On March 21st, 2021, thousands entered the streets of Bristol in the UK to vent their anger at deaths in police custody, police violence on the streets, as well as a slate of repressive laws including the SpyCops Bill, increasing impunity for government officials breaking their own laws, as well as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and CourtsBill, or simply The Bill, targeting Roma people, Travelers, lengthens youth prison sentences and criminalizing dissent and protest amidst some of the harshest Covid-19 lockdowns the UK had seen. What became known as the Kill The Bill riot led to running fights with police, burnt cop cars, a dizzying disinformation campaign by police centering themselves as victims, and over 80 people arrested to date, with more being detained and some facing years in prison. From Monday the 25th & Wednesday the 27th of October 2021, defendant Ryan Roberts will be facing trial and is calling for international solidarity.
For the hour, Tom and Nicole of Bristol Anarchist Black Cross talk about the #KillTheBill, police violence in the UK, the radical scene in Bristol, anti-repression work of Bristol ABC & Bristol Defendant Solidarity, the legacy of former Bristol resident Anna Campbell, the cases of the Colston 4 as well as that of Toby Shone, prison expansion in the UK and more. To learn more about their work and how to support and write to Ryan Roberts and other #KillTheBill defendants, visit BristolABC.Wordpress.Com, and to you can search that hashtag on social media for a demo in your area to join in on or to advertise your solidarity action! If you happen to be in Manchester, there’s a demo on the 27th at 5pm at the Crown Court. And check the ongoing fundraiser for the defendants at GoFundMe!
Check our show notes for more links, including our conversation with Dónal O’Driscoll from November of 2020 about the SpyCops case. There’s also a new podcast out called SpyCops Info that includes folks who had been part of groups infiltrated by undercover pigs in the UK in past decades talking about individual cops and the ongoing inquiry that’s worth giving a listen to: https://tfsr.wtf/spycops
We’re releasing this interview a bit early so as to get word out about Ryan Roberts’ trial, so it’ll be a little longer of a wait between episodes.
New Eric King Solidarity Poster
There is a really cool poster available in solidarity with anarchist and antifascist prisoner, Eric King, who is facing trial in a Denver court on a frameup right now. The poster was produced by Radix Media and here’s what they had to say:
To support Eric King, we are releasing a limited edition of 35 posters carrying one of his revolutionary poems. All profits generated from the sale of the broadside will be sent to Eric’s support fund.
The print is approximately 12.5″ x 20″ and was letterpress printed in multiple passes on our vintage Vandercook proofing press.
Sean Swain is in danger of being out-of-state transferred again, to who knows where. His support crew are asking that folks call Ohio State Senator Teresa Fedor and Ohio State Representative Lisa Sobecki to express concern about Sean’s safety, access to his legal counsel as well as family and support network in Ohio, and to question the legality of sending Sean out of state without the legally required hearing with Sean attending, (which they skipped when he was sent to Virginia in 2019).
A reminder that if you’re in the Asheville area on October 30th (and vaccinated) and want to participate in the annual Prison Books & Tranzmission Prison Project halloween cover band show, it’s taking place at the outdoor and covered venue, Sly Grog! There’s a door fee and the list of bands is extra-ordinary! Check it out:
– Hunter A. Shackleford “Hunter Ashleigh Shackelford (they/she) is a Black fat cultural producer, multidisciplinary artist, nonbinary shapeshifter, and data futurist based in Atlanta, Georgia … They are the creator and director of a Southern body liberation organization, Free Figure Revolution, which focuses on decolonizing antiblack body violence … Hunter illustrates the relationship between Blackness, fatness, desire, queerness, and popular culture.” (Instagram: @huntythelion)
– Dr. Dorothy Roberts’ work on CPS and how anti-Black racism and fatphobia infect this institution.
– Health At Every Size, evidence based medical paradigm that heavily critiques the social constructions of “obesity” and diet culture, and aims to present folks with a compassionate and inclusive framework for taking care of themselves.
– Caleb Luna (Instagram: @chairbreaker Twitter: @chairbreaker_) “Caleb Luna (they/them) is a fat queer (of color) critical theorist, performer, poet, essayist, cultural critic, and performance scholar. As a Ph.D. candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley, their research focuses on performances of eating, and historicizing cultural representations of fat embodiment within the ongoing settler colonization of Turtle Island.
Autumn: Thank you so much for having me. So, Hello! My name is Autumn I use she / her pronouns. I’m really honored to be here and appreciate you taking the time to have me on air. Some background about myself, I am an anarchist scholar-activist who focuses on abolishing racial capitalism, through a Fat Liberation and Disability Justice lens. I am a white, Jewish, anti-Zionist, queer person. I’m a longtime organizer around mutual aid, present and border abolition and anti-fascism Palestine solidarity as well as some direct action. So, some of my work has focused on bringing a fat liberation lens to revolutionary anti-State left movements and looking at how we can create dialogue and, more importantly, coalition between our movements.
TFSR: That’s awesome. Do you have any more words to say about the like, scholar activist aspect to your work?
Autumn: Totally. So I think that scholar activism is basically a way of how can we reclaim or liberate intellectual work that is kind of sometimes held captive or gate-kept by like academic institutions and by this very capitalist idea of production and producing knowledge within academia. So scholar-activism, one way it works is through taking resources from academia and giving them back to on the ground organizers. Or sometimes it works. And it’s a form of, you know, creating knowledge by and for our movement, and creating kind of collective knowledge as opposed to this sort of like, again, capitalist colonial model of like the brilliant academic or the brilliant individual.
William: I love that. Thank you so much for going into that. So we’re here to talk about fat liberation. And like I said, before we started rolling the tape. This is a topic that I have wanted to cover on the final straw for some time now. So thank you, thank you. Thank you so much for being willing to speak on this. How did you come to be working toward fat liberation?
Autumn: Yeah, that’s a good question. So firstly, my life as a fat person, also as a disabled person, as a queer person, as a working class person is deeply effected by anti-Blackness. So if I want my life and the lives of folks in my community and my loved ones to improve, I really have no choice but to invest in Fat Liberation on as a revolutionary struggle. On a more macro level, I have a strong background in community organizing, as well as some anti-capitalist organizing. And, you know, when I first started organizing, I began to notice that when I would enter radical spaces or organizing spaces, there would be zero analysis around factors other than shallow and incorrect ideas, that top audience were simply the tragic result of State and Capitalist violence, like food deserts, and that really like bewildered and upset me because so many of the struggles that I faced in my life were connected to anti fatness. Specifically, you know, getting denied health care that I needed, not being seen as a survivor of sexual violence. And, you know, seeing fat liberation being used as a tool of white supremacy, particularly anti-blackness. One of the breaking points for both my class consciousness and my fat liberation politics was when I was at one of my former workplaces and a co worker was sexually harassing me and I reported it to my manager. And my manager basically looked at me up and down and laughed and told me that I wasn’t “pretty enough to be harassed.” And so then slowly, you know, kind of, I developed a concept like a consciousness around about activism, and I was introduced to the works of activists and scholars like Jervae, Hunter A. Shackleford, Dr. Sabrina Strings, Marquisele Mercedes, Caleb Luna, Da’Shaun L. Harrison, and others. And that really inspired me to understand liberation is not only connected to other revolutionary organizing struggles that I was a part of, but like integral to them. So we cannot have other revolutionary struggles for collective liberation without fat liberation.
William: Definitely. Yeah. And we’re gonna get into some more of what you just mentioned, I think, later in the interview. So, you and I believe another person have compiled a syllabus, entitled “fat liberation syllabus for revolutionary leftists.” And it has as a stated objective to confront fatphobia within radical spaces and also the entrenched liberalism within the more mainstream fat liberation movement. To just begin though, for any listeners who haven’t heard this term, will you just begin by saying what is meant by “fat liberation” and where it came from?
Autumn: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great question. So fat liberation is a radical, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-State movement that was started by fat, Black and brown, disabled, queer and trans people. It locates fatphobia / sizesism as a tool of capitalism, the state, white supremacy, colonialism, and specifically a tool of anti-Black, State violence. Bodies, especially body is commonly thought of as “deviant” or “unhealthy”, are often sites for state and capitalist violence of how we should offer as a lens to revolutionary transform how we think about bodies, how we think about medicine, how we think about healing. Which is really crucial for us as revolutionary leftists and how we organize to take care of one another outside of the state and outside of capitalism, as well as our work to abolish capitalism and all, you know, all settler colonial states. I think it’s really important to think about that liberation is not just another box to check off for the sake of like, liberal “diversity” or “inclusion” quotas. But instead, it’s a necessary framework that we should always be operating within our activist spaces.
William: Totally. So you mentioned fat phobia’s roots in colonialism and anti-Blackness, and anti-Black racism and not to put you in a corner or make you talk about stuff from a subjectivity that isn’t yours, but would you just talk a little bit about that, from your perspective, and what you’ve learned so far?
Autumn: Yeah, absolutely. So I first want to say that some of the really amazing scholar-activists who have done that work, I just want to shout them out and give credit where credit is due. And you know, if any listeners have financial resources, and can support these people, pay these people’s Patreon or donate to them, I really strongly encourage that. So there are folks like the Da’Shaun L. Harrison, who just recently published a book called I think it was just published in August. It’s called “Belly of the Beast: anti-fatness as anti-Blackness.” Dr. Sabrina Strings, who wrote a book about I think two years ago now called “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia”. Hunter Shackleford, who is a really amazing, fat, Black, academic, educator, artist, and activist. And basically, they’ve explained that the origins of fatphobia are very intertwined with the rise of colonialism and racial capitalism. And unlike other systems of oppression, we only have to go back about 300 or 400 years to kind of find the origins of fatphobia. And so if we think back to the original colonization of Turtle Island, or the so called so-called North America and the inception of the violence settler colonial nation on whose land we said, the so-called US. That original colonization was from Puritan European colonizers and one of the kind of ideas that they brought with them was the Protestant work ethic, which basically says that individuals who are”godly”, if they are disciplined if they’re hardworking, if they’re able to restrict themselves, whereas it is, quote, unquote, sinful to be lazy, you’re overindulgent. So this was a way of basically looking at the body and understanding that “Okay, so thin bodies, especially thin white bodies are hardworking and are disciplined and they’re able to restrict themselves. Whereas fat bodies are lazy, they’re overindulgent. Those are sinful, quote unquote, bodies.”
And so kind of the origin of anti-fatness in anti-Blackness is, we see it very much arising in the era of like 19th century eugenics. And this idea that white European scientists were trying to basically look at, look at like, physical characteristics and use that as a justification for the superiority of European white people, especially like Western European white people. So in that the used the idea that “okay, Black people tend to be larger than white people. So that means inherently that Black people are more ‘primitive,’ and they’re not able to control themselves as more they need to be controlled and restrained. Whereas like white people are able to have discipline and they’re more intelligent and their political more advanced.” And then, in the era of 19th century eugenics, that was when body mass index or BMI was like developed as a concept, and it was very much used to label white bodies, especially white men’s bodies as, normative or healthy and label Black people’s bodies as obese and unhealthy. And so this continues to this day, where we see the entanglements of fatphobia and anti black violence continuing medical establishments, again, we’re fat Black patients are less likely to receive care that they need. I mean, fat bodies in general are less likely to receive the care that they need, they’re often just told to just lose weight. The state, when they surveil and target Black, brown and indigenous communities for having “high rates of obesity” and then using that as a justification to have Child Protective Services come in and remove fat children. There’s a lot of work done by Dr. Dorothy Roberts on the child welfare system not actually being about child welfare just being another way for the state to like control and monitor Black families or indigenous families or brown families. And disproportionately, Black and indigenous children are removed from their homes for non-justifiable reasons and because there’s this… It’s hard to find the racial statistics of children who are removed from their homes, but because oftentimes “obesity” is used as a justification for that,, I think it’s pretty like easy to infer that that’s oftentimes a justification for removing Black and indigenous children from their homes.
You know, in terms of state violence, fat Black people like Kayla Moore and Eric Garner, and recently Ma’Khia Bryant were murdered by the police and then the police in the general public, blamed their murders on their fatness. Da’Shaun L. Harrison, who I mentioned before, discusses this justification for the state murders of black people in their book “Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness.” Does that kind of answer the question?
TFSR: Oh, yeah, totally. And it’s such a like, vast top pet topic that, you know, I think that you like, shout it out some really amazing resources. Sabrina strings is the one who I’m most familiar with. And her book “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia,” which is a fantastic breakdown by era: she looks at art history, she looks at the developing trade routes built on the back of enslaved people. She does all of this stuff. And it’s a really amazing, amazing resource.
Autumn: Absolutely. I really recommend that folks read that book and look into it.
TFSR: I also just want to like, name the… You know, you mentioned like treatment by your former manager, when you like brought concerns about your co-worker, and then saying that vile shit to you. That is like, completely unacceptable. And I’m so sorry that happened.
Autumn: Thank you. Yeah, no, thank you for sharing that. Yeah. And I think that that kind of highlights… I talked about it a little bit in the fat liberation syllabus, but there’s a really kind of disturbing intersection between fatphobia and rape culture that I don’t see getting talked about enough. And I’m hoping that those conversations can get started more.
TFSR: Absolutely. Hopefully this will like help start that conversation a bit. So, we talked about a little bit: in order to talk about how fat phobia and fatmisia, which is… Would you give a definition of fatmisia really quick?
Autumn: This is one of the first times that I’ve heard it, but I would say that it’s more kind of ideological understanding of this idea that fatness is something to be avoided or pathologized.
TFSR: And it’s like distinct from fatphobia in that like phobia is like a fear.
Autumn: Yeah, I’m not exactly sure how it’s… I think fat phobia is similar. I think sometimes fat phobia is used more in terms of thinking about how we internalize like anti fatness, and how that’s enacted in interpersonal interactions, or in communal interactions, whereas fatmisia is more like on a broader kind of ideological lens?
TFSR: That’s really helpful. Thank you. So, in order to talk about both of these things, and how they emerge in radical spaces, firstly, we could probably talk a lot about how it emerges in broader society. Since fatphobia, infects so much of the structures we are forced to contend with, like you mentioned, the medical industrial complex and the state for starters.. Not to like, start too big. This is a topic whose completeness may like be beyond the scope of a single podcast episode, but nevertheless, could you speak on this in a general sense, and the roots of fat phobia and fatmisia specifically, I know you touched on this a little bit before but do you have anything else you want to say about it?
Autumn: No, absolutely. So, and like any other system of oppression, there’s nothing natural about fatphobia or hating larger bodies. As humans, there’s nothing that’s like natural about us that says, oh, thinness is better. That’s completely socially constructed. Just you know, and this is a common disclaimer that I have to give or that a lot of like fat activists have to give. Anytime that we talk about fatphobia, one of the most common forms of backlash that I see is the claim that like, “Oh, it’s unhealthy to be fat, and there’s an obesity epidemic. And don’t you think that we should focus on health?” So, you know, I really wish that I didn’t have to give this kind of disclaimer, but you know, I won’t in this interview won’t be addressing the question of is it healthy to be fat, because health is multi dimensional, it’s not a measure of our worth, and nobody is obligated to be healthy. There are many people of all sizes, who have disabilities and chronic illnesses, who will never be “healthy” by normative standards. That said, it’s actually not unhealthy to be fat. And there’s a lot of scientific research and evidence that supports that conclusion. There’s a really valuable, evidence-based medical paradigm called Health at Every Size, which is readily available online, there’s a Health at Every science website, there’s a book by Lindo Bacon, called “Health at Every Size,” which, you know, people are interested in that you can go look at that.
And historically, you know, and before 300 to 400 years ago, fat bodies were actually kind of like revered and celebrated. I kind of mentioned earlier that the rise of fat phobia and the rise of the idea of the thin ideal is very rooted in the Protestant work ethic as well as this kind of neoliberal, bootstraps idea that weight loss is simply the result of hard work and discipline rather than the result of.. Most people who lose a significant amount of weight, gain it back within five years, and we have a lot less control over our weight over our bodies, than we’d like to believe. And, you know, importantly, our ideas about health and medicine are not objective or neutral. Black feminists, especially, have done a really good job at explaining how what’s often cast is supposed “objective medical facts” as actually completely socially constructed. There’s no evidence to support that. And again, as I mentioned before, in the age of 19th century eugenics, that was really the era that emerged that fatness was inherently unhealthy, and that people should be instructed to lose weight. You know, before that we don’t really see a lot of emphasis on weight loss is the key to health. People were really concerned about, like dying of dysentery. So, you know, if you were fat, you were considered like robust and healthy, because we’re less likely to die of all the infectious diseases. And so, as I mentioned, before, fitness became a marker of weight, especially Western European bodies being disciplined “intelligent, well controlled bodies” and Black bodies became seen as uncontrollable, and inferior political primitive. And, again, the fact that white scientists noticed that Black people were larger than white people that was used as a justification for the supposed inferiority of Black people.
And then in terms of the connection between fatphobia and capitalism… So there’s an at-least $2 billion weight loss industry. And as the center of the weight loss industry is this kind of myth of critical personal responsibility that you can have what is called the ultimate fantasy of corporeal malleability that is just like “if you just work hard enough, and if you’re just disciplined enough, and if you just, you know restrict… you just eat the right things, if you just eat like healthy organic food, and you just force yourself to eat that, that thinness can be achieved through that.” So and, importantly, there’s this kind of these two models of fatphobia that tend to emerge. This one of conservative contempt and this one of liberal pity or liberal fatphobia. So for example, conservatives believe that our people are simply lazy, that, you know, we just need to go to the gym or put down the cheeseburger. And then I mean, I wouldn’t even call the flip side cuz it’s not the polar opposite of this. But liberal fatphobia in this kind of liberal pity model looks down about people as objects of pity and views us as abject and diseased. And as the result of, you know, structural problems like GMOs and food deserts. And oftentimes, this is very racialized, like this is oftentimes, white liberals looking down at fat Black and brown people and just thinking “Oh, they just need to be taught to like, eat better, basically,” through a very kind of like paternalistic forms of intervention. And I just really want to touch on that, you know, conservative contempt and liberal pity, are not polar opposites, right? They’re kind of different sides of the same coin. Like they both result from this idea that fatness is pathological and that it needs to be eliminated.
William: That’s a really amazing breakdown. They like as a sort of like the double prong not even like dualistic because like you said, it’s not it’s not polar opposite like the conservative and liberal like lenses through which this is, you know, largely viewed in society is like really interesting to think about. And also the neoliberalism inherent in the weight loss industry to is I think we’re totally remarkable, like the whole like individual focus on like your individual effort or whatever it’s, it’s like tantamount to being “oh, all y’all who are like buying a new toothbrush every year, you’re, you’re causing climate change,” or whatever. You know, it’s totally ridiculous. But, at the same time, it just rules so much of how this is viewed.
Autumn: Absolutely. And I would say that that really shows how we think about health, and just how we think about wellness. Because I think that there’s this really great podcast that I maybe will mentioned in some of the…, I don’t know if maybe we don’t mention that later, but it’s called, it’s called Food Psych. And the person who like is the host, her name is Christy Harrison, she’s an anti-diet dietitian. And she talks a lot about the social determinants of health and how only about 30% of health outcomes are determined by individual health behaviors, including things like smoking, or having unprotected sex. Which are, you know, but no judgement, of course, it just causally linked to health risks. But I think that just goes to show that the real threats to our health are not necessarily like what we eat, or how much we exercise, but stress caused by racial capitalism, caused by poverty, caused by state violence. And I sort of wonder when we’re so focused on “how can I personally restrict my consumption? So I don’t cause global warming?” or “How can I eat as healthy as possible so I will have good health outcomes?” Rather than, like, “how has racial capitalism and how is the state making us sick, and basically having a really detrimental effect on our bodies and minds.” And it’s kind of like a distraction from the important questions.
TFSR: Absolutely. And just to support that, briefly, I have a friend who’s an ER nurse who says that about 95% of everything he sees is a direct result of racialized capitalism.
Autumn: Absolutely, just like, stress, especially stress that’s directly caused by racial capitalism is probably one of the worst things for our bodies and our minds.
TFSR: To touch also briefly on the liberalism in the fat liberation movement aspect of your work, specifically, you write and compile resources about the interaction of the “body positivity,” and “diversity” aspects to capitalism and toxic diet and culture. Would you expand on this and say a few words about how this also influences more left radical spaces?
Autumn: No, for sure. So the term “body positivity,” to me, it’s pretty meaningless and I feel like it’s basically become this kind of individualistic self help movement, which locates the solution to fatphobia in individuals loving their bodies, and, you know, separate from anything that’s political. There’s nothing wrong with with self love, I think it can be really helpful. But as activists, we need to be invested in a political revolutionary movement, rather than focusing on self help. And so I think that there’s just a lot of ways that, especially now, you will see capitalism really kind of co-opting body positivity. Like if you go on Instagram, like you’ll see so many companies like trying to sell you something by proclaiming how “inclusive” or “diverse” they are. I think what is especially harmful about that is when companies like do try and showcase fat people, or when celebrities try and showcase fat people in their music videos. It’s like fat people are like treated as props to show how diverse and inclusive a celebrity or a corporation is. For example, I think there’s like two years ago now, Miley Cyrus had a video, I think it’s called “Mother’s Daughter” and in the video… It’s supposed to be representation of… they show a fat person and they show someone who uses a wheelchair and they show someone breastfeeding. But then, you know, thin, white Miley Cyrus, able bodied Miley Cyrus is still the center of the music video. And so in that instance, it’s you know, that’s just an example I would say of fat people or disabled people becoming these props to just like prove, how invested Miley Cyrus’s and like diversity and inclusivity.
And so my theory is that there hasn’t really been a lot of conversation, at least in my experience, it’s changing some which is great, between fat activists and revolutionary and anti-state leftists. I think a lot of that is definitely due to fatphobia on the left. But more broadly, I think fat liberation tends to get siphoned off into these kinds of specific fields such as, at best being about like public health and at worst being on this kind of individualistic like self help movement that’s led by Instagram influencers with clothing companies. And so that doesn’t really allow space for us to draw connections and coalition’s between fat liberation and anti-state, anarchists or leftist movements such as, you know, abolishing racial capitalism, and abolishing prisons and borders, and why fat liberation as a part of that. And if there was that coalition, if those conversations were happening, we wouldn’t have people who have been really active in the body positive or the health of every size movement, being for example, Zionists, or endorsing Elizabeth Warren. One glaring example without naming names is there’s this person who has been a central figure in some “body positive” or “fat spaces,” is a fat person and has written some like influential books about health and advertising. And that person is a zionist, and has literally publicly claimed that fat activists need to support the State of Israel. And so a radical intervention into that line of thought would be to understand how colonial states like the so-called US and Israel often use the logic of diet culture and fatphobia to uphold genocidal violence and occupation. So, for example, Israel literally restricts the amount of calories and food that goes into Palestine. I want to be really clear here that I’m in no way equating being a fat person or being someone targeted by diet culture in the US with being a Palestinian living under Israeli apartheid or Israeli occupation. But I think understanding how diet culture and fatphobia is used as a tool of colonialism and occupation… I think that’s really important for thinking about fat liberation as an internationalist, an anti-colonial project and I think that that leads the way for some really exciting potential coalition between fat activists and, you know, those of us fighting for the Liberation of Palestine.
TFSR: Absolutely, I had no idea that the State of Israel was doing that bullshit. That is really Stark and very, very troubling. I’m wondering, too, so just to narrow the focus perhaps onto like radical and anarchist spaces. There’s many, many, many ways that fatphobia and fatmisia, like spin out in anarchist spaces and rad spaces. But one of those that you mentioned in your syllabus, is that people sometimes exhibit the unfortunate tendency to equate fatness with capitalism. Can you expand on how you see this happening?
Autumn: 100% Yeah, so I never want to see another anarchist, or another leftist graphic that uses fat bodies as a metaphor for capitalism, or bosses or the police. So I feel like I’ve seen a lot of graphics that show like workers tearing down the big fat boss. And I just want to facepalm whenever I see that, because that’s a great way to alienate fat comrades. That imagery is especially ironic because, like other marginalized groups, statistically fat people are more likely to be paid less, and they’re more and more likely to live in poverty. You know, and I think, obviously, gender and race play into that, but it’s unlikely that the CEO of a big company would be a fat person, even if it is like a white cis-het man. And again, I see this a lot of in leftist spaces, a lot of repeating diet, culture logic around fat being unhealthy and fat being something that needs to be eliminated. Particularly I see it come up in conversations around food deserts. And playing into the liberal pity idea that, fat bodies are this tragic result of food deserts, or food apartheid.
Autumn: Marquisele Mercedes, who’s a really wonderful critical Public Health Studies, scholar and activist and also a fat studies scholar, has a really wonderful article called How to recenter equity in decent or fitness in the fight for food justice. And she talks about understanding food apartheid, or differential access to food across racial and capital, and class lines as an intentional form of racial capitalist violence. But then the problem with a lot of liberal so-called food justice movements is that they use fatphobia and diet culture to distract from the real problem of racial capitalism with the focus being on again “obesity prevention” and trying to paternalistically “fix the eating habits of poor Black and brown people that don’t fall into a fat phobic, white-middle-class-centric standard of healthy.” This great article by Marquisele Mercedes also talks about how true food justice is not about what one person or organization believes that marginalized communities should be eating, it’s about supporting the community’s autonomy and control over their food. It’s about supporting people to be less stressed, well fed and nourished, however that may it look like.
On a side note, I found it telling how there is so much focus on trying to get poor working class people to eat more vegetables or eat less processed food. And you know, this idea that that’s going to be some kind of remedy for racial capitalism and state violence. Of course there’s nothing wrong with building a community garden but I encourage us to think critically about why we as a culture are so obsessed with food and exercise as the ultimate you know remedy when we know that there are more important issues that we need to address. Also I think there’s something to be said about the way that and this is gonna be an unpopular opinion maybe, with some people but… This kind of hatred and disgust of fast food and the way that I see sometimes in leftist spaces fast food being singled out as this really abomination disgusting abomination that nobody should be eating, but I think it’s important to think about “why do we think that and why are we singling out McDonald’s” when you know Whole Foods or the United Fruit Company or Sabra hummus are like active participants or causers of gentrification? Or the United Fruit Company literally supported the US military installing right wing military coups and Central America and the Caribbean or, you know, Sabra hummus is profiting off of the occupation of Palestine. And why do we single out fast food or food corporations that we see as unhealthy when there’s some very pervasive, racist, fat phobic and classist stereotypes about who is presumed to eat fast food. Let’s really think about when we think about people who eat fast food, who do we who are we thinking of? And why are we singling out fast food and that’s not necessarily accurate but it’s a very it’s a very unfortunately pervasive cultural trope about who is presumed to eat fast food.
I guess other areas of fatphobia that I see in leftist spaces in anarchist spaces… I feel like I hear it more from Marxist-Leninists with this argument that we need to get the proletariat fit and healthy so they can fight Nazis that makes me pretty angry because that’s just literally eugenics and diet culture disguised as a poor interpretation of anti fascism. You can kill Nazis on a moped! You know? There have been a lot of really kick ass fat and disabled anti fascists who are literally doing that work. I guess on the maybe on the more anarchist side I guess I see about phobia kind of coming up sometimes in lifestyle politics and this idea about in order to be a devoted anarchists, we need to be vegan, and we need to be dumpster diving and living in a squat. And I think we need to really kind of abandon those lifestyle politics. Um, you know, there’s nothing wrong with being vegan or dumpster diving, but it doesn’t make someone more of a comrade if they’re not if they don’t want to do that. And just like our politics are not defined by the food we eat or by, you know, why do we choose to live in a decaying squat?
TFSR: Yeah, thank you so much for talking about fast food and exercise. I definitely see that meme and anti fascist spaces that really fetishize this exercise the like “a fascist worked out today, did you?” or something like that. And the topic of veganism is also really interesting. There’s definitely a lot to be said about it. I think I myself have definitely noticed not all leftist vegans that I’ve come across have exhibited this tendency but sometimes I see people doing veganism in order to… And I don’t want to use judgy language and I might cut this out so like between you and me… To maybe mask some very troubled relationship with food itself.
And using politics to bury that or whatever. I mean, using politics to also bury classism and fat phobic tendencies as well. Be vegan, that’s fine, but do so for reasons that aren’t contributing to the oppression of people around you.
Autumn: Absolutely. Yeah. Thank you for saying that I agree with that 100% and I guess I just have trouble. I have no problem with people being vegan, if you want to be vegan, go for it. And that’s completely your prerogative. But I think just have trouble with this any kind of ideology that attaches moral values, the foods that we eat, and I think that there are and this is maybe it’s a longer conversation… But I think that there are, important things to be said about a decolonial or in or an indigenous worldview developing a more symbiotic relationship with animals and nature as opposed to this late very exploitative worldview coming from capitalism and colonialism. But I just have a lot of issues when people try to integrate speciesism into an intersectionality framework and claim that veganism is somehow anti-oppressive.
TFSR: Yeah, I mean, Capitalist Veganism is just as oppressive to humans and to the earth as other things. I don’t know, there was, you know, all of this analysis about factory farming, which factory farming is traumatic, right? A lot of people are super traumatized by it. On the other hand, I’m not gonna tell somebody that they can’t eat some things they need to eat.
Autumn: Absolutely. And again, factory farming is horrific, it should be abolished with a question “Is the issue meat or animal product consumption, or is it capitalism and colonialism?”
TFSR: Totally. Yeah. And I think that the problematic common denominator is definitely capitalism and colonialism. I’m wondering your thoughts on how we as a scene, together could bring fat liberation into radical and anarchist spaces and thought, love to hear your thoughts on that.
Autumn: Yeah, I really appreciate that question. I think it kind of starts with naming and identifying fat liberation as a revolutionary struggle and actually talking about it and engaging with it. You know, thin people especially you to engage with this. I made a graphic that will soon be a zine, which I’m super excited for it to be a zine. But it should be on my friend’s Instagram, and I can send a link to that. It’s about making in-person militant actions with a diversity of tactics accessible for fat and disabled comrades. And I think sometimes it’s just a matter of whether it’s a direct action or a meeting, or community space, really asking the question of “Can we all go and everybody fit in this image space, literally?” I have been in a lot of spaces where I’m very uncomfortable because the chairs are not made for fat people or, you know, I feel like I’m the only fat person there, or the door is not wide enough. And I think that’s also really kind of hand in hand with Disability Justice and thinking about how accessibility and Disability Justice is a framework that we constantly need to be operating within. I think also, you know, it’s important to call out or confront fatphobia when we see it, whether that’s in the broader world, or whether that’s with our revolutionary or organizing circles. I think it’s really important to share and amplify the work of revolutionary fat liberation activists. So the names that I mentioned before are Da’Shaun L. Harrison, Marquisele Mercedes, Hunter Shackleford, Dr. Sabrina Springs, Jervae. Other folks who are doing really incredible work are Caleb Luna. I think that both her instagram and twitter is chair breaker. And then Sonalee Rashatwar who’s @TheFatSexTherapist on Instagram, who have some really incredible content. So I just encourage everybody to just go follow these people. Again, if you have financial resources, consider joining their Patreon, consider, you know, donating to them financially. You know, and I think beyond that, like it’s really important to reach out in fight for activists to be part of your movement and be in coalition with you. And I get excited when I hear other leftists just leaving fatphobia but I think I shouldn’t have to feel that way. Because fat liberation should be the norm.
You know, I think also again, kind of like rejecting the moralization of food and just understanding how oftentimes our hatred of fats of fast food is very in meshed with fatphobia and anti-Blackness like classism and capitalism. It just because there are a lot of like really pervasive, fat phobic, racist and classist cultural stereotypes around who eats or is presumed to eat fast food or processed food and no matter how much we try to masquerade our hatred of fast food or processed food as anti capitalist or as condemning the corporations that produce the food like that’s… No matter how much we try to mask read up, it’s still rooted in this fat phobic idea of that subject and food is better than other foods, in a post revolutionary world people will still have the options to eat hamburgers and fried foods if they want to and that’s okay. You know, I think also just, trying to hide hatred and disgust for fast food behind anger at the corporations and the exploitation of workers that doesn’t actually help fast food workers unionize it, or build power and organize. I’m a former fast food worker, and I can really attest to how that kind of attitude of being disgusted by so fast food workers.
TFSR: And I’m also a former fast food worker and definitely share that you mentioned, fat activists and fat activism, would you speak about the Fat Rose collective and how it came to be formed?
Autumn: Yes, totally. So I believe Fat Rose was formed in the summer of 2019 by fat and disabled activists who organized around the abolish ice movement to close the concentration camps. And they were specifically identifying that fat and disabled people have a specific seek in abolition because, again, our experiences are in no way the same of those incarcerated in presents or in ice detention. We do know what it’s like to be treated as disposable. And so my understanding is that fat rose really recognizes the radical potential of fat people to organize, as well as aiming to create spaces where fat people can organize without without experiencing fat phobia from other organizers. It’s not really my story to tell, but I know that there are folks in Fat Rose who have specifically sought out fat specific organizing spaces because of some really horrendous experiences with fat phobia and other lefty or progressive spaces. Fat rooms organized a really beautiful action in San Francisco at the ICE headquarters, where they demanded the abolition of ICE and the closure of the concentration camps. Caleb Luna, who I mentioned before, he was a scholar activist around for liberation read a really beautiful speech there. And this was the first time that I’d really seen anything to that magnitude that was explicitly organized from a Disability Justice and fat liberation focal point. Additionally, during the ongoing COVID pandemic Fat Rose has organized the no body is disposable coalition, which demands an end to eugenicist COVID triage policies in ICU where fat people, disabled people, elderly people, people who are HIV positive, and people who are living with other illnesses are denied life saving COVID treatment or taking off ventilator treatment. And there’s literally procedures for hospitals to take people off ventilator treatment, if the you know, fall into one of these categories. Fat Rose has been doing a lot of really cool work to organize against that. Since then, Fat Rose has put on a lot of really rad events. I know they recently did a series called busting out about fat liberation and prison abolition and transformative justice. I believe their Instagram is @FatLibInc, and their Facebook it should be fat rose. So I encourage you know also listeners to check them out on social media and follow them on social media.
TFSR: Totally, they have a really beautiful website, that’s just FatRose.Org where you can see a lot of you can see how to get involved. You can see essays that they have written you can see more about busting out. I’m looking at it right now. They have a cookbook. They have all this beautiful, beautiful material on their website. So I encourage people if they’re curious to go check, check it out.
Autumn: Thank you for showing off the website. Yeah. It’s really wonderful organization.
TFSR: Totally. You touched on this, like in previous answers, but I’m curious specifically, if you have more words on how might you encourage thin white people to show up for their fat comrades, friends and family?
Autumn: So I think you know, if you can’t just be fat people showing up for fat liberation. You know, as previously mentioned, I think it’s really important think about how you can name and show up for fat liberation struggles. Amplify the work of Fat Rose, again, if you have financial resources. Support or amplify the work of fat Black and brown activists, you know, join their Patreons, support them financially. Also, if you’re a thin white person who has a lot of social capital and visibility. Think about how you can reject the pedestal that you’re placed on and how you can pass this info onto others, especially other organizers. On a personal level, kind of interrogate who your friends or even lovers with, how you treat people in your lives, are your spaces accessible for fat people. You know, I think also it’s important to kind of unpacked desirability politics and especially unpack the idea that fatness is inherently unattractive. And I really just want to say that that’s not just about dating preferences, nobody is forcing you to date or sleep with fat people. But Caleb Luna, again, really brilliant proud scholar activist, recently wrote on their Instagram about how desirability politics affects them, way beyond just eating. It’s about how they’re able to access resources, like health care, and professional opportunities. And beyond that, I think in our radical and revolutionary movements, it’s really important to, again, make sure that we’re also talking about fat liberation and we’re naming and organizing around the intersections of fatphobia and racial capitalism or fat phobia and colonialism. So it’s about both like listening you know, doing some self reflection and introspection, as well as, materially showing up.
TFSR: Yeah, and if people are looking to start a reading or listening group, your syllabus really has just so much information in it. It’s broken down into categories, like there’s a category on anti fatness and anti blackness there’s a category on sis hetero patriarchy it’s really really really well organized and has a lot of reading resources if if reading is something that feels good to folks. How can people see this document? is it available for public use?
Autumn: Yes, thank you for asking it is available for public use. It’s available at https://tinyurl.com/FatLiberation if there are show notes you can put the link to that in the in the show notes but um that’s it available tiny URL please share it share it widely amplify it.
TFSR: There’s so much there. I really got a lot out of looking at this document and just going on these tangents and going down rabbit holes, and it’s a really, really, really well, well done document. Thank you so much for doing it.
Autumn: Well, thank you so much. And yeah, thank you so much for engaging with it. I also I do recognize that reading a long document is accessible for for everyone. If there are people who feel better listening to podcasts, there’s a really great one that I mentioned before whole Food Psych. There’s also following people on Instagram, like following @TheFatSexTherapist.
Autumn: Oh my gosh, there’s another podcast that the name of it is escaping me. But her name is Aubrey Gordon, her Instagram is @YourFatFriend, I think she has a link to the podcasts, but it talks especially about fatphobia and wellness culture and unpacking what we’ve been taught to think about wellness culture. So I just want to say that there are options that don’t necessarily like involve reading and other free resources. Jervae has also created a bunch of YouTube and TickTock videos and they’re a really incredible fat Black philosopher and artist, so they have a lot of also great resources that aren’t necessarily long documents.
TFSR: That’s awesome. And I’ll link those all of those that you mentioned in the show notes. How can people support you and your work and you’ve shouted out a lot of other folks how people can support them but how can people support you if you would like that?
Autumn: Yeah, thanks for asking. Um, I think so. I’m not on social media personally but I think just keep sharing the fat liberation syllabus, keep circulating it especially donate and amplify the works of, especially, fat Black and brown activists. You can donate to Fat Rose. One of my close friends has a Instagram and Twitter that is like I think it’s both @AbolishTheUSA on both Instagram and Twitter and they were they were the person who suggested I write the syllabus and on their platform that was where the syllabus was originally circulated from. So if anyone I guess wants to email me or get in touch with me specifically, maybe you could contact now at @AbolishTheUSA and say that you have a message for me.
TFSR: Autumn, those were all the questions that I had. Thank you so much for your time and having this conversation with me. I really appreciate your energy and the time that you spent in hashing all this stuff out. Is there anything that we missed in this interview that you want to give voice to or something that you’d like to say in closing?
Autumn: I think we got everything but I just want to thank you so much, again, for having me. And this has been just such a incredible experience. And I’m always super grateful to the Final Straw Radio and just you all are doing such amazing work and I’m really honored to be part of it.
TFSR: Thank you so much. The feeling is super mutual. I’m really happy to have gotten to meet you a little bit and it was really lovely to get to share some digital space with you for a little while and talk about this thing thatI really hope that people will take back into their spaces and like do some thinking and do some reading and stuff if they need to do that. So thank you so much.
“For Trans Liberation, Capitalism Must Be Abolished”
This week we’re sharing a chat that Scott Branson had about Transgender Marxism (2021, Pluto Press) with Jules Gleeson (co-Editor, Contributor) and M.E. O’Brien (contributor). Transgender Marxism brings together Transgender Studies and Marxist theory, exploring Transgender lives and movements and surviving as Trans under Capitalism. In the end, the claim of the book is that for Trans Liberation, Capitalism must be abolished. In this interview we talk about the: collective, material process of transition; trans visibility, assimilation and liberation; the history of Gay Liberation and Trans movements; being Trans in the workplace; care work and family abolition; and Trans solidarities against Capitalism and the State.
Jules Joanne Gleeson is a writer, comedian and historian. She has published essays in outlets including Viewpoint Magazine, Invert Journal and VICE, and performed internationally at a wide range of communist and queer cultural events. She can be found on Twitter at @SocialRepro and Patreon (QueerCom). Check out her awesome interview with Judith Butler that the GuardianUK censored due to critiques of TERFs, found in full at IllWill.Com.
