This week on the show, we spoke with folks involved with Comrade Center, a leftist project focused on accessible education around armed self-defense in so-called New Hampshire. They were formerly known as Southern New England Socialist Rifle Association and while they’re no longer a chapter of the SRA, they are working with groups like that and individuals to purchase and maintaining a space for armed self-defense education outside of the right wing milieu in their area. For the hour we talk about mainstream, reactionary gun culture in the US, the impact of the NRA, the importance and empowerment of education around fire arms and other topics. You can learn more about the project at ComradeCenter.Org
On February 12th, 1994, Ernest Lee Johnson and his ex-girlfriends’ two sons participated in the botched robbery of Casey’s General Store that took three victims’ lives: Mable Scruggs, Mary Bratcher and Fred Jones. Mr Johnson has no recollection of the murders, was in despair and had been drinking and smoking crack in the hours after his ex-girlfriend broke up with him. A Black man with intellectual disabilities and no former, violent convictions, he was convicted by an ill-informed, all-white jury with the help of Boone County, Missouri, Prosecuting Attorney, Kevin Crane. Ernest Johnson now faces an execution date of October 5th, 2021.
This week, we spoke with Elyse Max, State Director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty about the life of Ernest Johnson, the media and court situation he faced, his twice overturned death penalty, the links between the lynching of Black people in the US and the current death penalty, intersections of race and class in who are the victims of capital cases and who sit on death rows, the mishandling of Ernests intellectual disability in the case and other topics.
You can learn more about Ernest’s case, including ways to help press Missouri Gov Parson for a commutation of Ernest’s execution and the work of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty by visiting MADPMO.org. You can follow their work on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram via the handle @MADPMO.
“Interpreting Realities: Aligning Fragments Within the Prisoners Resistance Movement“
This is the second segment of a series of political discussions focused on building support for Jalihouse Lawyers Speak 2021 National call to action #ShutEmDown2021 along with support for the 2022 National Prisoner’ Strike & Boycott.
In this segment “Interpreting Realities: Aligning Fragments Within the Prison Resistance Movement” moderated by Brooke Terpstra – a longtime resident of Oakland and co-founding member of Oakland Abolition and Solidarity, which has been active since 2016 in the abolition and prisoner solidarity movements–we are joined by two panelists located within the belly of the beast– a conscious New Afrikan Komrade, located within kalifornia koncentration kamps, who is serving a longer than life sentence due to prosecutorial abuse of power, along with Komrade Underground–3rd world rebel, urban guerrilla, student of dragon philosophy and member of JLS–to discuss myths and misconceptions of the us prison structure and how these misconceptions create fragmented understandings about the prison-carceral state and forms of abolition. We also hear how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has further isolated prisoners from the outside world.
** This episode, including Sean Swain’s segment on the 50th anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising and the massacre that follows, detail abuse and brutality against people in prisons, including of a sexualized nature, so listener discretion I advised **
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Somethin’ That Means Somethin’ (instrumental) by J Dilla
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Host – Brooke Terpstra: Let’s just put it up front that disagreement is okay. Oftentimes in panels and conversations and interviews, it’s always said to be a conversation but that normally disagree… and people got disagreements. So let’s just say like “it’s all okay. We agree on the main thing. We’re all comrades, but disagreement is okay and conversation is okay.” Actually, that’s the goal! The discussion, the response, the back and forth. All that’s fair game. We’ll just put that up front. I’m ready for that. I’m looking for that. So, we had a couple questions to kick this off with those folks.
Number one is a big question, so I think I’m going to cut it in two. The prison, an explanation of it, the term, the idea, the concept, is heavily propagandized in our society. Heavily mythologized as laws, as well as prisoners, as crime, as “innocence”, “guilt”. They all come really heavy with baggage, with imposed meaning, ideology. So heavily mythologized its kind of submerged into being common sense. Common sense until they force you to basically confront the realities or or maybe you inherited a position in society or certain experience that has basically clued you into the reality. And one thing that definitely forces an individual’s unlearn and all that come to terms with the realities of prison, the prison system… the reasons that it exists.. is getting locked up.
During that time, face to face with the beast. When you go in… the stated of reasons for the system: “rehabilitation. safety, innocence and guilt, your worth as a person, etc…” All that makes no sense. Well, inside people come to different understandings of the structure and the basis of the prison. They go through certain phases perhaps. Some people think is just a broken system where the process is broken and needs to be fixed. Or that it’s just a big scam to make money, a low level scam to rip people off. Or maybe it’s rampaging, even just rogue institutions run amok. Some say it’s just another area for racist brutality. There are ones who stick to a strict understanding of slavery, just about forced labor, and think that it’s all around forced labor. [We] don’t think the opposite. It’s basically… it’s not about forcing labor, but about forced idleness and basically warehousing surplus labor. and that It’s good for the outside as well. So as far as the understanding the prison system, there are these different models and analysis of the prison system or being locked up.
