Cindy Milstein On Mending The World As Jewish Anarchists
This week, we air a conversation between Scott and anarchist, author and organizer Cindy Milstein. The conversation is framed around the most recent compilation that Milstein has edited and contributed to, “There Is Nothing So Whole As A Broken Heart: Mending The World As Jewish Anarchists” (AK Press, 2021). During the conversation, they speak about walking through the world as queer, non-binary Jewish anarchists, Palestine and Israel, Milstein finding increasing healing and ritual among diasporic Jewish anarchist and other communities, antisemitism from the right and the left, argumentation and Cindy’s relationship with Murray Bookchin and more. [00:10:28 – 01:44:47]
And Sean Swain speaks about the recent meeting between Vlad Putin and Joe Biden [00:01:48 – 00:10:26]
BAD News #46
Just to briefly mention, the latest episode of BAD News: Angry Voices From Around The World for June 2021 from the A-Radio Network is now up and downloadable. Hear anarchist perspectives in English from Thessaloniki and Athens in Greece as well as Colombia and Ethiopia! Keep an eye out the middle of each month for the next episode!
Thanks for your support!
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Eric Laursen on Anarchist Conceptions of The State
One thing that sets anarchism aside from other radical, egalitarian critiques of Power developed in the modern West is the conception of the State as an enemy. But what is the State, how does it work, why and how do we as anti-authoritarians and anarchists oppose it? These questions and more are the focus of the recent book, The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State (AK Press, 2021). This week, we air Scott‘s conversation with Eric on the book, theorizing the State as computer operating system, the necessity of social revolution prior to a political revolution and other heady topics.
TFSR:So today I’m talking to Eric Laursen, who is the author of the new book The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State. And I want to welcome you to the Final Straw.
Eric Laursen: I go by he/him/his pronouns. I am, I guess, a longtime journalist-activist. And I’ve made a study of the state, partly as a result of not only my activism and my involvement in the anarchist movement but also just some of the work I’ve done as a journalist over the years on finance capital, corporate structure, aspects of the economy. So it all comes together in this book, which I call An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State. But I think of it also as an introduction to that. I want it to be a conversation starter for people, especially in the anarchist movement itself to think a little more systematically about what is this thing that we’re so opposed to? What is the state? We know what capital is, we think we know what the state is, but do we really, do we really understand the connection between the two as part of anarchist theory? And where does that get us? What I’m trying to do in the book is to throw out a new way of looking at the state or thinking about it, and then get more people involved in a discussion around that. It’s something that I think should appeal to non-anarchists as well, simply because, like most of us, people in the general public think of the state and they think, “Well, yeah, I understand what that is, that’s government or whatever.” But really, it’s more than that. And I think that anybody who wants to understand better what kind of a society we have needs to think about the subject very seriously.
TFSR: The book, I also think it comes at a really opportune time because we have this post-election where Biden’s coming in and it’s possible that people who are driven to organizing or movement work, because of Trump, might start pulling off from that when there’s apparent low of the really egregious harm that we can see so clearly with Trump’s administration. You say that, in more recent anarchist analysis, there’s been a loss of the focus on the state, in favor of analyzing power more generally, or in the forms of race, gender, and sexuality, but tracing anarchism back to its beginning, in the 19th century, it was distinguished by its anti-state stance. Why do you think it’s important to refocus an anti-state argument in our liberatory politics? And why is it not enough just to focus on capitalism? One more part of this question is how does the analysis of state help us understand better these other aspects of oppression like race, gender, sexuality, citizen status, etc.?
EL: Well, yeah, that’s a good question. I do want to say just at the outset that I’m not complaining about the direction that anarchist analysis and thought have taken over the last 30-40 years. I don’t think you can really have up-to-date anarchism unless you address all of the subjects that you just mentioned in a specific way. There has to be an anarchist angle on racism, class, obviously, on colonialism, imperialism, and so forth. All of those things. What I think is that the answer to your question is that the state is the organizing principle for these oppressions. You can look at it this way: Can you understand racism unless you understand how it helps promote and bolster the state? How can you understand sexism or gender inequality? Unless you look at them in the context of how do they serve the state? There’s a lot of analysis among Marxists about how capitalism benefits from these sorts of oppressions, but not a lot about how the state specifically does. And we have a tendency, the way we were brought up to think of the state as the solution to these problems, that through the courts, through the legal system, through legislation, and so forth, that those are ways to tackle gender inequality. What I’m suggesting is that ultimately, that is not the case, that the state has a stake in maintaining gender equality, maintaining racism, maintaining other forms of prejudice and inequality. And that we have to bring it back into those discussions before we can really deal with those problems.
TFSR: Right. So I guess before we go too far, if you can share what your definition of the state is. You said it is a sort of organizing principle, but is there more that you would like to expand on how we can understand what the is?
EL: Yeah, definitely. One of those rhetorical things I do in the book is I think of the state in two ways. There’s the state with a small ‘s’, which could be the United States, or Egypt, or Russia, or Mauritania, or any number of states that we have in the world. But then I also refer to the State with a capital ‘S’. And the state with a capital ‘S’ is a system that all of these individual states have adopted in one manner or another. The State, I argue, originated in Europe, and it’s been exported all over the world. It’s probably the most successful export of all time, on a certain level, at least in the intellectual sense.
So what does all that mean? State with a capital ‘S’ is what we’re really talking about in this book. And that is a system or a way of organizing reality, or the perception of reality. I compare it – and this is where the title of the book comes from – to a computer operating system, like iOS or Windows or something like that. And what that means is that the state is an attempt to create a framework with which we can organize reality and manage our lives within that reality. It struck me in researching computer operating systems that really, they attempt to be all-encompassing. Microsoft wants you to use Windows, so that everything you can do, more and more of what you do can be done within that operating system. You pay your bills, you get entertainment, you write, you create, you design art, you do all of these things. You manage your relationships with people in every part of your life.
And that there’s a continual effort to make these operating systems encompass more of what you do day to day. The state, the modern state, which is about 500 years old or a little bit more, is an attempt to do the same. It creates a framework that every aspect of our lives operates within. It’s how we govern ourselves, how we organize our economic life, the economic life of the country. It’s how we educate ourselves. It’s what creates everything from educational standards to weights and measures. The fact that we use inches rather than meters is something that the state came up with. It’s something that was decided upon by this institution. Capitalism is part of the state in the sense that capital is needed to promote economic growth, which is needed to help the state expand, strengthen itself, expand outward, expand deeper into the population. There are various aspects of this. But the basic statement I’m making is that the state is not just government, it’s an entire system that has been set up to essentially satisfy all our needs and it’s a framework in which all of our day-to-day planning takes place, all of our aspirations can be theoretically achieved within this framework of the state. It’s something that’s, I guess you would call it a totalizing thing. It’s continually to try to absorb more of the things we do that are new. Suddenly, we decide we need to travel internationally, which is something that people really for the most part didn’t do until a few hundred, couple hundred years ago. The state needs to regulate that. Everything we do, the state finds a way to fit into their framework, otherwise, it suppresses it. The question is, after 500 years, do we still want our lives to be regulated and directed in this way? That’s the challenge. But I hope that gives you some idea of the basic conception here.
TFSR: Yeah, the last thing you said reminded me of another point that you make is that the state intercedes, interjects itself in every relationship that we have, so that we have to go through the state to do anything, basically, more and more things. One line that you have in the book that really struck me is, and you talk about it in various ways, but I’m gonna quote you: “the state has trained us to think of it as a substitute, or perhaps, a shorthand for the collective, or the community.” And in a way, this calls to mind for me Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, and also the totalizing aspect that you talk about reminds me a bit of different analyses of fascism and totalitarianism. But I wonder if you have any thoughts on the way that your operating system analogy helps us to think about that totalizing aspect that the replacement, the image, imitation of life, and maybe how technology fits in that? Because you’re specifically outlining or elaborating on the technological aspects of that.
EL: Yeah, I like the fact that you use the phrase “imitation of life.” What I meant by a substitute is that the state provides us with something that, without the state, we might think about providing for ourselves through small-scale organizing, direct democracy, communal cooperative forms of economic production, and so forth. The state is a substitute for that. You don’t have to do this, we will provide you with the superstructure you need to do these things, we’ll make it easy for you. There’s a sense in which the state is a product that’s been sold to us. Because, yes, we understand that as human beings, you need to cooperate and work together in order to produce food, to reproduce, to tame the environment, or get what you need out of the environment. But we’re going to provide a framework that makes it easy for you, you can do it all through us. It is an attempt to relieve us of taking responsibility for ourselves on a certain level. It’s the same as if you buy a house with an alarm system, rather than actually having to get to know your neighbors and forming a community with them, we will sell you an alarm system so that you can sit in your house and not have to worry or think about the other people out there. That underscores a little bit the connection between capitalism and the state, that capitalism is one of the tools that the state uses to fulfill these needs and to make itself into this substitute that you’re talking about.
TFSR: I really like the way that your book includes an analysis of capitalism, but as necessarily linked to the state. Because sometimes we might focus so much on capitalism as this worldwide system, that we don’t think about how it operates through the state. But one thing that really comes into relief in your analysis to me is the fact that both the state and capital get the benefit of the doubt, as being permanent, inevitable, perpetual. And I was wondering why you think that is. You have said a couple of times maybe that it proposes itself as the solution to our problems, even though, as you’re pointing out in this book, they’re both also the cause of our problems. So why is it so ingrained in our mind, and why do we accept it?
EL: This is where we get to the cultural part in a way. The state has been one of the things very adept at creating an emotional link between itself and the population, in other words, us. In the early days, in the 15th-16th century, Renaissance period, when modern states really first appeared in Europe, there was the monarch, there was the king, or the Emperor, or what have you, who had a personal connection. There was an attempt made to make people feel a personal connection with these sovereigns, that there’s a sort of a godlike quality to them. Really, what they were at that point was dictators or warlords, if you look more closely, but the attempt was to say, “Alright, let’s form a tight emotional bond between Elizabeth I of England or Louie XIV and the people.” So they felt like there was almost a family that you were part of with these people. The next thing you had was the nation-state or the national state, where the state was the embodiment of a larger community that you were part of. And so, there was the family of French people or English people, etc, that you belong to. So that’s another form of an emotional tie. Fascism, you could say, is sort of the end result of that. That’s the ultimate in the nation-state connection. Although it’s really built much more on pushing other people, excluding certain other groups, rather than including the group that you’re a part of.
Then you have what I guess is known as the social-democratic or welfare state, which is something that we had in the mid-20th century before neoliberalism came in, and the idea of that was that the state is something that can really substitute for socialism, or for anarchism, or these other revolutionary ideologies that grew up. Yes, we can have racial equality, we can have reform, we can have a social safety net, the state will provide it. You don’t have to think about it anymore. Or you can give us your suggestions, send your representatives to Congress. The emotional bond there is this sort of bond over welfare, over safety and the ability to feel secure in yourself. Nowadays, we have what I call the neoliberal state, which has abandoned a lot of that. The neoliberal state is all built on the idea that “we give you the opportunity.” We don’t give you welfare, but we give you an opportunity to do wonderful creative money-making things and that’s the key thing. So each stage along the development of the state over the last 500 years has been a different rationale and a different way of building a connection between people and the state that the state relies on to legitimize itself. So that’s the cultural aspect of the whole thing.
TFSR: Yeah, that analysis, in your book, I found really helpful because it points to the way that we exist now in the hangover of the post World War II era where there was this welfare state, and also the concessions that were made to various civil rights-oriented movements, and even among like anarchists and other anti-authoritarians, you can see people who have an anti-state analysis will still have this knee-jerk reaction that the state would provide us some solution or is there for us in some way.
EL:And that it will again again if we push it hard enough, and we try hard enough to reform it.
TFSR: Right, which in a way explains a lot of the repetition of protest movements, because we end up repeating these old forms that no longer really working. To bring that to the present moment, what was one another aspect of your book that’s so helpful is that you wrote this in the wake of the pandemic, and also the uprisings after George Floyd’s murder, and we’re talking today after another black man was murdered in outside of Minneapolis, while the police officer Derek Chauvin is being held on trial. So there’s still this rebellion going on. But you incorporate this analysis of the virus and the pandemic and the very literal, invisible state violence into your analysis of the state. So it’s very up-to-date. And as the pandemic started, I started having some hope that the contradictions would be so stark to everyone, that we’re expected to pay rent and bills and we have no health care and the horrors of this all would become clear to everyone, but in ways, I’m seeing that go away. And I wonder if you have any thoughts about what events in the crisis like a pandemic provide us an opportunity for resistance and how we can avoid it being co-opted?
EL: That’s a really challenging question. And I think that ultimately it’s something that has to happen independently of any particular choices. But you’re absolutely right that when something like the pandemic happens, it makes starkly clear how incapable the state is and the system we have are coping with this problem that at a certain level it created. It’s the same thing with the death of George Floyd, for example, or this most recent atrocity we had, that it makes starkly clear that this is a pattern, it’s not a freak event, this is something that somehow must be in the interest of the state to allow, that the system is not broken down here. This is how this is supposed to behave. So yeah, these crises do make a lot of things very crystal clear to us that worked before.
The problem is that the State does have ways to recoup when these things happen, the state can throw money at developing vaccines. It can prosecute someone like Derek Chauvin and use that as a demonstration that “yes, we can do the job that we’re supposed to do in terms of making sure that everybody is treated fairly and equally.” Those are not permanent solutions. They don’t address the fundamental issue. In the case of the pandemic, the problem is that globalization has created a situation in which and the advance of industrial societies into wilderness areas, wildlife areas has made it almost certain that we’re going to have more pandemics going forward. And yet the state has not developed the ability to cope with them. It treats them all as emergencies rather than improving public health systems and so forth that would help us to be prepared for this thing, it has not done that.
In terms of the issues that are raised by the movement for Black Lives, essentially, no real reform or real fundamental change is made in the system of policing. It stays in place, it is never really reformed except in cosmetic ways. And things just go on as before. What I argue in the book is that we have to think of revolution as a two-part process. And that contrary to the way we’ve tended to think of it in the past, the social revolution has to come first. We have to start thinking about organizing in and beyond and outside of the state so that we have some conception of what we would put in its place, rather than simply… If a revolution happens tomorrow, and the United States government is swept away, we can put something in its place that’s better, that we’ve already conceived and we’ve already begun to implement, rather than essentially having to rebuild the state in an emergency, which is what has tended to happen with revolutions in the last 200-odd years. So that’s a big order. But I think that we have an opportunity in a weird way because the state has withdrawn from certain parts of our lives.
Under neoliberalism, the state has decided that the social safety net is not something that needs to provide or something it can provide only in a very limited way. That gives us some space to recreate something like that along more cooperative or collective lines. We can start to create a more humane community ourselves outside of the state because the state isn’t competing with us so much in that area. The interesting thing about the Biden administration, for example, is that there’s some understanding of this and some understanding that they have to do something to make it look to us as though the state is actually able to be effective in our lives and helping to improve our lives. It’s not going to last, it’s not going to work. The opposition to it is huge, and it’s not going to go far enough. What we’re going to find at the end of the day is that we do have to start implementing something new ourselves. This is something that goes back to the early, classical thinkers of anarchism, Bakunin and Kropotkin talked a lot about this, they didn’t use the word “prefiguration”, but the need to start the revolution now among ourselves, so that we have something to put in place this genuinely different. So that’s the challenge that I see.
TFSR: You talk about how the revolutions that some leftists will hold up as successful always end up reproducing the state in various ways. Because, I guess you’re arguing, that because that social revolution hasn’t happened, or the ingrained Statist thinking doesn’t get critiqued enough to say that we can’t actually use the state to achieve freedom. And something I really appreciate your book is that you use the State to talk about… you don’t make these distinctions among the states, because essentially, this larger system of States functions in a similar way, even if various tweaks happen from one state to the next. And they rely on the system to stay together. I wonder if you have any more thoughts on that failure of revolution, or the way that State thinking gets replicated? Or leftists get caught in the feedback loop of Statism?
EL: Yeah, it’s really powerful when you take a close look at it, because if you look at the Russian Revolution, the big one of the last 100 odd years, the first thing the new Soviet state started to do after it came into power was to essentially reassemble the Russian Empire that had disintegrated just before the October Revolution happened. The process of suppressing ethnic minorities or Russifying them continued, geographic areas that had succeeded were pulled back in, an immense military establishment was built up once again, an immense prison establishment was built up once again. Really, the pattern was put right back in place that had existed before the Soviet Union, maybe it was a little more efficient this time, but essentially, the ambition of that state was the same.
You can look at it similarly, if you look at sort of post-colonial states. You can look at India, which is a country that never existed really in that form until the British imperialists put it together. They created literally an Indian Empire. When Britain pulled out, it essentially turned that whole structure lock, stock, and barrel over to the indigenous people. And specifically to people who were English-trained, who were trained to think about the state as something fundamental, to think of economic development as something that powers the state. And who essentially ran that Empire along, in a lot of ways, remarkably similar lines. This is why I say that the state has been something that’s a European export because it’s essentially sold to at least a small stratum of people in each of the places that it comes in contact with. And they’d set up something that’s ultimately along the same lines, where there are territorial boundaries, there are certain kinds of institutions that are common, there’s a nationalist thinking in each of these places. And that’s essentially what we get. It doesn’t always work. We have failed states all over the place. But that’s the aspiration. And the remarkable thing, of course, is that if you look back even 100 years ago, there were vast parts of the world that had no state, where the State really only existed in name. Today, it’s very, very different. Almost everything is encompassed by the State now, and the parts of the world that that still resist or lie outside of it, such as, for example, people in Amazonia, there’s tremendous pressure upon them as well. So, the reality is that the State has almost become supercharged in the last 100 years. And anything that’s resisted it or stood in this way is being undermined increasingly rapidly and quite violently, in a lot of cases.
TFSR: Thinking about the way that the state has come to settle itself all over the globe is helpful too to think about it as that colonial export, especially since Settler State comes into more focus in a lot of critiques now within indigenous-led movements. But I wonder if also there’s a way that the State is used to try and consolidate power after a revolution. But there’s this other problem. And maybe this pertains to the system of states that you’re talking about, where if there was a revolutionary movement or freedom movement that was isolated, how does it exist as a non-State structure, while the system of states at large exists and would continuously exert that pressure for it to conform in some way? Do you have any thoughts on that?
EL: Yeah, that’s a problem. The answer to that, ultimately, is resistance. And in the book, I talked a little bit about the idea of insurgency, rather than revolution. And this has been an interesting topic lately, amongst other writers as well, is that insurgency is something long-term. It involves creating a prefigurative or an alternative community within the present State while we are resisting it. Insurgency is something that could include anything from the Zapatista movement in Mexico to the Landless Movement in Brazil, even in some respects to the agriculturalFarmers’ Movement in India, where people are forced to organize outside of the State because there’s literally no way that the State can address their demands, however reasonable those demands are. And so you start to develop something that is outside the state, and that can eventually create institutions that can replace it.
Now, I don’t say this in the book, but I’ve thought this for a long time, is that ultimately, if the State is going to be brought down, most likely the process is going to start in the developing world, where state structures and power are more tenuous. They’re not exercised as uniformly literally in the geographic space. And where there’s room for people to develop alternative institutions. Most likely what we’re going to see is developments like this growing and really metastasizing in the developing world, and then perhaps extending to places like the United States, Western Europe, and so forth. Because I think also there are, in those places, more of the remnants of traditional ways of life that alternative structures can be built around, and this is something that goes back to the beginnings of anarchist thinking. In the 19th century, Russian anarchists looked to traditional peasant communities, as offering models to develop some an alternative system around, rather than this European state that’s been grafted on to the place. And I think that that’s going to continue to be something that we see.
Just getting back to the point we were talking about a second ago, one of the things that the Soviet Union did once it got into power was it essentially completed the job of destroying those traditional communities in Russia, which has begun under the Czarist regime. The Soviet Union essentially completed that task. So that’s the thing we see in empires or restored empires, even when they have leftist governments. I think that the answer is to start at home and to start locally, and to consciously, really consciously create structures where the intention is not to let them be co-opted by the State.
TFSR: You make the argument in the book that all the so-called good things that the state has provided, particularly in the last 100 or 150 years, maybe extending to that long have been co-opted: from community-based solutions and versions of mutual aid. Do you want to elaborate on the history of how those things have come to be seen as state-based programs that really came from communities?
EL: Sure. The example I use a lot because I wrote a book about the subject is social security. The social security and medicare systems in this country are something that really was born out of cooperatives from mutual aid associations that workers formed in the 19th century. You have people pouring into large industrial cities from the countryside, there was no social safety net, there was a need for people to provide these things for themselves. And so they did. Welfare systems or social insurance systems like Social Security and Medicare, in this country, were created as a way to nationalize that. In the early 20th century in the United States, when universal health care systems were starting to be discussed, there were people in the American labor movement, who literally said, “We don’t want to do this, we don’t want to back this because we feel that the state is going to at some point snatch back, it’s not going to be forever. They say it will be but it’s not, we have to organize this ourselves.” And that thinking died out.
But I think that these days, there’s a real need to revisit it and to look at institutions like Social Security, for example, or unemployment insurance, or these social safety net systems, and think about whether this is something we can essentially denationalized and turn into something that’s run on a cooperative basis. Because, again, what we have seen is the state makes a commitment to these kinds of programs over the last 100 years, let’s say, and then withdraw out of that commitment, they said, “Well, maybe this was a bad idea, maybe we need a lot less of this.” Well, no, we don’t need a lot less of this, but the state thinks we do. There’s a need to revisit that element of the social contract that the state imposed on us.
TFSR: To pivot our discussion more to revolutionary aspects. One thing you say is the state exists because we choose to let it, and that feels really empowering to think about as a way to, not choose to let it. But to me, it also calls to mind some of that social contract idea that keeps us within the circle of the state that we’re all here by some form of consent. Right? So I was wondering, what are your thoughts on and how do we choose not to let the state exist? What does that look like?
EL: I can give you a little bit of a visual. It looks a bit like the Capitol Hill occupation that happened in Seattle a few months ago. It looks like people rejecting the police, rejecting the presence of the police in their communities. It looks like people essentially forming in small clusters to self-govern themselves and then reaching out to other groups that are doing something similar. It can seem very small scale, it can seem minuscule compared to the power of the state itself. That’s the challenge. But I think that the answer to that is what used to be known as internationalism. In other words, smaller communities, right from the get-go need to link up and network with smaller communities in other places that are doing something different. We need to have a network that is as widespread and as diverse as the community that the state itself governs. We have to create a new, larger federal structure that is consensual, cooperative. We need to figure out how to do this.
An interesting model, actually, if you want to think about it, is, although there are problems with this model on a certain level, the committees of correspondence that existed in the colonies before the American Revolution, which is essentially people who were interested in independence, interested in freedom, who essentially formed a letter-writing collective among themselves. There wasn’t a lot of transportation or travel between the states or the colonies at that point. So you use the mail to essentially create a community that wasn’t there before. It’s a prefiguration of the internet and of social media, and what can be done with that. But the point is to find commonalities with people in other places and to share tools and methods of organizing that can work in more than one place. So there’s essentially getting creative thinking about how to organize going completely outside the state, but also outside of state boundaries, outside of specific state boundaries.
TFSR: That seems important. One of the things we’re talking about here, and you talked about in the book, too, is the State’s so good at scaling up, and I hear this often within anarchist organizing groups, that’s a problem that we have. We have our mutual aid network with our town, and maybe some neighboring towns, but how do we scale that to the region? Scaling, in a way, sounds like it could end up reproducing that state form. How do we think about doing that across the state lines and not within a state idea of bigness and totality?
EL: Well, the first thing is to keep in mind people’s specificity. Not everybody’s struggle is exactly the same everywhere. And so to be sensitive to that, I should back up a second. You said the magic word, which is “scale”. That’s the ultimate argument for the state: we have the resources, we have the reach, we have the depth, we have the technology and the expertise to do beneficial things on a large scale, you don’t. Okay, so that’s the primary argument for the State’s existence today. What we need to do is rather than thinking about scaling, to begin with, we need to think about addressing local needs and local desires. The federative part comes later. And if you structure an organization that’s built around fulfilling the needs of people in a local community, and doing it in a directly democratic way, there’s less likelihood of putting together a federated structure on top of that, that subordinates everybody to some big idea. That’s ultimately what you don’t want to do. But it has to originate at that local level. And they have to be focused that way.
You’re going to be a little surprised to hear this, but I would direct people to look at some of the things that Ho Chi Minh wrote during the Vietnam War, in terms of when he was talking about what’s needed to win this war. He stressed over and over again, there’s a need to go to the people and find out what they want. Don’t tell them what they want, but to find out what they want, and to give them the power to get those things for themselves. That was a big part of why the National Liberation Front was accepted in so many parts of the country because there was this constant emphasis on putting the question back to the people themselves and helping them to organize. And maybe it was a little bit phony, maybe people were induced to think this. The North Vietnamese system was fairly monolithic. But I think that he was right in terms of what the emphasis has to be for any liberatory movement. It’s got to constantly go back to that local level.
TFSR: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And yet, in your book, you also keep an eye on the fact that there are these huge problems that affect everyone, like the climate catastrophe that is happening and worsening constantly, it is inescapable for everyone to some extent, and then you also talk a lot about the forced migration and displacement of people that are being caused by climate, by state violence, by economic and trade agreements. I want to get to the strategy that you articulate at the very end of the book. You talk about making a reasonable demand that is impossible for the state to fulfill. Can you explain that strategy and how that relates to these very big problems that we’re facing?
EL: Yeah, with climate change, it’s easy, in a way. There’s nothing easy about climate change, but it’s easy to address that point with it, in that if you look at the measures that are contemplated through the Paris Accords to deal with climate change, they are inadequate. A reasonable request of the state in a time of climate change is to do what needs to be done so that we don’t all die, so that the planet doesn’t become uninhabitable for us. Nothing that has been proposed, including the proposal the Biden administration has made over the last few weeks or started to formulate, will do it. Well, it is a reasonable request that we be able to continue to live a healthy life on this planet, the state system has proved pathetically unable to meet that. It’s for a very simple reason, which is that the State is built on this model of rapid economic growth at all times, it cannot reconcile itself to a world in which that is directly antithetical to survival, it can’t do it. And so, essentially, we asked theSstate to address this problem of climate change in a realistic way. It falls back on things like carbon trading, or efforts to sort of shoehorn this back into the private enterprise system in some way or other, clunky innovations, desalinization and removal of carbon from the air and so forth. Innovation is going to solve the whole thing. Don’t worry about the inequality part. Once we start to ask for reasonable things, that the state can’t deliver, we start to expose the workings of the State, its MO, the way it operates, and how the way it’s operates is antithetical to the lives that we want to have. So it’s a matter of exposing what’s hidden there, essentially.
TFSR: Going back to a discussion of the pandemic and the response to demanding an end to state violence is more state violence. Those moments heighten the hypocrisy of us relying on the state to solve these problems.
EL: …more of the same and getting the same results. Sorry.
TFSR: Right, exactly. I was interested in your use of the term of making a reasonable demand that’s impossible for the state to fulfill. I see people and using the impossibility theoretically within anarchist or anarchist-influenced or adjacent ideas, and I wonder what your thoughts are on that category of impossibility as part of our thinking through, shaking off the State, as you said?
EL: Right, that’s where we have to have a dialogue with other people on the Left, essentially, we agree about the demands with other people on the Left, who are not necessarily identifying as anarchists, also want a healthy planet, they want an end to racial injustice, and so forth. But they think that it can be done through the State. And what we need to get across is that that’s not possible anymore, that these are problems that cannot be met by the State because of the State’s own interests clash with any attempt to really address these problems seriously. That’s where that discussion has to go. I hope that people will go on upon reading this book.
TFSR: Putting all this critique of the State into an accessible and easily digestible form… These are things that I’m aware of, and yet putting them all at once and seeing how glaring the failures of the State are, when listed off in this way and analyzed in this way…. I don’t know, I think it really makes it even more imperative. And then, as you emphasize, the anarchist aspect of it, anarchism always gets dismissed by even Leftists as impossible. When you put the word impossible on the state as the solution, we see that anarchism doesn’t look so impossible anymore, because it’s actually perhaps one of the few hopes that we have to actually get at something like surviving.
EL: Yeah, in a way it’s the attempt to continue to use the state to achieve something that it’s not interested in achieving. That is unrealistic, that is impossible. And we can continue to beat our heads against that wall, or we can try something else. I’m really sensitive to the fact that in this book, in terms of dealing with the problems that the state creates, I don’t suggest any magic bullets or any quick fixes, or here’s how we organize… here’s the step by step, this is how we organize in order to overthrow this thing and to do what we need to do. These are not easy things. There are no easy solutions. But the beginning of it continues to be organizing locally, understanding our needs as a community, being our communities, and working from there, that’s a step that we can’t skip. There’s no way to finesse that.
TFSR: It might be suspicious even to have a clear blueprint, but one of the things that I see your book really insisting that we do as anarchists and people who are getting opened up to these ways of thinking is to see to what extent we still contain these vestiges of the state in our attempts to solve the problems of the state, or we get caught up in the traps the state sets for us as a means of redress or something. Your analysis helps us keep trying to de-link from the state in various ways.
EL: Right. That’s what we need to push for constantly, is that capitalism, the state are enormously adept at co-opting. That’s what they do. That’s one of the ways they evolve is by co-opting things that are done on a community level by individuals outside of the system. It is honestly hard to avoid. But, as I say, in terms of the social safety net, is that it is possible to find gaps, to find places where there’s a vacuum, places that the state has not entered into yet, or the state has withdrawn from, in fact, because it doesn’t think it needs to address these things anymore. Like having a social safety net. That’s been the hallmark of this sort of the neoliberal era is just eroding the social safety net. And like I say, that gives us some opportunities to fill those gaps with something different. We still have to guard against being co-opted, because the State might come running back in and say, “Hey, looks like we better do something about this.” But we can at least be sensitive, and we can be aware and we can keep pushing into those areas.
TFSR: Another tactical question for me is do you see a flaw in the totalizing desires of the state? And furthermore, where would you locate right now the biggest threat to the state on the side of freedom, not on the side of further fascism or something like that?
EL: When you say flaw, you mean something that is a weakness in the State, a chink in its armor?
TFSR: Yeah, exactly.
EL: Okay, something that makes it vulnerable?
Well, a lot of it is actually very physical right now, and I’m talking from a high level here, the way relentless economic development has destroyed parts of the world itself. You have places like the Sahel in Africa that are basically being desertified, that used to be farming areas, you have the Amazon that’s being destroyed. Global warming is one piece of this, but you have devastation of the physical landscape going on all over the world in one way or another. And ultimately, that’s going to make it less likely for the state to be able to continue its path of all-devouring economic development. I bring this up a little bit in the book and the more fanciful thinking that people in the economic and political elite have about spaceships and space stations and colonizing other planets.
You see the talk about that among people like Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos, you can see that talk multiplying as it becomes clear that we’ve already devastated huge parts of this world. Well, let’s just go somewhere else and do the same song and dance there. The problem is that leaves the vast majority of us stuck with a basically alluded world. And so that’s the thing that I think is going to create a crisis. Again, global warming is part of that, but there are multiple facets to it, that we can take advantage of, where we can point out, this is what essentially the plan that these people have for us is, we have to do something about it. So we need to point out where they’re essentially creating a world we don’t want to live in, they don’t want to live in.
TFSR: Yeah, because they’re preparing the rockets. We’ve been talking for a while, and maybe I’ll ask a question about anarchism. Anarchism, specifically, was developed in a particular context, historical context and geographical context in Europe as a response to a specific stage of state development and capital development. It also calls to these stateless societies that have existed and do exist and existed before the state and capitalism. I wonder how you feel anarchism, given that historical origin, serves us today in this context, and why it still is so helpful for thinking about the path towards liberation?
EL: In two ways, anarchism is more relevant today, or more clearly relevant today. Number one, I hope my book is reflecting a certain amount of thinking on the part of other people who already said it, is that we’re not dealing with a situation where all we have to do is end Capitalism or tame Capitalism in order to get out from the dilemmas that we face now. It’s a more complicated project than just using the State to tame this thing. That doesn’t work. And I think this is becoming more obvious to us over the last few decades.
The second thing is that anarchism doesn’t just look forward, it encourages us to look backward and to look around us for other systems, or elements of other systems that might work. So, anarchism is an invitation to think creatively about how we organize society. There’s nothing determinist about it the way there is a lot of times about Marxism, like we must go through this stage of historical development before we can do this. No, we can look at the way people are organizing things in indigenous communities, we can look at the way people were organizing things in fourteenth-century Europe, we all have these things, our ideas and tools and notions that we can put to use. So that’s the exciting part of anarchism is that it tells us that we’re not bound by some historically determinist process. We can change the process. These tools are here, if we want to use them, we don’t have to go through a hundred more years of capitalism in order to think we’re ready for it. So there’s an exciting creative element to this. That’s not something I talk about a lot in my book, because I’m talking about some fairly depressing things in my book, but that’s the part that has a lot of promise, where there’s something really optimistic we can grab onto.
TFSR: Yeah, that’s like a really helpful way of putting it because something that struck me in reading your book and other things I’ve been thinking about is that we get caught in the status way of thinking, even when from this a lot of leftist traditions, by agreeing to the inevitability of the state and inevitability of capital. And anarchism allows for a way of viewing history as more contingent, unless evenly developed on this road of progress or whatever, that allows for the creativity that you speak of. I could ask you so many different questions. And a lot of things came up in my mind that I hadn’t even prepared for while we were talking, but to wind it down, are there any like things that you want to bring to our listeners’ attention that we didn’t cover, or that you’d like to expand on as a way to close it out?
EL: Yeah, I’d like to suggest something actually. We touched on this a little bit earlier. There’s an anxiety people have when they think about life without the State. Well, there are so many things that we have acquired that we like in the last 500 years. We have fine art, we have computers, we have music, we have access to all kinds of culture that we didn’t use to have, people have much more of an opportunity to rise out of their social class, all these various things, and there’s an automatic fear that if we didn’t have the state, we wouldn’t have a framework where we could get all these things. And what I want to suggest is that that’s something we have to get over. It’s not true.
The example I like to give is, if we hadn’t had the state for the last 500 years, we would probably have computers now, we would have software systems, they’d be different. They’d maybe be less hierarchical, they’d be organized differently, but we would have got there. Would we have not had an Einstein, if there hadn’t been institutions of higher education to nurture people like that? Well, we probably would. They’d just be less hierarchical, and they wouldn’t be designed to reproduce an elite the way they are now. So the framework the state creates, it creates the mentality, a lack of confidence in the world outside of that framework. And that’s something we have to try very consciously to overcome. It’s not just that there won’t be chaos, it is that we can have all the same things that we really, really value now, that we value for good reasons, for honest reasons. And we don’t need this framework in order to get them. I think that’s an important lesson for people. And it’s something that is very hard for people to get over this sort of fear factor, or this feeling that we have to stay in the sort of womb of the state or else we’re going to lose everything. That’s the ultimate big scare we have to get over.
TFSR: Yeah, that seems like the other side of that contingency or that it’s not inevitable that the things that we have, the so-called fruits of the state could have come in other forms, and aren’t worth the pain and violence that we have to experience to have them. That’s a really helpful and important point. Well, thank you so much for talking to me, explaining some of the ideas, and refocusing our analysis on the state. I’m really excited about this book and I loved our conversation. So thank you for your time.
EL: I got to say your questions were great. And you pressed me on some points that are really good to press me on. So I appreciate that actually. Because, as I say, I want the book to start a conversation, not to end it.
TFSR: Exactly. I think it will, it’s making a really important contribution, and I hope it will help inject this focus on the state into the regional mutual aid networks and projects that are going on right now in such a dire time.
Making Links: June 11th, Long-term Prisoners, Anti-Repression Work
June 11th is the international day of solidarity with Marius Mason and all long-term anarchist prisoners. This year we want to explore the connections between long-term prisoner support and anti-repression efforts around recent uprisings, a sharp reminder to us that the difference between a status of imprisoned or not is often tenuous and temporary. With thousands of arrests for protesting, rioting, and property destruction from last summer’s George Floyd uprising, we must be preparing for the possibility that more of our friends and other rebels may end up in prison. We’re also seeking to find ways to facilitate interactions between our long-term prisoners and uprisings in the streets. We were happy to share the production of this episode with the lovely folks at June11.Org. To this end, we speak with:
Cameron and Veera, who are part of a group that have been supporting prisoners from the Ferguson uprising for the last 7 years;
They share with us their experiences with state repression, what motivates them, and some thoughts on what we can be doing to make us, our communities, and our liberatory movements more resilient. The speakers responded to questions in the same order throughout the conversation but didn’t identify themselves much, so remember that the order and the projects they’re involved in can be found in our show notes.
You can learn more about Marius Mason and how to support him at SupportMariusMason.org. You can see past podcasts by June 11th, prisoner statements, artwork, info about the prisoners supported by the effort, a mix-tape they curated last year and events listed for various cities you can join at June11.org. We’re releasing this audio before June 11th to entice folks to consider a potluck, an action, a letter writing event, a banner drop, a postering rampage or something to share the day with folks behind walls. Hear our past June 11 episodes here.
You can also hear the June 11th statement for this year alongside other info on prisoner support from comrades at A-Radio Vienna in the May 2021 BadNews podcast!
BRABC Letter Writing Today
If you’re in Asheville, join Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross today, June 6th for a letter writing from 5-7pm at West Asheville Park on Vermont Ave. BRABC meets every first Sunday at that time, provides info on prisoners with upcoming birthdays or facing repression, stationary, postage and company. Never written a letter? Don’t know how to start? Swing by and share some space!
Comrade David Easley, A306400 at the Toledo Correctional Institution, who has in previous months been viciously assaulted by prison staff at the direction of the ToCI Warden Harold May, as well as number of other inmates also who have been isolated for torture and other oppressive, covert, and overt retaliatory actions at that facility, denied adequate medical care for speaking out against the cruel, inhumane treatment at that Ohio facility. More and more comrades are reporting occurring throughout the ODRC, and across this country for any who dare stand up and speak up for themselves, and the voiceless within the steel and concrete walls.
This is a CALL TO ACTION to zap the phone at the U.S. District Court in Toledo, Ohio and demand that Comrade David Easley be granted a phone conference with Judge James R. Knepp II, and the Attorney General because Comrade Easley’s lawyer of record has decided to go rogue by not filing a Memorandum Contra Motion as his client requested and now the State has presented a Motion to Dismiss his case to that court.
Plaintiff: David Easley, A306400
Case No: 3:18-CV-02050
Presiding Judge: James R. Knepp II
Courtroom Clerk: Jennifer Smith
Phone No: (419) 213-5571
Also, reach out to Comrade Easley using the contact info he like many of our would appreciate the concerns, and love from us on the outside to stay the course, and not get discouraged in his Daily Struggle.
David Easley #A306400
PO Box 80033
Toledo, OH 43608
Anarchist Bank Robber and Prisoner, Giannis Dimitrakis Healing from Attack
the following was received from comrades at 1431 AM in Thessaloniki, Greece, a fellow member of the A-Radio Network. We had hoped to feature an interview they would facilitate with Giannis Dimitrakis for June 11th, however you’ll see why this hasn’t been possible. We hope he heals up quickly and would love to air that interview for the Week of Solidarity with Anarchist Prisoners in August:
On 24/5, our comrade, a political prisoner, the anarchist Giannis Dimitrakis was transported to the hospital of Lamia, seriously injured after the murderous attack he suffered in Domokou prison. G. Dimitrakis barely survived the the attack, and the blows he received caused multiple hematomas in the head, affecting basic functions of his brain. A necessary condition for the full recovery of the partner is the complete and continuous monitoring of him in a specialized rehabilitation center by specialist doctors and therapists.
In this crucial condition, the murderous bastards of the New Democracy government, M. Chrysochoidis, Sofia Nikolaou and their subordinates decide on Thursday June 3rd to transfer Giannis back to Domokos prison and even to a solitary confinement cell, supposedly for his health. Transferring our comrade there, with his brain functions in immediate danger, is for us a second attempt to kill him. Domokos prison does not meet in the slightest the conditions for the treatment and recovery of a prisoner in such a serious condition.
Αs a solidarity movement in general, we are again determined not to leave our comrade’s armor in their blood-stained hands. Nothing should be left unanswered, none of the people in charge of the ever-intensifying death policy that they unleash should be left out of our sights.
Immediate transfer of our partner to a specialized rehabilitation center
Hands down from political prisoners
Solidarity and strength to the anarchist fighter G. Dimitrakis
This is an invitation to engage June 11 in solidarity with Giannis Dimitrakis. On June 9th there will be a solidarity demo in Exarchia, Athens at 7pm!
IDOC Watch, Leon Benson and Abolitionist Organizing in Indiana
First, you’ll hear from Koby Bluitt talking about her father, Leon Benson and his struggle for release after 23 years in prison, 10 of which was in solitary confinement, for a murder charge in 1998 that he has consistently claimed to have not committed. More on Leon at freeleonbenson.org or leonbenson-freeleonbenson on facebook. The Mass Release & Clemency for Leon rally in Indianapolis is July 25th at Tarkington Park. [00:04:44]
Then, you’ll hear from Landis Reyonolds, a founder of IDOC Watch currently held in Westville Correctional Institution and who’s been in since he was a juvenile, and Ray, an outside organizer with the South Bend, Indiana chapter of IDOC Watch. They talk about their work to start study groups in prison, promote Prison Lives Matter, support jailhouse lawyers and recruit outside lawyers through the Prison Legal Support Network alongside the NLG and more. More info at IDOCWatch.Org or find them on twitter, instagram or fakebook. You can support them via their patreon as well! [00:38:08]
Join abolitionists on June 5th, 2021 at Chimborazo Park from 2-6pm for an Aboliton Assembly & BBQ, hosted by the VA Prison Abolition Collective and Prison Lives Matter. You can find that and more events across Turtle Island at ItsGoingDown’s Upcoming Events page.
Drop The Charges in PDX
The Portland Anti-Repression Defense League, or PADL, is launching a campaign to demand all charges from the 2020 BLM protests get dropped. You can find a link to the press release in the One Year Rebellion post of the IGD column, In Contempt. And you can contact the organizers at email@example.com.
International Solidarity with Palestinians
Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement and the Muslim-Jewish Anti-Fascist Front have called for weeks of actions in support of the people of Palestine under the title “International Solidarity Is The Weapon of the People.” We’d like to remind you that while occupied Palestine is no longer in the news as Hamas and Israel signed a ceasefire:
the everyday brutality of the blockade on Gaza has been going since 2007
Israeli courts, cops, military and settlers continue to displace and ethnically cleanse Palestinian Muslims, Jews, Christians, Atheists and others from the occupied territories as they have since the Nakba began
the US government ok’d more weapons sales to Israel during this recent assault that left dozens of Palestinian adults and children dead, destroyed water treatment, housing, media, medical and other infrastructure
Eric King & CLDC Are Suing BOP
The Civil Liberties Defense Center, on behalf of incarcerated antifascist, vegan and anarchist prisoner Eric King has filed a lawsuit about the ongoing cruelty and torture Eric has faced since he was incarcerated in 2014 for an act of sabotage in solidarity with the then-Uprising in Fergusson, MO, after the brutal murder of Mike Brown, Jr, by police. Eric cannot be abandoned or forgotten, notably since he’s in the crosshairs of the state and white supremacists for his anti-racist and anarchist views. You can find an announcement of the lawsuit at the CLDC website, you can find a great writeup on the situation by Natasha Leonard on The Intercept, and you can hear our interview with Eric and his partner from 2019 at our website.
Skelly of CLE4 In A Halfway House
Joshua “Skelly” Stafford, a part of the Cleveland 4, 4 young anarchist men recruited out of Occupy Cleveland and entrapped by a paid FBI informant into a conspiracy, was released to a halfway house recently. We are excited to see Skelly on his way to full release. Keep an ear out for more details and possible ways to support Skelly post-release.
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Printmatic (Instrumental) by Soul Position from 8 Million Stories
Innocent by Leon Benson / EL BENTLY 448 · MeachThaGod
Stoned Is The Way Of The Walk (instrumental) by Cypress Hill from Cypress Hill
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Koby: Bluitt:My name is Koby: . I’m from Indianapolis, Indiana. I am one of two children of innocent political prisoner Leon Benson. His other child is Leon Bluitt. So that is my younger brother. And I’m here speaking on his behalf and my experience, just want to thank you so much for having me here.
TFSR:Would you tell us about Leon Benson?