M.E. O’Brien writes at the intersection of communist theory, trans liberation, LGBTQ social movement studies and feminism. Michelle is a co-editor of Pinko, and her writing has appeared in Social Movement Studies, Work, Employment & Society, Commune, Homintern, Endnotes and Invert. Found on Twitter at @GenderHorizon & on Patreon (MEOBrien).
Update on Sean Swain
This week, instead of words from anarchist prisoner, Sean Swain, I’d just like to share the info that Sean has been transferred back to Ohio, his state of capture, from Virginia where he was held at a Medium security facility for the last 2.5 years. It’s assumed that he’s back at the Supermax, OSP Youngstown for 2 weeks of quarantine and determination of status to decide what prison he will go to inside Ohio from there. When he was leaving Ohio for Virginia, he was close to graduating to a lower security, medium level, than where he was held and has not had any serious breeches of conduct since his transfer, so hopefully he’ll be heading to an easier and more comfortable facility.
For the moment you can write him at his old address where I’m sure he’d love some kind words or some books, posted in our shownotes and at SeanSwain.org:
You can donate to his legal case to challenge his denied parole by sending money via cashapp to $Swainiac1969 and you can follow @Swainiac1969 for info on the upcomnig online raffle to help fundraise for Sean’s legal fees. To donate items for raffle, also contact the instagram mentioned above and keep an eye out for more info. As an update to prior mentions of Swainiac-fest, it was a success but is only a step on the way to covering his legal fees to get him the best legal defense possible. And remember, you can fundraise toward the $12,500 needed by the lawyer on your own or in community and if you want to send it to the TFSR venmo or paypal or a money order made out to us via our PO Box, feel free to do so and make sure you note Sean’s defense in the comment.
The annual American Renaissance conference, or AmRen, a gathering of vile ethno-nationalist hucksters is slated to occur in Montgomery Bell Park at the Inn and Conference Center, outside of Burns, TN, from Friday, November 12th to the 14th. Opposition is being organized from all over and you can participate with your crew. For a good intro to what’s expected this year, check out the link in our shownotes or visit the calendar at OnePeoplesProject.Com: https://tockify.com/idavox/detail/136/1636722000000
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Johnny Ryall (instrumental) by Beastie Boys from Dub The Boutique
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TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself so the audience with whatever names, gender pronouns, locations, affiliation, or other info that could be useful for this conversation?
Maria: I might go first. I’m Maria, I go by she her pronouns, and I am speaking on behalf of the anarchist black cross Belarus chapter here. So I can’t expose my location at the moment. But at the moment, I’m outside of the country.
Vasili: And my name is Vasili, an activist from Belarus, who is not in Belarus right now. He him, and I’m involved in some anarchist organizations from Belarus.
TFSR: And Maria, can you tell us a little bit about Anarchist Black Cross Belarus, the kind of work that you all do and some of your history?
Maria: Right, the Anarchist Black Cross Belarus started, I think, around 2009. in Minsk, which is the capital. First, it was like, rather an informal kind of network of people who would just make random donations, just not really doing anything other than collecting money. And back then, before 2010, when the first wave of repression hit the anarchist movement in Belarus, the group was not really needed, because the state didn’t look so much at the anarchists as the enemies let’s say, but after 2010, the group was formed and you and now it has membership. And it’s a collective that has been running since then. And over time, we’ve evolved into a stable group that is doing fundraisers for us and supports anarchist and anti fascist prisoners in Belarus, and sometimes also people who have Belarusian citizenship, who have problems in other countries, because of their anti-authoritarian activity. We’re also trying to expand the support not just for material side of providing financial support, but also psychological support, not that we are providing that but we are like, open to pay for that or to look for either professionals or like self help groups and so on. Because we see like activist trauma, like post-repression trauma as like as a consequence of repression that needs to be dealt with, especially also after release from prisons. Yeah, so we’re trying to work on that.
And we’re also quite interested, and I think we were quite successful, in creating a new security culture in the movement, like trying to agitate for like not talking to the cops and giving a lot of trainings and seminars, producing brochures, about what you should expect once you get caught. And what’s the best way to behave and also showing some light at how the police is preparing themselves for psychological pressure, like what methods they use in order to actually make you speak. So this is what we’ve been doing. And I think this last year was a catastrophe for the collective because previously, we had to deal with like, let’s say, 3-6 prisoners a year, let’s say, and maybe also throughout the years would be like the same people who would just be in prison for longer terms, but this year, at the moment, there’s already like 26 people who are either behind bars or have already been convicted after the protests. And a lot of people had to flee the country, and this is also like our Congress that we will we need to help with like migration issues and also like settlement support and stuff like that. So yeah, this is why at the moment we have a lot of work and we also need a lot of support from the outside of the country as well.
TFSR: It feels like, we can also go back and touch on this in later questions too, but since we are talking about ABC Belarus right now, could you tell us of any ways people can find out about your work and any sort of like international organizations or movements that you participate in, like the week of solidarity or the Anarchist Defense Fund. Like that sort of stuff?
Maria: Right. I mean, ABC Belarus is like part of this probably shrinking network of ABC groups here in Europe. We have some connections to also ABC groups in the US, but not so much. But in general, we try to participate in any effort of solidarity here in this continent. And basically, you can find information about the group and also the news on like Belarusian prisoners, or general repression in the country on our website, which is ABC-belarus.org. And we are now trying to publish monthly updates on repression in the country in English. So it’s not only about fundraising, but also like you can forward or like repost, share messages from there, if you have an English-speaking website somewhere. Yeah, so basically, that’s it.
TFSR: Last year, I spoke with a comrade around November of 2020, about a year ago, about the uprising in Belarus, which had already been going for some months at this point. For listeners who somehow missed it, could one of you give a really brief overview of the uprising, at least up until that point and just sort of bring us up to date so that we can, we can move on from there?
Vasili: So, if you missed what was happening in Belarus in 2020… In August, after the elections of the president, pretty much the biggest uprising in the modern history of the country happened with first, dozens of 1000s of people go into the streets, and afterwards, hundreds of 1000s of people are going to protest against the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko. This lasted for several months. One of main the reasons that actually this whole thing was possible was the Corona-virus, but also dissatisfaction with the economical problems of the country and so on. And the protests had different momentums. Like in first days, it was really intensive and with a lot of clashes with the police and with a lot of repressions, and at least several people killed by the police. Later on, transformed in some kind of peaceful demonstrations marches every Sunday, however it never managed to grow to the extent that would destroy the governmental power and eventually put an end to Lukashenko’s rule in the country. By the end of 2020, most of the protests were over all around the country, a lot of people were repressed. I think, in this four months from August to December, over 30,000 people were prosecuted. 30,000 people in the frame of 9.5 million people living in Belarus, which was like super big amount of people. That means that everybody knew someone who was eventually repressed. Apart from that, over 1000 people were detained and put on holds for prosecution. 30,000 people were prosecuted through administrative codes, which was like a smaller violation of the public disorder, which would give you like 15 days in prison or fines. And this over 1000 people were arrested and are now awaiting or were prosecuted or waiting for trial for the criminal offenses, which would be, I don’t know, one year in prison up to 25 years in prison.
So the protests were crushed. And at some point, we thought that maybe the Belarusian government would go crazy for the next couple of months, and will calm down as it was happening normally, through the history that if there would be like a protest, there would be some repressions, but then the government would stop. Over one year, since the protests, the repressions are still going on and people are still getting arrested. The police are still processing the videos and photos that they made during the protests. And they are still like catching the protesters and charging them with the more serious charges than they were doing in autumn 2020. Also, apart from that, there is a big wave of migration that started with the mass repressions. Depending on the country, there are also dozens of 1000s of people left, mostly in direction of Ukraine and Poland, which are the nearest countries and some parts went into this mania. And the others went all around the world basically. But the biggest diaspora is right now are concentrated in Ukraine and Poland and trying to organize politically there in any way to undermine the Belarusian government’s politics in the region.
Right. So, at this point, right now, most of the political organizing is actually smashed so all the political organizations were destroyed. Most of the media that is not affiliated with the government is banned or got their license revoked, and journalists actually massively left the country because of the threat of prosecution. The human rights organizations are also en masse leaving the country. And there are several human rights defenders, like big ones in the political sphere, who are sitting in prison. And most of also non governmental NGOs not affiliated with the Belarusian government, are also getting shut down and people who are working for those NGOs are leaving the country to go abroad, under threat of prosecution as well. Yeah, so everything looks pretty dire.
Apart from that, it’s also worth mentioning that when we came to the elections in 2020, Lukashenko was quite close to the Western countries, to European Union, but also to US, and he was getting funding from those countries. But as the protests escalated, and as Lukashenko was making more and more political mistakes, the European Union was kind of cornered into reacting to his bullshit. And now, the regime is under sanctions of the European Union and the US, and that kind forced Lukashenko to the search for another allies. And now his main ally is Putin who, well, doesn’t care about that people are blood flowing on the streets, as long as you are loyal to him. So Lukashenko’s regime is now heavily based on Russian support. And this was happening historically. All in all, Lukashenko managed to survive, because Putin or Yeltsin back then were supporting him economically, but also politically, on the bigger political arena.
TFSR: Are people going to those two countries, in particular, because of those country’s current relationship with the Russian regime of Putin? Or is there other reasons?
Maria: Yeah, I think the reasons are so simple. Just because for Ukraine, you don’t need a visa. So basically, you can just get out as quickly as possible, even if you don’t have any documents. And you can stay there up to 90 days without any reason. This is what people actually did. And also in Ukraine, people speak Russian. And this is like this kind of post USSR, mentality or culture that people are sharing. For those who don’t really speak English or other languages, is the best way to just change the surroundings without actually changing the context, let’s say. Also, because people are feeling more secure than, for example, going to Russia because Russian and Belarusian authorities and the police have like unified databases of people who are like dissidents, let’s say, and they actually can arrest you. And this has been done massively in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where they have face recognition surveillance system in the streets. So people do not feel safe in Russia. That’s why they flee somewhere else. So, for Ukraine, it’s like that. If you speak about Poland and Lithuania, these are the two countries that were the first to react. I think, in October or November, they said they’re going to provide any assistance to people who have to flee the country and they started giving that so-called humanitarian visas. So that’s basically a National Visa that allows you to stay longer than a tourist visa, and you don’t need grounds, like having to work or like some studies and so on. So you can just basically get proof that you have been repressed and you’re going to be issued this visa and you can stay in the country and later apply for like a refugee status or production status. And also because the EU now, I think it’s effectively denying extradition requests from Belarus even via Interpol. So basically, this is where people feel more safe, in terms of not getting extradited. The I think these are the easiest options for people to go to.
Vasili: I would like to point as well that although Poland and Lithuania are giving this humanitarian visas and they’re openly accepting Belarusian refugees, the other EU countries are not that open, although they’re condemning the violation of human rights. It is way more complicated to move to other European Union countries like going to Germany or going to France, Spain, wherever you want to go. It is quite complicated. So for the people who want to, well, leave Belarus and have a secure, safe place, those are like the easiest places to go like you were in within the European Union. Poland and Lithuana in that case.
TFSR: Yeah, so Lukashenko is still in power, people are still having to go abroad, and still organizing resistance against the regime from abroad. If it’s… this is a strange way to put it, but this is like common parlance in the US, at least in English… There was a lot that seemed to come out in the uprising that my understanding and having spoken to a few people from Belarus, there were parts of the movement that seemed kind of unprecedented and sort of unexpected, like, for instance, the running battles with the police, the extreme violence that the police and the jails enacted on individuals when they arrested them from sexual assaults to like literal torture. I think there were some disappearances of people. And this is the thing that police do wherever because they’re police to, you know, at different times. But this is exceptionally cruel and concentrated, the apparent attempt to infect as many people with COVID as possible by cramming them into cells in the middle of the pandemic. And it seems like elements of the Belarusians nation were chipping away from what had been a sort of toleration of the administration to actually… You know, police quitting their jobs in instances, people targeting where police lived to try to pressure them to leave… Workers threatening strikes… This was a massive, massive moment.
And I guess the English term that I was going to point to is called a “post-mortem”. What sort of lessons do you take from that like, what worked, what seemed not to and and why the administration has continued to be able to stay in power.
Maria: My idea is that, actually it went the way it was supposed to go, let’s say. I mean, of course, all all the things you’ve mentioned, like the new expressions of like solidarity and new ways of protests, and actually like attracting masses of people to the protest was something new. And this was new for all of us. And for the people also, what I mean that it was supposed to end like this is because the state knows best tactics on how to suppress the protest. Because you have to understand that for many people in Belarus, it was the first time that they were actually politically interested, and were trying to promote or like, defend their rights, or let’s say, whatever, or a protest against anything. So these people have never been detained. These people have never seen an aggressive policeman beating up someone else in the street. These people have never been arrested, or detained at their workplace. These people have never been harassed, and threatened with taking their kids out of their family if they’re going to continue protesting. So these people have never experienced, like, cunning repressive mechanisms that the state has. And like, for example, for me, they’re not new, because I’m in the movement for 15 years. And like many of them have been used against me or against comrades or against like other people, just because I’m involved. And so many of them didn’t work for me. But people who went to the street in August and September, were in the streets it’s as long as it was safe for them. Like, as long as they could just be in the streets think that they’re going to change something peacefully… And here comes also the question of lacking the political analysis, or like the political history of let’s say, revolutions or like successful protests, or coup d’etat’s so and so on. So people like really thought and they believed that they even if they’re going to be a lot in the street for some time, Lukashenko will just leave. And this has never happened in in history. But for them it was the first time and they didn’t listen to anyone, that it should be like, okay, more offensive, let’s say. At the same time, there was also no one powerful enough in the media, who would actually call them to be offensive. Like everybody in the political sphere, was speaking about the fucking peaceful protest, like this protest was going on because it was supported and promoted.
And so when I was under arrest in October, I had a few women and myself who were at their door, taken to like a car with a black bag on their head, just to be arrested for 15 days. For me, it was clear that the police is just using this as a threatening mechanism. Like before it was really safe, you just go to the protest, you go home, nothing happens. And suddenly, you’ve realized that they know where you live, they come for you, and they bring you like as a hostage, in I don’t know, Afghan movies, or something like that. And they take like 1000 people like that. And these 1000 people is telling their neighbors, what’s what’s happening, and the neighbors starting to be afraid that they’re going to be the next. So like, for me, I knew that they were using it just for that to intimidate the population, and they were really successful in that. So, having this as a picture of like repression, or some kind of exemplary cases, it worked for people. And many people just left the streets as soon as they realized that they can’t post pictures of them in peaceful protests on Instagram, because now police is looking at the Instagrams and checking out the people.
Yeah, so basically, people were quite active, as long as they felt that they could be supported by others. In the first days, like you said, a lot of people quit the state managed jobs, the police, the national television, and so on and so on, like the athletes who are supported by Lukashenko and so and so on. So as long as people saw that everybody else is doing this, they were doing it as well. And they were also like, seeing a lot of solidarity coming. But then when they saw that, actually, nobody else is doing it anymore, and it’s just kind of you against the system, basically, or you and like crazy people like you who are still brave enough to show, this is when people started realizing that, okay, like, I’m just ruining my life because of that.
And also the solidarity structures were crushed. Because special solidarity structures were installed outside of the country to collect, I think they collected like 8 million bucks for solidarity from all sorts of businesses and like from individuals. So basically, they were promising that people are going to have that. If you are going to be repressed, you’re going to have it, for sure, if you’re going to be fired, you’re going to have like money, or salary, like in three months or something like that. And at first it worked, but then also these solidarity structures couldn’t actually process so many requests. So it ended up being super slow, like people who were fired would not get support, like in two months. And these are people with families, you know. And then, of course, everybody’s talking about that they are sharing that, “Okay, this solidarity is just bullshit, I asked for the money, but they’re like, verifying me for ages. I’m being arrested, I’m asking for the lawyers fees. And they’re verifying me for ages. And, like, my mother needs the money to get the food parcel to the prison today, but the money is going to be there after like half a year.” And also the more people got arrested and put behind bars, the more money they needed, right? Also, what they did is basically trying to transfer money in cash inside the country, and there were specific people who would like process tons of cash to pay for fines and to pay for lawyers fees, and so on. And these people were persecuted, they’re now in jail. So that’s why when, when other people who did the same saw that, okay, just for helping out others, I can get in jail, I’m going to stop doing it, you know? Like, I’m going to run out of the country. They weren’t showing some exemplary cases of how something you’re doing could ruin your life. And people were just thinking, Okay, so when we believed in victory, we could do that, but now, we’re doubting victory, now we don’t really believe in it anymore. So I think this is how it works like this, let’s say the morale it was destroyed. And it was like really effectively destroyed. This is why now people do not believe that there’s going to be at any moment a critical mass so they can join. A lot of people wants to join, but they feel like they’re alone in this.
Vasili: And I think, for me, the Western politics or, let’s say, Western Liberal politics played an important role in the way the protest develops. And it started not in August 2020, but historically if we look at the development of the liberal opposition in Belarus, we can see that through the money through like political support, Western liberal powers can control the narrative inside of the country. So, if you would have like really militant opposition leaders in the 90’s, who would be, you know, rioting or calling for riots participate, really confronted with demonstrations… Slowly this narrative change to a peaceful demonstrations, peaceful change of power, peaceful, peaceful, peaceful. And this became like a dogma that it was not possible to change anymore, that it should be always peaceful. And when we came to 2020, the people who were participating in the protests and people who were, let’s say, a political leadership of this whole mobilization, were still insisting on the peaceful protests for the first days, but also like afterwards. Although some of the people had clear understanding of the clear possibilities of clashes with the police. Like there were leaks for example of Tikhanovskaya talking to some allies in the smaller towns where they would be talking about possible clashes and what should be done and so on and so forth. But this cannot be publicly done, as if you start calling for riots, if you start calling for like a militant overthrow of the dictatorship, then you will have issues with those people who are eventually supporting you and do not support this kind of narrative. As the revolutionary agenda is spreading that if you if you start calling for revolution in Belarus, people start asking like “oh, we will so when changes so what are we going to do?” And I think for a lot of liberals in Western European Union or in US right now this narrative is really dangerous taking account the Corona-virus, dissatisfaction and all this stuff.
And of course, a lot of media that is in opposition to Lukashenko is still financed by some grants from the European Union or by some foundations that are also not accepting this kind of narrative, this kind of idea of a revolution happening. No, there could be a peaceful protests and like it was I don’t know when in their heads, and that’s it. And this played a really important role in during the mobilizations. Like a week since the protests started, there was this peaceful march that mobilized hundreds of 1000s of people and this was like a moment of euphoria, where we thought “okay, now the whole thing is over.” And there were a lot of people who were reproducing that narrative. So there were so many people that Lukashenko is like a political corpse, right? And I think like within maybe a German political context, he would be gone, like this is not what you do in a democratic country. But for dictatorship, killing a couple of people, sentencing or arresting 6000 people, this is not a problem. So Lukashenko was going on. But people started getting this idea of, okay, peaceful protest, everything is fine, we are winning. So nothing should be changed. We keep on going with this peaceful marches, and that was a certain moment of blocking. As the bigger crowds started, like doing only that, just Sunday marches.
And the people who were doing the mobilization had the problem that they cannot say to this bigger crowds, “Hey, let’s go and take over the fucking police station, or the City Council,” and stuff like that. And this was done because of the financing. We had as organized anarchists in Belarus, conversations with the media activists or bloggers who would say “We need like anarchists, we need some radicals who would call for radical actions.” But this was already like happening a month too late or something like that. And they started, like there were situations where anarchist calls for actions would be reproduced by the bigger media channels. But this was like too late because the repressions were hitting so hard that there was no mobilisational potential anymore, outside of the Sunday demonstrations. So I think this is the thing that was really important for Lukashenko to maintain his power that the Liberal thought is incapable of overthrowing the dictatorship not only conceptually, like bringing alternatives and saying, “Hey, this is a great idea, maybe jeans and bananas are not selling so well anymore.” But physically, like they cannot call in their liberal ideas for revolution for revolutionary changes. So liberals became a shadow of the liberal movement of the 19th century they were they were like, “Fuck yeah, we are going to free the population and so on and so forth.”
And yeah, so this was like it should show that was somehow happening inside of the country, but also happening outside of the country. And I think like, with what Maria said, people didn’t have experience in protests, people didn’t have experience with all this repressions. And they were searching a lot from outside as well. Like, “Who can help us who can explain this thing happening to us?” And who was explaining things were those liberal bloggers from Russia, or from some other countries that also didn’t have any fucking clue. But they would be so convincing that everybody will be like, “Oh, yeah, that person knows what he’s talking about, or she’s talking about” and so on. Yeah.
Maria: Can I add something?
Maria: I think also, like another part… I’m in two minds about what I’m going to say, but I’m just gonna mention it. I think one problem or like, one obstacle towards this kind of, like more radical revolution was also in the way that people didn’t know radical methods, like they didn’t know how to implement them, let’s say. And it was the first time people saw smoke grenades or tear gas exploding around them or something. And like basically people, the biggest like bloggers, or like telegram channels with like a massive readership, were advertising all the time “clenching hands.” Like “Clench hands, every time you see the police, because the police is going to take your comrades away, and you shouldn’t let them detain you.” And so people were trained to just be in a row clenched hands and like what I saw in the first days of like, post election protests, people like would just clench hands in front of the police trying to I don’t know, tear gas them or shooting them or something. People like really didn’t understand it’s, it’s a different method now, and you don’t protect yourself against detention, but it’s like a street fight, in a way, you know. Like, this kind of urban guerrilla is not something that people were familiar with. And I think those who understood were a minority group, it’s people who actually either participated in protests demonstrations in Europe, for example, like football hooligans, or some anarchists, and maybe people who just saw it in the media before. So they kind of knew how it should look like, but not really, what exactly they need to achieve with that. Like what would be the strategy with cops.
And I think that is one thing. People really didn’t understand. They wanted to hold a position. But why? They didn’t understand if they wanted to move cops away, or like to be offensive towards cops, they just wanted to be in one place. And that’s it. And of course, that doesn’t change anything, like okay, paralyzes the city for some time, but not really moving you towards a coup d’etat. And, on the other hand, a lot of people like you mentioned, the bloggers who are calling people to kind of go and smash policemen’s houses and, I don’t know, ruin their cars… And this is what people did. Like, they basically went there with their faces uncovered, disregarding the surveillance cameras, disregarding the fact that they were already other cops waiting for them there on the spot, because they were expecting attacks. So people were just doing like really stupid things without thinking about any security culture connected to the radical action or direct action. And they needed to know that but the bloggers didn’t care, like they would just call people do something really stupid, or like maybe smart, but you should be smart in all spheres with direct action. And people would just do it, because they were very emotional. And then they were put in jail and then they would realize that there’s not actually any solidarity because all the human rights organizations are supporting only the peaceful demonstrators and not recognizing political prisoners, those who have, I don’t know, smashed cops’ cars or smashed cops’ faces. So, that was a real kind of contradiction. Because on the one hand, people are getting a lot of information about the fact that they should be more offensive, but they were not explained how and they didn’t have any support after that.
So I think that was also like the biggest mistake and a lot of people after this, the change of the narrative that Vasili was mentioning, this kind of peaceful narrative when it came in… A lot of radical groups just left the streets because there was no place for them anymore. Like, because these groups knew they have to be in their neighborhoods, they know exactly. Together with people they know, instead of going and showing your face on a Sunday morning march, or something like that. So this audience was kind of lost, or it was waiting for some action, you know, like, was waiting for a good moment to step in.
And another problem was that at the same time, there was this split between like radical and peaceful. And the radical ones, or people who just wanted to use them, started organizing online in open chats. So they were basically forming chats, calling them “I want to smash cop cars in the street,” or whatever. And like just discussing it online, without actually protecting their accounts. It was really easy to identify people behind those accounts. And this was what is what cops used. So they were effectively identified a bunch of participants of these chats, and they just punished them, or they were just actually trying to organize actions together, and they would detain them in this in the scene, you know. So basically, people who wanted to be radical did really stupid things. And of course, I mean, anarchists is tried to change this narrative, tried to explain that you should only do a direct action with a person you really know, not just your neighbor you’ve seen for the first time or not that person from online. But anarchists didn’t have this kind of wide influence. We couldn’t spread the message as wide as possible.
So I think that was also something that people saw. Like, “Okay, I’m peaceful, a peaceful demonstrator, maybe I would like to use something else or like use another tactic, but I don’t know how, I don’t know, with whom, because these connections are not built. I know, some neighbors who are protesting, but I’m not sure they are up for it, you know? And I see that what happens with people who try.” So either they are getting caught by the cops, or they are just I don’t know, and then yeah.
But at the same time, why I said, I’m in two minds about that, because I don’t think that revolutions should be like, prepared and people like 100,000 people have to, like really be good at security culture and direct actions. Because usually, successful protests happen, like everywhere, where people are emotional enough, angry enough just to go and smash it. And, of course, in the Arab Spring, people also didn’t know how to do it. But somehow it worked in some cases. So, what I’m saying is that that was totally an obstacle, but I’m not sure that it’s a matter of just learning, and then it’s going to be successful. No.
TFSR: It’s fair to note that, that the Belarusian state had, like 25 to 30 years to figure out, not that they came out of nowhere, but they had decades to figure out how to repress public uprisings. And like y’all had been saying, if people are just suddenly coming to the like, if they’re getting this information, pumped at them, these images of what a revolution looks like, you know, or what’s acceptable, then it seems pretty hard to expand your imagination past that.
Vasili: I think that what is also important in terms of imagination as well, is that the internet is not as it used to be [laughs]. And that means that all the regulations that are passed in, let’s say the US or in some European Council, or whatever, are actually to regulate the internet to prevent terrorism or extremism distribution or whatever shit they have in their hands are affecting what is happening in the other countries. And a lot of bloggers and a lot of people with like media power had fear that if they, you know, start posting pictures of burning police cars, or they would put how to make Molotov cocktails on their channels, the channels would be blocked, because there are regulations that can be like, you know, activated to block this kind of terrorist content. And this was happening, like there were channels, there were groups all around the internet that were blocked by that. This was like the result of not what we were doing in Belarus rather that what the legislators were doing outside of the country, and this is like a fucking circus. Imagine, you know, like the Soviet Union invades Finland, and then Molotov cocktail distribution is banned by the German state or by some crazy fucker sitting in US and saying like, “No, no, this is really bad what you’re making, like, try to stop the Soviets with your bodies and with your mind.” And this was what was happening in Belarus a lot. And this was, I really find it really problematic and most probably it will shoot back in coming years for sure.
TFSR: I was hoping to put opinion that the discussion of Telegram and the mass usage of it and the fact that both of you pointed to people’s anonymity being compromised in the way that they were organizing. Because there were people from the uprising after the execution… er the police killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in, I want to say 2015 in the US, there were people… youth using snap chat and Instagram and all these other apps to document what they were doing and that came back to bite them afterwards. In Hong Kong, people were using a lot of online apps to communicate back and forth that also, I don’t know how much that came back to bite people but Telegram… You know going back to the Arab Spring Uprisings, Youtube or Facebook and Twitter were things that the media at least has pointed to as being important tools for organizing, Vasili, the point is well taken that the internet is not what it used to be and all of these regulations, but there’s also… We now have micro computers in our pockets that are often registered to our names and that can track our movements around and data capture is a really easy thing. And I wonder if you could talk about any sort of lessons learned about Telegram, in particular, as a platform that was used so widely and efforts that people have made once they’ve seen the danger of that platform in particular being used to organize potentially illegal activities. What sort of educational or cultural interjections that people have made?
Vasili: I think the whole thing is a huge topic with Telegram, right? Because you can start with the person this who started Telegram, Durov. He’s like Russian businessman who went to US, who actually before that started VK and which was like an alternative to facebook for Eastern Europe. And he was selling his app as the security solution for all the activists, everybody. This was marketed great and he was really aggressive. He has money, he was advertising that, and one of his main audiences is like Eastern Europe to see him say “Oh, I’m so great, I’m going to stop actually any work with Russia over with Belarus. I am really together with people fighting for freedom.” And I think people started buying that and the further you go, the more this narrative is actually getting sold really, how would you say, successfully. And forgetting the fact that VK for really long time, under Durov as well, was cooperating with the Russian government in also repressing the anti-Putin movements in Russia. So Durov is not like an evangelist of freedom, who’s going to give voice to everybody, doesn’t matter who, and this is something that’s just a commercial application, which doesn’t earn a lot of money to the person who made it. And Telegram is really hardly connected with the phone number, which is a horrible idea, as in some countries, I think in US you can still buy sim cards without registration to your passport. In Belarus you can’t do that, in Russia you can’t do that, and this is basically like you get an ID that is connected with to your passport, to your ID, to your name, to everything that is attached to that. This is an incredibly horrible thing, because it is also something that you can’t just drop out of. It’s like your whole contact list is connected to that. Your whole social network is connected to it. Imagine Facebook is doing that from time to time that you need your passport to prove blah blah blah. But imagine you have to register with the Facebook by just sending them your passport and sending your phone and all the shit. Then the phone connected to all of the geo-location data. That’s what happens with Telegram and that’s what happened exactly with Telegram during the protests. All the phones that were used to register people who were protesting were connected with it to their IDs, to their passports.
Of course, if you’re like a turbo anarchist, you could find a way to register a Telegram without using a sim card with your name, but most of the people aren’t turbo anarchists. So most of the people had their like passports already speaking into Telegram to get arrested. And some people had can hide and there is this thing and this thing, but at the end of the day there is there’s dozens of ways to figure out the people’s ID’s and that’s what happened. People were prosecuted for the fucking stupidest shit that can happen. Like there is news of a police officer and when he is home and what he did in the last like two months and then someone writes out “this fucking bastard is a swine dog!”, right? “He’s a pig dog!” That’s what happened to one of the people I know. And he got like two years in, ah, I dunno, house arrest or something like that, right? And this was connected with the fact that this person couldn’t be anonymous to write that that cop is a fucking pig, or pig-dog or whatever he wanted to say in his creative mind.
So the infrastructure of Telegram played an important role in repressing the movement through giving this kind of a platform at the beginning, but also in the long run played an important role for the state to repress people. And I think this is also like a, you know, a poisoned apple that you’re like jumping on it and really eager to eat, but then you’re ending up with I dunno, like diarrhea or five years in prison. And as we see right now, what is happening is that Telegram blocked in Russia, we’re not talking about Belarus just jumping to right now, yesterday, the elections in Russia and Telegram blocked the bot for smart voting that the opposition was trying to organize in Russia. Basically, by signing up with the Russian state in repressing this opposition attempts to create some, I dunno, some system that would give people possibility to vote in a different way than Putin organized. Telegram is already giving their, let’s say, open mind to helping repressive apparatus to destroy the efforts in bringing down the dictatorship, and this is going to go further and further. Mmm, yeah. I mean it’s a it’s a huge problem that we are still facing and we have no fucking clue how this will be in the next years. For sure people will switch to another app in, like, three or four or five years, but right now it still goes on and there are people still getting arrested constantly because of their phones once having been connected to their Telegram and Telegram exposing their phones to police and shit like that. Yeah.
Maria: I got to just answer their primary question [laughs] about what people did. Because Vasili didn’t mention that one other thing is that not only identifying people by their phone, but also trying to break in, like hacking the accounts by just cloning sim cards. Because the authorities have the right… well they don’t have that right, but they can. So basically cloning the sim card receiving the SMS with a code, like putting it on their computer and, I don’t know voila, they found an admin of the chat, they found an admin of another channel, of a protest channel. And this is what has been done a lot. And I think, of course, Telegram offers now all layers of whatever security. But the thing is that these layers are not switched on automatically when the person is logging in for the first time, everything is open. And like you need to go through all smallest details until you’re kind of protected. Like if, say nothing of the number, but just to switch on this two-factor identification and la la la everything is so that it’s actually not so easy for the people. We have to also realize that a lot of elderly people like people over 40, 50 and so on, they are not so good with apps. Like they can’t just go, and I don’t know, like manage the VPN and connect to the Telegram in a way that always works when the Telegram is on. I don’t know, like track their traffic, check their IP’s…
So, basically, you can provide some security with Telegram but you’re like needing to be like knowledgeable about this. And people weren’t… It’s too much for a Belarusian person who does the protest for the first time. They need to learn about the security, they need to learn about the facial recognition system cameras, need to know how to speak to cops. Now they need to know how to use Telegram. Everything we had to learn like in ten years of political organizing, they now have to learn in like two months or even less. So, I think answering your question about what was done to education was done by also bigger bloggers, or owners of Telegram channels that where calling people to make the [messages] less unsafe, let’s say. But the problem with Telegram that hasn’t been solved is that people still use it. I think one of the reasons why it’s popular is because it combines a messenger and the news. So, if you want to read the news feed, it’s really easy for you to just change the tab and go and chat with someone. And I think all the options like, let’s say Signal or whatever, that could be a little bit more secure, did not offer you this opportunity. So you, like can’t really read news on Signal or like Facebook is not at all protected in this way. I think there were calls for people using something like Briar or some apps that would be be not tracking the IP or like, but they are quite marginal like that people yeah, it doesn’t catch. Like, people would still use something that is easy to install that their friends are using because everybody’s communicating to each other, where it’s easy to create a chat and so on. So I think yeah, like I said, I agree that this problem has not been solved. I think now, just more people know how to make their settings a bit more secure, that’s it. But people still continue communicating on Telegram.
And I think one of the things they’re trying to do now is like spreading bots. Pretending that they’re making secure bots that are not logging anything but again like how can people check it? If I don’t have knowledge, I can’t really trust it. If my friend is not like an IT specialist or whatever, we don’t know what the servers are and there have already been cases when some oppositional structures were gathering some information from people by bots, and then this information was hacked and like the cops have like all the numbers and all the users who submitted information. And I just wanted to mention that one of the, let’s say, hopes of the protest at the moment is the creation of a bot that is called “Victory Bot” and it was started by Tikhanovskaya and by Pol, which is Belarus police in exile. So, they have created the bot, where you are supposed to register, provide information, including where you’re living, like basically the actual location, where you work, like what is your profession, in which way you would like to help the revolution? Are you ready to be like more radical or not and so on? And so basically they say as soon as they get like enough users, they would later use the bot to send instructions. Like, let’s say they collect five hundred people in one factory who are using the bot and are ready to act, they would just send them the instruction to like block the production or something. But these are promises. I think they started the bought in May and I don’t think there are enough people there to for them to start using it. So yeah. I think, for the moment this problem has not been solved.
TFSR: I can’t imagine what could go wrong?
Maria: Yeah yeah?
Vasili: Actually, the cops already created a bot that has kind of the same name, having just one letter different and people mistakenly would go to that like Belarusian cop bot and they would register there and the data will go to the police and the police would go and arrest people who just wanted to join the Victory bot, but the wrong Victory.
But I think what I forgot as well is the comparison to Hong Kong. And I think for a lot of us was there was kind of a moment of hope that we knew experience from Hong Kong, where people were using Telegram and they were using this kind of chatting, quite intensively, to organize for Belarus, it didn’t work out at all. Like if we would have a chat with five ten thousand people, this is just the garbage like you can talk to people there. It’s just basically like a flow of thought, everybody’s just writing what they think but nobody’s reading what is going on. This is a complete chaos. As for going on the streets with Telegram, the internet works when there is internet. You know this is like a really simple rule, and what Belarusian government was doing is that it was fencing, basically, the zone of demonstration and switching off the internet there, like mobile internet and stuff. This was playing an important role in actually like preventing this, you know, fast communication that Telegram or Signal app or other apps. And it was working pretty well, and people were sometimes quite confused because they were counting on this kind of like coordination through Telegram, they would end up on the street and they wouldn’t have any idea what to do next, like “Okay, we didn’t read the Telegram what are the next steps, so we are not going to self-organize and do some stuff. Rather, we are going to be searching for the internet for next half an hour somewhere where there is no internet.”
TFSR: We’ve talked a bit about what repression has look like with, after the fact, people are being surveilled or having their prior images being put into databases and then they’re getting arrested for stuff that they were videoed participating in months before. Or joining up on, apps like the victory bought and kind of turning themselves in. But there are a few instances of the international reach of repression of the Belarusian state that I wanted to point to and see if there are other things… Because, obviously, this is an international concern, this is why I wanted to and very happy to have you both on on the phone, because we resistance struggles in different countries against repression and against capitalism and and hierarchies have to be able to learn from each other, and we also have to be able to offer support to each other. We have an understanding like there’s so many people, as has been mentioned, who have who are now living in exile in Poland or in Ukraine or in other places. So, it’s not just an issue for Belarus and the same repressive apparatuses that are used in all these different places like in Hong Kong or in Belarus are similar they’re controlled from outside. They there’s a lot to learn anyway, blah blah blah. You get the point!
Two examples of the kind of international reach of the Belarusian regime in trying to grab back Belarusian rebels that I can think of that sort of caught my eye: the downing of the Ryan Air flight over Belarus when the plane was forced to land by the Belarusian government, basically saying that there was a bomb on board which resulted in the whisping away of Roman Protasevich, a blogger who ran some of these Telegram channels. And there was also, in the recent past of the last couple of months, the attempted arrest of Alexei Bolenkov in Ukraine. Can you talk about these and other examples that the international audience might want to know about?
Vasili: So the plane story was one of the major mistakes of Lukashenko and what happened there was that for Protasevich was coming from Athens to Lithuania and when you fly back then from Athens to Lithuania, you would pass Belarus if you fly directly. For Lukashenko, somehow he got this awesome idea, or maybe his KGB or maybe his analyst or maybe his fucking dog got this idea “Hey, let’s arrest this guy!” Although his main enemy, Tikhanovskaya, was actually flying on the same flight the day before, which they do didn’t do any kind of arrest. But they decided that they’re going to do him like they’re, going to arrest him. And what happened was this idea that the bomb and then the Belarusian state [started] trying to play the stupid face with [saying] “Oh, this was actually organized by… Hamas” and they showed the email [claiming to be from Hamas]. And for them, it was a thing from one side [of the Belarusian state saying] “Oh, we are going to show all the position that we have control over your body over your freedom and we can snatch you at any point we want!” But at the same time, what they did here is their they actually attacked the power of the European Union in in the world politics. Because Ryan Air is part of the European influence, European property. Let’s say like that. And that arrest pushed quite a lot of action from the European Union, like the the biggest sanctions and the biggest pressure started happening actually after this airplane action of Lukashenko’s. This is not something that happens quite a lot. I think this was the first and only time when Lukashenko did this kind of crazy action. But they are trying to use the, for example, InterPol databases quite often to get the people back or to try to build up pressure. And that was happening as well with the case of an anarchist from Belarus, Bolenkov, about whom Maria will be talking.
Maria: Alright, but don’t you want to the consequences of this downing of the plane?
Vasili: In the sense of what happened to Protasevich, you mean?
Maria: No, no, like in general for the country, politically. It basically was the beginning of all the sanctions that were imposed and also the prohibition on flights from European countries and to European countries? So, basically at the moment, you can’t fly out of Belarus, I think, apart from Russia or like Kazakhstan, something like that. And all the tourist planes have to make a curve around Belarus to even go there or land there.
I think if we speak about anarchists who are persecuted by the State… So, in Belarus at the moment, a lot of anarchist have been arrested because of some prior actions or there prior affiliations, let’s say. Only a few anarchists were arrested just after the protests and in connection with the protests and there’s a case of an
international anarchist criminal organization. And it’s international because they have found one anarchist organization, it’s called Revolutionary Action, that existed in Belarus. Then I think they opened a chapter in Ukraine and they [the Belarusian State] also claimed that ABC-Belarus is also a part of this network according to the police, because the Anarchist Black Cross is supposed to kind of finance all this criminal activity Basically, probably providing solidarity means financing criminal activity. What happened is that they arrested a few groups of people in different cities and, at the moment, they’re all in one big case of this “criminal organization.” And they face think up to 10-12 years, I don’t remember exactly. They are accused of participating in anarchist actions in previous years, so like not really connected with the protests, but they just use the protest and the use the momentum of repression to persecute everyone who could be at some point active in anything in the future.