Could you speak on your own coming to consciousness around this? Maybe the phases and analysis and understand that you went through? And where you are today? And perhaps which of these kind of points of view, do you think are myths and misconceptions beyond just maybe being partial, or maybe being a little bit left a little right, complimentary to your own position, but which ones are basically dangerous and are a problem?
New Afrikan Komrade: I started in the system kind of early. I went to a couple of boys’ Camps twice. I was going to the California Youth Authority, which was basically a prison for youth. It was a complete failure. The way the system was set up, it was brutal, barbaric. You know, the things that I witnessed in there, they stay with me to this day. But that’s where I really got introduced into what I would like to say, my revolutionary state of mind. So by the time I was some years old I had been a witness to about 50 different riots, race riots.
So just seeing that as a youth, I understood that they will setting me up for failure in the future. And I remember the first time that I was at Juvenile Hall, I cried like a girl when they closed the door, right? By the time I came to Juvenile Hall, and I seen all my partners there, in the field, having their popcorn night, soda night. There was no form of rehabilitation to try fix the situation, or why we’re in here…. I’ve always played with guns. I’ve been playing with guns since I was a young dude, you know? As I got out, it was just repetition, it was just the constant thing.
It was a constant thing, with a constant theme. Being incarcerated at such a young age. It left me lightweight & emotionally underdeveloped. Because everything about it was aggressive. I was aggressive in everything that I did. I did not respond to anything but with aggressiveness. Even in my relationships, now even with my wife and kids there is always aggressive manner in how I approach things. And I really believe that that’s part of the failure of the system. And it just goes back to my understanding, definitely the greatest misconceptions about Prison, is that they’re institutions of rehabilitation. And this is no doubt a social myth.
But when I left the pen[itentiary], it was just California Department of Corrections (CDC). By the time I came back it was CDRC. They put the R in there for rehabilitation. And I believe that’s was for the federal funds. That’s got to get the federal funding and get these programs. So, it’s my opinion that most of the individuals truly want to make drastic changes in their lives. You know, they don’t come from institutional programs, they come from within yourself. What these programs are designed for is prisoner behavior control. Everyone on parole is based on participation in these programs. So in essence, no one’s going to these program to be rehabilitated. They go to these programs in controlled circumstances of release.
A lot of these dudes that I know, they have gotten all of these certificates that they have to offer and these cats are still the worst of the worst. To be fair there are some vocational trades that can be useful to someone who is really dedicated to have a productive life in society. I mean, it’s only right that a man should have some type of skill, you know, to play this deal. But again, as I said before, these programs are in place to receive some type of federal funding and prisoner behavior control. The reason I say that is often when we’re in classes, maybe every 90 days or so they always come in and let you know “look man we are having some visitors, we’re having people, they’re building these computers or whatever, some machinery… we need you guys to be on your best behavior.” So they come through, and they look at us like lab rats, or whatever it may be. “Be on your best behavior!”
I believe it was Angela Davis that talked about is dynamic in her book “They Come For Us In The Morning.” She touched on the fact that comrade George [Jackson], in that particular formation was resistant to these type of programs that was being provided. And it always makes me touch back into that Willie Lynch factor. It was a brother that used to run the Nation of Islam classes in one of these penitentiary classes I was in, and the first thing that he did was he brings up the Willie Lynch. And he said “what I want you to do every day, I want you to identify a dynamic of the Willie Lynch process. Because they are around you every day.” So what I see is the part where Willie Lynch says “at the end, make them believe in us and only us.” So you trying to fix yourself, that doesn’t work, because that’s not profitable for them. You know what I’m saying?
I believe it was Malcom [X] that calls the penitentiary “the hidden university”. Right? But the rehabilitation that we do for ourselves has no financial gain to be recorded or cashed in on. So when W.L. Nolan and George [Jackson] began to emphasize the importance of organizing, shit hit the fan. What the brothers was doing was really to set the stage and establishing and securing prisoners rights that had been set in place in 1942 by the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. They at that time… they constituted the largest number of Black conscientious objectors to World War II. It was there that they met abolitionists who was associated with the Quakers. Revolutionary shout-out to Brother John Brown.
So a lot of people don’t know that the prison abolition movement and its relationships to the carceral state was born out of this dynamic. And this is important that we talk about how misconceptions created stagnate understandings about the prison carceral states in the forms of Abolition. We are talking about predictive policing. So here’s where we step in the dialectic of discipline, strategy. And this is where we begin to see the dynamic of state repression and Mulsim resistance, where we actually organizes resistance that the Nation [of Islam] exercised, the State will always put in place, on top of rules to squash and counteract that resistance. Of course, Brothers will always come up with some new form of organizing in response which in fact was political in nature, because it will add to the overall fragmentation of various forms of abolition, and not only expansion of the tactics applied, but to the overall strategy.