Koby: : He has been incarcerated in the state of Indiana for 23 years. So, to rewind, in 1999 he was sentenced to 60 years of which he has maintained his absolute innocence, despite the Indiana justice system’s refusal to grant him justice in its appellate courts. To touch on these different things that we’re trying to get through the appeal courts, they basically were able to convict him of mis-identification by the state sole witness, she changed her statement from the original statement that she had, they had him in custody, they wouldn’t even line him up when they wanted to do an actual lineup for her to be able to identify the person that she claimed that she had seen when she was there. Also, there was a new witness that was actually on the scene, and the testimony was never heard in court. And also, they have been not even accepting his appeals to even reconsider the case, even to reconsider any of the evidence because there’s not even DNA evidence, the sole eyewitness seen, she described him as a dark-skinned male, and he had on a certain amount of clothing. If you guys have ever seen my pops online, or ever checked out his website platforms, like my pops is nowhere near darker complexion. He is a very light, very light brown young man. And also the clothes did not match, the clothes that the actual police had locked him up in, when he was locked up on that night, he didn’t even have the match of the description of the clothing at all.
There was a gentleman who they had got a tip from that actually had a disagreement with my pops. Prior to this crime happening that night, they were able to take his testimony, so-called, and this young gentleman I’m speaking of was someone who was known for using drugs in the area. And this guy basically gave the police a tip, because he was there out of spite to whatever he had going on with my pops. And I guess, of course, they wanted to get my pops anyway due to selling drugs or not that, so… And like I said if you guys heard my pops’ song called Innocent, he talked about how he sold dope. He talked about how he was on the streets trying to make a way for his family, my mom and helping her and everything, and not saying that that’s right. But that’s what he did. And then my pops had a witness who was actually with him that night that never got to speak in the trial, and they wouldn’t even allow him to speak in none of the trials, although he’s ready, willing, open to do it. And there are also other witnesses that did not get to speak on my pops’ behalf. They literally just used this young woman and this other gentleman who was known for using drugs, and he was already on parole, too. It was definitely some mess going on. Maybe a reduced sentence for this young man who actually claimed that he’d seen my pops do it.
Basically, where we are now is my pops has been really trying to get into the appellate courts, and they have refused. He has filed a petition of clemency. This happened back in October of 2020. They finally logged into the system about December of 2020. Within four months in the state of Indiana, they’re supposed to give you a decision on if they’re going to grant it or not. And it’s clearly been more than four months. Despite that, Leon Benson, my pops has demonstrated his humanity, growth, and rehabilitation. For the past seven years, he hasn’t had any misconduct, any write-ups, anything. And he has completed over 50 vocational, therapeutic, spiritual and educational programs, over 50. So he has used his time to really what they think in this criminal justice, incarceration system is supposed to work, people are supposed to get rehabilitated. He really took advantage of all the things that they offer. He is now an asset to society. This is a clear case of rehabilitation versus punishment. Are we going to continue to punish people, even after they have sought redemption from within, they have utilized all the services that are offered within this so-called prison system.
Just a fun fact for those who are listening. Indiana has only granted three clemency petitions since the 70s. Okay, and we are in 2021. And I’m sure there are other people who have sent in applications, and he is not the only one in Indiana who has been wrongly convicted. This is not a unique case. This is tragic when it’s known that it’s prolonged incarceration. And it’s not really to rehabilitate prisoners, we all know incarceration hinders mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. With hopefulness, we are going to basically where his case is now to keep things simple as that he filed for clemency, we’re waiting to hear back. But we also have another kind of good news going on. I don’t know if you guys have heard the Marion County prosecutor’s office, they have a conviction integrity unit. And basically, my pops has sent in an application for him to get his case reviewed. They review all cases suspected of wrongful conviction. They did send back an email to my aunt Valerie and said that they have received the application. So they said within 30 days, we should be hearing back a response. Having the conviction integrity unit review, my pops’ case is a blessing. And it is ideal, because it is the Marion County prosecution office and they have the unique power to exonerate, they have all the evidence, they have all of that to make a very sound decision. And they do have access to all the evidence that was withheld from the 1998 prosecution office when this all began.
TFSR:Another thing that I’ve seen, talking to folks who are behind bars, who’ve been fighting for a change in the sentence, if nothing else, is that during that period of time, because of all of the “tough on crime” culture war stuff that was going on to the US from the Democrats and the Republicans.
TFSR: There were people getting super long convictions. And since then, there have been reforms of the sentencing structures in a lot of states, where people like old-law people like Jason Goudlock, for instance, is one incarcerated activist in Ohio that I’ve spoken to. He’s talked about how the difference between the old-law prisoners, the ones who had the mandatory minimums, who had the 20 to life sentences, or parole as opposed to required release after a certain period of time that younger prisoners have. Not only is that an unfair situation, but that’s also totally political, where someone who is accused of a crime at a certain point… If your pops is innocent, he should be released anyway. I’m not in favor of carcerality and prisons like they exist in our society. But then again, it seems like it’s obviously a sign of the times of when he was convicted, and it wasn’t about him as much as it was about filling a cell, like you said, if people that are being convicted now of crimes that are similar to that are getting less time. It’s okay if you don’t have an answer to this, but is there a discrepancy between convictions currently versus the time when he went in in 1998? Is that any sort of leverage that you can make in the case?
Koby: Yeah, during that time, I don’t know if the listeners are aware of the prison industrial complex. Really seeing what that time looked like, and what it looks like now, and like you said, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, they were really pushing this “tough on crime” kind of thing. And this “tough on crime” attitude within legislatures and just within the drugs, right? A lot of drugs were going on and they were using that as a way of really getting these people who were black and brown and just even lower to middle-class people out of here. During that time, it was definitely more than just the person and the actual so-called crime, it was more of a culture, it was more of a push like “We’re gonna get all these people out of here, they’re a menace to society and they need to go. We’re not even open to hearing innocence. We’re just going to get them out of here”. And it’s a lot I can touch on. Absolutely.
That relates to… as you said, they have minimum sentencing back in the day, it was different things that they had in place. They still have that, right? Even to connect to why… he’s having clemency, we’re pushing for him to have a clemency hearing. And the thing is we may not even be able to participate in this clemency hearing because they’re supposed to let us know at least two weeks in advance, but with it being over four months, he filed in October 2020, and they logged it in their system in December 2020. And it is May 28 of 2021. This is an opportunity where he could have people come in and speak. And that’s something else I’m gathering, I’m gathering organizations here within Indiana that are involved in knowing that prisoners, their lives matter, they need to be present, they need to be here, focusing on rehabilitation versus punishment and all of that, but the thing is I think the system is just sets you up. We may not even be able to be in court to speak on my pops’ behalf, to let the judge know that he has support, to let the judge know he’s not just somebody, that you’re not just letting out a person who could be a menace to society. I don’t even agree with prisons in general, but like, nonetheless, we won’t even have an opportunity, possibly, because it’s so late in the game, they might just literally tell my pops a couple of days before that he’s gonna go to court, and we won’t even have enough time to get together, to be present for him. And they may not even let him know in enough time to let us know. So I definitely think the times that back in the day in the 90s, the 80s, and the 70s. Like there’s an amazing Netflix documentary The 13th just about why people should care if they don’t even have people incarcerated or know someone.
TFSR: Would you share a bit about Leon’s activism inside, his creativity, and the gift that he and others like him continue to share despite the dungeons that they’re kept in?
Koby: Yeah, for what it’s worth, my pops has not spent this time in prison and let it go to waste. He really got into books, he really got into unlearning to relearn about the world around him and culture and religion, and cultivated a new him, he had a lot of time to spare, clearly. I think a lot of people who are incarcerated, not even my pops, they come out with such an amazing, broader perspective on how do you take the pain and turn it into a passion of some sort, how do you take the pain and possibly be able to create a platform for your children to be able to begin, to create some revenue through learning about turning all that they’ve been through and learning how to get creative with it. And what I mean by that is, although, my pops’ body was locked up, although there are other men and women who are incarcerated, and their bodies are physically behind bars, their mind, my pops’ mind was free to roam, as he dedicated himself to writing powerful poetry and music and helping to create motivational and educational programs to benefit his other fellow comrades from the inside. He has also worked closely with community activists to push for statewide prison reform, to build a system that truly treats every citizen equally.
My pops has been a key part of forming and running several programs in prison meant to create a better system for others. So I want to mention that he was chosen to be a mentor for the staff that created the band of brothers. And this band of brothers basically taught realistic views of masculinity and help individuals to become better members of their families and communities. My pops has really gotten to the healing point that they so-called push for in prisons, he really got into that, but he created that with other individuals that he was locked up with, and they created that community with each other. And, he is a mentor to other men who are in there for different reasons. And he was tasked with facilitating this group and other group discussions and using his unique perspective to make sure that everyone got the most out of the program.
My pops has been not only a father, he was a brother, he was a friend of his community. My pops is from Flint, Michigan. And he came to Indiana in 1995 and was sentenced to 60 years to life by 1999. He wasn’t even here this long, he’s not even from here, he came down here to help his uncle with his painting business, and to help them do home renovations. But nonetheless, my pops has really taken all his pain and turned it into a passion. Through his music, you hear his pain, but you hear his liberation, you hear his never dying, ending faith, that his music and his art and his poetry really speaks for itself. Some other things he’s been involved in is that he was chosen to be council praise team member and sermon group leader for the congregation of Yahweh, and basically a Hebrew spiritual, cultural community.
My pops is very spiritual, he is not religious, and he speaks about spirituality. That’s what we need to be going towards because we all know religion is a social creative construct. My pops spent 10 years in solitary confinement, where people are known to kill themselves, I don’t think there are any windows in there, it’s literally the size of a bathroom or even smaller, and 10 years in there. I mean, the man has amazing strength. And this is why when you hear his song Innocence, when you hear his songTND Truth Never Dies as long as we discover it, he created most of his art being in the shoe, being in solitary confinement. And so, Leon’s commitment to spiritual betterment has won him praise and respect from his peers.
And even from the people inside, and also, Leon became a demand educator, developing a course called The Streets Don’t Love You Back, where he educated hundreds of participants about the perils of street life, and how to escape and find your higher purpose. We know a lot of our men end up going to the streets, not because they “Oh, yeah, sign me up, I want to go, I want to get into things that could possibly get me killed or sent to prison for life”. No, they get into these things because within their environments, there are little to no options, especially coming from a single-parent home. My pops never met his father. And this is something unique for me. I didn’t know my biological father. I didn’t meet him until I was 16 years old. The reason why I’m here today is that my pops stepped up with my mom and said that he would help raise me. And he said he would be my father. Because he never had his father. My pops had character before he went in. Yes, my pops sold drugs, but he did it because that was one of the very few options that he had to actually provide for his family outside of the option that he came down to Indiana to do when that wasn’t working.
As I said, he taught an education course in prison called The Streets Don’t Love You Back and he educated other men who are in prison because of these things. He became a very gifted public speaker delivering over 300 speeches that could be inspirational, comical, tragic, or uplifting, all at the same time. My pops is very artistically inclined. While in prison, it allowed my pops to raise his creativity to new heights. He studied theater, Shakespeare in particular. He took part in several productions. He developed another program called Poetic Justice, in which he helped his fellow inmates to express themselves in words while learning about poem structures, style, and performance. Really turning all the BS and all the things that they put him through, he was able to make it because he was able to find meaning within all of this and is still finding it.
He’s also published several poems, and also several books that have even been stolen. What I mean by stolen is that there are books that he actually had produced and came out with, but they were stolen by different people who actually published them and actually did the legal work behind them. He doesn’t even own that material anymore. It’s just really crazy, but that’s never stopped him. He’s still going on, still creating, he actually has an album coming out called Innocent Born Guilty. And that will be towards either late July or August. He’s done a lot on the inside and has been a part of what prison is supposed to do, to so-called rehabilitate. But once you rehabilitate, then what? Do you still gotta pay? That’s where we are now. It’s been seven years that my pops has had any write-ups and any violations and as anyone knows, prison is a jungle. It may not be you involved in some mess, it might be somebody else, your cellmate, the guards are corrupt. There’s just so much that could happen but for him to be solid that long especially he’s in there wrongly convicted, so he could have really lost his mind and really snapped and crackled and popped. But he’s been really strong. His strength is so admiring for these past 23 years.
TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about the Mass Release campaign? And how does it relate to the efforts to gain clemency for your pops?
Koby: I am actually working with IDOCWatch, an amazing organization. They have a chapter here in Indianapolis, Indiana. And basically, they have four things that they are working on within this Mass Release campaign, they’re working on actually holding the Indiana Department of Corrections accountable. We need to release some people, we need to release them all because people are not getting rehabilitated through this kind of system. And even when they’re rehabilitated, so-called, they shouldn’t have to sit and die in these prisons without their family and those other things. So there are four topics that are connected to the Mass Release campaign. One is compassionate release, and this is the release of the aging people campaign. The second is clemency. And my pops is representing this portion of the four topics that they are going to touch on within the Mass Release campaign, and also being able to get Direct Relief. That’s the second one. And the third point that they’re connecting with the Mass Release campaign is that when their so-called discipline and written up, people are getting their good time taken away. You can get time added to your sentence, really crazy things. And then the fourth one is that some people are getting sent back for technical violations. And literally, they have added like five to ten years on to their sentence. Even though they have good time, even though they’ve been solid for the last couple of years, if they have one violation or one behavior misconduct, they will add time. It’s designed to keep people in, it’s not designed for rehabilitation. With this mass release we must release them all and let’s rehabilitate them, release them all, and let’s actually create programs. As you guys know, if you don’t even have a member of your family incarcerated, our tax money, our tax dollars are going to build these prisons, we can put this money back into reconstructing some rehabilitations, get some social works out there, get some psychologists out there, therapy, we need it. But they’re focused on keeping people in. So with this Mass Release campaign and my pops, really calling on all those to stand in solidarity and for the state of Indiana to begin to reevaluate the mass utilization of the Indiana Department of Corrections. Even across the country, not even Indiana, but just other departments of corrections. They need to reevaluate this mass incarceration.
TFSR: What might you say to folks on the outside who don’t know that they know anyone in the carceral system, or don’t think that they have this vested interest in abolition about your dad’s case and about the mass release campaign?
Koby: We are all witnessing what is going on. People are getting screwed from different ends, to be very transparent, to be very frank, even just outside of mass incarceration, that is happening – our healthcare. There are just different things that are being screwed that if we all come together and stand in solidarity with one another, and it doesn’t have to be because you directly are affected, it is because that you are a part of this Earth and you have to walk the streets of a person who is affected, who is involved. And you have to make sure that that doesn’t mess up what you have going on, that is not deconstruct anything that your children-to-be are going to grow up. We got to think about what kind of world we want to be a part of, what is the change that we want to see. And it’s going to take more than the people who are actually affected by mass incarceration. And maybe you don’t have a father like me who’s been incarcerated. Maybe you have a brother, maybe you have a friend, maybe a friend or a mother who is a single mother because her boyfriend or the father of her children is incarcerated. And now she’s out here having to make ends meet. Now she’s out here making decisions that she wouldn’t have made if she had assistance from the actual father of her child. Now her children are put in spaces with different scenarios that could go left or right because now she has to make it by herself with little to no support. You’re seeing children that are ended up having mental and emotional issues within the school system, that may be sitting next to your child and class. And they may be having behaviors that are they’re acting out in school, or in high school, or maybe they’re in sports, and they’re a little aggressive on the field, and there may be some things that are going on, that you may not even know about, that have to do with their parents being gone incarcerated, that have to do with their parents having health issues, mental health issues, and have to do with their family, be in situations where they did not… the children don’t even have a say, so they don’t even they’re not even cared about. And it’s just that we have to be a part of a world that we want to see.
It’s gonna take all of us, it’s gonna take everybody. You are going to have to choose a side. You got to ask yourself every day: are you doing what you would want the world to look like in the future? Are you a part of the change that you want to see? Or are you remaining silent and being compliant? Because remaining silent and not saying anything and not being involved does not make you better or not. That’s actually a worse offense. Because if you see something, say nothing, then that lets you know that you are in compliance, that you are just as at fault as the people who are doing these things, the systems that are a part of oppression for different people.
And there are different ways. You don’t even have to be standing on the ground, standing in solidarity. Where’s your money going? Where are you donating your money to? Is your money going towards these efforts to get these things off the ground? IDOCWatch, have a Patreon and they have things that people can send in money because they’re actually working with prisoners. Also, they’re connected with Green Star Families, actually helping families be able to… Certain children are not able to connect with their parents. And because they can’t even afford a phone call, they can’t even afford to put money on the books of these incarcerated loved ones, right? We just have to remember: it takes a village to demand change. And we all have to do our part. You don’t have to be on the ground standing in solidarity. You can be redirecting your money. You could be writing letters, you can be reposting this campaign that you’re hearing today. There are ways to be involved. But I would say being silent is definitely not the answer. Your silence lets you and the world around you know where you stand. And if it was you or your loved one, you wouldn’t be silent. We just have to really think about that.
TFSR: So how can people support the efforts to get clemency for Leon Benson? And is there a way that they can follow the campaign?
We’re going to actually have the demonstration on July 25 in Indianapolis, Indiana at Tarkington Park in connection with the Mass Release campaign. This mass demonstration will have guest speakers, it will have poetry, we’re going to have vegan food and ways that you can connect with like-minded individuals and network, and whatever else you want to do with being a part of a mass demonstration, being a part of something.
Also if you guys already are connected with IDOCWatch or you need to, get on them on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/IDOCWATCH/ and also check out his music, google Leon Benson. It’s a lot of information out there, he’s on a lot of different platforms, and see the story for yourself. You don’t have to just take it from my word, you can look up the facts and public information that is on this case, and you can see it for yourself. I encourage you guys to do that. I encourage you guys to support this clemency by seeing what’s next and actually being present for the actual demonstration. But if you’re not able to be present, you can definitely support the fundraiser we’re going to have, we’re going to have a T-shirt and different items that people can purchase. Be on the lookout for that. As I said, the proceeds are going to go to Green Star Families and IDOCWatch, and then half is to Leon Benson and continue the movement that he and I are doing which is Truth Never Dies. TND, that’s the movement that I am constructing for my pops myself and Valerie, which is his sister.
TFSR: Awesome, Koby, thank you so much for this conversation and for all the work that you’re doing, and good luck. I really hope to see your father free soon.
Koby: Yeah, and thank you so much for this opportunity, thank you guys, the listeners for listening and I hope to see you guys soon. I hope you guys you know really start to stand for something and you gonna fall for anything.
Landis: : My name is Landis Reynolds, I’m currently incarcerated in Westville Correctional Facility. I was convicted at age 17 and sentenced to 50 years in prison. I’m now on year 17. While incarcerated, my advocacy and activism began with juvenile justice reform, trying to get them to change some of the laws that they use, with respect to waiving minors to adult court and sentence them to adult time for offenses committed as juveniles. And as I began to study some of the background there and witness some of the horrors that take place in the penal setting. I just started to expand my activism a little bit, study more of the systematic causes and abuses that are perpetrated by the prison industrial complex.
Ray: And I’m Ray, I use they/them pronouns. I’m the PSLN outside facilitator and a member of IDOCWatch in South Bend.
TFSR: So for the listening audience, could you all maybe talk a bit about the IDOCWatch, what it is, how it developed? What motivates it, who it supports and why?
Landis: Okay, so IDOCWatch began rather informally. There were some incarcerated individuals in long-term segregation and in various prisons that reached out to individuals on the outside and began to form friendships and relationships with those individuals. And as those friendships and relationships blossomed, the individuals on the outside were able to see the daily struggle that incarcerated individuals go through in the Indiana Department of Corrections, they were able to see some of the systematic abuses and the violations that go on, and over time, as those friendships and relationships began to blossom. It morphed into what can we do to fix this situation? So, IDOCWatch is essentially a collective to provide assistance for those that are incarcerated, to fight back for their rights and assert themselves. IDOCWatch believes in a prisoner-led abolition. Basically, as we strive and struggle for abolition, we believe that it starts with the individuals that are incarcerated. We have to educate ourselves, we have to take those first steps in the fight towards abolition and asserting our rights. And IDOCWatch has grown exponentially and towardsfurthering those goals.
I’m curious about… with the organizing that y’all have been doing on the inside, how has the Indiana Department of Corrections reacted to prisoner self-advocacy, sharing education, sharing experiences, and building this community, as you say, and friendships?
Landis: They’ve responded in some overt obstruction, some of the obstruction is subversive. Anything that appears to be offenders or prisoners uniting is extremely frowned upon, any type of assistance or attempts to uplift each other is frowned upon. One of the things that we’ve begun to do is form study groups where we can help educate each other politically, assist each other with education, whether it be pursuing a GED, different stuff like that. One thing that we’ve seen at the location where we’re at is anytime a study group is formed, and we began making progress, that there’s a mass movement and the individuals that are taking part in the study group are scattered throughout the facility. You see administrative rules that are enacted where you can receive a conduct violation for studying in a group. Internal advocates, or what’s also known as jailhouse lawyers, can receive a conduct violation for helping to assist other individuals in legal matters. So there’s absolutely a constructive attempt to stop that type of solidarity and prisoner to prisoner assistance.
TFSR: It sounds like a lot of what you’re describing are rules infraction board-type assaults on individuals inside. Have they done anything that would resemble gang-jacketing participation or solidarity or study groups?
Landis: Oh, absolutely. Anything that same as in support of abolition or in support of solidarity, they actually refer to it as a security threat group activity. So when members get together in a study group to help uplift each other, they see that type of unity, even though it’s in furtherance of reformation and rehabilitation, they see that type of unity as a threat to the safety and security of the facility. And they actually can act pretty harshly against it.
TFSR: Ray mentioned the Prison Legal Solidarity Network. I’m wondering if y’all could tell the listening audience a little bit about how that developed and your partnership with the National Lawyers Guild and what the vision is for that?
Landis: Okay, so with PLSN, one of the things we’ve seen historically, is when it comes to any type of movement when individuals are asserting their civil rights, protesting, and things of that nature alone, without more, it is difficult to accomplish the goal. So various members of IDOCWatch, we put our heads together. And we see that in the correctional setting, many constitutional violations go unchallenged, because either there’s an ignorance amongst the prisoner population on how to challenge those constitutional violations, or what we’ve seen in recent years, is a meaningful or willful attempt on behalf of IDOC to keep offenders out of law libraries or make it difficult for them to assert their legal rights. So, with the PLSN we’ve seen an opportunity to not only build a network that provided the necessary resources for offenders to attack their criminal convictions or file lawsuits against systematic abuses within the correctional setting, but we’ve seen it as an opportunity to educate. One of the main pillars and objectives is empowerment. In that, we seize the opportunity to educate the incarcerated on the true motives of the prison industrial complex and the history behind the prison system as apparatus of class warfare and subjugation. We see it as providing the necessary resources to weaponize the very system, they weaponize against our communities, against the prison industrial complex. And it provides an opportunity for us to network and to build those friendships and meaningful relationships to continuously grow and progress towards the ultimate goal.
TFSR: Yeah, that kind of strikes a chord that I’ve been hearing a lot of quotes of, in the last few years, from prisoner organizers, which is I think a mixture of a quote from… I’m not… amazingly versed in George Jackson, but between George Jackson and also Ho Chi Minh, talking about turning the prisons into schools of liberation. When reading up on the Prison Legal Solidarity Network, I also came across the Prison Lives Matter which I’ve also heard referenced by incarcerated activists that I have spoken to. Can you talk a little bit about PLM and how the Prison Legal Solidarity Network engages with it and what that initiative is?
Landis: PLM is an amazing organization that was created in part by one of our members, one of our inside coordinators Shaka Shakur. And basically, it is to shine a light on the fact that just because the person was convicted of a crime doesn’t mean that their life doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a legitimate shot at reformation. The public a lot of times doesn’t understand the factors that condition individuals and set them up to be incarcerated, number one. And number two, a lot of people think that incarceration is conducive to reformation. They believe that when you come to prison, you have the ability to take advantage of programs to reform yourself and to become a productive member of society. But that’s absolutely not the truth. They don’t understand that prisons are absolutely saturated with narcotics. They don’t understand that prisons are ridiculously violent. And that most administrations enforce policies and a culture that reinforces the cycle of addiction and the cycle of violence. And when an individual spends years at a time in these environments, without the opportunity for a meaningful reformation, that the system is essentially manufacturing monsters that they’re returning to these working-class and minority communities. And it creates that cycle of violence and failure and addiction and re-incarceration. And they don’t understand that that was the true meaning of that system.
If you look at the Indiana Department of Corrections, their model isn’t reformation, it isn’t rehabilitation. If you look at their emblem, it says, Employees Efficiency Effectiveness. So they’re utilizing employees to efficiently and effectively incarcerate individuals. It has nothing to do with the reformation, nothing to do with rehabilitation. So Prison Lives Matter was a formation to shine a light on what really goes on behind these walls and to start to put the mechanisms in place, to start to form the relationships and the networks to actually be able to create an environment that’s conducive to rehabilitation and supports what we’re striving for.
TFSR: And while the work that y’all are doing to co-educate and to engage other people that are behind the bars, it seems super important, especially since people are coming in and going and going back in, people have families and communities on the outside. And one of these major dehumanizing methods of the prison system in the United States is to attempt to, despite what it says, break up those connections. It seems like Prison Lives Matters gives an opportunity for people to gain more tools to be able to talk about what they’ve experienced to their loved ones on the outside and re-contextualize the reason that they’re in that place and engage the people on the outside to fight along their side too.
Landis: Absolutely, and what’s disturbing is when you’re incarcerated, those relationships and friendships with your family are already strained because of the distance and the difficulties that come with incarceration. But we’ve seen an effort on the part of the Indiana Department of Corrections to make that even more difficult. So one of the things that they’ve done is they’ve made it harder for offenders to receive snail mail. And one of the reasons for that is they issue began issuing tablets where we can send electronic mail to our families and everything, one more way that they can make money. So what they began to do is, instead of allowing us to receive actual letters, they began copying our letters and making it difficult and limiting the type of mail that your family can send you, they can’t send you actual pictures anymore, to force us to start to use these tablets. Now what we’re seeing, since COVID, is an attack on the contact visitation. One of the most dehumanizing things about incarceration is you don’t have the ability to receive that reassuring touch. And contact visitation, when you’re able to see your family and actually hug another human being, hold their hand, kiss your child, that reminds you of your humanity, that’s a motivation for you to continue to put one foot in front of the other. And here recently, we’ve seen an attack on that.
We believe that, and I’ve heard from a senior official that they’re actually trying to eliminate contact visits in the Indiana prison system and force us to have to utilize the video visitation to see our family. And that’s wrong on so many levels. Number one, not all families have the financial resources to do that. Number two, the Wi-Fi system is ridiculously unreliable. Frequently, one of your family members has scheduled a visit, and they can’t even get through because the Wi-Fi is not up. So as you were saying, maintaining these human connections is really important. And that’s another thing that we’re seeing constructive efforts to obstruct our ability to maintain that contact with those loved ones, our ability to maintain the network with individuals like yourself who support us and support our well-being.
TFSR: It’s a strategy that Departments of Corrections seem to be applying across the country, including at the federal level. It also increases the possibility of surveillance, right? If you’ve got emails shooting back and forth, and you’re paying 50 cents for an E stamp or whatever, through JPay, then suddenly, it’s way easier to run an algorithm to just search for certain key phrases or monitor your relationship with people on the outside.
Landis: Absolutely! One thing that’s particularly scary is for activists, without contact visits, without the ability to utilize snail mail at any time, people that are shining a light on the systematic abuses and oppression, they can cut you off electronically, stop you from being able to send electronic messages, they can stop your video visits. Because the way that it was set up before is they could restrict your visit, they could put you on non-contact visits, but at any time an individual could come up there and make sure that you were okay. But the things that they’re trying to impose now, where they’re making everything electronic, somebody who’s a thorn in the side of a particular administration, they would have no problem whatsoever cutting off all of your contacts with the outside world, and you would literally be at the mercy of that particular administration. So it creates a huge possibility for abuse.
TFSR: And so I guess while you all are working towards PLM as a project to garner more attention and get more support, more understanding on the outside, the Prison Legal Solidarity Network is a tool towards multiplying the number of people that are going to be able to advocate for each other and also build solidarity with each other, to advocate on each other’s behalf, help them through filing these lawsuits, challenging the imposition of this for-profit filtering of people’s real lives and ability to survive.
Landis: So, one thing that we have seen in analyzing history is movements such as this, like I said earlier, require more than simple protesting. In order for us to achieve the things that we want to achieve, we have to start to put the support systems in place to sustain an ongoing movement. One way to proactively counter PRC aggression, and to fulfill certain objectives, such as legal education, political education, the empowerment that we need collectively, was to put this support system in place. We also believe that we have to begin to put other support systems in place to continue to counter some of these moves to further the objectives of the prison industrial complex.
We see, especially at locations like this, where they only provide the minimum amount of education required. Here, under IDOC policy, they’re only allowed to teach English in the classroom. So one thing that I’ve seen is we have a large number of Hispanic immigrants here that can’t speak English. So those individuals aren’t provided books in Spanish, they aren’t provided a translator or individuals that can teach them English, and they’re still expected to be able to get their GED. And what’s even more unfair about the situation is in order to go on to a vocational school or programs like PLUS or other reformative programs, they require GED. So basically, individuals who are immigrants or don’t speak English have to do 100% of their sentence simply based off of a policy. And you see that if you study the policies, the policies aren’t geared towards reformation or reintegrating individuals in society, they’re geared towards keeping individuals here longer.
TFSR: Like handling a surplus population.
Landis: Absolutely. So, that’s two things that the PLSN is looking at right now is we’re looking at how they are deprived of good-time credit. And we’re also looking at the parole system in Indiana, and how they have absolute authority to re-incarcerate individuals at their whim, which is scary. Once an individual does their required sentence and they’re released on parole. If I forgot to report, a change of address, they can send me back to prison for the rest of my sentence.
TFSR: I’d also like to hear a little bit about – I know it’s off topic of the Prison Legal Solidarity Network – but if you could speak a little bit about what your experience with COVID has been in the facilities that you’ve been in, and what vaccination, if any, is happening among the guards, how prisoners feel about vaccines, because I know there’s a lot of hesitancy or distrust in certain facilities around the country.
Landis: Well, at the location I’m at with respect to the vaccine, there’s a huge distrust. We know that historically, prisons have been the place where they’ve done medical experiments, tested experimental medications. So amongst the offender population, there’s distrust for for-profit medical companies like Wexford, who could care less about our physical well-being, their main concern is their bottom line or profits. So very few of the offenders that I know have actually taken advantage of the opportunity to receive the vaccine, and most of them think we all had COVID. So what’s the point in getting vaccinated against COVID, if every person that you know has already had it?
The public has no clue what went on behind these walls during this pandemic. It was terrifying. So when we begin to see news reports about the severity of COVID, how serious it was, there was no meaningful response from the administration whatsoever. And the scary thing is this facility holds more prisoners than any other facility in the state. I just arrived here when the pandemic hit. We have a unit here called ANO where when you’re first transferred from another prison or you come from the reception diagnostic center, you go to that unit first, they assess you, and then they send you to your respective part of the prison you are assigned to. So, the first case was on that unit. And what they did is they tried to keep it hush-hush. They didn’t respond in any meaningful way. Then when we started to hear that they had positive tests in that unit, from what the correctional staff was saying that they instructed officers to stop, if you weren’t assigned to that unit, you weren’t supposed to go to that unit. But we were seeing officers go up to that unit, where they had positive cases, visit with other staff, and then go to other units within the facility. And within a few days, maybe a week, we start seeing individuals start to exhibit the symptoms of COVID. Once itfinished sweeping through the prison like wildfire, then they step in, and they basically quarantine each dorm to their dorm. But they knew that the virus was already within each dorm. So, we weren’t issued masks. When staff was walking around wearing masks if an offender has made his own mask out of whatever materials that he could get, he received a conduct report for it. And then once they finally started to issue masks, at first, I believe those maybe one or two days, medical staff would report to each unit and check to see if guys had symptoms. But after that we didn’t see medical staff for months, there were instances where an offender would be so sick that we would have to threaten to riot to get that offender medical attention. It was a very, very terrifying experience.
TFSR: Sure. Although it sounds like you were describing an instance where maybe someone was transferred in and brought it into the facility as an inmate or as a prisoner, I don’t know if there were any concerns, if you would be aware if the guards had any quarantining going on among them, because they’re coming in and out of the facility, they’re not regulated in the rest of their life, where they’re spending their time, who they’re around, and if they’re masking up outside.
Landis: Exactly. None whatsoever, the guards were pretty much allowed to do what they wanted to do. The only thing that they changed, and this was after there was a ridiculous amount of positive tests, was they started taking the guards’ temperatures coming in. That’s it. And it’s crazy because we read a newspaper article, where the Indiana Department of Correction reported that there were 233 COVID cases, department-wide in every prison in the state of Indiana, they only had 233 people test positive, which is laughable. Because every dorm on the complex that I was in, pretty much everybody had it. There were periods of time where you wouldn’t see an individual for two weeks, and then they would pop back up. And you didn’t know that that person had been in their bed sick that entire time. They tested the dorm underneath the ANO unit. And I believe they had 93 people test positive out of 96. And they stopped testing after that. They wouldn’t test anybody else anymore after that.
TFSR: Yeah, I guess if they reported those numbers, that’s like opening themselves up to a federal injunction or something. They don’t believe in actually being held accountable for anything, let alone for prisoners’ health.
Landis: I’m going to be honest, I believe, because I read some articles on herd immunity. And basically, herd immunity means you let the majority of the population become infected. And basically, that slows… there’s immunity that’s built up on the antibodies. And that basically takes the place of a vaccine, and that’s what I’ve seen take place here. What they did, is they restricted the movement, and they just let the vaccine run its course to the detriment of the people that were incarcerated here.
TFSR: If we don’t know the long-term effects of what the vaccines will do, and there have been like small examples of the negative impacts on a few, a 100th of a percent of the population that’s been vaccinated. But definitely, we’re already seeing the long-term impacts on the cheaper version of herd immunity, which is just let everyone get infected.
Landis, you talked about how you’ve been in for 17 years, you came in as a juvenile, correct?
Landis: Yes, sir.
TFSR: And you’ve been an advocate around shifts and changes in juvenile incarceration in Indiana. If you could talk a little bit about what some of that work looks like and what maybe people on the outside don’t realize why there need to be major shifts in the way that people consider criminality, incarceration, and juvenile health.
Landis: The first thing that people don’t consider is that minors are physiologically incapable of making an adult decision. So anytime a minor is waived to adult court and sentenced to adult time for a decision they made when they were incapable of thinking as an adult, in and of itself, contradicts justice. For me, after I was convicted, I was at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, the most violent prison in the state of Indiana. I was placed in a dorm called K-dorm, it was a program called YIA, youth incarcerated as adults. And basically, it was like Lord of the Flies in there, it was violent. There was a lot of misconduct on the part of staff towards juvenile offenders, we really didn’t have any rehabilitative resources to speak of. And one thing that I’ve always seen is that if there’s any renewable resource, here, within the last 10-20 years, as a society, spoken a lot about renewable resources, if there’s any renewable resource, it is our children. If anybody is capable of reformation and redemption, it’s a child. But we’re the only country in the world where a child can commit a crime. And one thing that really isn’t taken into consideration is the background that this child came from, what motivations caused this child to commit this crime.
Not understanding that background, not understanding the inability to think at the level necessary, and sentencing a child to considerable term in prison goes against what our Constitution is supposed to do. Because here in Indiana, we have Article 1 Section 18 that says the Penal Code shall be founded upon principles of reformation and not vindictive justice. But what’s more vindictive about sending a child to prison where they have a choice between joining a gang and engaging in violent behavior, or being raped, or being robbed, or abused. Basically, when you send a child into this environment, either he has to become a monster to survive, or he has to become a victim. And if reformation is the goal, that makes reformation impossible. So looking towards the initiatives and the things, there is pretty much nothing in place that would allow a child to reform themselves.
TFSR: Thank you for saying that. I really appreciate that. And there’s some audio of you also speaking about your experiences up on the IDOCWatch.org website. Really just spell it out also, and very worth listening to. How can people who were in the listening audience support PLSN and get involved, support PLM, if you can speak to that.
Ray: As far as Prison Lives Matter, you can our focus is incarcerated people and people on the outside. You can reach us at PO Box 9383, Chicago, Illinois 6069. Or you can visit us at supportprisonlives.org. For the Prison Support Legal Network, if you are a jailhouse lawyer or interested in our initiative, you can write to us at PO Box 3322 South Bend, Indiana 46619, or leave us a voicemail at 423-281-5009 with your name, DOC number, and a brief introduction and any legal experience or training that you may have, and we will contact you.
If you are a lawyer in Indiana, a paralegal law student, abolitionist-minded with a little bit of legal expertise, we’d love to have you onboard as well in our external committee, and you can email me directly. That’s Ray at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TFSR: Ray gave us a little bit of information about how outside people can get involved with or find out more about PLSN and PLM. The website for IDOCWatch, or it has a reference to support for the demands of the 2018 national prison strike. About a month ago, I got to speak with someone from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak about the Shut Them Down 2021 initiative. And I’m not sure if you’re aware of this initiative, if either you as a member of IDOCWatch, or you as an individual, have any words for the audience about that call out for people to come together around the theme of abolition and engage with juvenile facilities, ICE facilities, BOP, local DOC, whatever and challenge them and educate each other.
Landis: With respect to this specific initiative, I haven’t really had an opportunity to read up on it or anything like that. But one thing that I can say is, without unity, we’re not going to make it anywhere. Every year, I see our rights eroded, I see the abuses become more blazing and more sadistic. But unless individuals come together and make up their minds that meaningful change is the only thing that they’ll settle for, things are only going to continue to get worse.
TFSR: I didn’t have any more questions that I had scripted out. So is there anything that we didn’t talk about? Or that I didn’t ask about that you want to be asked about or that you want to just riff on?
Landis: I don’t know, Ray might have some stuff. The only thing that I wanted to touch bases on is some of the long-term goals for PLSN. Because as a mechanism of genocide, the prison system is just one component. I think that people don’t really see things like public defender agencies as mechanisms of genocide or tools of the prison industrial complex. And what we’re doing is we’re developing some future goals and objectives and strategies for how we can continue to combat the prison industrial complex, not just in the prison setting, but on the street. So one of the things that we’ve started to develop is what we call the Indiana Criminal Representation branch, where most public defender agencies blame their inability to adequately defend defendants on the number of cases that they have. So, I believe that one of the strategies that we can utilize in fighting against the public defender agencies being able to feed working-class and minority individuals as to this horrible system, is by creating our own mechanisms for criminal defense, things like the PLSN, where we have professionals, we have lawyers and paralegals and jailhouse lawyers come together, and law students, and pooling resources to effectively provide that legal support.
If we start to put these mechanisms into place prior to incarceration, I believe we can really carve them out of individuals that are fed into the system and save a lot of lives. Another initiative that we’re looking at is non-profit bail bonds. In recent years, we’ve seen a movement for bail reform, because we know that the odds of an individual receiving an unfavorable outcome to their criminal case is a lot higher when they fight their case from behind bars. And that’s one of the strategies that they use for working-class minority individuals is they keep you locked up. And a lot of times the lack of these resources and these public defenders that either won’t or can’t perform their job effectively assist in feeding the prison industrial complex. If we could come up with mechanisms to where we can assist minority and working-class people in getting out of jail so they can find their cases on the street and start to implement some community-building with those programs. So for the individuals that take part in the indigent criminal representation, or non-profit bail bonds, where they’re actively doing community service, going to school, taking part in political agitation, assisting in initiatives like the PLSN, where they’re actively helping members of their community understand what the prison industrial complex is perpetrating against our communities. And further our goal of abolition.
TFSR: Ray, did you have anything to add to this conversation? I think this would be a good place probably for us to start wrapping up.
Ray: I think that what Landis said above and beyond covered things that I wanted to talk about, and that are call-outs that I mentioned, our buffer inside and outside, you mentioned that it was heard outside, somebody they’re in contact with that is in Indiana that is interested in being a jailhouse lawyer or being trained, contact us.
TFSR: How can people follow IDOCWatch?
Ray: You can find us on Facebook and Twitter, both with IDOCWatch.
TFSR: Landis, are you cool with people reaching out to you? And is it okay, do you have a preference of JPay male or I guess what remains is snail mail?
Landis: However they’d like to reach out, I’m definitely interested in sharing my story and participating with any organization where I can help further the goals of abolition or assist anybody who’s going through what I’ve been through or is going to go through what I’ve been through. In any way that I can help anybody, I’m willing to. You can reach out to me through GTL by downloading the Connect Network app or through snail mail. My name is Landis Reynolds, DOC number 157028, and I’m located at Westville Correctional Facility in Westville, Indiana.
TFSR: Thank you, all of you for taking the time and helping to make this conversation happen. I really appreciate it.
Colectivo Subversión on Protest in Colombia and Global Battles for Dignity
This week on the show we are pleased to present an interview with María Kamila, who is a teacher and a popular journalist who works with the anarchist Colombian journalism and counter-information collective in Bogotácalled Subversión. We originally reached out to talk about the current wave of protests and riots in Colombia, and this interview covers many topics, ranging from a historical contextualization of the current moment, who are on the front lines of the protests, Indigenous solidarity with anarchist accomplices via the Minga – which is a pre-colonial term for collaboration, meeting or communal action – , and many more topics.
Much thanks to our comrades at Radio Kurruf, doing anarchist media in the Biobío bio-region of so-called Chile in occupied Wallmapu, for putting us into touch with Subversión.
Maria: Thank you, pretty much for this space, I have to really say that it’s pretty important to be here. So well, my name is Maria Camila. I’m a teacher. And I am also a popular journalist that is part of a collective called subversión. Let’s say our main job is trying to communicate from some other points of view.
TFSR: Do you have… Or could you speak a little bit more about your collective Subversión? How did this group begin and what is what is more about the work that you do?
Maria: Yes, of course. Well, first, the group started in 2015 as an organization close to the anarchist student group, or here in Colombia. Let’s say that these books started with the need to confront the state propaganda… Right? Government, media, and all those kind of information they gave us as people. So let’s say that we saw the need to dispute some truths that were broadcast on television and social networks. And we try to speak a little bit about the work of people, right? How were they dynamics, for example, in the neighborhoods? How the student movement was doing in that time? So let’s say now we’re trying to connect and link every single kind of struggles we have been doing. So for example: we link with the communities of Cuaca and CRIC (the Regional Indigenous Council of the Cauca) & Liberacion De La Madre Tierra (Liberation of Mother Earth). We also have anti-prison platforms, we have some art collectives, in terms of graffitis, in terms of music. So let’s say that’s our main purpose.
We also realize maybe that there are very, very few experiences of anarchy or libertarian media and in that minority, we could notice that a large part of them speak or pay more attention on the international work. International work such as Greece, Chile, Mexico, so they beat in focus pretty well in the local reality itself. So we tried to do it. That’s a little summary about it.
TFSR: That’s awesome. I think it’s really cool that it started coming out of the anarchist student movement. That’s really powerful, I think. So just to kind of give a little bit of context about what y’all have been going through this last little while. Could you talk about how the Covid 19 pandemic and maybe more importantly, the government’s response to it affected your ability to organize?
Maria: Okay, well, of course, Covid 19 pandemic lock-downs was pretty shocking for people in general, I’d say. And let’s say that in terms of organization, it’s been quite hard. Because… For example, here in Colombia, we still are facing arbitrary quarantines. And let’s say that the government tries to tell us “Okay, this is for you. This is necessary.” But we already think that it’s not like that, in we could say that these kinds of quarantines are being more pro-exploitation than pro-healthcare maybe. So it’s been really, really hard, obviously, because we have no basic income. There are no relevant money the government has to give us in order to stay home. So basically, you can go out during weekdays. But on weekends, you can’t do it… Because of your health, supposedly. So it’s just having a permission to go out to work. So it’s quite hard and quite difficult, of course.
Let’s say that many spaces that we had, in a presentational way, had to be more into the rituality, we had to transfer those kinds of spaces, some of them got lost, of course. For example: the anti-prison movement, and the anti-prison platforms are not finished, but it stopped. Right, because of the pandemic. I could also say in, I think it should be an advantage. And it’s the resistance from other spaces, for example, social networks, forums, popular schools, because let’s say that education can have these alternative that is mutual. So let’s say that we try to take advantage of it. However, it’s really, really difficult because of time, mostly, most of the companies. I don’t know, they feel like if you’re at home, you have to work every single day. So the schedule you used to have, it’s not the same one, because your boss can call you, I don’t know what 8pm and tell you “Hey, I’m really sorry. But I already know you’re at home. So could you please help me with this?” So let’s say that I don’t know the line we had before going to our job and coming back home… It’s not anymore, because we are working from home. So yeah, I’d say that. That’s a little matter of where we are facing in here.
Also, for example, the control of the spaces, of course, the public and the common places to be, are not anymore places to be. In they are not public anymore. So they are being managed by the government. So they basically decide, and they basically say “Okay, this place, since it is more from the government and for people… Can have tables on the street” But the restaurants… I don’t know, the popular restaurants in the neighborhood… A lot of business that basically are in order to help and are made by popular people, they can’t be opened. So of course, we have these kind of a class issue, right? So it’s been really hard. So yes, that’s a little bit about it.