And the cops also issued a list, I think it was like a 25-person-list, with names of people who are potentially involved in this case or need to be questioned as witnesses and Bolenkov was one of them. He lived in Ukraine for like 7 years now, and basically the local security services came to him and tried to give him the special document that they issued (not the court, but they just issued it from their office) saying that he has to leave the country. So, they didn’t really extracted him, but there it was clear that they have like cooperation with the security service in Belarus and they don’t want these kind of person in Ukraine. They offered him to just leave the country voluntarily. Basically, now, he’s been like trying to appeal it for 4 months. Recently he got the court decision that didn’t up happy did not uphold this order, so he can stay in Ukraine, but the cops appealed again. So now he’s gonna go to the Supreme Court, so the case is not closed. And here we see, like when I was talking previously about safety of Ukraine for people who flee the country, it is safe as long as you’re not an anarchist are not someone who is also being persecuted by the Ukrainian State. So I think the example of Bolenkov is clear about that. This is basically how instrumental cooperation can be between different security services and that you can’t really run away from the State, can’t really run away from the capitalism or from cop’s view. I’m not sure how the case is gonna end, because the pressure from the NGOs and all this kind of concerned public, this is not useful for their Ukrainian police. Probably he’s gonna stay but, anyway, I wouldn’t imagine my life if I was Bolenkov. It would be really weird to just continue living somewhere where you know the [security] services are interested in you and following you and following what you’re doing. It’s it’s a bit hard.
And also, like you said about the other examples… I was already mentioning a few examples of arresting people in Moscow and Russia, so that’s like a kind of the clenches of the regime are there and one of the antifascists from a regional city [Brest], he was persecuted in Belarus for mass riots and he ran away to Moscow. Now he’s been in jail for like half a year. The decision was to extradite him, but his lawyer appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and the court said that Russia can’t do that because he could face threats to life or health. So, basically for the moment he still is in Moscow, but we don’t know like what will happen because Russia can also disobey and doesn’t give a shit about this European court decisions.
TFSR: Please correct me if I’m wrong about this, but I think I recall that last July, the [Belarusian] administration released a bunch of long-standing political prisoners that they were that they were holding onto…
Maria: When you said last year, July, I think you mixing it up in with 2015. There were a lot of people arrested in 2010, anarchists included, and also people who protested the 2010 presidential elections. And, back then, the last pack of people was pardoned in 2015, including Mikola Dziadok, and Igor Oliněvič, who are anarchists and who are in jail again at this time. They were arrested in November of last year.
So, what’s happening now, just to mention the pardoning tendencies, Lukashenko is trying to do it again. Although it’s really, really, weird because what’s happening is that he has a person who was previously a political prisoner and then he was set free, probably on the pretext of cooperation. So now he has formed like, kind of a party or a movement for like democratic change or something like that, and his organization is sending out letters to all the political prisoners and asking them to write a petition for mercy, and some people do [this]. I think it has now about twenty people who has been pardoned starting from March, but either it means that not so many political prisoners are actually writing these petitions for mercy or it means that not all of them get pardoned.
Getting back to prisoners that ABC supports, at the moment, like I said, there is the group of the “international criminal organization”, around 9 people I think. [There are] 4 people from that is called “Anarcho-Partisans”. These are people there who were arrested in the forests on the border between Belarus and Ukraine, and they are accused of setting fire of cop cars or or some prosecutors offices or police stations in the region, in the provinces. And Mikola Dziadok, he turned out to be a blogger recently. So he had a anarchist Youtube channel or something, and he was decided to stay in the country and he was arrested in a [supposedly] “safe flat” (safe house). They found him by surveillance cameras and face recognition system. And there’s a few groups of former football hooligans of the antifascist football clubs that were also participating in the mass riots or attacking cops and stuff like that. So, there are some more individual people who were arrested really recently, because in the late July and August, cops actually attacked like everyone they had on a list or everybody who was even like in contact with anarchists. And some of the people were arrested for fifteen or thirty days, but some actually got to criminally charged for just being in the streets participating in marches. Not really mass riots, but just having a picture of you standing on the roadway is already blocking the traffic or something like that. These are people who now come to my mind but, like I said it’s about like it’s a little bit less than 30 people.
And just to mention it, there’re up to 4,000 people that day prosecution reports about as being prosecuted for mass riots, all for offending the State, offending the president, offending cops online. And a little bit over 1,000 of them are behind bars. So among them are 30 anarchist and anti fascists. And if you realize that the anarchist movement is not so big in the country, the anti fascist movement doesn’t really exist at the movement. So, there’re pieces of some groups, leftovers of like this antifa hooligan scene, let’s say who are not like really organized. We are speaking here about 300, 500 people max, like you are just affiliate themselves with the ideas. And having like 30 of them behind bars out of this number and 1,000 of the millions of Belarus who were protesting means that’s our part of the movement got repressed quite a lot, if we speak about like percentage.
TFSR: Can you talk about the upcoming crowd-funding to the ABC Belarus is going to be enacting, how much funds are needed, where the money would be going and how people can and get involved in supporting that?
Maria: Right. So, basically, like I said previously, we are trying to help people financially in the first place with legal fees and care packages to prison. But also with paying for therapy sessions or providing money for people who have spent like a month in jail, for example, but they couldn’t work at, but they have to still pay for their flats. Or people who have migrated and need some support, at least in the first 3-6 months. And that’s a lot of people. We don’t really receive a lot of the nations in Belarus because there’s almost no one left, everybody is either in jail or outside of the country. Also, it’s not safe to have a personal account where people could donate in Belarus. So most of our donation channels are like electronic wallets or bitcoin, Paypal, or European bank accounts. Which is not to really useful for people in Belarus, because Paypal doesn’t work there and European bank account would require a lot of fees. So most of our donations are coming from abroad and each case costs us like around 5,000 Euros or $6,000 – $7,000. And these are ongoing. Like, people are going to stay in jail for like 5-10 years if nothing changes. And in order to provide assistance on an ongoing basis, once a year we’re putting on a big crowd-funding campaign trying to attract funds. So, it would be really cool if people could spread it, and I think the link was going to appear somewhere in the description to this episode. It would be really cool if you could spread the word, because this is something we really need now.
TFSR: Were there any other things that you wanted to say before we ended this interview?
Maria: Maybe I just wanted to mention that it does sound like a failure and I think it is a failure in a way if we just think about it as that the aim was to change the regime. Let’s say that for me, as a participant in all these process of transformation of the society that used to be totally apolitical and totally not interested (also a little bit anti-anarchist, let’s say), I saw a lot of good things about it. And I think actually, I’m happy that it didn’t change in like a month that people just have another president now and think they leave in democracy. I think it’s perfect that people had to go through this process. Of course it’s painful for them and it’s like maybe doesn’t make sense for many of them, but in general it feels that the next time when something like this happens- and it will happen at some point- we’ve got like a lot of people in the country with experience, with the anger, and with probably not so much illusions about the peaceful protest or whatever. And also people who have experienced solidarity, who have organized solidarity by themselves or who got to know their neighbors, tried some kind of self organizing methods and so on. And especially now they’re got really interested in… not really anarchist ideas, I would say, but… Anarchists became people that everybody likes, let’s say, without knowing what exactly they’re doing, but I think the anarchist movement got like this kind of credit of trust and I think it’s important for us.
Vasili: And I think that for me, what is also important is that for a lot of people in the so-called First World, anarchism is some kind of an abstraction that may be leads to some bizarre utopia, but it doesn’t have connections to the reality. While for us in the east, it is a reality. We are not just, you know, fighting for some utopia on some island or on some other planet, but rather we’re trying to push the anarchist revolutionary ideas towards the society and the moment that we had in 2020 was the moment when the society was transforming as well, under the anarchist influence and under anarchist ideas of horizontal organizing and self-organizing in the neighborhood assemblies and so on and so forth. So, it is really important to remember that we are not standing for some thing that will never happen, rather that we are standing for revolutionary transformation of society that will happen if we believe in that, if we are fighting strong enough. And Belarus is still fighting, and we hope that we will, well, destroy the fucker’s regime and we’ll live not only in the beautiful new Presidential Republic, but will live in the country that is giving an example to the rest of the world, how to be free, how to organize, how to smash the authoritarianism!
TFSR: Thank you, Maria and Vasili both for participating in this conversation and sharing your experiences and perspectives, and I look forward to sharing this with the audience.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline, or MVP is planned to be a 300 + mile pipeline 42 inches in diameter being built to transport compressed so-called Natural Gas from the Marcellus formation in the Appalachian Basin, from northern West Virginia to southern Virginia for export. The pipeline started being built in 2018 and is slated to cross over 1,000 waterways, posing a danger to countless human and non-human animals and plants along the way as well as being responsible for 19 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to 19 million passenger cars or 23 average U.S. coal fired power plants each year. It’s being built by a number of corporations involved in other fossil fuel infrastructure like ConEd & EQT. As of November 2020, the project was 3 years behind schedule and over $3 billion over budget because of a coalition of on-the-ground grassroots direct action and resistance, geographically dispersed solidarity actions and court challenges determined to keep this Marcellus Shale gas in the ground.
This week, we’ll speak with Toby and Emily, two longtime activists resisting the MVP’s construction about the pipeline, some of the resistance history, MVP’s attempt in federal court to intimidate and identify folks who run the social media accounts called “Appalachians Against Pipelines” and how to get involved in the struggle to fight climate change. You can find thorough coverage of the topic, and piss off the extraction industry, by following @AppalachiansAgainstPipelines on fedbook and instagram and the @StopTheMVP on twitter. You can support the ongoing resistance by throwing money at the effort’s fundraising page: bit.ly/supportmvpresistance.
You can find our past interviews about the MVP, including with folks actively in tree-sits and mono-pods at our website (by searching Mountain Valley Pipeline), and as well as our interviews about the water crisis in West Virginia generally and in WV prisons (by searching “Elk River”).
In about a week, you can a transcribed and easily printable version of this conversation for free at https://TFSR.WTF/Zines. You can follow us on social media and find our streaming platforms at TFSR.WTF/Links. You can support our transcription and publishing efforts monetarily, if you appreciate our work, by visiting patreon.com/TFSR or checking out other methods at TFSR.WTF/Support. And you can find more about our radio broadcasts, including how to get our free, weekly, hour-long broadcast up on a community station near you, by visiting TFSR.WTF/Radio.
Eric King Trial Support
Antifascist, vegan and anarchist prisoner Eric King will be heading to trial soon and his support is inviting folks to show up at the Alfred A. Arraj Federal Courthouse in so-called Denver, CO, October 12-15th to support him. You can find filings on his behalf and background on the case at the Civil Liberties Defense Center at CLDC.org, and find updates on the case at SupportEricKing.Org, and the support Twitter and Instagram.
TFSR: So if y’all would please introduce yourselves with whatever names, pronouns, location or why we are talking and what you’re involved in for the audience, that would be super helpful.
Emily: Cool. Yeah. My name is Emily, I’m joining us from so-called Virginia, in New River Valley area, pretty close to where the pipelines currently being built.
Toby: I’m Toby, my pronouns are they/them. I am also in so-called Virginia, pretty close to the New River Valley, and also very close to where the pipeline is currently being built.
TFSR: This pipeline that we’re talking about is the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP). And I’m wondering if you all could maybe tell us a bit about the plan of the MVP, what’s been built so far, the path that it is planned to take, what it will be carrying… just all the like logistical stuff about that, as it is up to this point. Maybe what the investment company behind it is called.
Toby: Yeah, totally. So Mountain Valley Pipeline, or MVP that we usually just call it is a 300-ish mile pipeline. It’s 42 inches in diameter, which is like a giant pipeline. That’s one of the biggest pipelines. It’s gonna transport compressed natural gas from the Marcellus formation in the Appalachian basin. And it’s gonna connect to an existing pipeline: The Transco pipeline. It runs from Northern West Virginia, all the way down through to Southwest Virginia. Then it’s gonna go 75 miles into North Carolina through its South Gate extension, which is still being decided in court. So, that’s going to go through like Rockingham County and Alamance County in North Carolina. When it is built, if it’s ever built (hopefully it’s never built), It would emit the 89.5 million metric tons of carbon. So that’s like 26 coal plants or 19 million passenger cars. It is right now being built by a company called Precision Pipeline, which is the same company that is building Line 3. The project itself is owned by EQT EQN Midstream who is based in Pittsburgh. And it’s like funded by like major banks who fund EQT EQN like JP Morgan, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, all the big name banks, and a lot of other banks. Emily, would you like to talk about maybe what they’ve built what they haven’t built?
Emily: Yeah, absolutely. They claim that they built a lot more, but it’s really only, like maybe 51% built. Some outside sources say, essentially, a ton of what they’re claiming to have built is not actually like completed to the point where gas could flow through it. But they have done a lot of work in pretty much most of Northern West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Franklin County in Virginia. But the vast majority of the pipeline’s water crossings are not done. And they have over 1000 water crossings that they will do over the course of the pipeline. Yeah, a lot of the work that’s going on is currently happening in Monroe County in West Virginia, and then Montgomery county and Giles County, in Virginia, and also in Roanoke County.
Toby: I think like they are claiming that like 92% of their work is done. But really what that means is they have done some work on 92% of the pipeline. But it’s really important to say that the work that they have yet to do is going to be some of their most difficult work. It’s going to be going over some of their steepest sections. It’s kind of hard to describe to people who aren’t from around here or who haven’t done a lot of hiking or spend a lot of time in these mountains. But when we say the steepest sections, we’re not talking about like “Oh, it’s a steep hill.” It’s like very few degrees off from a literal cliff that they’re going to try and build a pipeline through. And that includes trenching and grading and daisy chaining equipment down the hill so that they can actually do their work. Which is incredibly dangerous for themselves and for the environment around them.
Emily: Yeah, and they have already flipped excavators. I believe that one Precision Pipeline employee has already died because of their complete disregard for safety precautions or common sense perhaps.
Toby: Yeah, like they are building through karst terrain, which is really prone to landslides and sinkholes. And that mixed with the incredible steepness of the land around them and also the work that they’re doing producing lots of erosion. They are facing a lot of difficulties with their construction. They are three years behind schedule and $3 billion over budget. Some of that is $2.5 million in fines that they have occurred through over 250 water quality violations.
TFSR: So is that like they’ve caused erosion through their construction that’s leaked into water supplies to rivers outside of the scope of…. Is it called an ERC?
Toby: Yeah, those are what most of those violations are from. And a lot of that $3 billion over budget is the amount of work that you’ve had to do. That’s just sediment and erosion control. And they spend millions of dollars doing sediment and erosion control where if they were not building this pipeline, they would have not had to spend all that money.
Emily: It’s also important to note that most of those violations were recorded and tracked and submitted by a citizen watch group here. So that is this community being like “You are destroying our water, you are destroying our communities. We now have to go out every day and watch you do this destruction and take photographs of it, every time it rains.” There’s teams of people that go out along the path and observe and record what’s going on so that they can then submit that to the DEQ and try and get some sort of consequences for all this destruction. I think it’s really important to note that it’s not because the company is like doing anything. The company is leaving this all on the people who live in the path. All on the people who are fighting it. And the DEQ is also leaving that burden on us here
TFSR: Yeah, there’s not like Department of Environmental Quality workers out there, like you say, going up and down the path of the pipeline of what’s been built so far and testing.
Emily: They come out when they’re caught, right? And then they need proof, oftentimes, to be convinced.
TFSR: When it was quoted “19 million passenger cars” would be the footprint, is that like the the estimated amount of carbon produced by the lifespan of the pipeline and all that it’s like slated to carry through it? Or is that like a yearly thing? Or what? How is that figured?
Toby: Yeah, so that’s what they are predicting is going to be the annual emissions. So that’s like emissions from the combustion of the gas the pipeline would carry. That also comes from a predicted methane leaks across the gas supply chain, and emissions from the actual compression. Then also like the emissions from the gas extraction and processing that’s happening up in Northern West Virginia. So that’s not including the emissions that are currently happening from all the construction that’s going on. But the majority of that is the actual gas combustion. And then also 45% of that number is from the amount that this pipeline is going to leak. And just the standard leaking that all pipelines do.
I think because of the terrain that we’re in, and the amount of like ups and downs and also the fact that this pipeline has gone on for over three years that they scheduled for their construction, it means that it’s going to be way more susceptible to leaking, to explosions. Because if you think about it, the pipe in themselves, they are not rated to sit out in a field being exposed to the elements for three plus years. And that’s what certain sections of this pipeline have don. You drive by in this area, and you go by their pipe yards, and that pipe has been sitting there for years. It’s not rated to do that. The coating on it that’s supposed to protect it is not rated to withstand that amount of exposure. And they still are saying that it’s perfectly safe to put in the ground and to pressurize and put compressed natural gas through. They claim that they rotate every section of pipe that’s laying out every day. That’s what they claim. They don’t do that at all. But that’s what they claim that they’re doing to their shareholders and all the regulatory agencies.
TFSR: So besides the the weight of the methane leaks… All those other elements that you described along the 300 mile path, there’s also the what is the imminent threats to the viability of streams and waterways and aquifers that it’s traveling through. That would seem like that would also require constant vigilance of people in the communities along that 300 miles to be watching for breaks or for spills or for leaks just so that they’re not drinking poisoned water.
Toby: Totally. As Emily was saying there’s like over 1000 water crossings that they are going to do and that does not begin to describe the aquifers that it passes through and how many people along the route that get their drinking water from wells that would be impacted by spills and leaks. Karst terrain is a natural filter and a lot of people do have wells to those aquifers. If anything were to happen. If there was a break in the line or a leak then you are looking at people losing access to clean drinking water. And we’re in Appalachia, that’s not a new thing for people around here. That’s not a new occurrence. This region has a long history of being a sacrifice zone for the fossil fuel extractive industries and those industries poisoning their drinking water and their well water. So that’s not new. But that still doesn’t make it right.
Emily: Yeah. And I think something, also on that, is that it’s already happening, right? We’re talking about leaks and that’s totally a huge risk of this project. But just the construction itself, because of the geology of the area, because of the karst terrain, people have already lost water just from the construction. We know people whose wells have dried up and that can’t be undone. They just recently pierced a pretty big aquifer that feeds all of the families that live on an entire mountain. And they denied that they hit that aquifer. But because the water tables here are so complex… which is what leads to those sinkholes… Because it’s so complex if you hit the ground water there’s no way to know how far that impact will extend into the mountains.
TFSR: There was a couple of times back in…. I want to say 2012 and 2013… [correction, 2014] this show did interviews with folks that were doing water distribution around West Virginia, and around Virginia because there were two coal related spills. There was the Freedom Industries spill, where floodwaters had washed uncontained coal cleaning chemicals that were a private industry recipe. The company wouldn’t release what the actual chemicals that were involved in it to the state EPA in West Virginia but it was released into the water supply. And folks from around the region were going up and driving huge water buffaloes, huge tanks, driving pallets of water bottles down and up into hollers and into rural communities. Because if people are relying on these water supplies that are naturally occurring and they don’t have the infrastructure where they’ve got a local county or city government that’s actually filtering the water…. even if it could filter for some of these chemicals, and some of these toxins…
The phrase used, “sacrifice zone”, in Appalachia… this is a clear example in the last decade of when industry destroys people’s ability to drink water. I mean, people and that’s excluding all the other living beings that live off of these water supplies. I can’t imagine watching 300 miles worth of one of these pipelines and all the impacted communities who are going to be left. Not not only where poverty in some cases is endemic, but also the poverty is where people are lacking easy access to transportation, let alone going and finding another source of water. Poverty aside, that’s just going to be a huge problem for anyone, whatever their level of wealth is. With how isolated people live up in these mountains, it just seems like a really huge weight to put on. Just so that some corporations can extract the stuff that we already know is destroying the ability of humans to live comfortably on this planet.
Toby: Yeah, exactly. And again, I was making the point that the burden of finding out whether or not your water is contaminated rests solely on you, as a person who lives in this region. There’s no responsibility of the company after they built this pipeline. There’s no responsibility of any of the shareholders. None of those people are going to care about the folks who are left after this project is completed. If it’s ever completed. And no one is going to be there to support those communities or to support the people living up in the hills who lose access to their drinking water. There’s only going to be us who are left. And we have to like, not only find out while it’s happening, but also be aware after it’s happening that we have to continue to support these communities.
Emily: Yeah, I remember back when the pipeline was first announced and there were a ton of community hearings that people were showing up to just in droves to be like “We do not want this. Let’s make this very clear from the beginning, we do not want this pipeline. We think it is a bad idea. We think we will be put in harm’s way because of it.” They were absolutely right about all of that. And I remember, one of the ones in the Montgomery county area, folks were talking about some some people in the Brush Mountain area who were on well water. And the question put to, I believe it was county officials was essentially like “If our wells are destroyed, how soon can we get connected to the county water system?” And these were people who were maybe a five minute drive outside of town limits. They were five minutes from their neighbors who were on County water. Because it is a really difficult area to traverse and to build in safely. And because these areas don’t have a lot of disposable income for that kind of infrastructure investment. They were like “Three years. If it becomes a top priority for us from the minute that we decide “Yes, we’re gonna get you on to County Water. Three years.” So that’s obviously a long time to go without water. Yeah, and that’s already what’s happening as a result.
TFSR: I don’t know if you know the answer to this? But when people are resisting pipelines being built, and they go over schedule, and they go over budget by years and billions of dollars, if they’re just figuring that that’s like a normal part of the loss of the possible profits that they’re gonna be making, or if they’re contractually obliged to continue building it? Because projects do stop because of resistance. For instance, the ACP [Atlantic Coast Pipeline], right? As far as I know it went just so far over budget, and there was so much resistance at so many points that they just scrapped it. Which is an amazing story of success. But is there government subsidization? Like with the federal government stepping in and saying “We need energy independence, and so we’re going to fund projects like the MVP that’s keeping it afloat.” Or the hedge funds just so awash in money that this is an acceptable loss for them?
Emily: It’s a tough question. I studied economics, actually, in college and I still don’t understand how all of this really works. But I do remember talking to someone who was an expert in this. And essentially, because of the way that a lot of these companies are structured, they break the individual corporate entities down into being ‘midstream’, or ‘extraction’, or ‘processing’. They break it down into those separate categories. But they’re often owned by the same parent companies, or they have the same investors backing them. It’s this interesting sort of shell game where you really can’t follow the money very well. And of course, they also do really shady things like just straight up not pay some of their contracts and not pay some of their workers. That’ll happen to along the way.
But what I remember from that conversation with her and we were heading into a meeting with the governor or something, and she was explaining to me essentially, that you don’t actually have to have any gas flow through a pipeline for midstream partners and shareholders to make money off of that pipeline. It is such a bizarrely built industry and such an absolutely shady thing through and through. I do not understand where the money comes from most of the time and it seems to be a real confidence game where people invest in this. Then because people are investing other people see as a good investment and invest. It’s got the smell of a Ponzi scheme but I can’t get any more specific than that. But she really was like “No gas has to flow through pipeline for the people building it to make money off of it.” And that took my breath away. I still think about that conversation all the time. I wish I could find her and have her really spend a couple hours explaining it to me. But the industry is so craftily constructed. This has always been true of these industries. I mean, Enron was doing a lot of pipeline work and we know just how ethical their business practices were. It has always been this sort of like mystery fog that surrounds pipelines and fossil fuel industries. So that’s the best answer that I can probably give you. I don’t know if Toby can say a little more.
Toby: I mean, you’re the one that studied economics, apparently.
Emily: I try not to tell people that, honestly, most of the time.
Toby: I mean, it’s coming in handy right now. So I appreciate it.
TFSR: At least you’re on our side. So yeah.
Toby: I think we we don’t necessarily have a lot of economists who are giving us a lot of advice on how this system works, apparently. I feel like, I know that MVP is… if you listen to their shareholder meetings which are public, interestingly enough, you can tell that shareholders are not exactly happy with them. Which like, why would you be happy if you invested in a company that’s $3 billion over budget. They’ve definitely lost shareholders, but they apparently have not lost enough shareholders to say that it’s not worth it financially for them to complete this project. Even though we’ve also seen all of the economic trends that have been happening. Natural gas is not actually that good of a financial incentive. It’s not actually worth that much on the markets right now. And they’re trying to frame this pipeline as critical infrastructure. But in the end, it’s not going to be critical infrastructure, economic wise. It’s not going to be worth money. Dominion saw that. And that’s why they were like “We’re not going to do the ACP.” But the folks behind MVP have not yet made that decision.
Emily: Yeah, they haven’t wised up.
We have enough infrastructure actually to meet and exceed all of the natural gas demand in this area. So we do not need this pipeline for local gas demand. And we know that that’s true, because it won’t be going to locals. They they say that it’s going to be heating homes in the area, but it’s not. I mean, they signed contracts that have literally the bare legal minimum going into local consumption. It is entirely for export, entirely for that profit.
Toby: Yeah. And I think this is a trend. It’s not just this region where pipelines aren’t a financially good idea. Part of what happened with the Jordan Coe fight out in Oregon is that FERC [Federal Environmental Regulatory Commission] declined they’re eminent domain, because they’re like “There’s no financial incentive to grant the Jordan CoVe eminent domain. Natural gas is not enough of a financial incentive for us to deal with eminent domain of all of these landowner’s properties.” So like, like this trend of like it not being a good financial move is happening. But also at the same time it doesn’t benefit the company’s. The companies are like “No, we have to keep making money.” And, as Emily said, they don’t need to actually put natural gas in this pipeline to make money. And they’re going to continue being hell bent on this process, even though it’s at the expense of us living on this earth. And other creatures living on this earth.
TFSR: It’s obvious that they’re fleecing the shareholders. And that’s why they’re losing some of them, but some of them are just too dumb to realize. But it also just kind of smells to me, like the infrastructure plans that were over the last 20 years of war in Afghanistan. Where you just had like large infrastructure or private security companies or whatever taking public funds and building bridges to nowhere, as they say. Or just walking away with money. I don’t know if those are the same companies or if it’s public money going into it, but it just seems just ERRRRRRR.
Toby: Yeah, it does seem like that. It does feel like that, It is really hard to be like “Oh, this pipeline makes sense when you go around these mountains.” And you look at like their construction methods and the absurd amount of dangerous stuff they have to do to build this pipeline. In no way shape or form does this pipeline make sense. You just being here and hiking around… you’re like “Oh, this makes even less sense than I thought it would from an outside perspective, because of the terrain and where it’s going through.” You’re just like “How did any engineer think this project made sense?” I don’t know. As Emily said before, already, one worker has died. There have been multiple equipment accidents, where excavators have flipped over, other super dangerous stuff has happened on this pipeline route. So, you’re just like “Oh, it has to be something going on where people are ‘yeah, we’re gonna keep just drowning this projects with more money and even though it doesn’t make any sense.'”
TFSR: West Virginia is one of the states in the US that has a very long history of official acquiescence to extractive industries with, among other things, the promise of employment opportunities. There was already discussed the argument that it’s going to be fulfilling local supply needs for natural gas, which has been blown out of the water. But is this providing any reasonable amount of jobs for people in local communities? And is that is that one of the selling points that they’re trying to make for it?
Toby: They definitely make that point. It’s definitely wrong. You drive around and you look at where all the Man Camps are, where all of their work yards are, where their workers park, and all of those trucks are from out of state. Most of the pipeline workers are from other states where there are other pipelines being built. They get brought in. They come and they stay in Man Camps. They come in and stay at all the hotels. They’re from mostly out of state. I think the one exception to that is that some of their security they hire is local. But none of the bosses of the security folks are local. They all get brought in too. There’s a story that by where the Yellow Finch trees sits used to be, there was a logging project that was just coincidentally right next to it. And the loggers got into disagreements with all of the MVP workers because MVP had not hired local loggers to do the tree clearing, or the tree felling. So, they’re not hiring locals, they’re bringing people in.
Emily: Yeah, and I remember back in the beginning, again. They would waltz into these meetings being like “1000’s of jobs. We are bringing 1000’s of jobs to this area!” And people would be like “Really? Really???” And they would be like “Oh, we ran the numbers again, and we’re bringing hundreds of jobs! hundreds of jobs to the area!” And people would be like “Really? Really???” and then did their own research and they were like, “What you’re talking about in your own documents is less than two dozen permanent jobs, like less than a dozen permanent, jobs.” from what I remember from one of those conversations. Considering the amount of farms that I know that have shuttered in the construction process that has already out numbered. That’s already out numbered.
Toby: Even the jobs they’re providing to locals, the security jobs, as Emily was saying, they’re not continuous jobs. In fact, a lot of the security workers were pretty happy when a lot of folks started doing blockades again this year after the tree sits were extracted. Because it meant they were gonna get laid off, but now they’re no longer gonna get what laid off. That’s the thing is that they lay off a lot of workers. And even the workers that they bring in, they have large parts of the year where they can’t work, or there are stopped work orders and so they lay everyone off. So they’re not even providing jobs that are that good to all the folks who are being brought in.
TFSR: And just to keep on that topic around the Man Camps. I know when we’ve spoken to folks involved in resistance against pipelines, whether it be in so-called Canada or in the US. This can have different impacts in different places. Obviously, in in the parts of Canada where a lot of those pipelines are being built there’s large concentrations of indigenous folks living on their land, and being under threat of displacement or poisoning from this. And the Man Camps have a racialized element to them as a colonial force of displacement, as well as assault and murder against Indigenous women in particular.
But, I wonder if there’s some commonalities of experience around the Man Camps, as they’re called, along the MVP? I would imagine, and I’ve heard this sort of thing before that there’s at least higher like incidences of people transiting COVID because people are traveling back and forth over such wide distances and maybe don’t give a fuck about infecting locals at the hotel they’re staying at or the restaurant they’re eating at. But are there higher concentrations of assault around those spaces, or other concerns outside of the job site?
Emily: I mean, I’ll speak for myself here. I don’t really have a way of knowing and I’ve thought about this, and I don’t really know how to find out. A lot of those things probably wouldn’t go reported. We know for a fact that a lot of the man camps up north at Line 3 have recently been caught in sex trafficking, have recently been revealed as being sex trafficking rings. And again, They use Precision Pipeline. We use Precision Pipeline. There’s no way that it’s not happening, I guess, is what I’m saying. But I can’t necessarily speak to specifics of sexual violence around here. I will say that you’re absolutely right about the COVID transmission. I mean, they don’t wear masks. But also the cops don’t wear masks. Every every part of the construction process is putting… You know, the security workers don’t masks. A lot of the people who are out there are able to observe the people in their backyards doing the work every day. A lot of people that go out and do that observing are often older are often retired, because that’s who can show up when the people are working in their backyards. And so it’s a lot of older folks who are in close contact with these people who have no regard for their safety. None whatsoever. So yeah, you’re absolutely right about that.
TFSR: I guess getting back to the scripted questions. Thanks for going off so much with me. Can y’all talk a little bit about some of the history of resistance to the MVP? And what those old folks whose backyards are being despoiled by this… Who are some of the folks or communities that are resisting the pipeline?
Toby: Emily, would you like to start? You mentioned earlier that you have been doing this for seven years?
Emily: Oh, gosh, yeah. I mean, from the beginning it’s always been a really cross-demographic group I suppose. It’s actually, to me, been really beautiful being part of this community of resistance. Because I don’t think I’ve been in a lot of other spaces that are so multi-generational, across many different faith backgrounds, and geographically widespread. People really come together to show up for each other in this resistance. So that that’s been true since the beginning. I guess, when we talk about the people who’ve put their bodies in the path of the pipeline, it’s a lot of young people, it’s a lot of old people. It’s students. It’s grandparents. It’s people from far away that know that this pipeline is going to impact their futures and their loved ones futures. It’s people close by who have already lost their water or who also recognize that it’s such an incredibly urgent and far reaching crisis, that everyone is touched by it. And I think because of that, everyone really turns out for it. Yeah, that’d be my short answer. Toby?
Toby: Yeah. I think that what we see is there’s been years of resistance, since this project has been proposed, people like fought it through the regulatory process for years. It’s been opposed since the beginning. And while the regulatory fight has continued, there’s also been for over three years, a lot of direct action that has been used to resist the pipeline, and to stop construction that began in 2018, with the sits on Peters Mountain, in the Jefferson National Forests, where we had folks on top of the mountain in tree sits right next to where the pipeline would be bored underneath the top of Peters Mountain, which is where the Appalachian trail goes. And that’s the border between West Virginia and Virginia. One of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. I love that mountain. A lot of people here love that mountain. And it’s also an incredibly essential place for this region. It is a giant aquifer. It’s a place where there’s lots of different animals and species of trees, and all types of living things that are living there.
And then also, in the same National Forest a little bit later, there was the monopod that blocked construction for 57 days. That blocked one of their access roads that they use to get to their construction sites on Peter’s. So, I think there’s been not just an effort to fight them in court and to oppose them with regulatory process. But there’s been three and a half years of dedicated people putting their bodies on the line and risking their freedom to stop this project. We can keep talking about… We’re trying not to do the “And then this person did this!” I think the things that we were trying to think about this question and trying to be like “what are some of the major moments.” A lot of the major moments are where there has been a combination of local support and community support for these actions and for this type of resistance. As well as people coming to this region from all over to fight this pipeline. There’s been such a building of community that just transcends location and identity. It’s been like really incredible to see. Obviously, the best example, which is the Yellow Finch tree sit. They lasted for 932 days. And most of that was with the support camp. You met so many different types of people from all over who came to support the tree sits that way. And, obviously, that was just a space that a lot of people considered their home. But also was just a space to just build lots of resistance and capacity to fight this pipeline.
Emily: Yeah, being in that space was really special. Because you would see all these people coming from all over. You would build these amazing friendships. And obviously because people were coming from far away, there’d be a lot of coming and going, and a lot of coming back too. But then there were also the local people who I have memories of eating my friends banana bread in like week two, around the sits or something, and then memories of eating that same friends banana bread again, just a couple months before the support camp got evicted. That continuous local support that literally kept people fed and kept people safe and supported throughout is what has carried us through. There were tree sits that went up in Rocky Mount, they went by Little Teel Crossing. They were the Bent Mountain sits that lasted for five weeks. The monopod held for 57 days which was really incredible. That was the monopod on Peters Mountain.
All of that together, all of those tree sits and large actions, and our recent mass action were 100 people walked on to a site and 10 people locked down to equipment, plus all those smaller actions that still had huge impact, where people lock themselves to excavators or just put their bodies on the line. Locked themselves into cars on the on the path of the pipeline. In total, there have been 74 arrests in direct actions against the pipeline across 40 actions, and summing up to 1039 days stopped over the years of resistance.
Toby: To be fair, that 1039 number is in large part due to the Yellow Finch tree sits, which lasted for 932 days. The distribution across that… the average is a lot different of blockade length. Some of the actions that have been done like the monopods and the tree sits and all of the different aerial actions have been some of the longest lasting active blockades. Not necessarily the longest, but has been some of the longest lasting blockades in the history of this country, or this land. And yeah, that combination of these long term blockades and also smaller, shorter-term actions, where people go and put themselves in the direct path, or locked to equipment or somehow interfere with construction is mostly because of folks who are willing to risk arrests and their freedoms. Also a lot of people from across the country seeing this as a fight that is really essential and connects us all. It’s the same with any fight that is against petrochemical infrastructure or extraction.
TFSR: So a lot of that resistance that you’ve been describing is on the ground. It’s people directly observing or directly standing in the path. And that’s great when people can do that. That’s part of the skill set that they can bring to resistance. I’ve sort of gotten a big appreciation over the years of talking to folks that are involved in the sort of work that you all are doing for the combination of the on the ground stuff, and also tying up the legal side of things. I’m wondering, are there any ongoing legal challenges around eminent domain or around FERC filings or anything like that, and any groups that are participating in resisting on that landscape?
Toby: Totally, there are. It’s also important to say that MVP right now is kind of tied up with their own permitting process. Right now the West Virginia DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] just submitted a draft approval for their water quality permits. They also need all of their water quality permits that they would get through the West Virginia DEP [Department of Environmental Protection]. So those are for all their water crossings that they have not gotten variances for and done. I think they still need to do about 500 of their water crossings out of about 1000+. Some of those water crossings are major water crossings. The Elk River, the Gauley River, the Greenbrier River all in West Virginia or the Roanoke River in Virginia. They also have to cross under some major highway. And a lot of that will be done through boring which they also don’t have their approval to bore. That could get conditionally approved pending the approval of their Army Corps water crossing permits and their DEQ & DEP water quality permits.
Right now they were granted a new right of way permit to go through the Jefferson National Forest. But they can’t work there until they get the rest of their water permits. So they’re part of the legal system is that they didn’t wait to start construction until they had gotten all their permits. So they are trying to get their permits as they go. Which a lot of people say is that they’ve kind of like shot themselves in the foot. They’ve definitely limited their success by not doing what companies normally do, which is get all their permits before and then start. So that’s why they’re involved in a legal mess of their own making with all their permitting. Yeah, there’s also a lot of nonprofits in the area. Appalachian voices, the Sierra Club, and Wild Virginia, they are also in court challenging a lot of decisions made by regulatory bodies with regards to MVP. Do you want to talk more about that, Emily?
Emily: Sure. Yeah, again, from the beginning, everyone was all the local experts. Scientists were really clear that building this pipeline was going to further endanger already endangered species. A really good example of that is like the Kenny Darter, which is a really beautiful and colorful fish. The Log Perch… a lot of these species can only be found in Appalachia. And Appalachia is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. It’s really, really special in that way. There’s like a lot of limitations on when they can build, because there are endangered bats and birds that need to have their habitats protected. Which, to me is insane, that they should be able to build at any time of the year at all, if we know that those are their habitats.
But yeah, that decision made by Fish and Wildlife, that decision that MVP wouldn’t impact those species has been challenged in court, and it’s actually gone really far. And I believe they’re going to be hearing some oral arguments for that in the next few months, which is exciting. But I mean, that case was filed so early on. And I think something really important to note is that that case wouldn’t have made it this far, the pipeline would have been built if it wasn’t for on the ground resistance. Also on the ground resistance would have been a lot harder if they’d been able to build across all parts of the pipeline at once. So things like the endangered species case, things like the Jefferson National Forest case, challenging the Forest Service decision to let MVP cross the Jefferson National Forest, Those oral arguments are also coming up.
Those cases have made it so that their construction is slowed down. The direct actions have made it so that their construction is slowed down and those two different arms of of the resistance against the pipeline really support each other. They’re very deeply intertwined. Which I think is something that people don’t often think about. A lot of the times when people lock down in the path of the pipeline, you see this in resistance all over the place, people will be like “Oh, well, you know, why don’t you go through the proper legal channels?” And it’s like “Not only did we from the beginning, but we still are!” It’s really necessary to use these outside of the legal system paths in order to actually make it through the legal system because it is so rigged in industry’s favor.
The last one South Gate, the South Gate Extension, so that was a permit that they were looking for to be able to like build really the entire South Gate extension and the North Carolina DEQ denied their water quality permits. They came back saying “Oh, you can’t deny it for this reason.” They denied it again. They denied it a third time. Toby’s absolutely right. This process has been so messy and it is because of their incompetence as well as the fact that this project just like shouldn’t be built. There’s no standard in which this pipeline should be built. And then on top of that, there’s also still a lot of people fighting the eminent domain claims, where they live and some of those eminent domain claims have actually been pushed to 2022. And yet, MVP is constructing in their backyards right now. Which I think is just wild that they do not have the regulatory or legal standing to be doing so much of what they do every day.
Toby: Yeah, I think that Emily was talking about eminent domain a couple of weeks ago, and that mountain MVP was starting to work and that’s a place where there’s a lot of resistance to the eminent domain of the pipeline going through people’s land. And people came out every day through the night to be close enough to work where they [pipeline workers] couldn’t work for days, while there was stuff happening in the courts trying to get an injunction to stop MVP. Eventually, I don’t think that the courts granted that injunction, but it was a time where people like got together. And as simple as “Hey, we’re gonna be here, as a group of people, as a community and just watch what they’re doing, but also be close enough so that MVP can’t do the work they’re trying to do.”
