it doesn’t matter what you leave behind.

If we have a radically different purpose, which I think we do, I think our purpose is around loving each other. I think our purpose is around finding ways to be in relationship that transcend difference, that actually created biodiversity out of a bunch of different peoples. If that’s our purpose, which does feel spiritual, to me. That work feels spiritual to me, in the sense that it is greater than the material. It’s something that happens that we could feel in the body. I feel deeply connected to ancestors who I knew while they were living, and now they’re not in a body anymore, they still shape my decision making. They still tell me things that I need to do and pay attention to. I feel very connected to those who are not born yet. Generations that are yet to come, who have intentions and designs for what this world could look like. And I feel deeply connected and driven by the non human elements of this world. I feel that the water has a design and the air has a design and the creatures all have their purposes. I think we’re the lost ones. I think the humans have lost our way inside of the greater, greater narrative.

I think in the myth piece, the thing that comes to mind… I was recently taught this wisdom that an Ojibwe elder who has since become an ancestor, Walter Bresette, shared which is that the most European thing is to think that there’s one way to do anything. When I think about that, that colonial impulse, then the opposite of that is to have many, many myths, and to live in a world in which all of them can coexist and dance with each other. I like that. I’ve read some really beautiful collections of stories of origin stories and myths that people hold for the beginning of the world. They’re all really perfectly logical for their location and their time. I think we need to create myths that feel perfectly logical for our location in our time.

TFSR: I kind of want to pick up on this thread, but grounding it more and Grievers your recently published novel, which I really loved. And because In this discussion I’m going to talk about what happens in the novel, so I guess I’ll have to put some “spoiler alerts”. But the main character who we follow closely throughout, she, Dune, is grappling with some of this stuff very specifically, especially as it comes to grief and loss. But before I go more specific to that, there is a reflection that she has on this idea of cultural appropriation in the kind of rituals that we do, and wondering what her place is in that. Thinking also about the formation of Black culture and the history of cultural theft and how she’s trying to piece things together or sees the her elders doing that and what’s okay for her to do? And I thought that discussion in your in the book was really perceptive and flexible in thinking about how cultures…. what we do. I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about that and the formation of culture in our present actions in relation to the histories that we inherit?

amb: Well, I think if you’re okay with it, I want to read that paragraph that you’re referencing. So in the book, Dune is a very analytical character. She is someone who doesn’t think of herself as spiritual at all and she’s been raised by a mother who is very spiritual, and a father who was highly analytical, both of whom have now passed. And so she’s creating this, what she thinks is a research project in her basement, about all the death that’s happening in Detroit. And her aunt comes over and she’s like ‘it’s an altar. It’s a sacred space, actually, that you’re creating.’ So, Dune is hesitant about that, because she said ‘we never had a clear lineage, and I don’t want to be…’ and she talks about that kind of grabbing everything all around me. She says ‘I don’t belong to anything, it doesn’t belong to me.’ And what Eloise, her aunt, says to her is ‘when everything has been taken, filling that emptiness ain’t appropriation it’s something else. It ain’t pure, none of it. I think of these practices, my Orisha, my altars, my prayers and chants and all this accumulation of spiritual armor as something to comfort me when my ancestral ghost limbs hurt, because I need spirits so much. I answer what calls me. Spirit is bigger than any one lineage. It comes through all these channels. It’s complicated, beautifully complicated, but it ain’t appropriation. Not amongst displaced and denied peoples. It’s different. At minimum, it’s sacred data.’

So when that piece of writing was coming through, I was very uncomfortable. It felt like it was something that was coming from beyond or coming from another place that I needed to contend with and sit with. And it felt like something that also felt true as it came through. And I feel like I have sat in rooms full of displaced peoples. Peoples who, through the process of colonization have been intentionally pulled away from their indigenous stories and their indigenous landscapes and their indigenous songs and wisdom, whatever that originally was. And not only displaced, but then the multiracial and interracial pieces start to come in. Dune is an interracial character. And most of us in the US at this point are interethnic, if not interracial people no matter how we are viewed. There has been some straying from whatever that indigenous singular identity was. So I’ve been in so many spaces where people are being called by spirit into an action, and then are catching themselves and stopping themselves and in a way policing themselves. ‘Is this right? Is this okay?’ And I think that it’s such a complicated piece of ground.

In my own life have felt myself really drawn to spaces that had an intention to be shared. So I’ve been really drawn to the wisdom of Aikido. I’ve been really drawn to the wisdom of Buddhism. I’ve been really drawn into some of the wisdom and practices of Yoga. Things where there was an intention. There were teachers who were like ‘we want this to go as far as it can. We think there’s something universal here that everyone can use.’ And I’ve always defaulted to the idea of if someone in the room has this practice that they can authentically bring in… that’s good news. But I do think we all need practices. And so I think that there’s a big question for me right now, for everyone to be figuring out. How do I find the spiritual practices that help me line up with Spirit helped me actually hear Spirit? And how do I do that in a way that is what I think of is right relationship? Where I’m not dishonoring stealing or taking. And I just love this wisdom from Elouise that it’s like ‘if everything has been taken from you, then accumulating some practices is not a bad thing. It’s actually okay.’ And I think a lot of us need some permission to find those ways. And then inside of that to figure out how do I do this without causing harm? What does that look like?

TFSR: I really resonate with that. As a person who was brought up Jewish and pretty observant, and then rebelled against it, because it felt like it didn’t align with the way that I wanted to live in the world and then recently finding community with other trans and queer rad anarchists Jews. I was like ‘Oh, we can do this in a way that works for me.’ And keep some of the rituals that I grew up with, or rethink them. It’s such a big part of me but I don’t have to get rid of it.

amb: It’s even like a thing of releasing the shame that comes from not having those things, or from having them tied to a politic that you don’t agree with. I grew up in a Christian household and going to Christian church services. And I still love more than almost anything to be in a group of people singing together. Singing spiritual music, singing hymns singing in harmony with each other. It moves me. I love praying with other people. I love laying hands on people when it’s time to heal. All of those practices still generate in me a connection to Spirit, even if I needed to move them outside of a political context that was homophobic, and transphobic, and racist, and hierarchical and all those things that don’t align with my politic. I think there is something about reclaiming the practices that are around you, and that you grow up with.

Then I think there’s also, for me in my lineage, recognizing some place it got cut off that I need to be in a worshipful relationship with the moon. But I know that I need to be in a worshipful relationship with the moon, because the moon tells me that directly. Then I can and I have, can go research and try to figure out what are the practices for this. And what I’ve cobbled together is something between what I’ve researched and learned and what I can feel called directly to. And I think that feels really important to me. That as a human being on land, in relationship to the earth, in relationship to other people, there’s some of this that we have to be able to feel. We have to be able to trust that that feeling can cut through the divisiveness that colonialism implanted in our society.

TFSR: Yeah. I think that spiritual are the ancestral phantom limbs is a really perfect way of saying saying that. I think it’s an experience that people have, who might not even identify in those ways of having lost something or knowing that they lost something.

amb: On a deepest, deepest, deepest level, I think that so much of our fighting with each other, so much of our power tripping with each other, is because we have lost that place in us that needs to be in relationship to something much larger than ourselves. There’s a part of us that needs that. And if you’re like, ‘but it doesn’t make sense to me, that’d be one white guy on a throne.’ If that story doesn’t ***jouje out for you… then it’s like ‘oh!’ What I feel like I’ve been learning slowly is that almost every people’s has some part of our story that is about being tied into the land, being tied into the actual superstructure of nature, of the natural world, and that we are not outside of that, but part of it. That, for me, has been the way that I’m like ‘it doesn’t matter what other things are going on in your belief system. If you can go out and get in relationship with the land you’re on… you’ll be heading in the right direction.’ And it needs to be a real authentic listening relationship because the land has borders and boundaries of her own.

TFSR: I want to get a little bit to like place but sticking with ritual, thinking about grief, one of the really moving parts early in the book is the extended scene of Dune doing the work of dealing with our mother’s body. Cremating her. So I’ve been thinking about this via other texts, like how grieving itself can be a political act, and certain rituals can be forms of resistance. I’m just one wondering how you think what kind of act is doing undertaking in that moment? Is it just for her? Or is it belong to the movement in honoring her mother and her father, because they’re both people who had who had been part of movements?

amb: So I think that this is a ritual. I have done a lot of reading around death rituals. And it’s so fascinating to me how recent it is that there is this economy around death. That takes the bodies away from their families, away from their home, as soon as possible. That fills them with chemicals and puts them on brief display and then puts them inside of a box, that’s going to make decomposition very difficult, and then puts them in the ground, somewhere. That’s a very recent practice inside of the long history of humans. A much more common practice, in most places, has been some variation of washing the body, some variation of sitting and honoring the body, being with the body, everyone getting to come and say goodbye. And then a process of burying the body into the dirt or burning the body, setting up a pyre pushing it into the water. But there was so many ways where it was like ‘return to nature, you came from the dust and into the dust you shall return.’ Right?

So in this story, it’s an economic resistance. Dune is like ‘this system did not care about my mom, it did not protect her did not keep her alive, and they don’t get to touch her now.’ So there’s a part of that that’s just the resistance that poor people get to have of ‘I’m not going to keep giving my body over to systems that do not care about me. I am not going to give the bodies of the people I care about to these systems. I’m gonna take her into the backyard and do this myself.’ And then I think there’s the labor of it. It’s very much Dune setting off on an individualistic path. I hope that readers see throughout the whole time that there’s all these places where Dune probably needs more people around her right now, but she keeps turning in towards herself. What happens when you keep turning in towards yourself. This is that first big move. What would that ceremony have looked like if she had invited her community members into it with her? What would have happened if she had let movement hold her in that moment? She’s not ready to do that yet. It’s also why it’s the first novella in a trilogy, because this is a long arc. I think it’s a long arc to move from that individualistic path to something more collective.

TFSR: That was actually something I wanted to ask you about because I think that’s a huge dynamic in the book – between isolation and community and the conflicting desires that one can have around that. So Dune, for much of the book, is isolated in her grief. But I think in addition to the family members that she’s mourning, she’s grieving that community that she doesn’t feel like she can take a part in or there’s some obstacle for her. Even though she was kind of born into it in a way because her parents and her grandparents were part of this community work. So this also connects to the illness and the theories behind the illness in the book. What do you think the relationship is between grief and an attempt to recover this intergenerational sense of struggle? Is there like a need to do personal work to be able to get to the community? Does it prepare us for community?

amb: One thing I wanted to interrogate was, I know a lot, a lot of people in movement who have kids. I know a lot of people who are like ‘ Oh, because my parents were movement people I wanted to do something different.’ And a lot of people, even if they ended up coming back into movement, there’s a part of them that’s like ‘I need to go somewhere else.’ There’s some natural rebellion, that natural differentiation from your parents. So part of it was I wanted to write that. You can be steeped in it, and then your rebellion is to go the other way. And so in some ways, Dune’s rebellion is to be this introverted isolated character, who comes from hyper-extroverted, deeply interconnected people. She’s never quite felt that connection, that space to get to be her authentic self.

There’s a critique of movement inside of that, that movement can have a very prescriptive way that you have to be in order to be accepted in it. And if you don’t fit in… I see people doing this contortion all the time to try to be like ‘how do I fit in and belong here?’ I want movement to be the kind of space that sees itself. All the movements that are concurrent, to be spaces that see themselves as sanctuaries for people to come and be, however we are, moving towards justice. And instead I think it can become this narrow path. ‘If you’re like this, you’re gonna get to justice.’ It becomes heaven. It’s like ‘if you just do All these little rules, you’re going to get to the utopian end game.’ And otherwise you’re cancelled! Or something else is going to happen to you. So I wanted to get permission to Dune to go about this in her own way. And then I wanted to be in an exploration of how do you authentically awaken the desire in someone for community? And then how do you authentically meet that desire with community that can actually nourish what the Spirit needs?

TFSR: In a way, that moment with Eloise is sort of a crossroads for that. But one of the main conflict of the book is that everyone that is surrounding is getting stricken by this illness. Thinking about, that still on idea of grief… One of the theories that is in the book, because there’s not an explanation necessarily of what’s happening, but it’s only afflicting Black people in Detroit. One of the theories is that the illness is some kind of accumulation of grief, mourning the movements and I was thinking about our last conversation where you were talking about how we haven’t fully grieved the effects of COINTELPRO on on the Black freedom movements. What are you trying to capture about Black grief in this book? And the contradictions? Because Dune experiences contradictions, also being interracial. What do you hope to convey about the experience of intergenerational Black movement work through that affect of grief as the main one?

amb: That’s a great question, Scott. I mean, for me, I think there was something I am interrogating around Blackness in general. Which is, there’s this expectation that we will persist and keep trying and keep living and keep creating culture and joy and magic without an acknowledgment of how much oppression, how much trauma, how much torture, how much death, how much accumulated conditions are still impacting us. So there’s never a moment of ‘wow, that was horrific what happen to y’all.’ and reparations? ‘Wow, this should not happen.’ Abolition. It’s never clear like ‘no people should have to live through this level of police killings. Seeing the data, we recognize, we need to change our ways.’ It never happens like that. So what happens is, we’re constantly in pandemic conditions. Combined pandemic conditions, depending on where you sit inside of Blackness plus your economic status, plus your educational status, plus these other things.

So, when I was living in Detroit, I started writing this back in 2011. And what I was seeing was, the city was just towards the end of this massive economic crisis. We were heading into the emergency manager period, and there was just this idea of ‘how much can you try to humiliate a Black city and act like Black people don’t know how to govern or how to manage our own budget and finances and our water.’ Just the insult of how people respond to Black leadership. And the inability to give any space for learning, right? We’re supposed to go from having no access to power to sitting in those positions of power and doing it perfectly without that space in between to necessarily get to practice what does it look like to govern in different ways. So there’s a grief, there’s shame, there’s rage, and all of that is accumulating in the Black body. And it shows up as early death.