TFSR: Thank you for talking about that. I think that the COVID 19 pandemic has sort of created a lot of circumstances that the government and the state and the prisons are using to sort of expand their power, like you said, with the bosses calling you at 8pm when you’re supposed to be off at 5 or whatever time to be like, “hey, you’re still at work, because you’re at home.” So you’re always at work. And I think that’s a very dangerous expansion of the state and the prison and the works power, like into our lives, so we never have a break from it.
Maria: Yes. And I think that due to this expansion you were talking about. It’s really, really tough because in some cases… Well, personally I feel in some cases, my bosses are just putting a lot of work… Telling me “Okay, you need to do this and you need to do this” just in order to make you work in that’s it. Like, I don’t know how I could say, but it is like they need to show themselves that you are working. So it’s really difficult mostly, for example, in my case, as a teacher It’s been really hard because you need to create a lot of reports and you need to send them to many people. It’s really, really stressful. So yes, the expansion of power, of course, it’s really tough.
TFSR: Yeah, yeah, I totally agree. I feel like we could talk about that probably for a long time. But we’re here to speak about the ongoing protests in Colombia. But this current situation has been unfolding for some time now. Will you speak about the protests which occurred in 2019 to 2020, in response to police corruption and austerity, among other things?
Maria: Well, I would like to start this answer by saying that during the last 20 years, Colombia has experienced a series of strikes, protests, riots, that have grown through the time, right? So these stages or these riots and these consecutive strikes, has been in response to the criminal policies of the far right government of Uribe, of course, which I don’t know he has had hegemony in the executive branch since 2002. So imagine, and let’s say that the police violence that we have experience in current years or in recent years is a clear example of the doctrine they form the state security forces. In these doctrines about the internal enemy, right, so the people you’re trying to protect, you don’t really have to protect them because they are your enemy. Right? So to this, of course, we need to add the increase in poverty that they have of the population closely to they have rising poverty in leaps in poverty. So they eat once or twice per day if they eat. So of course, there are more than 20 million people who don’t live with dignity under the power of the state.
In regarding 2009, that I consider is the initial stage of the strike that is taking place currently, I would say that the reason for the protest was a dissatisfaction of a large part of the Colombian population with the economic, social, and environmental policies of the government of the President. And as well as the handling that was given to the peace accords, with the FARC with the guerrilla, and of course, these had many consequences, such as murder of social leaders, where you can find peace and indigenous people reinserted ex-guerrillas in of course, the corruption within the Colombian government. I mean, Colombia is one of the most corrupt countries you can find around the world, not only Latin America, but the world. So I think it would also be important, you mentioned in historical key maybe, that the mobilizations or the riots and strikes of 2019 and 2020 have previous situations in the student strike of 2018. In the agrarian strikes of 2015, and 2010, which leads us to talk about the student movement of 2011, called MANE, or Mesa Anti-Nacional Estudiantil.
So, I could say that these information is really important, because we can notice that the government has done nothing for trying to fix what they need to fix. So, strikes that happened previously or that is happening right now. It’s just like a chain. I imagine, since the poverty is a chain since discrimination is a chain and poverty. Well, we also need to react that way. So we also need to say “Hey, this is not good. This is enough!” So we need to do something. So… Yes.
TFSR: It seems like Colombia is experiencing what a lot of places are experiencing, which is a rise in far right, fascist governments and also paralleled with just like increasing austerity. I understand like, the Colombian people are living underneath a really oppressive tax law that maybe we’ll talk about a little bit later. But yeah, thank you for going through the progression of you know, riots and strikes and student movements to sort of set the stage for the things that happened later. So like you mentioned, there have been other protests and riots in response to murders by police since 2019. Would you speak about these kinds of and how they sort of lead into what is currently happening?
Maria: Let’s say, related to this topic, we could talk a little about the historic overview of the deeds done by Policia Nacional and ESMAD (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios/Mobile Anti-Riot Squad) that start with the murder of Nicolas Nadir around 15 or 16 years ago. Nico was a teenager who was killed in the working riots the May 1 manifestations. So we could start from there. We could also mention Oscar Salas, Dilan Cruz, among others. And something to highlight here is that the collective memory has been a result of these events. For example, in related to 2019 2020, the police massacre that occurred on September 4th, 9th, and 10th has in the neighborhoods where these events took place. So the friends and relatives of the victims have organized themselves in several organizations to be able to demand for justice denounce the criminality of the state and the police. And it’s quite sad, because so far, we haven’t known the response even in the command lines of those days. I mean, we have no idea who ordered these kinds of crimes. And related to these, a group of graffiti artists and street artists has also been organized to commemorate every single month by making some murals in the city, denouncing the massacre and making memory of the people who are not with us anymore.
I think it is also important to talk about street action itself. Bringing the confrontation to the neighborhoods, it’s a new paradigm in recent history of the urban level that has no correlation since the 77 Strike hitting Colombia. Of course we need to speak a lot about in a historical way and the history about Colombia, because now the discontent of the jungle people who suffer harassment by the police. And of course, in that sense, although the actions have denoted in specific circumstances, such as the murder of Javier Ordoñez or the rapes and violence based on gender, at the end, we are involved in confrontations of historical roots. Right? That establish in of course, as I told you before, we are aware that the authority is our enemy. Right? No matter how they try to sell us the speech of “peace and dialogue, we’re just here to help you and protect you.” It’s not like that. And we can try to talk about this from the facts that happened and that you mentioned.
Of course, I mean, police abuse in Colombia is something really, really sad and frustrating, because, of course, they are quite like an arm for the government. So it’s, I mean, they are pretty bloody. They don’t care about tasering pregnant women, old people, they don’t care about it. So you already know that when ESMAD arrives in a protest, it’s going to be a riot. Right? So you need to either run or face what you need to face in that time.
TFSR: Yeah, that sounds really terrifying. And, you know, of course police violence is a sort of truth wherever there are police. But you mentioned… And this wasn’t one of the questions that I sent to you. But you did mention the disarmament of the FARC. And I understand that the FARC isn’t…. It has its problems, to be sure, very many of them. But I’m wondering what you think about how the disarmament and persecution of former FARC members has contributed to the current oppression of far left and anarchist organizing currently? If that makes any sense?
Maria: Yeah, yeah. I think the Actually, we have a book, whose name is “Reflexiones Libertarias Sobre El Acuerdo De Paz en Colombia.” And it is something in English like “Libertarian Reflections about Accord Peace or Agreement Peace” let’s say that since we stood into an anarchist position, we could say that democracy has always had a better place to be, right? And of course is related to the power. So we didn’t predict what was going to happen related to the persecution and all those deals. But let’s say that the government has not been clear, has not done anything about these kinds of agreements in terms of… For example, trying to give the peasants back his/her lands, his farms. I could say that this is not new, at least in Colombia. It has happened for twice maybe.
So for example,when we talk about 19th of April Movement, it happened the same. They did a peace agreement, a and they said okay, we’re not going to be armed anymore. We’re going to try to solve this conflict in the dialogue and all those deals. In some of them were murdered. Right? Carlos Pizarro Leongómez, for example, was murdered a few days later. So I’d say it’s something that we expected. Of course, we didn’t want to happen. But it was something that yes, we expected.
TFSR: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, sadly. Would you speak about the current protests and what led to them? We would also love to hear about who is on the front lines or Primera Linea. And what does this say about them and say about the general nature of the protests?
Maria: Yeah, of course. Well, first, as I told you before, the strikes this year are the continuation of the strikes that we experienced at the end of 2009 and in the beginning of 2020, we stopped those strikes because of pandemic and because of covid 19. In first the National Strike Committee, that includes retired organizations, some transport, there’s basins in the public… Colombian teachers have insisted in creating a plan to fight against the reforms that the government of Iván Duque has proposed since the beginning of his government, such as health reform, education reform, and now the tax reform. And obviously this committee doesn’t represent people. This committee is led by maybe the bureaucracy and some political parties that are looking for consolidating their electoral power for next year elections. And fortunately the demands of the committee have been overcome by the people who are confronting the police, and is much in the street. And the population that has been in the streets wants Duque to quit basically, in I would say, we could make it out since two ministers and a police captain have already resigned. This is specifically started with La Reforma Tributaria without him.
However, of course, it was not our main purpose. We could achieve that these reform couldn’t achieve in the congress and the number of votes they needed to do it. But we are also trying to establish the power from the strike, right? Not like the revolution we already know. But it’s really important for example, in related to the committee, the strike committee. There are no young people. All of them are old men and old women who don’t know what we need, what university people need, what a teenagers need, what children need, because they don’t really care. Right? They are looking for a power in the future.
So yes, that’s basically what happened. There was also something that produced the anger of the people. It was something that Alberto Carrasquilla Barrera said. Carrasquilla was the Minister of Finance. The Canasta Familia, I don’t really know how to say that in English. And these months, a journalist asked him how much a basket of eggs was? And he said, “10 dollars and 8 cents.” No, my God! That is like a half dollar maybe. So imagine, of course, the people say “What!? That’s not possible!” So if the person that it’s supposed to be in charge of telling the people how much we should and we can pay for food or services? Well, we need to do something in that. That was the last situation we accept.
So people started to say, “No way, this is not gonna be possible. You can’t do that.” Because you don’t really know how the real situation needs. For example, I couldn’t go out on April 28. But my mom said, okay, we need to support the people who are on the street. So you could walk through the neighborhood, and you could see some ads, maybe or some poster saying, “No to the Reforma Tributaria!” I don’t know, for example in my house, we wrote “We love beans. This family loves eating beans. But without Ivan.” So let’s say that the creativity and the union that this strike has been developing, it’s been amazing because not only are they the same people who are on the streets, there are not only university people. There are also school people, there are also private teachers. There are also people who are in charge of trading, people who have also suffered the pandemic, in that are aware of these crazies we are going to face if we don’t change what they want to do.
And I almost forgot it. Related to the first line… The first line has been made up mostly of young people from the popular neighborhoods in the periphery. And it’s quite shocked, because recently, we have seen the formation of the front lines of mothers who have been suffered political abuse or that they have just lost his or her children in this strike. So it’s like a fresh line being made by mothers. And I would say that, we also believe that the first line has been constituted by indigenous people who is made up of the indigenous guard or Minga. Let’s say that these kind of people, they are an autonomous group of indigenous, they have a lot of processes. And they have been in the cities and they have faced police, and ESMAD in the riots.
And I guess we could talk a little bit about the boom of the first line that has been built here in Colombia. It’s thanks to the Chilean experience, where the creation of these fronts was fundamental to face the state violence in the streets. And regarding the first line, it is worth mentioning the work of Black Flags, which is a first line that is anarchist. They mostly help in Medellín and thanks to the social media, they have helped other cities to share the abuse. And the violence made by my the police and that ESMAD also has committed. So let’s say that this first line has being really really important.
It has a disadvantage that maybe we already knew that was going to happen and it was related to the stereotype. Right? So these kinds of guys are there because they are vandals, they steal the city, they don’t do anything here in Colombia. There is sort of a like a sort of, like a saying really, really common into the right wing people. And it’s thats the people who protest its because we want every single thing for free. So yeah, it’s funny, quieren todo regala. So, yes. Let’s say that the front line has suffered, of course, this stigmatization. But they had faced in a pretty good way in they had, I don’t know, they had showed us that they are really brave in that they are not just fighting for fighting, right? They are fighting because they already know what they are fighting for. So education, basically, for eating three times at least a day, for having a job, for having a life that allows to say to you that they have dignity, right? So yes, it’s been really interesting.
Here in Bogota, the main first line is in Portal de las Americas, that is on the south. And of course, this area of the city is forgotten by the government. So the government that just because of having their TransMilenio, or public transportation, they were going to have a better life. But of course, we know it’s not like that. So yes, it’s been amazing. It’s been really, really nice… That job, and mostly because they also have education spaces, maybe. So they discuss about the situation, they say, “Okay, here in this neighborhood, we need this and this, so we need to make people know why we are here and what we need.” So let’s say it’s a really, really complete and connected struggle that they have done.
TFSR: Thank you for going through that it’s sounds like so dynamic and vibrant. And the international media has been seeing a lot of sort of the violence of the police, in places where the strikes and the riots are most intense and horrifying stuff, terrifying police activity and violence. But I think it’s also really good to keep in mind that, you know, there’s really beautiful things that can happen as well, in situations like this. And that sounds like a really amazing people coming together and, you know, struggling towards something together. I’m also really interested in your suggestion to talk about the Assembleas Barriales, which are neighborhood assemblies, which have been forming during these moments of riot. Will you speak about this, and how’s it been doing anarchist organizing throughout these efforts?
Maria: Let’s say that understanding that this strike has been as organic as it has been necessary, because most of the people didn’t expect to last the days it is lasting in it is really important trying to understand that it’s really organic, because these allow us to assume the need for political and historical formation of the protesters. So with these purpose the neighborhood’s assemblies have arisen in to try to create spaces for discussion, information and it’s a crucial execution of the strike from the neighborhoods. As I told you, it’s not the student movement who is in charge of it, or who is leading this process. It’s people who are mostly young people of the neighborhoods.
So of course, the historical political education, it’s quite important. So that’s what Assembleas Barriales are for. In with this purpose the neighborhood has started to create little groups and they have created some instructions, let’s say so for example: I don’t know there are people who are in charge of collecting food. The other people are going to be in charge of keeping everything safe in all those deals, in artistic days, maybe have been seen I don’t know, there are so many pictures about town cities with anti-Álvaro-Uribe slogans. So that’s a result of the discussions and the debates that are in the neighborhoods. Okay, here we have a political position and we don’t want Uribe here. So they have painted the walls with this, they have painted the highways with this. And, of course, the tributes to the big themes in the in the strike. And there had also had a lot of artistic shows and artistic masterpiece around the city.
And let’s say that due to the police abuse, training about human rights has been mandatory. What to do in case of an arbitrary detention. And of course, we as a collective or as a contra-information collective, the support has been attained in these spaces in trying to commit communicate before, during and after, these assembleas happen. And I also think is really important to mention that the participation of the anarchism as a movement, we already know that is marginal because of its nature. And maybe we could relate the anarchist movement into the efforts of collectives and individuals in terms of education, right? We could also mention the community organization. So they are also based in horizontal structures and they are rotating responsibilities. Of course, they need to have a self management of the spaces. Let’s say that we could relate these kind of practices and these kind of routines from and since the libertarian movement, taking into account the autonomy and the self action we need to have, of course. Because trying to make people realize we don’t need a leader in order to make good things and in order to make things work.
TFSR: Yeah, that all sounds, you know, also really amazing. And I could imagine it being like perhaps a bit chaotic, to be organizing as anarchists and doing any kind of sort of collective process in the middle of like, popular street movement going on, I think we can all sort of relate to that, from personal experience, to varying degrees. So it sounds like people are holding it down, which is really amazing.
Maria: Yeah, totally and these kinds of meetings and these kinds of assembleas has also allowed and acknowledge about the people who were before protest. So of course, we said, “Okay! Right, you’re now facing this. But do you remember in 2019 when you saw or watched on the news, that students have been debating and have been on the streets? Remember?” So it’s been really interesting, because, of course, it’s, I don’t know if respect is a real word, but every single person that attends to this kind of dynamics, has been aware of the social, of the matter and the importance of the social movement.
TFSR: I think we can all sort of understand that the world at least the documented world, in so far as you know, we film and you know, we take pictures and stuff, that kind of documentation is becoming perhaps like a bit more riotous or, you know…. There’s been a lot of global like, struggles around the world against fascism. And many have commented on the connected nature of these fights. Fights against fascism, like I said, the police state and settler colonialism all around the world from these extra judicial acts of violence, and also people coming together to fight those acts in Colombia to the State of Israel bombing refugee camps in occupied Palestine to the government mismanagement of COVID in India to the fights against pipelines and unceded indigenous land and so called Canada, and to the battles for Black lives here and the ongoing battles against gendered violence all over the world. Would you speak about this from your own perspective? And has your collective been sort of speaking about this as it’s been unfolding?
Maria: Well, let’s say that we could talk here about the indigenous struggle, the Minga of 2008 their plan for life and struggle, such as the recovery of lives and the historical memory of these people, right? During these days, some of the monuments that are in the cities have suffered an indigenous trial made by the indigenous themselves, causing the demolition, for example of the statues of Sebastián de Belalcázar, of Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada. I could say that it hasn’t happened before and I could say it’s an achievement that indigenous people have had. Mostly because people who live in the city don’t care or don’t know or don’t want to know about this kind of struggle. Because they feel and they think indigenous people are really, really far. Right? So bringing the Minga to the cities, having these kind of spaces with them has allowed us to recognize the real roots we have, right? So of course, a lot of people say, “you know? How are we gonna do that? It was Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, he did this… He bla bla bla.”
I love of these kind of movements and indigenous people because they are also in the mood of teaching. So for example, if you go to them and you tell them “okay! I don’t agree with you.” He or she is going to tell you “okay! Let me explain you.” So they are also in the mood in the teacher mood and this is really necessary nowadays. So I could say that this struggle…. It’s been so hard in so far in terms of time, thanks to them, because they have been with us on the streets, on the committees, in every single way we could discuss and talk about and face this strike. And I definitely have to say that the struggles are connected, because at the end, they express nuance and differences of context, the deep contradictions of capital, the colonies, patriarchy and ecological destruction, for example. And it is not a coincidence, not only in the temporality, but also in the similarities on the demands, repositories of a struggle, the dispute for the lands of the peasants the working rights, maybe citizens are trying to look forward. And this allows us to observe or realize or notice that the peoples are also twins in this common conditions of oppression.
It is a system that operates on a planetary scales, and we need to say that it is sustained by the people that are lead to exploitation of the mass of people for the benefits of opulent and rich minorities. And I also feel really necessary regarding the tranversalities of the struggles that we are talking. We need, of course, to speak of the gender struggles that have been growing, and they have been stronger in the same way. It’s also pretty important to understand that police repression and police oppression is marked by the perception of women’s bodies as the spoils of war.
And in consequence, there is an instrumentalisation of these bodies that we have had. For example, in here during these days, we have had 87 reports of gender violence, including rape, including a girl who committed suicide because she was abused by ESMAD. Abuse and sexual aggression as well as threats and harassment. So of course, these struggles have to be connected. It’s really important. I would say that it’s an advance. If we look a little bit to the past, it is not something that people in the past could achieve. And I think that this strike has a lot to connect and link all struggles we have had through time. So students, workers, indigenous people peasants, teachers, of course public teachers, private teacher, every single person in a same place. And that place, of course, is a struggle place.
TFSR: I think that’s such a good point that you made just now, how police repression is marked by the perception of women’s bodies, and how there are the similarities and demands of striking and rioting people all over the world. Like we can see this in India, we can see this in Palestine. We can see this here in the so called United States. So I think that’s such a good point that you just made. And I’m going to be thinking about that for a while.
Maria: And it’s been pretty cool, because…. Well, cool in terms of political way, in really interesting…. For example, in some protest people riot. I don’t know, fight like Colombia, resist like Palestine, and vote like Chile. So it’s quite interesting how this journey of strikes, has made aware to the people that this is not just in Colombia, this is around the world. And this is around the world in terms of land, in terms of gender abuses, gender violence. It’s also about, of course, exploitation problems and issues. It’s also something related to the Black movement, right? Because every single person, I say, has suffered in some way, maybe a lot of people are not aware of it. But one of the achievements and goals that we have already did, was making people aware of the difficult situation, and the matter that if we don’t change this, it is going to be worse. With taxes, with violence, with insecurity, with a lot of deals here.
TFSR: Yes, I think that is very true. So what can listeners do to help support you?
Maria: First of all, be aware of alternative media, such as Subversión, of course… And try to spread all information among people who are fighting to change the world. Try not to believe too much… For example: our national information media channels, because they don’t say the truth, maybe they try to change a lot. I also think joined the act of denunciation and protests in front of the of the embassies and consulates of Colombia. That has helped a lot in terms of international points of view, because they world know what is going on in here. So of course, let’s say that currently, several campaigns are being organized from different organizations to make these actions. So for example, we know that the I.W.W, which is affiliated to the International Confederation of Workers, established a statement in solidarity with the struggle of the people here in Colombia, and they are planning actions of denunciation.
So if you can do it, wonderful. If no, you can share, for example, you can post, you can use the hashtag in all those deals. In terms of money we’re having a collect. Mostly for these first nine made by moms that I already told you. And we’re trying to support the art. So the art collectives are being supported by us. And yet, I would say the most important view should be and could be to spread the information and spread all information that you think it’s useful to other people now.
TFSR: Absolutely. Where can people donate to the collection for Primera Linea and the art collectives?
Maria: We have a PayPal account, which is…. I don’t know how I could send it to you.
TFSR: If you if you want to send it to me, I will publish it in the show notes.
Maria: Okay, perfect. So I’m gonna leave it to you in today’s chat. So that sounds great. Yes, through PayPal, you can donate through there. I guess it’s the easiest way.
TFSR: Maria Camila, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me and talk to me about what’s been going on and for doing… It should be mentioned too, that you did a lot of work to consolidate voices from the collective that you’re a part of to so that they could have a voice in this interview as well. And that takes a lot of work. It’s been really wonderful getting to talk to you and sit down a little bit. Is there anything that we missed in this interview that you want to sort of give voice to in closing, or sort of any last words that you would leave listeners with?
Maria: I really appreciate this space and meeting with you because I think it’s the better way to spread the information and try to make people realize our current situation. So thank you very much. And I think, I don’t know, it was really enough, maybe the interview. I would like to highlight that it’s quite important to the education, maybe? Through this topic. And let’s say that one of the flags maybe they strike has now is make you realize the art has to be political, in that sense. And in that way. It’s like an invitation to listen to, for example: are these support the strike? Listen to some group music that talk about the situation in Colombia? Follow for example, the collectives of the people who are in charge of the murals, of course, follow us! In terms of having you informed about the situation in Colombia, because we are a communicative collective. So yes, I could say that in order to conclude and of course, thank you pretty much.
TFSR: It was amazing. Please see our show notes for further topics that our guests discussed for any reading or research he would like to do based on this interview, including more about the MINA and the Guarda de Cauca and ongoing struggle for indigenous autonomy from the Colombian government and corporations. We will also link to subversión PayPal, through which they are fundraising for much needed medical supplies for people on the front lines of the protests. You can also look forward to a complete written transcript of this episode for reading along, translation purposes, or for sending to a friend at thefinalstrawradio.noblogs.org follow subversión on Instagram @subversión_CC and on Twitter @ccsubversión_
Palestine and Challenging Settler Colonial Imaginaries
This week on the show, we’re airing a portion of our 2018 interview with filmmaker and activist Yousef Natsha about his film about his hometown, Hebron, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. We invite you to check out our full interview with him from March 25, 2018, linked in our show notes and we’re choosing to air this right now because of the flare up in violent evictions, home destruction and the assassination of around 100 Palestinian residents of Gaza by the “Israeli Defense Forces”. [00:10:24]
Then, we’ll be sharing a panel from the 2021 UNC Queer Studies Conference called “No Blank Slates: A Discussion of Utopia, Queer Identity, and Settler Colonialism” featuring occasional Final Straw host, Scott Bransen alongside E. Ornelas and Kai Rajala. This audio first aired on Queercorps, on CKUT radio in Montreal. If you’d like to engage in this project, reach out to email@example.com [00:24:05]
No Blank Slates: A Discussion of Utopia, Queer Identity, and Settler Colonialism
Scott Branson, E Ornelas, Kai Rajala
Under the neoliberal regime of multiculturalism, the settler colonial project has relied on the assimilation of certain subaltern communities into its project for the effective dispossession and control of indigenous lands. This discussion will present ideas from a book project we are collaborating on in order to invite conversation around the intersection and tension around ideas of liberation and forms of appropriation and oppression. Our main challenge for radical queers is to rethink the kinds of futures we try to include ourselves in, and how our liberatory work can subtly replay exclusion and erasure. How do neoliberal utopian gay politics perpetuate settler colonial erasure and genocide? How do politics that seek inclusion and representation–in other words assimilation–disavow the work by indigenous self-determination movements, which are also poised on the frontlines of planetary self-defense? The workshop will be divided up into short presentations by each writer, followed by a structured discussion facilitated by the presenters.
The utopian project that underwrote the Canadian/American settler colonial states that still exist today was eventually transmuted into a neoliberal utopian sense of identity. The entire concept of space and self that we inherit is imbued with utopian longing for a time and place that we can fully be ourselves. This kind of rhetoric is largely at play in mainstream identity-based movements, like gay rights. But this longing often works in favor of the regime of violence and dominance perpetrated by the modern nation state. We can see how the attempt at inclusive representation of queer cultures leads to assimilation and appropriation. What gets included in regimes of representation ends up mimicking the norms of straight/cisgender heteronormativity, in terms of class aspirations, behaviors, and family structures. This therefore contributes to systematic erasure of Black and Brown queer folks, who are still the most targeted “identities” for state violence and its civilian deputies. With images of diversity that appeal to bourgeois urban gays, businesses and governments can pinkwash their violence.
A radical queer politics that relies on unquestioned utopian and dystopian visions risks aligning itself with a settler colonial imaginary of terra nullius or “blank slate” space. On the one hand, dystopian and apocalyptic visions perpetuate the unquestioned assumption that a societal collapse is impending, as if the continual degradation of human and more-than-human communities has not already arrived. Particularly dangerous in this assumption is the kind of crisis rhetoric that fosters opportunities for settler colonial sentiments of insecurity and, in the face of this insecurity, assertions of belonging and sovereignty in land and lifeways. Furthermore, visions of radical utopias as-yet-to-be-realized (or, as-yet-to-be-colonized) discount the ongoing presence of Indigenous alternatives to the current settler colonial dystopian reality, and instead preserves a view of geographic and social space as blank and ready to be “improved” with a “new” model.
Here we have a problem of erasure of the oppressions and resistances that have been ongoing in different iterations, in favor of the blank space of the utopian frontier. We argue against these linear progression narratives of societal and environmental collapse which promise to bring about a future idealized world of rainbow-diverse identities. Instead, we propose ways for radical politics, particularly those espoused by non-Indigenous people, to disavow such settler colonial mindsets. There are a few ways to offer a glimpse into the lived realities—what we might still call utopian moments—that make up the non-alienated, revolutionary life: queer and indigenous histories of resistance, rituals and moment of community care and mutual aid, and science fiction revisions of the world. We argue that this other world does in fact exist—has existed and has not stopped existing—if only in the interstices or true moments of communing and inhabiting the land alongside friends and family.
This is not an argument in favor of utopia, but one that seeks to bypass the utopian/dystopian divide. The world we inhabit is clearly dystopian for most, and utopian for some, and in many estimations, constantly on the verge of ending. The disaster scenarios, repeating the puritanical eschatology that helped settle the colonies in America, perpetuates the history of erasure of ways of life that aren’t in fact gunning for that disaster. We still argue that the purpose of dreaming, of envisioning alternatives, is to make action possible today, through recognition of the power we do already hold. Our discussion will interrogate the settler-utopian impulses that get hidden within apparently liberatory movements, such as radical queers and strands of environmentalism, as well as the way these identities and politics are represented in narratives of liberation that rely on the same logic they claim to oppose.
E Ornelas (no pronouns or they/them) is a Feminist Studies PhD candidate in the Department of Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies. As the descendant of a survivor of the Sherman Institute, a Native boarding school in Riverside, California—and therefore robbed of cultural, linguistic, and tribal identity—E’s research interests focus on the continued survivance and futurity of BIPOC communities, particularly through the use of literature. E’s dissertation illuminates community-based, abolitionist-informed, alternative models of redress for gendered, racialized, and colonial violence by analyzing Black and Indigenous speculative fiction. When not on campus, E can be found reading feminist sci-fi, making music, baking vegan sweets, and walking their dog. [00:45:06]
Kai Rajala (pronounced RYE-ah-la) is a queer, nonbinary, white-settler of Finnish and mixed European descent. They are a writer, and an anarchist anti-academic working and living on the unceded territories of the Kanien’kehá:ka peoples on the island colonially referred to as Montréal, and known otherwise as Tiohtià:ke. They are currently pursuing studies as an independent researcher and are interested in sites outside of the university where knowledge production occurs. You can find Kai on twitter at @anarcho_thembo or on instagram at @they4pay. [00:57:28]
Scott Branson is queer trans Jewish anarchist who teaches, writes, translates, and does other things in Western so-called North Carolina. Their translation of Jacques Lesage De la Haye’s The Abolition of Prison is coming out with AK Press this summer. Their translation of Guy Hocquenghem’s second book, Gay Liberation After May 68, is due out next year with Duke University Press. They edited a volume of abolitionist queer writings based on two iterations of the UNC Asheville queer studies conference, due out with PM Press next year. They are currently working on a book on daily anarchism for Pluto Press and researching a book on the institutionalization of queerness in the academy. They also make books of poems and artwork. You can find Scott on Instagram @scottbransonblurredwords or check out sjbranson.com for more of their work or on twitter at @sjbranson1. [00:30:41]
Yousef Natsha: My name is Yousef Natsha, I am from Palestine from a city called Hebron. And Hebron is part of West Bank that’s under that Israeli military occupation. I did start my professional work mainly with human rights organizations on the field and start documenting what my community is facing from the Israeli government. Since that till now I’m doing this awareness for the other communities to know what’s going on in my community. I have been working on it for no less than two years, it is a long process of footaging these terrifying moments.
The documentary mainly focused on human rights violation that’s the Palestinian community is facing from the Israeli military, they are occupying West Bank and Gaza Strip for sure. And when I started the process of making the documentary, I start saying, “should I go to the, you know, the the history part of what has happened and how this is ended up being existed till this moment”, the issue that I ended up going back to the time to like 1917, when like things actually did start, and how the colonization system did begin on Palestine and ended up bleeding into what we’re having right now. So I ended up actually, after a lot of thinking, I ended up just doing it about human rights abuses. And I saw that my community, my family, my friends are not treated as humans. And from there, I ended up just taking my community voice into this documentary to explain the suffering. It took me a while to understand what is actually going on, “Is this normal to face? Should I just live my normal life in terms of just going to the college and finish that and then find, you know, a job to be occupied with all the time, having a family building a house”, and so on.
So it has been a long process for me after the age of 18, specifically, of what I actually have to do, which path I should take. And after a year or so spending it on studying accounting in one of the colleges and Hebron, I just said, “This is not my place, I can’t see myself eight hours sitting behind the desk.” That’s the moment that I ended up pushing that college door with my foot and saying, “I am going down on the ground.” I started filming with my phone. And I didn’t know that these footages would not go anywhere, but at least I felt that I’m doing something for my community. Afterwards, I ended up having a media scholarship. And after that I became more familiar with filming and photography and so on, and I worked with different local radio stations, and international filmmakers, and at the same time journalists. And on the age of 20, I ended up knowing this human rights organization based in Chicago called the Christians Peacemaker team that I did start working with them on the field. And I can say that gives me in some extent, the ability of moving around under the protection of an international organization in some extent, a lot of people had the question of how I was able to take these footages, how I was able to move around soldiers. Some people do have an idea how much it is difficult to be around Israeli military, specifically on the field and documenting these abuses.
I can say that one of the things that did help me first is English. I used English to talk with the soldiers when they come to try to turn me back to not allow me to film I use English because if the Israeli military somehow if I spoke to them in Arabic, which I can say that they can tell from my face, obviously, but at the same time using English that in some extent, let them think of, you know, it seems like he is not Palestinian at least. Does not mean that I have not been facing harassment from the Israeli military. I have been pushed away, being arrested, being interrogated within the work that I have been doing on the ground.
So I can say that the process has been super difficult but at the same time, I did succeed in making my community comfortable and me being around in terms of, you know, if they are facing harassment from the Israeli military, they will say “okay, well let’s call Yousef”. So with the years I ended up having my phone number with my community members and they will give me a call when the Israeli military is making a, you know, house search or a body search for one of the community members in the old city of Hebron, specifically.
So I can say that the footages has been taking during the process of two years or two yearsish but it does not mean that the footage is that I have to it is not repeating itself and happening now. That’s one of the things that people have to take in consideration that “Oh, with this kind of an old footage, why we need to see it?” Well, actually, it is not, it is happening daily. It shows that struggle that the Palestinians are facing in other places. As a Palestinian and a person that grew up in an environment that does not believe in government — for sure, I don’t — seeing the impact of power on my community, for sure, I don’t believe in that. And I am seeing it first as a way of using the suffering for collecting money. And that’s why I feel like I for sure will not believe in any kind of government power that’s mainly using the struggle of my community for funding, for resources and saying that “we’re going to use it for building houses”, and that’s for sure it’s not happening. And a lot of money that has been directed for the Palestinian authority that Palestinians don’t see it. The only thing that we do see is armed Palestinian police, that they don’t have authority on anything, the Israeli government controlling even the Palestinian authority.
In terms of the history about Palestine and what has been sent abroad for the international media about my community struggle. It became super tricky about how we’re going to name this struggle, how we can finish it, how we can focus on a something, you know, a anything, to try to solve this issue. And my community did resist this occupation, we have used different way of resistance to try to take this occupation down. And unfortunately, the international media did play a big role of sending the wrong image, to the extent that the Palestinians being called “terrorists” for whatever we are doing. Us naturally as human beings, we have to resist against a racist armed power to control us. That natural resistance became titled as violent, it became titled as a terrorist act. That’s one of the reasons why I actually focused about human rights and the documentary because unfortunately, that’s the only language that’s being accepted in the international community to talk about the Palestinian suffering and the Palestinian struggle.
And I can say, through the screenings that I had, so far, I have been seeing a lot of people being engaged with the conversation and saying that “yeah, it is completely terrible that Palestinians are not treated as humans”, which to be honest with you I didn’t see that reaction when I just spoke to the people about the struggle itself without showing them a documentary or the language that’s internationally being used. The history is repeating itself, some people will say they are from Saudi Arabia, or from Jordan or from Syria or whatever, I can say that they are Indigenous community.
Other thing that people don’t recognize, sometime when we say Palestinian, they will think that we are just only Muslims, and that’s wrong. The Indigenous Palestinian community are Palestinian Muslims, Palestinians Jews, PalestinianChristians. There is different ways to make a direct action to go marching down the streets, you know, for people to recognize that there is a community, an Indigenous community, that they are suffering from an armed military occupation, and their struggle needs to be ended before the time being too late, as the history have told us about other Indigenous community around the world. About how they have been suffered from their voices not being heared, their resources being taken, their history being being colonized, it is completely a colonization system, an apartheid system, and it needs to be stopped and my dream, really my dream is to see people marching all over the world about this struggle. One of the things that I do keep repeat all the time: first, our fight is not with a religion. Our fight is simply connected with an armed power coming to our houses, to our lands and saying that “it is not yours anymore”. Palestinians refugees, most of them still have keys for their houses. They are still having it. They are still hoping one day they will go back and having the right of being returned.
Scott Branson:I’m Scott Branson, they/them. I live in western North Carolina, and I’ve been part of organizing this conference for this session, this one and the last one, which is where I met my co–presenters, collaborators, E and Kai, and we started working on this project together. I’m a teacher, writer, translator, etc. Just as my background.
E Ornellas: My name is E Ornellas, I prefer E, so no pronouns is great, but they it’s also fine. Yeah, I also met Scott and Kai at the last Queer Studies conference that was in person, and so I’m happy to be back with y’all, but in a digital space. And yeah, I don’t really know what to say about myself. I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota and I currently reside on Ojibwe and Dakota land, although that’s kind of…there’s a really long, complicated history of that, those claims to land. And, you know, it’s now called Duluth, Minnesota. And I have a lot of feelings about land acknowledgments, but I feel like it’s important to at least name — as someone who is not Indigenous to this land, my ancestors were Indigenous to what is now central Mexico, as well as Canada, settlers from Southern Europe — I feel like it’s important, at least to say, you know, as a visitor to this space, whose land I’m on. Yeah, and I think I’ll pause for now and pass to Kai, just in the interest of time, and we can get into more stuff about land acknowledgments and who we are and all that hopefully soon. Pass.
Kai Rajala:All right, thank you E. I’m Kai, they pronouns. I am joining you from Kanienʼkehá꞉kaland, colloquially known as Montreal, also referred to by many as the island of Osheaga. I am originally from unceded Coast Salish territory, in what is commonly known as Vancouver, British Columbia. I met E and Scott at a conference in Asheville a few years ago and I’m happy to still be collaborating with them on this project. I’m a bit of the anti–academic, though I did do a BA in French language and studied with Glen Coulthard at the University of British Columbia in the Indigenous Studies Department. So a lot of my work is very referential to Glen’s work. Yeah, and we’ll talk more about the project.
E: I like that name drop, very jealous of that connection.
K: *laughs* I mean, it’s there, right? So name it.
SB: So we started working together, cuz we had overlapping interests in terms of working on like utopian vision within radical — particularly anarchist,social movement organizing — and the way that utopian ideas are entangled with colonial and settler colonial visions. So we had all done our own sort of work and were trying to figure out how we could collaborate on a larger potential book project, and this, so today is going to be one sort of installation of that ongoing project that we’re building. And we’ve each prepared like a little bit of where we’re coming from, to read. We also talked a little bit, before we open the session, we’re talking about land acknowledgments and I just wanted to also add that like, we’re in a university setting, and part of the stuff that we’re talking about is how the implications of settler colonialism get invisiblized and many of the institutions that we are working within are, you know, have profited off the theft of land grant institutions. We were talking about that a little bit, rightbefore, and land acknowledgments have been used even by these institutions as a way to kind of show some kind of like, performative solidarity that has nothing to do with, like, any material follow up, right? So like, it’s a thing that gets used but it’s also we thought worth acknowledging, you know, that we are not Indigenous to the land that we’re speaking from.
K: So I think what’s interesting to note is our project and actually start out as anything really queer related, we’re all queer, and for the purpose of this conference we decided to shape what we’re working on to fit kind of the lens of Queer Studies and, you know, queer experience. It actually started with a few things. I ran into E and Scott in Atlanta at an anarchist conference two years ago and then that’s kind of where this conversation really began, the ball started rolling. But one of the things that started with was a critique of sustainability politics and the kind of sustainability movement, which I think is like this liberal, kind of like nonviolent politic, which refuses to surrender settler agency or control over territories, and insteadit’s kind of focusing on preserving settlement and attempting to reduce the ecological imprint that the settler State has on the planet. And so you know, it’s kind of naively asking like, “how can we delicately tap the earth of its resources? How can we like politely remove indigenous people from their land? And you know, if the current practice of capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession are destroying the waters? Like, how can we make the colony sustainable?” It started with that. And we’re also looking at ways in which as Scott was mentioning, in the beginning, more radical parts of our settler movements are actually reinforcing the settler state and the colony, and queerness.
EO: My starting point is usually from fiction. You know, I sort of blend maybe some of the more science and climate change stuff that Kai was just talking about, but with like, you know, a science fiction lens, and how like apocalypse, and climate change, and dystopia and utopia show up in speculative. And so that’s sort of my general subject area or interest. But yeah, I will explain shortly, I definitely made it queer for this. But I think generally, kind of radical politics, the whole, and how it takes up a lot of these narratives is what I’m concerned with.
So I’m definitely excited to work on this project. And I am excited to hear also people’s responses or questions as we’re sort of shaping this larger project we’re working on, we would like to make it some sort of tangible thing, a book or whatever out in the world. So feedback is very much encouraged throughout this, so that we can sort of be in conversation and not just like talking or writing at people. I really, very much want to welcome like, yeah, conversation.
SB: Yeah, even maybe inviting, like, collaborators too. Because like, another thing that we’re trying to do is envision projects that aren’t like single author ownership based. So but I guess let’s go into the reading of our prepared statements, and then go into the discussion so we have more time to unpack those things. So I’m going to start out with grounding in in the kind of like, questions about queer movements. I’m going to start reading.
Today’s radical queers are stuck in terms of figuring out how to inherit the legacy of gay liberation over against the more recent legacy of gay rights or assimilation. And I think that this dialectic between liberation and assimilation is a little bit misleading. And from like, retrospect, we can see the cooptation is like the goal. I mean, that’s a kind of pessimistic narrative, but it’s the thing that keeps happening. Often, this stuckness produces a nostaligia for the time of general militancy and rebellion across different groups experiencing domination, a time that ultimately splintered through hierarchy, liberal identitarianism, counterinsurgency, murder, incarceration and incorporation into the dying liberal bourgeois state.
And yet, today we see a proliferation what at least previously were deviant genders and sexualities, especially among younger people, while acknowledging an easier terrain for older people to come out and a culture that replays images of queer criminality, liberationist slogans, and apparent subscription to the radical claims of those movements. And when I said like a “dying bourgeois state”, I don’t mean that in like a good way, because something worse might be coming, right? Um, some kind of neofeudalism or whatever.
Theoretically, a major issue in inheriting this legacy of queer liberation or gay liberation has been how to deal with a liberationist ideology that sees queerness, or more precisely, homosexuality, or even more precisely sex between men, as somehow inherently revolutionary, spelling the eventual doom of cis-hetero patriarchy and racial capitalism. Like if men fuck each other than the world will fall apart. If only for the reason that that efflorescence of public queerness via the movements didn’t actually produce this liberation right — that didn’t happen — but instead various backlashes on public sex and cross class contact over against recognitions of certain rites, we might discard the idea that queerness is radical. Of course, we still would have to contend with the way that HIV AIDS forced gay movements to combat the state and scientific communities for the very lives of those who are dying. But I think we can also get to the understanding of the limits of gay liberation theoretically, simply in the idea of the homosexual.
One version of this is the transgressive or even criminal, that category tends to rely upon the normative for its power. So it can always be absorbed. And this has been talked about by like, lots of people like Bataille or Judith Butler. For us, this absorption has already taken place, because gay now means a specific consumer niche.
Another version of this like paradox inherent in gayness is articulated in the early days of so called queer theory by Eve Sedgwick in her reading of Billy Budd, as what she called “the crucial question of a potentially utopian politics”. And this is what she asks, “Is men’s desire for other men the great preservative of the masculinist hierarchies of Western culture, or is it among the most potent threats against them?” I’ve been, like, sitting with this question for a really long time. For Sedgwick, this ambivalence is tied up with a “definitional incoherence” — that’s what she calls it — that plagues modern attempts to classify homosexuality. Is it a minority group, an identifiable class of person, or is it a universalizing tendency that represents a possibility across classes and types and also, like, nations?
The modern gay rights movement has strategically employed the minoritarian response in a bid for recognition and incorporation, and therebyhas left behind some of the more destructive and dangerous impulses of gay liberation — like the movement — which often call for general homosexual realization of culture, or transgendering everyone, so that society, like a capitalist society, and all its norms of oppression would be destroyed.
Sedgwick certainly looked fondly on the liberationist tendencies, but overallshe operated within the typically academic Foucaultian framework that came to displace ideas of liberation, especially in Anglo queer theory. This framework sees the invention of homosexuality as a modern phenomenon occurring through the biopolitical intersection of criminal, medical and even literary discourse. The theoretical approach that is dominant, then, sticks to incoherence in homosexuality and this paradox without deciding to resolve it towards liberation, right, like it doesn’t take an ethical stance often.
Now I’ve been really, like, this new recently released book by Christopher Chitty, Sexual Hegemony — it was a posthumously edited volume by a friend Max Fox —has really been reframing some of the ways I think I’m thinking about this. Chitty supplies Foucault’s discursive production of homosexuality with a class analysis of various nodal points of capitalist development. Ultimately, Chitty shows another picture of the ambivalence of same sex practices and communities with the practice could signal both the potential of proletarian unrest, and also the punishment that enforce social norms across classes on top of the oppressive economic and material conditions, creating the condition for the possibility for these sexual cultures to blossom in the first place.
The biggest threat overall tended to be seen in public sex, which reinterpreted urban space outside of bourgeois hegemony, and created cross class connections which threaten the state. In this way, the policing of sodomy, according to Chitty, gets looped in with criminalizing vagrancy and sex work. So these categories all kind of go together. Chitty’s work reinscribes the political ambivalence of queerness for it’s no longer that homosexuality is simply a threat to hegemony but actually plays a role in statecraft and state consolidation, and historicall. Chitty offers a different definition of queer, and I’m quoting now, “as a social category queer would then describe the morbid cultural forms by which the normative logics of gender and sexuality become irreparably damaged, desperately reasserted and perversely renaturalized within a generalized social crisis, rather than marketing some utopian release from these logics in the pursuit of self transformative play”. So this kind of, again, is a way of getting rid of the utopian possibilities inherent and queerness. What remains of the liberationist drive was ultimately tied into a liberal bourgeois idea of identity subject to it in progress. The modern queer identity that we have today is just as much a product of bourgeois ideology, despite its intermittent threat to social order, or its intermittent use as a targeted police force, which then creates a community under siege and looking for reprieve.