Emily: That community, actually, some of the folks were out there every day, every night trying to prevent blasting from happening in their backyards. And eventually MVP and security got together with the homeowner there and gave this essentially verbal agreement that they would not blast until the case had been heard in court. The case was scheduled for later that week, and then in the middle of the night, without doing any of the safety precautions, which they’re legally required to do, they blasted anyways. So yeah, not only is the system rigged in favor of them legally in the courts in the regulatory systems, but they disregarded anyways. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, you can cut this out later, but they shit on it anyway.
TFSR: Yeah, Go ahead and say that.
Toby: Yeah, I like the point that Emily made earlier that people who are taking MVP to court or who are challenging decisions that the regulatory bodies are making in court, all of that builds time and space and delays in the construction that allows more resistance to happen. So whether that’s more resistance, like monitoring, or more legal challenges, or the direct action element, this fight would have looked a lot different for the past three and a half years if they were allowed to work on every segment of their pipeline at once. And it would have meant a much different image of what resistance looks like against the MVP.
Emily: Very succinctly put.
Toby: It also has meant that folks have had this challenge of sustaining resistance. I think there’s an extra challenge in that too. It not only creates space for more resistance to happen, but it also creates a challenge to sustain the energy and the resistance. And a lot of that energy comes from local support for the fight against MVP. These people are not leaving, they’re not moving, they are still fighting this in their communities in this region. And so a lot of the ability to sustain direct action over three and a half years and a legal fight over seven years, is the dedication and energy of the folks who live here. And it’s been pretty cool to see that be sustained. I feel like a lot of times with direct action, it’s very urgent, it’s very fast. How do you make sure that we still have support, and we still have there is still people who are like willing to put their bodies on the line when it has lasted over multiple years.
TFSR: It’s really inspiring. There’s been this group that’s at least has a social media presence, called “Appalachians Against Pipelines” that’s been doing a very good job for a very long time of bringing up news about the resistance that’s been going on against the MVP. And just making space for criticisms, and for news of resistance, and for ways for people to get involved and for fundraisers, and all sorts of different stuff. And it’s come up I guess, in federal court, where Facebook is being pressured by MVP, as I understand by the Mountain Valley Pipeline economic project, and construction project, to try to get information about the people that are behind AAP’s social media presence, or whatever other presence. I don’t know if that’s for the purpose of a SLAP suit or what. But can you all talk a little bit about this circumstance where social media is a very useful tool for sharing information and for rallying people but it’s also potentially being weaponized against folks who are speaking out against the Mountain Valley Pipeline project?
Toby: Yeah. Appalachians Against Pipelines just describes grassroots resistance to Mountain Valley Pipeline. As like a Facebook presence or social media presence it exists to help the fight gain visibility and educate people. It published news about the regulatory process in the legal fights, as well as news about different direct actions that people take. And it’s also to act in solidarity with other resistance struggles. That is the purpose of that Facebook page. And as of now, no admin for that page has been contacted by Facebook about the subpoena. So, there’s been no communication with Facebook as of right now that I’m aware of.
I think it’s pretty important to note that this is not the first time that MVP has used this type of intimidation to try and stop resistance. It’s a harassment tactic right now that they’re doing. And it’s just trying to seek out personal information, not just as like “Oh, we want to know who is behind this Facebook page.” But it’s also a scare tactic to discourage people from joining resistance but it’s also a scare tactic to try and get people to stop. Because it is terrifying to have a company know your personal information and your name and your address and whatever else the subpoena is asking for. It is terrifying to know that with the reality of SLAP suits and injunctions, and also police investigations and other law enforcement investigations. It is scary to have that like be a tactic that is being used against people fighting MVP.
TFSR: Or private security companies like Tigerswan that were conducting surveillance and counter intelligence work up at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
Toby: Yeah, it’s harassment, and it’s intimidation. And I think folks who are resisting that Mountain Valley Pipeline, this is not the first time that this scare tactic has been used. This is not the first time that MVP has harassed people and intimidate people. And so I think that as before people are going to continue to resist this pipeline and refuse to be intimidated by Mountain Valley Pipeline and their subpoena.
Emily: Yeah, and I would add that, you know, this is just kind of my personal perspective, but it seems like a very desperate and cowardly tactic. I think all intimidation harassment tactics are. It has this very cowardly and disingenuous ring to it. I’ve seen people very courageously… the risk is real, the threat is real. And also, it’s disingenuous because people have been standing up vocally with their faces and their names out in public ready to take on those consequences from the start. And so to act now, like “Oh, there’s this shady group behind it all” is absolutely trying to disempower people in this area, and everywhere who have been vocally and boldly from the beginning been saying that this is wrong and been saying it in the face of a behemoth of a corporate behemoth and in the face of the state.
Toby: I think like in general, you see, other fights have similar social media presences. And we’re now the age where social media is used as a way of not only getting the word out about different actions and different fights and informing people but it’s also an incredible tool to get inspired by other fights across the world. It is how people like learn about different people resisting and different struggles. It just emboldens everyone. It emboldens people around here to see other campaigns or other fights going on and what those people up at Line 3 are doing putting their bodies in line. Like how they’re doing that. Or seeing the fights going on at Fairy Creek or against Trans Mountain or Coastal Gas. Learning about what other folks are doing is incredibly important to sustaining the fight here. So that’s kind of the benefit I see a social media presences of these types of resistances of course, also more it does open people up to more risk. It does. This is not the first time this has happened against a pipeline fight.
TFSR: It’s so inspiring to me the the correlation between the hyper-localized, like “this is what this landscape is, these are the animals that are impacted, these are the people who are being impacted, this is the landscape.” And then seeing the map dotted with projects that are similar where local people or people locally are resisting or coming from other places to go resist And looking at the fact that there’s this web of solidarity between the groups. The scope of damage and threat is not just local, but it is local, and that can’t be diminished. But it’s also global because of fucking climate change. It ties these struggles together and co-inspires them. My mind just reels at the thought. It’s so inspiring.
So, since President Biden has come into office have y’all seen any changes in the pushing through this pipeline, any differences from the way that the administration’s of Trump or Obama interacted with the project?
Emily: So there was a FERC nominee put up by Biden. A lot of people say that this nominee is also a fossil fuel crony, which, of course, is like nothing new for the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee. I’m sure there’s a lot of specific policy details that people could debate back and forth. But the reality is just “NO!” when you’re putting your body in the path of a pipeline, and the cops come to arrest you, it does not matter who the President is. The history of this country is a history of extraction, it is a history of exploitation. That has been consistent from day one. And this mega project, this massive project, this historic project really does just slot into a long line of similar devastating, high risk, destructive projects. That history, you know, it’s not like it has four years on four years off, it is a consistent history throughout.
Toby: Yeah, and I think Biden has paid a lot of lip service to wanting to fight climate change. But as we’ve seen with pretty much every single politician ever, it’s just lip service. No on is willing to take the actions that are needed to stop the impending climate crisis. No one is willing to take the strong enough action to actually limit emissions. It’s one thing to say what you’re trying to get elected, “Oh, I want to fight climate change.” But when you are actually elected, and you do nothing to stop the projects that are going to drastically impact our world by releasing so many emissions and are so far out of the realm of what you should be doing to actually stop climate change. And you’re like, “Okay, well, great. Another politician saying the thing doing nothing. No shocker. No surprise.”
TFSR: So, for folks in the southeast of Turtle Island, like in this region, how can they get involved? Or how can we get involved with a the anti MVP struggle in our own backyard? Who do you want to show up? And what sort of stuff can folks do remotely to support it also in case they can’t show up on the ground?
Emily: So yeah, there’s a lot of different ways to plug in. I mean, we so appreciate all the people everywhere who have donated. Who have started their own fundraising methods. Who have done solidarity actions at banks, demanding divestment or cutting ties. But also, if you want to come all the way to the mountains and join us, then come! You know, we want people who are dedicated to stopping the pipeline. We would love to have you. But also if you’re not near us and there’s a fight near you join that. Contribute to that. All land and water defense is really connected. And if there’s any abolition work, or any other kind of liberation work where you are, do that. Plug into that and that would make us really, really happy.
Toby: Yeah, as you said earlier, we like thrive off of that web of solidarity. We thrive off of seeing other folks in their communities fighting for liberation, fighting for native sovereignty for land, for landback, against extraction, against petrochemical infrastructure. We thrive off of that. And so if you can’t come out to the mountains join whatever fight is closest to you.
TFSR: 1492 Land Back Lane is an ongoing struggle in so-called Canada that is really inspiring. Line 3 has been in the media a lot as a place where tons of people, both indigenous folks and co-conspirators have shown up to put their bodies on the line to try to stop that construction. And I wonder, can you say anything about that struggle and if there are other… You mentioned the struggle On Fairy Creek for instance. Can you talk about any other struggles that are that you’re taking inspiration from that are land and water defense or land back struggles that you want to shout out or inform people about.
Toby: I personally, I’m pretty excited to see all the stuff that’s happening in Atlanta against Cop City. And I am excited to see the beginnings of the organizing that’s happening there. And I’m excited about that. Inspired by that.
TFSR: Can you describe what that is?
Toby: Yeah. So in Atlanta… I’m not definitely not the expert on this. Atlanta has a lot of parks, lots of forest in and around it. And there is like a massive project that is being proposed to deforest some of the land around it where the product of that would be half of that land would go towards the movie industry and then half of that would go towards building a cop training facility that I think people are calling Cop City. And that definitely is a struggle that is at the intersection of abolition and fighting resource extraction and deforestation. But also intersects a lot with the struggles against gentrification that are happening in Atlanta, and pushing people of color, Black communities out of Atlanta. It just seemed like the intersection of all of these different fights coming together in one is pretty inspiring to me. And that being so close to us as well is nice to see that blooming and coming up.
Emily: Yeah, first of all, I fully agree with everything that you just said Toby. And to jump off of what you were saying earlier about Line 3. I think staying up to date on that fight is huge, It’s really coming to the point where Enbridge is absolutely racing to finish. I mean, they are being reckless and just railroading over. But the resistance is still ongoing, which is incredible considering the real intense ramps up that law enforcement have been using, the violence that they’ve been using against water protectors there has been oftentimes hard to look at. But we can’t look away right now. And with the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who are now fighting their arrests and charges in court, ongoing court support for that fight is gonna increasingly become something that I think people from far away, can plug into. And so that’s something that I’m trying to learn a lot more about right now. And I’d encourage people to keep their eyes out for that.
TFSR: How can people keep up on the struggle against the MVP? And what are some good sites or sources or fundraising pages or whatever that they should check out?
Toby: To revisit this, check out Appalachians Against Pipelines? That’s a very good source for information and updates and also the donation link to support resistance. We also have a podcast coming out.
TFSR: Hell yeah.
Toby: We also have a podcast. Emily do you want to talk more about the podcast?
Emily: The first episode will be out soon on In This Climate which is a really great podcast. And then the following episodes that we’re hoping to put into production soon will definitely be shared on the Appalachians Against Pipelines social media, which is Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. So you can find them there.
Toby: That podcast is gonna focus a lot on people’s stories, and listening to the people who’ve been involved in this fight. So it’s a lot about people’s personal experiences and reasons why they have joined in.
TFSR: That’s awesome. Yeah. I get a surprise too! Cool. When is that first episode gonna be out?
Emily: Good question. We don’t have a date yet.
TFSR: If it was by the end of the week or something like that, then I would totally drop a link in the show notes.
Emily: It will certainly not be by the end of the week. But hopefully within the next three weeks, maybe?
Toby: That’ll definitely go out on social media. So people should follow Appalachians Against Pipelines to get notified about when there is a podcast coming out.
TFSR: Absolutely. Toby and Emily, thank you so much for this conversation. Thanks for all the work that y’all are doing. And yeah, solidarity.
This week on the show, we spoke with folks involved with Comrade Center, a leftist project focused on accessible education around armed self-defense in so-called New Hampshire. They were formerly known as Southern New England Socialist Rifle Association and while they’re no longer a chapter of the SRA, they are working with groups like that and individuals to purchase and maintaining a space for armed self-defense education outside of the right wing milieu in their area. For the hour we talk about mainstream, reactionary gun culture in the US, the impact of the NRA, the importance and empowerment of education around fire arms and other topics. You can learn more about the project at ComradeCenter.Org
K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) [instrumental] by Diamond D from Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop (Instrumentals) (2xLP)
All You Fascists Bound To Lose by Nina Hagen from Personal Jesus, cover of Woody Guthrie
. … . ..
Dave:Hi, I’m Dave, pronouns he/him, and I’m living currently in Boston, Massachusetts. I’m an organizer with Comrade Center.
Geoff: I am Geoff, pronouns he/him, living in western Massachusetts, and I’m an organizer with the ComradeCenter.
The Final Straw Radio: Cool. Can y’all tell us a little bit about the history of the Comrade Center, the philosophy, points of unity, that sort of stuff. And, and as I understand, prior you had been affiliated with the Socialist Rifle Association. I don’t know if you want to say a few words about what changes happened, or why you decided to take a different direction.
G: Yeah, Dave do you want to start?
D: Oh, sure. So we all met through the southern New England branch of the Socialist Rifle Association, sometime back in 2020. And that’s where the germ of this idea for a leftist gun range started. We’re all some type of socialists — the SRA is a pan-leftist organization — but we all share, you know, our point of unity for this project is that, really, it’s very difficult for folks with marginalized identities and folks who are traditionally excluded from gun culture up here in New Englandto learn firearms training and self-defense. And so we want to take on this project to sort of lower the barriers to entry to learning firearms, and gun safety. I don’t know Geoff wants to add to that.
G: I think that’s something that we’re going to touch on quite a bit during this conversation is that things are a little bit different up here in New England, there are not any real spaces for leftists, or anyone left–of–center really to engage with or commune around firearms. And it’s considered a right wing only thing. And that monopoly kind of scares us.
D: I remember I went down to Durham, North Carolina at one point, and a friend who was living down there, they took me shooting to a public range where you could just go for free and target shoot. And I was a little blown away by this, this was a few years ago. So I think when I saw what folks down in North Carolina had, I was like “this is, you know, this is really great”. And nothing like that really exists up in New England, certainly not in southern New England, like Massachusetts, or Connecticut, that have really restrictive gun regulations. So when I joined the SRA, that is sort of the thing that sparked my interest was this project when I heard about it, and I knew I wanted to get involved.
G: I mean, it’s worth pointing out that New England as a whole, Massachusetts especially, is overwhelmingly a blue state. And your people that disagree with that are sort of like pushed into the shadows and the rural areas. And private gun range ownership is the thing. Most places you’ll find to go shooting our private clubs. They’re owned by, you know, one or two people or a board. And there’s certain bylaws. Not to dive into it too fast, but I was actually kicked out of a club recently, for bringing guests, which is within the bylaws of the club, that people did not agree with. I basically had trans people with me, and it freaked everybody out. And I was brought up on formal review for bringing outside people into the club. You know, you can point to bylaws all you want and say, “Well, you know, I was observing the guest policy” and they’ll create some reason to get rid of you, in this case, some sort of official sounding statement that I was putting the safety of the club in jeopardy.
So that was the last straw for me, you could even say it was “the final straw” for me.
TFSR: [laughs] G: And I decided that I needed to get involved with a project that was going to help people that really needed it.
TFSR:Yeah, I’m not sure about the space in Durham that you mentioned, but out in western North Carolina that we have here — and this is affiliated with at least here, I think the State Department of Fishing and Recreation, or whatever it’s called —but there’s a public range in Cold Mountain or called The Cold Mountain Range where they have like a range officer that’s employed by the state government, it’s on the edge of state and federal forest lands and it’s upkept. I mean, they’ve improved it so much over the last few years. It used to be just one range, six or seven stalls, people flagging each other all the time, people not really paying attention. And now they’ve got a pistol range and a rifle range and a range officer who makes sure that people have their weapons down and you know, nothing in the chamber when people are going downrange to check their targets. So it’s, I mean, just having…public land use I guess in this part of the country is pretty important with all the–all the big parks and stuff and I would imagine up in your neck of the woods, a lot less of that, a lot more like private ownership excluding folks, as you mentioned.
D: Yeah, and it’s-it’s worth mentioning that there is, you know, the we’re-we are kind of operating out of New England, but there’s a difference between northern New England and southern New England as far as gun culture is concerned. I think we all met from the southern New England, you know, chapter and that’s, you know, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut. You know, it’s quite different from Vermont and New Hampshire, in terms of at least gun laws. But yeah, the whole–the whole issue of space is an issue throughout the region. It’s just difficult to access gun range spaces.
G: Yeah, I mean, the southern New England region has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, excluding California, and, you know, that trickles down into how guns are recognized. I can’t imagine what a public-facing gun range would look like in Massachusetts, given the fact that, you know, laws are extremely restrictive, and it’s created a culture shift.
TFSR: Can you I guess, just to readdress, could you say anything about, do you have official points of unity, like you said, that you came out of the SRA, which is a pan-leftist organization, are there points of unity that Comrade Center upholds or like a guiding philosophy besides the general idea of getting self-defense tools and training and-and comradeship into the hands of folks that are excluded from spaces in the area?
G: Our steering committee is made up largely of allies. But we all came from the SRA, which means we’re all either socialists or anarchists or someone adjacent. But [snarky voice] whereas most leftist organizations would spend all their time scheduling meetings and fighting, we actually see the differences between our ML’s and our A’s, you know, creating very beautiful solutions to things.We’ve realized that, again, as allies, what we have to do is make space. And as we do more outreach, and we start to partner with other organizations, we are going to be the org that creates space and invites people to collaborate and help skill build. And that sort of agreement amongst our core membership — the people who are making this project happen, doing the fundraising and doing the outreach and making sure that we have things organized and safe and secure — the agreement between us at that level has bled into our mission statement and our vision for this future space.
TFSR: Cool. So what do you think, I guess more generally since you’ve been doing this kind of work, I guess you’ve talked about a bunch of different identities and marginalization and lack of access to the tools and the training and such, can you talk a little bit more broadly about the increased leftist approach towards taking space around armed self-defense and community self-defense over the last, I guess, 15 years? Like, I know that the–my understanding is the first Redneck Revolt chapter started in around like 2005–2006 in Kansas. I know, it’s sort of like, really came up starting around 2015–2016 and spread out to other groups, too. But have you seen much of a shift over that period of time where y’all are at, having other groups with the sort of like, various specific or shared pan identities of leftist orientation to self-defense?
D: Yeah, I think that’s something that’s–I’ve noticed that other people have noticed the past several years, at least being on social media. You have, you know, all these accounts, like Guerrilla Tactical and…I won’t name all of them, but there’s, you know, there’s several social media accounts have gotten popular, that have like a leftist bent to firearms training, and self-defense skills. And I don’t think that that’s a coincidence. I think those things are a response to material conditions on the ground, where we see in the past several years, the rise of right wing reactionary groups, like the Proud Boys and violent Trump supporters.
Just the other week, in Portland, there was a Proud Boy’s rally and there was, you know, a Proud Boy or someone affiliated, who opened fire on a group of protesters, and now the protesters were armed and fired back in self-defense. So I think these conversations can be difficult to have because you don’t want to come off sounding like an alarmist, but when you look at the news, when you look at what’s happening, I think it’s clear that there is a need for folks who are involved in popular movement work to reckon with the practicality of having some knowledge of self-defense and community self-defense.
TFSR:So let’s talk about ComradeCenter, what’s the vision? What’s the impetus? Like, you’ve already mentioned the–the lack of spaces that feel safe for people to be able to train and be able to learn skills. What do you need? And what do you hope to offer?
G: Well, we started under the sort of umbrella of the SRA. And we are breaking off on our own, not because the vision of the SRA or the mission of the SRA doesn’t align with our own, but more to the point, it also aligns with a lot of other leftist organizations. And we want to be a central node for collaboration with these leftist organizations. We want to provide space, we want to provide the access to training, the access to actual firearms to train. This is about learning to use tools.
D: Just going off of what Geoff just said, providing a space for learning skills, and firearms training and self-defense. But also a point that I really like to harp on, that Geoff can attest to is that, you know,this is an important project, because I think, too often political work comes off as this dreary exercise, because we’re dealing with all these really important, heavy issues. But I see this as potentially something that people can get excited about. Because, frankly, going out to the range, and learning a new skill and shooting guns with your friends is, you know, it’s fun. It’s a fun thing. It’s something I grew up doing. It’s something I learned from my father. And it’s fun to teach other people how to do. And I think that the left broadly could really use more spaces for that where we can learn new skills, and also network with each other, and build community in this deep sort of way that you don’t necessarily get when you engage in other types of organizing, that are more centered around marching or going door-to-door for various issues. So that’s where I see the Comrade Center is something special and unique, is building a physical infrastructure for that sort of community building.
TFSR: Another thing, I guess a point that just occurred to me is when you had mentioned before, in terms of like a discussion of leftist approaches towards taking space to do these things and have these conversations, y‘all mentioned the marginalization of voices of people that want to practice skills, or have access to firearms. Partially, that’s through laws that are expressly like restrictive in certain parts of the country, and where you all are, southern New England, but also the way that sort of discourse around guns has become bifurcated, like in the mainstream, either an anti–gun position from Liberals who are concerned about public safety issues, or mass shootings at schools or other like atrocious events, or just like gun gun violence that had that occurs on a day to day basis around the country. And then the Right wing, oftentimes that takes the position of — I want to talk about Right wing perspectives and toxicity of gun culture down the road — but just to sort of like “I need to protect my family, I need to defend myself, I’m kind of afraid of the world around me.” And it seems like this approach of approaching armed self-defense to people that are regularly targeted by systematic and individualized white supremacist, cis, heteropatriarchal violence, like it can be really empowering in a way. And it seems like it must bring about some, like a kind of conflict with people who might consider themselves on the Left, but really are like centrists or liberals who put a lot of their ideas about self-defense in the hands of the state. Is that the case?
G: Absolutely. Yeah, I’m searching for a way to comment because that was very succinct. I do want to mention, as you know, not as a way of diverting, because I think what you’re saying is important, too, but when you say, I think the phrase I used was “create space”, and you said “take space”, and you’re absolutely 100% correct, because we recognize the fact that the land we’re on is borrowed —stolen, really — and especially in New England, where this sort of thing gets swept under the rug quite a bit, we realize that we are, you know, potentially purchasing land to build the center, we’re also doing it on somebody else’s property, we’re doing on somebody else’s land, we’re doing somebody else’s home. And we recognize that fact, and it just, it came up, as you said “take space” because that’s the right way of thinking about it.
TFSR: In the area that y’all are looking to purchase this land, do you have a relationship with the Indigenous peoples that are there or of there?
G: The area that we’re working in is home to the Abenaki and we have reached out and we have a good line of communication, and basically, since nothing has yet happened in the vein of actual land purchase, we are sort of in a holding pattern with them, but we want their input and we want their attention.
TFSR: And collaboration I would imagine.
D: Yeah, absolutely. Maybe I can’t speak to this point quite as well, because there are other folks who are more in communication with them, but Indigenous people always, you know, they–they have knowledge about how to, you know, take care of the land that’s being used better than we do. So I think that’s going to be a really important aspect, especially considering potential negative effects of having a gun range and what and–what that can do to the environment. So that’s going to be really critical down the line.
TFSR: Yeah, definitely. That’s a good point.
D: Sorry, did you have-did you have a question? There was a long phrase before, and I don’t want–I want to make sure that we answer it correctly.
TFSR: Oh, just, it wasn’t so much a question as a comment and like an invitation to comment back if there was any sort of–yeah, because I–I don’t want to assume necessarily who the audience for the show is. I know that, like for the podcast, it’s people that are looking to hear certain conversations, but sometimes we’ll get people on the radio or people who are new to it, or people not from the US context but are still interested in community self-defense and like individual armed self-defense, and so sort of delineating the way that discourse in the US gets broken down around this very politicized concept. That’s sort of what I was just trying to–
D: Yeah, no, that was a really good comment and I would actually like to say something about that.
TFSR: Yeah, please.
D: So I think, you know, there was a podcast, It’s Going Down, they had an interview with the members of the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch, which is a collective out in Colorado, I believe, of LGBT folks who, you know, they own a ranch out there. And they were being harassed and intimidated by right wing reactionaries. And it was really a wonderful example of community self-defense in my mind, because, you know, they put a call out, and they got volunteers to, you know, go on patrol and protect the ranch armed. And thankfully, nothing happened, nothing negative happened. But they did have some folks, you know, some right wing folks who were around, who were trying to intimidate them and they didn’t take that sitting down. And I thought that was really wonderful. And kind of an example of how you know that, that doesn’t really fit the right wing, or the liberal centrist vision of what gun ownership means in this country.
G: Not at all.
D: But I think it points the way forward to what we’re trying to do that makes sense.
G: And community defense is 1% firearms. A lot of people make assumptions about, you know, what that definition is from connotation and it’s more about supplying information, skills, connections and communityto the people around you, and creating and forging bonds. I mean, how can you possibly work within your community, if you don’t know who your community is? It starts with sort of knowing and giving and taking and creating a relationship there.
And we’re harping on firearms here because it’s the most exciting part of this whole project, but really, it’s just unique, given our geographical location and our political location. It’s a unique offering that other skill building or other community-based organizations don’t have the ability to offer.We have, myself included, firearms instructors, where in a place like New Hampshire where you don’t need a license or state-mandated training, the role of the firearms instructor is optional. But in Massachusetts, it’s a necessary hurdle. And if you cannot or will not sit through a four hour course in the dark in a small club house in the woods surrounded by people that don’t really think you have the right to live, that is a barrier to entry and you cannot have your license without going through one of these courses. We’ve sort of developed our own licensing tracks and our own avenues for influence, our own avenues for information, and we think building that kind of dual path is important.
TFSR: Do you all partner with, like you mentioned that as, like one of the visions for Comrade Center is to act as a node for other folks to get involved with and and like including SRA,so do you have in your vision — since this isn’t a space yet, but you’re developing it — do you envision having space for groups like PinkPistols — although I know like nationally, some of theleadership that has been pretty reactionary, here we had a pretty good set of instructors for a little bit in like 2016–2017, who did not have a reactionary stance — or TheLiberal Gun Club or John Brown Gun Club or Redneck Revolt or other SRA chapters or anything? Like do you plan to–to sort of facilitate those groups that have shared vision coming in and–and doing their own instruction on the space?
G: So, like we said, our break from the SRA, which I wouldn’t even really call “a break”, it’s just, at what point does a closed relationship become an open relationship? [chuckles] You know, we–we hope to facilitate the needs of-of-of a whole spectrum of leftist organizations. And, yeah, we want to be a resource for a whole spectrum of leftist organizations. And since the organization is still a baby, right, the Comrade Center exists, but sort of in the ether, it’s in the tubes.But we don’t necessarily have, a piece of land with a gate on it yet, a lot of these questions have gone unanswered. So to ask about vision, to talk about how we see it in the future, we have labeled our project as an open ended educational mission. So the people who need it are going to help mold it.
The one thing we have in common is that we are leftists, and that we have points of unity, right? Belief in our fellow human. But beyond that, other than just an idea that skill-building will bring communities together and will help foster community-defense,it’s an open book.
D: I will add to that, that we do have lines of communication to Liberal Gun Club, we’re in conversation with some of these groups, and we are working with an organization called Arm Your Friends, they have a pretty substantial social media presence. And they sort of, they’re kind of an interesting group. They, you know, they organize outings to gun ranges. They’re of like mind with us, and so we’re currently working with them to see, you know, what events we could coordinate with in the future.
G: They also have excellent branding, so check out their website.
TFSR: [chuckles]Yeah, if you all, like if, in the show notes to this, I’m happy to link to that–to that conversation with the folks out in Colorado — that was a really good interview, The Unicorn Ranch — and then also any sort of friendly organizations that you want to pop into the show notes to share with folks so they can–they can check them out, I think would be awesome. D: Oh, fantastic. Great.
TFSR: Yeah. So critiques that I generally have space for around quote unquote “gun culture” include how a focus on individual self-defense reproduces the worst reactionary survivalism, spending lots of money on tactical gear and guns that feel like edgy consumerism devoid of community concerns, and it kind of reproduces this “I got mine” mentality, pervasiveness of macho paternalism, and white supremacist or xenaphobic attitudes that notably doesn’t leave space for critique and self critique.
Can you give a bit of a critique of mainstream gun culture as it exists, and sort of…When Geoff said that the community self-defense is 1% guns, and the rest of it is all these other things that mostly relate to, like individual knowledge and experience and interconnectedness…like that seems really… critiques that I’ve heard over the years of left wing approaches towards engaging around gun culture have felt kind of like people saying “oh, cool, it’s my time, I get to wear my my patches, and I get to carry a gun”, and that sort of thing. I’ve been really happy to see a lot of leftists approaching critically and saying, “Yeah, we don’t want to just reproducewanna be militias like III%ers, and the exclusionary and reactionary and quite frightening, like, offensive patterns that they build that sort of replicate exclusion of certain people from their space. So just kind of like to talk about, like, how you view gun culture and sort of like shifting it in that way?
D: Well, heck of a question, but definitely happy to answer it. So I think I take a lot of personal inspiration from Margaret Killjoy, and she has a podcast on you know, sort of,you know, survivalism, but with an anarchist bent–
TFSR: [jokingly interjects as if with a promo]“Live Like the World is Dying”, it‘s a member of the Channel ZeroNetwork of anarchist podcasts.
D: [laughing] There we go. So I’ve really taken some inspiration from her and what she has to say on the topic.And I think that’s a clear line that we can draw between, you know, the right wing version of gun ownership and survivalism, if you will, and the left wing version is that: the right seems to have this idea — I don’t know if you’ve heard the meme the Gray Man — where it’s like, they can just be like, an individual, like, totally like, you know, fend for themselves. And I think that that sort of attitude lends itself to edgy consumerism and the “I got mine” mentality that you referenced.
And the other side of that, that I think that we’re trying to foster,kind of recognizes the fact that we all have different skills, and that we all have different capacities to provide things for our community, and the Comrade Center is, you know, a project that kind of can bring all those things together. That’s that’s the vision at least right?
So, you know, one of those things is — Geoff mentioned earlier — we’re going to be giving free classes to get — in Massachusetts called an LTC a license to carry, and that’s required to to own and train with firearms in the state — so we’re going to be giving free classes at some point in the future. And that’s just an example of, you know, I don’t think that right wing folks would really be interested in that. But it’s something that we think is really important. G: There are people that make a living doing LTC courses, and they are $100–250 a pop, it’s four to five hour course, you get your certificate, and then you could apply for your license with the state. It is a business. We’re looking to dismantle that a little bit for the people who need it. And you mentioned the uhh, sort of all the baggage that comes with Leftists sort of adopting a Right wingculture.And there’s some pitfalls that are very obvious. There are things that, you know, we call them “chuddy” or “Fuddy” things. The wearing camo in public, you’re likely to find the Leftist doing that.
But there’s a lot of things that come with it that are hard to suss out. I think there are also some things that are a little bit more subversive. And given the fact that most of your leftist firearms communities are overwhelmingly white, there is a white-savior complex, that sort of bubbles beneath the surface. “I have adopted this skill, I understand the skill, let me teach this to you, person of color, and then you can defend yourself.” There’s a lot of blanks to be filled in there, and the concept of making yourself a target through ownership. There’s concepts that I don’t even understand because of my privilege.And unlearning and relearning as we open up our mission and we start to approach this educationally, it’s-it’s important, it’s really important to go slow, and understand exactly what you’re doing.
TFSR: In prior interviews — in particular, I’m thinking of when you’re still affiliated with the SRA,probably the IGD interview — you were clear to say that this project is not a militia. Can you talk about why this distinction is important for you — unless that’s changed — and how right wing paramilitaries like III%ers — Three-Percenters — or Oath Keepers, in your area, engage with your organizing efforts? Like are you viewed as a threat? Are you kind of under their radar?What does that look like?
D: What a militia type organization is trying to do and what we’re trying to do, I think the goals are fundamentally different. We are focused on providing individuals who are typically excluded from firearm spaces with a space that they can safely learn the effective use of firearms. So I think that’s, you know, the last thing we want is for those folks to be intimidated by any sort of apparent militia affiliation. So that’s–that’s not what we’re trying to do. As far as the Three Percenters or the Oath Keepers are concerned, maybe Geoff can speak better to this, but we haven’t really engaged with them and we certainly don’t plan to. So we hope to stear clear.
G: We could not be more different. I mean, the the reasons for getting involved in organization like that are completely different, more about taking than giving and more about feeling like you’re something special, when in reality a Leftist organization that revolves around skill building is more about feeling humble and helping.You know, Dave made a good point, it’s fundamentally different to want to organize as a militia group, or somebody who is taking up arms, as opposed to somebody who wants to teach skills and promote community through skill building.
It’s also worth mentioning that, just like firearms are 1% of community-defense, firearms are probably 10 or 20%, of our course offerings once we actually get moving. What makes our space unique is that we can also offer that, alongside other survival skills, community defense and organizing skills. And, you know, again, it’s going to matter who steps forward to help partner with us, which is sort of our open call right now, to other leftist groups that want to help and want to be helped, but that’s how we’re going to build community, we’re going to knit these things together.
TFSR: And I think there’s like, just another little rant, there’s also a, in the US context, there’s a very particular history to militia that doesn’t really get unpacked a lot when it gets discussed. Like it’s meant to be supplemental to the State as it operates, it’s meant to be the reasoning, you know, “in case of foreign invasion”, or whatever we’re going to back up the constitution and, and whatever else. And I think there’s like a certain value — and historically, it was militia that was used to, before the formation of slave patrols, that was used to do that sort of work, it was militia that was used to attack indigenous populations. And I don’t think you can like — the idea of having an armed wing that falls into the command of the state in a settler-colonial society like ours, you can’t disconnect those things and have it do a different function. It’s like the idea of having like, a, like “community policing”, in the way that it’s idealized, you know, versus how it’s operationalized. It’s just another way of counterinsurgency against the the general population. Just as was said, like, who gets to feel special and carry the guns and take the commands and give the commands and whatever else, as opposed to this model where you’re, like you said, spreading the information, spreading the tool set, helping people keep themselves safe, and building–building community as opposed to like, a separate agency.
G: No, you’re you’re on the right track there. I mean, it couldn’t be more different from a hierarchical, military–inspired survivalist attitude.It’s difficult to distance ourselves from that, because that’s what we know from TV and movies and any–anybody carrying a gun is like, “oh, are they army? Are they police, are they militarized police?”Like, we are facing a difficult task to not only do the work, but also break down the assumptions about the work.
TFSR: So the loudest gun organization in the US is the notoriously reactionary National Rifle Association or NRA—
G: [sarcastically] Never heard of ‘em.
TFSR: [laughs] — which due to its high degree of internal corruption filed for bankruptcy in the recent past? I can’t remember if it was, I think it was beginning of last year, but I might be wrong. Could you talk about the prominence of that group? Often, like it’s viewed as the only go to option in folks minds when they’re thinking of getting training, when they’re thinking of advocating for themselves around use of weapons to defend themselves? And, sort of, what sort of shifts you’ve seen where you’re at, like— are people pissed about, about how the NRA has been operating in the disclosures? Or do they think it’s fake news, conspiracy stuff?
G: It’s it happened to me too. I mean, my firearms training course was an NRA course. It’s all that was available. This is — we’re talking six years ago — when I decided after going through that experience that I wanted to become an instructor and help people, I realized that I would have had to basically train through the NRA to become an instructor because that’s the only thing available. Only after some intense googling did I find out that Massachusetts actually recognizes two dozen other courses to qualify for the LTC. The one I pursued was with the Liberal Gun Club, and I’m still an instructor with them. And I still believe in what they’re doing. I’m leveraging that experience to try to help as many people as I can.
But as far as the association with firearms in this country, and the NRA: you’ve got a group, as poorly run this they might be, who has managed to be the expert for our government, also a lobby group for manufacturers, and just, their tentacles are in so many different pockets, it’s impossible to sort of figure out where they start and where they end. I’m amazed that they ran out of money, it doesn’t make any sense.
D: And I’ll just add to that and say, I think that, yeah, the NRA is just… In people’s minds gun ownership and the NRA are, are kind of closely intertwined. And I think that’s done a lot of damage in the minds of folks who might otherwise be sympathetic to our cause. You know, they think “gun ownership, NRA, we don’t want anything to do with that”. At least in New England, in some of the liberal progressive circles — social circles — that I run in, that is sort of how it’s thought of. And from what Geoff said earlier, we’re trying to undo a little bit of that with our project.
G: It’s a lot of work. It’s very difficult in a place like New England, that’s so anti-gun. And like Dave was just saying the association of guns with the NRA only makes that work harder.
TFSR: Yeah, that makes sense. Do you ever have people come up to you and say, like, “hey, so like the work that you’re doing is making our society more dangerous because it’s promoting more people having guns in their hands?” And, for folks that are interested in engaging more around armed self-defense and armed community defense, for whatever reasons, do you have like a good response that they might think through? Or what sort of goes through your mind, or what you say to folks that are concerned about the proliferation of guns and that meaning more potential bullets flying?
G: [exhales] Have you, Dave have you had this happen to you?
D: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
[laughs] So these, yeah, I’ve had these conversations before — not where I’m from, from Vermont — but when I moved to Boston, I’ve had these conversations, and they’re not easy conversations to have. What I try to say is, well, first, the fact there’s, there’s more guns than there are people in this country in the United States. So that’s a fact that sort of has to be reckoned with.A lot of those guns are owned by the police, they’re owned by the military, they’re owned by the KKK, and the Proud Boys and other right wing groups. And they’re not giving those guns up. And that is a fact that I think has to be reckoned with. And people have the right to self-defense. That’s something that I believe in, I think that’s something that everyone involved in this project really believes in.
So, you know, as far as the problem of the proliferation of firearms, that’s already happened. And I think that this is something that we need to recognize and move forward with, in the best way that we can. And, you know, we could–we could have a whole conversation about, you know, what the left’s position on gun control should be, but the way I see it is state regulations that try to limit gun ownership,what that really ends up doing is it limits gun ownership for poor folks, for folks of color, typically marginalized groups. And that’s something that’s unacceptable to me. So…
G:That attitude of, you know, “promoting violence” is extremely privileged. And the people I’ve spoken to that have had that attitude, they are just fine in their cozy little worlds. And, not to sound alarmist — right,that’s not why we’re here — but to that 1% of the time, to prepare in case something goes sideways, you have to allow for the fact that when someone is holding a gun, and someone else isn’t, there’s an extreme power dynamic there. And that is legal within our society. So, we’re here to help, we’re here to change that we’re here to balance that a little bit. But, you know, this concept that “well if both sides have guns, that’s when the shooting starts”. So privileged.
You know, what Dave just saidwas these common sense gun laws that are being implemented by some of your more left–leaning states actually create a sort of an economical bubble. And what happens there, and Dave back me up, I can own an AR15 in Massachusetts just fine. You just have to understand the laws and you have to pay for it.
What that means is: pre-ban firearms are perfectly legal to own. What does that mean? The cost of pre banned firearms has spiked. So those who can afford it can have — I’m not gonna say it’s more advanced weaponry, but weaponry that the state deems inappropriate — as more of these laws pop up this continues to happen. It’s this sort of concept by the state of Massachusetts and other left-leaning states that, “well, if you have moneyyou’re not really a threat to society”.
TFSR: So an experience that I’ve had, being around firearms and learning more, has for myself, and I’ve seen other people express this too, thatpeople that have been around may have had traumatic experiences with firearms, may have experienced, witness shootings, or had a gun pulled on them in the past. They may not like the devices, they may not like their proliferation, but at least there’s something to be said for making the choice to handle the device to learn how to make sure that it doesn’t have any bullets in it, and possibly tomake sure it won’t function anymore. And you can’t do that if you just have a mystified view of a gun. And a training allows you to understand some of the limitations of the devices and some of the safety features that can be deployed to make them immediately less of a threat to the people around them.
Which sounds like I don’t know, it sounds kind of like running around the topic. But I think thatwhen there is more education and more discussion around — if we want to talk about like comparisons to sex education: people are going to be having sex. If we aren’t having conversations, and there’s shaming around how we do it, and avoiding talking about the repercussions, positive and negative that we could see out of people having sex and not having the tools to have, you know, safer sex available, affordable or free to people, you’re going to have unintended pregnancies, you’re going to have people experiencing infections, not knowing how to deal with that stuff. But it seems like a good education around safety around firearms, how to disarm them, or how to keep them more securely, would limit instances of a kid getting a hold of it, because it’s not stored properly, because it’s not locked because they’re being unsupervised. Does that seem like a reasonable approach?