What I was noticing around me was the Black people in my life don’t live as long and the deaths tend to be so unnecessary, and so tragic and often born of exhaustion. Things that might happen to other bodies, but we don’t have the spiritual immune system to respond to it because of how much we’re carrying. So I wanted to write about that, and particularly Detroit. I’ve had a lot of people say that they see their city in this book as well. Folks are like ‘there’s a lot of Black cities in this because there are so many similarities of what it means to be Black city in this period of history.’ But I wanted to spend some time there and I wanted to feel my way into it and feel into what does it look like to pay a debt of grief? Is it possible? Is it possible?

In this book, at least, the initial answer is even trying to begin to turn towards it… It overwhelms. It’s that much. And I think that a lot of us feel that way. If I actually stopped to let myself feel everything that me and my people are going through on a daily basis, I would not be able to go on. That feeling is always right there. Just there. You got to just push forward. Because if you look back, it’s your you’re going to get sucked into that. So I also wanted to name that and see if we can still find something compelling to help us move forward.

TFSR: That’s interesting. I’m hearing you on that idea of if you’ve stopped and let it catch up with you… I feel like that’s still an internalization of that need to be productive and a kind of individualized feeling that doesn’t actually reflect on the way that this kind of pain and death happened to individual bodies, but it’s the effect of a larger social war that’s going on. That’s creating the conditions in which people perish.

amb: This is part of it, too. I know you can’t compare pains. I deeply believe that. I know people from every kind of possible background. And what I know is that the human experience is mostly aligned and similar. Mostly we are struggling to belong. We want to feel safe. We want to feel dignified. We get hurt. We’re trying to recover. For everybody, of any background. So then inside these constructs that get set up, the whole idea of these constructs is to divide us from having these common human experiences, so that some of us can be manipulated, can be oppressed, can be overused. So that we can produce what others need. And for me, the tenderness when you recognize that just by being born as a Black person, there is nothing about me, that is necessarily distinct from the human experience. Every human is miraculous, and has the capacity for all the same magics. It’s all there.

But because of this construct that someone came up with, which again, the story, the power of story. Someone came up with a story of superiority, and because of this story an unimaginable and too heavy amount of trauma has been allowed and enacted upon my lineage. Yeah. And right now is this interesting moment where Black people are looking each other like ‘Okay, our lives matter, we’re gonna raise the bar, we’re gonna hold this standard.’ It becomes necessary than interrogate what is Blackness inside of this ‘Black matters’ right? If our lives matter, do we mean everybody Black? Monolithic Blackness? and we started to really have to name ‘we mean Black trans people, we mean Black disabled people, we mean Black queer people, we mean Black homeless people, we mean Black people with HIV and AIDS, we mean Black incarcerated people. ‘We’re really talking about all the people who have experienced the brunt of this weight. Those intersectional Blackness’s. Those are the lives that we want to center and uplift inside of this mattering. So even those kinds of conversations, there are people who are like, ‘I’m not even there yet!’ We’re in a really interesting moment inside of Blackness.

One of the things Octavia Butler always did brilliantly was say ‘a Black story is a human story. If I’m telling you a Black story, no matter who you are, you should be able to relate to it because it is also a human story.’ And I think we’re in that moment on a grand scale. The story of what’s happening with Black people, not just in the US, but globally. The story what’s happening with Black people is the human story right now. And it’s not the only human story. The story of what’s happening with immigrants is the human story right now. The story of what’s happening with incarcerated peoples is the human story right now. What we have to constantly be able to do is recognize our humanity as never, ever actually separate from those that we are trained to see as lesser than us. That’s where the path has gone astray. And that’s what we have to figure out how do we return ourselves to ourselves?

TFSR: Yeah, that quotation from Octavia Butler also makes me think. What I love so much about her work is how complex the worlds and the situations and conflicts and emotions. Nothing is straightforward. It’s always kind of ambiguous or ambivalent in ways. It made me think also about James Baldwin, and Everybody’s Protest Novel, He’s like, ‘the novel isn’t here just to send a message of Black politics, it’s to render the complexities of experience.’ And so in your book, there’s this tension between is this a Black illness, which in a way makes Blackness this simple thing. But what the illness is, is that accumulation of grief through the stories and the history. And that goes back to the way that you’re kind of parsing Black Lives Matter to not be the monolithic, we know what we mean when we say Black, but that it’s this weight of it, and it’s this history, and it’s all these intersections.

amb: Exactly. It feels important to me to note that I know a ton of Black people who have never been stopped by the police. I know a ton of Black people who’ve never been arrested. I know a ton of Black people who mostly have not even felt that personally endangered by the police. But when they start to pay attention to those numbers, then they have to interrogate ‘Okay, where in my own Black experience am I tied to that and disconnected from that?’ And what made that the case? I have a friend who was like ‘Oh, I went to an all white high school, and from there kind of moved on to a path where I was mostly socialized inside of white spaces. I experienced micro aggressive racism, but I never experienced that overt institutional racism until a later, institutional experience.’ It opens up the idea that there’s so much complexity happening within the Black experience right now, today. That’s why Black people run the entire gamut of politics. You have your Black anarchists and you have your Black Republicans. Everyone’s having these human experiences and trying to figure out ‘how do I relate to these constructs?’

I think it’s a really hard thing to want to be free of a construct. And for some people to think ‘if I deny the construct is there, I will be free from it.’ And for other people to say ‘we have to actually point at the construct, all of us together and tear it down, for it to not be there.’ And yet others to be like ‘that construct is permanent.’ All of that is happening concurrently. I get really curious all the time about that, because I can see that ignorance is bliss. I can see there are definitely some Black people are just bopping along like ‘it’s fine! It doesn’t happen to me.’ You know, whatever. And maybe it feels good inside of that. For me, when I’m denying something that is true. When I’m denying pain that is actually happening to myself or others, it actually causes me more suffering. It’s not just the pain, but the effort to hold it down. Or the effort to keep it locked behind a door. Eventually that effort becomes exhausting. So for me, I’m like ‘let’s bring it into the light and see if if we can be deconstructionist?’

TFSR: Yeah, what you just called to mind is Joy James who tries to distinguish between threads of Black feminism. There’s liberal Black feminism, there’s even conservative, and then there’s radical revolutionary. And she says ‘Black women in the position that they’re placed in our society in the US are seen as default radical.’ Even just speaking up against racism, which doesn’t need to have a radical perspective to be like ‘that’s wrong.’ That’s placed into this, ‘Oh, my God, that’s an outrageous thing to say.’

So I was just thinking about how there’s all these different ways to relate to this. To make this into a question… Because you’re writing this within the history of Black movements, and other kinds of community movements and liberal liberatory movements… I feel like one interpretation could be that these people who succumb to this illness are failures in some way. But I don’t think that’s the story you’re telling in the book. They’re not, right? But there’s not a revolutionary response, at least in this volume of the trilogy. There’s something else happening.

amb: Yeah, it felt important to me. I hope that it, as people keep reading the trilogy, I hope that it shows as a form of discipline, but I was really trying to be realistic. And what I’ve experienced every time there’s been a massive crisis is that even if people want to move straight to organizing, the part of us that needs to feel happens first. And even just this past couple years going through COVID processes, there was that first initial wave. People are actually grieving. People are losing folks and were really confused. We don’t actually know what to do. Let’s just follow the CDC even though we’re all anti capitalist, socialists, anarchists. People were like.. ‘Sure! Now, we’ll follow what they say.’

I wanted to be really humble in some of this. Because I totally got caught up in the corrective policing behavior of the beginning of this pandemic. I deeply did. I still feel the vestiges of that. I’m really trying to tease out in myself what is policing and what is protection inside of me. When I am walking out and I see someone without their mask on, the part of me that wants to be like, ‘You need to put your mask on!’ And then quickly this other voice is like ‘you don’t know what that person’s situation is! You can’t make assumptions!’ My responsibility is to keep my six feet of distance and wear my mask. What is the collective move that’s needed right now? All that still happens and I’ve been a radical organizer for 25 years!

So I wanted to be in that where we don’t always know what to do, especially when it’s happening when it’s overwhelming. And then there are organizers and what we see Eloise doing in this book is really holding the position of the organizer. I wanted people to see that even though Dune is on this individual path of her grief, organizing is still happening. People are being like ‘we need to figure out the response here.’ And one of the things that I love about Eloise is she’s like ‘we have to resist, but I don’t even know what way we need to resist yet.’ And I think that happens to us a lot. Where we’re like ‘we know this isn’t right. But we haven’t quite figured out which way we need to go.’ We get caught in the tension. Where my Emergent Strategy brain comes into this is that I think we need to be more open to the idea that we’re going to run multiple experiments concurrently. So in a way, to me, the book is that. There’s multiple things concurrently happening, and we get to see Dune’s experience up close, but there’s also other experiments going on.

TFSR: Interesting to relate it also to COVID. Initially when COVID happened I was like, ‘Oh my God! These contradictions of what we’re supposed to and do not supposed to do are gonna hit everyone and we’ll all rise up and do a general rent strike!’ Then that didn’t happen, but then the George Floyd uprising…

amb: I thought we were gonna be so clear. Eviction moratoriums and rent strike and the whole thing but then it was like… we’re not. But Minnesota turned the fuck up! They were like ‘Oh, well. We’re just going to take to the streets and y’all gonna catch up.’

TFSR:

I think that’s related. I think the conditions also what’s happened in Minneapolis wasn’t isolated to Minneapolis, but spread across the country and across the globe was in relation to the pandemic and the work that people are doing that isn’t as visible as a riot, but the kind of mutual aid care work that people were doing in the immediate effects of COVID and having to figure out how to survive when you’re abandoned.

amb: Right, and also the analytical work that people are doing all the time. I think that when something happens, when something like COVID happens, if we don’t have an analysis, then it can feel like an isolated event. Or we can be like ‘we don’t know why this is spreading the way it’s spreading and hitting certain communities the way it is and we don’t understand why these variants are emerging or anything.’ When you’re steeped in organizing, then you’re like ‘Well, I do have a sense of why and, actually, it is deeply tied back to what’s happening to George Floyd.’ Being able to make that connection of if you don’t care about the life of poor people, you don’t care about the life of Black people, you don’t care about the life of indigenous people and immigrant people, if you don’t care about the life of people who have disabilities or people who are struggling with a system, struggling with substances. If you dehumanize those people, then when something like COVID happens, that same pathway of thinking is just going to burn it all down.

Now, we’re in such an interesting place and I think Grievers in the real world are very aligned in that way. that we’ve lost a huge portion of people. It’s like ‘How do I still be normal? Now do we function? Now do we go back to normal?’ It’s a little bit more pronounced I think in Grievers, that normal is not available in the way that we currently seem to think it is. But in terms of the actual impacts, is just as unavailable to us now. What’s happening right now, it’s people who try to go about things as normal die. Then you sort of move back into a boundary, and then repeat the cycle. And because we don’t have any strong enough leadership to be like ‘actually, we’re going to change the rules, so that we can actually survive this a different way.’ We don’t have that kind of leadership.

TFSR: I mean, it’s like the negative side of running multiple experiments. Where I live, the school board just decided to lift the mask mandate in the elementary schools. And I got a kid in there. The people in the school are preparing for a spike, obviously, because this is unsafe. Everyone has a hand in this and no one’s actually on the same page.

amb: I think this is the interesting thing… From a scientific perspective, you run the experiments so that you can reach some conclusion. You gather the data, and then you apply that data. What I think has happened is that we can see the multiple experience happening around the globe. So my friend, Sonya Renee Taylor is down in New Zealand. So I’ve been watching how New Zealand is navigating this experiment versus how the US is. In New Zealand, they’re like ‘we got a case? Quarantine everyone. We’re going to track what unfolds.’ They are like ‘we found out exactly the moment that these two doors were opened in a hospital, and the Delta variant was able to move between the rooms and that’s how this person got infected.’ That’s something unimaginable that we would be tracking and be self responsive, and be able to say ‘we’re shutting everything down for three weeks until we have contained this’ and so on, and so forth.

So even at that level, we do have the multiple experiments happening, but we, as the US, is very locked in, we’re not going to learn from anyone else’s experiment. We will not let new data change our position. Which is a very American way, right? There’s really a commitment to ‘I’m going to put what I believe over any new incoming information.’ Because superiority makes you think that that can create a different reality. I don’t know if you’ve been following, but I can’t look away from the stories of people who were hardcore COVID deniers, and hardcore anti-vaxxers who are dying. I just keep reading these stories and feeling in myself, the complexity of emotions that get generated in that. Because I’m like ‘you are loved by people. There’s people who care about you.’ And in some cases people were like ‘we were fighting with them till the very end’ and they just refused to get help, they refused. And I find myself really mystified, like I really want to understand. As someone who’s in this novel writing journey, I really want to understand what it is in our human nature that allows us to create and maintain conditions of illogical danger.

TFSR: You know, I hadn’t thought about this before. But, a novel I really love is Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, which is also about a pandemic that is about Black cultural crossover into white culture and, and when the way that Ishmael Reed talks about Western culture as a whole – it’s a death cult with a propulsion to kill everyone in the end. Even the white people who are like helming it.

amb: I write about this in multiple ways, but…There is something you know, I’ve written about this in a number of ways, but I think that there is something…. if you feel really truly disconnected from spirit, like if you are like ‘I’m not connected to something that’s larger than myself. I don’t, I can’t feel it.’ I feel my connectedness to aliveness so viscerally that nothing can take it from me. There’s no argument to it. It’s so clear in me. It’s taken a lot of work to uncover that and get into it, and trust it, but it’s there. And I think there’s a lot of people who don’t feel that. In the not feeling of that, I think the terror is so absolute, you have to almost disconnect from being connected from any desire to continue living. That death cult piece, I think there is a grand scale collective suicidality that is at play and has been!