Not only is it a product of capitalism, but also colonialism, as colonial outposts historically did and still do provide areas of sexual license for bourgeois European American men. And similarly, the experience of settlers in the US on the frontier were propitious for same sex encounters and love between men, but that was inextricably bound with a project of removal, replacement, genocide, and settler colonialism.
One of the things that Chitty brings up that I think is worth further developing, that doesn’t get developed in the book, is that we could boil down all the contradictions of homosexuality as well as heterosexuality to questions of consent and the deployment of power. Along with the extraction, displacement and erasure of different life ways and colonized lands, the European proletarian cultures of sex and even sexual identity were eventually displaced by a bourgeois homosexual identity that’s still overdetermines our understanding of sexuality today. And the theory and science that this gay identity produced also created an industry of history and knowledge that tried to trace the universal aspects of same sex love and gender deviation across times and cultures. These gay myths and origin stories could mine colonized and genocided cultures for proof of the biological minoritarian naturalness of gayness or transness, while not analyzing the power dynamics that produce this Eurocentric gaze on other ways of doing sex and gender outside of bourgeois sexual hegemony.
And so, like, you know, in the 19th century anthropological discourse there is this like fascination with the berdache as, like, a third gender and that idea that some people claim for a kind of naturalness of trans identity that we see in our modern, like, settler colonial state is, like, coopting, appropriating and also misunderstanding something, and it is all part of the process of the kind of binary gendering of colonization.
If we follow the association of homosexuality with nodes of capital development and crisis, then we can’t collapse these other cultural life forms into something that we know in the same way, except as appropriation, extraction, colonization, erasure. In the end, it turns out that the good part — I’m arguing — that the good parts of gay liberation, I mean, besides the pleasure of cruising, of public sex and creating possibilities of contact, were in fact versions of militant anticapitalism, antiracism, and decolonialism. The gay identity that ultimately won recognition and military inclusion and marriage rights reworks the utopian lines of liberatory thought into a utopia of identity, which is ultimately a white utopia purchasable by certain norms. And this function also largely minimizes and forgets the ongoing HIV AIDS crisis worldwide.
For example, we have queer conferences at universities and support for queer students and perhaps visibly queer professors, but that hasn’t changed the institution itself, which trades in an empty promise of upward mobility for life of debt peonage, not to mention its entanglement in the legacy of chattel slavery and the ongoing project of settler colonialism. The joke is that this respectability politics came at the same time with a deeper crisis in capitalism and so arguably queerness itself is an artifact that we might want to discard. For it’s perhaps nothing but a scrap of meat thrown to another marginalized group to get them to consent to being ruled. So one thing that, again, going back toChitty, he deflates the utopian impulses and gay liberation and rights using Benedict Anderson’s concept of an imagined community to describe this universalizing attempt at, like, global solidarity. Not to resist state violence but to gain recognition. But this queer imagined communities only imaginable through coordinates of a bourgeois him to hegemony of interiority, subjectivity and identity. If gayness is an identity is already colonized, and colonizing, whitewashed and recoupable.
Early gay liberation thinkers like Guy Hocquenghem, someone I work on, were committed to a decolonial, feminist, anti racist, anti capitalist division of liberation. And they said this even at the beginning of the gay liberation movement Hocquenghem pronounce the end of gay liberation within a year or two of the opening of the of the movement and his involvement in the Frente Homosexual de Acción Revolucionaire, not just because the gay liberation movement was splintering along lines of misogyny and moralism. Hocquenghem demanded that as soon as homosexuality was one it has to be given up or else you just serve the purpose of being a token fag or professional revolutionary. In this spirit, I want to point to a different way of thinking of the possibilities of radical queerness liberation and utopia that don’t work through erasure of settlement, terra nullius, or liberal forms of identity and sameness.
I’m influenced by theories developed from study of anarchism, abolition, Indigenous knowledge and Black radical tradition, and ideas like fugitivity flight, the undercommons and marronage. But as a settler, as a white person, my position has to be taken up critically, dispossessed settlers, as well as arrivants on the American continents have long sought ways to escape the dominant forms of colonial identity, the demands and allegiances that became codified as race, gender and sexuality. In fact, these notifications often happen from on high in order to root out cross class, cross race, same sex affiliations that could never fully be controlled by criminalization. And yet the legacies of these laws have become written on our bodies, and the discipline runs the gamut from parental pressure to police murder, or perpetual incarceration.
I’m gonna skip over this, but I was talking about like the ways that sort of racial codes came through controlling sex and reproduction. And also through these complex alliances between people who were keen to be defined as Black and white settlers against Indigenous populations. All these things are densely complex, and they have different relationships with eventual strategies of state formation, through parceling up of identities and accumulation, extraction and dispossession. But another side that we could think of through queer history of like escape, and maroons is thinking about how these histories are modeled counter hegemonic, counter institutional, counter powers and the fissures of capitalism’s ever constant crises. These histories that don’t often get told or those of communities who lived in uninhabitable places which, by which I mean like undeveloped, or undevelopable, often across racial lines. And these histories aren’t utopian, they can’t serve as a salvific function of escape for white queers. Instead, they point to the alternative and living organizations that still happen today outside of the nation state across identity markers that could be continued in explicitly decolonial struggle. To join that struggle white queers would have to put their own status on the line, no longer to help to clear the land but to give possession up, along with queerness too and identityas we understand it. The whole reason queer liberation has ceased to be a problem is that is no longer generally a threat to the bourgeois status to be gay.
Or on the flip side, the relative sexual freedom that has become hegemonic is coincident with a crisis in capitalism and the dissolution of the bourgeoisie as a moral enforcer, may be on the way to this new neofeudalism. And yet here we all are, every one of us imperiled in our attempts to survive in the system that exists. And that identity is packaged as race, gender, sexuality and class marks certain populations out for easy disposability.
So just to kind of sum up, settlers have to give up queerness along with whiteness to reenvision the relation to the land, we have to give up utopia both in our identities and in our methods, since it is a concept steeped in the processes of racialization, settler colonialism, the production of the human through genocide and enslavement. Our relation to the land can’t romanticize past life ways and must promote self determination and some sort of coexistence outside of the hegemony of European knowledge production. So my question to like, go into the discussion, and I’ll reiterate it when we do that is whether there’s a need for queer liberation movement right now? And if so, why would it be called that and not something else?
EO: Thanks so much, Scott. I’m going to pick up some of what Scott brings up at the end there and expand on it in my remarks. And yeah, I also have some questions and things I’d love to discuss. But again, I’d love to hear other folks thoughts. So I’m going to give some, like, definitions just to start us off in a place, so we’re all kind of on the same page, starting with settler colonialism. So Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice defines settler colonialism as quote “distinguished from the more traditional ideas of colonialism, wherein invaders claim resourcesbut then return home. By emphasizing the settler population to creation of a new social order, that depends in part on the ongoing oppression and displacement of Indigenous peoples” end quote. So this is what Patrick Wolfe also calls the elimination of the native.
This oppression, displacement, and elimination is always ongoing. It’s not just a one time thing, it’s continually happening even now, and it’s always gendered and sexualized. So that is to say, settlers, demonize, punish and violate Indigenous peoples along the lines of gender and sexuality, and simultaneously, settlers seek to replace diverse native views, practices, identities, lifeways, with a homogenous, Western, cis-hetero patriarchal system that ensures the future of a white settler population. So my main challenge, our main challenge here, and this is for radical queers to rethink the kinds of futures we try to include ourselves in, and how our liberatory work can suddenly replay exclusion and erasure. So specifically, I’m going to grapple with the questions: how does utopianism show up in radical queer and feminist discourse? How does this perpetuate the settler colonial imperative of terra nullius, erasure, genocide, etc, through utopian ideals? And how do radical queer politics romanticize Indigenous knowledge and modes of living to motivate utopia? And then I’m going to end with a question sort of everybody, what other forms of futurity and speculation resist the settler colonial imperatives of a terra nullius utopia?
So one of the obvious examples of utopian thinking is the sort of assimilative drive within mainstream liberal LGBT movements and cultural productions, sort of this desire for acceptance, the promise of protection and homo normative procreative future that is the ability to keep living, but within the dictate of the US nation state. So borrowing from Jasbir Puar’s term “homonationalism”, which indicates that certain queer bodies — often read as white and white passing — are reconstituted as worthy of recognition and protection. Scott Lauria Morgenson says that “settler homonationalism is the product of the sexual colonization of Indigenous peoples insofar as queer subject hood and queer pride becomes tied to a sense of modernity, rather than a “primitive” quote unquote “Indigeneity” and indebtedness to a supposedly progressive nation. With this normative gay pride perhaps best visualized by “love is love” yard signs rainbow striped us flags, and Rue Pall singing “I am an American just like you too”, is easily dismissed by more radical queer activists. Or is it?
With the recent rise of media such as the Brown sisters podcast “How to Survive the End of the World” as well as Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff’s edited collection The Feminist Utopid Project: 57 Visions a Wildly Better Future, there’s been a noticeable uptake and interest on the left in the construction of a wildly better future, in spite of a supposedly impending end of the world. I’d like to challenge the radical queer feminist urges to create these utopian visions of a society based on the apocalyptic crumbling of the present. A radical queer politics that relies on unquestioned utopian and dystopian visions, risks aligning itself with a settler colonial imaginary of terra nullius, or blank slate space.
So on the one hand, dystopian and apocalyptic visions perpetuate the unquestioned assumption that a societal collapse is impending, right? As if the continual degradation of human and more than human communities has not already arrived. So in an article on science, and science fiction narratives of Indigeneity and climate change, Pottawatomie scholar Kyle White reminds us that quote, “the hardships many non-Indigenous people dread most of the climate crisis are ones that Indigenous peoples have already endured, due to different forms of colonialism. Such as ecosystem collapse, species loss, economic crash, drastic relocation and cultural disintegration” end quote. This critique could certainly be extended beyond the climate crisis to other hardships that Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, also known as North America, have endured, such as the continued murder or disappearance, dispossession, removal, forced assimilation under resourcing, and what elsewhere I have called “phenomenological ignorance”.
So when I hear fellow radical queer activists and scholars lamenting the current social, political and meteorological conditions were weathering, who balk that this is anything new, let alone impending. To accept that it is, I think, would be to erase the experiences of my and many others Indigenous ancestors. Particularly dangerous in this assumption is the kind of crisis rhetoric that fosters opportunities for settler colonial sentiments of insecurity, and in the face of this insecurity, assertions of belonging and sovereignty in land and lifeways. So I think Emily Potter succinctly summarizes this, quote, “the non-Indigenous fear of dispossession or exile manifests in the need to defend their jurisdiction over land” end quote. So this implicitly creeps into radical queer discourse when settler queers faced with very real contemporary issues, such as anti-Black legal and extra legal violence, neofascism, militarized policing, etc, attempt to construct autonomous or occupied zones, buy up land, houses and property, some kind of, you know, maybe manifestation of radical prepping, or in other ways individualize and privatized their survival. So Additionally, painting disruptive phenomenon as “apocalypses” belies the human made, in fact, settler made, emergence of these crises.
April Ansan, shows how quote “settler apocalypticism” end quote, obscures colonialism, and its attendant, disaster capitalism, as the true culprit of quote “racial and environmental contraction.” end quote. Therefore, if settler queers insist on using the language of dystopia and apocalypse, they also work to veil their own complicity in these processes. So one apparent amelioration to this could be found in the call for radical queers to quote, “learn from Indigenous peoples”. But this could also easily fall into a trap of what Jean O’Brian calls lasting, or the idea that Indigenous peoples are the last of a nearly decimated group, whose wisdom belongs to bygone eras, yet can still help settlers avoid their own potential extinction. This assumes that to return to Kyle White, quote, “Indigenous peoples are communities who primarily reside in the Holocene, and over time have been gradually deteriorating to the point that the plight of the modern era threatened to kill them off permanently” end quote.
So instead, right, so I would ask radical queer, non-Indigenous accomplices to see Indigenous peoples as of this time, and not monolithic, right? And not to covet these knowledges. And then in thinking about our utopias, rather than dystopias, I do worry that that sort of notion of the future as this mysterious open space and having this sort of as yet to be realized, or as yet to be colonizedquality, creates then another terra nullius space.
To be forever looking towards this horizon, as the space of resistance as a space of resistance like finally realized, and safety finally secured for queer and trans people, I think, one: makes it seem like we can’t create this in the present and that many Indigenous and other queer, trans, two-spirit folks aren’t already creating this in the present. And two: I think this reinscribes yet another, “other”, quote unquote, space that is not yet “ours”, and also ours is in quotes. But it will be one day, right? We can colonize it, we can be there one day, we can claim that one day. Hence mirroring the settler colonial imperative of elimination replacement and what E. Tuck and K. Wayne Yang tell us is the intention of making a new home on the land, homemaking, insists on settler sovereignty over all things in their new domain. This would be the domain of the future utopia. So this discounts the ongoing presence of Indigenous alternatives to the current settler colonial dystopian reality, and instead preserves a view of geographic and social space as blank and ready to be improved with a new model. Again, here we have a problem of erasure, of the oppressions and resistances that have been ongoing in different durations in favor of the blank space of the utopian frontier.
In other words, radical queer politics romanticizes Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies to create a future utopia for themselves, and potentially “altruistically” quote, unquote, for others. I therefore argue against any linear progression of societal environmental collapse, which then promises to bring about this future idealized world of rainbow diverse identities. Instead, I propose — I think we propose together — ways for radical politics, particularly those espoused by non-Indigenous people, to disavow such settler colonial mindsets. And then again, to end, I’ll reiterate this later, I opened with the question to everyone “what other forms of futurity and speculation might be imagined that resists the settler colonial imperatives of terra nullius”?
KR:Thanks E, I guess it’s me. Okay, so I’m going to begin by positioning today’s discussion within the larger body of my work, thinking and research. I’m currently interested as a mixed European white settler predominantly of Finnish descent in the ways in which Finnish immigrants have contributed to the expansion of the Canadian project of settler colonial occupation. Finns traditionally settled in Thunder Bay, Ontario in Canada, elsewhere around the Great Lakes in the United States and the Midwest, including Minnesota and Michigan, and are revered amongst leftist historians as being important to the labor movement in Canada. This contribution was not only through the overt methods of settling and primitive accumulation, which included work as loggers clearing land for settlement, and as pioneer homesteaders, but also his workers involved in union organizing.
Written above the Finnish labor temple in Thunder Bay, Ontario is the Latin phrase “Labor Omnia Vincit”, which translates to “hard work conquers all”. This can be read many ways, namely, that if one works hard upon arriving in these lands, one will be promised the bounty of the Canadian dream, property ownership and middle class prosperity. But the word “conquer” is perhaps the most important part, and interpreted through a lens that challenges settler colonialism, really hones in on the role of the Finnish worker in the nation building, as being the soldier of conquest able to tame the wild Canadian frontier. Finns and also Russians would attempt to establish utopian colonies on the west coast of Canada, which included Finnish Slough in Richmond BC and Sointula Village on Malcolm Island.
So, right, there’s this anti-Indigenous idea of terra nullius, which the three of us are bringing up, that this land is somehow empty and it is not already utopic or to European standards, it is empty and needs to be transformed. This research — namely how ethno cultural utopian and socialist settler movements were important in the construction of the settler political imaginary and essential to the structure of the Canadian settler state — will represent the bulk of my contribution to our ongoing collaboration, which we hope to turn into a book project titled No Blank Slates.
In the realm of queerness, and settler colonialism much of my research and writing for the past few years has been on the history of the so called gay liberation movement in Canada. The ways in which it has differed from that of the United States and how gay and lesbian settlers and their pursuit of rights throughout the later half of the 20th century helped to strengthen both the image and the political power of Canada as a supposedly inclusive, multicultural and progressive nation state. In the 1960s, there was a pivot in both the direction of settler governance and the modes of control over Indigenous nations. Canada’s natural governing parties, the Liberals, under the leadership of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who many of you will recognize as Justin Trudeau’s father, was promoting the idea of a just society, which sought to incorporate those once outside the Canadian body politic. And here I quote “the just society will be one in which the rights of minorities will be safe from the whims of intolerant majorities. The just society will be one in which our Indian and Innuit populations will be encouraged to assume the full rights of citizenship through policies, which will give them both greater responsibility for their own future, and more meaningful equality of opportunity.”
Aspects of this strategy were to be achieved through the criminal law Amendment Act Bill C 150, which drew inspiration from the criminal lawcode reforms going on at the same time in England, as well as the proposed 1969 white paper. During their transformative era of the 1960s Canadian government actors were retiring the overtly genocidal tactics of segregation, starvation and eradication that their predecessors had employed against Indigenous peoples, opting instead for more covert ways of dealing with sovereignty claims, by way of legislation, which would effectively attempt to trade title to land for Canadian citizenship. The white paper introduced by Pierre Trudeau government and then Minister of Indian Affairs John Chrétien sought to eliminate Aboriginal title and treaty to lands by abolishing the Indian act as it stood, and to assimilate Indigenous people into Canadian society, but was ultimately rejected through the organizing of Indigenous leaders and activists.
Settler colonialism is not only a social and psychological project, however, it operates primarily in a material way relying on access to land and resources in order to continue the process of capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession. Indigenous nations stood in the way of Canada’s access to land. The growing Red Power movement was not one of identity, but instead centered on self determination, and was a result of Indigenous peoples refusal of the insulting tactics of Trudeau government and the Canadian state.
At the same time, the Canadian gay liberation movement emerged as a response to 1969s Criminal Law Amendment Act, which effectively decriminalized aspects of homosexual sex between consenting adults in private. Queers demanded increased rights and accommodation from the state, encouraged by the Stonewall riots in the United States, and by the olive branch Canada had extended with its progressive reforms. At this historical moment, there was certainly room for radical potential of settlers and Indigenous people uniting against the assimilatory actions that Pierre Trudeau’s government attempted to enact towards each group, but no coalition materialized.
For upwardly mobile gays and lesbian settlers, those that desired recognition from the state and representation amongst the high ranks of its governance structure, the Canadian state becomes a utopic vision. The incorporation of productive white homosexual men into the folds of nationhood — which began with reforms to the criminal law code — was a decision that ensured the Canadian state could expand the viability of its capitalist economy, and maintain its assumed authority and legitimacy in the minds of those it subjugates. It is also something that of course necessitates private property. As Jasbir Puar reminds us settler colonialism has a long history of articulating its violence through the protection of serviceable figures, such as women and children and now the homosexual. In this historical process, so called gay liberation, presumably from hetero patriarchal norms, transmutes into gay assimilation into the nation’s body politic. White homosexual men were, in fact, so eager to penetrate into Canada’s body politic, that they named the first Canadian gay periodical, The Body Politic after it.
What was lost in this moment of assimilation was the radical potential of a combined movement — between those organizing around gay liberation and gay rights — with the burgeoning Red Power movement at the time. While the gay movement in Canada throughout the later half of the 20th century shifted their focus to the pursuit of rights and recognition from the settler state, Indigenous people, for the most part, continue to refuse Canada’s attempts at assimilation, and instead to reaffirm their rights and titles to land which had not yet been seated. The 21st century saw a new marriage of sorts between queers and the Canadian colonial project. For queer settlers the promise of recognition in the eyes of the progressive state did not end with the passing of the Civil Marriage Act in 2005.
In the US that followed Justin Trudeau’s election assimilationist gays, lesbians and transgender settlers, who already desired upward mobility within the capitalist order were offered even more fruits from the state. In his role as Prime Minister, Trudeau marched with his family at the head of a slew of pride celebrations, from 2016 to 2019, emphasizing the importance of family values. In response to the violent repression that queers had endured at the hands of Canadian policing, Trudeau performed a very public and very emotional apology. In March of 2019, when President Donald Trump moved to ban transgender troops from the US military, the Canadian Armed Forces, the CAF, overhauled its existing policy to extend an arm and welcome Canadians of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Like the US military under Barack Obama’s presidency, the revised policy incentivize transgender Canadians to enlist in the army, offering support services for those who wish to medically transition as well as insisting that the CAF would create an environment where transgender members were free from harassment and discrimination. This served to only widen the Gulf that existed between those fighting for self determination in Canada and gay, lesbian and transgender settlers.
And again, though we can only speculate on the radical potential the combined forces of gay liberation and the Red Power movement as they emerge simultaneously in the 1960s and 70s Canada, a queer anticolonialism exists today amongst the queer, trans and two-spirit youth on the frontlines of resistance against the Canadian state. The current generation is leading the Shutdown Canada and Land Back movements, as well as the efforts to abolish the Canadian colonial police force the Royal Canadian Mountain Police, RCMP, and defund municipal police bodies in major Canadian cities. A radical political analysis rooted in a necessity for Indigenous sovereignty has been growing momentum as radical, queer and anarchist organizers continue to learn alongside and build relationships of solidarity with Indigenous peoples and nations. As Canada moves to secure land for resource extraction amidst a global pandemic, and pacify conversations around repatriation and abolishing the police, all settlers, but especially queers, must commit to pushing back against their own government structure, which will continue to erase voices of resistance and mount its own narrative of the benevolence.
In his book Red Skin White Mask, Glen Coultard applies the theoretical concept of the politics of recognition to post 1969 Canadian society. Expanding upon Franz Fanon ideas surrounding the shift from the overt violence of colonial control, over colonized subjects, towards recognition and accommodation as a form of state management. Coulthard concludes that because rights and permissions are distributed by the state, the cycle of colonization continues and the rights must be rejected. He extends the strategy of rejecting state management to “other subaltern groups, not just the colonized” and which is a quote, which would include the working class, people of color and gender and sexual minorities. Because the Canadian state privileges the treatment of respectable and middle class gay, lesbian and transgender settlers at the expense of Indigenous people, it makes sense for queers to turn this recognition and accommodation provided by Canada on its head.
Theoretically speaking, this extension of Coulthards call to reject recognition and the gifts of the settler stateby marginalized groups other than Indigenous people has not yet been taken up. The project of queer refusal of the settler colonial project is not an ideological attainment or position, but instead an ongoing commitment to the disruption of settlement and the economies which sustain it. Radical queer settlers who choose to align ourselves with Indigenous peoples and nations whose land we continue to occupy, and whose stolen wealth we continue to benefit from must start by refusing the recognition and the gifts that the nation state offers us, as well as actively disrupting the ways in which our identities are used to advance Canada’s myth of progress. Armed with the lessons of the past, we must help to enact decolonization in its fullest, most literal sense, moving beyond the perfunctory gestures of acknowledgement, and towards outcomes that are material.
This project is one that destabilizes queer utopian ideals and settler agency in imagining alternatives to capitalism and colonial governance, and instead centers the repatriation of lands and the reclamation of laws, Indigenous governance structures, and Indigenous economies that have been suppressed. It is a commitment to action and relationship building, to solidarity and learning.
A few weeks ago in a talk given at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, Susan Stryker signaled that in a post–Trump era, Biden certainly embraced liberal inclusive model of recognizing trans rights. She continued and emphasized that — and I’m paraphrasing here — the laws are not going to save us, the institutional power is not going to save us. We have to become a new body politic moving beyond the state. With the return to liberal inclusion politics in the US, I want to signal a potential area for collaborative prefiguration between radicals living in both nation states to challenge the ways in which both of these settler states weaponize queerness and building off of the proposal of Coulthard and in response to the remarks put forward by Stryker. I would also like to suggest the imperative task of taking up the project of queer refusal in a serious manner, and then instead of a new body politic, a disembodied politic of sorts that rejects the narrative of queer progress, and challenges the very nature of queer identity formation be pursued instead. The greatest threat to the settler state, then, should not be seen as the radical queers lifestyle or rejection of heterosexist society, and social and sexual reproductive norms, but the rejection of state power and capitalist accumulation.
So to end, the question that I had for the discussion is, where do we go from here? How do queer movements engage with the state? How do they build relationships with Indigenous movements? And one thing that I wanted to add is that some of these sites of refusal have already begun. In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Criminal Law code Reforms, Canada announced it would issue a commemorative dollar coin, quite literally a token of gay capitalism. Beyond mere pinkwashing, Trudeau was in more ways than one continuing this project of assimilation, the fabled construction of the “justice society” that his father had begun in the late 60s. And amongst several disruptions, myself and other queer activists and academics, gathered in Ottawa in March of 2019, for the Anti 69 conference — and that’s anti 1969 as in the Criminal Law Code Reforms, not anti 69 is in the sexual act *laughs* — to trouble the mythology of the Omnibus criminal code reform bill and to shed light on the Canadian states ongoing crimes on Indigenous people within Canada and abroad.
This week, we present a conversation with Shane Burley, author of the new AK Press book, “Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse”. For the hour, we speak about the contents of the book, anti-fascism, toxic masculinity, pushing racists and fascists out of cultural space, antisemitism (including in the left), conspiricism, right wing publishing and other topics.
TFSR:So, I’m happy to be joined by Shane Burley. Shane recently published Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance and Surviving the Apocalypse through AK Press. We spoke with Shane in 2018 about Shane’s previous book Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat, Shane, and for this enjoyable and insightful book. Would you care to introduce yourself further for the audience with any preferred gender pronouns or anything else you want to say?
Shane Burley: Yeah, thanks for having me on, I love the show, I’m happy to be back. I use he/him or they/them pronouns. The new book is a collection of essays, some published before, some were not published before. I write for a number of places, NBC News, Daily Beast, Al Jazeera, Protean magazine. My last book was Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It from AK Press, and I think, that’s the last time I was on the show, I was talking about that book.
TFSR:I really enjoy that chat and I’m looking forward to this. Can you talk a bit about your focus on the apocalypse in the book? I really enjoyed explorations of End-Time concepts in the introduction and counter-posing a revolutionary hunger for a new beginning versus a reactionary draw for regression back to the purity of oblivion on the Right.
SB: Yeah, it would be dishonest to not discuss this cultural pessimism that we are living in, it’s not even just in the place of the culture, it’s a real depression that we are living in. Socially watching as a collapse basically takes place on a number of different levels: ecologically, economically, socially. As we live through really profound emotional crises, the murdering of BIPOC communities by police, the constant mass shootings… We’re talking now, after a week of basically almost daily mass shootings. We are seeing really massive ecological devastation, one that feels like it’s triggering an accelerated collapse, and it’s really hard to then think about what it means to confront power or improve the world or even great revolution when we’re living in such a state of uncertainty and a real cynicism about the world. So when I look back at the work I’ve done over the Trump years, that was the primary feeling I started to get and also about what it means to live through the apocalypse. So I talk in the book quite a bit about mutual aid work and how people have survived, and how expectations and structures and communities have really changed over time. When we were doing mutual aid work during the pandemic, what stuck out to me a lot more is that people were in need of the mutual aid work more, but also the mutual aid work was better. We had reached a certain capacity on it. Years back, I used to do food not bombs and all kinds of mutual aid work and I felt like in a way it was performative. A soup kitchen down the road did much better than we did. State services were much more effective than we were. We were there for ideological reasons, but people were there to provide services, probably better than we had. That changed, and I think, because of that, that’s opened up a space, a very real space in this crisis – for us. For us to be us, and for us to offer another vision.
So I look in a lot of ways at traditions of the apocalypse that have maybe a different spin on the depressions. I talk about Jewish Messianism a little bit, particularly work ofGershom Scholem and others, with the idea that when we’re talking about the end of the world, the crisis that we’re living through, of collapse, of mass shootings, of the world, that’s actually the day to day realities of capitalism and the state. We can expect that this is basically an accelerated version of the world we live in. It doesn’t end anything. The only way we end it is we change the rules. If the world is actually fundamentally different, then it could actually set the end, and so I pull on this work by Walter Benjamin and others, I’m thinking about what the Messiah means as a concept. And really what the messiah means is that the Messiah brings the end, not the end brings the Messiah, it’s the other way around. And when we think about this in a broader social way, if we’re thinking about this Messianic Age is one that we all participate in the different ways, we pull the pieces together, that it’s actually us that ends the world by building a new one, not just reacting to the crisis as other people have.
And that reminds me in a lot of ways that fascists often present themselves as revolutionaries, but they are a continuation of the same. Being a radical anti-Semite or a radical misogynist is not revolutionary. That’s just a very loud version of the world we live in. What’s truly revolutionary, is to build the world a mutual aid, kindness, and solidarity, that’s a truly radical vision and that’s what actually ends things. So I think when we are going forward, we have to live in the reality of the world that exists now with very serious problems that aren’t necessarily just getting better. We have to start thinking about what it looks like on the other side, and I think that vision of the apocalypse, so to speak, of this profound end and change, is one that we should start to live in, one where we can think about how we’re going to build something new as a form of resistance.
TFSR: Have you read Desert?
SB: I have read Desert, many years ago.
TFSR: It sometimes gets talked about in these terms and for listeners that haven’t, it’s an eco-anarchist text that was published in the early 2000s that talks about what happens if ecological collapse as a process is going on, and how do we take agency during it and make the best out of it possible without… Some people read it as a pessimistic approach to the problem of anthropogenic climate change, but I always took it as this practical approach that. Like “Alright, the government, the militaries are considering this to be a way that the world is going to be shaped differently as we move forward and continuing to shape itself differently. How do we adjust to this? How do we adapt and had we make the most out of it?” So I think, a radical ecological justice-centered approach towards doing a similar thing in recognizing that their power struggles are ongoing seems like an attempt to turn the apocalypse into something else. I don’t know. Maybe gives up too much agency, and I doubt that the authors are wishing for a WaterWorld scenario, but…
SB: Yeah, there is a nihilistic version of that vision of collapse, and it’s actually not just a radical version. We have this all over the place. There’s a giving up or trying to live in the moment, purely in the moment as a way of accepting the reality of climate change, but I think the actual reality is not that someday it will explode in some spectacular moment of excess, but that things just get worse over times and then profoundly change. And I think we’ll be confronted with what does it mean then to build a society. And I think the structures of the past, the states, and economic systems, they will survive to a point through this crisis. But we will have to decide whether or not we’re going to challenge them through that and build something that actually creates a new vision. I think we should obviously deliberately do everything we can to push back an ecological crisis. I don’t want to get anyone an “out” there to say like it doesn’t matter, but we do need to think more about what does it mean to build a world, not just stop that, but in the midst of that, I think by doing that, we’re going to find a much more cogentanswer, find a more important answer for how we live our lives, for what effective resistance looks like, but I think we’re also gonna find an answer to the problem itself. We’re gonna find an answer to the ecological crisis by building a world amidst the reality of it and thinking about was the new rules. I saw this meme a year ago, it said “I’ve been trained to survive in a world that no longer exists”. I think we need to start thinking about what world does exist and training each other to survive and flourish by those new rules.
TFSR: Yeah. Your intro also points to the possible limitations of a negative version in movements of opposition, such as like shallow anti-fascism. You mentioned mutual aid as a thing that people have been engaging in and that’s been engaging them more. I want it just like tap up a thing that I heard recently and would love to hear your ideas of it. But in a recent episode of Black Autonomy Federations’ podcast, Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin talks about white anti-fascism as a shallow response that only wants to fight Nazis in the streets without recognizing and actually struggling against the structural fascism faced byBIPOCcommunities from the start of the American project. What do you see in the anti-fascist movement and vision that gives you hope, and how do you see the building of positive, wider approaches that actually aren’t just oppositional?
SB: I think that critique is really important. Black anti-fascism, in general, has been entirely erased from history. It’s almost as part of a different tradition, a part of this Black radical tradition, that’s not the same as anti-fascism, which I think has a certain narrative to it that anti-fascism is a white radical project or something. And that erases the NAACP NRA chapters that were fighting the Klan, Black Panthers, which was basically an antifascist platform. There are dozens of organizations that go over the history, frankly, a lot earlier than any white anti-fascist organizations which in the US didn’t really come onto people’s radars until the 80s. There are a number of things there. So, on the one hand, it’s a debate over what constitutes fascism. Is the state and police fascism, or only these insurgent white forces? I think that it might actually not matter as much. Both things are important and obviously, intervene into successful life or any equitable just society. I think what people often are focusing on it’s very easy and non-complicated to fight neo-Nazis, that’s not emotionally or morally conflicted in a lot of ways and it’s actually one that can uniteton of people. But when we’re talking about real systemic white supremacy and anti-Blackness, specifically, it becomes really complicated for people and they don’t always jump in with the same ease of commitments. And those movements require a lot more long-term work, we’re talking about really high stakes and talking ones that don’t have easy answers. And so I actually think it sometimes even the push-back from the view of it as anti-fascism is to think about, looking at a situation of what is important here.
So this is April 2021. We have just seen a slew of murders of Black folks by the police. Now when we are looking at the issue, is the top priority the white nationalist organizations, or is it a top priority fighting expansive, violent policing. Well, I think both are and we get to see them actually working together, to have them actually intersecting in really profound ways. We can’t start to see those things as fundamentally separate, and so I would less push back on anti-fascist groups that focus on white nationalists. It’s good to have a focus and be skilled at one thing so that you can do that one thing really well. But I think it’s important for all of us to see how do we work those things together? How do we build coalitions? How do we see larger projects, how are those things able to support one another? And that gets to mutual aid because mutual aid is what is required to have what we used tocall social reproduction, for movements to reproduce themselves and exist. We now live in a place where the existing structures of the system no longer can even take care of basic needs in the best-case scenario. So this is whatPanthers used to call Survival Pending Revolution programs. It’s what we actually need to survive. And I think what we’re seeing now and what we saw over 2020 particularly, is that any of the mass movements that were rising up to confront the police, one, needed antifascists, because the police were coming with their allies in white nationalist white militias, and (two) they needed mutual aid to just help build the infrastructure, to get people to events, to get people fed at events, to get medical care – all those things that now are required. What we’re seeing now is none of those things can exist independent of one another. If we want to have avibrantantifascists that pushes back on white nationals, then you have to have a mutual aid structure there to support it. You’re gonna have to have a mutual aid structure to support, if they’re gonna be really mass movements against the police, that has to have their structural base. So now we have to start thinking about what does it mean to build the infrastructure between movements with collaboration and solidarity, and then, more importantly, how does that become permanent? How do we grow and not mean it’s just here for this event, but now we are gonna rely on these structures permanently and they’re gonna grow into a a permanent, existing movement that’s always there. Those are the questions I think we enter into as the world is changing and as we enter a place of permanent struggle.
I was just talking with some reporters about the recent slew of protests around the country this past week, and I was saying, I think the people on the ground no longer have to turn to just one incident. We’re living in a case where there’s constant repression by the police and – communities of color and all around the country – and because of that, we also now have a state of permanent revolutionary action. People are engaging in permanent organizing. This March is all the time, constantly. The generations have changed, people’s realities are changing and now there’s a place of permanent struggle, and because of that, we need the place of permanent collaboration, solidarity, coalitions, and infrastructure.
TFSR:I think it’s pretty fair to say, and from this perspective that an antifascist perspective takes into account the structural dynamics that have been normalized in our society. Obviously, you can say a name like Rodney King, and that sparks a lot of attention for people. There were – besides the individual makeup of that person, his life – there were thousands of Rodney Kings going on simultaneously in the early 90s, in 1992, at the same time, but the wider public’s attention was not captured by the constants of the brutality against Black, Brown and Indigenous populations against poor people more generally, but especially against racialized people. And in my life of around forty years now, I’ve seen an increase of, you know, it’s not just a rebellion every few years. It’s happening as you say, it’s like this perpetuation, this constant thing. Do you think it’s just the technology that’s led to this discussion, the cameras everywhere on people’s phones or the social media activity and people relating to each other outside of the mainstream press or some wider shift in our culture that recognizes the constants of brutality and hears the voices of people that are brutalized?
SB: I think it’s a number of things. I think you are right, technology has a big thing to do, it makes us ever-present. I sympathize with people that are critical of technology, but the reality is that there’s a dialectic to it, that it actually helped, for example, create the visibility around police murders. It helped to create organizing visibility and things like that. It also helps to create repression. Cameras in everyone’s pocket also helps police nab protesters, but it has definitely accelerated that presence. The sense that we’re existing with lots of people all the time… So I checked my Twitter and I can see what’s going on in a lot of people’s lives all the time, and they’re with me all the time. I think that creates that sense of presence and particularly in people’s struggles. So that’s one thing.
We’re seeing certain types of crisis accelerate, environmental and economic ones in particular. So I was born in the 80s and lived through the 90s. There was a lot of sense of perpetual growth when I was growing up, that it just wasn’t going to be a big economic crisis for at least middle-class white communities, but that was a little more of a point of stasis. Well, that has really broken down, that “end of history” mentality has broken down really effectively and also with the increase of just nationalist movements all around the world. I think that we will eventually return to a place of really aggressive, combative struggle. Those things happening in concert with one another creates a bit of that. I think there’s also been generational shifts that happen because of organizing. We actually see the results of a change in consciousness that is a result of real material organizing, the material conditions have affected people’s ideation, the way that, for example, Gen Z thinks about struggle, is a little bit more present than my generation was when I was their age, or, probably the generations before. So there’s been a bit of a move there. I’m not a person who just believes in purely material conditions. I don’t think that when the time is right, the working class just rises up and that happens. I think it actually requires agency for people, but I do think those conditions have dramatically changed. And because of that I actually think people have lived with the notion of organizing a little more frequently, it comes naturally to people a bit more because infrastructure has existed for a while, at least as we transmit histories and things like that. So I think a lot of that’s there. Now that doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful. It means that there’s energy there. It can a lot of directions, so it requires us to intervene, actually channel those things in particular directions, but I do think in a lot of ways, the conditions had just become more dramatic. People’s reactions are more dramatic, the material deprivations are more dramatic and obvious. I think we’re able to see the world a little more clearly now.
TFSR: Stepping forward a little bit and because you’re talking about the material conditions and the changing circumstances that you witness, at least between a sense of perpetual growth versus deprivation, I’d like to jump to the last essay and talk about experiences of broken promises and entitlement and unreachable goals. Your last essay talks about toxic masculinity and not just on the far Right but just as experienced within the wider culture in the so-called United States. And I wonder if you could talk about, including but not necessarily just focusing on incels and Wolves of Vinland, but like the deeper roots in our culture and what you try to draw out in that essay about recognizing the toxic roots of hyper-masculinity or a disembodied masculinity. What was it? Your wife used the term “intoxicating masculinity”. And ways that you see of breaking that cycle of violence.
SB: The essay you are talking about was originally called “Intoxicating Masculinity” and it was the notion we’re talking about, specifically the Wolves of Vinland and the project Operation Werewolf and the way in which it actually makes – I would say a man, but I identify as a gender non-conforming, but a masculine-presenting person, so it has an effect on me and other people of infecting them with this fake euphoric notion of their masculinity, fake promise that people live out with. I was talking with my wife, and we had this joke about, because one of the notions – and here was this tradition – it used to be called masculinism, I’m not sure what it would be called, maybe just would be a part of feminist circles now, but it was talking about “in what way does patriarchy also harm men?” And there is this joke, we’re talking about the Men’s Rights Movement, which I talk a bit about in the chapter, this ultra misogynistic movement. And I was thinking of that meme, where the guy shoots someone and says, “Why did you shoot yourself?” So it’s patriarchy shooting a man looking and saying, “Why did feminism do this?” It’s this idea that patriarchy has created such a profound sense of disconnect in a lot of men, that it creates this constant cycle of toxicity, inability to relate, inability to be whole. And then the question is how do we parse through that in a way. What would even non-toxic masculinity be? Is there something it’s even possible? I don’t know, I don’t have the answer to something like that. But what happens there is that masculinity plays a character in a lot of people’s lives, and a lot of people feel like it’s something that has to be quested after and that the pernicious thing about something like Wolves of Vinland, is that it calls to question on men who were promised something from patriarchy and then are doing everything they can to seek it out and to live it out engaging in the most higher of toxic forms of abuse.
TFSR: Yeah, and also pointing out that Waggener, the founder of it, the self-help industry…: you set someone desiring a path, you set someone seeking this unattainable platonic ideal, and then you just find a way to harvest their energy, while keeping them addicted to the visions of a carrot on a stick in front of them. If you could talk a little bit more about Wolves of Vinland and maybe that character and what they do.
SB: The Wolves of Vinland is a white nationalist pagan group, so basically they were a bit innovative in their structure. They created this group on Nordic paganism, specifically a white nationalist, white supremacist version of Nordic paganism, and they built their organizations like a biker gang. So, you’ll see the guys to get patched in like if they were in one percent or something they were like 1%er…
TFSR: Hells Angels.
SB: Yeah, like those Rebel Motorcycle crews, and they have the hierarchies within that, and they all study the runes. And Paul Waggener had started stepping further in creating these different brands and self-help projects – financial projects and different things. There is one called the Werewolf Elite Program which was making a lot of money and helping people build similar groups to the Wolves of Vinland for themselves. I followed a lot of the program while doing research for about a year and chronicled that. Essentially, what they’re doing is stacking a bunch of very b–rate self-help stuff mixed with intoxicating masculinity, this promise that you could be like Paul, this hulking person, built by steroids and covered in tattoos, and that you would be able to be great and wonderful, just like him. They follow this process, pay him tons of money to basically follow this model and they really ease people into what is an incredibly violent white nationalism by using coded words. By taking people one step at a time, by phrasing things in ways that feel more like a gym or more like maybe black metal culture than it does like white nationalism or what people would assume is white nationalism. And then it takes people along this road and gets people really deeply involved in these projects and sets people up in this revolutionary vision.
So they retell people the story of their own failure as one of something other people have done. You shouldn’t have to be alone. You shouldn’t have to be so poor in your career. You shouldn’t have to live in that house or live in a town where no one respects you. Basically, they offer their program as a solution to that. So, one of the things they talk about absolutely constantly is testosterone. They over-essentialize gender and they use testosterone as a marker for that. What they constantly do in their videos is trying to get people to get on testosterone. What they want they will do is to be injecting testosterone, to have their testosterone as what Paul Waggener says is maximum normal for a human body. That’s what he says is the “correct.” He often uses the term – that’s “correct”. What he is saying there is he’s using testosterone as a proxy for masculinity or maleness. Now, that’s not science, that’s not reality. Injecting more testosterone doesn’t change how you sense. It doesn’t make people’s personalities different, that’s a pseudoscience they’d like the prop up, but what they want to do by saying that is to conflate the two. Your lack of success in your life is your lack of masculinity and your lack of masculinity is bio-social. It involves your testosterone, so by literally injecting testosterone, you’re becoming more masculine as they define it, and so there are all these modules that they have in there to reframe how people think about the world, to put them in the toxic binaries, they think that women or folks of color as fundamentally biologically different than them, and then retail them a story of their own heroism that they can acheive. For example, they are having people constantly working out, but what’s really interesting about their workout programs is that they’re meant to make people intentionally painful and intentionally uncomfortable. And when you do that, you actually break down people’s sense of self. When people are constantly in pain, doing these workouts, they are constantly feeling that they’re improving themselves, that they are participating in something, that they’re part of this great grand story of becoming a hero, and that has an intoxicating effect. It reframes how people think about their lives and think “Oh, wow, I’m on my way to greatness”. In reality, you’re just pumping money into a b-rate self-help program.
TFSR: Possibly leading towards long-term health difficulties from straining yourself perpetually to chase after this goal of looking like Paul.
SB: Yeah, some of the programs in their advice on things like the amount of… I’ve been through all their programs, their not healthy programs, this is not a healthy way of doing things. And this notion that you have to treat your body as an enemy thing sets people up for obvious things like body shaming, but a real, deep sense of discontent with your body, with your own identity. I can’t imagine that anyone in this program comes out feeling anything than worse about themselves and therefore more toxic in their relationships and cling to patriarchy even more so as if it’s going to be the solution to the problem.
TFSR: In an earlier essay called “Contested Space”, you talk about these social spaces that are taken up, particularly in the creation of art and identity, focusing initially on neofolk as activator engaged by the far Right, and in that essay, you also point to what we talked about: the Wolves of Vinland and their connection to a racialized, maybe Assatru Folk Assembly or an Odinist approach towards Northern European neo-paganism. You talk to some of the people involved in, for instance, Heathens United Against Racism. I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit about – in particular, with neofolk or with metal – the taking of the aggressive feelings that people are drawn towards. There’s a history of struggle in spaces of punk and metal, for instance, around racist ideas or anti-racism. If you could talk a little bit about what you found and the expressions of anti-racism from some of the pagan folks.
SB: Yeah, in “Contested Spaces”, we talk about this idea of what are spaces where people from the radical left or working-class communities also might have white nationalists in those same spaces. I think that term was really used for things like Oi, punk rock venues in the 80s, where there be white nationalist bands and also be anarchist bands and there be multiracial bands and they would somehow be in the same “space”, sometimes physically the same space. These were days when venues were not particularly woke to what some of these bands were actually talking about, and so literally people might find themselves in the same space, and so the battle will be held for that space. If you talk a lot of folks in Anti–racist Action or the anti-racist skinhead groups in the80s – early 90s, a lot of them were going to punk rock spaces specifically and kicking out white nationalists, and they’ll credit that for why we don’t have a ton of white nationalist bands in punk rock these days because they went in and said: “No. This was ours and we’re not gonna cede this ground to you. We are not gonna say ‘Okay, because you’re here, I guess this is yours’”. But that has expanded out to a lot of places where white nationalists and fascists have basically staked their claim in different subcultures. So neofolk music is one, black metal music is one, inside spirituality, Nordic paganism. Honestly, European paganism, in general, has this problem, but particularly with heathenism, which is Nordic Northern European paganism. There are people fighting out there, different fight clubs, different gyms, things like that. People want to have some of those spaces themselves and what it comes down to the fact that fascists don’t belong to these things.