G: Your approach is exactly what we’ve developed. We are putting together our curriculums for training. I already teach LTC courses from a conversational aspect, we don’t actually handle firearms till later in the class, everybody has a chance to sort of like acclimate a little bit. And we talked about past traumas, we talked about our concerns, that is the first third of the course. And we dovetail into the legality after that, because Massachusetts has a lot of laws. In order to be an educated gun owner, you have to at least understand most of them, or know where to find the information — but we go very gentle. We’re not shocking or awing people in this course.
We’ve also developed a class, which is either a primer or a standalone course, called Make Safe. And it’s about what to do if you find a handgun. Or what to do if you come across something. I mean, this happens more often than not, where it’s found in a vehicle, or it’s found in an attic, or something like that. There’s also situations where it’s found on the street. It can be extremely scary and knowing a bit about these mechanisms, about these tools, will make everybody a little bit safer.
It’s also gives people a chance to get over a fear that they want to get over. It‘s very difficult to confront fears of the firearm in our society right now. Because like, it’s not like you just walk into a store and be like, “I’d like to hold a firearm”, it doesn’t work that way.
So we want to provide safe environments where people can with people who know and, you know, actually start addressing this issue, if they would like to.
TFSR: Yeah, that economic limitation to like being able to walk into a store and have a conversation and hold the device and expect the clerk to be, like, walking you through — they might be if they think they’re gonna make a sale — but, you know, otherwise, they’re probably not going to unless they know the individual. But because there is an economic limitation to holding a firearm, to owning firearm. There’s also like legal ones in a lot of states. If someone were to come across one and they had a felony in certain states, they would probably be aware, hopefully, of the way that the laws would impact them, but they may not be able to have as easy access to a training course where they can learn how to take the bullets out of the chamber, take the clip out of the gun, make sure to verify that it is clear and safe.
Yeah, butespecially the–the limitations of you know, if you’re–if you’re limited by being able to purchase a pistol or a rifle to go take a course — I don’t know if that’s the case, necessarily — but it seems like making it more available to people that aren’t necessarily going to buy a gun for their own immediate safety… But they can go to a place where there are weapons available for them to learn how to handle more safely, they can make a better decision down the road, and they’re not gonna—
G: — and then states like Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, basically, where this project spawned out of, you know, the amount of time between deciding that this is something you wanted to pursue and actually engaging with it is six months. So it’s not like you can just decide like, “okay, I want to understand this tool, I want to understand its effects. I want to understand, you know, the science behind it and the culture behind it.” You can’t just do it right then. That you have to go through a course, you have to apply for your license, you have to wait for that to come in. It’s a very lengthy process quite different than other parts of the country.
TFSR: So how can folks reach out to y’all keep up with your work and learn more about the ComradeCenter to support it?
G: So I would urge people to check out our website. As of now we are fundraising, but we are still trying to give back and start executing our sort of educational mission while that’s happening. Keep an eye out for courses coming up, up here in New England, they’re going to be offered sort of sporadically at events and community centers and other gathering spaces. They’re going to be free of charge, they’re not going to involve live fire. So, if you’re a little nervous about basically firing a gun, we’re gonna use the simulation trainingbut free of charge — bring friends, sign up — and if you’re able, we’re also fundraising to purchase lands and create a sort of a training node. If you’re able to contribute, please do. Check us on GoFundMe and we, Dave, we have a social media presence don’t we?
D: Please follow us on Twitter at Comrade Center and Instagram.
G: Nobody types in URLs anymore, right? Everybody just Google’s things?
TFSR: [chuckles] If you want to say, I mean, I wish that — people with DuckDuckGo a little more honestly — but
G: Sorry, sorry.
[G and TFSR both laugh]
TFSR: Yeah, do you want to throw out an URL just to that, or a URL or however we want to say that. D:Coming on anarchist podcast and talking about Google is… [Everyone laughs]
G: I’ll just show myself the door.
TFSR: Edge Lord!!
[everyone laughs harder]
G: You can find us at comradecenter.org
TFSR: That’s awesome. All right well, thanks a lot. And good luck, y’all.
On February 12th, 1994, Ernest Lee Johnson and his ex-girlfriends’ two sons participated in the botched robbery of Casey’s General Store that took three victims’ lives: Mable Scruggs, Mary Bratcher and Fred Jones. Mr Johnson has no recollection of the murders, was in despair and had been drinking and smoking crack in the hours after his ex-girlfriend broke up with him. A Black man with intellectual disabilities and no former, violent convictions, he was convicted by an ill-informed, all-white jury with the help of Boone County, Missouri, Prosecuting Attorney, Kevin Crane. Ernest Johnson now faces an execution date of October 5th, 2021.
This week, we spoke with Elyse Max, State Director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty about the life of Ernest Johnson, the media and court situation he faced, his twice overturned death penalty, the links between the lynching of Black people in the US and the current death penalty, intersections of race and class in who are the victims of capital cases and who sit on death rows, the mishandling of Ernests intellectual disability in the case and other topics.
You can learn more about Ernest’s case, including ways to help press Missouri Gov Parson for a commutation of Ernest’s execution and the work of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty by visiting MADPMO.org. You can follow their work on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram via the handle @MADPMO.
TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with any name, gender pronouns, location, affiliation, or other information that will help listeners orient?
Elyse Max: Sure. My name is Elyse Max. I am the state director at Missourians For Alternatives To The Death Penalty. We are a statewide organization in Missouri and I work from Kansas City, and my pronouns are “she” series pronouns.
TFSR: We’re here to talk about the case of Ernest Johnson and the Missouri Supreme Court’s execution death warrant dated for October 5 at 6 pm. Would you tell us a little bit about Earnest, about his upbringing, about who he is as a person?
E: Sure. Ernest was born 61 years ago in rural Missouri in Pemiscot County and the city of Steele, Missouri. Ernest was raised in rural Missouri, he went to school in Mississippi County in the city of Charleston, Missouri. Ernest’s family… According to the court documents his father identified his occupation as a share-cropper. And we can see in Earnest’s family history that his maternal and paternal grandparents worked on farms in rural Missouri, which had ties to enslaving people. When Ernest went to school in Mississippi County in the 1960s, it was a segregated school. He never passed the sixth grade, there weren’t services at that time for special education or testing as we know it today. And so Ernest had a rough upbringing, his family history includes many people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, intellectual disabilities. He had a brother who was institutionalized and passed away. His mother died from what he says is alcoholism. And he didn’t have an easy life. But the folks that know Ernest that grew up with him and that know him now describe him as kind and gentle and soft-spoken. Earnest has no history of violent crimes, and only crimes of poverty, theft, things like that until he was convicted of triple murders in 1995.
TFSR: Do you know much about the context that led up to, as you said, crimes of poverty? What happened that we know of with the robbery at Casey’s General Store in 1994?
E: It was described largely as a botched robbery. We know a lot from media reports and court documents. The crime was committed by Ernest and the kids of his girlfriend at the time. According to reports, his girlfriend had broken up with him that day. And Ernest was in despair, he was drinking and smoking crack at the time. And he went in to rob this Casey’s General Store with his girlfriend’s kids. The three people that were working there were murdered that night: Mary Bratcher, Mabel Scruggs, and Fred Jones. There was evidence that they were bludgeoned by a hammer, some stabs, some shot. To this day, Ernest says that he has no recollection of that night. He was the only one convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for those crimes that happened in 1994.
TFSR: You mentioned looking at the descriptions in the media at the time. Can you talk a bit about what the trial looked like and what the media landscape looked like for him?
E: Yeah, at the time Boone County, Missouri, it happened in Columbia, which is where the University of Missouri is and it was much different than it is today, it was pretty much a small town. So this crime really shook the foundations of Columbia, Missouri at this time. It was pretty well-covered, with a lot of media attention. It’s stoked a lot of fear in the public. Ernest was prosecuted by Kevin Crane, who was the prosecutor in Boone County at that time, and he is well known in Missouri as a highly problematic prosecutor. He was responsible for the wrongful conviction of Ryan Ferguson, who is now exonerated. In fact, he is now a judge in the state of Missouri. But part of the problem with Ernest’s trial was that his intellectual disability claim has only ever been heard by a jury. In most states, if you have an intellectual disability claim, there is a pre-trial exemption where a judge will settle that before it even goes to court. We believe that’s what should have happened in Earnest’s case. But in Missouri, the law is such that the prosecutor has to agree to the pre-trial hearing for the ID claim. Kevin Crane rejected that, and the judge sided with the prosecutor. So it was just moved directly to a jury trial.
In fact, Earnest’s death sentence, not his conviction, was overturned two times due to errors in the presentation of evidence about the ID claim. In the third trial, he was sentenced to death by an all-white jury that was pulled from Pettis County, and they sentenced him to death for the third time. His intellectual disability claim has never been heard by medical experts, has never been determined by clinicians. And when the Supreme Court made it unconstitutional to execute people with intellectual disabilities, they left it up to the states to determine what those criteria would be. So in Missouri, the criteria match what the APA’s definition is, meaning low IQ, early onset, as well as adaptive deficits in everyday functioning. But because that wasn’t determined by medical experts, the prosecutor relied on racial stereotypes and stereotypes of people with disabilities to win over these juries. The prosecutor, in the third trial, told the all-white jury to rely on their gut, rely on their common sense. And obviously, Earnest had street-smarts. He’s incarcerated, and he can play cards, complicated card games, he can play basketball. Really just urging the jury to rely on nothing that is medical evidence. That’s a huge problem today. So part of our campaign is to push for a board of inquiry that can look at the ID claim from that perspective and make a recommendation to the governor on clemency based on medical and clinical advice.
TFSR: To make it super plain, can you talk about the constitutional basis in which that’s grounded or the moral or ethical basis in which the idea that someone needs to be competent in the US system to face punishment for a crime and actually be held and be considered fully responsible for it?
E: Sure. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruling was Atkins vs Virginia, which made it unconstitutional to execute someone with an intellectual disability. I don’t know the answer to whether or not this is the same as a competency claim, because it isn’t about competency to stand trial, it’s more about being ineligible for the execution. So it’s different than not guilty by insanity because they’re still guilty, but the highest punishment they could receive would be life without parole, so it just makes them ineligible for execution.
TFSR: It’s a strange delineation for me. The way that I’ve always approached was that if someone is considered to be experiencing a different reality than other people, you can’t hold them to all the same standards, as someone who you understand shares the same experience of reality as yourself, or the same ability to cope with the reality and responsibility of what would be a citizen or whatever. And so if the argument that the courts are making by saying, “Look, he can play basketball, he can play complicated card games. Therefore, he understood the ramifications of what he was doing at the time…”
And I’m speaking as if the assumption that somebody deserves to be killed because they’ve hurt other people or killed other people, is the decision that I want the state to make, which is not the case. I don’t think that that decision should be made, which pragmatically is one reason that I think that this conversation is important besides all of the other white supremacist ramifications of this case, in particular. But it seems that in order for someone to get executed for a thing if we assume that that’s the thing that the state should have the right to do, there should be degrees of responsibility taken for an action. And if there is a limit for who can take responsibility for such a heinous crime and receive that sort of punishment, they have to be considered to be operating at the same standards. And it’s reasonable to have the same expectations of participation and understanding and competency that you have of everyone else in the system. Does that make sense?
E: Yeah, that absolutely makes sense. I think that’s very confusing, and it was especially confusing to a jury of laypeople, is that proving that someone has an intellectual disability doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t know what was going on, or they didn’t understand what was happening. But it means that they didn’t have the same kind of agency that someone that doesn’t have an intellectual disability would have. People with intellectual disabilities are more likely to have coerced confessions, they’re more influenceable. Their agency isn’t the same as someone who would premeditate something and go out and commit a crime. They don’t have that same degree of agency. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that he had no idea, he doesn’t know what he’s going to be executed for, he had no idea what happened on that night. In fact, we recently had a jury sign an affidavit that said that they would reconsider their decision if they had known what the clinical definition of an ID was because the prosecutor was trying to argue that Ernest was coherent, he knew what he was going to do. They said he cased the joint earlier in the day. So it was probably premeditated, but his agency, especially in acting with two other people, was less than someone who didn’t have an intellectual disability. So he shouldn’t be eligible for the ultimate punishment of execution, although he could still be eligible for first-degree murder, which would be life without parole, which arguably is more than sufficient of punishment for anyone. That’s a great question. I think there is a lot of confusion around that, and in no way shape or form should a jury be ever diagnosing or determining what someone’s intellectual disability or what their capacity or their agency is, in that sense, without understanding the medical and the clinical reasoning behind it.
TFSR: I appreciate you responding to that. Thank you. That was muddled “blah, blah, blah, but it doesn’t seem right”.
E: I hope that helps clarify because it isn’t right. And it is hard to understand. It is hard to articulate because it is so almost outlandish.
TFSR: Can you tell us a bit about MADP, Missourians For Alternatives To Death Penalty? How did you get involved in Ernest Johnson’s case? And what’s the current campaign’s goal?
E: MADP, we are the statewide death penalty abolition group in Missouri. We’re the only ones with that single focus. Missouri is not a state that is ready for full repeal. So we do what we call “abolition by attrition”. We just chip away at the system that is so very broken. Things like revising our intellectual disability laws, so that they require a pre-trial exemption for people with ID claims. We are basically just trying to make fewer people eligible for execution. In fact, in Missouri, we have 20 people that are currently sentenced to death. We don’t have a death row, so to speak, they’re integrated into the general population further proving they’re not a future danger to society. We work on the front end and the back end. We follow pending cases, pay attention to prosecutor races in high-use counties, as well as assist legal teams. We follow their lead at the end, like we’re doing with Ernest Johnson when it comes time to bring awareness to the clemency campaign around an execution. We are there, we’re across the board, working throughout the whole spectrum. Before a case even becomes death-qualified, it’s on our radar. And we’re trying to work with legal teams and the folks that have been impacted in order to stop this. And so for Ernest Johnson’s campaign, there are several balls in the air. The biggest issue is the constitutionality of the intellectual disability claim. Our hope, since the Supreme Court of Missouri recently unanimously rejected his habeas petition, our hope is that the governor will grant clemency, grant a stay, to call the board of inquiry to review the ID claim. Our governor and our attorney general have claimed to be champions… For communities of folks with disabilities, they base a lot of their pro-life arguments on the fact that our attorney general has a son with a disability. We really think they’re embedded in that community and that is the issue that could penetrate their hearts and minds and make them look at this in a rational way instead of a political way. And the death penalty is always political.
TFSR: For the audience that maybe didn’t pick it up when you were describing Ernest going to segregated schools in… Missouri is one of the states in the US south but it’s considered to be Midwestern. It’s great plains. But it was under segregation. And you mentioned coming from a sharecropper family. So for folks that don’t know, Ernest would be considered Black under legal standards at a certain point in the United States legal system and has suffered from anti-Blackness, multi-generationally. So can you maybe unpack a little more? You mentioned the makeup of the jury earlier, and there are a few matters in terms of the competency of the jury to make decisions about whether or not he is an individual with developmental delays and disabilities should be held to the standard of the death penalty. But there’s also the wider claim of the constitutional right for someone to face a jury trial by a jury of their peers. Can you talk about the makeup of the jury in Ernest’s case, in any of Ernest cases, and the importance, the underpinning argument of why in southern states where white supremacy is much more near the surface in public discourse than it can be in other parts of the country? Well, that’s unfair. Let me re-state that part because, you know, America, right?.
Can you talk about the importance of that argument and why you’re arguing what he had as a jury during his trial does not hold up to that standard of a jury of peers?
E: Yeah, sure. I think that’s such a great point. The jury is supposed to be the consciousness of the community. In death penalty cases, a jury has to be what is called death-qualified. While they’re selecting jury members, they have to already believe that they can impose a death sentence. So how is that a jury of your peers in the first place? And then to pull an all-white jury from Pettis County, a county which had racial terror lynchings, which had enslaved populations in the past? Those things are our linkages. Really, if we look at the historical acts of racial terror, there are direct linkages between those counties and the modern-day mass incarceration system. And that’s one thing that we do at MADP. Looking at our state work, we look at counties that had high numbers of racial terror lynchings that, had high numbers of enslaved people on the census and overlie them with other indicators, like the Secretary of State’s traffic stop reports – the likelihood that you’re pulled over driving while Black. These historically problematic counties are problematic today. That’s where we see our high number of death penalty cases. Mississippi County just had an extrajudicial murder of a Black man passing through town in their county jail. And that’s where Ernest went to school. There were also four historical racial terror lynchings in Mississippi County, three in Pemiscot County. We work closely with the Equal Justice Initiatives and they connect this history with our modern-day criminal legal system. We know that there’s just such a huge disparity on who is sentenced to die in the United States, and that’s reflected in Missouri. African-Americans nationally make up 40% of people on death row, but only 13% of the population.
But even more so than the defendants’ race, it’s the race of the victim. So in Missouri, if your victim is a white female, you are 14 times more likely to be sentenced to death than if your victim is a Black male. And these are the types of remnants that we see with historical racial terror lynchings that, in the 1940s, they went inside because it became a shame to lynch people publicly. In 1972, the death penalty was abolished in the United States because of the racial bias that was apparent. If you look at the death row in the south, it’s like 75% of people are African-American. So then, when it came back in 1982, they decided that you couldn’t just eliminate the death penalty because of racial bias, but each individual case would be allowed these many rounds of appeals, so they could be sure that they were not imposing racial bias when imposing the death penalty. But as we know, that hasn’t really helped if they’re pulling all-white juries and if we’re having these problematic prosecutors that are remnants of the same thing that happened in the South as is the case was Kevin Crane and the complaints against him. So, Ernest’s case just coalesces all of these broader systemic issues and anti-Blackness within the system, but also connections to our own deep history in Missouri. We were a Union state but allowed to keep our enslaved population, we were just a very divided state. So we often, I think for Missouri, want to appear to be Midwestern. But our economics, our capital is based on racial capitalism. That is still the case today. And that’s so strongly reflected in our criminal legal system, not just statistically but when you look at the way that people of color, especially Black men are treated when they’re going through these trials and these rounds of appeals.
TFSR: I think that the racial capitalism element is a really important thing to contextualize this, too, because there’s, besides huge and visible racial disparities in terms of who is accused of being the assailant in an instance, there’s also an overlap of that with class. And when you look at again, to go back to Ernest’s family history of being sharecroppers, there’s a lineage right there of you are being denied the ability, you’re having your wealth extracted from you, your lives were taken to serve the white supremacist capitalist state, or feudal at that point. And then afterward with the Black codes and with other laws going into the system that, again, Michelle Alexander’s a good example of showing this history and the perpetuity of white supremacist continuation of slavery in the United States. So, generation by generation kept in systemic private poverty, through being forced to go to underfunded segregated schools, through redlining, through all of these economic ventures, people who get the death penalty, almost never are rich people. And when you’ve got the confluence of multigenerational, not poverty, but inability to conserve and hand down wealth that people of color and Black folks and indigenous folks in the United States have facing them. You can’t hire a really expensive lawyer to argue your case for you. You’re stuck going with public defenders, who are systematically deprived of the time and energy to be able to give enough focus to an individual and their case, to actually argue on their behalf and pull the strings and file the paperwork.
E: That is very true and every single person on the currently sentenced to death list in Missouri is with the public defender system. As we watch these new pending cases pop up, that is very evident to us. If you have a private attorney, you’re usually getting your charges dropped to second-degree murder through a plea agreement. And if you have a public defender, oftentimes, there’s not even a plea bargain on the table for you. That is pretty stark. You mentioned Michelle Alexander. If anyone from Missouri is listening, there’s a great book by Walter Johnson called The Broken Heart of America. And it is about the racial capitalism of Missouri, and specifically St. Louis, and how that evolved from Native American genocide all the way to Ferguson and modern-day hyper-militarization of the police in St. Louis. If you like to drill down on that, it’s a really good one to look into.
TFSR: It seems clear with the lines that you’re drawing…. This show identifies as abolitionist as well as anarchist, most of our guests are not necessarily anarchists. My understanding is that your organization is not explicitly an abolitionist organization, but as you said, you could view trying to reverse these and offer support to individuals facing the death penalty in the move towards eventually retracting the death penalty in Missouri as abolition by attrition. Can you just say a few words again about the continuity between lynching and the lack of subjectivity afforded to Black and brown folks in this country historically, and how the death penalty is a continuation of the same struggle, and the struggle against the death penalty is the same struggle towards the abolition of that same un-personhood that we’ve struggled for centuries in this country around?
E: Yeah, sure. The linkage between historical acts of racial terror and the modernity mass incarceration system is well-researched and well-versed, particularly with lynching being manifested within the use of the death penalty and their actual litigation on lynching that happened when it went inside. In the 1940’s, it wasn’t a public spectacle anymore because it actually became embarrassing to gather around it to celebrate these things because of the way public perception was changing in the 40’s. They moved it inside and tried to make it a matter of the judiciary. But there wasn’t the same due process that we have around the death penalty today. So a lot of times it was an accused before the judge, and they went right to lynching. And so the death penalty actually was abolished, Georgia v. Furman, I believe that was in 1972, because of its racial application of it. It came back 10 years later, and the Supreme Court said, “You can’t just abolish it because it’s racially unjust, you have to bring each case and present the individual racial bias in each case.” In fact, last year, North Carolina just granted retrials to every single Black person sentenced to death in North Carolina understanding that there is so much racial bias. Everybody who was sentenced gets a chance to have a retrial where they’re able to present what would have been the racial bias in their case at the time they were sentenced. The connection legally is there. We have this idea that, with the death penalty, there is due process, but the way the death penalty is stacked up, where you have to even be death-qualified to sit on a jury that determines whether someone should receive a death sentence. It’s just…
E: It is mind-blowing. I don’t know if I’m trying to find the right word that is appropriate for publication. It’s pretty evident when you trace it back. The museum in Montgomery, Alabama, it’s From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, where Brian Steven works with the Equal Justice Initiative. They collect jars of soil from lynching sites across the United States, they’re on display in the museum. And that’s what we’re working on now in Missouri. There were 60 recognized victims of racial terror lynchings during Reconstruction, and we’re collecting those jars of soil to keep in a statewide exhibit. And through that work, it’s where it really became apparent that historically problematic counties are current problematic counties, where they’re applying the death penalty more often, where there are more traffic stops if you’re driving while Black, where you have higher levels of mass incarceration, extrajudicial killings of Black people. So we need to look at that history and address that history. And that’s part of what our racial justice work is like, I don’t know if we can abolish it until we have come to terms with where these things in our system come from.
So, while our organization isn’t explicitly abolitionists, we’re not trying to abolish the whole criminal legal system, if we take what I believe is the tip of the iceberg, which is giving the state the power to determine who lives and dies through the power to execute, once we can get rid of the very tip of the iceberg, it blows open everything else it. That’s why they won’t abolish the death penalty on racial discrimination grounds is because the Justice has said, “Well, then we’re going to have to look at every single felony, every single life without parole case”. Because the stuff that we’re allowing people to murder by is really the same stuff that is contributing to our whole systemic mass incarceration problem. So I feel strongly as an abolitionist that my work with the death penalty is only going to further the abolitionist cause, even if my organization dissolves formally because we’ve succeeded in our mission of abolition, which would be great. That is only going to blow open this wound that is just going to require more work to be done. We have to be glad and we have to celebrate victories because this work is so hard. Even though I’m not personally a reformist, I know that each step along the way is getting us closer to what we want to see the world around us looking like. I’m very proud of our work and I think that it does contribute greatly to the abolitionist cause overall.
TFSR: Thank you for that. It pretty much started off saying that Ernest Johnson has a standing execution warrant dated for October 5 at 6 pm. That’s very soon. How can listeners help in these coming weeks before that date comes to pass? And it’s not a foregone conclusion that there won’t be a stay, but the very high likelihood and possibility that this man will get executed by the state.
E: Yeah, I think that people inside Missouri and outside Missouri can go to www.madp.org. We have a toolkit that is constantly being updated. For Ernest right now we’re targeting the governor, he’s got the ultimate executive power to grant clemency right now, although I know the legal team is working up to the wire to get litigation going all the way up to the last minute if they can. We’re focusing our efforts on the governor. So there’s information, there’s a call script on our website, a toolkit, some cut-and-paste social media posts you can be making. As we move closer we are going to have a few phone apps and Twitter storms, as well as there’s a petition on change.org that currently has about 18,000 signatures. And we’ll be partnering with the NAACP and several organizations to deliver that personally to the governor on September 29. On our website, we made our homepage The Clemency for Ernest’s page. And also, we have a great comms organizer. So our social media is on fire, I’ve been told. I would just suggest people follow us there and then keep their eye on the toolkit for up-to-date information on how to help.
TFSR: Obviously, there’s a timeliness to Ernest Johnson’s situation, that’s really important. So it makes sense that you have converted the homepage as focused on this case and getting people involved. Are there other ongoing parts of MADP that you want folks to know about and get involved in the longer term? Like, are there ways for people to invest their energy in the organization towards that longer goal of abolishing the death penalty in Missouri?
E: Yeah, thanks for asking that. We have as I said, 20 folks sentenced to death. Unfortunately, 75% of them are in their final rounds of appeals. With the way the United States Supreme Court is and the Supreme Court in Missouri, we need your support, and we need people to get engaged in the issue. Fortunately or unfortunately, the media picks up on innocence cases quite a bit and oftentimes leaves behind the death penalty until it becomes salacious, like the night of the execution, just like they do with the crime, where they want to only focus on the salacious and made for TV parts. And oftentimes, we hear from folks that they didn’t even know we weren’t actively executing state, they didn’t know that we even had the death penalty in Missouri. So we do want people to stay engaged. For the past three years, we have had one execution a year. While that’s less than Texas, we are one of only four states that are currently for 2021 have executions on the books. Just going through the website, we’re a membership organization, you can join for $50 and get our newsletter.
We also are unique in that we have chapters across the state. So it’s great, we have a base that we can activate, we will be activating them on October 5, and as things come on, we’re always using all of our tools – email lists and things like that. And we have several petitions. So we need people engaged all the time. Please don’t be like the media and only focus on it during times of execution. Because these people need support. We have a pen pal program, we hook up folks with spiritual advisors, and all of this is an effort to really just to bring some humanity to people that are in the system, which is what they lack the very most. So lots of ways you can get engaged on very small levels. And also you can make larger commitments as well. Thanks for asking that. I think it’s important that we aren’t only focusing during times of execution.
TFSR: Personally, as someone who entered political organizing around the death penalty, I feel like the movement seemed to hit a national peak in the late 1990s. With media representations like Dead Man Walking and the advocacy and publication of books by sister Helen Prejean, and the popular push to commute the death penalty against former Black Panther, Mumia Abu-Jamal, among other folks. So I guess the timing of that matches up with the 1996 signing by Bill Clinton of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. I remember that happening at the same time. And that feels like there’s some concordance between those events chronologically.
Where do you see the anti-death penalty movement today, as far as a nationwide movement? And how can people find out more in case they’re not in Missouri and want to get involved where they’re at in this penalty that has no take-backs?
E: That’s a great question. You’re right, it does have no take-backs. I think that there was a peak in the 90s maybe as far as public perception goes, but we saw the tough-on-crime rhetoric. You’re right about the Crime Bill and Clinton, when he was running for president, made a huge public deal about rushing back to Arkansas because he had to oversee an execution. So while I think public perception has changed, that takes a while for that to change in the political sphere. And to the common issue that voters care about, and something that they’re even asking people to care about. I think we’ve come a long way. And really, last year, Virginia became the 24th state to legislatively abolish the death penalty. Actually, they’re the first southern state and they’ve executed over 100 people in Virginia. So it’s very inspiring to see that happen. This isn’t gonna happen through a moratorium. Obama had a moratorium and all it did was set up Trump to execute 13 people at the end of his regime. Biden has a moratorium right now, but he’s still pursuing capital cases, or let me say the Department of Justice is still pursuing capital cases. Eight federal capital cases are happening in Missouri, on top of the 19 state capital cases in Missouri. So a governor-imposed moratorium is a good start, but it’s not enough, this has to come from the United States Supreme Court. We have to determine that it is cruel and unusual. We’re one of the few countries that still continue to keep executions on the books. We’re in the company of China and Saudi Arabia. This has to come through the Supreme Court. I’m inspired by the 24 states abolishing legislatively, because once we can tip the scales and get 26-27-28 states, then we can argue before the Supreme Court again, that it is cruel and unusual and it’s being used rarely and not often, and that it should just be completely abolished.
Part of that is that public perception has to change. They have to run out of people to put on juries. That’s what we’re seeing in Missouri, juries aren’t giving death sentences. So as much as our AG and our prosecutors want to try, the juries aren’t doing it. I think it is moving in that direction, it is a slow haul. The death penalty is as embedded as white supremacy is in America, and they go hand in hand. And so the work that we have to do when acknowledging our past wrongs needs to happen for us to realize what the death penalty actually is and what we are doing by allowing the government to kill in our name. But people that do this work are faced with so many different barriers and challenges in all of the work that we do that I understand why it often gets forgotten.
So it would be nice to have a little sister Helen public revival. Just Mercy came out last year, which is a great movie based on the book by Bryan Stevenson. It’s bringing it back into public opinion. And certainly the slaughter by Trump last year brought it back into the public discourse in such a way that there is now a Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act in the house in the Senate, that’s trying to work through things in that way. It is a long haul, we’re just trying to chip away at it and save every single life that we can, because unfortunately, what we know is that states that abolish have very few people left on the row. Virginia, I think had two people left at the time that they abolished. Missouri has 20 right now, so hoping we can get there but also knowing what that could mean for us is a lot more hard work and sadness ahead.
TFSR: Yeah. A lot of what you talked about in terms of where the decisions get made, we need Supreme Court decisions to say that it’s unconstitutional so the courts can stop applying that. And in order for that to happen, or/and as a stopgap in the meantime, legislative decisions made state by state to say we need to abolish the death penalty, we need to impose a moratorium because they’re less easily retracted than when it’s an executive simply putting something on the books, and then the other party gets in power and they remove it. Then back to organizations like yours that are going out there and applying pressure on the public officials that are supposed to listen to public opinion. What you said about the juries having trouble getting people to sit on them, I think says something about a shift in the public consciousness, I would like to think. That’s not to say positive or negative about people voting or not voting, but it says, if people vote, a lot of people choosing to vote says something about the legitimacy that they feel about the system. And what you’re seeing there is a lack of a voice, which is a statement, even if it’s not clear as to what it’s saying, or the other.
People refusing to participate in trials, because either they just somehow recuse themselves, or more specifically, recuse themselves because they say, “I cannot give a pro-death penalty decision in this case. So you have to kick me off of this jury” says something, says a lot. At the foundation of this and the less visible side of it is public participation in discussions and in organizing with their family and talking to the family about issues like the death penalty. And ideally, that should be what creates the wave that would force to some degree the hand of public officials and courts to actually impose stops on these sort of acts. So that’s why I’m excited to talk to you is because, for people in Missouri, this is a place that they can plug in, this may be more their speed than going out and protesting outside of the jail if they’re an abolitionist, it may be more their speed than doing a number of other things. It’s a way, especially that a lot of people of faith can engage around the issue of life or just people who think that the state shouldn’t have the decision to take someone’s life, that that’s not a choice that the state should be able to have. Sorry, that was repetitious. Are there any national networks that MADP is involved with, or that you know about that do really good works that might have participant groups inside of them that are reflective of specific states?
E: Maybe? I know the Equal Justice Initiative. They have community remembrance projects across the United States and we work closely with many different groups: Amnesty International, the 8th Amendment Project (they don’t have chapters per se), ACOU is a great partner to us. I think that intersection. But making sure – and this is something that we’re working really hard to deal with – is we need to talk about the death penalty as a wrongful conviction. So whenever anyone’s talking about wrongful convictions, they think about innocence and really harsh sentencing. We just need to put the death penalty in all of those discussions. When we talk about progressive prosecutors, they have to be against the death penalty. You can’t be against cash bail and pro-death penalty and, if you’re a prosecutor, that needs to be confronted and I know progressive prosecutors have community coalitions that support them.
So we need to hack the culture, so to speak, so that the death penalty is seen as a wrongful conviction. Murder isn’t ever a public safety measure. So the deterrents argument and all of that is just so obviously untrue when you look at the data and the research. I just want people to start talking about the death penalty and discussing it in the way that we talk about all other wrongful convictions because essentially, that’s what it is. It’s ugly, it’s messy, it’s murder, it’s not fun, and so it gets left behind until it becomes an execution date. I appreciate you bringing attention to it today and understanding it as part of a system and not an anomaly that is just gonna continue to perpetuate these types of injustices.
TFSR: Elyse, thank you so much for participating in this conversation and being available to talk to me and all the great work that you’re doing. I really appreciate it.
E: No problem, nice to talk to you. Thank you so much.
“Interpreting Realities: Aligning Fragments Within the Prisoners Resistance Movement“
This is the second segment of a series of political discussions focused on building support for Jalihouse Lawyers Speak 2021 National call to action #ShutEmDown2021 along with support for the 2022 National Prisoner’ Strike & Boycott.
In this segment “Interpreting Realities: Aligning Fragments Within the Prison Resistance Movement” moderated by Brooke Terpstra – a longtime resident of Oakland and co-founding member of Oakland Abolition and Solidarity, which has been active since 2016 in the abolition and prisoner solidarity movements–we are joined by two panelists located within the belly of the beast– a conscious New Afrikan Komrade, located within kalifornia koncentration kamps, who is serving a longer than life sentence due to prosecutorial abuse of power, along with Komrade Underground–3rd world rebel, urban guerrilla, student of dragon philosophy and member of JLS–to discuss myths and misconceptions of the us prison structure and how these misconceptions create fragmented understandings about the prison-carceral state and forms of abolition. We also hear how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has further isolated prisoners from the outside world.
** This episode, including Sean Swain’s segment on the 50th anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising and the massacre that follows, detail abuse and brutality against people in prisons, including of a sexualized nature, so listener discretion I advised **
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Somethin’ That Means Somethin’ (instrumental) by J Dilla
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Host – Brooke Terpstra: Let’s just put it up front that disagreement is okay. Oftentimes in panels and conversations and interviews, it’s always said to be a conversation but that normally disagree… and people got disagreements. So let’s just say like “it’s all okay. We agree on the main thing. We’re all comrades, but disagreement is okay and conversation is okay.” Actually, that’s the goal! The discussion, the response, the back and forth. All that’s fair game. We’ll just put that up front. I’m ready for that. I’m looking for that. So, we had a couple questions to kick this off with those folks.
Number one is a big question, so I think I’m going to cut it in two. The prison, an explanation of it, the term, the idea, the concept, is heavily propagandized in our society. Heavily mythologized as laws, as well as prisoners, as crime, as “innocence”, “guilt”. They all come really heavy with baggage, with imposed meaning, ideology. So heavily mythologized its kind of submerged into being common sense. Common sense until they force you to basically confront the realities or or maybe you inherited a position in society or certain experience that has basically clued you into the reality. And one thing that definitely forces an individual’s unlearn and all that come to terms with the realities of prison, the prison system… the reasons that it exists.. is getting locked up.
During that time, face to face with the beast. When you go in… the stated of reasons for the system: “rehabilitation. safety, innocence and guilt, your worth as a person, etc…” All that makes no sense. Well, inside people come to different understandings of the structure and the basis of the prison. They go through certain phases perhaps. Some people think is just a broken system where the process is broken and needs to be fixed. Or that it’s just a big scam to make money, a low level scam to rip people off. Or maybe it’s rampaging, even just rogue institutions run amok. Some say it’s just another area for racist brutality. There are ones who stick to a strict understanding of slavery, just about forced labor, and think that it’s all around forced labor. [We] don’t think the opposite. It’s basically… it’s not about forcing labor, but about forced idleness and basically warehousing surplus labor. and that It’s good for the outside as well. So as far as the understanding the prison system, there are these different models and analysis of the prison system or being locked up.
Could you speak on your own coming to consciousness around this? Maybe the phases and analysis and understand that you went through? And where you are today? And perhaps which of these kind of points of view, do you think are myths and misconceptions beyond just maybe being partial, or maybe being a little bit left a little right, complimentary to your own position, but which ones are basically dangerous and are a problem?
New Afrikan Komrade: I started in the system kind of early. I went to a couple of boys’ Camps twice. I was going to the California Youth Authority, which was basically a prison for youth. It was a complete failure. The way the system was set up, it was brutal, barbaric. You know, the things that I witnessed in there, they stay with me to this day. But that’s where I really got introduced into what I would like to say, my revolutionary state of mind. So by the time I was some years old I had been a witness to about 50 different riots, race riots.
So just seeing that as a youth, I understood that they will setting me up for failure in the future. And I remember the first time that I was at Juvenile Hall, I cried like a girl when they closed the door, right? By the time I came to Juvenile Hall, and I seen all my partners there, in the field, having their popcorn night, soda night. There was no form of rehabilitation to try fix the situation, or why we’re in here…. I’ve always played with guns. I’ve been playing with guns since I was a young dude, you know? As I got out, it was just repetition, it was just the constant thing.
It was a constant thing, with a constant theme. Being incarcerated at such a young age. It left me lightweight & emotionally underdeveloped. Because everything about it was aggressive. I was aggressive in everything that I did. I did not respond to anything but with aggressiveness. Even in my relationships, now even with my wife and kids there is always aggressive manner in how I approach things. And I really believe that that’s part of the failure of the system. And it just goes back to my understanding, definitely the greatest misconceptions about Prison, is that they’re institutions of rehabilitation. And this is no doubt a social myth.
But when I left the pen[itentiary], it was just California Department of Corrections (CDC). By the time I came back it was CDRC. They put the R in there for rehabilitation. And I believe that’s was for the federal funds. That’s got to get the federal funding and get these programs. So, it’s my opinion that most of the individuals truly want to make drastic changes in their lives. You know, they don’t come from institutional programs, they come from within yourself. What these programs are designed for is prisoner behavior control. Everyone on parole is based on participation in these programs. So in essence, no one’s going to these program to be rehabilitated. They go to these programs in controlled circumstances of release.
A lot of these dudes that I know, they have gotten all of these certificates that they have to offer and these cats are still the worst of the worst. To be fair there are some vocational trades that can be useful to someone who is really dedicated to have a productive life in society. I mean, it’s only right that a man should have some type of skill, you know, to play this deal. But again, as I said before, these programs are in place to receive some type of federal funding and prisoner behavior control. The reason I say that is often when we’re in classes, maybe every 90 days or so they always come in and let you know “look man we are having some visitors, we’re having people, they’re building these computers or whatever, some machinery… we need you guys to be on your best behavior.” So they come through, and they look at us like lab rats, or whatever it may be. “Be on your best behavior!”
I believe it was Angela Davis that talked about is dynamic in her book “They Come For Us In The Morning.” She touched on the fact that comrade George [Jackson], in that particular formation was resistant to these type of programs that was being provided. And it always makes me touch back into that Willie Lynch factor. It was a brother that used to run the Nation of Islam classes in one of these penitentiary classes I was in, and the first thing that he did was he brings up the Willie Lynch. And he said “what I want you to do every day, I want you to identify a dynamic of the Willie Lynch process. Because they are around you every day.” So what I see is the part where Willie Lynch says “at the end, make them believe in us and only us.” So you trying to fix yourself, that doesn’t work, because that’s not profitable for them. You know what I’m saying?
I believe it was Malcom [X] that calls the penitentiary “the hidden university”. Right? But the rehabilitation that we do for ourselves has no financial gain to be recorded or cashed in on. So when W.L. Nolan and George [Jackson] began to emphasize the importance of organizing, shit hit the fan. What the brothers was doing was really to set the stage and establishing and securing prisoners rights that had been set in place in 1942 by the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. They at that time… they constituted the largest number of Black conscientious objectors to World War II. It was there that they met abolitionists who was associated with the Quakers. Revolutionary shout-out to Brother John Brown.