I don’t think it’s always been that way, which is important for me to remember. This is not our human nature, because there were many, many, many, many experiments in humans that have not moved towards death, or towards war, towards violence, towards guns, towards domination. There’s all these other experiments. But how do those experiments actually survive the onslaught of those who are really obsessed with moving towards death. Because in some ways, if you’re trying to move towards ‘power over’, you’re ultimately constantly moving towards death, because you have to always be in a position of defending that power, or having that power taken from you in a violent way. And, to me, that’s the invitation of ‘power with.’ You can be in a power that is not fatal with other people.

I’m cultivating that landscape in Grievers. It’s my thing for myself. I don’t know if you’ve read Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like. But it’s a memoir, political memoir, of a South African, anti apartheid organizer that I love. But I write what I need. I write what I need. Sometimes I like what comes out. A lot of times, I’m just like, ‘Well, it’s true, or it’s honest. It’s true to me.’ And what I feel like right now is I’m like ‘I need to write something that helps me see a compelling way out of this time. Because it’s breaking my heart.’ So I’m writing from that place.

TFSR: And I feel it in the book too. You talking about wanting to be realistic and you render the world in it really beautifully and richly. I love some of the striking combinations of adjectives and stuff like that. One thing that I just pulled out was ‘the calm waves sweeping Dune’s parents away.’ Thinking about it as a calm wave, but like the motion… I think that’s interesting to juxtapose with the speculative aspect of it. It’s really physical, palpable, embodied, and also connected to the seasons really strongly in a way that’s maybe counter-intuitive too. Because hardest time is summer, and then winter is where she’s reaching out to people. Do you have thoughts about the way that you were trying to render that kind of physical embodied experience in a novel?

amb: Oh, yeah. I really wanted to pay homage to Detroit as a location and what it feels like to move through the year there and what it takes to survive a winter in Detroit. It’s so cold and it can get so isolating, and you just need people so much. I have such sweet, sweet memories of discovering how to stay warm inside of a cold place. And then sweet, sweet memories of what spring feels like after a Detroit winter, which is incredible, and enlivening. And then summer. I also wanted to capture the fact that the places that are rotting, the places that are not being tended to… the summer can be really dangerous and fatal time. And so that’s what’s happening in this book.

I think we’ve been learning a lot about the seasonal aspect with COVID. It’s been interesting. Actually, the winter is so dangerous and summer actually gives us more space. So I wanted it to feel for people like no matter when they read it, that it can feel current. Like they can feel themselves in that world and in that particular Detroit. This is my book of grief, too. So it’s a grief of a certain time and place in Detroit, a certain set of people. So I also wanted to bring it to life forever, or as long as the book exists. I wanted it to be like ‘if you need to go be in that Detroit where Grace Lee Boggs was alive and Charity Hicks was alive and Shetty was moving around and David Blair was spitting poetry. If you need to visit that Detroit, it’s still here in these pages.’ And I hope other people also write about that time and place and people. But this was my offer.

TFSR: I want to actually pick up a little bit more on Detroit because you said people reacted to the book saying ‘oh, this could have been my city.’ But in a way I felt this is very much a Detroit novel. And I just read a book, a novelization of the riots in ‘67. And thinking back then the abandonment that’s so commonly known about Detroit was happening so so long ago, right? It wasn’t just in the ‘80s. It was like that in the ‘60s.

amb: And it’s moved in waves and waves and waves. Part of it is it’s a river city and things are always moving through that city. Detroit is a place where people have survived for such a long time in the absence of what we would call ‘success’ or being a ‘successful city’. And it’s one of the reasons I think Grace Lee Boggs said that ‘Detroit is what the rest of the country has to look forward to.’ Because every city goes through these cycles in different ways. Some cities never recover from them. And we forget the names and other places continuously recover. Detroit feels particularly unique in it’s not-going-to-give-up-ness. Because there’s been many moments where it’s like, ‘Okay, I think that might be it.’ But then organizers generally keep on going. People who wouldn’t call themselves organizers. One of my favorite things when I was living there was, that would I would meet people who were doing all the work of organizing, and they were like ‘I’m not an organizer. I’m a community member. I live in this community. And so I’m doing this.’ And I think it was that spirit in that location unlocked something about persistence that I want people to know about and think about and consider.

I also think it’s like a vortex city. Like Sedona, Arizona has that spiritual vortex around it. I think there’s something similar happening in Detroit. And I want people to consider that, that there’s a reason why it doesn’t disappear. There’s something Karmically that the city is moving through and learning about its true value, which I think is in its collectivism and in its fecundity, it’s in the proximity to the water, it’s in the Blackness that has moved up from the south, up the Underground Railroad. I think it’s a sacred place.

I know we are at time, but I also want to say to people that I hope that the book invites people to read a lot more from Detroiters and about the city. I’m a student of Grace Lee Boggs and her autobiography, Living For Change, is a beautiful piece of work. But James Boggs, who was her partner, an incredible labor organizer has a ton of writing an ‘American revolutionary.’ There’s so much good content that’s come out. And then there’s people who are living and writing and thinking and creating around the city now. So I hope that it’s an invitation to people to get curious about what is coming from Detroit.

TFSR: You really feel the space and the place and the relationship to the history and the people there and a knowledge of how people live and survive. So yeah, thanks for extending that to the larger canon of Detroit literature. Well, thank you. I could talk to you about lots of different things for much longer, I’m sure. But I want to keep this succinct. So thank you so much for taking the time.

amb: I always love our conversations Scott., I really do. I appreciate you inviting me on and I hope they’re of use to the listeners.

TFSR: Yeah. And I’m looking forward to the next the next volume of the trilogy. Thanks so much.

Eric Stanley on “Structuring Antagonism and the Trans/Queer Ungovernable”

Eric Stanley on “Structuring Antagonism and the Trans/Queer Ungovernable”

Book cover of "Atmospheres of Violence" by Eric Stanley featuring a photo of pier-tops sticking out of water with a hazy city in the distance
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This week, Scott spoke with Eric A Stanley about their new book, Atmospheres of Violence: Structuring Antagonism and the Trans/Queer Ungovernable, which was just published by Duke University Press. Eric A. Stanley is an associate professor in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. In collaboration with Chris Vargas, they directed the films Homotopia (2006) and Criminal Queers (2019). Eric is also an editor, along with Tourmaline and Johanna Burton, of Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (MIT Press 2017) and with Nat Smith, Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (AK Press, 2015/11).

In this chat, they talk about racialized violence against trans/queer people as a foundational part of the modern US state; trace this in the formation of the US settler state and how it persists today. They also discuss the improvised ways trans and queer people learn and share survival tactics and thrive under these condition in order to envision a new world.

Announcements

Dan Baker Has Been Transferred

Anarchist and antifascist prisoner, Daniel Baker, who was convicted of transmitting threats while calling for anti-racists to show up in Tallahassee and stop a possible Trumpist coup received 44 months in prison and 3 years of probation. His legal defense is appealing and we’ll be re-airing an interview with his support crew soon. Meanwhile, there’s a great article by Natasha Leonard in The Intercept on the outcome of the case and we wanted to let you know that Dan has been transferred to FCI Memphis.

You can write him and send him books at:

Daniel Baker #25765-509
FCI Memphis
P.O, Box 34550
Memphis, TN 38184
United States

Note that he cannot receive photos or colored envelopes. You can find his book list plus a bunch of other info by visiting PrisonerSolidarity.Com and searching his name, alongside a bunch of other political prisoners of the so-called US & elsewhere.

Blue Ridge ABC Letter Writing

A snowy Appalachian forest announcing December 5th prisoner letter writing If you’re in the asheville area, just a reminder that Blue Ridge ABC will be hosting a letter writing at West Asheville Park on the 1st Sunday of December, only THIS time it’s from 3-5pm to handle the available natural light.

B(A)D News Episode 50

If you’re looking for more anarchist perspectives, check out episode 50 of the A-Radio Network’s BAD News: Angry Voices From Around The World. This November 2021 episode of our monthly offering features a shortened version of our talk with ASP, updates from Frequenz-A in northern Germany about the situation on the Belarusian and Polish border, Elephant In The Room from Dresden with updates on repression and resistance in Belarus, A-Radio Berlin sharing on the racist police killing of the migrant Giorgos Zantiotis in a Wuppertal jail cell and resulting protests and Crna Luknja from Lubjlana talking about the refugee situation in the Western Balkans.

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Featured Tracks:

  • Dicks Hate The Police by Dicks from Kill From The Heart
  • Riot (prod by Gobby) by Mykki Blanco from Cosmic Angel: The Illuminati Prince/ss

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Transcription

Eric Stanley: My name is Eric Stanley. I use they/them pronouns. I live, work, and organize and in various capacities and San Francisco, California.

TFSR: I’m super excited to get to talk to you. And specifically we’re talking about your recently published book Atmospheres of Violence. And before getting into the argument specifically, I just wanted to acknowledge and appreciate that you publish a book with an academic press, Duke University Press, that’s very explicitly anti-state and anarchistic aligned, and that find unique, remarkable, exciting. So I was just wondering if you wanted to talk at all about your experience as someone working within academia taking an anti-state position, because I’ve had a lot of push-back. I’ve been in and out of universities, and it’s not always a very safe place to be explicitly radical, or there’s a limited amount of symbolic radicalism that you can do. So I just was wondering if you had any ideas on how you take that position up.

ES: I mean, that’s a really interesting question, one that people usually don’t ask me. So it made me think a lot. So as you might know, I published my first book that I edited Capture Genders on AK Press. So I’ve worked with them a lot over the years. And I published this one on Duke, because you know, one of the little secrets about having an academic job, if you don’t publish on an academic press, you get fired. And then you can never work in the University of California system for the rest of your life. So there’s that part of it, the materiality of you know, this is what you have to do. But that being said, my editor at Duke, Elizabeth Ault has been incredibly supportive since the beginning of the project. There’s never been any push-back from her. And I feel like she’s done a really good job protecting the project in terms of my vision and my politics and my theoretical commitments. So I appreciate that.

And then in the larger question of the academy… and I think, for me, I somewhat fly below the radar. I’m just this small person in this huge institution. And luckily they generally are not paying a lot of attention to me. So that is definitely to my benefit. When the introduction of the book did come out, though, the alt-right started doing all these screen-caps of it and it got very big in this weird alt-right way. They started emailing me and emailing my job and trying to get me fired and all that kind of stuff. But that being said, I think you’re exactly right. The university itself is fundamentally right-wing institution. There are some people that can do okay stuff. I always think about it in terms of it’s the place that steals my labor. It’s not a thing that I heavily identify with. It’s my job that I go to. Sometimes I can do interesting things there.

I really like working with students, and I get to learn from interesting colleagues, but it’s not a central part of my understanding of myself. And I think that that allows me to be like “Okay, it’s just that thing over there. And then I leave there.” My organizing oftentimes hasn’t actually crossed over. My organizing life is pretty separate. I think that that has been important to me as well. All that being said, I’m sure it’s coming for me any moment. I think it’s always a matter of time. It’s not really if, it’s always when.

TFSR: Well I hope you can continue to use the resources that it gives you to do the work you’re doing. And you do, in the book bring, distinct from your personal organizing, bringing that perspective into a theoretical academic work, which I think is really important. Because a lot of the time the theory is so far away from any kind of street level, grassroots movement. So I guess one of the things that I thought was really important in your argument is that it’s specifically taking a stance against the state. And so, given that, and then we’re talking within an anarchist radio show and podcast, I was wondering how you define the state in its workings of power, but also as an object of our countering our political movements. Also if you want to talk a little bit about one of the things that I found really important in your book is how you highlight the incoherence of the state, and also the way that we reproduce this logic. So yeah, just if you want to talk a little bit about the state.

ES: Yeah, another incredibly big question, but it also is really important. So for me, the way that I think about the state is I think I call it something like a collective projection, meaning that the state is not something fundamentally external to us. It’s the collective ‘we.’ That’s both good news and bad news. We have the ability to radically transform it, the way it transforms us, perhaps end it. But we also must be accountable to the ways that we allow it to continue. So that also seems really important to me. There is a certain kind of critique within anarchist thought or anti-statism, or whatever you might want to call it, that always assumes that the state is something external, that we have no accountability for its violence. And I actually think we have to make ourselves account to that continuing violence under the name of stopping it. So I think that that’s why that configuration is really important.

Then I also think about the collective projection of the state being its totality, is useful, because it also helps us understand the way that we’re constantly reproducing it. It’s not only the cops in our heads, but the state itself is in our head. This is not to say that the murderous institution of the state is not real. And that we don’t all equally have to be accountable for its violence. But I am interested in why and how we continue to allow it to exist.

So on the question of the incoherence of the state form, there’s this other kind of simplistic story that oftentimes gets told that the state has some kind of external force that just bears down upon us. If that were true it actually be much easier to fight. So that’s why argue about argue that we must understand its radical incoherence as indeed, its vicious fortitude that allows, which is also to say, mandates, that we have a much more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the collective ‘we’ and something that we imagined to be external, like the state.

TFSR: Yeah, that’s really helpfully laid out. I’m thinking about what you’re saying now in terms of the way us and anti-authoritarian anti-state movements relate to the state as something where fighting. Because on the one hand you talk about how we reproduce the state everyday, just in our relationships. I am going to refer to a tweet that I saw you made recently, which is ‘it’s not that our demands are too little, that we need to demand more.’ I really thought that was an important point, because when we temper our demands, we give the state too much power in some way. That’s how I was understanding it. If you want to jump off there. I’m thinking about how we can fight the state in a way that’s not just always on the back foot, reacting to its incoherence and then narrowing our horizons because it feels so impossible.