For example, neofolk is a form of music. It uses traditional folk, cultural music, romantic melodies, things like that, mixes in black metal, and other things. That’s music and it attracts people for aesthetic reasons, and I know people who are radical antiracists, anarchists also have some of that. There’s the look to indigenous traditions. There’s the look to the ecological sustainability, things like that. So there’s a reason why traditional folk art might be appealing and so thebattle linesof being why does the white nationalist get to have this? Why are they allowed to be here uncontested and to say that this is actually a legitimate form of art for them? They don’t get that, they don’t get anything. So people who are in those subcultures have a unique role in the ability to push those people out, so it’s happening. It’s happening in neofolk with a number of projects, it is happening very heavily in black metal, and I think folks like Kim Kelly and bands like Dawn Ray’d have done a really good job of being divisive in a positive way and saying “Here’s the line: no fascist black metal in these spaces”. In creating intentional spaces for anti-racist, revolutionary black metal.
And groups like Heathens United Against Racism have done that inside Heathen saying like “We’re anti-racist heathens, we have nothing to do with these in these racist heathens. In fact, we are active organizers and we are going to kick them out”. And in a way, they take a special responsibility because they know Heathenism better than non-Heathens, and so the unique angle that they could take it on, and I think the lesson in a lot of ways is a tactical one, it is that people, if you’re in a particular subculture, maybe you’re in a religious group or in something that isn’t explicitly political and that there is far Right influence, it’s on the edges or people trying to make Entryism. You have a unique angle in which you can take it out, and I think a lot of people are taking thatin that position that they’re in and using it to push back. I think that’s been incredibly effective. This happens in a lot of different ways that aren’t just about fascism. For example, I’m Jewish, there’s a number of Jewish groups that specifically fight for Palestinian rights because they think “Okay, we have a unique position here in the Jewish community, where we can fight from an angle that maybe other people can’t”. So I think that that’s actually what we’re talking about is what we can do in an anti-fascist sense in these specific subcultures.
TFSR: A thing that I came across recently that another member of the Channel Zero Network that this podcast participates in, 12 Rules For WHAT, which is an anti-fascist podcast based out of the UK, did an interview with this project called “Postcards from Cable Street” about anti-fascist engagements into role-playing games, RPGs, into fantasy and gaming culture that I thought was really a fascinating breakdown, especially asking about okay, so there’s these neo-romantic elements that you find in a lot of fantasy games like orcs and wizards, and whatever else, and those characters or races or whatever often get crudely turned into archetypes by racists that are trying to engage with Tolkien stories or whatever else. That overlaps with a lot of fantasy metal type stuff. I think it’s interesting when people are actively saying “No, actually, and I don’t need to engage with this and take it back. It was never yours, but we’re going to fight you out of these spaces”.
SB: In the original draft of the essay, I had to take it out because it was running long, but I talked about Furries because there is a recent issue, maybe 2019-ish where basically furry conventions were happening, and there was far Right, alt-Right Furry people and folks like Milo Yiannopoulos who were trying to go into the furry world. So Furries got together and decided “No, this is a fascism-free Furry zone” and they engaged as Furry. So they weren’t just an activist group coming from the outside that may not understand or respect Furry culture and saying “Oh, we’re going to take care of this…” “No, we’re taking care of it, we’re gonna organize, we’re gonna learn about this and confront it there.” And I think that’s not the only way, obviously, to approach fascism but it’s a particularly effective one in the sub-cultural world, where fascists actually are. Those sub-cultures are really important for fascist recruitment and organizing. Because they have, for example, a counter-cultural vision and they want to approach people on that counter-cultural level, and they also want to affect what I talk about as meta-politics. Basically the way people think of themselves, the cultural modalities that come before practical politics, and subcultures have a really important role in that. So they want to be in those spaces. Particularly if they see a subculture as the vanguard of coming cultural standards. I think, wherever people are at, they should really – and this is good, in terms of organizing as a journalist, to look at where you’re really at, what communities and networks are you part of, what identities are you working with in this way. Does it give you a unique position in those struggles?
TFSR: Because you mentioned meta-narratives and stories that we tell each other… I thought that the story that you told around the alt-Right publishing houses and far Right publishing houses, for instance, Counter-Currents, are not one that I had seen laid out in such detail before. Can you talk about that project and the world around it? Maybe some other publishing works. Also, Arktos is like a project that I’ve seen in radical bookstores that carry in their fringey sections, like things about conspiracy theories about the Arctic or whatever. And, not for a while at least seemingly, making the connection of some of the other materials that that publishing house carries. I think, if you were to mention some of the far Right thinkers that those houses carry, people might be a bit surprised to see them at their local independent bookstores,
SB: I talk about two publishers – Counter-Currents, ArKtos and those are generally considered two of the biggest, if not the biggest, far-Right publishers in English. What’s interesting about Arktos is I was enjoying a documentary about the Flat Earth Movement a while back and I noticed that when they were at a conference, a big Flat Earth Conference, Arktos was the main sponsor of it. I’m not a defender of Flat Earthers, though I’m guessing most will probably didn’t realize what Arktos was. I think that Arktos and a lot of these publishers basically go where they can. This comes back to the subculture question. They go where they’re not gonna be fought and where they feel like they can build something.
So basically Counter-Currents is an explicitly white nationalist publisher, they publish a lot of books to the right of Richard Spencer. A lot of their authors aren’t people that people would know, but that is not the point. What they do is they create an intellectual canon for white nationalism, where the left or other academic traditions will build big volumes of books, big libraries, they’re gonna do the same thing. Most of the books I came across are just republished blogs and things like that. For example, they have a book that collects blogs that try and take white nationalist lessons from My Little Pony. Real, rigorous intellectual works like that. But what they’re doing is basically making it so that they pile up a number of books so it feels like their tradition has an intellectual weight. What they do is oftentimes publish any author, philosopher, literary figure that was a part of the far Right. So there’s a lot of focus on Ezra Pound, authors that crossed over a bit. Big figures in their movement, Julius Evola, Carl Schmitt, Oswald Spangler. What they wanna do is create that large canon of what they call “traditionalist writing”.
Arktos is also a fascist publisher, though they maybe always don’t lean in with the white nationals quite as much. They are run by a former skinhead and they are pretty openly involved in… They were a part of the alt-Right corporation with Richard Spencer, they created altright dot com and they’ve been a real central piece of the alt-Right movement. They’re known for actually publishing a lot more international stuff, basically translating a lot of fascist philosophers from around Europe, but also folks from South Asia, India, Hindu nationalist authors, a lot of conspiracy stuff, a lot of alt-religion, which is the pieces that often have crossed over. Like you mentioned, it’s not uncommon, at least it wasn’t uncommon to find Julius Evola books in cult or new age bookstores. It wasn’t uncommon to find somebody like, for example, Jason Reza Jorjani who is involved in the traditionalist movement, he ran Arktos at one point, had some questioned relationship with Steve Bannon. He wrote a book basically about how ancient Aryans had ESP and stuff. His book has actually been in para-psychology departments in these book stores. People often allow them in unquestioned.
So those but those books are those publishers have allowed what the alt-Right has also called meta-politics to flourish, to help them build up a really committed base of people by creating a large diffuse set of ideas that they could draw on. A lot of the books you find in Arktos are in contradiction with one another. One couldn’t be true if the other one was true, but that’s not the point. The point is that they want to argue that their far Right position isn’t just simple bigotry, that it is actually deep philosophical tradition with all these different scholars and all these different historical figures, all these different artists that make up a really vibrant living tradition. And that by itself has a propaganda effect. Just the existence of these publishers and these books has a propaganda effect. But when you look even a little bit, you are gonna find that there are actual fascists involved in the organizing of publishing there, a lot of race and IQ kinds of stuff and scientific racism. And basically, anything that they can capture together that they can get from the distant parts the world. They also will sell things that they think are associated with the Left or they think are associated with edgy parts of radical culture. I’ve seen John Zerzan books at ArKtos. Obviously, Derrick Jensen as a favorite over there. They’ve recently published Pentti Linkola, which is a genocidal eco-fascist, but it wasn’t really a part of their tradition before. So what they’re trying to do is get as many things together, so maybe they get someone from this tradition. Maybe they can pull someone from this. They’ve sold neofolk records for a long time. So these are the kinds of ways in which they build up that base.
Counter-Currents specifically has taken a lot of hits since the deplatforming wave that started in 2017 after Charlottesville, mostly because they’re the most upfront about their white nationalism. For example, they publish a tribute to Hitler and things like that. It’s pretty clear, there’s neo-Nazi stuff going on there. Arktos might be a little more confusing for people looking at, though they’ve had a lot of attention because of their attempts to connect with Steve Bannon and with international traditionalist movements and Alexander Dugin, the Eurasianist from Russia. So they’ve had some attention, but I think they haven’t been deplatformed in the way that Counter-Currents has. When the alt-Right first started, it was called alternative Right then, about 2010, around a website called AlternativeRight dot com, that Richard Spencer made. The goal was to build meta-politics. It was the build-up of a philosophical base, with the idea that, if they did that, it could actually help radicalize a group of people that they could move on to engage in movements and that’s what happened. They started in 2010, they didn’t start launchinginto street activism until 2015, and then with Trump in 2016 they helped ride that wave. Now they’re back in that building phase, and so I think if people want to look at what’s gonna stop the next wave of this specific version of white nationalism, you’d look at Counter-Currents and Arktos because that’s their base, that’s the foundations on which they build their movement.
TFSR: Just to jump back for a second to a range of things that you’ll see coming out of these publishers, fascism has been defined as syncretic before and the ability to hold opposing opinions in this magical sense. So to see something like Savitri Devi standing alongside a New Atheist, Richard Spencer, I guessisn’t that surprising.
SB: Yeah, these things run in complete contradiction to each other. One of the things that Arktos was founded on was this concept of traditionalism whichpeople mostly associate, at least in the US, with Julius Evola. What they wanted to do was to recreate this culture around white nationalist esoterica. In doing so, you’re gonna see a lot of out there stuff that they created symbolic. For example, they publish an old book, a republishing of an old book that says that white people come from an ancient Aryan god race that comes from the Arctic, they descended down through India and was degenerated because of their interactions with not-white peoples. This is a very neo-Nazi myth that was published a hundred years ago, but they’re republishing that now because they believe it literally. That’s not the point. The point is that they like the myths to help build up this cultural sensibility of storytelling about themselves, and that is a lot of the ways in which they think about this, about building a mythology and cultural scene and a sense of identity, it is really foundational for how they approach politics. They’re anti-materialist in a lot of ways, they believe in building a consciousness exclusively and hoping that politics emerges from that consciousness. I don’t think that’s how politics happens. They have been successful in a lot of ways in doing that. So I think people dismiss a lot of their stuff for being so silly, but the reality is thatit goes somewhere. They also publish a lot of esoterica that has been involved in real acts of white nationalist violence and terrorism. For example, Julius Evola. Both Arktos and Counter-Currents are really built on republishing Julius Evola stuff that wasn’t in English, and he was really foundational for what was called the Years of Lead. Basically, these fascist terrorists in Italy in the 70s bombing things as a strategy of tension helping them bring down the government. And now, for example, a lot of the Satanist white nationalist writings or stuff to do with Miguel Serrano and different forms of esoteric Hitlerism are inspirational for a lot of Atomwaffen and other groups that are basicallyengaging in accelerationist violence and plotting attacks on anti-fascist and non-white folks in synagogues, and things like that. So this has a real effect. They build this foundation and it actually results in real acts of killing./
TFSR: Mmmhm. And at least one of the interviews says that their publishing model isn’t so much that the materials are, like people are gonna be buying the books that cost money and keeping them in. It’s more buying the books to put on their shelves, it’s more about the idea of I am identifying with the thing that I am buying and it’s providing funding for this website, but most of the shit that they’re translating, they’re putting out for free online, right?
SB: Most of it is. And actually, the books are really expensive, much more expensive than the books should be. There’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve only really seen there, which is that they’ll publish a book and publish the hardback and the paperback at the same time. The hardback will be three times as expensive as the paperback. The reason is that you’re buying a prestige copy to give them a large donation. That’s the function of it, you’re not buying literature, you’re buying a token that shows that you have donated to the cause, so to speak, and then the books function in a way of building that sense of allegiance to something. So, for example, there’s a good book I read called The Cleanest Race, it’s about North Korea and racist politics in some of their propaganda. The author describes the way that Juche ideology is created there, where there is these multiple volumes of books and Kim Il-sung basically wrote these to mimic Mao’s creation of a lot of literature. If Mao’s gonna be a great political figure, he was gonna be a great political figure. So he wrote these books. If you’ve ever read any piece of theJuche books, they’re completely incomprehensible, just nonsense strings of words that don’t make any sense, that don’t add up to anything political. But that’s not the point. The point is that they go on someone’s shelf and they are lined up next to each other and they look like a really big canon of political philosophy. Look at all these books, something really deep, a whole nation was built on these books. And that’s what happens here in Counter-Currents.
Some of these books are literally just collections of movie reviews. Greg Johnson’s released, I think, four giant volumes of his movie reviews, some of which were just posted on message boards. This is not important literature that changes lives, but it does add to the canon. Look at all these books, stacks of these books. They must have something really profound to say. And that has been in a lot of ways how the white nationalist movement, particularly in Europe and the US, has helped to create an image that it’s not just street people in boots and braces, but that it’s actually something that has really core ideas because they have a critique that we must engage with. It should go without saying that they don’t have a critique and we shouldn’t engage with it.
TFSR: I guess the last question that I had is: you wrote a chapter “The continuing appeal of anti-Semitism” and I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that. You talk about some of the different historical tendencies in western anti-Semitism, comparing and contrasting the way that they’ve come out between Christian anti-Semitism… I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the blood libel and the trajectory of that into today, cause we see that in relation to QAnon. And there’s also the, obviously, there’s certain Christian sects that have a support for Israel as a state, but that’s based on the idea that if the Israelis get into enough conflict with neighboring states that it’ll bring about the second coming of Christ, which doesn’t seem very much like it’s an appreciation of those people who are gonna get killed in flames from the sky or whatever. You also talk about the space given by the Left to anti-Semitic tendencies, whether it be 9/11Truthers or some strains of anti-Zionism that bleed into anti-Semitism. So I just threw a lot at you, but I think you wrote really well on the topic.
SB: To start with the blood libels. Blood libel is essentially a medieval Christian concept. There’s this idea that Jews needed Christian children’s blood to make matzoh or to engage in different rituals. I shouldn’t have to say that’s not true, but it’s not true. Basically, this rumor about the Jews led to centuries of expulsions and mass murders, torturing of Jews, and things like that and in a lot of ways set the stage for later conspiracy theories, obviously laterProtocols of the Elders of Zion, which is a forgery that allege that Jews were plotting to control the world through deviant modernity and things like that, and lead to a lot of the modern structures of conspiracy theories we have now…
TFSR: And that was produced by the Czarist secret service, basically right?
SB: Yeah, it was under the belief that the coming socialist revolutionaries in Russia were Jews, and so to disrupt the revolutionary work would be to turn people more further against the Jews and also to take their attention off of the Czar. One thing is was really critical about anti-Semitism is that it confuses the direction of power. So, anti-Semitism is fundamentally different than a lot of other bigotries because of the way that it functions. What a lot of it does, it attempts to turn very righteous, for example, class anger against the powerful and turn it back on someone who’s less powerful. So, basically, if you’re angry about rents going through the roof, losing your job, basically saying “Oh, actually, it’s not the capitalist class, not the one percent that controls, it’s this other class of people, these Jews – and maybe you know a Jew in your neighborhood. Maybe the Jew works at the bank or maybe a Jewish person is a landlord, and then we can identify them, single them out and it can redirect anger away from the powerful and back onto somebody else, and so that’s really the function of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That’s a historical function largely of anti-Semitism, and that’s actually in a lot of ways why there is a continuing appeal towards anti-Semitism, cause what anti-Semitism does, it gives a face and voice to an anger, a class anger and a subjective anger that’s very real and doesn’t always have an easy place to go with. It’s a lot easier to name a name and use demonic images of that person and weird narratives than it is to say “Actually, it’s a system of capitalism and it’s people I can’t get at, they are unreachable a lot of ways, they’re controlling it”. That’s a very unsatisfying narrative. It’s very difficult to organize around that, and anti-Semitism is a stop-gap there. Conspiracy theories are likewise, they’re able to create a more satisfying emotional narrative.
I’m going to oversimplify this, because there are volumes written, but a modern anti-Semitism that shows up in the 18-19th centuries, basically is a secularization of Christian anti-Semitism. Christian anti-Semitism saw Jews as a demonic race that killed Christ, that were working in secret cabals to undermine Christian civilization. They were forced into money-lending in some cases, so then the image became that they were actually responsible for economic problems, even though it’s actually the king and things like that. And when people were looking for a way to explain the changes that were happening in the economy in the world – financialization, contract law, just basically modern infrastructure. The structure was then blamed on the Jews. People looked at old, Christian anti-Semitism that was superstitious and they modernized it with a pseudo-scientific explanation they called anti-Semitism. “Oh, it’s actually the Jews who are creating this new cultural sphere in their own image, they were responsible for Usury, and now the whole world is Usury!” That kind of logic. And that continued through racialization of Jews up into Nazi Germany.
I think one of the things I’m getting at there is why a lot of folks, much of them Moishe Postone, and other Marxists have called structural anti-Semitism is that there are some really basic things in the psychology of Western countries, but now internationally, that mistakes where power is and anti-Semitic narratives make up the underlying superstructure of it. So for example, conspiracy theories are so rampant now and they all come down to a really well-worn track that comes from anti-Semitism. So you mentioned QAnon,it’s the idea that Democrats have a satanic cabal where they use blood for rituals, it is the blood libel, they don’t say Jews quite as frequently, usually, it takes a couple steps on the road to get to Jews, but it literally is the foundation for all this conspiratorial thinking. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is foundationally how people explain things like Rothschild and George Soros and those sorts of conspiracy theories that have motivated the Right and some parts of the Left as well. What’s happened is that I think anti-Semitism has built up this structural base and it’s really hard to free people of it, because what it does is it manipulates the impulse to liberate oneself. One of the things that I think when you looking at critical theory and people like Adorno and Horkheimer talk a lot about how not all impulses to liberate are actually good. In fact, some of this energy can be turned backward and some fascist moments actually take whatRobert Paxton calls “the motivating passions”, basically energy created from class conflict or from the crisis, things like that, and it turns it back on marginalized classes of people. Instead of organizing across the working class or amongst anti-racist coalitions to confront the powerful. So anti-Semitism is a really key piece of that. One of the things I want to get at with this is that not only is anti-Semitism dangerous for Jews and needs to be fought for that reason, but it also is dangerous for everyone, because it takes any impulse to liberate, it destroys its actual ability to do so. We will never liberate people from oppression if we’re wrapped up in conspiracy theories, if we’re looking for Rothschilds rather than looking for capitalism. The continuing appeal of anti-Semitism I talk about is the continuing appeal of easy answers for this to look at the complexity of modernity and try to boil it down to just one or two key elements instead of seeing the complexity and realizing that we have to work together in mass movements to confront it.
There is a certain impulse towards populism on the Left and I don’t have a problem with that in essence, I think that there needs to be a sort of left populism. People have to tell the story in common language and populism, historically, been the language by which working people talk about socialism. “Oh, it’s just working folks, they’re put down by these elite class”. I understand that sympathy, but we can’t stop there. We can’t let that populist anger redirect from who’s actually responsible here, and so I think it’s important to have some analysis in there. It’s important to see things with complexity.
It’s important to listen to Jews when we are talking about anti-Semitism. There’s a lot of mistrust when the claims of anti-Semitism come up that we should be taking seriously. If we want to not go into the direction of conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism, we have to be able to hear people basically creating those boundaries and saying that that’s happening so that we can actually start to work against those trends. That’s really important. I think that we need to obviously be at its best and avoid making grand conclusions and stuff. I thought that the killing of Jeffrey Epstein was suspicious, but I’m not going around saying he didn’t kill himself, because I have no evidence of that and I think it’s really important to be really clear about what we know or we don’t know. And building a common shared reality is I think the foundation where we make effective political decisions. This is true, we need to be really obvious about our bigotries, we are not free of them. We need to be really upfront about the anti-Blackness that we have, the misogyny and a queer-phobia that we have, and that does bleed into our organizing. That’s gonna be really important. But the other answer here, the less satisfying one, is “I don’t always know.” We have never had the revolution, like none other, so we don’t actually know in a way what unites people with the perfect rules of the game. I think there’s a lot of trial and error. We have to be willing to learn, to be subjected with each other and hear that, and we have to be willing to live in a very complicated world that we are now: states, capitalism. Late-stage capitalism operates in ways that we don’t have a clear road map for, and so we’re having to adapt to really complex systems, we need to create narratives to explain those and then to communicate with other people about them. It’s a really challenging project. I think it’s one that we just have to be vigilant in and to really look at the lessons we’ve already learned about the reality, conspiracy theories, bigotries in our organizing and lacks of a path to power.
TFSR: Where did you get the title from?
SB:I got it from Fredy Perlman. The first version of the essay talked a bit about Fredy Perlman, two essays about Fredy Perlman’s “The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism”, which is a good essay. It’s more about left nationalism and the appeal of nation-states as a solution to oppression. I have a somewhat different perspective on that. And though it’s not exactly the same thing here but I think in a way it’s about the appeal of easy answers. The other essay was the “Beirut Pogrom”, which I have mixed feelings about. It’s about the violence perpetrated by Israel, though he gets some facts wrong and things like that, but I went back and forth thinking about both those essays when writing this. I think Fredy Perlman is one of those voices that remains iconic, classic, edgy and useful decades past when it was written. I think it always will be, he wrote so little, but those essays stand out so much.
TFSR: Awesome, I think that’s really well put. Also, it’s Bernie Sanders who killed Epstein.
SB: Hahaha! I heard it was JFK Jr.
Okay. I really appreciate you having this chat, for the work that you put out, again, I think I said at the beginning, I think the book was beautifully written. The introduction literally had me tearing up a few times.
SB: I really appreciate it, it’s really kind of you to say.
TFSR: Where can people find your writing, or follow you online? Where can they get the book?
SB: You can get the book anywhere ya buybooks and also akpress.org, that’s the publisher. You can find me on Twitter @shane_burley1 and I’ll be putting out a bunch of different articles ina number of places. That should be the prime location.
Revolutionary, Indigenous political prisoner, Oso Blanco, is marketing the first in a series of full-color postcards based on his paintings to fund-raise for children’s schools in Zapatista territories and Turtle Island. More at BurningBooks.com
Certain Days Calendar Call-Up
The Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar collective (CertainDays.org) will be releasing our 21st calendar this coming autumn. The 2022 theme is “Creating a New World in the Shell of the Old,”looking at collective approaches at creating a more inclusive and fulfilling world through mutual effort. Read the invitation up at their website!
Scott: We’re talking today about sort of the current state of radical anti-authoritarian, queer liberatory movements, and the legacy of gay liberation, you know, from the 60s and 70s, and like, gay history. Before we get into it, can you introduce yourself and the kind of work you’ve done? We’re talking about, specifically, Christopher Chitty’s book and sort of your placement within that, and if you want to say anything else about yourself, and your pronouns, whatever you feel.
Max Fox: Sure, my name is Max Fox, I use he/him. I am the editor of this book that was written by Christopher Chitty. It’s called Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System. I’m also an editor at gay communist magazine called Pinko and the translator of short book by a French theorist Guy Hocquenghem called Ampitheater of the Dead.
S: Which is sort of that’s how we met sharing an interest in Hocquenghem. Do you want to talk at all about how you got involved in editing Christopher Chitty’s book and the project, and how you, yeah, how your work relates to it?
MF: I knew Chris when I was in college at UC Santa Cruz, he was a graduate student in the history of consciousness department, which is this kind of fairly unique, critical theory, Marxist philosophy, etc, etc, style graduate program that I, as a young, enthusiastic leftist was like, “wow, simply the coolest thing you could possibly be studying”. And so I like tried to sit in on all these classes in that department, which is sort of one of the ways that I encountered him.
But we met really organizing on this anti-austerity, anti sort of tuition hike, movement, in, let’s say 2009-2010.Like right after the crash, that became the sort of Occupy California, Occupy DC system movement, which was sort of like a precursor to the Occupy Wall Street stuff. And so he was someone who I met in this moment of kind of like, intense, you know, personal transformation, I suppose.
And he was also working on this very incredible sounding theory, that promise to, in my view, kind of revolutionize the understanding of the history of sexuality, sexuality studies, queer theory, etc. And I was like, very eager to have something like that, because I felt kind of dissatisfied with a lot of the sort of sexual politics that were ready to hand at the time, it was, you know, “gay marriage” moment. And I felt kind of unconvinced by a lot of the positions on both sides even, and I wanted something more like, whatever Marxist or rigorous or something like that, you know. And Chris was working on precisely that. So I was very eager for him to finish his dissertation and sort of get that out in the world.
And so when he died in 2015, you know, I was personally very devastated. And I attached that feeling to this thought that, like, the work wouldn’t be finished. And that was something that I could actually sort of put some efforts towards. And so I, I didn’t really think it’s gonna be such a long project, but I sort of assumed the responsibility of collecting his, sort of, the draft material that his family and his friends had access to, and finding a publisher and, you know, getting it through the revision process and things like that, and now kind of like seeing it through the publicity end or whatever.
Yeah, so you know, it’s like this, you know, I had an intense, like, intellectual response to this. I wouldn’t have done it, I don’t think, if I didn’t think it was worth thinking about or thinking with, but obviously, there’s a pretty significant, like, emotional component as well for me.
S: Yeah, thanks for sharing that history that you have, like connected with Chris Chitty. And I mean, yeah, it is, I think you’re right, back then, to say that the work is going to make a giant contribution. I’ve felt reading this, that it has really affected my way of thinking and also responded to some of my own frustrations. But also I want to like yeah, acknowledge that kind of like personal grief work there, that must have been part of your editing, but you like, brought this thing out, which I think is super important. If you’re ready to kind of move into some of these ideas, then like tease them out a little bit.
So, in your foreword to the book, you summarize the project, as, I’m quoting you, “an attempt to think through the failure of sexual liberation, by what Chitty described as returning the history of sexuality to a history of property”. And like we could talk about that as kind of combining his readings of Marx and Foucault as you do, and that’s a whole debate within queer theory. But, uh, I was wondering if you could sort of explain this argument the way that you sum it up, how would you articulate the relationship that he explores in the book between same sex practices, particularly sodomy, sex between men, and the development of the bourgeois state? And how is the figure of the homosexual or homosexuality helped consolidate the state?
MF: Yeah, okay. So he, one of the tricky things about this book, I think, is that it’s making two slightly different claims that they’re obviously related, but the relation between them is maybe a little underspecified. He is saying that there’s a way of grasping power that falls into the name of sexual hegemony, which is basically how a ruling class comes to install it’s particular sexual practices and norms in the intimate self conception of numbers of classes that don’t occupy the same position in society. So that’s sexual hegemony. And then secondly, he’s saying that the figure of male homosexuality kind of illuminates the particular history of how in capitalist society, sexual hegemony is an integral part of bourgeois rule or rule of capital sexual relations.
And he’s telling a story about how, in the earliest sort of capitalist societies and the earliest spaces in the world that you could plausibly claim are governed by capitalist relation to production — which he, following this economic historian Giovanni Arrighi, locates in northern Italian city states in 1400 or so, Venice in particular — he says that, well, okay. So first of all, in the Mediterranean basin, there is, in this moment, there’s a basically widespread and unremarkable just fact of men having sex with men. It’s just simply, it’s not, it doesn’t have its own name, necessarily, or it’s not, that doesn’t give you a sort of unique social status, because it’s so ordinary, you know. Basically relations of production, you know, apprenticeships and seclusion of women in the household, and even you know, things like, the type of ships that they use, all of this basically contributes to a public sphere that is exclusively male, essentially, where men and women don’t have any access to each other, except for within their own family. So that’s kind of prohibited by the incest ban, sex between these people. And so the only kind of sexuality you’re gonna have, if your man, is with other men who you will encounter, you know, on the docks, or in the marketplaces, or in your workplace, or in the cruising areas and in the taverns and whatever. And that’s simply what you do. It doesn’t give you an identity or whatever.
And so he’s saying that around the same time that capitalist relation to production began to take hold. There’s also a new form of Republican governance, where the laws of the city have some shared source of legitimacy. It’s not just a kind of feudal lord or whatever, but there’s some attempt at reviving a kind of like civic base of power. And that then obviously kind of comes in conflict with the actual disparate levels of power that people have. There are more powerful rich people and less powerful working people. And so you need a way of managing this conflict that doesn’t end up expressing itself in overthrowing this new form of government and installing rule of the many who are poor, instead of the few who want to have the legitimacy of consent or whatever. Anyway, sorry, that’s, that’s a bit of an aside. The point is that these governments start adopting a new way of enforcing or regulating sodomy, which as I said before, wasn’t really a sort of serious problem. But there are problems obviously when you have disputes between lovers or disputes between clients and patrons, right. And so instead of, you know, punishing sodomites with capital punishment — which was maybe, you know, a scary threat in the past, but wasn’t ever actually applied very often — what these governments do is they start a special police force that is just there to investigate accusations and issue fines, basically.
And so what this does is it incentivizes people to inform on each other. If you’re mad that your ex is going out with your rival, then you can call the police about it and say, these two sodomites, I saw them in the loggia the other night, and you should go find them 24 Florins or whatever. Or you’re a sex worker, and your john doesn’t pay you and you threaten to turn him in, or whatever. So it establishes a new way that power operates in these relations that were more directly mediated by personal sort of encounters with each other. So that’s in the first instance, that’s like a way that the emerging bougious state — or capitalist relations of production that need a form of government to kind of take hold — changes and kind of takes a new form in these ways of regulating sodomy, are ways of taking sexuality into itself and turning it into a new instance where the state like is a is a presence of people’s lives where it wasn’t before. I don’t know if that was actually a direct enough answer at all. Do you think that was good for your question?
S: Yeah. I mean, that really breaks it down in a helpful way for me. I mean, the first sort of historical chapter starts there when you’re talking about and like, the way you explain it shows, it’s like the first sort of capture of whatever becomes homosexuality, because you talked about how it kind of routes the relationship through this state. So like, you can have recourse to this concentrated form of power in that police force that will fine people. And so people then like, give up whatever relationship they have between each other to go to this other place to deal with their problems. And I think that, yeah, the way you explained it was really helpful.
And then the other aspect of it that I think is important, in what you’re saying, is that it becomes a way of trying to mitigate potential threat, right, from like, the many, or the lower classes. Yeah, there’s this framework of like, consent to be ruled, by getting your recompense, or whatever it could be, like if you’re jealous, or something’s taken from you, or you’ve been forced into a situation you don’t want. But then that also diffuses the possibility of rebellion in some way. I mean I guess that’s the definition of sexual hegemony and how that helps, like, work for state power. And there’s like this way that he traces the increased politicization of homosexuality to that history of producing the proletariat. So you were talking about the emerging forms of capitalist production, that goes from cutting people out of subsistence ways of living, bringing them into wage work, creating these urban centers, where people are living different lives and working different ways. And he often calls that like a kind of surplus population, or superfluous.
The thing that’s really interesting is that there’s these cultures of public practices of homosexuality, where the men are working together. The thing that really strikes me is how Chitty’s argument replay some of the old coordinates of talking about homosexuality, that can either be a kind of pro gay way of thinking, or a really homophobic way of thinking. So like, it usually centers around the kind of that superfluousness or uselessness or the non-reproductive aspects of sex as a form of decadence and disruption of a moral form. And I was just wondering, are we so inundated with this framework that, can we think about sex between men outside of that moral framework? Is it always going to be ambivalent? Like there was a way that like communist parties would say homosexuality was a was bourgeois decadence, and like, it’s true to a certain extent, right, like Chitty’s showing us that it’s tied to that, but it’s not, yeah, I mean, I’m to articulate this, if you want to jump in.
MF: So I mean, there’s a lot there. So there’s another thing that he’s trying to do in this argument, which is to say that this repression that we have come to identify with the meaning of sexuality, of homosexuality or queer sexualities, whatever, “deviant sexualities” that’s not a necessary feature, either of sexuality as such — which is like, maybe that’s not exactly what its objective investigation is — or sexuality under capitalism. Because, you know, he’s a good reader of Foucault, power is productive as well as oppressive, right. So you don’t want to have a concept that can only say, “sexuality is what the state takes from you”, or something like that, or stops you from having.
And so he aligns this history of kind of like, Arighian hegemonic centers of the world system, as capitalism kind of expands over the globe. So it goes first from Florence and Venice in northern Italy, and that goes to Amsterdam, is the next center, then London and then New York. This is the sort of world systems theory, according to Arighi narrative of caplitalist expansion. And Chitty says, “Okay, let’s find out what happens in the moment of transition from one center to the next, when the declining center is experiencing crisis or loss of its previous capacity to exert hegemony”. So he’s saying in these moments of decline, you can find increased depression and that’s actually what the repression means. It’s not that capitalism has this kind of like, inherently sex negative aspect, it’s that as a sort of cyclical crisis ridden system, it’s going to have these moments of dissolution that will have, you know, semi predictable effects. And one of the predictable effects that he asserts is discoverable in the record is that there’s this increased attention to male sodomy, or men having sex with other men, in these moments of crisis and dissolution of the hegemonic center.
So on the one hand, that’s one explanation for this kind of like moral valence, right? So like, capitalism only notice is that sex between men is even happening in this moment when it itself is going through crisis. So of course it’s going to attach a kind of pejorative meaning to it, right? Because it’s looking for reasons for its decline. And I think that’s, you know, relatively convincing. I have to say I haven’t done this historical research myself, so perhaps another set of archival material would be able to make a counter argument that says, “no this is actually constant, or actually it has nothing to do with the temporality of financial crisis” or blah, blah, blah? I don’t really know, I mean, this seems compelling to me. But I don’t think it’s actually necessary for his argument to be true.
I think that the point that he’s making…so capitalism is characterized by a kind of ceaseless drive to expand, and consume evermore arenas of human social life, right? Like that’s observably the case, that’s theoretically drivable, from, you know, Marxist analysis and from, it’s a classic tenet of most people left. And what that means is that historically, generally, what that means is people who are living in non-capitalist parts of the world, and basically subsistence forms of social production and reproduction, are severed from their capacity to live like this and brought into the circuits of capitalist production. And so a lot of the times that has meant then turning them into a kind of like industrial proletariat, putting them to work in factories, or on plantations, or, you know, sending people to die in armies or settle genocided territories or whatever. But something that that requires is that you have this kind of floating population that’s been severed from the means of reproducing their own life at the very beginning, so the premise of capitalist production is a surplus population, right? That is sort of not able to meet its own needs for survival without seeking employment on the market. Right, or in kind of non-waged areas, whatever in the household, internally, or in the gray market or whatever.
And so I think one of the useful things about Chris and his analysis is that he has a sophisticated enough reading of Marx and capitalism to sort of dispense with what a lot of the traditional Marxist — basically moral positions — on work are, and say, you know, “it’s not good, that people are productiv, in fact, that’s a source of domination”. These questions of like, “is homosexuality somehow intrinsically related to non productive modes of living?” I think he deals with it in a number of different ways. One of which is to say that the forms of direct production under capitalism produce homosexuality, you know? Like the classic form of capitalistic production is — this wasn’t always historically the case, but you know, in the fantasy — is the sex segregated factory, right? So, a bunch of men who all spend 8, 10, 12 hours a day with another 100, or 1000, whatever, some number of other men. You know, most of them often historically live in dormitories, or in workhouse style situations, they certainly don’t have enough money to start a family, you know. So oftentimes, historically, the only kind of pleasure they’re going to find is in each other. Or the other sort of like proto-typically capitalist form of productive activity is shipping, you know, where you have the same problem, right? And obviously, famously, these are like hotbeds of homoerotic intrigue.
And, you know, the same goes for the army. The same goes for, I mean, if you think about the fucking settler colonies, like on the frontier, all the men are either there alone in the wilderness, and out away from the social world that they were raised in. So it’s everywhere, once you start looking at this. You know, prisons, obviously, famously. Once you impose a kind of sex segregated route norm on the sort of productive social apparatus — which wasn’t consistently the case throughout the history of capitalism, certainly — but then you inevitably have the problem of proletarians are gonna have sex with each other. And so anyway, so that’s one of the sources also of this concern for regulating sexuality, regulating homosexuality is because it’s a labor discipline question sometimes, too.
S: Yeah. I mean, so like, this does a few things, right? Like in the earlier articulations of sexual liberation, and also gay liberation, like sexual liberation more generally, and gay liberation, there’s like that repressive idea that there are these forces that are making us not have sex we want and then gay liberation, like had the strategies of trying to find proof of like, the natural ness of homosexuality throughout history. And so in a way, what Chitty does is expanding on Foucault, like you were saying, who says, “Well, no, the homosexuals invented at a certain moment, and it’s not this eternal force of like, repression and sexual license” or whatever.
But in another way, I think what I like so much about what Chitty’s doing is like, he’s saying that we’re not asking necessarily the right questions when we are focusing on these things. So like, like you said, homosexuality as we know, it is created by the development of capitalism. But the other thing he keeps insisting on, Chitty, is like that it’s contingent, right? And that’s, I guess, the other kind of deviation from like, Marx, it’s like a contingent history. It’s not necessarily that it was this way. And so in a way, there’s, like, the ambivalence of homosexuality, which is also like, is a tool of rule and a tool of oppression. It’s a medium for us to like, find liberation and a way that we’re captured is like inherent to that process. And I don’t know, I mean, in a way, it’s like, I mean, I’ve seen this being articulated in various ways, but like, almost like an unresolvable paradox in a way. And so like, I guess what I’m interested in exploring with you a little bit is like, how it shifts the coordinates of what we think about when we try to aim for liberation.The way that Chitty, if I can quote from him, like the way he articulates that, and this is a line that you just mentioned to me before we start recording, he says that “queer would then imply a contradictory process in which norms of gender and sexuality are simultaneously denatured and renaturalized”. And that’s like the process of sexual hegemony, like using sexuality as a rule, a form of ruling. And like the threats are often public sex or cross class sex. So I was wondering if you want to help me unpack that, if you spent some time on that? Like, what does he mean by these norms, the sexual hegemony being “denatured and renaturalized”? And like, what does the double sided process look like?
MF: Yeah, so there’s another one that I find very helpful, that I think might also illustrate this a little bit, which is that…oh I can’t remember where it is so I’m going to try and just reproduce it from memory, but it’s probably gonna be slightly different: “sexuality could only become a problem for a society in which biological reproduction was decoupled from the reproduction of ownership”. So that, you know, that’s, maybe that’s a little complicated, but it’s an historical argument, which is about the dissolution of the kind of like, feudal world, where, let’s say, land title is passed down through the family, and, you know, on the peasant side or whatever, and, and sort of, conversely, political rule is hereditary inheritance as well in the aristocratic sense, or whatever. In that society sexuality appears as something that’s kind of natural, right? It doesn’t, it can’t really be an object of anxiety or control in the same way. And historically, it wasn’t.
You know, you had this kind of, I mean what Focault talks about, it’s like, the pastoral power versus that, whatever, the medical discourse or whatever. But, um, priests could tell you to confess, but like, there’s really not a lot of power to investigate whether or not people sex was taking place, according to the way that you wanted it to be, or to punish people for it. Because it’s very hard to, you know, provide evidence that a sexual act took place, in the absence of being there, compelling eyewitness testimony. Peasant marriage in feudal times was actually quite limited. So anyway, it just wasn’t a floating social problem that needed regulation the same way that it did, once, he’s saying, ownership — private property relations — become transferable, alienable. Which is the hallmark of capitalist relations of production.
So in that sense, sexual norms have become denatured, they once appear to be organic, natural expressions of the sort of unitary creative world., and now they appear to be an object of political contention and control. And so they’re renaturalized in this new way, by the reimposition of what appears to be necessity of socially objective meaning that’s enforced by, you know, state repressive apparatus, but as well as the kind of like private mechanisms of coercion and control in the workplace and family. So these new norms that say, in the past you may have been able to, like, whatever, fuck your friends in the field, but now there’s a different type of threat from the police. And so you become a different, a new kind of person. You become, your nature changes, right, and you’re suddenly apprehended by the state in a way. And so it’s this, it’s this kind of decomposition of a previously automatic organic expression of the social order, where sex is a kind of meaningless in that it doesn’t make a difference whether or not ownership gets transferred in the normal way, to something that might disrupt it. And it might disrupt it because there’s a new type of person in the world, and that is sort of, like, the subject of the hegemonic sexual norm, and the deviant person who fails to be protected by this norm. Does that help?
S: Yeah, totally. I mean, it’s interesting because, you know, where we are today, we get stuck on identity. And it’s like, the problem that you talked about, like sexuality becoming a problem for statecraft and like state rule, is like internalized for us as a problem, like, “who am I?” And like, “how do I figure that out?” But if we trace back those identity terms, they’re like police orders or whatever, like, that there were forms of controlling criminalization. And he also talks a lot about how, like, this is a history of policing, right? So the policing of homosexuals goes hand in hand with the policing of sex work and also the policing of vagrancy.
MF: Sure, yeah.
S: And so the other thing that I think this is parallel to, and maybe there’s something to articulate here, is like, within the Marxist theory there’s — this is another form of maybe primitive accumulation, in the way that Sylvia Federici talks about in Caliban and The Witch in terms of how the gendering of women forms a kind of enclosure around their bodies and sexuality — like this is another enclosure, which is like an identity type rather than whatever those organic forms are. That could have existed before. And if you’d think about those previous communities and like, maybe even pre feudal, right, like, it just wasn’t a problem. Or there were other norms in which it was like, acted out, but like, it’s not like, “yeah this guy sleeps with other men sometimes” wasn’t like a problem. There’s just like, “oh yeah, that’s a thing that someone does”.
MF: Yeah. Or it’s just like, yeah, that’s what men do they love to have sex with beautiful people, whatever, as long as they’re the active partner, or whatever. Like, it doesn’t have bearing necessarily on the social standing of the person doing it.
S: Well, that’s the other thing that I think is in the book that like, because it’s not to say that there were these previous sexual utopias where, like, men could have sex with other men freely, but they often happened along power lines of like, young and old or different classes, or like, how he talks about the kind of, like, workshops where a master and apprentice might have a sexualized relationship. But it wasn’t one, there was a discrepancy in power there between the master and the apprentice. So it’s not like these were old gay utopias.
MF: Yeah, I mean, that’s one of the interesting things that he does with this is, it’s like, there’s a liberal story, and it can basically take the same material that he’s looking at and say, like, “okay, there was this precapitalist utopia for gay people. Somehow, let’s say, the capitalists decided to chase them out of Eden and pursue them across these centers of financial power, up until the present, at which point they finally rebelled at Stonewall and now we’re free”. And that kind of posits, on the one hand, a kind of like, a single tradition and identity that was like, unbroken, again, that somehow cross all these social formations. And one that was unjustly persecuted, and one that would recognize itself in the present as kind of like, finally free, right?
And there’s a lot of things that don’t really hold up about that argument. One of them is that there were these sexual norms that we would now call violent, or abusive, or rape, you know, that was just simply how these practices happened. You don’t have to be like, “Well, you know, they really should have been persecuted by the state” or like, “actually was fine because they all really consented at some level”, or whatever. It’s just like, there’s a real heterogeneity to the social practices, that doesn’t really fit the kind of like, triumphant, oppressed past, liberated future, sort of arc.
And it also kind of flatters the present and says “and now we know better, and now violence doesn’t happen in sex. And all of our ways of conceiving of pleasure are totally fine for everybody involved, and we don’t have any contradictions that we still need to work out.” So he has this kind of like skeptical view of what was a very, very effective tool for people to win real, serious changes in their condition and the present. But like he’s not just saying, “well it wasn’t actually like and I’m here to speak the truth because I love academic freedom” or whatever. But because it’s actually a much more complicated question than we like to imagine.