So a lot of people don’t know that the prison abolition movement and its relationships to the carceral state was born out of this dynamic. And this is important that we talk about how misconceptions created stagnate understandings about the prison carceral states in the forms of Abolition. We are talking about predictive policing. So here’s where we step in the dialectic of discipline, strategy. And this is where we begin to see the dynamic of state repression and Mulsim resistance, where we actually organizes resistance that the Nation [of Islam] exercised, the State will always put in place, on top of rules to squash and counteract that resistance. Of course, Brothers will always come up with some new form of organizing in response which in fact was political in nature, because it will add to the overall fragmentation of various forms of abolition, and not only expansion of the tactics applied, but to the overall strategy.
You know, it just puts me in a place when I first seen that movie 300 when it came out and they only show one front of resistance that was being fought against the Persian oppressors, but at the same time there was another battle going on at sea. So, when the brother spoke earlier about his viewpoints that may be violent, violence is necessary. It has to be a necessary tool, but it has to be done autonomously. It can be done as a whole or a mass, but I don’t think we’re equipped, or that the people are passionate enough to carry out the attack that’s necessary. You know, so primarily most formations, again today, they are aiming to reform what currently exists. They want to change the frame, but the picture remains the same. They want to put a band-aid on it. When it’s clear the situation requires a more extreme approach and that’s the abolishment of these existing slave camp. They are a direct reflection of the blueprint of American capitalism.
Even saying the abolishment of slave camp, I would have to state and leave room for a gray area of contradiction saying that… Being in here, man, some of these dudes… they belong in jail. Some dudes belong in jail and that’s a dialectical approach of understanding… That two things can be true at the same time. To me that’s one of the misperceptions about prison is the rehabilitation team. It doesn’t exist. If you don’t have the ability to fix yourself then nothing else is going to work.
Host: Exactly. Man and this process started really young for you, like it has a lot of people. Like it has for my family, like the people I know. A couple things you said there… I’m glad you identify the guided tours. We got certain facilities, and the certain facilities are maintained, that are near major media markets where there are a lot of nonprofits, where there’s a lot of little programs, where they trot people through, they prop people up for newsletters and pictures, for defending, for their the grants. And also CDCR uses them as a boutique in a facility. It’s a showpiece, while meanwhile 50 miles up the yard it’s a completely different situation, some level one prisoner out there organic gardening, getting to pet dogs is basically the cover photo. While on the inside pages there’s the reality is that everybody else doesn’t get that. You basically identified the line of reform. There’s a major distinction between, like these different perspectives in the prison. It frustrates me when people identify the prison resistance struggle as a matter of criminal justice reform… It’s like “nah… nahh..”
New Afrikan Comrade: I don’t believe… well as a revolutionaries, we don’t believe in the word reform. Right? We make we make drastic changes. Like I said man, just coming through the system I had never been given the tools that I didn’t give myself to fix me. Right? Having been to California Youth Authority. I went in there and I got seven years for my crime. So when I went to the Board, because in the California Youth Authority, you have to go to the Board to go home. There’s no automatic dates, ya dig?
So, we have counseling sessions, the counselors will be just the regular police that worked in there. These dudes didn’t have credentials. Or they wasn’t qualified to counsel me or give me the necessary mental help that I need. I can’t even recall even seeing a psychiatrist during those times. They had dudes in there with 10, 11, 12 years of age, right? It was worse than penitentiary. I’ve been about 9-10 different penitentiaries. I’ve never experienced anything like i experienced in the California Youth Authority. They were criminalizing us and we didn’t understand it at the time. Cuz there was two things that was gonna happen and they were either going to make you or break you. Right? They will make you a better criminal or they were going to break you down and makes you a worse type of man. Right? I had a little cousin that went in when he was 12 and he stayed in there till he was 25. And it was not good.
So when I get here, in these times, I do see a difference or change in the type of individuals that’s coming through the system, because back then we were a little bit more conscious too in the 80’s… you got to take that into consideration. My mother was a [Black] Panther. Coming up we were really Black conscious in the town, you know what I’m saying? So, we just automatic in the California Youth Authority, you had the Crips versus the Bloods. You had the Northern Mexicans versus the Southern Mexicans. It was just automatic that in the Bay Area, it was Black versus the whites, who claimed White Pride. It was no question, we didn’t have to claim that. It was just on.
I was just telling someone the other day I’ll say man, “I’ve never been anywhere that’s so segregated like the penitentiary or jail.” They keep you in this old frame of mind that they say it doesn’t exist anymore, but it exists behind these walls. So the only way to rehabilitate you from that is to separate you. “Y’all take this part of the day and you take this part of the day, and ya’ll take that this part of the day.” That’s not rehabilitating you, that’s just flame and fire. You know what I mean? Like I said, once again, the penitentiary is just warehousing bodies. This is all about capitalism and getting money. I don’t see anything that’s productive here. It is just warehousing bodies. This is all about capitalism and getting money. I don’t see anything that’s productive here.
Host: Yeah. So I mean, on that note… It was interesting to hear that you came from people that were Panthers, that you got that head start. You had generations before you that had a certain level of consciousness. But on that note, I want to talk to Komrade Underground, where he came from and if you could speak on the different understandings for the structure base of prison. And speaking more specifically too. There is the one big myth like rehabilitation? That’s the first one to discard. And that’s a problem. That ideologically imposed nonsense.
Komrade Underground: One thing… I really want to appreciate everything that comrade was saying, because there’s so many similarities, however, because I’m on the total other side of the world, it seems like there’s so many differences between these two different Department of Corrections, however, it’s still just stuck in constant repression, constant repression. You know, California, actually it seems to me so much in front of every other state in the United States. As far as when it comes to how picky they are, and and how they hide these fucking forms of “reform” and just building this deep return and deeper ideas of repression.
However, let me start with a little bit about myself. You know, I also started when I was [redacted]teen years old. I came to detention center, and I didn’t stop. I didn’t stop. I went to programs, went to different levels, went to little juvenile prisons. Then at the age of [redacted]teen, I got a direct filed as an adult, and ended up getting two life sentences. And they threw me right in the Big House. We had a little dorm for people that was under 21. But it was getting it.
There’s also such a big gang culture down here where I’m at. So that’s what it was. They throw us together, everyone up under 21. And we are clashing and we clashing and every chance. But there was also at such a young age, that sense of rebellion for the pigs. Every time the pigs will come out and fuck with a during count. We all launching and batteries and pieces of soap at them and everything, just getting them up out of there. Because no matter what, for some reason, when I was young, no matter if we were bumping that day, we were going through it that day, when pigs came around we will stick together. And that changed a lot through the years. I think it had a lot to do with that so many of us had life sentences at 16, 17, 18 years old, and nothing matters at that time. We just wanted to just lash out, just go. And we didn’t really understand what was going on or didn’t understand our [prison] sentences. But we still had that hope, you know?
But it made no sense. Right? So coming through, I would say a big thing that radicalized me that brought me to a revolutionary consciousness would have to be the involvement of the gang culture down here. Back then, it’s very different now, but back then it was like… you have folks that would take you up under their wings and give you the correct books in the correct nourishment. And it’s not happening too much anymore. But back then I was given Che Guevara, I was given George Jackson. These two comrades that had been in my life for the last 20 years. More than most folks that I known on the streets. Man. Che Guevara and George and Jonathan. Man… they’ve been in my life. So I was able to go through those things.
But also, there is such this level of repression here where I’m at, because there’s no such thing as parole over here. So they don’t have to give us programs to help us get the fuck out of here. They don’t have to give us programs to help push us up out of here. Right? So what they do they actually stamp us with these STG (Security Threat Group) files to keep us out of these programs to keep us away from that. Because they know there’s no reason to give us programs. We’re all just in the belly here, and we’re all just going to be clashing here. And there’s no huge penitentiaries over here.
They’ve actually created all these micro-institutions, because they know exactly these… I call them social experiments. They know exactly how many Bloods, Crips, Kings and Vice Lords to keep on these compounds, to keep us at each other, to keep us clashing with each other. They know how many whites and Blacks and Hispanics to keep us at, because there’s really not too many white supremacists down here. I mean, excuse me, there’s not too many white supremacist gangs down here. All the white boys down here are mostly white supremacist unless they were born in the Black and brown hoods, and are part of the Black and brown formations. But for the most part, there’s no solid white supremacist gang where I’m at. They don’t really get no breathing room. Even the pigs are mostly Black and brown where I’m at. So it creates this whole different idea, this whole different structure of repression that we’re dealing with down here. Because there’s no parole, there’s no ideas of reform. And because there’s no ideas of reform, there’s only here and now.
So what they’re doing, as we speak, creating these two different types of prisons. You either have these honor prisons where people can do a lot of time, but have maybe video games or tablets or whatever, or they’re creating these highly surveilled, hyper fascist prisons, that when you go back through the history of different places like California, different places like New York that had all these revolutionaries from the 70’s and 80s… Because the state is starting to feel that pressure, they’re starting to grasp onto those old ideas of repression, and finding ways to keep us locked down. Finding ways to create different types of camps and institutions to keep us locked down, right? So you have SHU programs, you’ve got administrative programs, you got all these different prisons that are popping up. And then they only battle with the idea of these “honor programs”, these “honor prisons”. So there’s this huge separation now, there’s a huge separation on different camps. And there’s nothing to look forward to. There’s nothing looked forward to over here.
So what when we start talking about myths and misconceptions, from state to state they vary, right? There is no reform. That idea is just to perpetuate these money grabs for the State, these money grabs for the places. These honor institutions are not honor institutions, they are ways to formulate more money for the carceral state. When we even talk about what prison is and what the carceral state is… What are these things that so many of us, or so many “radicals” want to want to push out? The idea of prison is just the beginning of the carceral state. This is ground zero. This is where the battle starts day in and day out.
But there is also… Academia which is such an extension of the carceral state because it’s taken our ideas and making them less dangerous. It’s taking these revolutionary ideas and making them less dangerous because when they push that out there now it’s been said through the Ivory Tower. But then we also have places that have forgotten, like these mental institutions. These “mental institutions” are just ways to get people to trial. They are ways to get people to trial to send them into prisons. There’s no help in these mental institutions. It’s pump them with Thorazine and put them on stand.
So when we talk about these different extensions of the Carceral State, we have to remember that this is part of the fight too. We have to battle this shit, man… We have to battle all of that, man. And then like we said, when we talking about fighting, we were talking about physically. I’m talking about that type of solidarity. I’m not talking about the nonprofit industrial complex that’s going to fund the prison industrial slave complex that’s going to go back and fund the fucking military industrial complex. So it’s like all these different things that get so convoluted in this talk of abolition, but what is abolition? What are these conceptions and misconceptions and myths about abolition?
I think one of them is the prisoner. This prisoner rebels that everyone wants to romanticize or fetishize. Most folks in here, man, they just want to go home. They want to do their little time and get out, right? The revolutionaries, yeah, we’re in here. We in here and we’re doing it. We’re the ones that are on these calls. We’re the ones that are trying to build together. And then once they get a little whiff of that… all of us are getting separated, threw in the SHU and suffering from extreme repression. So there’s these formations. Now, I don’t even want to call them formations, there’s these people claim that formations out there that are just grabbing onto any prisoner, any prisoner that wants to say something, and wants to push that idea and push that as a point that now abolition is become fetishized. That this prisoners has become romanticized. This prisoner’s not a comrade. This prisoner is not a comrade, this is just some dude that is probably backed by a bunch of reformists, that probably wants to get parole that has no idea on the struggle, or the movements that are trying to be formed.
You know, we had this idea of these movements, and people want to attach that word movement to all of their formations. But we are reaching to create a movement right now. Because there’s so few of us on the inside and outside that have that truth, that have what I call “George and Jonathan consciousness”. That George Jackson and Jonathan consciousness was actually a true form of solidarity, man. That’s why George called Jonathan his alter ego. And that’s what it needs to be. These formations need to be alter egos of each other. We have to be y’all and y’all have to be us. But at the same time, we need to have a better understanding and be more specific on who we let into our circles, and who we let build with us and create this formations. When it comes to the inside and the outside. The outside needs to not just fucking grab any prisoner, and we need to be more security conscious, and not just grab any fucking person out that has a fantasy that abolitionist so and so. Because most of them just want to exploit us. Most of them just want to add us to a name on some fucking thing that they’re writing, or something that they’re pushing through this Ivory Tower to make us less dangerous. I just think that there’s this level of discipline, and there’s this level of security, and there’s this level of anger and rage that we need to get back to. We need to fucking get back to that rage, man. We need to get back to those places where shit matters, man. Where it wasn’t just about putting prisoner-so-and-so’s stamp on stuff. So I think a lot of these myths and misconceptions form around what is important these days. We’re not going to pretend like us living better in here is not important. But you have a lot of people that’s focused on that.
So, the abolitionists need to focus on these direct attacks on the State. These direct attacks – and when I say direct attacks, I mean focused violence. Because there is this idea of fear that is not instilled in these pigs. They’re not scared to come to work. They’re not scared to come and repress us on the inside. Because once they’re in here, they got these shotguns, and they got these AR-15’s. And they know that we don’t. But when they start letting loose on us, we can’t do anything. So how do we combat that? In here we only have so much urban guerrilla warfare we can use. But out there, that solidarity that we’re looking for, this direct military action that people don’t want to talk about anymore, these underground movements that people don’t want to fucking be part of anymore… I mean, those are the things we need to start talking about. And those are the things we need to start building on.
Host: You just you just drew some lines there, Komrade. And I appreciate that. And I got a couple of different questions. I’m trying to decide which way to go. But I want to ask you both… I think I might get in some trouble here because in light of what you said. There are these abolitionists right now… They call themselves abolitionists, and maybe even like everyone on this call even isn’t the same kind of abolitionist. It’s just that there is multiple abolitionisms. There are folks out there that are organizing for the right to vote, or better Jailhouse Lawyering around conditions. Let’s focus on the voting. Do you consider, either of you, that could be a priority? or to be important? I know it’s actually a point within the JLS demands. I mean, I definitely got my point of view, but I want to hear what you guys have to say about it. And like practically, if it makes sense, not just out of pure principle.
New Afrikan Comrade: From my experience… You know, I believe everything starts with the court system, that’s where all the shit starts, right? Like, in my case now, you know, I was on the run for about [redacted] years. So when I finally got caught and got arrested, I filed a motion to dismiss based on violation to my due process rights. So what they had to do was they had to justify why the police didn’t look for me within [redacted] years. So I knew they did not do no investigation. Because I asked if they went to my mom’s house and they never went to my grandmother’s house. The house that I was at, that they kicked the door in one time and never came back. And at that time, I don’t know if you familiar with the [redacted]… So you know the whole little situation that went down there, you know with the dude. I actually was doing body guard work for [redacted] during that time. So I know he wasn’t looking for me. You know what I mean? It was the hottest spot in the town.
So when I finally get to the hearing, they come up all these documents that have been anti-dated, things scratched off, and they used the documents to force me to trial. Because if had they not shown the justification it was an automatic dismissal. So they used these documents, these false documents and testimony to force me to trial or whatnot. So I go to trial. I mean, it was 3-4 month trial, and had a deliberation for 11 days. There was one lone hold out juror. They removed him, put a white lady back on the on the jury, and within five hours I was convicted. You get what I’m saying? Within five hours I was convicted.
So now that I’m in here… I’m like “Okay, now I know these documents and know they aren’t real.” So I file a Freedom of Information Act and whatnot. So I started getting all these letters from these different law enforcement departments, FBI, and the Department of Justice. And everybody’s saying that these documents doesn’t exist. So I had a homeboy up here. He showed me how to file a lawsuit. He said “Look bro this is how we file a lawsuit. This is how we are gonna get your shit back into the courts.” Right? So I filed a lawsuit and they hit me with this shit called an “Anti-SLAPP Motion” [SLAPP = strategic lawsuits against public participation]. What an anti-SLAPP motion is it usually means it’s a corporate law. And what they said was under the first amendment, they have the right to use any tactic they wanted to, to prove their case.
When I showed him, he said “Man they admitted to that shit?” “Yeah, they admitted to that shit.” “Yeah, we lie, we did that. But there’s nothing you can do about it.” So going through that type of shit and seeing the system or being a victim of that. In my perception things have to start in the court room. And that’s not to say that all the other things that you spoke on… I think everything has to be hit on every point. Wherever it may be with the prison system, the abolitionists, the court, law enforcement, wherever it may be, we got to hit them from every angle. We have to be a full on assault and like the brothers said at some point something has to get dangerous for them to really, really get the grasp of what’s going on around here and to say that we’re serious.
But in the same token, like the brother said, again, people aren’t what they were back in the 60’s and 70’s. This is a totally different environment with totally different people. Even in the penitentiary its [different] now. Dudes are not willing to go to the hole no more. We got TV’s in our rooms. We got phones in our rooms. You know what I’m saying? We got all these amenities that make you lazy and you don’t want to lose these things. This is what they do. So when you’re talking about even if I right now, today, if something went on in here…. I’m getting a prime example. They had a pig in here that was harassing the inmates. So the same dude that showed me how to do the lawsuits. He filed the paperwork and said he was sexually harassing the inmates and had everybody sign it, it got him removed, and I mean, removed from the penitentiary period.
When they called the dudes in that had signed the document, everybody recanted their stories and they ended up bringing him back. And he came back doing the same shit that he was doing before he left. So, it’s hard for even dudes that are serious about pushing any type of revolution to do something, because at the end of the day you will be the only one doing it. And you’ll be the only one paying the consequences. And it’s really not going to have any effect. Because it’s required that the masses get involved for it to have any real effect. People are lacking that passion, that commitment, that dedication to the struggle and to the cause. And like the brother was saying for us coming through the system as young as we was, we got that early. That was embedded in us. So it’s just a part of who we are now. I don’t know how to be anything other than what I am. It just is what it is. It’s all I talk about. You can talk religion and revolution and that’s it. That’s it, nothing else.
Host: So it’s the same question to Komrade. You said about priorities and making choices. You have got to hit them everywhere all the time. Personally I think we got some choices to make. You both basically did something really important right now. You basically, you shared an assessment of inside situation. An assessment of numbers and of force. And even like movement health. If we’re calling it a movement. I even loathe to to call it that. We got like pieces of it. We got like a baby movement thats trying to get on its feet, but it’s not getting there. We got some choices to make. What choices do you think we should be making?
Komrade Underground: Well, okay, so I think that’s important. I also want to go back to the original question, and also talk about what the brother was talking about when it comes to law and the courtroom, because I have a very different stance, and maybe it’s because I don’t see a lot of anything coming out of the courtroom. Is it necessary? Yes, it’s necessary. It is necessary for folks in here to fight their case. It is necessary for people in here to utilize every tool that we have right now. Right? However, me personally, I’m over that shit. I’m over getting denied from the courts. I’m over getting fucking denied these grievances. I don’t do grievances unless they’re mass grievances, like the brother said. And then a lot of times, that’s what happens, man, people recant when they start losing items. So I’m over that shit, man. I’m over going to the court system. And I’m over fighting with only pen and paper. And there are people that still do it. And I commend them and I thank them. But when it comes to me: it’s direct action. It’s direct action that gets it done, man.
So when we talk about prioritizing, and we talked about choices… first and foremost it’s going to come down to you. It’s going to come down to what you’re ready for and what you’re ready to lose. Because in here you have to be ready to lose everything. Everything. When it comes to voting. Is voting important? Fuck no! I would love for everyone to just not vote one year and then see what happens. Let’s see what happens when we when we take that mass approach and not vote. But then at the same time, we can’t live in these fantasies that this is going to happen. I think it is time to start making choices and start prioritizing what’s important. And I think trying to get people out of prison by every single means necessary is important.
But when we talk about getting dangerous, and we talk about attacking things like the courthouses. Or when we talk about attacking things. Like you’ll see headquarters and stuff. These are things that are different from doing them in the 70’s. You have to look at what has changed. What has changed is that everything has become digitized. So back then when the George Jackson Brigade would bomb an institution or would bomb a headquarters, they weren’t just bombing this institution, they were also burning the files. They were getting rid of everything that was held in that headquarters. However now, it’s just going to be property damage. Because everything is digitized and saved in clouds. So we have to figure out ways and make choices on how we attack those systems.
How do we attack the legal system now? How do we attack these voting systems? How do we attack the Department of Corrections when everything is digitized? So there’s things that need to be prioritized on how and the things that we are learning. The things that we are sacrificing. The things that we’re getting into. It’s this hack culture. Penetration testing is going to be so important. It’s going to be so important because these are ways that we can attack the Empire. These are ways that we are going to have to attack the Empire. So when we think about these things, we can’t think on huge mass scales, because a lot of times the masses are not ready.
So who are we talking to? We’re talking to the comrades. We’re not talking to the masses yet. Right now, man, the masses they just want to chill. They just want to chill because the fire hasn’t hit their cribs yet. The fire hasn’t hit their prison yet. But we need to have these conversations. We need to make it a priority to have these conversations with comrades. We need make it priority to take these actions with the comrades. I’m not saying to not support people that are fighting their cases, because that’s important, too. However, there’s a lot of people that want to do that. So let them do that. Let those abolitionists do that.
When it comes to JLS and some of the initiatives that JLS is getting involved with. Are they important? I think they’re important to make noise. I think they’re important because this is what the masses wants to see. But the masses are not the ones that are going to be taking up arms immediately. The masses are not going to be the ones that are going to be attacking the carceral state by whatever means necessary. That’s going to happen later. That’s going to happen later because there’s no neutral side on a moving train. Once this train gets to moving people going to have to pick sides. However, right now where we’re at, that stage where we’re at… It’s like not even important to talk about that. So I think people should want to involve their-self as much as possible. But I think also, we need to be serious about who we are having these conversations with. We need to be we need to not have these conversations with people that are not ready to take it there. And that’s on the inside and outside.
Host: Did you want to have something you wanted to add?
New Afrikan Comrade: So, when we are talking about movement, and I believe it was what brother H Rap Brown that said “the movement is only a phase of the struggle”. So the movements have the ability to change phases as it progresses. And that’s what we’re experiencing now. You know, back in the 60’s the movement was the alpha movement. So there was a little bit more of that guerrilla warfare aspect to the movement. Now it is a little bit more feminized. Not to say in a bad way, because it seemed like the sisters have a little bit more ties with the people than these brothers had.
We have to take what we can get at the time that we’re getting it. I agree with the brother, but when I was talking about the court system, per se, they have to have people start bombarding these court rooms. When I went to trial, I was in there by myself. They were doing what the hell they wanted to do. You get what I’m saying? But if we start having these mass court watches, where we just start having people come together and start going to these court rooms, and putting these public defenders, and these DA’s and these judges on blast. It may have just a little bit different effect. But you know…. Hey thats was the police, my bad. My door was wide open. [laughter]
Komrade Underground: [laughing together] They gonna do an extraction tonight, for real.
New Afrikan Comrade: We just have to set up some different rules, and everything has to be hit at a different time, everything has its place and time. I believe it was Fred Hampton. They asked Fred about the Minutemen and the Weathermen, and what was their relationship with the Panthers. Fred was like “Nah, we stand far our back from them. They’re chauvinistic and individualistic.” When he said that. It was like the time when the NFAC [National Fuck Around Crew] was doing their thing out here. You remember that, right? So, at the same time that was happening, that was a different dynamic. Everybody had seen that as part of the movement, but it was something separate from the movement. That had nothing to do with the movement. It was a racial shit. So we have to be careful when we pledge our allegiance. Like the brother said “we have to talk to the comrades, man we can’t be talking to these outside characters, because they are on something totally different.”
Komrade Underground: I really like what you talked about, about movements changing. Because like you said, I don’t even know if we can call this a movement right now. And if it is, it’s a few of us. But it’s a struggle. It’s a struggle and that’s part of a movement, right. And there’s this idea of the 60’s and 70’s, this revolutionary optimism, where everyone really felt that the revolution was here. The revolution was now. And the pigs also felt it. And that’s a necessary fear that I’m talking about. They created whole systems and broke their own laws and created stuff to stop this movement. So now, because they did that, and they killed off all the leaders of these movements. Killed off all these gang leaders too. I’m going to call them mass political movements back then because that’s what they were moving towards. Organizations or street organizations were moving towards these more politicized ideas, coming out with manifestos, and coming out with things that were in-line, because they were getting politicized by the same leaders. By the Young Lords, by the Black Panthers, by the Black Liberation Army. These folks were either coming from these movements or moving towards these movements. We could talk about Jeff Fort, and how he was helping Gaddafi fund his revolution from Chicago. Back then these these ideas were important. And then what happened? That fear led these pigs to cause a huge wave of oppression and they started assassinating. Then they started breaking us. Man they started breaking us. Man let’s be real. They broke us. They broke us to pieces. They fragmented us. They took us, infiltrated us. And now they not only created a fragmented movement, they created a movement that hates each other.
We can’t even fucking think about battling the right-wing or battling these fucking pigs and battling this stuff, when we can’t even talk to each other. We’re so worried about ideas that this praxis is getting lost. There is no praxis right now because we’re still trying to figure out how to talk to each other. So that revolutionary optimism went to a broken revolution. And where are we taking up the scraps now? How are we picking up the scraps now? Some of us are so fucked up from the losses that happened back then. Some of these street organizations and individuals that lost family, that lost friends, that lost comrades, that lost the ideas, that lost these movements. So where are we now?
Everyone’s running on Twitter to have these conversations and really just looking for friends and people to argue with. It’s broken the revolutionary spirit and we’re fighting. We’re fighting from the SHU. We’re fighting from lonely places in the free world. Because that’s one thing I have seen. The comrades that a solid 10 toes down that I know what my comrades… man, I feel like sometimes it’s just as lonely as me right here in the SHU [Secure Housing Unit]. It’s a scary dynamic to think about it, that we’re still in fear from shit that happened back in the 70’s. And we’re in so much fear that we don’t know how to bring it to these pigs.
New Afrikan Comrade: I agree.
Host: That brings us right to question two, man. We’re talking about the present phase, the present conditions. I mean, the last year during COVID-19… speaking for the outside this whole pandemic has basically revealed a lot of what we thought was there, it basically pulled a lot of blinders away. This last year and a half has been a year of unprecedented rebellion, escape, and strikes on the inside. From the folks in charge of stuff, it’s been a huge spike. As for the the activity? It’s been up and down on the outside. Let’s talk about the reality of how prison conditions during the ongoing pandemic have further isolated prisoners from the outside world. And how this has enhanced or detracted from the resistance movement. Even though we saw this last year, it has only increased activity. Speaking for myself on the outside, I’m just going to put it in there. It basically… we have run into a bunch of limits. The escalation of activity and like the heightening of crisis… We went straight into serious limits. If there’s a word for the outside it’s going to be limits. A lot of us aren’t being honest about these limits that we’ve run into. I can get into that more but I want to hear about like your guys’s perception and reality on the inside right now.
New Afrikan Comrade: As far as the COVID situation? hah… March 15 – they put us on lockdown, maybe on the 14th that’s when everything on the nationwide lockdown. On April 11 it’s been about 30 police up in here. They pull about 20 of us out our room (I was included in that 20) for about 15 of us… now this before they will send all the guidelines. 10 people per group and they just put into place the masking implications on the police. So they come up with the rules, snatch us up, dress us out. They come up in the room, three or four deep in the room, no mask on, no nothing. So we complain like “Hey, man, you’re not supposed to be up in here like this!” They ignored us. The captains, and lieutenants… they don’t have on masks. Nobody has on masks! So, automatically, I’m pushing paperwork. I’ll write their ass up. You up in my room, threatening my life, putting my life in jeopardy.
Like the brother said, I don’t file 602’s… that shit is really a waste of time. And they always ride with the pigs. You almost never win that shit. But I did it anyway. That was a year ago. I’m just now, maybe last week, getting the finishing copy of that 602 back… and they denied me from Sacramento. From the head place. So where I’m at, it wasn’t really that bad like it was in Quentin. I’m like an introvert anyway, so I don’t fuck with people anyway. If they not on my level, I really stay in my room and I do my own thing. So it wasn’t really that bad up here, per se. I just know like other penitentiaries like San Quentin which is really horrible up there. I have a little cousin who was up there and he caught that shit. My mom was just telling me yesterday that her cousin has a dude who is out there in New Orleans they had caught COVID. My guess is when you catch this shit, they supposed to give you liquids. And they were feeding that man solid foods and they damn near killed me.
So a lot of the protocols that they’re doing up here is just to show face. It’s just to show that we’re doing something. Just like the past two weeks, we had two police in here that was sent home with the COVID, with the new strain. They sent him and her home. We came back, she just got dirty again, they just sent her home again. But not one time have they came here to tested any inmates to see if we’re sick. So in my mind, I’m always thinking that their trying to create a dynamic of sickness to keep what they call “hazardous pay.” I don’t really think they’re taking it serious. When they get sick they locked us down. As opposed to clearing out one of these buildings. When these police, they come in here to stay for seven days. Let them go home and the next police that come in, they come here quarantine for seven days before they start their weekly shift. If you’re not making those type of adjustments… in everything that their adjusting is always us, locking us down. You know what I’m saying? Even though we are having visiting again, I don’t allow my family come up here. Straight up, I’m cool. I don’t need no visits. Don’t come up here. I don’t allow them to come up here. It’s not really bad up here.
I really don’t have too much to say on that. I stay away because I don’t believe all the COVID shit. I think it’s over sensationalized. I think it’s just a lot of propaganda. And I think it’s a way to violate people’s constitutional rights. They’re finding a way to change and shift society. They found a way to segregate people… to say how many people can be.. I mean was already doing that shit. Only five people could be in a certain group. But now even more so they’re breaking down how many people can come into the restaurant and things of such nature. In a minute, they will be using COVID to be able to change and redirect the Constitution. Like George says “anytime you overcome one form of oppression, they’ll find another way to oppress you.” And that’s what they’re doing. They find a different way to oppress us because they see the old ways is not working anymore. That people are getting tired of the old ways. So what do we do? “Okay, this is what we do. We will give them a pandemic, lock everybody down, readjust the way of living. readjust their way of thinking and then we will go back to business as usual.” Yeah.
Host: Here in California, at least, we’ve had sickness go through facilities. And in a way COVID has been a little departure. There’s a response is always just to lock people down and they’ll let you ride it out. Take an ibuprofen. You just sweat it out. You cry it out. You shit it out of yourself.
New Afrikan Comrade: [laughing] It’s funny you say that right? About a week ago, man… my body had locked up. Have you ever had a Charlie Horse? Now I get Charlie Horses all through my body. My back, my stomach, my legs, my ankles, my feet. I never felt no shit like this. Have you ever see the movies where the muck tries to come out your body? You get what I’m saying?
Host: Medical is gonna be no use, you just ride it out, man.
New Afrikan Comrade: I go man down. When I’m in there they were seeing my whole body, watching my body just move, my muscles just locking up. So they don’t give me shit. So the lady she calls the doctor and the doctor is on the phone. So the doctor says give him Aspirin. So she hands me Aspirin and I say “I don’t want that shit! Give me muscle relaxers, give me something to stop these muscles from locking up.” So she said “give him a COVID test.” Everything’s COVID. And that’s the new thing. Everything’s COVID now. You go in with a broken leg, they say “It’s COVID”. So they give me a rapid COVID test and I come back negative. They still put me on quarantine.
Komrade Underground: I think this is important for me to talk about too because I had a very different experience from from the fuckin ‘Rona. I didn’t get it. I haven’t experienced it. But I think the main reason is because they also came in my cell late night. They came 10 deep straight to me and threw me right to the SHU. I got, in the beginning of COVID, I got thrown right on the slab. And it was because of the approach I was taking to this virus. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was killing motherfuckers. And I knew that these pigs were going to bring it in. I knew I couldn’t make it. I didn’t have no lab to make it in. I knew I couldn’t get it from the outside world. So I started trying to organize.
I started trying to organize and tell these pigs and create a space not to let these pigs in unless they masked up, unless they’ve got body suits on, and only one pigs allowed to come in here. And you already know man, I started having these conversations and started bringing it to the people and trying to create it. If it wasn’t going to be the whole compound, it was going to be my motherfucking dorm. And then we’re going to see what’s gonna happen. You already know, man, they came masked up with a different type of mask, the black masks, right? And they came in 10 deep and took me straight to the SHU. No reports, no shots, no nothing. Just went straight to the SHU. And I’ve been there ever since. And they’ve kept me here ever since.
So there has been this direct violence. This direct silencing violence that some people have experienced and I just happened to be one of them. But I’m not the only one, after I got locked up… two more of my comrades got locked up. I don’t know what they did when they heard I got snatched up for it, but I know that was on the same shit that I was on and was 10 toes down, ready to ride. So I just see that in certain places, and this was a super repressive institution I was at at that time. They came and snatched me off the mat and disappeared me. So because I’ve been in the SHU, I haven’t really experienced a lot of actual people getting COVID. But I’ve experienced these social experiments that they’ve been using to keep us separated.
So to to add and implement more rules, to implement more reasons to lock down, to implement more reason to keep us from our family, to implement more reasons to stop visitations, and to control. In War for the Cities by Yaki Sayles there’s a part of it in the meditations on the Wretched of the Earth, it talks about how these hoods are being experimented on from the experiments that happened to us in prison. So they have these social experiments that are taken out on us on the inside, because they know all of us getting out or going to go to the same hoods. So when we see the same things happening to our neighborhoods, we are already assimilated, we are used to lock downs. We used to be locked up and we are used to being separated. That’s where they gonna start these things. They will start these things in these Black and brown poor neighborhoods, and expand them from there. They’re going to keep us in these bubbles, they’re going to keep us in these small places, just like in prison. So and then their going to be snatching people off the streets. They’re going to be snatching people off the streets, like they snatch us out in here. So there’s just so many different levels of these social experiments that are happening. But then how much is that affecting this already fragmented movement?
Okay, so this shows us that the monetary system and capitalism and all that shit is bullshit, right? It showed us that everybody in the whole fucking United States didn’t have to fucking work unless you were poor, Black or brown, and working class that became, what’d they call that shit? “Essential workers.” So now, when you’re essential, you are now essential, not to the movement, you are essential to keeping production going. It’s not the money people need because the government’s printing this shit out left and right. The government’s fucking tricking everyone. So it’s just these ideas of “You are essential” instead of saying that “you are expendable.” You are expendable workers now, because we need to keep the beast moving, we need to keep the machine moving. There’s just so many different levels that the Empire has used to attack us on the inside and outside because this is where the movements going to come from. This is where the people are coming from. This is where these protests came from. This is where the mass looting came from. It came from the hood where these folks are having to work now. It came from the idea that the prisoners that are being locked the fuck down.
So now our communication even to spread this fucking word on what’s going out, of what’s getting out of the prison is so difficult right now. Luckily the pigs are corrupt. Luckily, so we can get phones and shit in here. But besides that, that’s still a very small amounts of us. And then within the amount of people that are getting phones, how many people are actually putting in at work? An even smaller amount. So, if they can figure out how to control us? So they’re finding out how to motherfucking break us, man, they’re finding out ways to fragment us even more. So there’s been such where there was already a separation of solidarity. There was already a separation between us and the free world comrades, now it’s becoming even more. And COVID is showing that it’s just ways to oppress us. Right? It’s just ways to keep us oppressed. It’s just ways to keep us locked down in the free world and over here.
Host: Yeah. Okay, both you brought it up. Essentially, like a lot of people on the outside that aren’t acquainted with being incarcerated, or the prison system, they don’t realize that people inside, the lockdown of COVID-19 is nothing new. You already got 99 problems. COVID is just another one. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. It’s a new level of asymmetrical warfare being waged against you, COVID-19 is just another chapter of the same book. Out here it’s like some big dramatic thing. But mostly just more continuation of the same, even though it killed 240 people in California [prisons], like how many people does the prison system kill on a daily basis no matter what?
Komrade Underground: Yeah, for real.
New Afrikan Cromade: Right. Those aren’t astronomical numbers as far as I’m concerned. I need it to be more for me to be a believer. That’s me, personally. I’m not taking those shots. I’m not getting no vaccines, none of that shit. I’ll take my chances.
Komrade Underground: I’m in the same vein. Literally. The same vein. I’m not taking that shit, man. I’m not taking nothing.
Host: It’s one of the few choices that you are allowed. Something you could actually choose on the inside.
Komrade Underground: For right now…
Host: To get a vaccine or not? What you get with an eating each day? You aren’t choosing that. Turning a doorknob? You don’t get to turn a doorknob. Well, the vaccine is a few things you have to get to decide on.
New Afrikan Comrade: I think they weaponize the food. Weaponize the milk. I don’t eat this shit. I don’t drink their water. Everything I do I buy off canteen. So I’m one of those type of dudes. I just don’t fuck with the pigs at all.
Komrade Underground: Salute, man, salute!
I just wanted to get into what he was talking about. About them weaponizing the food, because that’s true. It is this idea that whether it’s on a conscious level that is happening on the compound or something bigger, it’s this food and it’s a formal production. It’s the little things that keep us oppressed in here, like you were saying. COVID is just one of the things that’s killing us, right now. But we have lived in the proximity of death every fucking day we’ve been inside. Death is so close to every single prisoner, that COVID is like “okay, it’s just another thing killing us.” “So and so got COVID? He gonna make it through. He just got stabbed two weeks ago. I know he can make it through COVID.” So there’s this level of death that looms over all of us, that we have to fight.
Not a lot of people know this story, and I’m gonna bring it up. But when I was young, in one of the juvenile dorms I was in, they snatched us all up and what they would do is they would bring stuff to us so we can all get in fights and then because they might have a big bus or a big load of more juveniles coming so they would clear out rooms to make room for these new ones. Send us to the confinement for 60 days and either put us with the adults or just slowly integrate us back in. But this time we went ham, and I went ham on the pigs, and I spit in their face. I’m going through it with them. They were slamming me on my shit and everything’s going down, but I was going hard that day. I don’t know why it was just one of those days that I know this is part of the process: them handcuffing us and beating us up. I just didn’t feel like wearing it man, I didn’t feel like wearing it. I started going ham, spitting on them, they put a mask on me. They were just going ham.
So, when they put us in the showers I was going in on these pigs. I’m talking about “I’m not cuffing up again. I’m not going to my room!” Going ham. This pig got really tired of me, he got really tired of me spitting on him and he finally got the cuffs on me and told me to step to the back of the place. I’m young, I’m like 18 then, and when I stepped to the back of the shower, he walks in the shower and pulls a fucking knife on me. A real, steel street knife on me and tell me how he’s going to cut my nuts off and stab me and kill me. And when I seen that. I seen in his eyes like, “Yo, this pig really wants to kill me, yo. This pig really wants to kill me and he can do it right here! And from that day forward, I knew that every day in here, it’s not only a struggle to survive, but it’s a struggle to not die. So COVID is just another fucking pig without no fucking mask that I gotta fucking deal with.
Host: You said something right there. And you said a lot right there, let’s be honest. But proximity to death, and what it imparts and what it teaches you. A personal story. I mean, I haven’t been locked up, so I can’t relate in that way. I can’t say “I know.” I’m not a brother in that sense. But I just lost my father, like recently, like last week. And on his death bed I asked him “so are you scared?” And he said, “No, not since Vietnam.” He was in Vietnam when he was like, 21 years old. He said “I could have died any day. So I’m not scared. I’m not scared of anything.” It was close to proximity to death, on that basis, and throughout his life, that basically worked in a certain perspective. And a certain strength, and a certain knowledge of self. I know none of you signed up for it, you were placed in this system. And that proximity to death is imposed on you. But there’s something there about the proximity to death that sets your priorities, that sets this passion. And I see it concretizes, it makes solid who you are and what you got to live for. You know how you want to live and you know, how you want to die.
Komrade Underground: I think George said it best, He said “I don’t care about living a long life. I care about living a well and fulfilled life.” And that’s been my mantra every morning that I wake up. I don’t give a fuck about living long. I just want to live fulfilled, yo.