ES: Yeah, this is obviously deeply in conversation with prison abolitionist thought and organizing as well. I actually see them as fundamentally the same project, even though people definitely disagree with that. But for me, one of the forms of violence that the state takes is this radical narrowing of our dreams, our demands, our wants our desires. It always forces us to ask for less and be happy with nothing. That’s why I think the internalization of the state, that kind of analysis is so important, because that’s actually something that we’re doing for the state. Even before they say ‘no’, if we’re gonna think of it as something external, we’re already saying ‘no’ to ourselves and to each other.

TFSR: Yeah. So also, the thing that you fit within the scope of your analysis is democracy. Which, again, I think is something that is an under analyzed, over suggested answer to all the problems. I know, in an anarchist milieu it’s often something that we’re critical of. But I wonder if you had any thoughts about how we can let go of democracy as this ubiquitous solution to our problems. Like more democracy is gonna solve the problem?

ES: Yeah, so the code of the book really thinks about this question. And I end with a bunch of open ideas, so it’s not incredibly definitive. And but something that led me there was thinking about what is democracy? If it’s something that both allegedly the left and the right argues over, then what is it substance? And oftentimes the argument is, like you’re saying, the left will say ‘Oh, the state’s not democratic enough’ and the right is saying ‘Oh, it’s too democratic.’ So one of the things that I’m interested in asking throughout the text is ‘what is this idea of democracy? How is it enabling our more radical dreams for freedom or liberation? How is this thing that we’re holding on to also holding us down?’ And of course, I’m not drifting toward some sort of totalitarian dream. Just to be clear, that’s not that’s not the direction I’m going. Democracy is so open, right? It’s a placeholder that collects up a lot of different things. And so some formations of it, yes, definitely. But other formations of it are in and of itself already a kind of totalitarian regime.

So I’m interested in pulling apart the kind of steady understanding that we have of it, that we think that we have of it, that we’re all thinking about the same ideas and the same concept. Also how that is one of the ways that the state disciplines us. Through the demand of democracy and as a kind of future-oriented process or project that we can never quite achieve. It’s always the democracy to come and it’s never here. And one of the things I ask is ‘what if it’s already here?’ And what if, instead of an imperfect democracy, what if imperfection is indeed the system itself?

TFSR: Yeah. I guess that really ties into the sort of central argument as it relates to trans and queer life. I’m going to kind of try to encapsulate it: that racialized anti trans and queer violence is a necessary expression of the liberal state, not a fault that will be reformed away. Or the violence that trans and queer people experience is a fundamental part of the atmosphere that we live in, using your term. Could you elaborate a little bit on this sort of understanding of how queerness and transness relate to the State and violence, and also where you see transness and queerness opening a horizon for liberatory struggle?

ES: Sure, so the book, as you just articulated, is an extended meditation or grappling with what I understand to be the fact of violence. Which is to say that it’s not an aberration of the state form, but indeed, is one of its foundations. And so to me, what that means is that the way that we commonly are taught to think about violence, is that especially violence directed at specific populations for example here, trans and queer and gender non conforming people, is that it’s just the work of a few bad apples or a few bad actors, or whatever metaphor you want to use, directed at specific people. And what I do by paying close attention to the scenes of violence, which are really horrible, is I tried to build an analysis that understands that those specific actions are an ambassador for a larger murderous culture.

For me, that is incredibly important, because, in the final instance, the book is deeply invested in ending the scenes of violence. But, I don’t allow myself or the theoretical tools that I use to rely on the State, something like the police or any other facet of the state as remedy to that violence. And so then the question is ‘what what is to be done?’ “What can we do?” There’s many other ways to think about this. But I think centering the question of the state itself is necessary. Otherwise we’re caught in this feedback loop where we just keep at best, addressing specific instances without radically destroying the world that mandates them. And I think that that is the necessary move that we have to make.

TFSR: Yeah. In the book, you really pull from Fanon and his theorizing of anti-colonial struggle. And so I’m wondering about violence to on the part of liberation. I want to quote you, you talk about ‘violence as a generalized field of knowledge that maintains this collective undoing lived as personal tragedy of those lost to modernity’, speaking specifically about racialized trans and queer people who are subjected to this kind of violence, but you also place violence as a tactic within our struggle. So I was wondering where you see it on our side as a way of like getting free.

ES: Sure. So, the primary figure that I think with throughout the book is probably Frantz Fanon. He allows for many things and among them is a re-conceptualization of the time of violence. When does it end? When does it begin? And I argue that the scene does not begin or end with an individual attack, but constitutes the very possibility of that altercation in the first instance. Right. And so we’ve already kind of re-positioned the temporality of violence. I think that that’s where we have to begin.

Fanon, of course, argued that revolutionary violence was a necessary precondition under the state of total war, that was racialized, colonial occupation, right. So that’s something that a lot of people know about Fanon. And so for him in the first instance, we could not ‘reject violence’ when it is already here. And so it’s repositioning our relationship to the very question. And so, I’m interested in thinking about how we might respond to not escalate that harm, but also under a commitment to ending it in a much more structural way, than the way that we’re thinking about it now. That’s why I’m always thinking with and sometimes beside Fanon on this question, because it’s so incredibly fruitful the way that he articulates it.

TFSR: Yeah, that’s a really helpful way of thinking about kind of the method of analysis that you bring to the book. The book is difficult to read for multiple reasons. One of the main ones being that it’s involved in this archive of anti-trans-and-queer-‘violence. And then each chapter is structured around specific events that you talk about. And, you talk about what it means to describe the violence and trying not to reproduce the power operations that are under girding it, even while trying to use your analysis to end it. So I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about how you feel you’re able to engage with this horrific, genocidal archive of daily, trans and queer violence in the United states while not feeding into that, but also like what you say, kind of ‘reading from the perspective of struggle’ because this would be an intervention into that time of violence from the point of view of ending it.

ES: Yeah, so I think that this is another open question that I sit with throughout the text. I think that place of ambivalence is not a place of knowing or not knowing, but indeed, is a kind of theoretical commitment to being in the time of antagonism. I never know in advance how should I narrate this. How can I be as careful as possible? How can I be as precise as possible? Without a kind of empty re-traumatization, just for the sake of re-traumatization. We all know that that’s not useful for anybody. And related, not engaging with the archive is another form of violence. Looking and looking away are both equally tied up in the totality of its scene. None of us can assume to be pure subjects outside of it.

Then what I attempt to do is go slowly. Think with people that are both survivors, and not pay really close attention to the language that they’re using. How they’re experiencing their own life, how they’re theorizing their own life. For me, it’s about not using people’s really horrific events as simple analogies or as examples. But I argue that they’re theorizing all the time. And does it work? Does it not work? I don’t know. But that’s as close as I could get. Again, for example, I don’t show graphic pictures in the book. When I do narrate things, I try to go slowly through it, and I try to talk about why I’m doing it and why I’m making certain choices and I’m not making other choices, right? Sometimes survivors say this is what happened to me and I want everyone to know. And so in a certain sense that allows us a little bit more space. But I actually think in the larger scheme of things, it doesn’t really. We’re still in that scene, even if a survivor wants something specific. I think I’m just trying to hold all those contradictions at the same time and push them to the front as opposed to hiding them.

TFSR: Yeah, it really comes through to me as you were talking about the people who are involved in these experiences theorizing them themselves. You don’t have a hierarchy of who produces knowledge in your book, which is also I think unique from an academic perspective, which really does separate the people that are being described from the people doing the analysis. So you locate trans theory in the lived lives of trans people no matter what their educational backgrounds are. One thought I had is that this so called ‘trans tipping point’ that we’re past now, brought into representation, specifically, I think Black trans women in a different way than had been before. But I really feel like it goes hand in hand both on like the reactionary right, and on the left spectacularization of the violence that Black trans women experience that feels like at best useless at worse harmful. And I’m wondering if you have thoughts beyond this about how to work to keep Black trans women alive and not relating to Black trans women as victims. What kind of work we can do right now to support them?

ES: I mean, obviously always asking people what they want and need is where we always start. But I think to your point is incredibly important, because in the beginning of the book I think a lot about Marsha P. Johnson in the way that she was exiled from mainstream or even radical leftist lesbian and gay culture in the 1970s through the time of her death. Now she’s kind of been brought back in as a trans of color, Black trans woman activist ideal. And I make an argument that both of those are violent in and of themselves. So like one of them is not the remedy for the other one, because the way in which she is brought into the archive doesn’t disturb the coloniality of the archive itself. All it is, is a kind of accommodation, not for the politics that Marsha was invested in throughout her life, but indeed, to actually support a white supremacist state. And so that is really important, because what I’m also hearing in this question is the ways in which trans women of color get emptied out of content or of politics, and they just become a screen upon which all kinds of people just project a whole lot of things onto them. And so I think that it is all of our tasks, to understand Marsha as a theorist and to read what she wrote and to listen to the words that she said. As opposed to just projecting our contemporary analysis on top of her as an empty subject of history.

TFSR: Yeah, that really gels it for me. In the way that even leftist or radicals or whatever can reproduce the sort of anti-Blackness, I feel like often Black trans women are brought into a conversation as if they’re already victims, and not included in the conversation as the theoreticians that you’re showing them to be. In certain spaces, obviously, it’s not everywhere.

But since you mentioned Marsha P. Johnson, one thing that I see you doing in this book is intervening in the history of gay liberation, trans liberation, queer liberation movements, and the way that relates to queer theory. I think early on what was really exciting about the movement, and what still I think resonates with people today is this thought that trans and queer people in themselves are revolutionary in the ways that they live and love and fuck. But that didn’t really stop from the assimilationist arm being the main focus of a gay rights movement. And then I see in the university with queer theory how queerness gets theorized away through power, but then divorced from the actual work, and even the living, I think this is particularly true after the heyday of Act Up. But now I’m seeing more crossover of movement work and academic knowledge production. So I was just wondering if you had anything to say about the inheritance of a radical queer legacy, but also where you see your works situated within that inheritance and the location of knowledge production of the academy?

ES: I think that for me… a number of things. I’m always interested in the ways that politics or post-political regimes of intelligibility congeal, more so than identities. I say this all the time, identity is not a politic. San Francisco has many, many trans police officers. I also always say that San Francisco is the laboratory of neoliberalism and any awful thing will always to be developed here in terms of multicultural white supremacy. I study it, because I live it. And that is also to say that all of that analysis… all that comes from organizing. Street-based organizing. One thing that I’m always careful to say is that anything that I have to say that might be useful in this text comes from those worlds. Comes from the worlds that have taught me so much in collective anti-authoritarian or anarchist spaces. So I want to foreground that. And in terms of the specific moment that we’re in with scholarship in the academy, I think that there is this kind of turned back towards the kinds of political questions that were not as readily apparent as they were before.

That can be both good and bad. Because I’m also interested in what gets constituted as political and what doesn’t, and oftentimes the things that I think are most useful are things that are not on the surface ‘political’ and then they’re really messy problematic ones are the ‘political’ texts. So, you never know what you’re going to get. But I do think that this book in particular, it’s kind of interesting. It hasn’t been out that long, but it is interesting where it gets taken up and where it doesn’t. I don’t know if LGBT Studies stuff will really engage with it. I don’t know. I mean, I hope so. I hope people look at it, I guess. But I’m not sure what forms that will take yet. I have a whole bunch of open questions. But, towards the point of identity again, I think I explicitly say this in the book is that I don’t have anything definitive to say about LGBT or otherwise trans or queer people. I’m not actually making an argument about people. I’m making an argument about formations of vitality or generativity or something like that.

TFSR: That makes sense to me. Maybe a way to rephrase what I was trying to get at is that, the early gay liberation, if you read a lot of the texts, there’s this, like, imagination that the revolution is at hand, and part of it has to do with gay life. Like, cruising is revolutionary, or whatever. And then that doesn’t happen. That revolution doesn’t happen. But then you see this certain kind of… you get to Lee Edelman’s version of queer theory in No Future where he’s like ‘queerness is the death drives of society.’ Taking up that same view that queerness is disruptive in some kind of inherent way. Although it’s different at this point, what he’s talking about than the Gay Liberation Front or the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.

How do you understand queer and trans? There’s one thing that you describe that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone write about this way and I thought it was so important is that we can get slurred at in the wrong way… and yet it’s still correct in some manner. Because there’s some way that you say we signify differently. So that’s a specific kind of visibility that can be wrong and right at the same time. So I don’t know if you have a way of talking about how you define trans and queer or the location that we live in?

ES: Yeah, I see what you’re getting at. I can only think about it through negation, because I can’t think of any kind of prescriptive identity because it’s always gonna fail. And so for me, trans and queerness is a retroactive reading practice that can only be known after an identity or an event unfolds. But like you’re saying, one of the things that I find really interesting is that, I’m not deeply tethered to the idea of identity itself and yet the world is constituted through identity. At the same time we have these radical critiques of the impossibility to know trans and queerness as a totalizing or generalizing force, nonetheless, I walk down the street and someone knows that better than I know myself. And so that is really interesting. What is it then? To me is why I think about anti trans and queer violence as a kind of general field of knowledge or an epistemology of violence. Because of that everywhere and nowhere-ness that it simultaneously inhabits.

TFSR: Yeah, I guess building on that, do you want to talk a little bit about how you see this disruption, this projection, this negation that gender and sexuality does it goes hand in hand with the process of racialization that has occurred, specifically in the US context through the capture and enslavement of Africans? How does race, gender, sexuality get forged historically as these systems of domination? Because that’s a huge part of what you’re talking about in the book.