S: Yeah, totally. Like, I guess,speaking personally in my relationship to this, like, so there’s a kind of double nostalgia that maybe falls into some of that liberal trap. Like when I first read Foucault, in The History of Sexuality talking about like, “before there was a homosexual people weren’t an identity, they did things” and I was like, “Oh, yeah, that makes so much sense.” That’s like liberating to be like, “I don’t have to be a thing I could just do whatever I want”. And l mean I don’t think that Foucault is necessarily saying that, but that was how I first received it, you know? And that kind of connects to the naive sort of sexual liberation, gay liberation discourse that gay sex, queer identity in different forms, like transness, whatever, are inherently disruptive and revolutionary, and will overthrow capitalism if we can just like, fuck whoever we want, wherever we want. And that was a line that people took strategically also, which is like, maybe on the other side of looking for recognition of rights and entry into the power structures of, you know, marriage and military, etc.
Okay, so there’s like an nostaligia, definitely, for me for like those moments of gay liberation, where like, the militancy was also paired with this kind of way of thinking, like, “Oh, are sex is revolutionary”. And I see that also, just like, generally today with radical queers kind of replaying a lot of those old moments. But and then, you know, with a lot of the academic stuff that tends to be pessimistic about the revolutionary structures, never were satisfactory to me, but like the way that he argues it, that Chitty argues it, does something that makes me, it helps me understand it a little bit more in a more complex way, than to simply be pessimistic about it. Although there is certainly a pessimistic line in it. Yeah, like one of the ways he phrases it is that “the ideas of liberation elevate a liberal bourgeois theory of the state into the constituent of principle of human desire and all other cultural formations”. First of all, how does he help us — in your reading and understanding — understand the failures of gay liberation? How does it like, help us articulate a new pathway for our liberatory movements, starting from the positions of like, gay, trans, queer, whatever you want to call, whatever, different ones that are sort of loosely linked? Like, how do we go from this critique to like articulating a movement that really wants to be, you know, revolutionary, that wants to tear apart these hierarchies and oppression?
MF: Yeah, no, that’s, I mean, that’s the trick, right? I mean I think that it’s so helpful and refreshing to have someone sort of, just say like, “here’s why this doesn’t quite work”, you know? Yeah, I too, find it unbearably romantic to imagine that the sex in the 70’s could have somehow fucked its way into a utopian universe or whatever, and the only reason it didn’t happen was because AIDS, maybe. I don’t want to dismiss the gravity of everything else that people were doing, it was in the context of like, pretty widespread, sustained, intense militancy. It wasn’t just just sex or whatever, right? I’m not being so Stalinist about it.
I’ve been reading this book that I’m pretty sure Chris was reading throughout early on or whatever, by this theorist, Moishe Postone, who taught at University of Chicago where he did his undergrad. And it’s this critique of what he’s calling “traditional Marxism”, “traditional theories of Marx”, that basically mistake what Marx was doing, for giving a critique of capitalism from the perspective of labor, so as to say like, “labor makes capitalism but then capitalists take it away, and if we just get rid of the capitalists and keep laboring in the same fashion, then we’ll have socialism and then everything’s going to be fine”. And Postone is like “no, that’s not really what Marx was saying. Marx was saying actually that because of these, the contradictory character of the sort of basic categories of capitalist society: abstract labor, commodity, etc, etc, abstract time”- I don’t wanna get into the details too much, but basically, like, “you can’t rely on a kind of like simple affirmation of your position that you find yourself in, within capital society to kind of like undo the problem. You need to find a way to self abolish, basically.” To kind of like, not so not simply just get rid of everything, but like, you know, transform the present such that you’re no longer reproducing your own domination.
And I think there’s a kind of a symmetry in the way that Chris was trying to treat these categories around sexuality. Sexuality appears as this potentially a standpoint of critique of sort of straight society or whatever. And you could imagine that all you need to do is get rid of the straight people who are preventing us from living out the free satisfaction of our desires and then we’ll be able to kind of like, you know, stop upholding the larger capitalist social order that we are convinced — and I kind of agree — that your sexuality is, like a really integral part of. And that’s basically, and it’s interesting, but that’s basically the kind of thesis of sexual liberation movement, right? It’s like, our desire is blocked or impeded from its full expression in the social, and what we need is to find a way of removing these barriers to its kind of full expression, and then the problem is going to be over. And to critique that position, and certainly not to say like, “no, it’s actually fine, everything’s fine. You’re complaining, you’re whining about nothing”. There’s serious vectors of misery and violence, obviously, you know it’s still going on much more intensely around gender and trans people right now. But there’s obvious enemies to be opposed by any kind of liberatory political formation.
The trick is to not let yourself be so mesmerized by them that you think that they are the only kind of danger, right? Like the whole of society needs to reproduce itself in your moment, somehow, through the mediation of these categories, and our movements have to have a delicate enough grasp of what presuppositions we might be affirming, when we are working out the kind of horizons that we’re going for, or the sort of strategies that we adopt or whatever.
S: Yeah, that makes me think of this line that really stuck out to me as like, it’s not something that is expanded upon in the book a lot, and it’s a place where I want to keep thinking, maybe you have some thoughts on it, where he writes, “the central contradiction connected with homosexuality, and by extension, with the category of heterosexuality and social power more generally, is that of consent. How various societies have understood consent as the basis of the exercise of power more generally”. Yeah, there’s, I just think there’s a lot contained in there. And also consent is a term that’s being used a lot within our movements to reframe our thinking around justice and accountability. But I was wondering if you have thoughts on unpacking that. Like how could a queer movement or gay liberation be articulate around this idea of like, consent on one hand, power on the other. Because there’s something here about being, it’s not just like, about consent, but like, being kind of pushed into consent to be ruled, too, I think
MF: Yeah, so that’s, yeah, I find it really suggestive and helpful. But I’m not positive exactly what he meant. I’ve only been thinking about this example for like, an hour or so today so I hope I’m not going to walk myself into a bad position. But there’s this interesting article today in the New York Times that was about touch hunger through the pandemic. And it was this person who was like, “I did sex work, I was like a dominatrix and I really liked it because I was able to kind of like, be much more explicit about the type of touch and interaction and shit that I was going to get in a sexual situation. Because, like lots of women, I had childhood socialization to, sort of, unwanted touch from all types of people. And this past year of like, touch hunger or whatever during the pandemic, has really made me reconsider how much I consented to touch that I didn’t want as a sex worker, and I like reached out to all these other sex workers. And I asked them about it too, and they’re all like, ‘yeah, I’ve consented to like”…basically the thrust of it was like, consent and desire are not the same. You know, you basically you can extract, like a sort of misogynist, you know, rape culture can extract consent quite easily from people whether or not that’s what they want or what’s good for their psychic well being, etc, etc, etc. Or has anything to do with kind of like, social equality, you know. Consent, in other words, is like actually a way of reproducing exploitative power relations, and it’s an integral part of a sort of misogynist in this world that operates on gender balance.
And I know I was reading that and I was like, “yeah, so then maybe consent isn’t really the question, is it?” Right?” If it can be the constant throughout all of these stories of like, not all of them are traumatic, but you know, shitty times that people had that stayed with them and affected how they continue to operate in the world and access pleasure and things like that, maybe it’s not the sufficient criterion that we are looking for to have a sexually free world. I think that kind of direction is what he’s going towards, and this question of the normative order, current sexual hegemony that we all kind of live in, carry out.
Yeah, so it’s a way of kind of like eliciting a kind of consent at a formal level, to this terrifyingly violent world. Like consent to be governed by social relations that run on gendered violence, you know, like, how could you possibly have a meaningful, discreet sexual encounter that’s separate from that larger context? And say “yes”, to that, but like, not to the rest or whatever, I think that’s kind of the direction he’s going in. And there’s a lot of feminist legal thinking around this, that I, unfortunately, I’m not as versed in as I’d like to be, but you know, it kind of extends this contractual idea that you can freely enter into some kind of relation with another person in an unequal society. And, sure, you can, in a practical sense, like, you know, in fact it’s necessary for the society to operate – you have to have this level of formal equality for its concepts of legitimation to operate. But if you don’t buy the presupposition, the sort of capitalist rule, like you’re an anarchist, or communist or anti authoritarian of some sort, then that’s just simply not sufficient to guide your interactions. Looking at the way these concepts are really deeply embedded in our capacity to think about relating to other people. It’s tricky, you know, I wouldn’t say, like, we need to get rid of this concept, you know, and just kind of figure it out later. But, you know, there’s some pretty serious contradictions that are worth following.
S: Yeah, you lay that out in a helpful way. So like, he talks about the norms of consent being part of the bourgeois development of sexuality, sort of like post World War Two I think in terms of like domestic heterosexual marriage. But you also connect that to like this sort of myth of like the liberal subject who consents to be governed, and that’s what we’re kind of taught ideologically. Of course that moment of consent is always pushed outside of our actual experience or history, it’s like this other time. Also going back to that kind of Edenic version of like, the gays being expelled. So that makes sense to me, and like sexual identity then consent can be used strategically, but if we get caught up in that as the thing itself, then we’re stuck in that discourse.
MF: I think that’s a good way of putting it.
S: And that’s why I think that’s interesting too, to think about in connection to, you know, there’s like, consent culture, but then also the kind of abolition movements and transformative justice discourse that goes around, like we often use the word consent to get at those things, but the thing that like, that transformative relations are getting at, isn’t about articulating consent, but articulating relations that don’t operate along those same power differentials, right.
Or it’s like, if we had to actually theorize consent in this way it would be infinitesimal, right? Like every moment would be having to consent to, and that’s like, an impossibility in a way. I don’t know. I’m also just like, kind of going off of this, the way that you kind of unpacked the example from that sex workers experience because it’s also been something that’s critiqued within like BDSM, where they’re like, Well, it seems this place where consent is made very explicit, and yet here, all these examples of like, where that explicit consent culture can be abused, by people who have various forms of power within that culture. So yeah, I don’t know if you had some thoughts on what I was saying there.
MF: It’s making me think of some things that I don’t think I’m capable of reproducing right now.
S: *laughs in understanding* Okay that’s fine.
MF: I know it’s a rich field of thought. And I’m just not going to pretend like I can contribute right now. *laughs*
S: Totally. No, I mean, yeah, I’m just getting excited about but like, yeah, that’s another conversation perhaps. So there’s like a couple more things that if you’re up for it that I want to touch on. You mentioned the kind of interruption that HIV/AIDS brought to queer movement. And that, you know, also coincided with further dismantling of radical movements like Black liberation and Indigenous movements. But you know, Chitty’s argument has some interesting things to say about how AIDS kind of like, replays histories of control of sexuality. So I wonder if you wanted to expand any bit anymore on like, the way the history of disease and epidemics is tied to our understanding of sexuality? Because like, it was preceded by syphilis and etc. Yeah, if you had some thoughts on that, or just expanding on AIDS in relation to gay movement.
MF: I put the finishing like the final edits on the manuscript, last like April? Like in the first month of lockdown. And I’d been working on the texts — that make sense, he died — since 2015, and I mean, not, you know, consistently, but I’ve been sort of going through it at various different levels. And that whole time, I didn’t quite catch how central disease was to his narrative. Until this last April, you know, what he’s pretty explicit, that, you know, the sort of like preconditions for a modern bourgeois concept of sexuality, a sexually free body, you know, a has to do with the kind of enclosures in the European countryside to bring all these new, uprooted, ex-peasants to the city, etc, etc, etc, social capital, social relations, production, blah, blah, blah. But also you need to have plumbing, and you need to have a sort of health infrastructure that can keep people’s bodies relatively clean. And this is the result of successive pandemics.
So it doesn’t go into a lot of detail about this. But like the vagrancy laws that are first used to criminalize sodomites in northern Italy, are passed in the aftermath of the Black Death, to kind of manage this kind of collapse in feudal social order, right? So like the feudal countryside is transformed in the wake of this plague, right? And so all of a sudden, these peasants can kind of travel in a different fashion. And they need to suddenly compel them to stay in place in a new way. So they pass all these vagrancy laws: you can’t be more than 100 yards from your local town or whatever. And these are the same vagrancy laws that they start using to threaten the sodomites with. And secondly, syphilis, the way that it’s transported from the New World kind of demonstrates the kind of the new global trade networks and relations of extraction, domination and violence, that are kind of putting Europe into a new kind of like orientation towards the rest of the rest of the world. In particular, exposing its proletarian populations to all kinds of new bodily conditions, basically. Syphilis, that kind of transforms the needs of the emerging state to kind of manage and have kind of like sanitary body around cities, so it’s not spreading pestilence.
Cholera obviously is a similar story, you know, when you have these kind of enormous swarms, where you’ve kind of just dumped the factory working population. But because they’re living on top of each other, they’re super liable to spread disease if it shows up. And so all of a sudden you need to invent plumbing and heating, you know, epidemiology and whatever. All these modern conveniences also go into a kind of reconceptualization of public sphere so that men are no longer free to piss on the street, he says, the story is bourgeois women start showing up in public once again after centuries of being secluded in the household and they’re scandalized by all these penises that are everywhere. And so Europe starts putting up these urinals which kind of hide the penises, but obviously also in this dialectical fashion that kind of concentrate, and eroticize…what does he call them? “Temples of urethral eroticism”. And so anyway, the point is there’s this whole thread of existence of disease as a kind of motor of this sort of social transformation of what sexuality means, in the story that he’s also telling that I didn’t quite grasp for the first number of years I was working with the text, only past year that it really hit me.
And then he has this whole other story where like, okay, so you have the sexual, gay liberationists in the 60’s and 70’s, who are like “we have a glorious past that we need to kind of liberate, ourselves and it, through us.” And then with the arrival of HIV AIDS, all of a sudden, the histories that these activists are telling are quite different. They are about the kind of like bodily practices that actually constitute material social reality of what homosexuality is, because that is where the virus lives. You know, that’s what’s salient for them, politically and essentially. it changes the sort of the way that they’re theorizing about themselves and about history.
And so he’s like, you know, both of these things are quite valuable contributions to the understanding of sexuality, homosexuality, particular. Now, maybe in 2013, or whatever, the kind of like, apocalyptic urgency of the HIV AIDS crisis is in the past somewhat. And so we can kind of be a little bit more critical or assess these histories with a bit more distance. And we’re no longer kind of under this injunction to tell politically helpful stories that will save our lives. And now we can kind of like look at why maybe these presuppositions of the political movements that made these demands which are quite productive. Also, on other moments kind of inhibited a total liberation.
S: What’s interesting to think about, Hocquenghem was an early sort of utopian liberationist — although I think he’s more complex than that, because he also includes an idea of like, overcoming homosexuality — but he was so concerned, and he didn’t want to disclose his status or whatever, with HIV, because he was worried that it would imperil the liberationist forms of sex that he had, that were so important to his vision of revolution. Which was like, you know, cruising and everything, but then that’s something that he’s been criticized for, for his unwillingness to avow his like, yeah. Or that paradox of like this sort of sexual liberation and in his situation. But then on the other side, I’m thinking like, he kept it separate in a way that is problematic for, it puts a limit on it’s like sort of contribution at that point.
That’s not really a question *laughs* but the other side I’m thinking of, like, this book, Sexual Hegemony, in a way, like it’s maybe a weird connection, but maybe this will say something to you. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but to me it reads like totally as a companion to Samuel Delaney is Time Square Red, Time Square Blue-,
MF: Oh, yeah.
S: Where he’s writing in the height of the crisis in New York, of the HIV AIDS crisis in New York, and the way that’s used as a political tool to criminalize sexual public sexual activity under like public health measures.
S: While still maintaining this kind of utopian vision of sexuality in the midst of a health crisis. And yeah, there’s like a way that Chitty’s work kind of really resonates for me with the way that Delaney articulate sexuality, and he even gets these things about consent too, because he discusses masculine violence as a kind of effective a false scarcity that’s imposed on sexual availability — which like, really parallels the idea of capitalism enforcing sort of false scarcity or creating that. This is not also well thought out, I’m kind of like, going here in this moment.
MF: Yeah, that’s so funny that you say that. Yeah, I mean, he cites Delaney a couple times, I think. Definitely borrowing from it. But it’s so funny. Maybe this is just like, I mean, so this was an adaptation of his PhD thesis. So maybe this is just like how those things go. But um, I’ve read it so many times. And then I’m like, I’ll be reading another book that I know Chris also read, and I’m like, “Oh, my god he’s just…this is that argument”, or he’s just doing this, just kind of transposing that. So like, Hocquenghem in Homosexual Desire, in the first couple of chapters, I reread it, I’m like, ”Oh, my God, that’s exactly the form of argument he’s doing”. But then you’ll read Mario MIeli and you’re like, “Oh, that’s what he’s writing about”. And I mean, obviously, it’s like, he’s giving a direct response to Foucault History of Sexuality, Volume One. And then, you know, I’m reading Time Labor and Social Domination. And it’s like, oh yeah, that’s the form of argument he’s doing. And it’s like, whatever, maybe that’s just, like I’m saying, that’s just what a PhD is. You kind of process all this thinking and generate something that’s mostly digested, but still, it’s own new object.
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s very unique. Also, obviously, it would be very hard to kind of combine all of those positions and not have something totally new. But, um, yeah, the Delaney I think, because he’s like, he’s like a legit liberationist. For whatever reason, I was going back and reading this article by one the members of the GLF. And, you know, which is like, held up as, “Oh, in the past the gay liberationists were radical and now they’re assimilationist, or whatever, we shouldn’t be like the GLF, blah, blah”. And I was reading it, I was like, this is super misogynist, and transphobic and like pretty boring, actually. It’s like, you know, he wanted to go back to like, use like, some term from Byron, rather than the alphabet soup that current radicals have. And just like, “okay, man, like, sorry, that you got annoyed by some kids”. But, uh, Delaney is like, very much, I mean, I’m sure he has some weird cranky positions, too-
MF: But at least in terms of his sexual politics, like about the sex that he has, and sex he writes about and puts in circulation, I mean he’s just like, he’s just free. He’s like, I’m here to experience pleasure in all types of bodies and write all about it. And like, I understand the sort of social and political dynamics that are flowing through the bodies in this moment, and it has a lot to do with, you know, capitalist development. That is such a valuable tradition, and not one that is always found in the kind of like, more properly political legacy works or whatever. I guess I didn’t, yeah. I don’t think, I don’t remember what the precise question was.
S: I didn’t really articulate a question. I was just kind of trying to put some pieces together. But that actually helped me because I think why I reached for Delaney, after talking about the interruption that HIV AIDS brought in to the liberation movement is that he’s still able, he writes in the 80s, about the work that was being done around care and support and health. But he also is able, within that moment, to still envision liberation as politics and sex as connected. And perhaps part of it is his fiction, that he’s a fiction writer, but he, in a way he can go into places — the things that I like about Hocquenghem is that he ultimately doesn’t want to hold on to any of these categories. And that’s why he upsets people who want to find liberation through these categories. And then that’s also what Chitty says, ultimately, and maybe this is where we can bring this to the current moment. The argument ends up, there’s a pessimism that’s like, “okay, liberation isn’t gonna be just gay, because the gay identity is a product of capitalism.” And we’ve known that for a while, but he articulates that in a new way that allows us to get more at the complexity of it.
So I don’t know I guess to get to a sort of final question: if the problem of queerness is created by the development of the modern state, right, then we can reach liberation without also overthrowing the state. So then the question I keep coming back to and I don’t think this has to be pessimistic or nihilistic is like, what’s left for gay liberation or radical queer movement? Does it need to be called that? Or another way maybe of putting it is like, where do we find points of solidarity that can keep like delinking gay liberation from identity and interiority, but open places to like work together? Because like, the power effects that Chitty traces historically happened to other people that wouldn’t identify as gay too, right? So I mean my basic question is like, where do you think this leaves us, radical queers who are also fighting for liberation?
MF: Yeah, that’s a hard question. Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t have a great answer, like, practically, pragmatically. I think that we’re in a really weird moment. You know, I think that we’re living through some type of transition between, let’s say…I don’t know, historical period, I mean, you wouldn’t want to make a prediction about any epochal change from inside of it. But it certainly seems as if the kind of thing — you were talking about this a little bit earlier — the kind of social order that being gay or being queer was dissonant to, is kind of defunct. And you know, there’s a number of different ways you can characterize that it has, you know. Some people like to call it Fordism. Some people like to call it kind of, like the classical sort of, like, you know, post post-war capitalist period, where social reproduction is kind of like privatized in the hetero family. And that’s been in kind of a bit of crisis for the past forty years now, or more, right? You know, it was like 50 years since Stonewall a couple of years ago. And it’s obviously like, you know, a crisis that lasts that long…maybe you don’t call it a crisis after a certain point. You just call it a new sort of period? So there have been ways of stabilizing social reproduction even though that type of family organization is no longer hegemonic. But then that means because it’s not hegemonic, maybe it wasn’t necessarily a feature of this particular order of capitalism, like social reproduction still takes place, even if it’s like largely mediated by the market or debt financed, or even kind of effected through queer forms of chosen family or distributed sort of community care models, or whatever.
I think what is useful about the political position of queerness being the inheritor of a tradition of really serious attempts at grasping how these different orders of social reality connect and reproduce each other. Because, you know, it’s really easy to say like, “oh, sex has nothing to do with the economy, real material productive activity” or on the other hand it’s easy to say, like, “oh, it’s just like a kind of mechanical expression of class belonging”, and that gets you to kind of fucked up positions of proletarians aren’t queer, and then therefore it’s bougious give a shit about pleasure. That’s just never been historically the case.
So there’s a really powerful and valuable tradition of thinking that has been handed down to us, I suppose. At a great cost, against serious genocidal perril, for multiple generations. But we’re in this ambivalent position where the object of that tradition of critique has transformed in ways that it didn’t totally foresee. Which is, in some ways great, because then it’s like, okay, so some of the real horrible shit is taken care of, or like no longer as urgent. And in other ways, it means that we need to kind of rework those traditions and presuppositions and what we inherit in a way that’s kind of faithful to them, but still kind of gives us a way out of the present because we still need to get out. And I think, in particular, sorry that was a long way to say: one of the useful things that there is still on offer in the queer movement is this ability, is this repertoire that we’ve developed, of grasping how what appeared to be natural or extra-economic forms of social existence that have a kind of objective or necessary or compulsory character, right? You don’t choose whether or not you have a sexuality, you just choose whether or not to kind of live it out, or express it in a particular way. But it’s something that’s, you know, in the social world that we live in, it’s given to you. And there’s all types of ways of that that evolves, you know? But an interesting confirmation of this sort of objective nature, you know, whether or not you want it, it the kind of the larger, kind of political activity or asexuality, right? Like, this is a type of identity position that like, is clearly real and meaningful and valid in exactly the same ways as all the other kind of like, whatever, allosexual identities, but it doesn’t negate the existence of having a sexuality as a kind of imperative, as a social sort of unavoidable fact. And, in fact, it confirms it, in this kind of negative way.
So a queer movement would be one that is capable of grasping these imperatives as intimately related to questions of revolution, solving these imperatives politically, through some type of collective struggle means investigating why they take the form that they do in this particular society with this set of compulsory socially objective relations. And not just saying, like, “Oh, it’s natural”, or, “oh, you just want to do this because I feel like it” or, “it’s socially constructed”, or whatever, so that we just need to kind of tell enough people not to do this in this way that we can get out of it. Like, no, it’s actually probably going to take…and obviously, like, you know, some level of that tactic is successful, you know, it’s necessary to any kind of social movement, unfortunately. You have to kind of do the really thankless work of yelling at people or bothering them about stuff that they think is the reflex, but there’s also a different level that it exists on and we need to have a kind of way of grasping that. And that’s not at all a concrete answer. But I think that’s the kind of precious insight or tradition or whatever in the queer liberatory lineage that I think is really useful.
S: Since we’re forming our discussion around this book, if like, what this book does is “historicize the history of sexuality” — I think that’s something he says — like, I’m thinking about how Hocquenghem talks about, like, the leftists are always fighting the last revolution. And like, if we get caught up in the conditions that produce gay liberation — which was like, according to Chitty, the policing of sexuality, that led to confrontation, like fighting police in the streets, which led to Stonewall — if we’re fighting that, that war now, like, that’s the wrong war. Because, you know, homosexuality has been included it’s no longer a threat. And it’s not the node of control in the same way. It is in other places, I guess, like, particularly around transness right now is being articulated.
But the other thing is like, this book doesn’t give us a predictive thing, obviously, a predictive tool. But since he articulates all these moments around these times of financialization, like we’re in that moment, right? We’re in a time of like, sexual hegemony potentially changing. So that term can give us something to think about the way sexuality is politicized. Not as like a simple dynamic of like, “yes or no” or “repressed or liberated”, but like, it’s a subtle tool that we need to kind of, like, try to understand how to wield for ourselves and not for the state. But like, yeah, I guess we’re still inundated with all those slogans that are so intoxicating from that time when there was way more visible militancy, you know, and the social war was visible, right, like, a lot more going generally visible at that time. So.
MF: Yeah, people picking up arms in a different way.
S:Yeah. I like, get left in this pessimistic place of “gay liberation has been totally captured”. But that’s also an old story. And then still like a thing of how the new articulations of queerness are potential locations of solidarity. And seeing the work that pinko does too, in terms of the way that the journal kind of brings together different fronts, I think is helpful to think through those kinds of modes, you know? Like, yeah, there’s a lot and I think it’s expansive, right? Like in the two volumes, it brings together different movement work on different fronts, right? There’s stuff around sex work, there’s stuff like the Trans History Project, there is theories of sexuality, there’s a mix of old discourse, like reprinted texts from the old movement, there’s like new takes on things. I don’t know. I think I like that because it’s like seeing it as a coalitional politics.
MF: Oh, yeah. Interesting. Sure. Yeah. That’s nice. But it’s nice to think about it like that. Yeah. I mean, with Pinko, one of the fantasies that I had, when I started working on it was that we would have a kind of a venue for bringing together a bunch of different perspectives that don’t, hadn’t really been in conversation, but also kind of like, hopefully trying to consolidate what might be a new position that I don’t know that we have yet. I mean, I’m hopeful, and I’m sure that it reads differently from the other side, you know, it’s more maybe more coherent, or more like, all in sync or whatever.
But the other thing that I thought would be important, to have a magazine or some kind of a record going was of these struggles around sexuality as the current dominant, hegemonic mode begins to sort of transform. I thought it would be useful to have a kind of place that was attending to the different ways that people are trying to work out what it means to be militant with these problems, or these concepts or whatever.
You know I think one of my favorite pieces was sort of the first issue — and I don’t know, I don’t want to say this in like a too simple way — but it was the interview with these two trans people who went down to a coal ship, a coal train blockade in Kentucky, I think. And they set up a kind of classic like encampment-style protest occupation thing that has been a really dominant form for a lot of types of protests for the past decade or so. And we had this interesting conversation with them, while they were, you know, there at the camp. And they have this very hopeful, like, “we’re here to support the miners, but we’re also members of the community, we’re from Appalachia, and obviously there’s, maybe there’s some tension around our transness or whatever, but like, we’re able to talk with them in a kind of chill way and resolve this conflict”. And when it came to us, there’s like, this cool story about precisely that. This coalitional thing, or it’s like, wow, trans struggles and the classical worker militancy thing can come together in these wildcat places where they block circulation. It’s this perfect illustration of so many political trends, like, we love this fusion.
And then actually, what ended up happening was in between the interviews that we did and the publication of the magazine, some Trump dude showed up, basically, and took over the camp, or like, installed themselves in the camp, and the miners basically weren’t able to reestablish their own control. And so the trans people were like “thid is not a chill place for us to be and we can’t trust you dudes to kick out this fucking biker gang or whatever, so we’re leaving” which is a reasonable thing to do.
Anyway so we ended up having to run this kind of long intro paragraph about why they didn’t quite work. Like what they thought was the fissures in their previous assessment that they’ve been able to do this interesting coalitional thing. And like, I don’t know, yeah, I don’t want to tell the story like, “haha they were proved wrong” or whatever. But I thought having the space to kind of investigate, there’s quite a lot to be learned in figuring out the limits also, of these forms of political action and political sort of conduct and protest and thinking. And I was glad that we had this venue where we weren’t like, “Oh, we have to give this kind of posi story about, you know, the powerful moment of unity between the macho miner dude and the less macho trans people or whatever”. It wasn’t a kind of affirmative thing. Like, what was interesting was that like, we could actually take the time to take apart why this in particular, this one thing didn’t work. Because obviously that’s going to happen much more than winning, you know? And so like, there’s a lot in figuring out how to think about how things come apart? And what to do with that, and what to learn about that. What I find interesting about the potential for Pinko.
S: That makes sense. And that’s sort of like, with the kind of crisis theories, like, or we look at the sort of moments of crisis as potential openings for something, even though all the past moments haven’t been moments of winning, they’re like moments of loosening where other things can happen. And that’s, I don’t know, that’s where I’m at right now. Is that like, instead of thinking about that punctual moment, to like, look at the places where things are being done differently in the present, and work from there. I don’t know if it’s like, yeah, aggregate, or what, but like we can’t tell these deterministic histories, which are, like, kind of used both in like liberationist theories and repressive theories, you know?
S: Well, we’ve been talking for a while. So I don’t know if there’s like any final thing that you kind of want to touch on. Is there any way you want to like direct people to find your work, other than read Sexual Hegemony that’s put out by Duke University Press.
MF: Yeah read that. Exactly. Yeah, go find that on, I mean the Duke website as a good place to buy it from. I’ll put a plug: the Duke Press, the people who work there are unionizing. So you better support them if you have any kind of interaction with Duke. You know, maybe if you buy the book, you should add a note saying you recognize the union or whatever we find is effective about those things.
S: I signed today on their author’s support letter and I saw your name. *laughs*
MF: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, actually, that’s funny. You probably can’t buy, I think if you want to buy the Hocquenghem translation that I did, I think I will personally have to fulfill it because the publisher is sailing on a boat in the Arctic now and she dropped off all the remaining copies that are in my closet. So if you really want to order a copy, I guess I can put that in the mail. But I wouldn’t I wouldn’t count on that being like a prompt delivery. And then Pinko you can find it at pinko.online.
S: Cool. Well, thank you so much for taking all the time to talk.
MF: Yeah, thank you so much for asking such awesome questions. I hope it was coherent.
S: I think you did a really good job explaining the main ideas of the book, also in a way that like helped me think about it. Like, because I’ve read the book and probably a lot of people listening won’t have read it, but, so like, yeah you brought up new aspects of it for me. I think it was really clear.
An Indian Anarchist on Anti Caste Organizing and More!
This week we are very happy to present an interview with Pranav Jeevan P, who is a student, a writer, an anti-caste activist, and an Indian anarchist living in the state of Kerala. You are listening to the full extended audio from this conversation, where you’ll hear Pranav explaining how he got into anarchism, how anarchistic praxis unfolds in India, some about the origins of and worldwide implications of the caste system, anti-caste organizing and how anarchism feeds it, and about how the BJP and Hindutva have real influence on people’s lives and destinies.
He further touches on the struggle of Dalit and Other Backwards Caste folks and how this tendency has always had solidarity with Black liberation here on Turtle Island, much more information about the anti CAA protest and the Farmer’s Protest, a little bit about the ongoing military occupation of the state of Kashmir, and many more topics. There is already a lot of really good anti-caste hip hop out there, mostly performed by those in oppressed castes, and I’ll be including a bunch of those tracks which have been recommended by our guest, plus providing links in the show notes.
There are a lot of terms in this episode which may be unfamiliar to all listeners, and we warmly invite folks to take a look at our show notes for this episode to see links for further reading and research. Please also look forward in the coming week to this show being transcribed in full, if you would like a copy to send to a friend or to read along while listening.
Also you may have heard that covid is spreading out of control in India right now, in no small part due to government mismanagement. Please also take a look at this ongoing list of donations compiled by the group Students Against Hidutva Ideology. You can follow this group on Twitter @Students_A_H to see their updates and events. You can also follow India Solidarity Network on Instagram for updates on COVID in India.
Please be aware that in this segment, sean speaks about the Derek Chauvin trial and the murder of people at the hands of police. If you would prefer to skip this subject matter, you can skip forward about 8 and a half minutes. This segment occurs at the end of the episode, [02:02:27-02:10:58]
Happy May Day, y’all. We hope that you have a rebellious and joyous celebration in whatever way you see fit this week. If you’re looking for a place to hook in or have a public event, consider checking out ItsGoingDown’s post “May Day Is Our Day” and joining in or adding to their list.
NYC ABC has called for people to get together and to write anarchist prisoners Casey Brezik, Bill Dunne and Gage Halupowski, more info at NYCABC.Wordpress.Com or linked in our show notes.
Finally, another idea is to act in solidarity with the “Eyes on Starbucks: Don’t Fund Tigray Genocide!” call from the Indigenous Action Federation and Horn Anarchists from Eastern Africa for boycott and protest actions against the genocidal actions in Ethiopia from May 1st – 7th. More info on that linked in our show notes and at https://iaf-fai.org where you can find background, stencil designs and ideas of places to apply pressure.
BOG: Would you please introduce yourself with your name preferred gender pronouns location or any other information that makes sense for the purpose of this chat?
PJP: okay. So, I am Pranav Jeevan P and I identify with the pronouns he and him. I am basically from the district of Palakkad, which is in the state of Kerala in India. So, as far as where I come from I am actually right now doing my PhD in artificial intelligence in the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, Maharashtra. I am part of the Anti- Caste Ambedkarite movement in India. And most of the issues that I struggle around the lack of representation of marginalized communities in the higher education sector in India, especially the engineering colleges and STEM fields. So, where I come from personally… my background is that I come from what is called a backward caste. And both my parents, they’re first generation high schoolers, like they got their diploma. So, they were the first in their family to actually complete formal education and get jobs That actually enabled me to access a really good education and go for higher studies. And even though that was the case, the society that I am currently living in is filled with the elements of patriarchy and caste. Even though the state of Kerala is comparatively better than the services in India, as far as the Human Development Index and literacy is concerned. It is almost similar in living conditions to the Western countries like Britain or US. But the evils of caste and of the particular hierarchical structures & social structures are very obvious here. And my parents really had to face that in the workplace, and especially the places that we live, which are sorted by the dominant caste.
WG: Yeah, yeah, definitely. And I think now, like, especially in the US, the issue of caste and caste-ism is becoming a little bit more visible just through the work of people visualizing it, and and also the election of Kamala Harris, who is half South Asian herself, and she’s from an extremely privileged caste. And some people are talking about that, and we would love to talk about that some more later in the interview. But in terms of anarchism in India, although anarchism, you know, was a philosophy that motivated people involved in the movement against British colonialism, like, like Bhagat Singh, for example. And through the independence struggle, anarchism, as a cohesive philosophy doesn’t seem to have much of a life in modern India, does that seem like a fair estimation? How did you come to identify with the philosophy and how has it melded with your work and thought?
PJP: Okay, so that’s the first issue with anarchism in India. Anarchism is unheard concept in India, as an ideology. It has never been studied or even in the activist circles, like people who actually study ideologies, who goes to this fight, even they are not completely aware that such a philosophy actually exists. I think, even in the freedom struggle, like there were self proclaimed anarchists who actually did anarchist organizing, like Har Dayal and MPT Acharya they were actually never active within India, because most of the organizing happened for Har Dayal that happened in the US. he started an anarchist movement in US, and even MPT Acharya, he was active in Europe. And so it’s like very few individuals who actually studied and none of them actually did much organizing in the subcontinent. So, that was one thing and the case of Bhagat Singh, identified himself as a Marxist and he was an admirer of Lenin. He wanted to study Lenin’s life and things like that, but he had an attraction towards anarchism, and he wrote about it. So he had published a series of articles on anarchism and that might be the only articles on anarchism that is existing in India.
And then what happened is, the Marxist dominance happened in India like the what people call us community, some people identify immediately with the Communist Party of India, the ML party and The problem is, everyone identifies communism or like the left radical thinking with this particular party. They don’t know anything beyond that. So, whenever we talk about the left ideas, people immediately associate that “okay – you are talking about communism, and the CPI/ML party”. So, or like the what is happening in USSR or China and things like that, there is no awareness or any rigorous academic, or even activist awareness about this particular ideology. Like when I talk to people who actually read a lot about different ideologies, they haven’t heard, or they haven’t read much about Kropotkin or Bakunin, or what actually happened between them, him and Marx. Yeah, people are really unaware of this particular ideology. The funny thing is that there are many people in India, actually very huge number of people in India who actually are following anarchist ideals of like, who understand anti authoritarianism. Who understands the importance of liberty and equality. Who understands the importance of mutual aid. and who actually work on this kind of decentralized organizing and everything! But they don’t know that there is a philosophy like this, that is existing already, on which activists have been propagating. They just don’t know that they’re anarchists yet. So, that is the whole issue with anarchism in India right now. So, part of what I am trying to do is that. So since there is this moment of this Anti-Caste movement against this hierarchical social structure, which combines attacking all kinds of hierarchies like patriarchy, class violence, caste violence, there is this language superiority, colorism… All of this type hierarchies, which exists in society, and anarchism, as an ideology is best suited for it and I am trying to build that bridge between these the more political movements and social movements that are happening in India, in this ideology. Just showing that these are not separate. There is it an ideology is already existing, which you are actually following. You just don’t know it, but you’re already doing it. So, that there will be a much more academic and organizational backing to the moment that are already happening.
That makes so much sense, you know, we or I at least I don’t want to speak for my co-host. But I understand anarchism, like the construct of anarchism to be you know, as coming from like, these sort of very imperialistic backgrounds or powers. And I think that it’s articulating something that people who have to survive in the face of a lot of different kinds of oppressions do naturally, in a way. So, like, that makes so much sense. How did you come to anarchism? Like, you said, you’re writing a lot you are trying to build bridges, like how did you first like stumble across it? Or or how did it first start to make sense to you?
Okay, so initially, for me I started as an Anti-Caste. I was reading more and more and more about anti-militarist and anti-caste activism and I was part of the anti-caste struggle. Then I realized one particular thing that people are always… so, every person gets oppressed by certain hierarchies and they are getting privileged from certain other hierarchies. For example: there are upper caste women who suffer due to patriarchy, which suppresses them, but they get privileged from the caste system, that gives them privilege. And they get to oppress the lower caste men and women. There are lower caste men who are oppressed by the caste system, but they have privileged over a woman when we will look at that. So there are these multiple dimensions of hierarchies, which exist simultaneously. And I was thinking of like, what kind of ideology can actually attack power, because people when when they then there’s fighting against hierarchies, they kind of forget that every hierarchy creates a power imbalance and it is the power imbalance that has to be fought.
Of course, the fights are different. You cannot attack background either way you attack castes or the way you attack religious fundamentalism but the way power works is never studied deeply and I wanted to understand more about what is the fundamental nature of power that is creating these hierarchies and ensuring these hierarchies. So, in many of the movements you see these leaders emerging, and taking control of the movement. And suddenly after some time, the position of leadership becomes a lucrative post, which attracts people who, who don’t have the will to fight for the cause, but who just want to capture the power or to show themselves as the savior of all the oppressed people… to be the voice. They just want attention and privilege that the power gives and the voice that it gives them. So, that nature of how power is getting concentrated on few people: that I observe across these different hierarchies, like in every hierarchy there is this position of power and it always comes to certain few indigenous communities. And then I started looking for other ways of organizing or other alternatives which actually tries to create a system in which the power itself is decentralized. So, I was introduced to socialism and it gave the opportunity to create a society that is built on justice and liberty and equality. But how to organize a society, and because the nature of power is such that whenever there is a small accumulation of power, it will attract all the people to concentrate power.
I was trying to find systems which are designed so that there will be complete democracy, there will be decentralization of power where people can actually exercise all that, because without dilution of power, if there is a concentration of power, it’ll automatically create hierarchies, if this hierarchy is broken, and the hierarchy will replace it. So I wanted to attack the fundamental thing. I identify the fundamental nature of power and how to fight it. That is how I came to read about like, the critique of Bakunin and Kropotkin on the communist moment, so how they told that like, the idea of a Vanguard party or the dictatorship of proletariat, how it wouldn’t happen because of this accumulation of power. That no matter how much you try it will not match up with that, because it’s the property of power, no matter how well-intentioned it is, an accumulation of power will always result in hierarchies. Once hierarchy is established, it always try to protect itself. So, once I started reading Kropotkin and then then I understood that Okay, so, these are the people who actually understand how power works, and they are trying to develop or design systems that will keep power in check or make sure that the concentration of power doesn’t happen. Then I realized “Okay, so, this is what I have been looking for so long! This is something that is really needed right now. In all the moments that are for social justice happening in India right now.” Because what has been observed until now is that whenever there is a social struggle, it kind of fizzles out or it kind of breaks down because of this particular concentration of power. It is not helping it. All the approaches or from top down. So there will be few leaders who will be commanding. So once the leader falls the entire struggle fades. So and there has never been much work towards building the movement from the grassroot level, that will be much more sustained. And anarchism actually gets a better analysis of how to do that.
BOG: So in some of your writing, you bring up parallels between different movements that have existed in the last decade or so in various countries. For instance, the Anti-CAA movement and some occupations related to it. As well as the distributed mutual aid that’s existed in… for instance: the farmers movement. Are there other examples of anarchistic approaches that are already existing in Indian culture and in political movement that you think are worthwhile of pointing out that that maybe could be used to help bridge an understanding of how this philosophy is already in action and how to run with it from there?
PJP: So, the issue with anarchism in India is that Indian society is designed to be hierarchical. It is designed for not just one hierarchy, it is designed for multiple hierarchies everywhere. Indians are indoctrinated to respect authority, just like like complete subservience without questioning. That is considered as a sign of obedience. Obedience is glorified here. You don’t disrespect the people who are older to you no matter what they say. The woman can never disrespect the man even if he’s wrong. So that glorification of subservience is core to the Indian social order. Anyone who tries to break that social order will be severely punished. So you might have heard of honor killings in India. If a boy and a girl from different castes get married, they’ll be killed by their family themselves because they broke the social order. And that is happening even in India right now. It’s very rampant. So its a society where hierarchy is celebrated. And it is considered the norm. On organizing leaderless? that happened with the Anti-CAA protests and the farmers protest. It was unprecedented.
I think one of the reasons why the scale of these protests… if you see, these have been the most massive protests India has seen after independence. So once the Anti-CAA, the Citizenship Amendment Act, which was passed 19 of December. The moment it was passed there was no call by a political party or citizen activist group to create this huge protest. It was just people just came themselves out to the streets and started sloganeering and they started meetings, and they started to occupy places. So it was a spontaneous thing. And I don’t think it was just because of this current one law. It was because of the decades of neo-liberalism, assault on rights of certain democratic institutions that has been happening, and the rising inequality that India has been witnessing for the last 20 years. When such a draconian law was passed people said “that enough is enough.” They just wanted to raise their voice because they felt one after the other that their right as citizens was being taken away from them. Whenever there is organizing like of this sort that was happening before, there is always a tendency of infantilizing. Saying “Okay, these people don’t know what they are doing. They are not educated or they are not aware of what they are protesting against.” So there is this tendency by the media and the government to delegitimize protesters claiming that they are unaware of what they’re talking about, like “we are the ones the experts, we know everything.” These people are illiterate, they are they don’t know exactly what is what is good for them, basically. And this particular law, once it was passed, like people came out, telling exactly what was wrong with them. They were articulating and ,regarding the Shaheen Bagh Protests, In India, there are these communities who we naturally stereotype as uneducated or who have no agency. And the Shaheen Bagh Protests was a symbol of a category of people who were considered to have no agency, no education, no rights. They came out and they occupied a particular spot and demanded their rights. It was an unprecedented moment in Indian history. There were Muslim women, who were likely not to be not to have education more than like a high school education, who were housewives. There are like, women of all ages from children to more than 90 years old. And they came. They knew that there was an injustice that is being imposed on them. And they came out to fight for their rights. So it broke multiple preconceived notions of what a citizen is, and how aware they are of their rights. And I think that is the first symbol of democracy. Where the citizens starts to assert their right.
I think subsequently, the citizenship protest started in December, it went till March and then the COVID pandemic broke out. Due to which the protest had to be called off. But the model that was shown in the citizenship protests in which literally every major city, there was massive demonstrations of millions of Indians coming to the streets and fighting for their rights. Okay, now, here’s the second thing. India is heavily divided on sectarian lines of caste, of color, of language, of religion, of cuisine, of culture, of religion. So, what the government expected was, and since this particular government is far right hyper Nationalist government. So every fascist government has this tendency to create an other, so that they can demonize that community in hopes of getting electoral or political gains from the rest of the group. So in India, what the BJP government is doing is they are demonizing the Muslim community which comes to about 14 to 15% of the population. And so that they can get electoral gains from the rest. And they bring up all these issues, the Hindu Muslim binary issues, because everywhere the government is failing, the government is completely failing the corporations, they are taking away the worker and labor rights. The labor laws have been diluted. The economy is falling. Inequality is rising. The public health care and public education system is completely being dismantled. There are no jobs, there’s a higher level of unemployment. To mask all these failures of the government, the government will keep on bringing up this Hindu Muslim binary.