New Afrikan Comrade: You can’t you can’t let death be the main ingredient in how you live your life. We are all born to die, like brothers say. We are born to die. So if it’s you’re time to go, there’s nothing you can do about it… it’s your time to go. So I’m not going to be doing no extra shit, jumping through hoops, taking vaccines and all this shit because I’m scared to die. I’m already half-assed dead anyway, living this motherfucker. Sleeping in this coffin. You know, I sat in here one day and watched the whole room just close in on me. It was just me and the bed and the wall. We can’t let death be the issue on how we live our lives in here. Whether it’s COVID, whether it’s these pigs, whether it’s these inmates. If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen. You got to live the best life you can.
Komrade Underground: I was gonna say, I think that’s important, though, too, because I don’t want to make it seem like every choice that I make is because of death. Because it’s not. When I say I want to live fulfilled, it’s to know that we are very close to death but still living strategically. right? I think that’s important and I appreciate you for bringing that up. Because those that live with death wishes, they’re not going to get a lot done. We’re going to put out half assed work, and we’re going to put out stuff that’s not important. So we shouldn’t lead with death, you are right comrade, But I really, I really think that just knowing that it’s there. At times, it makes us more frantic, right? It makes us want to push out more stuff. So we have to slow down a little bit, we have to not let that lead us. And just remember that it’s there.
Remember that when it’s time, let’s just go out hard. But when it’s not, let’s still be strategic in every move. Let’s still move with the idea of creating, because none of us are going to be around when this shit sets off. Right now none of us are going to be around when the actual movement or when we come to whatever anyone wants to believe is going to be communist fucking…. not utopia, but just a new world. A new Earth. We’re not going to be around for that. But we still have to prepare and plan and structure our movements to where it matters. Because if we just do shit half-cocked and half-assed, then anything we’re doing is just going to be a detriment to the struggle.
Host: Well, and I think that’s an excellent place to leave it man. You guys both just wrapped it up. And I want to thank both of you for your time and your generosity and the risk you’re taking – you’re calling from your cells right now. So, thank you. And thanks to Shut ‘Em Down media group for making this possible. The first of many conversations hopefully. We need more of this.
Komrade Underground: Hey man I appreciate being here and being allowed, and for this platform. That’s all that we can do is just have some more of these conversations. So I think I’m just gonna leave you with the words of Jonathan Jackson. “All power to the people that don’t fear freedom.”
“Representing Radicals” Lawyers’ Guide from Tilted Scales
Resisting state repression and surveillance is one of the cornerstones of The Final Straw and has been since the beginning of this project. Over the years we’ve featured interviews with support committees, political prisoners, defendants in ongoing cases, incarcerated organizers, radical legal workers and lawyers and others to talk about how power strikes at those who it fears constitute a threat. For those of us caught up in cases, navigating self-defense through the courts, penal system and mainstream media can be treacherous, as we attempt to balance our political and personal goals with our lawyer’s desire to have us do as little time and pay as little money as possible to the courts. Winning in these circumstances can sometimes seem to pit a well-meaning lawyer or legal worker against their own client. Enter the Tilted Scales’ new book, “Representing Radicals.”
This week, you’ll hear Jay from the Tilted Scales Collective talk about this book out from AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, about anti-repression work, and about this book’s attempt to shift the culture of legal representation by intervening with arguments by radical lawyers, more intimately inviting clients and their supporters into the fray and new frameworks for approaching cases.
The Wrong Side Of The Law by Mick Jones from Mick Jones
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TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with any names, pronouns, affiliations, or references that would help the listeners orient themselves?
Jay: Sure, my name is Jay, I use they/them pronouns. I’m a part of the Tilted Scales Collection since 2017, and have been involved in anti-repression organizingmore broadly over the last decade or so.
TFSR: Would you talk a bit about Tilted Scales? Who constitutes its membership and what activities it gets up to?
J: Sure, we are a pretty small collective of anarchist legal support workers who have been supporting and fighting for political prisoners, prisoners of war, and politicized prisoners mostly in the so-called United States. Tilted Scales Collective was formed out of the North American Anarchist Black Cross Conference in 2011 and out of the need to build anti-repression infrastructure more broadly, but what folks were noticing was re-inventing of the wheel every time folks in the United States got hit with serious charges. There was a need to pull together or draw in resources and experience to rebuild some infrastructure for providing legal support. So our collective has written two books, the first book is called A Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant, which is published in 2017. And we recently published a follow-up book called Representing Radicals. And that’s what I’m going to be talking about a little bit more today. We also have given training and workshops about anti-repression organizing, as well as participated in numerous committees and legal support efforts over the years.
TFSR: Cool. And for folks who are unfamiliar with anti-repression work, a lot of our listeners have heard various conversations on the show about it, and those who have been with us for a long time may even remember a chat with folks from your collective about the Defendant’s Guide when it came out. But could you talk a little bit about the framework of anti-repression work or any of the cases that your collective has participated in, offered support for?
J: I guess the idea behind anti-repression work and organizing is that repression from the State is an inevitable part of making change, or building the new world or destroying this one, etc. Repression of some kind is going to be inevitable, people are gonna get hit with criminal charges. So anti-repression organizing seeks to, at baseline, do some harm reduction around the negative outcome of criminal charges. But also use the fact that folks, maybe one person or group of individuals, are facing charges as kind of a vehicle for movement organizing or building bonds of solidarity and coming out on the other side stronger. Some examples that I’ve been a part of… I was involved with the organizing around the J20 case back in 2017. I know other folks in the collective have participated as individuals, not necessarily as part of Tilted Scales, but I’ve participated in different legal support efforts for different mass mobilizations throughout the years, the Eric King Support Committee, etc.
TFSR: It makes sense to be coming out of the ABC conference, because, as you say, most of the work that Anarchist Black Cross does and has done historically is to give post-conviction support to people that have already been given a sentence, are already behind bars in a lot of cases. And so it makes sense to do the forward-thinking of how we A) decrease the number of people that are ending up behind bars, B) decrease the amount of time that people are going to be serving if they are going to do any time behind bars? And, like you say, with the mobilization and popular education element… What is better to stop people from interacting with Grand Juries than to have regular discussions where Grand Juries are a part of people’s vernacular? And what people are talking about, and you may not be able to totally demystify them, but at least making people aware makes them readier to be able to… Just like how talking about CopWatch, know-your-rights type education stuff is going to hopefully get ingrained in people’s brains that they can refuse to speak to law enforcement, or they can make those interactions as safe as possible or whatever. I think that’s super helpful.
J: Yeah, and I think that the Defendant’s Guide definitely hits on a lot of that. I know much of the guide talks about the different aspects that are involved in various stages of the criminal legal process, like what happens pretrial, what happens if you take your case to trial, what happens if you plead out, what happens if you are convicted, what are your options for sentencing and how to think about that? That’s one aspect of anti-repression work – that demystifying piece, the other aspect of it is helping the folks who are facing charges and their comrades move through that process while still advancing or moving forward with their political goals at the same time. And sometimes that looks like bringing those politics into the courtroom or into the way that legal support happens around a case. And sometimes it looks like resolving the case as quickly as possible so that folks can get back to the other organizing that they’re doing.
TFSR: The approach that was in the Defendant’s Guide, and which also shows up in Representing Radicals, it’s like a bookmark, a “This is the thing that you should pay attention to”. Obviously, it’s a lot more filled out in the Defendant’s Guide, but a Venn diagram of personal goals, political goals, and legal goals, and setting that out and working through the process of what that looks like for you as a defendant, what do you want to get out of this? What damage can you legally inflict, hopefully, on the process of repression to make it not profitable for them to ever try that again, or at least decrease the amount of damage it’s going to do in the meantime? That’s a really cool model that you present. I like the visuality of it.
J: Yeah, I like that model as well. I’m glad to hear that it reads well in the Defendant’s Guide. I think it’s been really useful in conversation with folks who are facing charges. One thing that our collective does is occasionally have calls with groups of friends or support crews who are coming together, sometimes after a big action (this happened a lot last summer) to help them think through the next steps in terms of navigating the criminal legal process. Thinking about options kind of as containing discrete but overlapping goal areas, or overlapping but discrete areas of impact is, at least for me. and seemingly other people, a useful way of being able to visualize what options exist within the context of the system that is fully designed to make you feel like you have no options or the only option is to be out immediately.
TFSR: That’s really well put.
So as you mentioned in 2017, you published a very timely Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant, just as over 200 people were arrested during the January 20, or J20 inauguration of Donald Trump had started building their legal defenses. The defendants from that case were over 200 people. This is not in a vacuum, obviously, following months of resistance at Standing Rock against the Dakota AccessPipeline in which I believe thousands of people participated. And a lot of people caught charges, although it’s notable that the federal felony charges all fell on indigenous people. You and the AK Press bumped up the publication date in early 2017 and got a lot of copies into J20 and I’m imagining NoDAPL defendants’ hands. I guess it’s always a good time for books defending radicals to come out, which is a depressing thing also. But would you speak about the general goals of this new book Representing Radicals? Who your audience is? Is this primarily aimed at radicals approaching legal work such as yourselves or legal workers who are shifting towards radical approaches at defense? Law professors? Should we be sneaking copies into public defenders’ briefcases?
J: I was not involved with the Tilted Scale Collective back in 2011 when the idea for the Defendant’s Guide was first dreamt up. But as far as I understand it, the idea to write this companion book has always been there. As you said, the Defendant’s Guide is written to anarchists radicals who are facing criminal charges and to their comrades and supporters and close people who might be wondering how to help them through that process. And, by contrast, Representing Radicals is mostly written to the attorneys who are representing them. So we tried to balance throughout the book the fact that some attorneys are going to be already quite sympathetic, maybe share a lot of politics with their radical defendants. For example, people at the People’s Law Office in Chicago or the CLDC or movement lawyers who’ve been devoting decades, their whole career to defending activists, anarchists, radicals, etc, Balancing the fact that there might be some people’s lawyers, but other people’s lawyers may not understand at all where their anarchist, radical clients are coming from, are less familiar with anarchists and radicals and concepts like movement perspective, non-cooperating pleas, etc.
The other audience that we’re hoping might have interest in this book would be law students who are still figuring out who they might represent, or how to bring in some of their ideals about the world into their legal practice. We really wrote this book coming from the idea that it could be something that defendants or a support committee could give to attorneys and say, “Here’s what you need to read to understand how to provide the best representation for me.” Or similarly, for supporters of defendants who are locked up pretrial, just to have a tangible resource that you can send to an attorney and say, “Here’s what you need to read to understand how to provide the best representation for my friend, partner, comrade, etc.”
One thing that in my own experience being a part of different anti-repression groups over the years that I run to is that oftentimes, defendants, as well as their supporters, run up against a variety of tensions, even in trying to communicate with and work alongside the most sympathetic attorneys, just because the role of an attorney is quite different than the role of a defense committee or a group of supporters. So, like our first book, Representing Radicals isn’t intended to necessarily be a protocol, a “how-to guide” telling lawyers how to do their jobs, but rather a guide to help people think through what they might want to achieve when facing charges, and how their attorneys can focus on those legal goals specifically, while still helping their client balance other goal areas. Personal and political, and whatever other goals a defendant and their comrades might have.
TFSR: It makes a lot of sense, something that I’ve seen in terms of conflicts come up between lawyers and radical defendants / their defense committees, or support committees is this ingrained – I think you’ve touched on this – this ingrained training in the US legal system: A) the concept of innocence and guilt is a strange one, B) also the idea that individual culpability, for a process when there’s way more dynamics in that and it leaves out the social context in so many cases, and people are often stymied from actually presenting social context to flesh out what was going on. I think that that process of thinking through… Like no incident is going to be exactly the same as the next… But like teasing the lawyer who’s reading it into, instead of just advocating or speaking on behalf of their defendant, to get them the best deal, which might include some sort of plea deal where they’re asked to name other people or whatever to get their charge down. If the lawyer’s thought is “My goal is to get my person as little time as possible and to end this in a timely manner”, especially if I’m a public defender and have like a stack of people to handle. And the challenges that the book poses and the quotes, also, which I want to get to in a bit, but trying to open up this whole world of conversations to lawyers who may be very good at doing their job in the way that they’ve been trained to do it. This might get them to think about the myriad of other ways of looking at the outcomes of a trial besides just what charges, what fees, whatever this individual defendant has to pay. I think that’s really important.
J: Totally. You really hit the nail on the head. Throughout the book, we talk a lot about what “the best possible representation” could mean to radicals, and oftentimes, the training that lawyers get in law school, really hammers home this idea that they have an ethical obligation and a professional obligation to provide their clients with the best possible representation that they can, which in criminal cases often equates to ensuring that they come out the other side relatively quickly and with minimal legal consequences, usually plea deals that are going to minimize prison time, minimize probation, etc. One of the shifts that we try to make in the book, a bit of a paradigm shift, is to help lawyers understand that, as anarchists and radicals who are thinking about facing criminal charges from a movement perspective, we’re gonna want outcomes from a legal case that are aligned with our political goals and principles, even if it comes up at personal expense, or even if that means unsuccessful legal outcomes or negative legal outcome. Also helping lawyers see that those outcomes in cases are in line with lawyers’ ethical obligation to their clients, so as long as their clients fully consent to the terms and have an active role in shaping what their legal defense looks like.
One thing that the book does hopefully pretty well is it includes not just our own perspectives, as of folks who’ve got quite a bit of experience doing legal support work over the years, but also includes the voices of a lot of movement attorneys, who’ve been doing movement lawyering for decades, who really restate that point over and over again… That actually it’s your clients and your client’s supporters and the projects and movements that they’re a part of that really should be driving the bus, and that the lawyer’s job is to listen to their clients and help them meet their legal goals, while still balancing their other priorities.
TFSR: The whole experience of going to court is a terrible thing. It’s meant to be alienating and terrifying and make you bow before the majesty of the representation of legal power and the sovereignty of the State to ruin your life. All that like standing and sitting and all the weird churchy stuff, leftover from the time of kings and queens. It feels really important to find this space to intercede and say, “Hey, you’re supposed to be this person’s… you got their back. So let’s talk about how do you understand what they’re saying?”
Also, I really appreciate the glossary that you provide, and some of the key concepts that you’re trying to introduce or shore up in the legal work. Could you talk a little bit about the glossary and what you put in there and what you’re hoping to achieve?
J: We decided to make the glossary pretty early on in outlining the book. And our decision to do so was partly to include terminology that, unfortunately, may not be familiar to every person who might be reading our books, like different identity terms are included in the glossary. And also, we wanted to break down what we meant by anarchist and other radical tendencies. We wanted to be clear about that. But we also use the glossary to explain a little bit these broader concepts: movement lawyering, collective perspective, politicized prisoners, prisoners of war. In the anarchist subculture, it might be unnecessary to define a glossary, but when communicating with a lawyer who doesn’t have experience working with anarchists, radicals, that particular population, it might be a new territory, very unfamiliar.
TFSR: There are also the quotes that you mentioned, which are interspersed throughout. You mentioned already a few, the People’s Law Office in Chicago and the CLDC. Can you speak to what the hope was by including direct quotes from people who do legal work as professionals and who work in movement and the idea of movement lawyering?
J: I know that we wanted to include the voices of movement lawyers primarily because we have experience doing certain kinds of anti-repression and legal support work, but none of us are lawyers, and so we felt as though there are some things that lawyers would just be more knowledgeable about and to speak to with more experience. We also thought that by including the voices of many attorneys who are movement attorneys and represent radicals every day in their professional lives, we could shift the conversation a bit. So that an attorney who is reading the book, who maybe is not in that world, would feel as though it’s more of a peer-to-peer conversation, as well as the added bonus of hearing from folks with a ton of experience doing legal support. By movement lawyering I really mean… I mentioned PLO and the CLDC. But movement-centered lawyering really happens when a defendant and their legal team take into consideration the defendant’s legal, personal and political goals in relation to the political movement of which the defendant is a part. One definition I read recently says that “movement lawyering increased the power and capacity of people involved in social struggle, rather than the power and capacity of the state and legal system.” I like that. So, movement lawyering, in my mind, is an approach that means not only meeting the ethical obligations of an attorney but understanding a radical client’s legal, personal and political goals fully when creating legal strategies and an overall defense strategy. And it means having some mental context for the case itself and understanding how that case situates in a broader movement and then using that understanding to build a legal representation that is going to align with the client’s goals and principles and interests, and possibly, hopefully, the goals and principles and interests of their supporters and comrades.
The other thing I wanted to say was that movement lawyering, even in cases where there aren’t multiple defendants and even when we’re not talking about collective defense necessarily, movement lawyering really does take into consideration other people who might be affected by the outcome of a particular case. That collective perspective considers the short and long-term political consequences of criminal charges and takes into consideration co-defendants’ affiliated groups and broader movement when making decisions about legal strategy.
TFSR: One of these quotes really stood out and I’m gonna read it at length…. The ethical obligation to the greater good by Dennis Cunningham, Esquire. It’s on page 91. “As lawyers, we have it drilled into us that we owe a duty of representation to each client, the rest of the world be damned. If something would make us hesitate before attacking someone else’s interests, our loyalties are said to be divided, and we’re supposed to avoid taking the case or withdraw. But wait, our political clients want and deserve to be represented on a political basis. If a client to whom we owe such unflinching duty demands it, we owe a broader duty to the client’s community or activist group to receive input from and account to their community, show solicitude for the welfare of others in it, act in ways that promote the esprit and effectiveness of the community, and take care not to undermine its values or the goals of the client’s activism. Call it intersectional lawyering, no adversary has ever tried to pierce the attorney-client privilege, because I met in solidarity with fellow plaintiffs, defendants, or legal supporters. My amazing activist clients have always been my teachers and my comrades and helping me hone this practice. And for it, we have all been the wiser, happier, and freer.” I like that quote.
J: I like that one, too. I think I’ve said it already, but one thing that that sidebar that you read from Dennis Cunningham really hones in on and one thing that we try to repeat throughout the book is, again, this paradigm shift from an individual defendant’s best legal outcome to more of a collective perspective that reimagines what it means to provide someone with “the best possible representation.” And within that thinking beyond the best plea deal, the best legal outcome. Yeah, and Dennis really says it well in that quote, thinking through actually, from our perspective, that is what a lawyer should do. And that is the job that they’re ethically obligated to do for their clients. Many movement attorneys do share at least some or many of the principles and goals of their clients. But even when they don’t, I really do feel as though it is the job of any attorney to be able to meet their clients on that place, and be able to provide your clients representation that takes into account co-defendants, takes into account broader social struggles. And that is their job, and that is doing it well.
TFSR: Could you talk a little bit about the introduction of concepts and realities of support committees into this? Because it feels normal for me and for a lot of us, I’m sure, to be like, “Yeah, of course, all your buddies are going to show up to court with you.” What sort of conversation are you hoping will come out of this? What sort of understandings are you trying to bring to lawyers around defense committees? I think it’s really useful that you talk about some of the complications that can come up.
J: In the Defendant’s Guide, we do talk a little bit about defense committees, aka support committees. By that, we mean the folks who show up to provide the political, personal and legal support for defendants as they move through the process. And that can look a lot of ways. And there’s a lot of different names for efforts like this, but all are rooted in community care and support in the face of systemic oppression or state repression. Some examples that come to my mind would be the RNC8, the organizing that was done post J20s, Water Protector Legal Collective, and all the other various support efforts that arose around Standing Rock, various efforts for a wide range of anti-occupation, anti-imperialist freedom fighters over the last several decades. We could refer to a lot of different formations or groups as different support committees, and most referred to them as something along those same lines. Sometimes it’s a formal organization that takes the reins with providing support, but often times, it’s like our buddies or friends, and it’s an informal group of friends, comrades, loved ones, tend to cover a lot of the bases when folks are facing charges.
So in the Defendant’s Guide, we talk about what is a defense committee how to form one, what might it do, what are some areas of tension that might come up? But in Representing Radicals, we really wanted attorneys to view the defense committee, or supporters more broadly, as potential assets for them to do their job well. From the mindset that attorneys and supporters can work together, they have separate goal areas or separate lanes that they’re driving on (to use this sad analogy) but to separate track. But really work collaboratively to provide defendants with a solid way of meeting their political and personal legal goals. Because too often, in my experience of doing anti-repression work, lawyers can view, groups especially, groups of supporters as threatening or feel concerned about attorney-client privilege, feel as though political organizing around a case might detract from the legal representation that they’re wanting to provide, might harm a client case, might do more harm for them, politically and legally, than good. And there are certainly legitimate concerns there sometimes, but we really do think that if we could demystify some of what a defense committee does for attorneys, many of them might hopefully be more inclined to work collaboratively or at least communicate about their boundaries and accept that a support committee might take other actions and that’s okay, so long as it’s okay with the folks who are facing charges. Because ultimately, those are the people who are going to be most impacted by how the lawyer participates and helps the support committee.
TFSR: Similarly, the book talks about the strengths and pitfalls of different kinds of media and breaks down different conceptions. I’m really proud that we could be mentioned among movement media in the book, that just delighted me so much. Can you talk about the things that you touch on and some of the suggested frameworks of approaching media that you makein the book towards lawyers?
J: I want to say that the Defendant’s Guide also talks about media and talks about it more from a perspective of if you and your comrades are wanting to produce media around a case, here’s some ideas for doing and some tensions that have occurred in the past in our experience, here are some awesome folks who are doing media already to reach out to, etc. I think about media as one area where often times, an attorney might bristle at the idea that a defendant, even indirectly through a support committee, might put anything out there about a case before a legal outcome is reached on it. And in Chapter 5 of Representing Radicals, we talk about how media engagement might help or hinder legal goals and some tensions that we’ve encountered in our experience, and also some considerations for attorneys who are advising their clients and their support committees on a media strategy. But the point that we’ve really tried to make is that, ultimately, it’s going to be up to a defendant (and potentially to their supporters) about what gets said to the media or what sort of media is produced. And that’s fine, so long as it’s aligned with a defendant’s legal goal and strategy and that a defendant is aware of and consenting to the impact that certain media might have on the legal case.
In fact, in my own experience, for example, I was involved with the support committee for CeCe McDonald, who is a transwoman in Minneapolis, who survived an attack by a white supremacist man at a bar and was charged with murder after he died. In that particular case, we thought media would be tremendously helpful in shifting the public narrative about CeCe, and also, in my opinion, had a tremendous impact on the legal outcome of that case, she was offered a plea that she felt she could live with, ultimately, and one that was, in terms of legal outcomes, substantially better than, in my opinion, what would have happened, had we not taken a media strategy in that approach, in that particular case.
For attorneys who are advising their clients about media, and many attorneys are going to say, “Don’t say anything at all”. And that is a fine way of approaching media if the client’s goal is to resolve the legal aspect of the case as quickly as possible, with very little fanfare. Engaging with unsympathetic media might not be necessary or effective or desirable, depending on the facts or the circumstances surrounding the case. But, however, like I just said, if the client’s goal is to shift public opinion about the political circumstances surrounding their case or, even more broadly, to shift a public opinion around the political circumstances of the case, so that it may have an impact on the legal outcome of the case, engaging with mainstream media or putting out your own media might be strategically necessary, even if it complicates the legal strategy or make the lawyer add stress to the defense preparation. And so we really want attorneys to understand that there are separate spheres that the support committees and attorneys are operating in. Attorneys don’t have to talk to the media, but other people might and that’s okay, so long as defendants consent to it.
TFSR: It’s cool to hear the experience around CeCe McDonald’s case because she was fighting such an uphill battle with that.
J: For real. And the early media that came out around her case was horrible. And she was facing at first one and then two murder charges in Hennepin County. So I do strongly feel that the political campaign and specifically the media strategy part of it really did directly influence the legal outcome of that case. And then more broadly, influence the community, public narrative around self-defense, around the intersections of anti-Black racism and transmisogyny, and the criminal legal system. I really do feel that media work was very successful in terms of meeting its goals. We were lucky in that case to have a very sympathetic attorney who was not involved in the creation of the media but consented to let the CeCe McDonald Support Committee do what we did.
TFSR: In 2013, one of my co-hosts, William, got to interview Katie Burgess from the Trans Youth Support Network about CeCe’s case. That felt really important for us to be able to participate in that. When you were talking about, before you named CeCe, I was thinking about Luke O’Donovan’s situation in Atlanta where he defended himself against young men who were attempting to queer-bash him. Being around for the court hearing, the actual trial, part of the trial, at least… but just seeing the impact.
Folks in his support committee did a really good job of framing some public narrative around the circumstances. Because I can totally understand a lawyer or legal crew deciding, “We just don’t want to engage, we do want to just keep our heads down, get through this and not become a target for either reactionaries or for the prosecutors. For the prosecutors often times try to frame these narratives around prosecutions anyway, because their literal job is to prosecute, not to resolve a situation towards justice. So if they’re gonna frame a narrative anyway, you might as well try to steer it in a different direction.
J: Totally. And I do think where it gets a little sticky, often it is difficult to talk about the context of a case and the politics of it and the ways that power operates within it, without getting into the facts of the case. And so it makes sense that lawyers would bristle about talking to the media before they’re able to do their job, which is to bring up the facts in court or negotiating a good plea deal based on the facts of the case. But I do think it’s possible. And I also think if someone, especially when we’re talking about situations where the charges might be not very serious, maybe it was a pre-planned mass arrest where folks willingly participated in it and are now facing not-very-serious-consequences, it totally makes sense to talk about the fact. It can, it doesn’t always have to, it could totally make sense to talk about the case publicly before a legal outcome is reached. As long as that fits within the defendants’ broader political and legal goals and strategy.
TFSR:To pop back to the quotes that you interspersed throughout the book, I could see it being pretty useful if a lawyer reads this, and they’re just they’re radical-curious, or if they’re going through law school and they’re trying to find a way to become a movement lawyer. It’s cool to think they suddenly have a list of names, a list of organizations that they can either intern with or contact and reach out and say, “Hey, I read this thing. I’m having these thoughts. Can I bounce some ideas off of you?” There are already organizations, for better or worse, that do varying qualities of jobs from ACLU to the National Lawyers Guild and other groups, other networks. There‘re already networks that include movement lawyers, but it seems like a good tool for networking movement lawyers.
J: Right, we hope so.
TFSR: Are there any topics that I didn’t ask about that you want to share on?
J: Well, I already hit on how this book includes not just our voices, but lots of input from movement lawyers, comrades, and also we wouldn’t have been able to write this book without conversations with other legal support workers who’ve been in it with us over the years. And just like our first book, this book is intended to be an experiment. It’s the wisdom collected from people and their networks for decades and in many of them for far longer than any of us entered the field have been doing this work. We hope that the experiment will help people fight back more effectively and better survive the brutality of the legal system. But we don’t intend it to be a definitive, only way to think about these things, but we do hope that it is useful, and we would love it to be a resource that gets used and built upon all the time.
TFSR: Just out of curiosity, though, the idea for this feels very novel, but obviously there have been periods when the struggle has been heightened, and at least in the US, I can think of certain decades or certain periods of time and movement eras when there has been more activity and more agitation and more arrests, whether it be the late 1800s, during massive labor strikes around the country, or the suffrage movement, or movements to end Jim Crow or the civil rights era, the 1920s communist and anarchist and socialist agitation, the “long 60’s”, obviously, or theClamshell Movement. Are there any other private experiments in this vein that you’ve heard of where radicals with anti-repression experience were trying to formally reach out to change the culture of lawyering, to bring more lawyer comrades into the fold?
J:This is a big on-me, but I can’t remember them. To my knowledge, there have been other publications that are similar to the Defendant’s Guide, but I’m not aware of anything like Representing Radicals that speaks to the way of representing radicals directly. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
TFSR: I didn’t know there was an inspiration where you’re like “Well, this is sixty years old at this point, so not really that applicable, but it is a cool idea”.
J: I would defer to other members of Tilted Scales Collective who are more involved in lawyering.
TFSR: So you are pleading the Fifth?
J: Yeah, I don’t know.
TFSR: How can folks get a hold of the book and keep up on the work of Tilted Scales?
J: The book is available through AK Press, it offers a discount on books sent to prisoners and bulk orders if you contact them about it. We really appreciate that folks from the AK Press and The Institute for Anarchist Studies are putting effort into this book to be more accessible. About the Tilted Scales Collective, you can learn by checking our website, Instagram, and Twitter with the caveat that we are not super active on any electronic platform, mostly because none of us really likes them, but we do try to make it easy to find out resources and we hope it will help people in their struggles. Our website, for example, does have a link to chapter 2 of the Defendant’s Guide, and direct links to other media we produced in the past, as well as templates that may be useful in you getting to work with a lawyer and specifically around navigating collective defense.
TFSR: Thank you so much for having this conversation and thanks for all the hard work and amazing stuff that you do.
J: Thank you, it’s really nice to talk with you and we are excited to see how this book impacts our movements more broadly.
Sonja on NSU-Watch and Autonomous Anti-Fascist Research
This week on the show, we share an interview with Sonja, an antifascist activist and researcher based in the state of Hessen, Germany, and involved in the network known as NSU-Watch. For the hour, we talk about the case of the National Socialist Underground terror group which killed 9 immigrants of Turkish, Greek and Kurdish immigrants between 2000 and 2006 and were only discovered in 2011. Sonja tells about organizing with those who lost their loved ones in the attacks, the uncovering of government knowledge of the networks that produced the NSU and the milieu and international nazi scene it arose from, autonomous antifascist research.
We then speak about the ongoing case of Franco Albrecht, the former German military officer who is presumed to have been planning a false flag attack to draw ire to immigrant communities in Germany, as well as the network of military and police involved in the coordinated “Day X” plot to overthrow the German state. In some ways this interview was meant as a corrective to the New York Times podcast entitled Day X, one which de-centers state agency, opacity and collusion in the plot.
TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with whatever name, gender pronouns, location, political or group affiliations that you’d like the audience to know?
Sonja: Well, hello, I’m Sonja and a part of NSU watch. I will tell you about the organization, and what we’re doing later. I’m doing antifascist politics and research since around about 15 years, and I’m located in a very small town in the middle of Germany, in the State of Hessen.
TFSR: Thanks a lot for being here. I really appreciate you taking the time to work with me on this conversation. So, first up for the international audience, would you lay out the known circumstances around the NSU that sparked the creation of NSU watch?
Sonja: Yeah, I will gladly. Thanks for inviting me, I want to say as well. So in November 2011, two men killed themselves after a bank robbery gone wrong in a small town in Eastern Germany. Their RV, they set it on fire after they shot themselves. And in this RV, a weapon was discovered a Ceska that was linked to a series of murders taking place between 2000 – 2006. And at the same time as the RV was set on fire, a flat in another Eastern German town was set on fire as well. It was the cover up flat of the third member of the core group called Beate Zschäpe was set on trial afterwards. And after she set the flat on fire, she got undercover and sent out a CD to different addresses all over Germany, before she turned herself into the police. And on the CD was a video with the famous cartoon figure of Pink Panther, making fun of all the victims and reading through the murder series.
And so this day, the 4th of November of 2011, was at the same time, it was a shock all over Germany, and especially for the victims families. And also it was a relief, because the families, they were told that they were wrong considering the murder of the family members were racist attacks. So at this day, we found out that there was a Neo-Nazi terror cell, killing nine migrants and one police woman for a series of 13 years or something… being active that time. It was a shock to all of us in the antifascist scene and the anti racist scene, seeing that what we feared always was right, and having the clarity about that this is possible in Germany.
TFSR: So NSU, or National Socialism Underground, kind of considered itself in some ways, continuing the trajectory of Nazi heritage, I guess? And the same sort of goals as far as we can tell.
Sonja: Yeah, they did. They were Nazi group that was founded in a big circle of people in East Germany in the 1990s. They were politically socialized in a very racist time. That was shortly after the German reunification. Yeah, it was a very racist time in Germany with a lot of attacks. And also, the State being very worried about the losers of the reunification and was putting in a lot of money at that time in youth clubs and youth work, which created a safe space for Nazis in Germany. Because there wasn’t the thinking about institutional racism, structural racism, or racism at all in Germany at that time. And so they put in a lot of money to create a very nice and comforting space for the Neo-Nazi youth groups. And that was a time the NSU founded itself. It was also based in the Blood and Honor Network, and also very deeply connected to the Hammerskin Network as we found out recently. They were racists who saw themselves in the tradition of other Neo-Nazi terror groups like the Order. They read a lot of the common texts in the Neo-Nazi scene like *The Turner Diaries*, or the novel, *The Hunter*. Yeah, being part of the music scene in Germany, the Nazi music scene in Germany, being very deeply based in a nationwide network of Nazi groups.
TFSR: What I understand is that, so with the reunification, at least East Germany, which was a satellite State of the Soviet Union, had an outward program of de-Nazification of the area that the Soviet allied government operated in, in the eastern part of the country. But I’ve also heard that there’s a lot of xenophobia in that part of the country and a lot of the Nazi movement maybe had a foothold there. Can you talk a little bit about maybe what the soil was like at that point, and why there was such a rise in Neo-Nazism if it was just international, like the Blood and Honor stuff from the UK or the Hammerskins which started in Texas in the USA. It seems like they couldn’t have sparked homegrown Neo-Nazi revival in Germany, right?
Sonja: Well, in the eastern German States, they had like an antifascist understanding of the State itself. So fascism couldn’t happen in that State. It was forbidden to happen. So it did not happen. And so of course, there was a lot of xenophobia, there was a lot of racist attacks. And there were a lot of groups of young people, not very organized, very spread out over the country. And we have a term for that. It’s called the baseball bat years. Because there was so much street violence in that years. And if we look to Western Germany, there were the organized groups of that time, there was a very structured far-right scene. And when the reunification was done, a lot of the Western German groups went over there and organized the very spread out with Neo-Nazi scene in Eastern Germany.
So it got together very well. And also in Western Germany, in the years after, a big wave of racism connected to the new nationalism rising up to the reunification. And the State reacted like it always does in Germany: it gives props to the far-right. The asylum laws get restricted. People who were affected by the Neo-Nazi violence didn’t get help. And they try to get the Lost Souls back in some way. Like they thought the reunification was a very deep economical crisis for most people in Eastern Germany. So they put in their State for taking care of the Jews and stuff. It was kind of a pampering for the Neo-Nazi movement. That is the same reaction we had in 2015. The far-right, rises, it protests, it takes marches… and then the politicians they give props to that and take away rights from the asylum seekers, for example, or the migrants.
TFSR: So can you tell us a bit about NSU watch and what you all do what Apabiz is, and A.I.D.A? And why do you feel that an autonomous research and recording process without strings tying you to the government is necessary.
Sonja: A couple of weeks ago, a very famous German antifascist and communists Esther Bejarano died. She was a Holocaust survivor. She was a member of the music group in Auschwitz. And she put her life to fighting fascism in Germany. And she said “if you want to fight fascism in Germany, if you want to fight Neo-Nazis in Germany, you cannot rely on the State.” And that is really something we take at heart. I said the fourth of November 2011, was a big shock to all of us, because we have these very old antifascist research structures in Germany, like I have colleagues doing that for 30 years, 35 years now, collecting every bits and pieces of the Neo-Nazi movement, trying to get as much information as possible to do background checks and to put attacks that happen in the background.
So when this happens when the when the NSU discovered itself, we have got to say, because nobody, not the police, not the authorities discovered them. So when they discovered themselves, it was a big shock for us, that’s all we feared, was actually true. Like, if you read the antifascist newspapers we put out for decades now… there was always a warning about weapons and about Neo-Nazis, discussing theories, papers, and concepts. So it was a bitter pill to swallow that we were right all this time, and that we didn’t see it happen, actually.
It was also a shock to see how racist we are as antifascists, because we didn’t listen to the families, the families of the NSU murder cases. They always said it must be Neo-Nazis. There can’t be any other explanation because the authorities there always said “Well, there’s something about Turkish mafia or Kurdish Turkish conflicts or something, it must be in their culture.” Actually, there was a quote in a police file that said “No one of Germans cultural heritage could do this kind of murder: shooting in the face, shooting in the head. This isn’t like German at all. So it must be some foreign culture doing that.” So, and the families that were talking about it, they put on rallies to get the public interest. And we didn’t really listen to them. We didn’t check the media. They wrote about it as Döner killer, Kebap killers. And we didn’t realize how racist that was. We didn’t listen to the families.
And so it was a big shock moment for us that changed a lot of our politics. Like really looking into our own racism, our own focus on looking at the Neo-Nazis and not looking at the victims that close. And so it did a big switch for us in our politics, like we have got to work together with the families, we have to listen to them! They have a lot of information, a lot of knowledge that we need to recognize, and that we need to consider. We just can’t as white German antifascists look at other white Germans, the Neo-Nazi scene, without considering the racism we all grew up in that is all part of our society.
And so after the discovering of the NSU core trio. We said we need to change something. And that’s why we founded NSU Watch as a network of old antifascist structures, of people doing the work for lots and lots of time, to put all the pieces together because the murders that took place all over Germany, mostly Western Germany, But there was murders in Munich, in Nürnberg, there was an attack in Köln, there was a murder in Hamburg, there was a murder in Dortmund, in Kassel, and so on.
And so we gathered all the groups, the local groups and founded the network so we can get the information together to kind of get to the bottom of all of this. Because that was pretty clear at the beginning that it couldn’t be just the three: the two dead men and the other who was put on trial, there must be a bigger network. And afterwards, there were five people on trial besides Beate Zschäpe, but there couldn’t be the network as well. Like, the biggest question of the families is “why did the murderers pick my father? My son? My relative?” And so in general, it’s very clear that it was for racist reasons. But in specific, like, who pointed out that internet cafe? That shop? That flower selling stand? And so it was very clear that then there was always a local helping structure for the Nazi terrorists.
And so, we came together to gather all the information we have, and we have very old research structures in Germany, and one of them is the Apabiz. It is an archive, an antifascist archive collecting all printings of Neo-Nazi scene in Germany. They have a very big collection of all fanzines, of all newspapers, articles, a lot of information gathered from the local groups. The antifascist movement, (of course) in Germany, organized in autonomous groups all over Germany collecting all their local informations. And we don’t have a central station for putting it somewhere. But in the archives, we have a couple of them like Apabiz in Berlin and A.I.D.A. Archive in Munich. And we have a have a couple of others. They are the antifascist structures to collect the knowledge of the generations of local people doing the research.
And so with NSU Watch, we try to gather all the forces and gather all the informations to deal with that kind of work. Because also, not only the murders took place all over Germany, also the investigations took place all over Germany. We had different parliamentary inquiries in all the different States. We had one in the Bundestag, we had the trial in Munich. And so with all this, these different locations of investigation, it was very hard to stay in focus and to get all the puzzle pieces. And for example, we found in the north there was a parliamentary inquiry and they look very deep into the Combat 18 structure there. But the Bundestag trial did not, and also the trial in Munich did not. So we had our people everywhere monitoring the inquiries, monitoring the trial to get all the puzzle pieces together. Because we didn’t know when something would make sense. Like where to put the puzzle pieces, we still have a bunch of them we can’t connect to anything.
And so for me, it’s also… there is no bottom line in the NSU complex. It’s a topic I will deal with… I think… my whole antifascist political life. Because we don’t know when somebody will talk, when somebody will give up information. And so we don’t even get close to the truth in that. And to deal with that kind of perspective in this kind of work, it was necessary to found a network that could get more connected with all the people all over Germany. And so this is what we did, NSU Watch.
TFSR: This is kind of a side note, it’s sad, but also really inspiring that you can lean on these multi generational centers of research that build from a longer movement memory. I mean it’s sad that people are still having to do this work and have these conversations, but it’s pretty amazing that people have put in the work to see this through. It makes me think of things that have heard about the autonomous movements coming out of the 70s. And having a long memory of like things that their parents or local cops or whatever did during the war era, or before the war, or whatever, and recognizing the continuation of a lot of those structures, because the same people in a lot of cases had gone about their lives. And I could sort of think of like a parallel here with the anti imperialist stuff from the 60s and groups like the John Brown anti-Klan committee, and how that sort of fed into the start of Anti Racist Action and other movements here.