ES: Yeah. It is what the book is about, so sometimes I forget to make it so explicit. So just to be clear, I’m never talking about everyone that ‘might identify as LGBT.’ That’s a useless category for me. And indeed, I also make explicit that many people that identify under those terms that have access to normative power, visa vis white supremacy, ableism, class, other axises of difference, know very little in the materiality of their life about the forces of violence. So, I’m not making this equal distribution argument. That being said, my book takes as a kind of axiomatic that chattel slavery and settler colonialism are at least in this nightmare of the United States, the primary scenes of gender normativities concretization. And so I don’t believe that we can ever do ‘queer trans theory’ without a deep engagement with both of those as ongoing practices, and indeed not simply facts of history. So I’m not interested in how gender and sexuality took form in slavery as if it’s something that happened then and isn’t constantly happening now. Right. And so then in attention to the settler state, and its anti-Black idiom is fundamental, if we are ever going to attempt to begin to open up to questions of gender, sexuality, transness, queerness, etc, right? So they can never be separated.

TFSR: I wonder if the way that you talk about this in the lineages of Black feminism that you pull on, specifically of how Hortense Spillers talks about the kind of ungendering of Black female flesh as a site of a potential insurgent ground. To me that always rings in a certain like trans way. And C Riley Snorton builds off that too. A lot of people do. How do you see this situation that often gets narrated as a place of complete domination and violence, also as a place for destroying the world that we live in now and reshaping it in a way that would let people live?

ES: I mean, definitely. I always include Hortense Spillers work as fundamental to whatever might constitute itself as trans theory. And like you are saying people like Riley and many others do this as well. And I think that it’s definitely the right move. At least for me, she opened up so many of these questions and continues to do that work. So thinking with her theorization of insurgent ground, we also know that along with the structuring horrors that in their epistemological force, that were, and are chattel slavery, there are always moments of people fighting back. So one of the arguments that I make is that even within a totality, there’s still possibility. That might seem kind of contradictory and it is. It’s structurally contradictory, because a totality can’t have that. But I still think that that’s actually how the world works. And it’s also the version of the world that I want to hold on to under the name of ending it so that we might build one that we can survive. I don’t see that as a kind of linear teleological process, but a kind of simultaneity of action, theorization, revolt, revision, all happening at one time. I think that that is already happening. So then one of our goals is to hold up those moments where we can see it so that it might open up possibility for others.

TFSR: Yeah. Could we tie this in a positive way to the incoherence that you’re talking about -that power works through and the state? Because on the one hand, that makes it so that it’s hard to know how to react or we get caught just reacting, but also it means that it isn’t coherent, and therefore already over, right?

ES: Yeah, without a doubt, I mean, I think about this all the time just in just in like actual organizing terms, or whatever. We never know what’s going to set something off. We just have no idea. We can make all these strategies and theorizations and think we have a plan for it. And then it goes so sideways and it can either open up radical possibility or shut down everything. And we just don’t know. And I think that is because of the state’s radical incoherence. And it’s not a kind of prescriptive politic, but a way of a way of thinking about that, that, of course, there’s always a plan for action in relation to it, but also beyond it. So it’s not a simple, constant reaction to the state, which is oftentimes what we’re tied up in. And that’s one of the ways that the state disciplines us. And that we’re accepting that discipline through the constant reaction. I understand sometimes we have to do that. And that just as the materiality of living in this awful world. But that being said that’s not all of it. And that’s also not all of what we’re doing. I’m always looking towards those spaces of hyper-marginality, where things that don’t look explicitly political, but to me are actually giving me life, giving me possibility, the things that actually helped me go on in the world are these really small moments that oftentimes gets passed over.

TFSR: Yeah, my mind went to something that was very explicitly political. Something, I keep thinking about it and maybe you have some thoughts on this. Last year the pandemic hits, and I’m like ‘Okay, we’re going to be met with the incoherence of our lives.’ The contradictions of being forced to work or not to work and pay your bills or whatever. And, and that was like ‘some kind of revolt will happen’. And it didn’t happen until George Floyd uprising. I don’t want to take away the specificity of the George Floyd uprising, but I think that something is connected between the way that that was generalized outside of Minneapolis and the work that people were doing in response to COVID even though that maybe wasn’t as visible in the moment as a riot. I’m just kind of going off the cuff here. But I feel like that also points to sort of the underpinning racial components of COVID that don’t get talked about very often. I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that. That was just sort of me thinking about what you’re saying.

ES: Yeah, definitely. Of course we’re in a settler state, so COVID is going to be explicitly anti-Black and otherwise racist in terms of its impact. So I do think that that’s always important to say. I would like to pretend like I’m an accelerationist, but I just have no evidence that that’s ever true. Because it actually is a kind of safe place to be. You’re like “oh, all we have to do is like… everything will get so bad, it will just go” No, it just gets worse. That’s one thing I learned with getting older. And I think it’s interesting in thinking about the incoherence of the state because then you’re always longing for things you never wanted in the first place. And that’s a trip, right? When you’re like ‘Oh, the good old days when whatever bad thing….’ I think about that with gentrification too. When you start longing the things that you used to hate, because at least they’re not as bad as the things that are now.

I think that the conditions, retroactively we can maybe think about why things pop off in certain times but we also can’t prefigure that because sometimes all the same conditions are there and it just doesn’t happen. And I think there’s something about the generalized spontaneity of the social world that can’t be predicted and can’t be corralled. And I think that that’s actually really good and beautiful. But that said, we also shouldn’t live in a world that has to constantly respond to the unmitigated, unending, anti-Black violence that is leveled against Black people all the time everywhere.

TFSR: Yeah. Well, to return more specifically to the book, in that light we’re talking about racialized gender, but also you pull from a Sylvia Wynter-influenced idea that all the violence that we see, that’s gendered, sexualized, racialized is tied completely to the ideas of humanity and modernity. And you say that ‘the racialized trans queer person rests at the limit of the modern and of the human and is necessary to maintain the lie of those projects sort of through being endlessly disciplined and killed.’ This one comes out really clearly in your analysis of suicide. And I don’t know if you want to talk about that. But I really love this line that you say trans queer suicide reads the world for the filth it is because it puts it pretty boldly to me what you’re talking about here. So I wonder if you want to talk about how the concepts of modernity and humanity come in to your analysis of the regulation of and killing of trans queer life?

ES: Sure. So throughout the text I kind of intentionally slip between the settler state modernity and enlightenment humanism. And again, I’m not saying that they’re all the same thing. But I think together they gather up and they also help name these tendencies of recurrence that we inherit in our contemporary moment. So they’re all doing something a little bit differently, but they all help me name something. So, if the human is that which can stand before the law and make claims as its proper subject… that’s like the kind of traditional understanding of the figure of the human, then it also needs its double, its Constituent Outside to maintain its stability. So this is a very common figure in Black feminist thought and also and critical theory. The constituent of outside is that which constitutes the human. And then those that are subjugated to the limit, then become limit concepts, and they kind of police the border, the inside/outside, and they’re necessary. They’re actually the major figures in terms of the schema. Fanon as the same thing, essentially. And so, I think that that is so compelling because of the specific forms of violence that I’m thinking about. It’s not just about exiling people. But it’s about a kind of incorporated inclusion where people are both forced out and brought in at the same time.

We can think about this with TERFS. TERFS are so fascinated. They spend way more time thinking about gender than I do, a gender professor. It’s fascinating. I’m like ‘you are obsessed!’ I think that that same formation is actually incredibly useful, right? Because that’s the form of phobic attachment that I’m interested in. So, it’s a kind of inclusive incorporation, where it’s both pushing things out and bringing things in and that’s actually a really horrifically violent formation to be caught in. It’s way worse than just exile, because you’re shuttled in between the inside outside, in a scene of total war. And so for me, that ties into this figure of the human as, again, the subject of modernity. And so then the contingent of outside is that structure is what I’m naming as the limit concept. And that’s a very like theoretical way of saying it.

Thinking about that in relationship to the chapter that I have on suicide… that chapter is important to me because one of the things that I tried to do in it is depathologize people that are pushed to the limit, while also wanting to keep people alive. So ,it’s not like a kind of nihilistic where I’m like ‘this is jouissance’ or something like that. I’m like ‘this is actually horrific, and I want it to stop.’ But I also know that we have to stop gas-lighting people into recreating this narrative that this is an individual choice and that this person alone was pushed to the limit, when indeed the world is pushing people to the limit. The everydayness of racist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist violence is indeed the force that’s pushing them there. It’s not a kind of self what Fanon calls ‘auto destruction’ is never really about the person themselves. It’s about the way in which they’re positioned in a deadly world.

TFSR: Right. I’m sort of like at a loss. I think that’s really important the way that you talk about that because you can get so lost in the individual situation to sort of erase the commonplace experience that precedes it for someone who’s been harassed their whole life for just being. I wanted to ask you about representation and aesthetics because you have this really interesting analysis of surveillance film. And in that you’re kind of going through the filmic image itself and talking about how dominant aesthetics are grounded in anti-Blackness and anti-queerness not even just how its represented, but in the structure of representation. And in your arguments about the specific acts of violence that you are reading, the violence goes beyond the immediate moment. But then you also importantly, I think make room for queer, trans radical art and life as a kind of aesthetic. So, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about anti-Blackness, anti-queerness in aesthetic production, but also the rooms for alternative visions and use of different media?

ES: Yeah, so that chapter I’m thinking a lot with people like David Marriot and his work on racial fetishism, anti-Blackness and the moving image itself. Also, Fanon helps us think about this question, Sylvia Wynter, and a bunch of other people.

But for me, representation is always a double bind. So it’s that which brings us into the world. And that which brings us out of the world. I also am a filmmaker. I like films. I understand the way that they literally build a world, and they don’t just represent one. So it’s not as if I’m arguing for a representational austerity or something like that as the revolutionary possibility of the world. Like, that sounds horrible. No to that. And on the other hand, I know that ‘positive representation’ is the thing that is most easily given to us by the Settler State. We demand free housing, free health care, free education, free, whatever it is, and they’re like ‘Oh, here’s a trans side kick on a TGIF show.’ Alright. So, one of the things that I always say is that whatever is the thing that they’re most ready to give us is the thing that we actually don’t need.

And so it’s again, holding that contradiction, because I know that representation constitutes the world. And yet it doesn’t only do that. That chapter in particular thinks about formalism. Conversations around transness and Blackness sometimes are more interested in the kind of narrative depiction of the image. And I’m interested in that as well but something that’s more interesting to me is the formalism of the image itself, because one of the arguments that I make is that you actually don’t need a kind of scene of anti-Black anti-transness on on the image for both of those kind of twinned ideologies to be operative. Right. It’s kind of ironic, I turned back to a bunch of 1970s film theory, because they’re actually thinking about formalism and structural film and things like that, that we don’t do as much of now. But that seems really important to me, because I’m trying to get at why changing towards ‘positive representation’ alone does not change material conditions. That’s actually the question. I’m trying to get at.

TFSR: Yeah, I was interested that you were quoting Christian Metz, because that was something from my early grad school days. When you’re talking about Fanon’s idea that violence precedes and comes after that specific moment, you talk about him in the theater, just sitting in the theater is an anti-Black situation, regardless of what the film is representing. And that makes me think post-George Floyd uprising, the way that all the media companies were doing Black voices and you could still present supposedly Black Lives Matter content in an anti Black environment.

I could nerd out with you a little bit more on the formalism but I kind of want to move to some of the stuff that you you get to at the ending, if that’s okay? So, one of the words that comes up in the subtitle, that there’s legacies of resistance you give this the name of ungovernable, becoming ungovernable. You take it from the classification that certain queer youth get for their perceived social disruption. And then you also use the word ‘sedition’ which I was really excited to see. So I take it in my reading of your book that some of the stuff that’s happening as a kind of clandestine survival, and maybe this goes back to being not within the archive and not being represented. But what do you what do you mean by ungovernable? What do you mean by like a queer sedition? How do we have this kind of survival? What kind of worlds does it build? Is it generalizable? Or does it need to be under wraps all the time?

ES: Yeah, I’m not sure if it’s generalizable, and I’m not sure if it can be a prescriptive project, it might be something that can only be noticeable in the aftermath of it, or something like that. I’m not totally sure. Ungovernability are big becoming ungovernable is useful for me, because it names that kind of non-space of being both a subject and an object simultaneously. And I think that it’s actually how many people are forced to inhabit the world. So, I think that it’s generalizable in that reality. But I also think that because many of the practices are clandestine, I’m not interested in bringing them into representation outside of their specificity. I’m not trying to narc people out.

I think about that a lot, our relationship.. like what am I doing? I can only nod towards things. Again, I don’t want to be hyper specific about them. But that being said those are some of the moments that are so deeply generative to trans and queer world making. I think it can be so incredibly small, to something really large. It can be like when another trans person’s working at the cafe and they give you your food for free. It’s actually on those basic levels and how that changes the molecular structure of your body. I actually think about that a lot. And unfortunately, that’s becoming increasingly uncommon, it used to be more common, and like the 90s when there weren’t security cameras and all that kind of stuff everywhere, and you could just like, give someone a free coffee. Now that person will get taken to jail. I think that there’s that.

The examples that I use in the book, are Tourmaline has this really great film called The Personal Things which is this really short stop motion animation film about Miss Major, and it kind of narrates how she changed all of her gender markers. Then she changed them back again because she wanted to be recognized not as a cis woman, but indeed as a transgender person, and they wanted people to love her for that and to fuck all this other stuff. And to me, that moment is…. changing state issued identification was actually much easier in a clandestine way, 25 years ago, because there weren’t really massive computer systems. And they were just paper with a picture glued on it. And so I think about that as another way of resisting the biometric drive of the contemporary Settler State. There’s all these movements towards more gender options, which I think are fine. And different forms of biometric technology that are not predicated on gender. But I actually don’t think that any of those are going to necessarily get us any closer to freedom in a generalizable way. I understand that yes, they’re things that people need to stay alive right now and I always will support that. Especially for people that are in hyper-institutionalized situation. So I always will support that. But that being said, I don’t think that that can be the end of as Tourmaline puts it ‘our freedom dream’. I think that’s the way that we’re caught in the cycle of asking for something really small when what we want and need is actually something much bigger.