All these laws, the Kashmir issue, the anti-CAA. The CA law itself was a way to distract people from what is actually happening, like what is the actual issues the country is facing. But here the government is calculated. People came, actually more than Muslims, it was the other people from the other religions like Hindu, from other communities like Dalits, OBC’s (Other Backwards Castes), everyone came together, because they understood what exactly the media and the government is trying to do, and the narrative that they’re trying to build. They just broke through the narrative. They just came out in support in solidarity with each other. And that was a turning point, I think in the Indian democracy, I think this is one of the first signs that that there is some democracy that is actually left in India. Not the institutions, or the government, or the machinery, but actually in people themselves. There is a democratic feeling. There is a sense of democracy and that is being expressed right now. Actually, we were really disappointed when such a public outrage was not happening when the Kashmir issue came out. When the government implemented Article 35, which actually granted special privileges to the state of Kashmir. They completely threw away the elected democratic government of the state and imposed their complete control without consulting a democratically elected government. So by that time it was disappointing to see that the government, the people of the country, were not actually coming forward to protest it. But after this happened, within two months, when the CA bill was passed, the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed, then the nation reacted. So that actually gave hope. And since occupation protest has never been more successful. India has always seen rallies in which people just walk to the National Capital of the state capitol and stay there for some days and then they just come back. If prolonged occupation protest actually needs the idea of mutual aid and solidarity, because you need these protests are participated by millions of people. Like the farmer protests that is right now happening in Delhi has more than 300,000 farmers that are stationed on all the borders. And it is not easy to sustain such huge protests, without the kind of mutual aid and solidarity networks that is right now existing. And in that mutual aid network of this scale, I think is unprecedented in human history for protests.
BOG: It’s amazing to see that many people in one place for a common reason, and also being able to sustain such high numbers of people is really prefigurative. So I was wondering if we could get back to the issue… because a lot of us in the west in the US in particular, myself, who doesn’t come from any sort of Indian background has a very, very weak understanding of the caste system and I know that you’ve done a lot of writing and activism around the evolution of it. Can you talk a bit about some of its history and ground it for the listening audience. Talk about some of the modern struggles against it, including B. R. Ambedkar, who you’ve mentioned in some of your writings, and how you came to organize and write against it, how does an opposition to caste-ism intersect with your work against patriarchy and and how can anarchists specifically add to your anti-caste analysis?
PJP: Okay, so the caste system is something that started I think, around like 5000 years back. So it is this is the oldest form of strict social hierarchy. It existed in India since I think when the Aryans came to settle in India, and this has been mentioned in the the Rig Veda and everywhere. So what this basically does is creates a gradient inequality. It is not a strict inequality that you see in places with slavery,serfdom, and things like that. This is gradient inequality. So, a gradient inequality, it’s like a ladder, in which there are multiple castes, with one on top of the other. So, the person who is on the very top, they get all the privileges. The person who is the right below them, they are also fine, as long as they get to oppress those who are below them. So, they will forget, and or they will actually increase their own oppression, because there are people below them who they can oppress. So for every class that you look at, there is always someone below them. This this particular gradient inequality survived for all this time, because there is very little incentive for people to actually fight against it, because there are people below them that they can actually completely exploit. So how is caste system practiced? So one way of it is practiced is by enforced endogamy. So a woman doesn’t have any rights. As far as the Indian social organization. The woman, their main purpose is for child rearing and being the homemaker. They have to worship their husband, and that is the ideal wife, or the ideal mother. And here is where the patriarchy comes in within this structure, they can’t remarry. They have to keep women in control because everything about our system is about purity.
The way it works, the people at the top top… they don’t eat or drink with, or even touch the people who are below them. There’s this practice of untouchability. Actually, in my part, the Kerala State where I am from we had a practice of unapproach-ability. The higher caste people won’t allow people of the lower caste to come less than 10 feet to them. So forget touching, even coming close enough to pollute them. In certain castes who are considered at the very bottom of the caste hierarchy, they won’t even allow them to come out in the sun. So that the upper class people won’t have to see them, because the mere sight of these people will make them polluted. So there were communities in this country who weren’t allowed to walk in during day, they could only get out of their home at night. That was the way this thing has been working for centuries. People of one caste cannot marry another caste. So that is precisely why they had to practice this strict patriarchy. Women cannot be allowed to have independent wishes. Their their bloodline has to be pure. Even the food that we eat.
Basically the people of the higher caste pride themselves of being vegans, that they don’t eat meat. They consider meat as something which is polluting. It’s only the people who are from the deepest caste which eat meat. Basically, because all the economic and cultural capital always start with the upper caste and the people from the lower caste had to basically live with whatever was available to them. So that social realities that are existing in society was enshrined into the way these people live and interact and behave. This remained exactly the same till the Britishers. So, India has been ruled by multiple communities like between 80,000 to 83 Britishers. India was also ruled by Muslims. But even when India is ruled by people from other religions, the evil of caste system never dies. So a person who is born in the lower caste, even if they convert to another religion, they won’t lose their caste.
So, basically, if Islam and Christianity… these are religions which actually doesn’t have the caste system right? But in India, when you come and look, you can find that there is a caste system within these religions. The people who actually convert to Islam who are from the higher caste, they have a richer status, they have their own separate mosques in which they will never allow people from the lower caste who converted to Islam to attend. Similarly with Christianity, for example, in Kerala, the people that top-most caste is called the Brahmins. That is why we call it a Brahminical hierarchy, or Brahminical patriarchy, the caste system. So the Brahmins who converted to Christianity, they are the dominant Christians who have all the wealth and all the land and all the power, political and social. The people who actually converted to Christianity who are from like.. let’s say, fishermen trade or from various other lower castes, they will never get the respect. These people actually practice untouchability on them, even though they’re not actually belong to the Hindu religion anymore. Now here comes the other issue, if you’re born in a lower caste, no matter if you can actually make money, if you actually gain wealth through any means, still, you won’t be allowed to enter many places, because of your caste. So this is something that might promote economic mobility, but you will never have social mobility. The lower caste were not allowed to enter temples a place of worship of Hindu religion, for like years, it’s just only in the 20 century that they were allowed to enter. So, even Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, he had to have a huge mobilization to get the higher caste to open templates for the lower caste. And there are places in villages where the people of lower caste cannot access water. There are ways from the public bath from which the lower caste people can not access even today in India. So, there are public baths, where people from the lower caste can’t access. In some places when you go you are served different utensils in restaurants, separately for upper caste and lower caste even today.
And now, the problem with this is that once the British came and there was this influx of Western education in India, the people who were at the top of the hierarchy, especially the Brahmins, were the first to get a chance to access education and all the knowledge that was provided to it. So, these people from this particular caste who actually form less than 4% of the Indian population, they dominate literally all the fields. When you go to any elite University in India, they are all belong to this particular caste, all the students belong to this particular caste. You go to media, all the news channels are run and operated by them, all the businesses in India run by these families, you go to the media, like the movie industry, all the actors that you see are from the upper caste.
And even the Indians who actually move abroad – the Indians who actually migrate to USA, so the way you talk about Kamala Harris, the fact that these people were able to move to the next country, because they had the economic and social capital to actually have the money to go elsewhere and start working there. That is why most of the Indians who are actually immigrants, who actually live in the other countries are upper caste Indians, they don’t represent the entire the actual Indian population. So, all the people who actually immigrate from India to the other countries are upper caste, they take their caste with them. So then people from the lower caste when they are actually moving abroad, because they have access to it, they are discriminated by these people who are in dominant places. So most of the people who are in the in the western universities, Indians who claim that they have been racially discriminated actually practice caste discrimination in their own households and to their fellows. So, what I personally work on is the issue of Indian Government, once the constitution was framed and since Dr. BR Ambedkar, he was the architect of the Constitution. So, there was certain safeguards that was introduced in the Indian constitution for the people of backward castes, so that they get adequate representation in all spheres of life. In economic, social, and political.
So here comes the reservation system in India, which is like heavily debated topic. So it is a little bit different from the way affirmative action works in the US. Here, a fixed number of seats or a percentage of seats, it’s correlates to a proportion of the population which is actually kept aside for people from this backward community, so that they will have representation in all the spheres, but this is actually only implemented in the government sector, which is less than 10% of all the jobs in India and all educational institutions in India. So even in this small available seats among the Indian opportunities that are accessible to Indians, what we find is that since all the topmost positions are being dominated by the dominant caste. They deny this constitutionally granted safeguards to these people from the marginalized communities. The norms are never implemented. So even after 70 years of independence, even the higher education institutions, especially the IIT’s” (Indian Institute of Technology, a network of tech universities in India) is one of the elite institutions in the world, more than 95% of all the faculty are from upper caste, even though the law states that 50% of the seats has to be from people from the backward class. Like it is completely thrown out even after 70 years. And when you take the students, again, more than 70, since the professor’s can choose the students directly, especially with regard to the PG admissions, the postgraduate admissions. They deny access to the students who actually come from the backward castes, and they only allow students from their own community to get these opportunities. And this network of nepotism in a way actually creates a huge barrier for the people who actually comprises more than 75% of the Indian population from accessing any of these facilities: education, health care… you name it, the representation is almost zero.
WG: Thank you for going through that in such detail. I think that interfacing with this system, which is over 5000 years old, is a continuous, imposed social hierarchy that is extremely adaptive, like it has adapted through countless social movements, and it’s still remains somewhat intact is a little bit difficult for folks to wrap their heads around having something so old to struggle against, and that really, really shapes people’s lives and people’s destinies for them. And you talked a little bit about this, about how the caste system gets exported to regions where immigrants go or like a Desi community forms. But I was wondering if you could expand a little bit on this? Or say some more words about this meaning specifically, why should In your opinion, internationals, be aware of the caste system? And its worldwide implications?
PJP: Yeah. So regarding why should the international community be aware of this particular system is that most of the international community are aware of racism, colonialism, and I think like the fascism… they have experienced with all these different hierarchies. They have a history of struggle against it, they can easily identify it, they can fight it. They have succeeded against it, like many struggles have been succeeded. But caste is a kind of hierarchy, which even after so much time, there hasn’t been a clear path to victory, because of its great inequality component, which is not actually present in most other hierarchies. Like in other hierarchies, you can easily distinguish between the people who are oppressed, of course, there can be other dimensions, which actually split people and won’t allow them to unite. For example in India, even in within castes, who actually share the same social rank, there, there won’t be unity between them, because there might be internal disputes of like, who has more land, who has access to water for farming and things like that. I think a similar case occurs between maybe like the blacks and Latinos in the US. So they have the same social standing, because they are both oppressed by the structure or the community above them. But there is this lack of cohesion between them. But this lack of cohesion is not because these people get to oppress someone else. It is because there is a narrative that is being created of a lack of cohesion between the two. That’s it, it is the dominant narrative by the government or the dominant communities of the people who actually have a command over the knowledge production, like the academicians, who mostly come from the dominant caste. The news anchors will be from the dominant caste. The people who will create literature will be from the dominant caste. The people who make movies, the actors, everyone comes from a dominant caste. The narrative and the knowledge that is produced is from the dominant caste and there is no knowledge that is being produced to meet the demand of this particular community.
So, that is actually what causes the rift between them, and they are constantly being fed by false narrative and fake news telling that the other person is the the reason you aren’t getting opportunities. So, they fight internally, but caste is a little bit different. In caste, even though there are internal conflicts, they are fine with caste system, because they always have someone below them they can exploit. So, they can actually take pride in the fact that “okay, I am superior to someone else, I’m happy with that” They are okay with someone on top exploiting them, because of that particular nature of this system. And that is one of the reasons why the people of each different caste in the different levels of the social hierarchy have complete mistrust towards each other. So, the Brahmins they’re on top. they’re completely fine. because no one oppresses them. The problem is that when you go down even when you go down to the cast, who are literally at the bottom they are also fine with the system because they get to oppress someone below them. So, a complete unity a vertical spectrum is not happening. And of course, there has been moments in India, like there have been moments of anti-caste in Kerala has happened in Maharashtra led by Jyotiba Phule, in Tamil Nadu led by Periyar there has been moments it was happening, but the problem always was that the condition that was established breaks away, because when you give what can I say, when you give power or political representation or economic representation, in a token form, there is a fight among all these communities to get that because we have a reservation! So out of 100 seats, let us say 50 seats are reserved for the community for the backward castes, but there are like 1000s of backward castes. So who gets to be in this 50 becomes another issue altogether. So the one who actually have access to some social capital might actually gain that advantage and certain communities in this particular caste, they will feel that “okay, it is because of them that I didn’t get to get this particular representation” and they would have resentment for their fellow caste men rather than the people who created the hierarchy in the first place, who who are the Brahmins.
So, that internal rift is actually exploited by the current government. So, what happened was in the past 22 decades there has been an increase in representation in the political sphere by the backward caste. If you are from a caste in the backward communities and got that representation, it created and animosity in the minds of the other backward castes and the BJP like in the the there is ideology, they they were able to exploit that sentiment. So, that is why even though BJP, or their ideologues. The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) is completely like a caste-ist, patriarchal, hierarchical, structure. They want to create that hierarchy completely and throw away this notion of secularism or democracy. They have support of the people from the backward communities because of this rift within the community. And there they are very good at creating narratives that tells that. So what they do is they create alternative histories. They create the idea that India had a glorious past, like before and like caste never existed in India, it was something that was brought to India by invaders. Kind of like the marriage of Nazism and Hitler – What Hitler did to alienate the Jews from the Germans. That is exactly what they are using to create their foothold in the Indian society. So they are telling that India had a glorious past, like they create these ridiculous stories of in ancient Indian technology, where India had this interplanetary travel system, we had information of genetics. So you wouldn’t believe it! India has this annual Indian science conference where all the latest research findings of the Indian scientific communities discussed. In that forum one of the guys actually brought a presentation, which told that India had nuclear missile warheads, like in like 3000 BC, and we had interplanetary travel, we had stem cell research. We had teleportation. This was actually told in the Indian Science Conference. And not for just one year, it happened multiple times. So, there is currently research happening in India telling that the, let us say… that cow has magical properties. There here is golden cow urine that like if you drink cow urine cancer will be cured, AIDS will be cured. This is actually being done by the government. It is government funded program and in universities, public universities. So, there is a complete attack on logic. It’s a attack on the entire scientific method. So they have, they are rewriting history textbooks to tell that we had this glorious past and it was the invaders who came, the Muslim invaders who came, the Britishers who came, who actually ruined and created differences in the Hindu society by installing caste.
WG: That’s so incredible.
PJP: Yeah. So now people who actually suffer from caste system think that the enemies (the Muslims) are the enemies of Westerners who came to India, who actually… so that is why their life is crap. And they hope that this government, who actually promises them that ancient Golden Age, will actually bring prosperity back to people. When in actuality what they are doing is they are giving complete, they’re giving the entire country in the hands of the corporations who completely exploit the people. They are destroying all the social security systems that have been existing in India. Like India had minimum support price for the farmers, this was taken away by this farm laws, which is where the farmers are protesting. Like Indians had the option of going to court in case a corporate actually breaks a contract of trust. Like if the contract says that “I will purchase this many quantities of potatoes from this farmer at this rate after the harvest” and the often during the harvest time the corporate denies, like they don’t agree to pay that pre agreed price. Now the farmer cannot go to the court. The right to constitutional or legal remedy have been take has been taken away by the this new laws. So the farmers are protesting, not just for the farmer laws at this point. They’re actually protesting for every citizen of India for their democratic right, to, like constitutional remedies.
WG: When you’re talking about sort of this government propaganda this really outlandish sort of, you know, ridiculous claims. I mean, it is true, or I believe it to be true that I mean, the India has like a vast history. And, you know, they’re one of the first instances of indoor plumbing that they found archaeologically was in a city in India. I don’t exactly remember where because it’s a gigantic country as well. Yeah.
BOG: But they weren’t teleporting the feces to another area.
WG: They weren’t. It really reminds me of like the conspiracy theory machine that exists here too, on the far right, where, you know, we’re being ruled by reptilian overlords and the 5g chip is going to be implanted in us in the COVID vaccine and stuff. It really reminds me of that a lot. And it’s like, incredible to me that these systems seem to me to be a bit parallel in our two locations.
PJP: Yeah, it is. So right now, what the government is portraying is that what India needs is a strong leadership, which they have epitomized in the image of the Prime Minister himself, the Prime Minister Narendra Modhi. He’s like the Iron Man who can like unite India and bring all the glory back to India. So they have created all these stories surrounding this particular narrative, such that in Indian society like I said, you cannot question anything that hierarchy dictates to you like, if someone is dictating something to you, you have to obey it. There is no space for what you say… democratic discussion or debate, anything that is democratic is immediately. So the first fundamental thing of democracy or democratic policy making is that when you make a law, you have to consult with the people who actually will be impacted by the law. That is the first principle of any policy-making.
And here for such a huge farm…. so let me give you an estimate like of the scale of the issue. India is a country which has more than 1.4 billion people, of which almost 60 to 70% engage directly or indirectly with agriculture. So that is like almost around 600 million people. Just doing agriculture, of which around 520 million people are living in poverty. So, a recent statistics have showed that 63% of the rural agricultural workers in India, they don’t have enough income to actually get a nutritious food three times a day, they don’t have it. 63%. Almost 100 million people. This is the case, if they spent their entire income in food, even if they spend their entire income in food, they still won’t have enough food, nutritious food to feed them three times a day. And normally, most people don’t spend their entire income in full, they have other needs, too, right. So the actual data is saying that almost 73% of the Indian Indian population on the rural population in India. If they use two thirds of their income in purchasing food, they won’t still have nutritious food three times a day. So this is the status of India. And in a country like this, then the government and that to this many people are actually employed in agriculture, but the government is passing a law without consulting anyone. like and back to a time when the pandemic has hit and has completely obliterated, like, the scope of… it has completely pushed the country to its knees. It is like what the government expected was….
So the government always expected an opposition when this particular law will be passed. So the government has been sitting on this law for a long time. When the government was in power for the last six years, they never passed it till now, thinking that the farmers will protests. They immediately pass the law in the backdrop of this pandemic. Thinking back… because of the pandemic the farmers wouldn’t be able to organize. And they completely misread because the farmers were like “okay, we have had enough! if the pandemic won’t kill us, this law would.” So in India, like more than 30 farmers are committing suicide every day, because of the agrarian distress. It’s a huge issue in India. And right now, since the government is like attacking all the institutions, this was there for the Indian citizens.
So in India, the government… there is this huge array of government schools, which are like public funded schools, which literally everyone, anyone can attend without paying fees. The quality is less, because it has been systematically degraded by the governments to aid the private institutes. The same thing is with the healthcare, but still, these Institute’s where institutions are there, so that the people from the lower castes or the Muslim communities can actually send their kids to get education. And even though the quality was poor, it was a way for these communities to actually have some social mobility. But now the government is destroying even the remnants of the system that are existing the public education and the health care and they are completely opening up the country for… I don’t know what the word I should use for it… I think a complete takeover by the corporate industries. The corporations can come in, they can dictate the laws of labor, the corporations can actually decide like how much time the worker should work in the factory. They can change, it was eight hours maximum, now they can increase after 12 hours arbitrarily. They don’t have to pay the minimum wage anymore. So, this is like complete violation of the basic human rights and the government is completely fine with that. So, when people are protesting the government needs this diversionary tactics of like this Hindutva, like this, “we had this glorious past. You are suffering right now, because of the Muslims or the other castes, or other communities that came to India. We are the ones who will be giving you…”
The government is just a corporate propaganda machine instead of a government right now like you can see in every single place that you turn like the media or in the billboards, for every institution that you go and see you can see like pictures of the Prime Minister standing and telling that everything is going fine. We have like… India is like now becoming a symbol of hope for the world and the reality is completely opposite. So, this is not just in India, what is happening right now, right? The rise of populism and Trump in US of Boris Johnson in UK of Bolsonaro in Brazil, like this is happening everywhere at the same time because of this… I don’t know… the because of this neoliberal assault on all the public institutions and I think one of the hope that I see is that simultaneously everywhere in the world. So there was this occupy protests in Mexico, in which the feminists in Mexico they went and occupied I think the National Human Rights Commission office, and they just stayed there as a protest against femicides. So I thought like, “okay, that that is similar to Shaheen Bagh, what the women in Shaheen Bagh did they just came and they occupied a particular space and they just stand there telling that they demand that they demand justice! And that is what the farmers are doing right now. They are just coming and collecting together. And right now, okay, the nature of the protests has actually changed right now, even though there are like many farmers protesting around around Delhi, the farmers are now traveling to each and every village in India right now. And they are communicating the issues of the protests, and what are the issues that are plaguing the country right now. And all these meetings are attended by 1000s and 1000s of people! This is happening right now in India, you will never find this in any of the news. But right now, that’s Yeah… this is unprecedented.
Two days back, there was a meeting in one of the villages in which more than 20,000 people attended. And so the people who attended, they go back to their villages. They create a council and start creating the awareness expand the awareness of what is actually happening and why this is happening. Because you cannot trust the media in India anymore. like India has one of the worst propaganda machines in history. And they just regurgitate what the government actually tells them to do. They delegitimize the protests and they distracts people with really futile stuff. So the farmers thought that “okay, we don’t need a media coverage to a pass what we have to tell the people we will directly go to the people!” Grassroot level, like bottom up, like bottom up communication. I think that’s, that’s amazing to see.
The attack against the agrarian sector has been there for like the past three, four decades. And systematically, the people who had land to farm they lost the land because of they’re in crisis. And they had to become farm laborers, and go and work in other places where they can get money. Because of this, a lot of people who actually were farmers became a farm laborers, and they go to the Vela farms, like in Punjab and Haryana to work from other states. So that is why most of the other states in India, they never had this thing called minimum support price or this multi system, which was there in Punjab. So the reason why the protests act in Punjab was because these farmers had a lot more to lose than the other farmers. And since the way this law has been devised. So there are clauses in the law, which actually is very interesting how the legal terms are right now. How the laws are being formed by the government right now. So let me just read you one sentence from that law. “No suit prosecution, or other legal proceedings shall lie against the central government or state government, or any officer of the central government or the state government.” Or here’s the interesting part, any other person in respect of anything, which is in good faith that or intended to be done under this act. Or have any rules or orders made thereafter.”
So basically this is like, arbitrary. Like, you can’t, you can complain against not just the government, you can complaint against any person. And not just, if they do something bad. It is intended to be done in good faith. So they can just say that this happened like this, it ended badly, but I did in good faith. So I should not be criminalized for it. This is like, ridiculous. And this is the nature of all the laws that the government has been recently passed it.
WG: It’s so dangerous when there’s a piece of legislation that could literally mean anything. You know, we can see this everywhere, you know, it’s very bad sign, when you know, there’s something that can be just arbitrary, like you said, arbitrarily applied, no matter what. I did have one last question about anti-caste organizing. I became aware of this movement, which is Dalit Lives Matter. After sort of this, we had this summer of 2020, this summer of rebellion against the murder of George Floyd. I wonder if you have any thoughts on Dalit Lives Matter or DLM? would you would you mind expanding on that?
PJP: Okay, so unlike some Black Lives Matter was actually moment in us, right like there was an organization called Black Lives Matter. And like there was huge organizing based on that particular that particular tag. But in India, of course, the the issue of Dalits has been like, and the anti-caste organizing has been happening for a long time. And since there has been a lot of similarities between the issues of black people that they’ve recently faced in the US and what Dalits face from caste system, there has always been a bridge, and a takeaway of learning from that moment. So when the Black Panther Party was formed in the US, for the emancipation of the black movement and the black people so that there was an awareness that was being created in the community to organize and like emancipate themselves against the oppression that they are facing, the police brutality and everything. Simultaneously, there was a Dalit Panther Party that was founded in India, all in the same ideals.
If you actually look a little deeper into the history, like you can see that the various things that the rap music or the hip hop, which was used by the black activists as a way of expressing their anger, and their protest was similarly being… is being actually similarly right now used by activists, the caste activist in India, they are using hip hop to communicate and express their ideas and anger. So there is a learning that is being happening across these two different, but in a way, similar kind of oppression that is being faced by this people. So then, then there was this issue that happened, the murder of George Floyd. And there was this huge uproar, and then in the international community, and it didn’t limit to the US it it spread all around the world. Like, wherever there has been racism and colonialism, the statues were being thrown into oceans and dismantled everywhere in the world. Exactly. So it was an attack on a system of oppression. That was happening.
So in US it was black lives, right? But in other countries, there was something… like in Australia, it was indigenous tribes, right? Aboriginals Lives Matter. So, in every country, it will become a call for the people who are being oppressed. And in India, that happened, like it was the village. So when there was this Delhi Pogrom, in which there was an attack on the Muslim neighborhood, as a reaction to the anti-CAA protests, there was a new movement that came called the Muslim Lives Matter. So when a movement shows that there is something that can be used to create a mass mobilization that gets accepted or reproduced in other moments. And I think this was just a reaction to what was happening there. So since it was attacking, a voice raised against the hierarchical oppression, the similar thing just happened in India. And also another thing, why this happened to us because you can see a lot of Indian Americans there, who will be championing for Black Lives Matter, and they tell that they are also facing racism, because they are from a different community.
What we the people who are from the lower class in India find amusing is that it is these people who actually come to India and practice the same kind of oppression on the people who are below them in the cast. So this was actually a lot of this Dalit Lives Matter came as an opposition to these people, championing the cause of black lives matter because we were like, okay, you don’t get to talk about black lives matter, because you are the same, you are causing the same oppression. A lot of celebrities in in India who were like, suddenly championing for… they were raising their voice on “Okay, like, there is racism in us like I have faced racism in us.” And we were like, “okay, fine, you have faced racism or you got dismissed because you are Indian, but just remember the caste system that you are imposing on the fellow Indians? And why are you not raising the voices?” So all the people who from the dominant caste raise the voice against the BLM, but in India every day, like, only the women are being raped. Yeah. And they’re brutalized, and like they’re beaten, they’re paraded naked for being Dalit. It is a show of power by Dalit communities, to put their lives in their proper place. And none of these people who are actually championing BLM, they never raised their voice against us. So we were like, “Okay, so we are creating your another, like, let’s say hashtag. Just like black lives matter. That is what you missed, at least then then promote this too.” It was it was a mixture of all these emotions, basically that came to the emergence of Dalit Lives Matter.
WG: Thank you for going into that too. Like, it’s something that I’ve been seeing and yeah, it was, it was good to hear your thoughts on the matter and it makes a lot of sense that you know, yeah, people who were in the US and her from extremely privileged castes were like it completely ignoring the oppressions that they perpetrate. So thank thank you for going into that.
PJP: So actually, with regard to the Kamla Harris issue, recently, there was this case in California, in I think, John Doe versus the state of California, in which the internet employee in the Cisco company faced caste discrimination from his superiors. So they both actually went to the same Institute, like the one that I’m actually studying right now, IIT Bombay. So they are alumni of that Institute. And so this guy knew that John Doe was actually a Dalit. And he outed that to his other Indian colleagues and that led to him being discriminated in matters of job assignments, his appraisal, and stuff like that. He’s didn’t get promotions and he complained. And then it became obvious that the state of California doesn’t have a legal prohibition against caste discrimination. So there is currently a case that is being going on in California Court, which actually wants to include caste discrimination in the list of all the oppressions that people face along with racism and colorism and other things.
WG: Yeah, I remember hearing about that.
PJP: Yeah. And since Kamala Harris is from an Indian origin, and she actually… her grandfather is a Brahmin, her mother is Brahmin. So she’s, yeah, she’s from the dominant community. And they’re also called by the activists in US that Kamala Harris would actually make a statement in this matte. Because she claims to suffer racism and everything. And like, why are you not telling anything about this particular issue? That is actually much more closer to you than any other American actually.
WG: Kamala Harris is a huge, you know, you know, sticky wicket, I think because like she was the, you know, the District Attorney of Oakland, California. Her job basically was to incarcerate black people, you know, like the incarceration rates in Oakland are exactly the result of stuff that she has perpetrated. So she’s a police officer, she incarcerates a huge amount of black people. I’m sure she suffers, you know, suffers racism, you know, I’m sure that she does. But like, she also perpetrates a whole hell of a lot of racism, not even to mention the fact that she’s a Brahmin, you know.
PJP: So that is one thing that I actually keep saying again, and again. People very easily identify the hierarchies that oppresses them, but they are not ready to acknowledge the hierarchies that gives them privilege. Absolutely. And I think anarchism is an ideology, this is where I was attracted to it the most because it doesn’t attack one hierarchy. It attacks every hierarchy, the legitimacy of all hierarchies. And I think even when I’m when in the struggle against caste, a caste as a hierarchy is not a single hierarchy. It has patriarchy. It has classism. It has language. It has cuisine. Like there are multiple aspects of it. And you don’t just attack caste as a single entity, you need to attack caste from all these angles and that philosophy actually gives you the tools to at least create a narrative of how to attack these oppressive hierarchies. In a way that people can understand… Okay, even if I am not oppressed by your hierarchy, and if there’s a hierarchy that I am being oppressed by, I should be able to relate or translate my oppression to the other hierarchies too.
So that I can in a way empathize with what is happening to other. I think that can create a huge change if more people are actually aware of it. And without any teaching of anarchist ideas it is automatically happening like this spontaneously happening in the farmers protest. Because in farmer protest, many of the landed farmers are from a… I wouldn’t say dominant caste… They are like basically still a backward caste, but a better off backward castes, called Jats. And most of the agricultural laborers are from the Dalit communities. So historically, there has been a rift between these two. But since these new farm law came there has been a new emergence of solidarity, in which the landed caste now understand the struggles that the laborers are facing. And the laborer castes, they acknowledge that if these laws are implemented, now, it won’t just affect the landed caste, it will penetrate and it will affect the people who are actually employed as laborers too. And now there has been voice voices being raised on redistribution of land to the Dalit laborers, a raise of minimum wage, and other other things. So and, and here is the most beautiful part, the participation of women in the protests in India has been like… it has increased significantly, because recently almost 20% of the people who are currently stationed around Delhi the protesters are women. Which is huge when you consider the fact that India still is a hugely patriarchal society in which which doesn’t allow a woman to step out of the room, you can see a woman driving tractors. And the funny thing is almost 80% of all agricultural laborers are women. But most of them they are unpaid, like they are, they are expected to work. This particular protest actually shows the agency of women and their awareness. And it bring forth the strength and unity that the woman can actually show and the solidarity that they can contribute in this protest. And the issues that women face: like the patriarchy, the lack of wages, lack of equal wages, then there is this maternity benefits, this is a huge other array of issues, which are now being recognized because of this particular protest. Earlier, it would only be just limited to this one struggled against like a particular law or a particular event. Right now, everything is being discussed. And I think that’s a huge part. Or it gives me hope, that like, okay, now, at least the people are slowly awakening and they realize that they have more to lose together.
WG: I’m also very happy that the participation of women in the farmers protest has been so foregrounded by people who have been writing about it, or at least the people that who have been writing about it that I’ve read, like I’ve read your work on it. I’ve read some other folks’ work on talking about the farmers protests and it’s really cool that people are foregrounding the participation of women. And like, contextualizing it as a very important, you know, aspect to the protests,
PJP: So I have explained a lot of how the mutual aid was happening, right? Like, of all the networks of solidarity that was shown how community kitchens were being organized, and how from the village and the food, grains and milk and all the essentials were being brought, how volunteers are collecting blankets for these farmers. During winter there was medical aid that was being set up. There were laundry rooms set up to wash their clothes. And so the other thing that there has to be understood is that these are poor farmers who are living, who are actually sleeping on the roads and tents and makeshift platforms, or even their tractors. And when they came last December, it’s just like brutal cold in Delhi, like it was one of the coldest winters in 70 years. And right now, it is March and it is the opposite. The temperature is like nearing 45. And it is like extreme heat.
Now, the government what they did is they cut off water supply, they cut off electricity, they cut off internet, so that the farmers will go back. So what the farmers were like, okay, they dug bore wells for water, they install solar panels for electricity. So like, little by little the self organization. because the number of people who are participating is so huge, so is their resourcefulness. And I think, for any protests of this magnitude for it to become self organized, in which the people can solve all the problems and the institutions of service or support is automatically emerging out of them. Because there are so… like the threshold has reached like, okay, we have enough people so that we can do everything on our own. We don’t need an external support from the government. No matter what the government does, we can actually make this work on our own that has been achieved. And another aspect that is interesting is the lack of like a set of leaders. Of course, there are like eloquent leaders who actually speak of the protest.
But the decision making is decentralized. There are more than 500 farm unions who are actually participating in the protest along with other support groups. And even though like only 30 to 40 leaders are going and talking and negotiating with the government, every proposal that the government surpluses has to be brought back to the farmers, where they will collectively sit together and discuss and debate where every member will be present. And like every member of the union will be present there are more than 500 unions at the present time. They will debate, discuss, and the people who actually represent these farmers, they cannot decide on what they should, what distance to make, or what points to agree with the government, they have mainly a voice of the farmers to the government or spokesperson, they’re not elected representatives, per se. And I think that that that difference from in a hierarchical society like India, to a representative form of a decision making process, to participate in decision making process, even though it’s not perfect, of course, but the seeds of it is being assembled in this protest, even the anti-CAA protest, you can see that there is no single party that actually organize all these protests across the country. So I was in Mumbai, and in Mumbai there are multiple protests happening every day in different parts of the city. And the protests that I went to there wasn’t a single organization, it was collectively decided and everyone was taking part in the decision. There are huge debates happening. And I think people need to experience democracy to actually understand what they are losing in the current social situation. Only when people realize that their voices are heard. And they get an experience of expressing their voices, no matter how eloquent how bad it is, it doesn’t matter, then they understand that their voices deserve to be heard. I think people will not go back.
WG: Absolutely. Yeah, I think that’s a beautiful sentiment.
BOG: I was wondering, this wasn’t I keep stealing the headphone out of my co host ear. This wasn’t one of the scripted questions. But how has COVID impacted India? As far as you know, like has has Modi and the BJP followed the pattern that so many authoritarian governments around the world have done with the pandemic and denied public access to services or denied maybe the dangers related to it? Or has there been much in the way of mutual aid response from communities to get people access to protective gear or medical access?
PJP: Okay so what the federal government did was they cleverly denied responsibility for the pandemic, in a way that they just tasked the state governments to handle the pandemic on their own. So that they will be free of the responsibility. That is what basically they did.
BOG: Oh, that’s what Trump did…
PJP: And that’s very clever, because most of the same governments are not run by the BJP. So what they can do is they can…. if a state government fails to provide access, they can just point to that government telling that “Okay, these people are not doing it well, like they are not letting the central government do the job.” And they can get away with it. And in the states that actually are run by BJP, the numbers, the data that we see, the official data is never true. So there are states which do tracking and in good response. So personally my the state of Kerala, the state of Kerala has been lauded by international community for its past action and response because the state of Kerala has a strong public health care system. The government really funds the public health care and the state of Kerala was prepared to handle a pandemic because last year, there was a similar virus called nipah is hit the state and the state had to engage in protocols of how to handle a pandemic and like what other medical gear is that the blockers should wear that health professionals should wear and the government of Kerala was better prepared. The other state governments were not prepared for it.
And many of the states ruled by the BJP, they don’t do the testing enough so that they can show that Okay, we have very low cases in our state because we are doing very well. This is not the case they’re not testing to know whether like there are enough people who is actually contacting COVID and the government using their propaganda machine, the media, they are diverting every issue, like even when the COVID pandemic was at its peak, the media was discussing something completely different. Like they were going after like small things…. like celebrity news and stuff like that, they wer completely ignoring it. Now let me explain what was the actual humanitarian crisis that India faced during the pandemic. So when there was an initial lock down for 31 days that happened. So in India, there are like really poor states, like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Orissa. So, the marginalized communities from these states, they don’t get wages, literally they don’t have any rights when they are living there. So what they do is they migrate to other states where they can find a job as manual laborers, or they set up small shops. Basically, most of them are manual laborers who work in construction sites. And the women, they might work as maids in the urban households and stuff like that. So there is a huge migration of people from the rural to the urban cities. And when the pandemic hit, immediately, the economy went to a standstill, there was no work. Everyone was asked to stay where they were right?
So these people, the people who are unorganized, was who are not actually the formal employees, they just their daily wage laborers, they just go everyday to any place they can find work, and they just work there. They collect their earnings and they get food from daily earnings. So when the entire lockdown happen, these people, they were completely cut off from their income. So what they did, they didn’t have any other thing to do, they just started going back to their homes. And since it was a lockdown there was no railway, there was no bus service, there was basically no transportation available. So now you know how big India is right? People from across the country started walking back to their native villages! like walking 1000’s of kilometers! So during the time of pandemic, you could see millions of Indians walking. And it was March which is like extreme summer. 1000’s of people died due to sunstroke walking back home. There were images and videos of people lying dead in roads in railway stations and bus stops. People were run over by trains, when because they were sleeping in the railway lines. So it was terrible. And the government didn’t do anything. And when asked about the number of deaths, in pandemic by these migrant laborers who are walking back home, the government told that we don’t have any data about it. And the government is busy doing like other stuff like cricket or something like Bollywood is doing as well.
And it is busy passing laws that will further take away the rights of the… so it is during the pandemic that the Farm Bill first passed the labor laws which diluted the labor norms was passed.
So the government has their own priorities for corporatization, they don’t care about what the actual people and citizens of India, the struggles they face or anything. But one thing that was noticeable was the Indian community, they reacted to this particular migrant labor crisis. So across the roads, when people are walking, people are offering water, food. So there was this mutual aid that was automatically. There was this huge, so in every city in which these migrant laborers are walking, people are offering them water, if you’re offering them modes of transport, like they would take people who are really… who are elderly, who can’t walk, or children, they will have them transport in small distances. Like a relay kind of transport mode was set up. Many restaurants, they opened up so that they can feed these people for free. And there are many families which were like stranded in remote places without access to… let’s say I if I have a family and my elderly parents are living alone, and they need medicines, it’s lockdown, the medical shops are not open. So there were volunteers who were ready to deliver essential medicines to this families. So there was a parallel, when the government failed the people, the citizens rose to the occasion to try at least try to mitigate a huge disaster. It wasn’t perfect, of course, like it didn’t work everywhere, but it it prevented a much worse disaster from happening.
WG: I love that people stepped up to help each other. Of course, nothing’s perfect, but especially if you’re reacting to a widespread disaster that could very well like, you know, affect you… or is affecting you as well. You know, it’s a crisis. Crisis planning can often like look imperfect.
PJP: Yeah. And another thing that also came forward during this an issue that came to the forefront was police brutality. So this happened literally before the George Floyd issue happened. So what happened was during the lockdown, so you know, like many people who live in India are illiterate and they are and they are working the unorganized sector. They sell vegetables they sell…. So, in order for them to eat something today, they need to earn something today. It’s not they have savings they can go back to get food. So many of these people who are like daily, like who food vendors like to sell vegetables and stuff like that, they came out to sell their stuff because they will die literally of hunger if they don’t come out. And the government even though they promised to deliver food and stuff, in most of the places they didn’t. So when these people actually came out to sell their produce, you could see police going and like destroying their vehicles, beating them black and blue. These are people without any social or cultural capital. They can go to court, they don’t have money to hire a lawyer to fight for their case. And you could see police trashing them black and blue. And then there were cases of custodial deaths that have happened, because they arrested like two people in Tamil Nadu. They’ve arrested a father and son for not closing the shop on time. So the law mandated that the shops should close by 7pm or something and they didn’t close… they kept the shop open for five more minutes or something. And the police came, they arrested both of them. They took them to the police station, and they trashed them till they were dead. This happened last year. And this happened at a time when the George Floyd issue, the George Floyd murder, that protest was happening in US. And at that time there was a voice against police brutality. Right now, because of all these issues, there is a sentiment that… Okay, so till now, police was seen by the people because in India, people, like people worship authority. So they’re always saw police as the saviors and things like that. And now, they are understanding that police are just instruments of the ruling power to just further their institutions of hierarchy. It is not actually for the citizens…. police are not there for the citizens to actually like fight for their rights. And that particular sentiment is also seeping in because now we could see the farmers being stopped by the police and they were firing tear gas and water cannons are these farmers who are like, really old farmers like they are 70 or 80 years old people who are actually coming in the winter, and they’re firing water cannons at them. Which is like equivalent to like throwing knives at these people because it at six degrees, seven degrees, like water literally, it literally kills you if you get hit by it. And yeah, so the notion of police brutality as an issue has also been brought up due to this protest.
WG: Thank you for speaking on that. So we have just two more questions. You’ve touched on a lot of the topics that we were interested in hearing about and also like, way more and thank you so much for doing that. You’ve talked a lot about how like how the government operates the BJP, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But would you talk a little bit about this philosophy known as HINDUTVA? And can you give a sketch of like what this is? And it’s also been said that the HINDUTVA movement is like the largest fascist street movement in the world. And I’m curious if this resonates with you.
PJP: Yeah, you can call it the largest, fascist street movement in the world, because it is happening in India. Because this is such a huge country with huge population. Anything that happens here will be like, the biggest thing.
BOG: That’s a good point.
PJP: Yeah, because the the when the farmer protests happened on November 26, there was a call for an All India strike, which was participated by almost 250 million people, which automatically made it the largest in world history, because anything in India will become the largest in the world. So, I don’t doubt that point at all.
So, why, what it is is actually? You have to understand what India what the word India is. India, the word comes from the word… so you have might have heard of the Indus Valley Civilization of is the Mohenjo-daro was a city. So there is this river called the Indus. And the land beyond Indus was called by Europeans as India. That’s it. There is nothing more to the word India than that. So the name of the country came from the river, the land beyond the river. And the people who were living in that land. Which was beyond the river was called as Hindu. Hinduism is not a religion, per se, it is just what you call a group of people who lived in a particular locality. So in India, when you actually look at it, Hinduism is not a religion or monocultural religion anyway. It is like a mixture of multiple cultures, multiple faiths, there are different kinds of traditions, which are completely in opposition to each other. And India’s political or geographically united place never existed in the greater scheme. It was like a lot of different smaller countries. And when the Mughals came, they try to unify it. Even before that there has been moments in Indian history when there has been large empires ruled over India. But even though there were these empires, the local cultures of the country… so in China, you might it is a little bit different, like Chinese culture is… even though there there are diversity and variations in it, it is mostly similar. India is more like Europe, the states of India are like the countries of Europe. The languages are completely different. So, if I go from Kerala to the next neighboring state, I wouldn’t understand anything that they say, because the language is completely different, the culture is completely different.
So, when the nationalistic struggle against the Britishers came, you needed like…. these people don’t have a common culture, they don’t have a common religion, they don’t have a common, let’s say, language. They don’t even have a common sense of identity, so that they can rally against a common enemy. So the Britishers adopted this policy of dividing the Hindus, pitting the Hindus against Muslims and stuff like that. So to create unity, or create a sense of unity, or sense of identity, a nationalistic identity. The founder of RSS, who is Savarkar. He created this notion that, okay, let us create this new sense of identity and name Hindu, which is like the people who actually inhibit this locality, it has nothing to do with the religion, per se, it is just the people in the locality. And then he thought that okay, to make the Unity more foundational, because the big since there was a huge sectarian divide, because of religion, caste, language and everything. He used the spirituality of Hinduism the Hindu philosophy, to give it a much more stronger backbone, so that people will fit in together. And people only rally against it, against a common enemy if you identify an enemy, and instead of identifying the British as the enemy, he identify the Muslims as the enemy.
You might know that the person who assassinated Gandhi, Mohondas Karamcha Gandhi (‘Mahatma’ Gandhi), he was actually an RSS ideologues, he was a part of RSS, who believed that because Gandhi actually spread the idea of unity and harmony between the religions, and the RSS society of hindutva is completely against it. They want the the entire community who calls themselves as Hindus, even though it includes Jains, Buddhists, Parsis, and all the other, like even Sihks. They have to separate them from the Muslims because as far as they’re concerned the Muslims are invaders who came and ruined our culture. So it’s like, exactly like Hitler’s notion of Aryan supremacy. And actually, there is much more similarity between the two because the Aryan race of Hitler and the dominant caste group of India, they actually hail from the same part, the Central Asia. That’s why there’s a similarity between the languages: Sanskrit and German.
They were like, okay, so they exactly copied the ideology that Hitler used in Germany, and they changed it to suit the Indian needs. That’s what they did. And for that, they had to brutalize or demonize the community, the Muslim community. Then what they needed was they had to create this narrative of a history of a golden age of India, in which India was like the golden bird of the world and we had solutions for everything, we were technologically superior we were like an egalitarian society, heaven on earth. And then this Muslim invaders came, and they brought their religion, they ruined our culture, they broke our temples, they broke our gods, disrespect our gods. And we are suffering because of that. And it was the Muslims who brought the Britishers in, and like everything that is faulty with the country is because of the Muslims and you have to, you should never accept the Muslims as European, they can live here, but they have to accept their status as secondary citizens exactly what was subjected to the Jews. Even though there has not been concentration camps that has been set in there are retention camps.