Sonja: Yeah, it’s also it’s also a sign of our marginal perspective. Like, in the last couple of years we have academic research about right-wing terrorism. But otherwise in Germany, we don’t have a collective memory of that. We come from a fascist society. We are a post fascist society. Of course, in the 50s, very directly, there were Neo-Nazi terror groups. But in Germany, we just have this memory of left-wing terrorism of the RAF. And so we always have to collect our own information to get our own analysis, because there was never a State or society to back us up.
TFSR: So you mentioned that the folks that went on to form NSU Watch, had realized that they hadn’t listened to the voices of the families of the victims of NSU violence about what they thought was really at the heart of the deaths of their loved ones. How does NSU Watch continue to reflect and engage with survivors and community members and loved ones of those who were killed by NSU violence?
Sonja: Most of the families, they founded their own groups, or there were groups founded to support the families in their fight of memory. Because this is always something the German State wants to get into. They want the remembering of the victims in a polite way. Not not an angry way. Not a political way. And so there are a lot of groups dealing with the struggle around the memory, and how to how to memorialize the victims. And we as NSU Watch… we do support all the groups, all the families that we can.
Something else we did was we work closely with their attorneys for the trial and gave up all our information we could gather. In the first years, we had very intense meetings, looking into every name we found in the complex, looking into every document we could get in our hands. And so we put that all together and gave it to the attorneys of the families to back them up and to give them information besides the State. Because the State was never really interested in researching the network.
Well, the first thing is that we acknowledge our own racism and that we take it in consideration. We learn that for future cases. Now if someone is murdered and the family says “Well, I think this was a racist attack.” We write that and try to support and try to get good journalists to write the true stories. We get in contact with the families and try to support them there.
And also, we did all this monitoring work. We monitored every day of the five year trial in Munich and wrote a report about every day in the trial. We also translated that to Turkish and we did the same with some of the parliamentary inquiries. For example, here in the State of Hessen, where I live and my where my local NSU watch group is, we had this parliamentary inquiry where the family was invited last in the very last session of the inquiry. Which was quite offensive at that point. And to give them an opportunity to follow what’s happening there around the cases of their loved ones, we gather this information and put it out for the public, also translated in Turkish.
And so we see ourselves as one movement now. Which is different. Before, we had this division between antifascists and antiracism activists. There was always kind of an overlapping. But now we’re one movement. We see ourselves as one movement with all struggles, it gets with us. But we were very open to critique around racism to our own structures. I think that’s a very, very good thing coming out of that.
We had these hard, really difficult, racist attacks in 2020. We had the murders in Hanau, which is very close to my hometown, where a racist shot nine people. And yet, there it was shown that this new understanding of what antifascist research is for, and what it’s about, really works great together. Because we could support the families in their struggle, and they get the grip on it. Like they don’t stop asking questions. They don’t stop putting public pressure on the politicians dealing with that case. And I think that was a hard learning process for us. Because before, of course, we thought we were the good ones because we’re fighting Nazis. But it was also a very clear process of seeing how much racism is deeply written into our society and what we have to get rid of and what what we have to unlearn to make a difference. And I think we’re on a good way to that now.
TFSR: That’s really good to hear. That’s definitely a critique that I hear in the US that seems pretty well founded. That a lot of like, people that aren’t directly or as directly affected by fascist violence jump in to be sort of saviors. But don’t listen to the people that are most directly affected or work with them to create victim informed ways of organizing. So that’s cool.
Sonja: Yeah. And also like as white antifascists in Germany, we are also victims of Neo-Nazi attacks. Like if it wasn’t personal.. it was always friends of us. I talked about the baseball bat years. It was against punks and leftists as well as it was against POCs and Black people in Germany. And so we came to the conclusion that as victims of Neo-Nazi violence, we’re not all the same. We don’t live the same lives. We don’t have the same values. But we’re all on force put together in this victim group. And we got to deal with that. And we have to support each other in that.
TFSR: A common experience is that a world without Nazis would be better for all of you. So, there was a trial that ended in 2018, releasing the living member of the assumed core of the NSU, Zschäpe, to Nazi cheers. The case uncovered (among other things) that the group had operated for 13 years all over Germany, as you had said, killing and injuring nearly a dozen people. And that there had been cover ups by different levels of the German government. To name a couple of these cover ups: One the destruction of files by employees of the Federal Office of the Protection of the Constitution. And the witnessing of a 2006 NSU murder by a Hessian police officer for the protection of the Constitution, as a second example. Can you talk about the office for the protection of the Constitution, something about the State links in the NSU case? And, again, to reiterate why it is so important that independent archives are doing this investigation, and the State doesn’t just watch itself.
Sonja: During the discovery, our investigations in the NSU complex, we came to the conclusion that the State is plays a very big role in all of it. The Secret Service… how did you translate it?
TFSR: Federal Office of the Protection of the Constitution? What would you call it?
Sonja: The German word is Verfassungsschutz, which is quite a wordy translation for that. And yeah, it’s a Secret Service. Basically, it’s the Secret Service for inner affairs. So the Department of the Protection of the Constitution, which is called itself. I think it’s a very euphoric name they gave themselves. They had the idea that they could control the Neo-Nazi movement. And they did that with getting informants at the most high levels in these organizations. For example, a very high member of the Blood and Honor movement in Saxonia was an informant for the State. So their main resource for information about the Neo-Nazis scene comes from informants, Neo-Nazis, active Neo-Nazis. They were paid for giving up the information.
And there’s different ways of the Neo-Nazi scene in Germany to deal with that. Some do it in secret. Some do it openly to their comrades and say “Well, we get the money from the State, and we can put it back in the movement.” And there were lots and lots of informants undiscovered in the NSU complex. And there were informants very close to the core trio. There were informants involved in getting papers for them to live underground. And we came to the conclusion that the State knew a lot about the weapons in the Nazi scene. A lot about their goals. A lot about their doings. So it wasn’t a problem of a lack of information. It is the problem that the Secret Service in Germany collects the information to have it and to keep the idea of that they can control it.
The difference is the Neo-Nazi scene in Germany, they rather don’t want to attack the State itself. They’re feeling very close to the State. They want to take over the State. They want to make it more authoritarian. They don’t want to abolish the State. So the working process of the Secret Service doesn’t really get to the victims of the Nazi scene, because the victims are the others, the migrants, the POC’s, the black people in Germany, the leftits, the communists, the disabled people, homeless people, queer people… definitely queer people. And so the Secret Service in Germany is not there to protect the people, but to protect the State.
The Germany Neo-Nazi scene which is very driven forward by this Day X ideology, we will talk about later, I think. So they never get to the point where they want to attack or abolish the State, they get to the point where they kill all of the people that don’t fit in their view of the world. And so, we came to the conclusion that there is a very deep problem in the understanding of right-wing terrorism, because right-wing terrorism doesn’t want to abolish the State, it wants to create a Civil war. It wants to create gaps and widen gaps that are already there in the society. And because there’s no collective memory, no collective understanding of right-wing terrorism in Germany.
We have this theory, what the politics in extremism are based on, we call it the Horseshoe theory. It’s like you imagine a horseshoe, and you have the left end and the right ends, and they’re kind of the same… and they’re kind of the same danger. And in the middle of the horseshoe you have the good middle of the people. And the idea is that the democracy is threatened by the Left and the right-wing extremists, and they have to protect the good middle. This is a theory which comes from the Weimar Republic before, before the National Socialist State. The idea was not that the conservatives or the bourgeoisie put the Nazis into power, but to have this conflict between Right and Left. And that put the democracy into danger. And this is a theory which also continues until today.
So there wasn’t a particular understanding of how right-wing terrorism works. There was always a comparison to Leftwing terrorism. Like they said “Oh, we couldn’t know that was terrorist attack, because there weren’t any letters.” No communiques about it. And so they said, “Oh, well, we couldn’t see that it was terrorism.” And so there was always this necessity for us as antifascists to point out “what are the basic structures of right-wing terrorism? How does it work? What are its goals? What are its methods?” Because we could never rely on that. And so when the NSU discovered itself in 2011, the first thing the Secret Service did was destroy files with information about informants in the direct surrounding of the trio.
And it continued, like the parliamentary inquiries, they had problems getting the files from Secret Service. The trial in Munich, they didn’t want to ask questions about the network. They didn’t want to know about involvements around. And so it was basically us and a few Parliamentitions from the Leftwing parties who had interest in getting into it. And it goes further. Like the informants in the Neo-Nazi scene, they can commit crimes in a certain way, and don’t get punished in a trial. Because they are informants, they get protection from the State. So they can do like propaganda verdicts, or in cases of assault, they can do it to stay in their role as Neo-Nazis. So the the thinking is to be an informant, you still have to be involved in the movement. And so you have to do what the movement does. And you get protection for doing that if you’re an informant.
So there was always the knowledge about it, but we didn’t know how many people there were working in the Neo-Nazi scene for the government and also not that they were so high level Neo-Nazis, like they tried to get all the high level Neo-Nazis working for the State to control the organizations from the top. That was the thinking of the State, or is the thinking of the State. Until now. Only the State of Thuringia, they cut all this information system. But the rest gets more budget for it gets more people doing the jobs. And so, the structure, it wasn’t really broken. Also, now after 10 years, it just works further.
And the top story of that all is the one you mentioned about Andreas Temme. He is and he was an employee of the Secret Service. He was not police, he was an employee of the Secret Service. And he was in the internet cafe of Halit Yozgat in Kassel when he was shot. He claims that he wasn’t there. That he didn’t see the body lying behind the counter, that he didn’t hear the shots. And because it was so unbelievable. There was an English Institute, forensic architecture, who rebuilt the internet cafe and try to get an idea of what he must have been seeing, hearing, and smelling. Because also like if you fire a gun in such a small space, you can also smell the gunpowder. And so they did a recreation of that. But that was considered an art piece, not an academic investigation. I put you the link of the investigation in the link list. They made a video on the 5th.
And yeah, Andreas Temme. He was in the internet cafe he claims to be there for personal reasons for sexting from an anonymous computer. Because his wife shouldn’t know. But it’s very unlikely. And he had two phone calls with this Nazi informant that day. One before, and one shortly after. And one was especially long. And he didn’t tell the truth. Neither in the in the court trial, nor in the parliamentary inquiry in Hessen. And so the truth was never found why he was there. If he was there on duty, if the Secret Service got any information, if he was involved with the murders, if he knew someone from possible local helping structure for the trio or something. He just lied, he just didn’t tell the truth. The politicians, they stood behind him at that point. And when Halit was shot, he just left the internet cafe and he didn’t respond to the call from the police to get people who saw something or might know something about it. And so the police got to him. It was because he got locked in with his phone there on the computer. He left his work phone number there. And so they found him and they arrested him but he was released shortly after because the governor of the State of Hessen said he needs to be protected because he’s part of the State.
And so there’s a lot of silence. There’s a lot of lies in there, and we didn’t get to the truth. After the trial, after the five years of trial and three years of parliamentary inquiry. We still don’t know what drove him there. What was his role in the murder of Halit Yozgat.
TFSR: None of the surviving members of the NSU have gotten any prison time?
Sonja: No, Beate Zschäpe. She’s in prison lifelong. Yeah, the others, they got really light sentences. They were five years on trial. They were released the day the verdict came out, because you get the investigation jail time you put on your normal jail time.
TFSR: I really started hearing about this case, because the New York Times podcast called Day X started telling the story of the case of Franco Albrecht or Franco A, relating to the NSU and government connections, and finally discussing about a wider conspiracy with members of the German military and police to prepare for, or likely to bring about the overthrow of Germany’s parliamentary democracy, which would be replaced with a military right-wing junta. What’s known about the Day X plot and the case of Franco A? And you’re covering it right as in as NSU Watch?
Sonja: Yeah, we do. We sit there in on every day of the trial. And it’s quite interesting, because when I listened to the Day X podcast, it’s such a wide picture of the of the whole case. The trial is right now about what kind of money Franco Albrecht got from the from the government when he was living his secret life as a fake refugee. This is what the trial is about. For weeks now sitting in the trial every day, you don’t get a sense of what’s actually discussed there. Boring, very detailed stuff about Franco Albrecht taking money from the German government. And it’s hard to stay on focus, not to get bored by all these details. It’s very hard.
So Franco Albrecht was a very strange discovery, actually. The State didn’t want to put it on trial. They wanted to do it two years ago, I think, and they just disposed it. They said “No, there’s no case here.” And now we have the pressure from the higher court, the State-wide court, to put it on trial. And so they did it in Frankfurt.
We have these chat groups all over Germany, called the cross groups. Like Nordkreuz, Südkreuz… The Northern Cross, the Southern Cross, the Eastern Cross, Western cross. This division, these chat groups, which are a quite new phenomenon. But like always when there’s new technology available, you take it for organization. It’s not such a surprise actually. The connection between the military and the far-right are very known, especially to the antifascists public in Germany. Like we wrote about it that often, like, years and years, and that in a lot of military bases there are Nazi networks, so it wasn’t quite news for us. The news was how far they got along with their planning. And also the question “what does the Secret Service do if they don’t look into that kind of stuff?” because this is an area of society where we as antifascists, we don’t get any information from there. Like if they want to do it in secret, we are not the people going to the military, especially now if you didn’t don’t have to in Germany.
It was always clear for us that something like this could happen. And it was also clear for us that there’s high skilled trained people in the police and the military forces joining right-wing movements, sharing the ideological backgrounds. No surprise so far at that point. But we were quite shocked about how the State didn’t inform the people who were on the lists, with how the State dealt with that kind of danger, actually. And how and unuseful all the all the different stations of Secret Service are in Germany. We have a special Secret Service for the military. And it was quite clear that they’re not doing their job for years. Because like we know very high level Neo-Nazis in Germany who were part of this Secret Service, of the army Secret Service. They they served there, and afterwards, after they quit their jobs, they held speeches at Neo-Nazi rallies and gatherings. So it was always clear that there’s a deep connection in there.
And so it’s interesting now that the State kind of wants to bar out the public In the case of Franco A. And it works, it works. It’s a very hard struggle to stay on focus there. And also because the same with the NSU case, there’s not the one institution to get to the bottom of it. Like you have the court trial, but the court trial is just there to find the guilt of Franco Albrecht himself, it’s not about the network. If you get a parliamentary inquiry, they don’t have the authority to punish somebody. So we don’t have this one institution which can take care of it all. I don’t think that this will happen. But the information is very spread out widely. And there’s not the one to finally make a call and say “Okay, this is what happened. This is the network. This is what we’re doing.” So right now they have Franco Albrecht on trial but only him for planning assaults on different people on his list, for violating weapon laws, and for getting money from the State living a life as a fake refugee. So this is just his skills at that point. And now there’s different members of the Cross Groups all over Germany, but it’s unclear if they ever get to trial, if they lose their jobs, how their career continues, for example.
TFSR: I don’t think we have said… since you just mentioned what Albrecht had been planning Generally, the story is fucking crazy. Like, some German man? I guess… one of his parents, I think were not German.
Sonja: Yes, French… No Italian. His father is Italian.
TFSR: Yeah. Like he joins the military. He’s been writing about a right-wing push in the German State as being a good thing for a lot of years. I guess like through his high school, he had written a paper that kind of concerned some people. And so at one point during the “refugee crisis.” He ends up darkening his skin and wearing tattered clothing and going into a refugee resettlement office and getting his fingerprints taken, and passing off part of his life (when he’s not on an on the military base living in an apartment under this assumed name) so that his fingerprints are then in the system as the Syrian refugees fingerprints.
A few years later, or a year later, this janitor in an airport – I think in Frankfurt? I might be wrong. Oh, in Vienna – finds a pistol hidden behind a toilet. And it’s got his fingerprints, and they just the police just lay in wait for whoever to come back and grab the pistol and they arrest him. But they noticed that the fingerprints match the Syrian refugee and he’s like “No, no, no, that must be a mistake. I’m a German military person.” The apparent false flag that this person is building is, like, kind of ingenious. And also, it’s it’s crazy to think of what could have happened considering the way that people around the German speaking world where some people were brought out into the streets and just fully angered against what they consider to be the migrant crisis with word going around about assaults on German women. You know, because we are filled with immigrants who have come from other places, I don’t know, and the rise of the AFD around the same time, like it just seems like it’s a big story. Right?
Sonja: Yeah, it’s a big story. And it’s, it’s a perverted perspective on what happened in 2015, 2016. In Germany like this so called “refugee crisis.” People mostly coming from Syria, fleeing the Civil War, they’re fleeing ISIS attacking people. It was a big mobilization moment for the far-right in Germany. like around the 2000-2010 years. The German far-right had an organizational crisis. They didn’t get the success they wanted. And so when 2015 came, they formed a very widespread racist mobilization. We have the AfD in the Parliament at that point or at most Parliaments.
AfD is “Alternative for Germany”. It started out as an anti Euro right-wing Populist Party and got on a really racist way, in a very short time, in two years or something. The AfD was founded in 2013, and in 2015 it was the most racist, openly racist party in the State. They didn’t really see the danger in that. So we had a lot of Nazis who weren’t organized at that point, because we had this organization crisis where a lot of organizations just fell apart. Some of them just got closer together, like we had a Combat 18 reunion in Germany in 2012, 2013. So some of the groups they got closer together, some of them just fall apart. And most of the Neo-Nazis who were organized into organizations falling apart, they were re-mobilized by this racist mobilizations. We had rallies all over Germany, we had attacks of refugees, or POCs, in general, Black people in general. It doesn’t depend on their on their status, it depends on their race.
So we have this big wave of attacks, this big wave of hate, and at the same time, the AfD, and the parliaments and also a lot of the television shows, talking or setting a frame for a new kind of racism, open racism in Germany. And so we, at that point, in 2015, we saw the rallies, we saw the danger of the rallies, and we saw the attacks, but we didn’t know what went on behind the scenes like in this chat groups, in the military. And so the story of Franco Albrecht is a very, very perverted lens of looking at what happened at that time. And if you look at what does the Secret Service say to the rallies at that point, they say “Oh, it’s just concerned people, and some Neo-Nazis trying to undermine them.” But actually, it was racism was new material to get all the different spectrums of Neo-Nazism in Germany, getting together again.
Also, the network of racism and sexism at that point, like you said, one of the main topics of the mobilization was the safety of white women of white German women. And the AfD took a big part of that they put a lot of money in media campaigns. Every time a refugee, or POC, or Black man attacked a white woman, they would push it in the public, and widely over Facebook. They put a lot of money in Facebook campaigning. So there was a misunderstanding. We have a big problem with violence against women in Germany, like a big problem, like all over the world, all over the world. There are femicides. But the idea was to just put the cases in the center of attention where a POC or Black man was the attacker.
And that worked out pretty great. And also like with Franco Albrecht… and also Stephan Ernst, who was the murderer of a politician here in Hessen, in Kassel as well, Walter Lübcke, he was shot in 2019. They both have this telling that the State falls, and the brave German man has to protect the country and its women. And this is also part of the of the Day X – German men have to redefine their manhood and get in the role of the protector again.
TFSR: Yeah, that’s a pretty common narrative. And there’s so much that without taking away to talk about US context, so much of what you’re talking about just reflects things that I’ve seen happen in the US over the last couple of decades too. So I guess, going back to Germany, though, like how does how does the Day X plot fit into the ecosystem of the far-right in Germany today, like with anti vaccine and COVID conspiracy myths, intermingling with members of AfD and anti immigration rallies?
Sonja: Well, the Day X telling is a very old one in Germany, like after we are a nation of defeated. After the Second World War, we had this this period of occupation. And since the bat was founded, so the Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany, there’s always the telling in the far-right, that this kind of State is not the real representative of the Germans. And so there was always the story of how to get Germany back. There’s different colorings of that telling like this, zionist occupied governments, like because parts of Germany were occupied by the Americans, you have a lot of anti American thinking in the Germans far-right. That doesn’t change the fact that they’re very deeply connected and do a lot of work together. But there’s always been this telling about the Germans don’t own their own State anymore since the Second World War.
So, in 2015 when Angela Merkel welcomed the refugees, there was this myth that she’s opening the borders for them. The truth was, there was never breaking a law in that point. There was always the Right asylum laws taking place there. So there was this idea of Angela Merkel letting all these refugees in, and we had this the telling of the Day X movement, I think you would call it more intellectual, new-right movement, that was called the Great Replacement. So there’s a plan for exchanging the people in Germany with refugees. And so there was one moment where a lot of right-wing groups got their mobilization momentum, because they could tell the people “now you see how the government wants to destroy Germans.”
So there’s always the thinking that not the right people are in charge, and that’s the State doesn’t represent the real Germans. And there was a new moment for the for the whole movement. And so the telling of the Day X of getting to the point of civil war, where the possibility is to take over the State. It was very common, always in the far-right storytelling in Germany, but there it got a new momentum. And so a lot of groups, a lot of people, got on the streets got organized in this kind of way. We had like motorcycle Brotherhood’s or motorcycle-like Brotherhood’s coming together, making… they call it neighborhood watches. And so there was always this thinking about “we have to protect our people from the government, which is in that multicultural great replacement thinking.” So that was the big topic bringing it all together.
After 2015, the politicians cut a lot of asylum laws. They stopped the people from coming to Germany itself and reinforcing the border. Now we don’t have the attacks on the refugee homes here, because we don’t have that many big refugee homes any longer here. Because now people are dying in the Mediterranean instead. But the government tried to stop people from coming to Germany itself, as giving the right-wing movement props to stop the worrying about it. And it worked. We don’t have that many attacks here, because we don’t have that many refugees here. But people are still dying in the Mediterranean. And we have this big mass grave now on Europe’s borders. So given the power, right, that kind of props at that point, they lost their momentum for the racist mobilization. And they turned it into the anti vaccination demonstrations.
Now they found a new topic where the government wants to control wants to defeat the German people in their thinking. So we have the same forces, the same people who were pushing forward the racist mobilization, doing now the anti vaccination protests, but also with a different note. There are a lot of people who think of themselves as alternatives, like people who are into alternative medicine, or esoteric, or late hippies, for example, who joined now the right-wing organizations. And that’s a very, very dangerous mixture we got there now. And so the Day X movement move from this great replacement topic, to the pandemic topic now. But it’s the same people, the same groups doing the mobilization there.
TFSR: So I guess looking at this Day X plots from the context of the US, there are many comparisons and parallels that could be made between the development of the different far-right movements here. And the scene from which the NSU and their contemporaries came out in Germany. In fact, historically, there was a cross pollination that NSU Watch notes, such as visits to Germany. I mean, you already mentioned *The Turner Diaries* and *The Hunter* being read or Blood and Honor or Combat 18 from the UK going over, but there’s also a member of the US based White Aryan Resistance and the KKK groups from the US that came to visit and and showed up during the development in the scene with the three core NSU members. Contemporary examples for groups from the US that parallel developments in Germany might be the Oath-keeper movement, could be compared with the Day X plot members of law enforcement and military, or former, stating that the current government that they serve is in decay and must be reformed to a more traditional and radically conservative style. As well as other groups from white nationalist movements like the NSU, with the now defunct Atomwaffen Division, or the Base.
Do you have any thoughts on the international nature of Neo fascist organizing? And what roles those common myths such as the Great Replacement, which you mentioned, which I think it came out of the you said the European new Right, but like, Nouvelle Droite, the the new far-right coming out of France in the 70s? Can you talk about how this cross pollination happens, some of the common myths? And what follows from it for international antifascist organizing? What do we need to be looking at, and where are some good directions to point energy? Or how do we coordinate with each other against some of these common enemies?
Sonja: Well, the internet, of course, is a big factor. In that it’s helping us to get connected like we do right now. But it also helps Neo-Nazi groups to get connected. We have these big heroes, they would say, like Anders Breivik, who published his manifesto on the internet. Which was an inspiration for an attack in Munich three years ago. On the same day, recalling to Anders Breivik, it was the inspiration for the Christchurch attack in New Zealand. It was the inspiration for the attack at the synagogue in Halle two years ago. And so we have this opportunity for groups to organize internationally, and also to find background organizations online for that. You don’t have to have the comrades right at your door. You don’t have to meet the people in person, you can connect with them via the internet and exchange about that stuff.
But of course, there’s also the meeting in person, the the important role of worldwide networks and organizations, you mentioned the KKK. We have KKK groups in in Germany as well. We always had contacts to the US like two weeks ago, an antifascist network called Exif Recherche. They published a very detailed paper on the Hammerskins in Germany and their connections to the US. Like Wade Page, the murderer of the people in the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. He was visiting Germany a couple of times, and also playing with his band. There’s the role of music and concerts, Nazi Nazi rock concerts and organization for that, like there was a lot of exchange of context about that music scene and bands visiting. This is also a great connection for Australia and Germany, for example. Or for Eastern Europe, like Hungary, or the Ukraine, or Russia. People are coming to Germany with their bands, or to see a band, or to visit a concert and in this context of the concert, there are always meetings taking place.
The Hammerskin structure, the Hammerskin Nation is a very big example for that. And also with the example of the Hammerskin nation, when the attack in Wisconsin happened, the German Hammerskins went over there right away to meet with the people of the Hammerskin Nation groups in the US to make a plan how to deal with the situation. And also when the Hammerskins in Portugal were banned, they got help from the other chapters worldwide. So there’s always this supporting structure if you have to live underground. If you need weapons, if you need money, there’s this big worldwide organization providing that for you. And also getting experiences you can’t get in Germany. Like in Germany, it’s legal to shoot a weapon and to own a weapon, but only if you’re in a certain kind of organization, and you have to put in a big amount of paperwork for shooting your gun. And so every time German Neo-Nazis go to the US, shooting in the wild is a big part of the experience there. And also like being violent against other people. It’s always a big part of that.
And I think these two things, like this highly professional, organized, worldwide networks we’re seeing and also the fear of the so called “lone wolf” who can sit in front of his computer in Germany and gets connected with other people and get printings for 3D printed weapons and stuff like that. It’s a It’s a very harsh challenge, I think. But also, what I see is it’s a backlash. It’s a reaction to emancipative movements all over the world. Like, if we look on queer rights, if you look on the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement all over the world, if we see how decolonization fights are supported from all over the world. They are in fear to lose their position, and their right to do. We are on the move, we’re doing what we can.
What I think is very hard to do is to not get lost of the wider perspective. Like “What does capitalism do to these problems we’re facing?” Like “What are the struggles that make us all the same, no matter where we live in the world?” And I think talks like that, like we’re having right now, being interested in the struggles of each other like to learn from each other is very important. And also not to rely on the State, or academia, to find the similarities. Because there’s capitalism all over. Like in Germany, the research is so much driven from where to get funded, and where to get the next project funded, that it’s not about, like finding truth or something like that.
So I think it’s a very important thing to stay connected, to read Twitter news from all over the world, to stay on the pulse of what’s going on around the world, and where it’s a little bit like the struggle we have as fascists in Germany. Where’s our role in all that suffering? And what can we do to create solidarity with each other?
TFSR: Does news about this interrelation between Nazis and the security apparatus surprise members of the community impacted by this violence that you all have spoken with? And I kind of wonder, also, just to tack on there, what the wider response in Germany has been from the general population. Like you said, at one point that our perspective is a marginal perspective, and also that the German government, at least with the NSU case, did a lot to try to stop it from coming to a wide audience. And it was probably the targeting, like with the Day X stuff, at least the targeting of politicians that actually got the national attention brought on it and forced it to trial, right.
Sonja: Yet, the German State declared that right-wing terrorism is the biggest threat now. But they’re not doing anything differently in the structure. They want to get the police forces more diverse, but they don’t want to talk about structural racism. There’s so much going on. Like every day, we get news about a new police chat group sharing Hitler pictures, or jokes about migrants or queer people, about Black people, or Jews. We have a deep problem with institutional racism in Germany, and there’s not one step I can see that makes that any different. Like we have those parlimental inquiries and the State is doing its thing, but nothing actually changes. And also, you have this shocking news about the Secret Service being involved like that. But what’s happening is there’s more surveillance, there’s more budget for the Secret Service, the Hessen secret service here, it doubled its budget from 2011. With Andreas Temme, sitting at the murder scene. It’s absurd. It’s absurd. And so… No, actually, it’s no surprise.
For a lot of the families that were the victims of the NSU, they were all men from the racist murder series. They were all men from mostly from Turkish, or Kurdish heritage. One was Greek. And they were the ones coming to Germany in the 60s and 70s to rebuild the State and they always faced racism in a dimension you couldn’t imagine, and a dimension that wasn’t speakable for them as well. And so, when the police came to them and didn’t believe them, that it was a racist attack and said “Well, there’s something about drugs.” Or in one case, the police made up a woman, the man who was killed had an affair with. The family of Enver Şimşek and the widow of Enver Şimşek. She was confronted with a picture of the blonde woman with two children and they said “Yeah, that’s the second wife of your husband, didn’t you know?” He was trading flowers, and so he went to the Netherlands a couple have time some months to get the flowers. And they say “Well, he must be into drug smuggling and stuff like that.” So the families, they didn’t really have anything in their hands to protect themselves from this kind of institutional racism.
And also, they didn’t have any help, because the migrant community being threatened with so much racism all their life, they turned against the families, because they say “Well, if the police says it must be some kind of mafia stuff, maybe we keep away from the family.” So they were separated from their communities, and they have this second victimization, like, after the family member got shot, they get victimized by the structural racism of the police, of the media, and its effects on the on the society. And I think, from their perspective, they were kind of surprised. And a lot of them, they don’t live in Germany any longer. A lot of them went back to Turkey, because they couldn’t stand living here. Some of them, they picked up the fight, they are part of the movement, they’re part of the organization. But a lot of them they couldn’t bear the pain and left the country.
And so, what what we learned in the last 10 years, and it’s quite unbelievable that it has been 10 years now, since the NSU discovered itself. We learned not to trust the State, in no case. The question, of course, is how to deal with that kind of threatening without the State because like, the antifascist movement, the anti-racist movement, we’re not that many people. And most of the German populations, they don’t give a shit. They don’t give a shit about the victims of right-wing violence because we are the others, we’re the communists, we’re the queer people, we’re the disabled people, we’re the homeless people, we’re the Black people, we’re the POCs. And so most of the of the German society… they just don’t give a shit. And this is really hard to realize.
But at the same time, we have this very big movement that’s a very forceful and strong movement. And also, we have a youth that has a language for what is happening to them, like the victims of the NSU. When they came to Germany, they said that to the children that they should assimilate. And now we have the third generation of, for example, Turkish or Kurdish people coming to Germany, who have a language for institutional racism, for pointing that out for having this kind of conversations.
And also, the far-right, they are taking up like more and more space, like, for example, the murder of Walter Lübcke, he was a politician of the city, which is the Christian Democratic Party in Germany, who Angela Merkel is a member of as well. And he was shot on his terrace and his murderer, Stephan Ernst, he said he wanted to bring the terror to the people he thought were responsible for the politics that brought around migrants in the migrant crisis in 2015. So they shot one of them, and they don’t react to that. This is like really unbelievable. How much silence there is. I’m so wondered why there’s not more anger. But at the same time, we have a great movement, and an understanding, and a language now for doing that. And that keeps us going, I think.
TFSR: One thing I didn’t think to ask about, but it’s sort of occurring to me now is for all the talk of like Neo-Nazis in Germany, we haven’t talked about antisemitic violence very much. And I know that, yeah, it seems like NSU Watch came into existence with the realization that like, these specific groups of like, Kurdish, Turkish, and the one Greek gentleman, were being targeted, and so we focus on those specific populations, but to talk about Neo-Nazism in Germany without talking about anti semitism feels a little strange. One of the people on the kill list I think, for Franco Albrecht is Jewish and was being targeted I think for being Jewish. But I might be wrong about that. But can you talk about it?
Sonja: Yeah, you’re right. It’s Anetta Kahane.
TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about antisemitism in the in the modern far-right in Germany, as pertains to the conversation we’ve been having?
Sonja: In 2018 we had the attack of the synagogue in Halle. It was a on a high Jewish holiday. And the perpetrator he couldn’t get into the synagogue because they have a very good security system. Also, the Jewish communities in Germany, they don’t depend on the State as well. After the attack in Halle, they had police protection for some time. And now on higher holidays, but also they took care of themselves. Like they had a big wooden door and very skilled security person at the entrance. And so the perpetrator couldn’t make his way into the synagogue. So he shot a queer woman on the street. And then he went on people hunting in the city of Halle, and he went into a Kebab shop, and killed the owner, and attacked another person.
So antisemitism in Germany is always connected to the far-right thinking. It’s always one of the motives. And we have like these different kinds of racism, these different kinds of racist pictures, like the Jews being the “superior, always in control kind of people” and the people coming from other parts of the world are the “wild and aggressive and hyper masculine” threat to the Germans. And so in Germany, the far-right is still driven by the idea of the Volksgemeinschaft, which is the community in the Third Reich. And this is really based on Blood and the country they’re living in, still. And we still have this thinking of the Third Reich in Germany, in so many different levels, like there was never true antifascist movement.
So the struggles were always connected. Also, the antifascist movement in Germany is deeply inspired and connected to the survivors of the Holocaust. And there was always this tie together. One of the problems we faced in Germany is that all the leftists were killed in the concentration camps, as well. And we only got the Social Democrats who survived the concentration camps. And so after the Second World War, we had a very weak left-wing movement there. And so they’re different perspective of marginalized life coming out of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. And so we always had this thinking of having this this one struggle and having to support each other.
But it’s also a very complicated history, because Germany itself, it made itself the world champion of remembering… like, getting rid of such a heritage and dealing with such a heritage was a very big political topic in Germany. And so there was always the telling of how Jewish life in Germany is, and the reality of Jewish life in Germany. And so this was also and always a very marginal perspective. And antisemitism is one of the basic foundations of right-wing thinking in Germany. It comes in such different shades. And also we have a huge problem with daily antisemitism, as well as daily racism in Germany. And we’re still debating here publicly, if we’re an immigrant country. No matter where the people are coming from we still have this very folkish thinking, like, there’s this group of people living here for 1000s of years and we’re the “real Germans.” And that’s really hard to get rid of.
Also in the laws, also to get a word like “Rasse”, which is the translation for race, but we don’t use it in the daily talking out of our Constitution, for example. It’s very hard to really get an emancipative perspective on German politics, because there’s so much shit going on, and very different variations. And the attack and Halle, it reminded us again, reminded all the society about the threat that Jewish people are facing in Germany. And of course, they are antisemitic attacks on a daily basis, like restaurants getting attacked, people getting attacked wearing openly Jewish clothing, for example. And it was always a topic for antifascists as well to deal with that. And yeah, like the attack from the perpetrator in Halle, who wanted to get into the synagogue to kill people, Jewish people doing their prayers there, you can switch to a different form of racism if that doesn’t work. And so right-wing ideological thinking is always inspired by racism and antisemitism in the same kind of way.
TFSR: Thanks for answering the question that I didn’t ask you about before. And also, you had made references, for instance, right at the beginning to the survivor of the Holocaust, who had been doing music in Auschwitz and spoke about not not relying on the State.
Sonja: And she she’s actually a very great example for how the struggle can get together. Because she and her daughter, they found music group with some rappers of Turkish heritage. And one of these rappers was also living in Köln, which was attacked by the NSU with a nail bomb. I don’t remember the year actually. But yet, and they were founding this music group together doing rap songs and Yiddish songs together, talking in schools performing at rallies and stuff.
TFSR: That’s awesome.
Sonja: Yeah, that’s really awesome.
TFSR: In the US, one frequently sees the liberal State use real or perceived threats to public safety as an opportunity to increase surveillance and repression of autonomous movements and communities, such as repression of the radical ecological and animal rights movement after the September… actually prior to the September 11 attacks in the US, but the widespread surveillance and attacks on immigrant and particularly Muslim or Muslim perceived populations after 9-11. Or we develop, I think pretty, like insightful fears about further clamp down on Black Lives Matter or antifascist movements following the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, which was conducted by far-right extremists. Are there any such fears that you all in Germany see or have concerning the State’s response, as all of these insights are rolling out about things like the NSU, or DAY X, or Franco Albrecht’s case in particular, where the State uses the rising violence that’s brought to the public eye coming from the far-right, as a means of repressing everything in the middle of that horseshoe that you referenced?
Sonja: Yeah, definitely, like we had two big laws passing in the last couple of months. One gives the Secret Service the possibility to put on a trail on everybody’s phone without having a court acknowledge that. So the same Secret Service who is funding the Neo-Nazi movement still in Germany, and being involved so much, and also being involved in the destroying of the evidence can now put a spy app on everybody’s phone. We have this big budget increase for the secret service as well. And there’s always the telling “well, we could have stopped it if we would have more persons doing the job, or more budget for doing so.”
And the opposite is the case like we had this in a different direction with the attack in link to the IS in Berlin. The case of Anis Amri. Where it’s clear that there was an informant directly in the surrounding of the attacker, and didn’t do shit about it. And as always, I think they play with the fear to increase public surveillance, and it’s quite ridiculous. We have so much Neo-Nazi terrorism going on. And it’s all like separate people, no networks, no groups, no deeper insight there. And on the other hand, we have very big cases of criminalization of leftist or ecological movements.
They’re like, right now, we have a terrorist case here in Germany, where a young antifascist called Lena. She is in jail for, I don’t know, more than half a year now. And they attacked a Neo-Nazi. He wasn’t hurt that bad. I think he they may have hurt his leg or something. So there was just physical violence on a very low level compared to what Neo-Nazis do all over Germany all the time. And she has a terrorist trial now and is in jail for half a year for attacking this well known Neo-Nazi who was also a member of the Atomwaffen Division, by the way, in Germany.
And what is also very concerning is all the stuff going on in the police forces like, also with Nordkreuz, for example, where police officers took a sketch of a house of a person who was threatened. And these sketches were found with the Nordkreuz people. So you have police giving away private information about people and giving it to Neo-Nazis. We had the same thing here in the State of Hessen, where an attorney of one of the members of the NSU case the attorneys name Seda Başay Yıldız and she got death threats by email. A lot of people did actually. The sender calls himself NSU 2.0 So directly relating to the NSU case. She found out that the police in Frankfurt looked up her address. She protected it from public institutions giving it out to people. You can do that if you’re part of a threatened group. You can say “my address is secret” and only the police can look at that. And so she found out that the information in the email, which included her daughter’s kindergarten address, her personal address, and her daughter’s name and age, they were giving out by the police in Frankfurt. And so we have a lot of this connection that directly from the police to Neo-Nazi groups, or other cases of death threats there.
This is a huge problem where there is no actually dealing with that right now. Everyday we get a case where some police officers get together in telegram groups or WhatsApp groups sharing racist pictures or thinking there. And some of them are put on trial, but there’s always the saying that “first of all, it’s just a joke. Second of all, there’s not enough public to get a verdict for that.” Because in Germany, if you want to do hate speech, you need public for that. And if you just have five people in a WhatsApp group, that’s not public enough. You can hang a swastika flag in your living room, you can’t put it outside your window, because there’s public and if you do it in private, it’s fine. And so there’s not so much punishment for this kind of behavior. And also in Germany, we don’t have any outstanding force to investigate police stuff. The police investigates itself, I think it’s the same in the US maybe. And so they cover up each other’s asses for for doing so. We don’t have anything to handle with that, actually.
TFSR: Well, thank you so much for having this conversation for all of the details that you’ve brought, and I really appreciate the work that you all are doing. How can listeners find out more about NSU Watch and support you in this work? and get involved even!
Sonja: So we were on social media. We do have an Instagram and Twitter account. I sent you the addresses so you can pull it up. We also have a very good English website where you can get information about the work we’re doing. Actually, one big help if somebody of you out there can speak German, is to help translate the texts antifascists put out. Especially… I mentioned the big research paper from Exif Recherche. It’s talking a lot about the US, because they all do it on in their free time and not paid, they didn’t have the power to translate it. So if you’re open to that: offering help for translation, that could be awesome. Yeah. And otherwise, just help us push. That’s a big help, actually,
TFSR: A lot of solidarity to you. And thanks for having this conversation. I really, really appreciate it. Yeah, thank you so much for being interested. You can find more about NSU-Watch’s work at NSU-Watch.info/en/ or follow them on Twitter (@NSUWatch) and Instagram (@NSUWatch)