TFSR: I talked recently with a person who does the organizing with a trans woman inside. The beginning of the campaign was to get her moved to a woman’s facility. And it turned out, in retrospect that being in a women’s facility wasn’t safer than being a men’s facility. And now they’re denying other forms of support that she needs in there. So maybe that’s also a form of the incoherence. That sort of validation doesn’t necessarily lead to our survival. But you talked about Tourmaline and Miss Major, and you have this line from Tourmaline that I think is really important too. ‘It’s easy to be free’ which I think becomes irresistible. And you say about this line, ‘radical dreaming affords us the space of ease, which is how we might learn to feel freedom.’ Then you bring this to Miss Major’s life practice as an ‘organized yet improvisational practice in common that revels in pleasure and expropriation whose aim is to collectivize exposure toward the exposures abolition.’ That again is a quote from you.

Listening to you, in those like minor moments, I’ve been interested in certain radical trans theory lately that’s trying to think about the process of transition, also materially and collectively, not as this individualized gender journey, or whatever. I guess, to frame this as a question, you talk a lot about shared tactics of survival and beloved networks of care. I’m just wondering what you see in terms of trans, queer interdependence moving forward. It’s something obviously, that those of us who are here have benefited from in some way.

Sorry, I’m spinning out here about how do we make this a question. A lot of it’s just very inspiring to me and I find it very beautiful. So I wonder if you have more thoughts on on these ideas that I’m bringing up from your book?

ES: Sure. I mean, I think, for me, exactly what you’re saying… we’ve all benefited and helped produce these kinds of underground networks of care, that have been the materiality of survival for so many people. And I mean that in an actual way. I know that the other side of that is that not everyone has access to that. And so that’s also the reality as well. I’m always thinking about how we can expropriate resources from institutions that have them to support those networks, so that more of that kind of care can proliferate. So that doesn’t just become on one individual person to have to do a whole lot of labor for for many people. And that can look like a lot of different things. I think that a lot of the mutual aid projects that have popped up, not all of them, but many of them are really great and interesting, and I think have hopefully helped us all relearn what it means to be in radical relationality with each other. You know, that’s my more optimistic take.

But even on the more personal, more intimate level, I’m also interested in how these incredibly personal, hyper local, very specific moments string together to actually build the materiality of the world after the end of the world. And that’s why it’s already here and already possible. Again, turning to Tourmaline’s incredibly evocative and precise statement that ‘it’s easy to be free.’ What does it mean to sit with that statement? And to let that actually wash over you? Because we oftentimes don’t have the space or the time or the ability to do that.

TFSR: I find that really important. And one way that you put it in the book that I think is really helpful is calling for a collective life without universalism’s commitments, which I guess also goes back to my question ‘is this generalizable?” No. It’s maybe collective, you can collectivize it, but it’s not generalizable because it can’t be claimed universally. I just think that’s so important. And maybe it’s also where you get another limit of that representation, because either being careful, like you were saying, to not snitch on these moments of survival, but also the fear of losing them to the generality.

That’s the questions that I had prepared. I did have one thing just come up from the last thing you were saying. I was thinking about how people are afraid of the ‘Gay Agenda.’ That gay people, queer people, trans people are out to convert. I’m thinking about how you talk about the violence that gets it right and wrong at the same time. Because through these mutual practices of care, we do help each other become gay, or queer, trans. So we are doing that work, but it’s not the way that they think we’re doing it. We’re not like evangelical Christians. And I wonder if you have any thought about that kind of gay agenda logic?

ES: That’s funny, I was just talking about something kind of similar with a friend recently. Hmm. I guess how I would phrase it is that, hopefully we’re opening up the possibility for people to live. And so that can look like a lot of different things. And that can look like a lot of different things over time. And that’s something that I think we need a lot more of and sometimes that looks like recruitment. I think that’s fine, too. I’m from the 90’s. So we used to say that.

I think that when you are in the social worlds that allow you to rub up with other people living in such fierce beauty against the drives of the normative state, of course that that’s going to be contagious. Because you see all kinds of possibilities that have been substantially foreclosed to you your entire life. So you can feel that on a molecular level, and it’s terrifying and beautiful and invigorating and scary and all these things at once. But again, I think it radically opens up life worlds for us and new forms of relationality between us and others.

TFSR: That’s a really beautiful way to end our conversation.

Mèo Mun, Anarchist Views from Vietnam

Mèo Mun, Anarchist Views from Vietnam

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Mèo Mun is an anarchist collective working to make anarchist materials and ideas more accessible to a Vietnamese audience, together with providing an analysis of social struggles from a Vietnamese anarchist lens. Over the next hour you’ll hear three collective members, Mai, Will and tùng share their critiques of leftist misrepresentations of the Vietnamese State as Socialist, lasting impacts of imperialism and war on populations of Vietnam, the centering US imaginaries of Vietnam, the struggles of working class people in general (and queer folks and sex workers in particular) in Vietnam, nationalism promoted by the government and other topics.

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Transcription:

TFSR: Would you please introduce yourselves with any names, preferred gender pronouns, affiliations or political identities as make sense for this conversation? Can you tell us a little about… is it pronounced Mèo Mun?

Mai: Yes, it’s pronounced Mèo Mun. I’m Mai, I use any/all pronouns. I don’t particularly use any political label, but I adhere to many anarchist principles.

Will: My name is Will. I use they/them pronouns. I’m an anarcho-communist.

tùng: Hi, I am tùng. I use any/all pronouns, I am an anarchist against the state and capitalism.

TFSR: Thanks for being here!

So, I am excited to have this conversation with you, thanks for making time and effort to chat! As anarchists from Vietnam, could you give us some highlights of the history of libertarian anti-capitalist and anarchist ideas and movements in Vietnam and what the milieu looks like today? And what sorts of topics and engagement drive those groups?

Will: As a preface, we are quite cut off from our roots. Many of us had lived for decades until we even heard of the word that encompasses our ideas and ways of life. The elaborate and complex history of the struggle for liberation in 20th century Vietnam is painted with a single stroke: you were either a patriotic Stalinist or a reactionary traitor, a colonial, fascist collaborator. The Marxist-Leninists who now rule the country only came into power by systemically eradicating all the other oppositional currents, labeling them traitors, and so yeah, of course they’d like to have a clear black and white narrative, of course they’d like for there to be no nuances; they’d look kind of bad otherwise and that’d weaken their grip on power. So, documents about anarchism or general radicalism in Vietnam, that divert from the State’s narrative are usually inaccessible in Vietnamese, either as hard copies, or scattered around obscure corners of the internet. That’s why we are on our very own bumpy road to learn and reconnect with our roots.

Historically, anarchism in Vietnam never grew into a wide-spread political movement. However, the struggle against the state, particularly states of the most populous ethnic group—the Kinh / Viet—can be traced all the way back to feudal times. Ethnic minorities living in upland Vietnam have been resisting the Kinh / Viet state’s expansionism for a very long time. James C Scott remarks in the book The Art of not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia that many aspects of their cultures and ways of living can be read as anti-state and anti-authoritarian, meaning that they have, in a way, long practiced the tradition of keeping the state at arm’s length, out of their affairs. Their struggles continue until this very day, and we have much to learn from them. We must stress, though, that we should not retroactively apply the label “anarchist” to these groups and their practices, nor should we call what they do “anarchism.” As Simoun Magsalin, our Filipino comrade, observes about the anarchist milieu in the archipelago: we should be critical of the anarchist equivalents of a “noble savage” trope, and the search for a “pure” indigeneity unspoiled by the State that decolonization can return to. In the same vein, we have before criticized the idea popular amongst many Marxist-Leninists, that homophobia in Vietnam is solely a product of Western colonialism, and pre-French colonial Vietnam was a haven for queer people. Oof.

Anarchists, as well as radicals influenced by anarchist principles, also participated in the struggle against colonialism and imperialism of the 20th century. For example, under the yoke of French colonialism, the radical Nguyen An Ninh called for the youth of Vietnam to “reinvent itself and take control of its own destiny.” He critiqued the Confucian family values of parental authority, gender inequality and traditional morality, encouraging people to “break with the past and free themselves from tyranny of all kinds.” He fought side by side with other anarchists and libertarian communists such as Trịnh Hưng Ngẫu and Ngô Văn (a former Trotskyist), in the labor movement. But as we’ve mentioned before, the Stalinists came into power by systematically eradicating all the radicals from oppositional currents like the anarchists, and indeed the Trotskyists who were brutally slaughtered. Ngo Van, the former-Trotskyist-turned-council-communist who we mentioned earlier, went on to produce many materials critical of the authoritarian, counter-revolutionary nature of the Stalinists after fleeing their persecution to France.

Mai: As for the contemporary anarchist milieu in Vietnam, it is extremely vulnerable and atomised. We simply don’t have contact with other groups, even though there might be quite a few out there. Those groups might wisely want to keep more to themselves rather than reaching out, since state repression is quite severe. This is a challenge for us, as one of our goals is to find a way for Viet anarchist groups to safely connect, communicate, and exchange experiences, if they so wish. Another reason is that our milieu has been chronically isolated from the milieus in other countries. There are many reasons for this lack of international interaction, such as language barriers and, again, state repression, but also a relative lack of support, solidarity and understanding from the Western left and anarchist community. We believe that anarchism, as a method of revolution, cannot be applied successfully by an isolated group, in other words, without international solidarity. The exchange of information and ideas, as well as the interlinking of our struggles are absolutely essential for the mutual strengthening of anarchist communities. And so, at the moment, building coalition with other milieus in South East Asia is one of the tasks that we prioritize. It’s also why we really appreciate the opportunity you have given us here on the podcast today!

Having said that, we are aghast that in many leftist circles in the West, Vietnam is painted as this Socialist haven where people think and act like a hive-mind, and the only ones speaking against the state are reactionary traitors, or CIA agents. So-called anarchists are paying to be fed those lies; so-called anarchists are capitalizing on those lies. We’ve lost count of how many times we have been fed-jacketed without any evidence whatsoever, and the people exposing us to harassment and doxxing got away scott-free. This stems from how the struggles in Vietnam and other over-exploited countries have been ignored by the majority of Western leftists for decades, especially when we can’t be used as ammunition in their own political discourse. This makes talking about our experience in Vietnam all the more dangerous, and it actively discourages anyone who might start speaking out.

As we touched on a bit before, organizing outside of the state framework in Vietnam, whether online or on the ground, is dangerous: the threats of police violence and incarceration are always looming over us and our loved ones. Many leftists seem to think of Vietnamese police as heroic defenders of the working class. It really shouldn’t need to be stated, but no, they’re not. Vietnamese police exists to protect the State and capitalist property in Vietnam. Police violence and deaths in custody in Vietnam are a well-documented reality. In Vietnam, the ruling party holds all executive, legislative and judiciary power. Cops don’t even need a court subpoena to enter our houses. Commoners like us grow up being taught to stay away from cops and everyone is used to bribing them. As for the law, there is a clause against the making, storage and spreading of material for the purpose of opposing the state and you could be sentenced to 5 or 12 years, if you’re caught.

Speaking from personal experience, many Viet anarchists seek out anarchism because we are marginalised in other ways on top of being exploited by capitalists as workers. Within Mèo Mun, many of our members are queer, disabled, and/or young. Some were radicalised while trying to organize rather unfruitfully within the liberal framework. Some have cited the horrible abuse they have suffered under the education and medical system. Some used to organize as Marxist-Leninists, simply because Marxism-Leninism is synonymous with Communism in Vietnam, but then can’t reconcile their reality with such an ideology anymore. So queer liberation, youth liberation, as well as disability justice and care are some of the passions that keep us going.

And also, I think I forgot to introduce a bit about Mèo Mun as a collective. Would it be possible for me to do that now?

TFSR: Of course!

Mai: Ok, so Mèo Mun is an anarchist collective working to make anarchist materials and ideas more accessible to a Vietnamese audience, together with providing an analysis of social struggles from a Vietnamese anarchist lens. Specifically, we do the work of archiving, translating, and disseminating anarchist texts, which can be found on the online Southeast Asian Anarchist library. There is also a very gradual translation of English Wikipedia pages related to anarchism into Vietnamese. You know, because Wikipedia tends to be the first place people come to for a basic understanding of new concepts. We try to reach a wider audience on social media as well, and we write and speak to educate people on what our experiences in Vietnam are like. The anarchist milieu in Vietnam is very atomized, so one of our goals is to connect Viet anarchists together, and provide a safer space for them to express themselves and exchange ideas, without fear of state repression, or mass harassment from statists and nationalists. Naturally, we make an active effort to include Viet anarchists in the diaspora in our organizing.

Individually, our members also participate in feminist, queer liberation, youth liberation and prisoners solidarity organizing.

TFSR: Awesome, thank you so much for the really thoughtful answers you’ve been giving, very clear.

So, you’ve already spoken on the pervasiveness of the police state and mentioned capitalist property and some other things in Vietnam. I would love to hear your perspectives on the political and economic direction of the State of Vietnam. An essay of yours that caught my attention is entitled “The Broken Promises of Vietnam” in which you argue that the “Socialist Republic of Vietnam” is not actually socialist. You describe similar instances of neo-liberal national economic infrastructure development taking precedence over preserving ecosystems and leaving intact indigenous communities, let alone general public health. You also describe a government wielding a Nationalistic vision of citizens that excludes ethnic and sexual minorities and that allows for billionaires to rise while the working classes and peasants are displaced. Can you talk about this, about those broken promises and who are some communities most imperiled by the Nationalistic tenor of the CPV?