The CAA law was actually something similar with and there is this entire procedure of NRC the National Register for Citizens, which is trying to create a new document and in which the citizens have to prove that they are Indian. So the entire anti-CAA protest was not just against the citizenship Amendment Act, it was against this implementation of this national interest for citizenship, the entire process. And since there was a huge backlash against it, it has still been kept on hold. Even though the government is telling that they will implement it, they will implement it. I think if the government starts to implement it, there will be huge, much bigger protests, which will happen along with the farmers protest right now. So the government is like… and since the government is facing elections, state government elections in the next month, they won’t do anything to damage the reputation, right. So everything in India, everything this party that in this is basically that. So they want power, so that they can just sell India to the corporations, and they need this hindutva philosophy, to make sure that the people will always worship the established hierarchy and won’t question anything. So this is how the dynamics of Indian nation as a whole right now works.
BOG: I guess a final question that we had would be you had touched on the conflict in Kashmir, and like obviously, it’s a very complicated place on the border of two competing states. But we would love to hear about what had happened in Kashmir and a little more detail from your perspective and if you could sort of explain the situation and what to your knowledge the state of the people of Kashmir is at the moment in terms of military occupation.
PJP: So okay, before telling that I should mention that okay. Kashmir is not an issue that I am directly involved with. So, everything that I know is actually what I have heard from my friends who are actually from Kashmir. The articles that I read and from the activist who actually traveled. With respect to Kashmir, what is happening is that, so, there has a lot of history to Kashmir like it started with the independence and why Kashmir became part of India and not of Pakistan. So, Kashmir is not just one place. So it is Jammu and Kashmir. So there’s like the entire state has three major parts one is Leh, one is Kashmir and one is Jammu. Of which Lehs is Buddhists dominated, Jammu is Hindu dominated, and Kashmir is Muslim dominated. So what happened is… so even though the people of Kashmir were mostly Muslim, the king of Kashmir at that time was a Hindu, and then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, he was a Kashmiri pundit. So Kashmir was his home state. So he actually really wanted Kashmir to be part of India. So now the history becomes a little bit like untrustworthy, even I don’t exactly know what happened. So there were this… I think Pakistan instigated some militancy in the region, which forced the king of Kashmir to agree to a suit to India.
And there was something called an instrument of accession, which actually granted Kashmir special privileges. So the one thing which most people don’t know is that these special privileges is not just unique to Kashmir in the Indian context, this is the same kind of privileges are provided to other states in India, like Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and there has been calls for independence and autonomy by these states too. And the Indian Government has been trying to like what do you say to suppress the revolts the government has been declaring martial law, there has been cases of the Indian Army brutalizing the people and killing them, overreaching of authority. The issue is that with the current government, Kashmir is like a issue of pride and national pride. Because citizens government is not able to deliver on any of the promises on economy, on employment, Social Welfare or any of these things.
The government needs some particular narratives or particular incidents or events that we can highlight as their strength. Because this government has come because of the charisma of this one Iron Man: Narendra Modi, who can destroy every obstacles in his path. And who can decide to take actions completely independently without worrying about this corrupt politicians and stuff. So big neutral narrative, they have to always show strength. And the easiest way to show spine is Kashmir, because they just toppled the state government with just one act and they just arrested everyone and they arrested the chief minister of that state and put them on house arrest for a year. They arrested all the prominent leaders in that state and put them on house arrest. Every single activists who tried to raise voice against Kashmir was arrested and new laws were passed just before the Kashmir state autonomy was snatched out. There was this loss called UAP. Which is like Prevention of atrocity and NSA – National Security Act. So what these acts enable the government is they can arrest anyone, just on suspicion, and they don’t have to produce them on court for two years. So they passed these laws just before this Kashmir Act was passed, so that any opposition against this would be come met with complete incarceration. Then what they did was they completely cut off internet for a year, so that anything that is happening in Kashmir will never be like communicated to the mainland. So only the government and journalists and the government employees will be able to devise narratives and create stories. In the news when the Kashmir the article 35 was abolished the Indian propaganda news media, there were new celebrations in Kashmir, of people eating biryani and ham like playing with firecrackers and celebrating because their years of oppression are over.
And what is actually happening in Kashmir on the ground, the truth was actually revealed when certain activists travel to Kashmir and interacted with the people. So the military have complete autonomy, they can do anything they want, like the martial law is declared. It’s called AFSPA – the Armed Forces special power act, they can even kill people on suspicion. They have complete immunity against any atrocities that they commit. So, the problem with such an a process of water in the Indian sea from a personal perspective, I think that the people anywhere in the world should have the autonomy to decide what what kind of government they want. And it was fine till the Indian government had the Constitution because these are also citizens of India under the Indian law, and the constitution grant them the political rights they can they have the right to choose the government and what the central government did was toppling the democratically elected government who had legitimate power or the people gave them the legitimate power to rule them. So that was completely illegal and talk about illegality in India right now, everything whether something is legal or illegal is decided by the Supreme Court of India. And the RSS/ BJP government has destroyed the institutions in India in such a way that like the judiciary is also playing the same even as the government and in most of the cases where the judiciary knows that if they pass a judgment in fair play in favor of the government, the people who protest the judiciary conveniently decides to not take the case. They will just hold the case for years. So the then the Jammu Kashmir state was actually bifurcated into two different territories, that act was disputed in the Supreme Court.
There is a case in Supreme Court, when the government imposed internet a ban in Jammu and Kashmir, there was a case like the lawyers brought it up telling that it is a violation of human rights. That the people are not being given access to internet facilities. Because the entire businesses of Kashmir, they were completely cut off to the mainland, online, this everything just went down. What happened then was the government will tell that okay, we will need like two months to analyze the situation. And the court, we just grant them the two months. And again, the government after that, filed extension, and this court will just grant. So the court is just playing the same tune as the government. So in the farmers protests, something really interesting happened. The Supreme Court seeing that the farmers are coming to Delhi and the protest is not stopping, decided to intervene and tell that, “okay, we are ordering the government to stay the law for one and a half years.” So the law cannot be implemented for one and a half years. The farmers are like, “okay, we don’t care what the Supreme Court tells, we want the law to be abolished. We won’t take anything else.” So the it’s like the people is literally losing faith in the institutions of judiciary, and the executive and legislature. The people are taking matters into our own hands. That is action. And I think that that’s a huge change when people are realizing that they are the true sovereign, that the power actually resides in them to decide their own fate and their own lives. I think that is democracy.
WG: Absolutely. Yeah. Thank you for going into that… and I think that that people are really, you know, starting to feel their own power and starting to see the states, whatever state that they live in is as sort of the complete Sham that it is. And I think that you know, yeah, we can look to the farmers protest, you know, as the largest mass mobilization, like it is in India. So it’s going to be the largest one, maybe. But as like one of the most robust mass movements in sort of recorded history in a way too. That was all the questions that we had. Thank you so, so, so much for your words and your energy, it was just a delight to get to talk with you a little bit and get to hear the things that you’re working on and the things that you’re thinking about. Would you give, if listeners are interested in reading some of your writing? Do you have a website? Is there a place that people can go to, to read your articles and to read your work?
PJP: I can actually provide you links of my articles, I usually publish my writings in like different journals. So I can give you a list of all the articles that I have. So you can share them with the listeners. I will also like to thank you for giving me this opportunity. And I hope that I did justice to these movements in communicating what is actually happening on the ground, because I know that I couldn’t cover everything, maybe I might have left out the really important parts. And I might have, like, oversimplified many stuff, or might have gotten things completely wrong. But to what I know, I think, yeah, I really think that it is important for the international community to at least get a sense of what is happening in India right now. And like, and these are models that should be learned from and replicated elsewhere.
WG: Absolutely, yeah. Family, like, you did I think amazing justice to a very complex situation and topic and complex place. So, I hope that listeners will hear your words and go out and do their own research too, because so many people and I will link to some books and some articles too. If people are interested in learning about like anti-caste stuff a little bit more, if people are interested in learning about the languages, the bioregion, the the politics of the place, we will provide some links as well. And like as many voices as possible speaking about India, and the Indian diaspora and stuff that people face, you know, I think is best. So thank you so much. Do you have any recommendations? I remember you were talking about sort of anti-caste hip hop. Do you have any recommendations for like, songs that we could play on the show?
PJP: Yeah, I can give you links to that, like most of them are new too. Excellent. Yeah. I will mail you the links along with the audio clip. So that is actually a very new development that happened, like the hip hop was used by the anti-caste activists as a way of expressing themselves. That is completely, like mimicking what was happening in US. So I think so like, it’s it’s amazing that like, the people from who are oppressed, they are looking outside for signs to learn from for lessons to learn from. And I think till now, like we have been looking elsewhere to learn from it. I think it’s about time that others look at us.
WG: Yes. Yes, yes. Absolutely. Thank you so much family.
BOG: This is great speaking with you. Let’s do it again soon.
WG: Let’s do it again. Yeah, same here. Okay. Yeah, take care. Stay healthy.
BOG: Ciao. Yeah,
PJP: I think it would be morning there, right. Yeah. Have a nice day.
This week, we’re airing a conversation recorded by Eda Levinson on September 12th, 2002, with political prisoner Veronza Bowers, Jr. It originally aired on Youth Speaks Out on KZYX in Modesto County, California, and we re-air this with permission of Veronza and the current producer of the Youth Speaks Out. The show continues to produce youth focused and progressive content available at YouthSpeaksOut.net.
For the hour, you’ll hear former Black Panther Party member Veronza describe to the audience in his own words his upbringing, his experiences of racism, his time in prison, his case, his views on the burgeoning War on Terror, and the situation of political prisoners in the US. You’ll also hear some recordings of Veronza playing the shakuhachi bamboo flute. Veronza was convicted of the death of a US Park Ranger on the word of two prison informants who were paid and received reduced sentences. Veronza continues to claim his innocence and he has been illegally held beyond his mandatory release date of June 21, 2005, based on political pressure by GW Bush appointed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales apparently on behalf of the Association of National Park Rangers, the widow of the dead ranger and the Fraternal Order of Police.
The conversation is very much a product of it’s time, for instance the discussion of the implications of the one year anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Sadly there is a timelessness in their discussion of the brutal war against the people of Afghanistan as well as the continued incarceration of Veronza, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier, alongside many other long term, leftist and liberation political prisoners held by the US government. Currently, the Biden administration is discussing some sort of pull out of US troops from Afghanistan on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, in the last year we’ve seen the deaths due to medical neglect and decades of incarceration for political prisoners like Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, deaths right after release like Delbert Africa, and the endangering of aging political prisoners in their 70’s and 80’s who’ve had bouts with covid and cancers inside like Sundiata Acoli, Dr Mutulu Shakur and Russell “Maroon” Shoatz. Veronza was successfully treated for lymphoma and pneumonia in 2017 and 2018, having hip surgery in 2019 but his death by incarceration only looms a larger possibility day by day.
He is currently being held at FCI Butner in North Carolina and can be written at:
Veronza Bowers, Jr. ##35316-136 FCI Butner Medium II P.O. Box 1500 Butner, NC 27509
You can learn more about his case as well as see pictures of Veronza and loved ones, read his writings, poetry and interviews at Veronza.Org. Some of this is also available by viewing his page on PrisonerSolidarity.Com and you can read many articles about his situation on the SFBayView.com.
Other Veronza Audio Recordings
These are a collection of audio recordings of spoken word and musical pieces featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr, political prisoner since 1974 and former Black Panther Party member in the US. These are being posted with the permission of Veronza and we hope to have them more available for streaming in the future.
Healing Heart is performed by Jah Roots (a band of imprisoned musicians featuring Veronza on shatuhachi bamboo flute)
Birthing Song is performed by Veronza Bowers, Jr, on shatuhachi flute with overlaid ocean sounds
Song for Alexis is performed by Jah Roots (a band of imprisoned musicians featuring Veronza on shatuhachi bamboo flute)
To Touch the Spirit is performed by Jah Roots (a band of imprisoned musicians featuring Veronza on shatuhachi bamboo flute)
Eulogy was recorded by Veronza “Butch” Bowers, Jr, in memory of his Mama’s passing. As Veronza was unable to participate in his mothers funeral so with the allowance of the then-Warden at USP Coleman, alongside comrades Rev. “One Love” and another comrade, Siakatame “Mountain Heart” Hafoka, the three speak their goodbyes to Dorothy Woodruff and Veronza performs poetry and music in his mother’s memory and family.
Sean Swain talks about the FBI
BadNews #44 Out!
The A-Radio Network has released the 44th monthly episode of our Angry Voices From Around The World, English-language podcast. Check it out! Updates from Bristol & the wider UK, Mare Liberum about resisting deadly anti-refugee practices in the Mediterranean, hunger striking anarchists and prisoners of the Uprising in Chile, interview with a Myanmar Food Not Bombs activist, the student movement and trial of the anarchist Vaggelis Stathopoulos from Greece, anti-dam resistance in Aragon (Spain), and notes on repression and struggle against the state in Greece!
All Out for Mumia’s Birthday
It’s notable also, that Mumia Abu-Jamal, prolific author and journalist, former Black Panther and political prisoner in Pennsylvania is in grave danger. He’s been in prison since conviction for the 1981 death of a cop in Philly based on flimsy evidence and perjured testimony. From a blood infusion, he contracted hepatitis-c which was eventually treated and cured due to his struggle on behalf of so many other prisoners, that condition gave Mumia cirrhosis of the liver and damaged eye sight. He developed congestive heart disease from his time inside and this year Mumia has contracted covid-19 and is fighting for his life in an emergency heart surgery. The white supremacist police state failed at assassinating Mumia, they failed at executing him and now they’re killing him by medical malfeasance and mistreatment.
It is long past time for Mumia to be free. You can join Mumia’s friends and family for his 67th birthday on April 24th by taking to the streets to exert pressure to releaes Mumia so he can get the medical treatment he needs and end this charade of injustice. There are events popping up around the world for the 23rd through the 25th. You can find some info at FreeMumia.Com
New bilingual website for Fidencio Aldama Pérez
There is a now a bilingual support site for Fidencio Aldama Pérez, a Yaqui de-colonial activist in so-called Mexico who is serving a bullshit 15.5 year sentence on a murder he did not commit. You can hear a little in our Mexico interview from last year, there’s a brief intro post at IGD about the case and the site, and you can learn more at FidencioAldama.org/en/
. … . ..
To Touch The Spirit by Jah Roots (featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr. on shakuhachi flute) [01:02:42]
Song For Alexis by Jah Roots (featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr. on shakuhachi flute) [00:22:50]
Healing Heart by Jah Roots (featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr. on shakuhachi flute) [00:37:59]
. … . ..
The following transcription was done by Dan Roberts, producer of Youth Speaks Out when the interview was conducted through today. More of their episodes, including politically progressive ones like this, can be found at YouthSpeaksOut.Net. This transcript, alongside a further dialogue with Veronza by Dan can be found in the mid-May/June 2003 issue of The New Settler Interview #136, archived online by Freedom Archives
Eda Levenson: For four years I have been in contact with a man who has spent the last thirty-two years of his life in prison. His name is Veronza Bowers, Jr. Before his incarceration, he was a member of the Black Panther Party during the Sixties. At twenty-six years old he was convicted of the murder of a Park Ranger—although the legitimacy of his trial is questionable, due to the lack of physical evidence and the reliability of the key witnesses. To this day, Veronza claims his innocence, and that the FBI framed him. He is currently being held in a federal penitentiary in Coleman, Florida. Last June, my family and I visited Veronza. This is the first time that any of us, including my father, who has known him for fifteen years, has seen Veronza in person. During our visit I brought up the idea of doing a telephone interview. After months of negotiation, and being denied once by the assistant warden of the prison, I was finally granted permission to interview Veronza over the phone. On September 11th of 2002,1 conducted the interview.
Because of his circumstances we could only talk in fifteen minute segments, with fifteen minute breaks in between each one.
Veronza Bowers, Jr.: First, I want to thank you, Eda, and Dan, and everyone at the radio station KZYX and all your listeners. This is such a great opportunity, because I recognize the fact that I don’t exist in a vacuum, and at the same time, I understand that it is a tremendous responsibility because people listen to what people say sometime and our voices have been silent for a long, long time.
So this is great opportunity, and I really do appreciate this opportunity, and I’ll try to let it flow. Secondly, you might hear a lot of noise in the background. But it’s not really noise: it’s other human beings, just like I’m situated, and they are getting ready to go and eat, and it might sound like feeding time at the Serengeti Plains.
Eda: I’m going to ask you to talk a bit about your personal background—where you grew up and went to school.
VBJr: I’ve given some thought about my childhood growing up. One thing about prison: it gives you an opportunity if you take it, an opportunity to do a lot of reflecting upon your past.
I grew up in a little town in Oklahoma named McAlester—that’s where they have a big penitentiary—I grew up in a very, very small, tight-knit community, at a time when things were a lot different. And reflecting on that, I grew up primarily with the influence of women. Because my father was away in the Army. My father, Veronza, he did a twenty-five years in the U.S. Army. So my mother, Dorothy …
I’m glad you asked this question be-cause in order to understand anything, you have to look at it in its totality, it’s connections—it’s historical connections, if you will. And growing up in this little town, surrounded by women as I was—because my grandmother had six children: five of them were women, and one son (we called him ‘Uncle Sonny). And so, the little neighborhood that I grew up in, all Black neighborhood, we didn’t have any experience with racism directly.
Or even with all the conflicts that result from that.
Looking back on it, you think about poverty and being poor and all of those things: but back then, it was just always a very, very good feeling. My great grand-mother, Granny, she was my first real teacher of Our Story (it’s called ‘history’). She was seven years old when slavery was abolished. She taught me a lot of things about that past. So my youth was very rich in tradition and stories. And I remember my grandmother (everybody called her ‘Bucker’, but I called her ‘Grandma’). She was like the backbone of the Johnson/Larkins clan. And her word was law.
Growing up as a little boy like that, I learned to really listen to and appreciate the old people and what they had to say. Because they always were talking about “Life”—you know. That was a great joy for me to be able to sit around and listen to all those kinds of things.
And Mama was always ‘Mama’. With my father being away all the time, she gave so much strength and understanding of the world around me.
So, growing up in McAlester, Oklahoma—I was born in 1946. [the sound of many men in the background grows louder].… Eda, listen to this: you hear them call chow? It will get quiet in a minute so I won’t have to speak so loud and so fast, maybe… I’ve really come to the realization that when you start talking about the past, there’s so much that happened, so many memorable experiences that you could wander on and on and on.
EL: Would you talk a little bit about what it was like to be segregated and discriminated against.
VBJr: Eda, I never understood what segregation meant and what racism meant, and I never heard the word ‘nigger’ because, as I say, I grew up in a Black community where there was a lot of love and concern about each other.
I went to a little small school, named L’Ouverture High—but it was for from the first to the twelfth grade. We had to catch a bus and cross a little canal to hop on the bus to go way, way across town. And there was a little school right up the street about two and a half blocks on a dirt road: it was a very nice red brick school. I come to find out later, it was a grade school to jr. high. That’s where white people went to school. And I used to walk past it sometime and look at it and wonder: What kind of teaching goes on in there that’s so much different?
Later on in life I found out L’Ouverture High was named after Toussamt L’Ouverture, the great liberator down there in Haiti. They’d never taught us anything about that.
But that little town, as small as it was, we thought it was normal. Like when we wanted to go to the movie theater. Back then you paid five or ten cents to go to the theater.
They had three movie theaters in the whole town: the News, the Chief, and the Okla. The News was the one where we could go to. I always wondered why we couldn’t go to the other ones, but I didn’t ever question that. And when we did go, we had to sit up in the balcony; and it was only on Saturday or Sunday that we could go.
One time they had this movie called The Ten Commandments—I remember just like I’m looking at it. They closed the theater and let all the Black communities in. Third ward, Fourth ward and Fifth ward (our communities were called ‘wards’).
That was for two weeks. And once that was over and they figured everybody had seen The Ten Commandments that were going to see it, they closed the movie theater down for another two weeks and fumigated the place, because we had been there.
Those experiences as a little boy: I would look at them then and wondering what all this was about. They still had the water fountains with signs: one water fountain said ‘Colored’ and the other water fountain said ‘White’.
I remember on a sunny day, my father picked me up (because I’m too small to step on the water pedal and drink at the same time) so he picked me up and the water is coming up, and I look over at the other water fountain—I could read too, by then—and at the other water fountain a little white boy’s father had him picked up. I’m looking at this water, and the water is sparkling because the sun is shining through the window, and when my father set me down I said, “Daddy, how come my water says ‘Colored’ and the other water says ‘White’ and they look both the same?
And I remember my father lifting me and he said, “Boy, you’ll understand those things later on in life.”
Those are the kind of little experiences, the accumulation of which, along with the lessons of my grandmother, that leads a little young mind like I had into questioning a lot of things that you see around you.
EL: At what point did you become aware that because you were Black you were being treated differently, and when did you realize you wanted to make a difference, and you wanted that to stop?
VBJr: You know, Eda, I don’t think it was a particular point. It was just an accumulation of my experiences growing up, particularly in McAlester Oklahoma, and then later on in Omaha, Nebraska. I think it was just the accumulation, starting back from my real education by my great grandmother, and then watching the women with the Welfare and all of that kind of stuff going on in the neighborhood.
Then one day they came up with the desegregation of schools (I think that was 1954, with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court) and I starting going to that little school two and a half blocks up the way, and that’s when I was called (to my knowledge) ‘nigger’ for the first time.
Those kinds of things growing up. Becoming part of a wrestling team and going away to college. Being in the military, the US Navy for a short stint and going overseas in the Mediterranean. And along about that time (by then I guess I’m about twenty years old or so), Brother Malcolm X came on the scene with the Nation of Islam and that whole movement toward recognizing what they called ‘Negroes’ at that time, as Black people, people of African descent—that we were actually somebody. That we were human beings and not just the doormat of the world.
And just listening—because I’ve always been a listener. I was raised that way: to listen to the old people, to listen to adults when they talk. And I took that listening and listened to a lot of things. And not just listened with my ears, but with my heart and feeling. And as I grew up and started looking around me, and I see what is considered poverty everywhere and that it is such a pervasive thing. Then going overseas and seeing how people live differently; coming back and seeing how we still are at the bottom of the pecking order, so to speak—the doormat of the world—and then hearing people like Malcolm talk about (and even the Honorable Elijah Mohammed) talk about “do for self, and pride in your own self.”
And then the pride I was given by my grandmother, Bucker. You know, Eda, if I could, I would like to just give you a little idea through a poem that I wrote to my grandmother. She died in 1983. I used to write a lot of poetry and I wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. So I wrote this poem and sent it to my sister and asked her to read the poem—(‘To Grandma,’ that’s the name of it)—and place it on her chest, place it over her heart. I haven’t written any poetry since. The poem goes like this:
Grandma the silence of your heart brings pain to all who love you
Could I say goodbye to you in tears. I would
But somehow I know you would only smile and say
‘Boy, wipe your eyes. I’m free at last. I’m free at last
Thank God, Almighty. I’m free at last.’
So, Grandma, I’ll remember you in your strength
You taught me to stand tall with pride and dignity
Although I live in shadow
At this moment in time
Grant me but the memory of you
Your face, your smile
In darkness then I live without fear
Lost though I may be for a while
Wonderful memories of you sustain me
And I know the meaning of hope
Reflections of you spring from my heart
To liberate me from the chains of men
Grandma, could I say goodbye to you in tears I would
But never can I say goodbye to all that you were
To all that you gave me
Grandma, may you rest in peace
And you know, I wrote that to say that not just Grandma, but the people of the community. You’ve got to have a real appreciation for the strength of a people who were able to withstand the discrimination, the exploitation, the oppression — that life — and still be able to love each other and hope for a better day.
I learned listening to people like Malcolm, and to my own heart, that not only should you hope for a better day, but you also have to struggle for it. So at one point in my life when I heard about the Black Panther Party being formed out in Oakland, California; and I read their platform and program, I said to myself: Man, maybe here we can do something to better the condition of our people.
And then “Our People” expanded to be people who were living in a bad way. And so, I joined the Black Panther Party.
EL: What did the Black Panther Party offer you? And what did you want to accomplish by getting involved?
VBJr: The Black Panther Party became a nation-wide organization and we established chapters for the state and branches in the city all across the country where there were major (what people called) “ghettos”. We began to address some of the issues of our communities—the same ones that I’d seen growing up as a little boy.
Hunger. We established programs like free breakfasts for school children— programs for any child that wanted to eat a healthy meal before they went to school. They could stop by at any of the places where we had that established, and have a good, healthy and wholesome breakfast.
Because it’s a hard thing to sit in school, trying to learn, and your stomach is growling, and you hear more of your stomach than you do the teacher.
So those kinds of issues.
Or, like the old ladies would be going to the store and a youngster would come by and snatch her pocketbook: we addressed those kind of issues. Even recruited some of those little youngsters to escort the ladies to the store and not be worried about being molested.
Those types of positive programs in the community—doing for self—became like a vehicle. And I was just one of the many young men and women who were filled with a vision and a burning desire and a hope and a dream for a better future for our people. And so, we embarked upon that journey, not knowing where it would end. Or if it would end. But we knew we had to do something.
—Not to mention the police brutality that was raging from coast to coast—and still is from coast to coast. We began to wrestle a lot of those issues, and unfortunately (and history will bear it out) we were maligned and attacked.
And my incarceration is a direct result of that. Not because of something I have done, but because of my (what they call or what is called) “political activity.” So that makes me one of the long held political prisoners in this country. And I am just one of many – and it is hard for me to just speak about myself. But because of the nature of this interview, I know that’s necessary. But I can’t be understood apart from a People and a Movement.
Because in reality, as a political prisoner—and that’s known throughout the world: that we were representatives of a people and we were accused of trying to overthrow the government and all kinds of foolishness. Because that was never the case. We were trying to make a better life for our own people. And for that—history will also absolve us on this—a war was declared against us, and many of us linger in prison now. For decades. I’m almost in my thirtieth year, and I’m still struggling.
EL: Would you talk about what happened during your original case. What happened during that time and how old you were when you were convicted.
VBJr: I had never really been in trouble with the law, other than selling Black Panther newspapers and a lot of little miscellaneous charges they were using to try to disrupt the flow of activity.
So, I was twenty-six when I got convicted of first degree murder of a National Parks Service ranger. It was a very strange thing, because not ever having to have an experience with the law and justice and all that kind of stuff, sitting there in the courtroom, clearly things were running pretty ragged. —And I had some very good defense lawyers, and I could see they were doing their best, but I also could see that apparently the deck was stacked.
I’m going to try to make it real brief and straight to the point: they had two main witnesses: one guy that I knew well (and I knew his brother even better) and another guy I had never met, although I knew his brother. The first guy, the main witness, testified that on the night of this killing that I was with him—which was a lie. And that I was the trigger man—which was a lie. And in exchange for his lie, and his testimony (he had already been convicted of an unrelated bank robbery and had received twelve years) he wound up doing two years at some camp and received $10,000 for his testimony.
The other witness —who I had never laid eyes on in my life— he had three cases pending in court for Possession, for Sale and Distribution of heroin. And in exchange for his testimony against me(he corroborated the main witness’s testimony—with another lie—by saying that I came and told him everything that happened.) In exchange for that lie, the State’s cases for possession and sale of heroin were dismissed and he received $10,000. Plus, we had a 1973 Grand Prix that was taken, and it was awarded to him. He was rewarded with our own Grand Prix for his duplicity.
Those two testimonies, with no physical evidence, sealed my fate. And I’ve languished in prison ever since, unable to unravel that strange web that was weaved.
Weaved at a time in history, Eda, when (as it is generally known, now) there was a program called COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) that was designed to disrupt and neutralize the Black Liberation Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the American Indian Movement. Many of us were victims of that program set up by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. And the web was spun so tight, that we haven’t been able to unravel it except in a couple of cases like Geronimo Pratt out in California. After twenty-seven years, they finally proved it was a wrong conviction and he was released after twenty-seven years and awarded something like four and a half million dollars. That amounts to about fifty dollars a day for your life, and that is not a fair exchange.
And there was one other brother out of the Panther Party named Dhroba Moore. After nineteen years of wrongful conviction by the state of New York, he was awarded some-odd millions of dollars. But that is in exchange for a life, and our lives are just as precious as anybody else’s. We are political prisoners, and there are many others that are still lingering in prison in New York state and California and Maryland, and Mumia up there on Death Row in Pennsylvania. Leonard Peltier over there in Leavenworth. And we just continue to try to do the best we can. To try to live and do the best we can.
My case has so many clouds on it, and it’s been through many procedures; but it can summed up pretty quickly this way: I was arrested on state charges—a number of them and they were all dis-missed, not only because of the Search Warrant. —The judge ruled the Search Warrant was illegal, because there was no Probable Cause or anything. Back in those days there was a lot of fishing expeditions going on.
And then, after the state charges were dismissed (each of them carried Five-to-Life in the state of California: three or four different charges) the Feds stepped in and charged me with the murder of this National Parks Service ranger. And because there was no physical evidence linking me to the crime itself, the government chose to use two people who already had trouble with the law (one of them, I thought was a friend of mine; and like I said, this other guy that I didn’t know) and in exchange for their testimony and all the rewards that they got, the Feds secured a conviction.
I appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court, and of course, got no relief. And I haven’t got any relief up until this day. Including when I go to the Parole Commission.
One of the things they require is that you show remorse for the crime that you committed, and from my first time going there in 1983 up until the present, I’ve always maintained my innocence. I explained to the commissioners on more than one occasion that that places me in a dilemma, because it is one thing to have remorse and sorrow for something that you’ve done, but it’s an impossibility to have remorse and sorrow for some-thing that you haven’t done.
And I have made it very clear to them that I did feel sorrow during my trial when I heard the ranger’s wife testify about her husband: I could tell that she loved him. The taking of human life is something, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. But at the same time, I’ve expressed over and over again that my life, in essence, was taken without remorse for a crime I had nothing to do with.
So that’s the thing I have had to deal with, coming into prison as a young man—by the time I got to Atlanta, I was just turning twenty-seven and I’ve had all those birthdays in between. But basically, I became eligible for parole in 1983. I was sentenced to a life sentence, but in 1983 I became eligible for the first time for parole, and at that parole hearing they told me to continue to a full consideration hearing, which meant 1993. I took my court appeal all the way to the 9th Circuit and actually won the Appeal in the 9th Circuit, and that took ten years and the court ordered the Parole Commission to recompute my parole release date, give me an immediate new hearing, absent any erroneous and false information about an alleged assault that never took place—it took place, but I wasn’t involved in it.
And the Commission went through the motion of giving me a new hearing, and then said “Continued until 2/3rds Expiration,” which is 2004. Since ’83, I’ve gone to the Parole Board in ’91, again in ’93, ’95, ’98, 2000, (I haven’t gone in 2002 yet). And in 1993, for the first time, the Parole Board examiners recognized that something was wrong, and they attempted to give me a Parole Release date: they recommended I be released on December 7th, 1998 and they awarded me fifty-seven months for superior program achievement because there have been a lot of things I’ve done positive since I’ve been locked up. And it went to Washington and they took that back. And again in 1995, the Commissioners attempted to give me a 1998 release date, and again, it was taken back in Washington.
I appealed that decision, and thanks to the effort and support from numerous friends, too many to mention, I was able to get some very good legal representation. And now, we have a case in court down in Florida and it’s right up to the ending point, whereas if the judge rules in my favor, I will get immediate release. If they rule not in my favor, then no doubt I’ll be released in 2004—if life lasts and death passes.
But it’s been an on-going struggle with the Parole Commission.
And I have to mention this, Eda: it’s not just me. Particularly those who are considered political prisoners, like Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abul-Jamal in state prison, and many up in the state of New York—all over the country, about one hundred and fifty of us. That’s the treatment that we received: we received long, lengthy sentences; in many cases, wrongfully convicted.
And in spite of the fact that we have pretty much been what they call “model prisoners” because we are who we are, we do what we do—in spite of all of that, we keep getting denied parole over and over again. Like Leonard just got denied parole on July 9th, this year. And Mumia got his case overturned in so far as the death penalty phase, and they’re trying to re-sentence him either to life imprisonment or the death sentence.
But thanks to the many people whose eyes are now being opened, we’re getting a lot of support. Because in the old days, there was very, very little support. We were pretty much going on our own. Thanks to the untiring efforts of many people, I was able to get some very good legal representation. But in spite of that legal representation, the Parole Board has dug its heels in and has refused to honor its own rules, regulations and guidelines, as well as the law of the land.
And so we have a case in court that addresses all those issues and it will be decided in the not so distance future. Maybe within a month or two. Hopefully, less than that. Obviously, I’m eligible to go every two years. So, I’m waiting.
—Because when I went in the year 2000, represented by my attorneys, the examiner told me he recommended I be released on Sept 12, 2001. And as witness our interview right now, this is 2002 and it’s September 11th, and I still haven’t been released. It’s a lot of things that don’t meet the eye. But at any rate, we continue to struggle.
EL: How do you maintain the positive spirit—and sanity—after being in prison so long?
VBJr: That’s a question I’m often asked by a lot of the youngsters that are around today—when I look around prison today (because I was one of the younger guys in prison back in those days in Maximum Security penitentiaries). And so I meet a lot of young guys—young, very, very young with more time sentence-wise than they have been on the earth. Like twenty-two or twenty-three years old with Life sentences and forty-five years, and they often ask me: “Man, how do you do all of that time?” That’s the question. But when you say how? Obviously, you just continue breathing—you know what I mean. But it’s also (in my particular case) because I’ve always recognized that myself, as individual, I’m just a part, a small part, of the suffering of a People.
And so even though I’ve suffered the pain and despair of being separated from my loved ones—my mama: she’s eighty-six years old now and in bad health; and my daughter, when I left her, she was five years old: now she’s just had her thirty-sixth birthday—and married with two children, my grandkids. So that pain of that type of separation—longing to be with your family—can never go away. It’s that 24/7 type of pain.
But I also recognize, when I look back and look at the suffering that Granny and Grandma and all the other grannies and grandmas and mommas and daddies and children who have been living lives that could be so much better (you know) if things had changed to some degree or another, that that individual pain and suffering, is long-standing; and so, my suffering becomes very little when you com-pare it, or make the connection between that type of suffering and the suffering that I endure as an individual.
And I’m surely not saying that because I understand a few things that I didn’t understand when I was a little boy—if that makes it any easier. And of course with friends (and I could just name a whole list of friends and supporters who’ve given me courage, who’ve given me hope—guys in prison too but a lot of people who I have been in contact with over the years who have given unconditional love and support and friendship.
And then when you look at the struggle of peoples throughout the world, you recognize that you have to live life somewhere.
And I recognize that. That whether I am in prison or out in the so-called “Free World’ that I have to live my life somewhere. And I’ve determined long ago that I want to live it the best I can, and as fully as I can, wherever I am and wherever I find myself.
In those Maximum Security penitentiaries back in the old days, you used to do a lot of ‘hard time’, they called it; it reminds me of a poem: “Without the cold and disillusion of winter, there can never be the warmth and splendor of spring. Calamity has hardened me and turned my mind into steel.” It’s like the life of a willow tree: you learn to bend when you have to and weather the storm.
So people have told me: “Man, you seem to have found a way to maintain your sanity and dignity.” And I remember reading in one of Nelson Mandela’s books (you know, he did twenty-seven years over there in South Africa, he and his comrades)—and he said one of the hardest things that they found doing that type of incarceration and misery, was how not to adjust. That you maintain your dignity and self-respect, and honesty in dealing with people; and you care for people.
I think I’ve done that because that’s the way I was raised. And so when people look and say, “You’re a strong man,” it’s not because I’m a strong man but because I was raised by strong women and a strong people. And I’m just blessed and thankful that some of those characteristics of those people I just mentioned found a way into my own heart. I just do the best I can, because I love people, and I love life, and I’ve been blessed and fortunate enough to have good people in my life.
Like a master flute maker I know named Monty, and an eloquent lady, Kayo, and your sister, Anna. Those in the Jericho Movement: Safiya and Paulette and Herman. My sisters Cynthia, Rhonda, Voni & Joi, Betty, Jean Marie, Ovedia, Debbie, Debb. Mamma Mae, her beautiful daughter Theriseta. My attorneys: Neoma Kenwood, who fought single-handedly for ten years, Mr. Curtis Crawford, Mr. Benjamin Malcolm (may they rest in peace), Edward Hammock & Donnna Sullivan. John Neptune & the world of Shakuhachi. Maynard Garlield —the list goes on to where you just can’t name all of the people who have influenced your life, and you accept that blessing as it comes.
One thing that I forgot to mention is that I had tried to escape in Lompoc in 1979, and I was shot and apprehended, as was my comrade.
Archie Fire Lame Deer sent a couple of warriors over and invited us into a sweat lodge ceremony of Native Americans, and from that ceremony, that day—it was a healing ceremony—I’ve adopted those ways and I walk that path of what is called the ‘Red Road’. And that sweat lodge, the ceremonies—the discipline it takes and the connection with all living things—has made a significant change in my life.
—Including Shakuhachi: the blowing, the using of the breath, connecting with your inner self in meditation. Those kind of things, and healthy exercise and trying to eat the best you can, you can still smile in spite of the harshness of the environment. Environments do make a difference, but I don’t think they are the determining factor in how you view the world and how you respond to that world.
Because today is a lot different than it was in the old days. And particularly, Eda, this institution where I am—Coleman, Florida. It’s the first time (after twenty-six years) that I came to a lower-level security-type institution. It’s unlike any other place I’ve been. I’ve never experienced an Administration like this one. Here, because of the broad vision of the warden and his administration, we’re allowed to have quite a few programs that are meaningful. Programs in the sense that the guys can contribute something back to society. We have a little program we call YES—Youth Encouraging Support—wherein we are able to make contact through our program with young kids who they call ‘trouble kids’, but they really are kids in trouble. Kids from the ages eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen who have been in trouble with the law. We’re able to sit with them in the visiting room and interact and exchange a lot of ideas and feelings and thoughts—to try to make a difference.
We have a program called ‘Non-Violence Training Outreach’ an out-reach program teaching guys self-respect and character building. We have a Fine Arts Department where we put on plays that are slices of life. These types of programs, because of the way things are going to-day, have been not allowed in many many places. So I think we’re like pioneering and laying the groundwork for the future. Because today, there are so many young guys coming into prison, many of them without a GED, or communication skills. And we’re able to make a difference. And that is very meaningful to me as an individual.
So even though prison is a place where no one wants to be; because we are here, some will make a positive use of their years of confinement—and some don’t. And its real painful and terrible to see those that don’t, who often times, through no fault of their own.
At any rate, all the little things combined together to either make you into a better human being, or break you and make you unrecognizable as a member of the human family when you are released.
EL: Today marks the anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Americans and undocumented workers. Could you describe what happened inside the prison that day, and how it has changed since September 11th.
VBJr: On that particular day, it was probably like everywhere else. What happened was something that we couldn’t have even believed to be possible— the loss of that many lives all at once. And not just the lives that were lost immediately, but the families, the things and everyone that was affected by it.
There is one guy here, Siokatame Hafoka from the island of Tonga—that’s way in the middle of the Pacific—he’s a member of our Sweat Lodge ceremony. He’s a big gentle giant—I mean a huge guy—and he’s a gentleman and has a heart as big as he is. Big. And this guy (there are about 1700 people here in this institution) was so affected (as many people were), he fasted every single Tuesday, until today—till yesterday—which made it a whole year of fasting—without food or water. Just to remember that day and remember the spirit of what had happened.
I know that in other institutions, there was lockdown; meaning everybody was locked into their cells. But this place is a lot different than a lot of other places and we didn’t directly experience that—although a few guys got locked up because of their religious affiliations with Islam.
And you hear a diversity of attitudes. But I myself recognize that not only were a lot of innocent lives lost here, but that there have been repercussions on the people of Afghanistan and that people throughout the world have been effected by what happened that day. I think it was something like 2,824 odd people have been identified through body parts that have been found. In my own mind and heart that was a great tragedy. And like in all wars of all times, war is a mutual slaughter of men and women, and those kinds of things they can only sadden the heart.
EL: If there was one thing that you could change in this world what would it be?
VBJr: I would love to be able to change the relations among men—when I say “men” I’m also including women. Humankind. Because we talk about war, poverty, hunger and misery on the one hand, but it’s opposite always exists. But it evolves down to the relationships. Relationships to me are very, very important, and if there is to be a world free of sexism and fascism and ageism and all those other “isms”and schisms that divides humankind—not to mention racism, which is an artificial division of human being based upon skin color or positions and stations of life…
If we could go back in time to that time of what is called “primitive communal society”, but really was a society when there was a lot of collective and mutual cooperation in order to survive against the beasts of prey and the forces of nature that man didn’t understand; if things could be ordered in such a way (not ordered in a sense of a dictatorial thing) but ordered by mutual respect. ..
Like the way I grew up in a community. The elders had respect, not because they had authority being imposed upon those who gave the respect, but because that respect was well-earned and understood. And that’s the type of respect that even great presidents and generals and foreign ministers don’t have because those things are not something that can be forced upon a people.
So if those relations change—relations to the point of production—then we could have a much better world where a woman would never know what it is to have to give up her body in prostitution, or people would never know what it was like to grow up in slavery, a beast of burden. That’s what I would hope for my children and grandchildren and the children after them, and yours, and those yet to be born. And it could be so, but that requires a lot of struggle and a lot of sacrifice and a lot of willingness of people to understand that unless we cooperate as a human species, then we are going to perish.
EL: Is there some advice you would like to tell youth in America today?
VBJr: Yeah. It’s been said (and it’s not rhetorical) that the youth are like the sunshine at eight or nine o’clock in the morning—bright, full of beauty and vigor. And they will visit places where those of my generation and other generations can’t even dream of—yourself included. You have places to go that can only be dreamed of. So, the youth have a great responsibility—like all generations that come after the generation that’s currently struggling to make a better world.
The youth have to take a sober look at that. Not in the sense of foregoing all the joys of life that come with youth, but also recognizing that youth, just like old age, is a passing thing, and it’s here now and it will be gone.
So we listen to our past—reflecting on our past—and plan for the future and live in the moment. . . Often time we see that youth have been criminalized as a generation. They still are our hopes, because they are going to be the future leaders of tomorrow. And so, that responsibility that they have, that has been squarely laid on their shoulder, it will be a heavy burden. But I have full confidence in our youth—the hip-hop generation.
Every generation has its ways. The youth of today are very much in tune with life and the world around them. You hear it in the music, you hear it in the rap music; you see it in their dance, the way they walk and talk. It’s just a matter of being willing to listen, as we all have problems listening when we are young. I pin my hopes upon the youth.
And when I see these youngsters come into the programs I was telling you about: we’ll be out in the visiting room talking and you look in their eyes, and sometimes you see despair, and sometimes a few sparks flare up, and your heart hurts inside, because without some changes, then you know a lot of people will live half-butchered lives, who could otherwise live meaningful lives.
—Not just in the sense of being professional people like doctors and lawyers, but just contributing positive things to their own communities, and to their own families. That’s where it starts at, with the family. And it goes out from there to the community and to the city and the state and the nation. And the world.
EL: What are your own future plans when you finally get out in the year 2004
VBJr: If that happens—and like my mama always say: “If life lasts and death passes.” In other words, if I keep breathing and I am fortunate enough to be re-leased in 2004 (or if I win my case down here in the court that I have going now, and am released immediately). I have a lot of plans.
One is to try to keep breathing—living. And I would really like to be able to open up a Meditation Healing clinic. Over the years I’ve studied and learned and practiced acupressure and hands-on-healing and tsubo therapy, and a variety of healing arts including blowing shakuhachi as a means of self-meditation healing, and have gained some insights and rewards doing all of that stuff to relieve pain.
Pain is a thing people don’t have to necessarily live with—or “learn to live with” as the medical profession often says. But pain can be relieved with the touch of a finger or the sound of a note, or the sound of a voice or a birdsong.
So I would like to try my best to open up a clinic of that nature and train some youngsters in that art of caring, and try to make a little difference in some lives, and take it from there . . . (Loud commotion-sounds like. “Closed, closed, prepare/or. . .] That’s a big announcement.
Anyway, I really have to say that I’m very happy that my mother (who is 86 years old), and my daughter Veronica, even though they suffered so much pain in my absence, that they’ve understood that I had to follow my dream for a better world for US all. Because at one time, I don’t think they understood. But they do now. And those kind of things help one situated like myself, to continue. Those are the kinds of things that mean so much. And I want to thank you, and I want to thank Dan, and I want to thank all of the people at KZYX and all of you listeners who put up with all of my ramblings. Obviously, I definitely want to thank all of the people who have believed in me and have supported me. And I can only hope that that will continue, and that somehow in the future, that my own life—what I have left of it—will be used in a way that is befitting that type of unconditional love and support. This call is from a federal prison. This is a prepaid call. This call is from . . . Veronza