Will: So, in terms of politics, Vietnam is a crony Capitalist country. The success of a business depends entirely on how well they could navigate the unofficial channels of the state, on their relationships with the government or Party members and how much money they are willing to spend on bribery. Officially, Vietnam is dubbed a Socialist country, but the class stratification can be observed in our everyday life. We have a so-called “People’s” billionaire, Pham Nhat Vuong, who, allegedly, built his empire from shaking hands with government officials to hoard land at a dirt-cheap price. He owns a total of $7.3 billion in assets, equivalent to the total assets of about 800,000 Vietnamese (on average). Very Socialist! Not to mention that Vietnam also has many other billionaires, enough to have a Shark Tank show right on national television. The very first promise, that the commoners who sacrificed everything for Vietnam’s liberation would be directly in charge of it, was shattered the very moment the Vietnamese government came into being.

The current Secretary of the Communist Party also openly praises capitalism, spicing it up with some superficial lukewarm critiques of capital! He said, and I quote: “We acknowledge that Capitalism has never been as global as it is today and has achieved many great achievements, especially in the utilization and development of productive capabilities and scientific-technological progress.” So, we’re just supposed to ignore all the toils the working class has historically and currently endured under capitalist Vietnam, for a Communism that may never even come! The end justifies the inhumane means, apparently.

As for nationalism, we mentioned it in the article “The Broken Promises of Vietnam,” but if you speak up and criticise the State, no matter how valid your points, how copious your evidences, you will be seen as going against the Vietnamese people, the Vietnamese nation, because the government has a vested interest in confusing party loyalty with the very natural and precious love that we have for our culture and fellow Vietnamese.

And as you know, nationalism sells the lie of a trans-class solidarity, that we Viet workers have more in common with Viet capitalists like Pham Nhat Vuong, rather than with fellow workers from China, Cambodia, Myanmar, or indeed the US. While in reality, Vietnamese capitalists and government go hand in hand with capitalists the world over to brutally exploit Vietnam’s cheap labor and natural resources. This can be observed in the outsourced manufacturing of electronic components and textile products to Vietnam, in the many Special Economic Zones that are mushrooming all over the country. There can’t ever exist any meaningful solidarity between us, between the capitalists and the working class, and the people in power are understandably frightened that the workers in Vietnam would one day see through this gross lie.

Consequently, they are dead-set on stoking the nationalist flame in Vietnam. That’s why career communists based in Vietnam spew absolute nonsense like “nationalism is crucial to communism in Vietnam.” Actually, Vietnamese nationalism is crucial to Vietnamese capitalism and authoritarianism. And the indoctrination process starts young.

Let’s examine the 5 commandments that Uncle Ho, Ho Chi Minh, taught Vietnamese youth:

1. Love your Fatherland, love your compatriots.

2. Learn well, work well.

3. Good unity, good discipline.

4. Good hygiene.

5. Be modest, honest, and brave.

These are hung in almost every classroom in Vietnam (usually with a photo of Uncle Ho). Many students are forced to learn them by heart. What comes first in these teachings? “Love your Fatherland.” Your fatherland comes before your compatriots. Children, who have not yet understood the concept of a “Fatherland,” let alone fully grasping what loving a Nation-state implies, are taught to put their “Fatherland” before themselves, before their family and friends. The next commandment: “Learn well” and “Work well.” For whom? In our opinion, also for your Fatherland, which is to say, for the state and the capitalists.

If you dare to question any of that, you’d likely be branded a traitor, a reactionary, a fake Vietnamese. If you dare to be “lazy” and not “work well,” you are a burden on society (disabled veterans in Vietnam are literally called “invalids;” we have “The Ministry of labor – War Invalids and Social Affairs”). The purpose of Vietnam’s education system, in our opinion, is to shape students into obedient workers or cogs in its capitalist machine, similar in essence to any other capitalist education system.

Also, many well-known authors whose works are featured in Vietnamese textbooks also incessantly preach nationalism and the idolatry of political figures like Uncle Ho, Lenin, and yes, Stalin. A 1993 poem by Tố Hữu, famed Vietnamese poet, reads:

Oh, Stalin!

Alas, do the earth and sky mourn Your departure

If I’m to love my father, my mother, my husband

and myself one, then I love You ten.”

So, “I love you three thousands, Stalin.” Ouch! That’s not very good…

Consuming products from Viet brands and Viet media is widely considered “patriotic.” Which makes non-consumption unpatriotic. How convenient for the market economy! Oh and, not only Viet media, but also foreign media which uses Vietnamese labor. In 2018, a Hollywood blockbuster was filmed in HaLong Bay, Vietnam. The film set was then utilized by the authority as a tourist attraction. The whole issue of how that movie depicts US soldiers in Vietnam and local people asides, as we read about and cheer for the ongoing IATSE strike, we can’t help but wonder if Vietnamese actors, extras and crew hired in film productions outsourced to Vietnam are compensated fairly and equally compared to their US counterparts. Fun fact: there hasn’t been a legal strike in more than 25 years in Vietnam. The General Confederation of labor, which is supposed to represent the interests of the workers, hasn’t been organizing strikes, and so all the strikes that did take place were illegal. It’s apparently unacceptable for the workers to organize and demand better conditions for themselves; a workers’ struggle is only legitimate in the eye of the state if the state can control its direction.

Mai: A field where nationalist sentiments are particularly intense is sport, mainly soccer. There was this photo of a person holding a portrait of Uncle Ho at a soccer match, which went viral a while back. That photo was said to be the evidence that Viet people love Uncle Ho. What was conveniently not mentioned is how the sport scene in Vietnam is one of the best showcases for how poisonous Vietnamese nationalism is.

Rampant on Vietnamese Social Media is the xenophobic attitude when our national football team have a match, especially with other Southeast Asian teams. If the referee makes a decision that’s unfavorable for the Vietnamese team, their Facebook or other social media accounts will be flooded with tons of vitriol and death threats. The same thing will happen to the opposing team’s players if they were deemed “too aggressive” or simply scored the decisive goal. It’s even worse with women teams, where there’ll be slews of misogynist, transphobic and degrading language. Many Viet sport fans like to joke that all Thai women are transgender women, with the heavy implication that they are not “real” women. To the nationalist sport fans, all the other teams are inferior, mixed-blooded, full of unnatural citizens, and hence has an unfair advantage. To them, the Vietnamese team is simply the best; any losses are only due to these unfair advantages.

As you may also know, nationalism seeks to create an in-group, out-group mentality, and Vietnamese nationalism constantly and violently excludes Viet ethnic minorities. A stark example is how the education-indoctrination system strips them of their culture and language. There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, with more than 100 Vietnamese dialects, yet there is only one official language taught in school and used in exams, the language of the dominant Viet Kinh group. This naturally puts people from other ethnic groups at a huge disadvantage. Many schools force their students to wear áo dài as uniform, regardless of their ethnicity, even though áo dài is a Kinh garment. Attempts to even out the ground for ethnic minorities face vicious backlash from Viet Kinh people, such as when the government tried to give bonus points in the national university entrance exam for ethnic minority students. Instead of getting rightfully angry at an education system which dehumanizes its students, forcing them to brutally compete with their peers for a chance to be exploited by capitalists, many Kinh people blamed and unleashed their wrath on ethnic minorities.

Those are our observations about the political and economic situation in Vietnam. Based on those symptoms, and dare we also draw some parallels with certain formerly “Communist” countries, we could tentatively share our guess on the direction of the Vietnamese state and its so-called Socialism-oriented market strategy, should it continue to fester unchallenged. However, we are not prophets speaking gospel, nor scientists playing with solid statistics here; we will not invoke some sacred words like “science” and “materialism” and from that claim absolute truth. What we will say is this: without mass mobilization and resistance of the working class, the Vietnamese state will strengthen its grip on the populace, through law, nationalism or hierarchical social conditioning. And capitalism, hand in hand with the state, will dig its claws further into the exploited classes, drawing out from them all they can offer. The working class of Vietnam will be further fragmented as capitalism consolidates its influence together with its exploitation, delegitimizing worker struggles against it. This would ingrain a sense of resignation and self-absorbed struggle in individual workers and prevent the building of solidarity amongst them.

TFSR: Some proponents of what’s called “Socialism” in Vietnam will argue that, in fact, the work that the Communist Party has brought forth has improved the quality of life of people in Vietnam. Have you heard of this claim, does that ring true in your experience that there has been development in the quality of individuals’ lives economically or educationally that could be attributed specifically either to so-called Socialism in Vietnam or through improvements from market society?

Mai: Why yes, we’ve heard this argument before, and our eyes roll every time. First, it is undeniably true that the qualify of life has been raised. And so what? That doesn’t prove that the same couldn’t have been achieved under another political system; life everywhere has been improving. Where is the evidence to pin this development on the so-called Socialism of Vietnam? It’s a wishy-washy way to justify the authoritarianism of the Vietnamese state and deflect from valid criticisms.

Will: And to add on to that, a suitable analogy would probably be prisoners not having to work as much. Sure, it’s an improvement to before, that still doesn’t change the fact that they’re still prisoners, still robbed of freedom and forced to toil under the same old master. Same thing here. Great, now we have internet; we also have no union to defend us against exploitation by the capitalists. Great, we get fastfood; we also have a state that’s just free of any control mechanism and can do what it wants (that’s how’s hierarchies of power work!). Great, we have iphones, ipads and gucci. The workers manufacturing for those corporates certainly can’t afford iphones, ipads and the newest gucci bag! But, whatever. So, okay, nice, quality of life has gone up. We’re not gonna say that’s bad, that’d be kind of stupid. But at what cost, in what context? The growth of quality of life is a good thing, but you can’t just ignore everything else surrounding it. A pizza party is nice, but you know what is nicer? Being in charge of our own life, our fruit of labor, and not being exploited and robbed of freedom. Partially because it includes a pizza party in it.

Mai: This line of argument also exposes a double standard casually applied for us people in over-exploited countries by many leftists and anarchists. Would you say the same to, say, queer people in more prosperous countries. “Hey you can get married now, you can even adopt children now. Why don’t you praise and be grateful to your capitalist government?” I’m sure there are people saying this to marginalised groups in more prosperous countries, but any anarchists worth their dime would vehemently and rightfully refute it. Yet everyone seems to be fine when this argument is casually thrown at people in so-called Third World countries. As if we’re supposed to be grateful for more crumbles! No, we want a seat at the table. We want everyone to have a seat at the table!

TFSR: Yeah, and when you’re referring to industrialists in Vietnam having an income level equal to, I think you said, 80,000 other people.. At what cost and how is that distributed?

Will: Yeah, also it’s 800,000 people.

TFSR: Excuse me, factor of ten… Thanks for being willing to tackle that question

What might be visions of libertarian communist approaches to some of the questions of raising the quality of life for people in Vietnam? Is that the sort of framing that you would use for a positive anarchistic vision forward? It seems like, just to add on, I’ve heard that in some countries that are ostensibly Communist or Socialist that people who are critical of the government sometimes have an allergy to those terms, to a positive turn of those turns, because it’s been shoved down their throats in such a negative way.

Will: Yeah, well…

Mai: Definitely, yeah [laughs]

Will: To me, it’s about representation. The State, this grand old thing, imposed all of those things on them, so I mean what choice do they have?

First and foremost, it must be said before any libertarian communist or anarchist vision can be realised, the people in Vietnam have to recognise that there exists deep problems with the current political system, and that there are solutions to those problems. The sad reality is this: the majority of Vietnamese people are alienated from politics (as authoritarian states tend to do to the people they oppress). So, politics is something done to them, rather than by them.

The state has built up for itself a shining image of legitimacy. And so even though many will say that there are problems with Vietnam as a whole, they are unlikely to be able to pin that to the political system. Maybe they can say that corruption is a severe problem of Vietnamese society. Maybe they can connect it to individual politicians and their supposed moral failing. But they won’t be able to say that corruption is only a symptom of the system and that, more specifically, hierarchies of power are simply incompatible with the interests of those at the bottom of the hierarchy, of the majority. Maybe they would even say that the one-party system is clearly not working, but mistake the illusion of choice of multi-party system for total liberation, for freedom. The root of the problems just eludes many.

There is also a sense of apathy and learnt helplessness that has been ingrained into the population, and so, as of now, the potential of political action and change is not great. This exacerbates the previous problem, in the sense that, even if a majority of people recognize the root of the problem, they do not think that they themselves and, only themselves, have the power solve it. Or they think that the alternatives would only be even worse: either U.S. capitalism/liberalism or the kind of “Communism” with severe scarcity and corruption before the Đổi Mới reform — which mind you many Vietnamese still remember and are understandably frightened of. This is what we mean when we say Vietnamese people are alienated in politics.

We also recognise that historically in Vietnam, the traditional labor movement has alienated many groups, such as ethnic minorities, sex workers, people of marginalized genders and sexuality, disabled people, unemployed people, criminalized people, and young people. Moving forwards, it is important to make our movements inclusive enough for the many fronts against various forms of oppressions, not just class struggles. Of course, the working class is the only class capable of toppling capitalism, but our definition of “work” and “workers” needs to change radically.

So… a vision—a hope even—is that, through putting their predicament under the capitalist society of Vietnam into perspective and laying bare the fact that no one but themselves have the power to change it all for the better, people will gradually be free of the mental limitations and have the want to take control of their lives instead of putting it at the mercy of “the powers that be.” And when the recognition, the will and the want, happens, we trust that they will go only one short step further and come to adopt libertarian communist approaches for their struggles, even if they don’t declare themselves to be affiliated with any specific ideology. Again though, we are not prophets and to prophesize on a strict revolutionary form is an unwise and pointless endeavor.

But if we can say one thing about our approaches and our visions for a better quality of life in the future, we may call attention to community building. Given what we mentioned earlier regarding the alienation of the worker and the fragmentation of the working class, there is merit in considering a parallel process: of healing the wounds of alienation that capitalism left on all of us; and of educating each other on essential political knowledge, examples being food sovereignty, pre-figurative social organizing, and independent union building. And in an age where technology has become an integral part of our lives, it is short-sighted to overlook or undermine the importance of online organizing. The social relations produced and reproduced through online organizing is every bit as pre-figurative as the social relations of on-the-ground organizing. Certain aspects are different, sure, but the essence of it is the same: the building and maintaining of structures capable of facilitating our interactions as equals. Through our own organizing, we’ve also found online archiving and dissemination of anarchist materials to be critical in the context of our milieu in Vietnam, where severe censorship and state repression have proven to be highly effective in weeding out dissenting voices, and isolating those who would otherwise band together to collectively speak out against the state narrative.

And as to the framing… Yes! I think this is the framing that we will proceed with. Unlike the previous revolution in our history, ours won’t be one where the people are pushed into a so-called revolution by some self-righteous vanguard party. That kind of revolution has proven itself to be undeniably disastrous. And we would love to not repeat that. The true revolution should be a continuous process, in which everyone can partake right here, right now, on their own volition.

TFSR: Would you speak about the situation in Vietnam for people of marginalized genders, queer folks in Vietnam as well as folks criminalized for sex work?

Mai: Sure. The situation for queer folks is not great, though getting better. Same-sex marriage was criminalized until 2015. Then, the law prohibiting same-sex marriage was abolished, but it is still not legalized. So, since marriage comes with certain privileges in our current society, many queer people in Vietnam are stigmatized and barred from the medical, financial and other material privileges that their non-queer counterparts couples enjoy. Marriage equality is the front in which liberal organizations working within the state framework seem to pour a lot of effort.

For transgender people, as far as we know, there isn’t a single hospital in Vietnam that is allowed to perform gender-affirming surgeries for so-called “normal” people, only for people who were in an accident or have “birth defects.” At the same time, non-consensual, non-medically necessary medical interventions are still performed on intersex children, as they are permitted by law.

Transgender people who wish to undergo gender-affirming surgery often have to go through an intermediate center, and the whole process (examination, papers and surgery) is usually done in Thailand. Hormone therapies are not easily accessible through mainstream methods, but through the black market. They really have to bet their lives if they want to use hormones. Not only that, because of low supply and having to do surgery abroad, the amount of money one needs to spend to undergo gender-affirming surgeries can be approximately $20,000, even more if you account for long-term hormone treatments. To put this into perspective, the average yearly household income of a Vietnamese person is $2,235, before food and rent/mortgage and such. And remember, the $20,000 is only for the surgery. So, the cost is an absurdly high amount for the majority of Vietnamese people, who have to work hard just to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.

About sex work in Vietnam, we will speak not from personal experience, but from a place of legality and personal observation. Legally, sex work and even pornography are criminalized; sex workers used to face incarceration in so-called “rehabilitation centers” and still are charged with hefty fines if caught in raids, they are subjects of systemic stigmatization and discrimination as well, especially sex workers living with HIV. It was not until 2013 that detention center number 05 was shut down; it’s the rehabilitation center in which sex workers and drug users were detained and regularly subjected to forced labor disguised as “career training.” Supposedly, the closing of this detention center happened under the pressure from, as far as we know, an organization by and for sex workers in Vietnam called Vietnam Network for Sex Workers, amongst others. We could not find other sources to corroborate this, however, so we can’t say for certain this is what happened. Although, we certainly hope so! We suspect the reason for the scare sources has to do with the media not wanting to acknowledge sex workers’ existence since sex workers in Vietnam exist in this limbo wherein they’re criminalized, stigmatized, but also hyper-visible.

As for major queer, feminist, and sex worker organizations outside of the State framework, we are not aware of any, unfortunately. Yes, organizations that do not directly associate with the government exist; NGOs are by no means illegal. But that doesn’t mean they’re outside of the State framework. To truly be outside of the State framework, an organization must have the aim to work outside of that framework in the first place, hence giving a reason for organizing that doesn’t involve the State and doesn’t subject itself to the bounds the State establishes. There is no such thing as being accidentally outside of the State framework. And indeed, the organization we mentioned above express quite a bit of friendliness towards the state, which they view as well-intentioned but incompetent in execution with regards to programs for sex workers. We by no means wish to undermine or devalue their achievements; we applaud them for their efforts and are glad to know that there exists an organization standing for the interests of sex workers in Vietnam! But we cannot ignore the fact they achieved this only through the State framework, by cooperating and showing understanding to the machine which in the end perpetuates capitalism, and wish to see them exploited as workers. What they have accomplished is undeniably good, but in the long run, the state can never be a liberatory tool. Another thing is that a substantial part of their funding comes from liberal NGOs and NPOs. They themselves acknowledge that it is a challenge for them to organize without that funding, which will eventually go away. So once again, in spite of the good, we are obligated to point out that this form of organization cannot lead to the total liberation of the oppressed: an organization dependent on funding from liberal sources can never work to break free of the chains of the status quo, only the painstaking lengthening of those chains.

So we would say that the blindspots of the organizing by and for folks of marginalized genders, sexualities and sex workers in Vietnam is that there is no interlinking of struggles. The feminists can pinpoint the un0level playground between men and women, but many are oblivious to, say, class struggles, of ethnic minority women, of queer people and of sex workers. Indeed, feminism in Vietnam applauds the icon of a successful career woman, a girl-boss CEO who are not dependent on men. The same with queer people: many strive to assimilate into the cis-het society by broadcasting that they can be as “normal,” as successful in their careers as non-queer people. And so the poor queers, the disabled queers, the queers who are not Kinh, and many more, are further marginalized and don’t have a place within the queer community. On top of that, their organizing are dependent on the State framework, on funding from NGOs and NPOs: they need NGO and NPO money to campaign for the government to give them more rights. And in our opinion, that kind of organizing is not sustainable and will never lead to total liberation. There will always be people who are unlucky enough to be the scapegoat, who are at the bottom of the hierarchy and cast to the fringe of society.

TFSR: Speaking as someone from the so-called USA, which participated in much of the 35 years of war Vietnam experienced in the mid-20th century following centuries of colonial extractivism at the hands of the states of France, China, Japan and others, I wonder if you can talk about the legacy of colonialism and war are on the peoples and environment of Vietnam?

Mai: This is personal to us. In my family, leftovers are seriously frowned upon, even just a single grain of rice. I remember, this was when I was about 5 or 6, leaving the dining table after finishing the meal, and got called back to eat one single grain of rice left in my bowl. This is because there are family members who are still alive, who survived the Vietnamese famine of 1945, caused by Japanese and French colonialism, together with the US bombing the transport system. An estimated 2 million Vietnamese people starved to death. There is also the persisting catastrophe of Agent Orange. Personally, someone in my direct family was exposed, and we have to deal with various medical complications. Ironically, if you Google “Agent Orange,” the top results are almost all about its effects on US veterans; few are about its lasting effects on Vietnamese people and our ecosystem.

If you’d like to learn more about the atrocities that the US army committed in Vietnam, we’d recommend you to first, well, talk to Vietnamese people. You can also read the “Winter Soldier Investigation,” which consists of first-hand testimonies from GIs about the many daily My Lais that they themselves had committed or witnessed in Vietnam. You may notice that this investigation has the same name as a fictional character from a famous franchise widely regarded as pro-US military propaganda. Now, of course this could very well be a total coincidence, but even so, the incidental effect is quite real. It casts a shadow over the investigation mentioned above regardless. The way information about war crimes and its devastating aftermath on people outside of the US is obscured like that is just one in a million ways how US imperialism and cultural hegemony are harming us right this moment. And as far as we know, the documents from that [Winter Soldier] investigation hasn’t even been translated into Vietnamese for the younger generation to access and read about what happened to our predecessors.

Another product of US-centrism, which manifests plentily in anarchist and leftist circles: in political discourse, Vietnam, a country, a people with our own complex and diverse history, is constantly reduced to and talked about solely in our relation to the US. Not the whole span of that relation either, but only 20 years of slaughter and ecocide. For example, on the website of the longest running anarchist magazine in the US called The Fifth Estate, they have a page about Vietnam that is described as: “VIETNAM The failed US war and resistance to it from an anarchist/anti-authoritarian perspective”

Vietnam is not just a “failed US war.” Refusing to view us as humans with our own complex history and ongoing struggles leads to dissidents like us Viet anarchists, who don’t solely paint Vietnam as the US’ helpless victim, being branded “fake Vietnamese, CIA pawns, agent provocateurs.” The irony here is palpable. If you stop for one second and just look at the whole span of Vietnam’s relation with the US, you’ll see how the Vietnamese capitalists have no qualms shaking hands with US capitalists in their quest to exploit Viet workers. The Vietnamese and the US militaries are being all pally now, with weapon trades and personnel training courses! The US framework of every political topic is also routinely forced upon us, to the point that a Viet person who doesn’t understand every nook and cranny of US politics and its lexicon won’t be able to participate in political discourse without risking being torn apart, figuratively. Meanwhile, many US leftists/anarchists will brazenly insert themselves and their narratives in almost every conversation about Vietnam that we try to have, without taking the time and effort to learn the Vietnamese context.

And this benefits no one but US imperialism and, ironically, the Vietnamese authoritarians and statists. They capitalize on the very real frustration of Viet people who know that their struggle is completely ignored and dismissed by the US and Western left. They’d constantly and only talk about how horribly awful the US is, reducing Vietnam to its helpless victim — a glorious, brave and united nation against a common foreign enemy. On top of that, because social media favors moralized content, they’d build their platform on moralized, hateful language and rhetoric. They target a clueless Western audience who prefer self-flagellation and tokenism, rather than carefully examining information, educating themselves and developing their own analysis. When faced with criticism, the statists will weaponize their identities to silence and even harass their political opponents, accusing any Vietnamese speaking differently of being fake Vietnamese. Statists and career communists capitalizing on disinformation about Vietnam have threatened us with state violence and we have no doubt they will report us to the authority the first chance they’ve got. Of course, US imperialism permeates many corners of this earth, but to view, for instance, a Kinh Viet person living in Vietnam as merely a “person of color” erases the privilege that their ethnicity affords them domestically, erases the reason for their loyalty to the Vietnamese nation-state. We humbly ask people to de-center the US and its bloody war from conversations about Vietnam — it is long overdue. Thank you.

tùng: To add on to that, after the war, information about Agent Orange was slow in reaching Viet people, and so a lot went on to have children without having been adequately informed and prepared. I personally knew a family whose first child is blind deaf with intellectual disability, due to their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange. Without any compensation from the US nor adequate disability care from the Vietnamese government, the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange have to fend for themselves on their own, generation after generation. They receive about from $5 to $20/person/month, depending on the severity of their conditions and I think this money is not enough to survive on for a whole month.

And there are the millions of people who were displaced by the war, cut out from their cultural roots and families, forced to assimilate into a new society. Many lost their lives fleeing a war torn country with a shiny new state high on victory and hell bent on vengeance. The ones lucky enough to have reached their destinations and settled down know no ways of reconciling and reconnecting with their “đồng bào” — compatriots back in Vietnam. They can’t learn about the struggle in Vietnam without being manipulated and fed lies, thanks to state censorship and hateful nationalist sentiments.

TFSR: How can international listeners in the international community looking to be solidarity with struggles in so-called Vietnam and learn more & help? Are there any projects they can support or other sources of learning that you would suggest?

Will: There is a proverb in Vietnamese: “Nước xa không cứu được lửa gần,” which roughly translates to: “Water afar cannot put out a nearby fire.” So, the absolute best thing you can do for us, specifically, is to organize in your own community, and to educate yourself about the struggles in Vietnam, without unquestioningly absorbing disinformation like a sad sponge. It also helps if you rethink and refrain from projecting your own localized societal standards and frameworks onto situations in Vietnam, which usually have little in common. And this should be obvious, but: don’t use our struggles as mere ammunition in your struggles. When you go to do solidarity, you should not reduce us to media tokens and talking points.

As of now, Viet anarchists are outnumbered, our voices drowned out by pro-state propaganda. And so, every single person who refuses to fall for said propaganda is a win for us! You don’t need to listen to us, to Mèo Mun specifically, of course—we don’t claim to be the best source on every single topic related to the struggle in Vietnam, far from it—but please be very cautious of the disinformation from statists. Talk to as many Viet people as possible, and remember that we are not a hivemind and our experiences and opinions do vary! If you’re a reader, there are many texts on the Southeast Asian Anarchist Library concerning Vietnam and its history. So, do read close if you’re interested.

And if you’re into direct action, please pay attention to the migrant worker scene in your community. The conditions of Vietnamese migrant workers, especially undocumented ones, are often abysmal and they are extremely vulnerable to exploitation. And I’d dare to say that many so-called-Global-South migrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation. We’d be very happy to know that someone is looking out for them.

TFSR: Is there anything I failed to ask about that you’d like to discuss?

Will: Not really, but I’d like to, on behalf of Mèo Mun, express our heart-felt thanks to Burst for reaching out to us, for your very thought-provoking and interesting questions, and for spending time with us today. We appreciate your giving us this platform, and though we try our best to cover what we experience in Vietnam, at the end of the day, our experience is just an experience. It is not universal and by no means can we claim to speak for every Viet person. We only hope that our speaking up gives you some tiny glimpses into our lives and struggles, which similar to any lives and struggles, are human, messy, and imperfect. So thank you for listening and seeing us!

Mai: Thank you!

TFSR: Thank you, all of you, for participating in this and also to the collective for collaboration in the answers. And I appreciate you taking the time doing this in English for the audience, I’m looking forward to this being a contribution towards more international understanding and solidarity. So, thank you!