You know, it just puts me in a place when I first seen that movie 300 when it came out and they only show one front of resistance that was being fought against the Persian oppressors, but at the same time there was another battle going on at sea. So, when the brother spoke earlier about his viewpoints that may be violent, violence is necessary. It has to be a necessary tool, but it has to be done autonomously. It can be done as a whole or a mass, but I don’t think we’re equipped, or that the people are passionate enough to carry out the attack that’s necessary. You know, so primarily most formations, again today, they are aiming to reform what currently exists. They want to change the frame, but the picture remains the same. They want to put a band-aid on it. When it’s clear the situation requires a more extreme approach and that’s the abolishment of these existing slave camp. They are a direct reflection of the blueprint of American capitalism.
Even saying the abolishment of slave camp, I would have to state and leave room for a gray area of contradiction saying that… Being in here, man, some of these dudes… they belong in jail. Some dudes belong in jail and that’s a dialectical approach of understanding… That two things can be true at the same time. To me that’s one of the misperceptions about prison is the rehabilitation team. It doesn’t exist. If you don’t have the ability to fix yourself then nothing else is going to work.
Host: Exactly. Man and this process started really young for you, like it has a lot of people. Like it has for my family, like the people I know. A couple things you said there… I’m glad you identify the guided tours. We got certain facilities, and the certain facilities are maintained, that are near major media markets where there are a lot of nonprofits, where there’s a lot of little programs, where they trot people through, they prop people up for newsletters and pictures, for defending, for their the grants. And also CDCR uses them as a boutique in a facility. It’s a showpiece, while meanwhile 50 miles up the yard it’s a completely different situation, some level one prisoner out there organic gardening, getting to pet dogs is basically the cover photo. While on the inside pages there’s the reality is that everybody else doesn’t get that. You basically identified the line of reform. There’s a major distinction between, like these different perspectives in the prison. It frustrates me when people identify the prison resistance struggle as a matter of criminal justice reform… It’s like “nah… nahh..”
New Afrikan Comrade: I don’t believe… well as a revolutionaries, we don’t believe in the word reform. Right? We make we make drastic changes. Like I said man, just coming through the system I had never been given the tools that I didn’t give myself to fix me. Right? Having been to California Youth Authority. I went in there and I got seven years for my crime. So when I went to the Board, because in the California Youth Authority, you have to go to the Board to go home. There’s no automatic dates, ya dig?
So, we have counseling sessions, the counselors will be just the regular police that worked in there. These dudes didn’t have credentials. Or they wasn’t qualified to counsel me or give me the necessary mental help that I need. I can’t even recall even seeing a psychiatrist during those times. They had dudes in there with 10, 11, 12 years of age, right? It was worse than penitentiary. I’ve been about 9-10 different penitentiaries. I’ve never experienced anything like i experienced in the California Youth Authority. They were criminalizing us and we didn’t understand it at the time. Cuz there was two things that was gonna happen and they were either going to make you or break you. Right? They will make you a better criminal or they were going to break you down and makes you a worse type of man. Right? I had a little cousin that went in when he was 12 and he stayed in there till he was 25. And it was not good.
So when I get here, in these times, I do see a difference or change in the type of individuals that’s coming through the system, because back then we were a little bit more conscious too in the 80’s… you got to take that into consideration. My mother was a [Black] Panther. Coming up we were really Black conscious in the town, you know what I’m saying? So, we just automatic in the California Youth Authority, you had the Crips versus the Bloods. You had the Northern Mexicans versus the Southern Mexicans. It was just automatic that in the Bay Area, it was Black versus the whites, who claimed White Pride. It was no question, we didn’t have to claim that. It was just on.
I was just telling someone the other day I’ll say man, “I’ve never been anywhere that’s so segregated like the penitentiary or jail.” They keep you in this old frame of mind that they say it doesn’t exist anymore, but it exists behind these walls. So the only way to rehabilitate you from that is to separate you. “Y’all take this part of the day and you take this part of the day, and ya’ll take that this part of the day.” That’s not rehabilitating you, that’s just flame and fire. You know what I mean? Like I said, once again, the penitentiary is just warehousing bodies. This is all about capitalism and getting money. I don’t see anything that’s productive here. It is just warehousing bodies. This is all about capitalism and getting money. I don’t see anything that’s productive here.
Host: Yeah. So I mean, on that note… It was interesting to hear that you came from people that were Panthers, that you got that head start. You had generations before you that had a certain level of consciousness. But on that note, I want to talk to Komrade Underground, where he came from and if you could speak on the different understandings for the structure base of prison. And speaking more specifically too. There is the one big myth like rehabilitation? That’s the first one to discard. And that’s a problem. That ideologically imposed nonsense.
Komrade Underground: One thing… I really want to appreciate everything that comrade was saying, because there’s so many similarities, however, because I’m on the total other side of the world, it seems like there’s so many differences between these two different Department of Corrections, however, it’s still just stuck in constant repression, constant repression. You know, California, actually it seems to me so much in front of every other state in the United States. As far as when it comes to how picky they are, and and how they hide these fucking forms of “reform” and just building this deep return and deeper ideas of repression.
However, let me start with a little bit about myself. You know, I also started when I was [redacted]teen years old. I came to detention center, and I didn’t stop. I didn’t stop. I went to programs, went to different levels, went to little juvenile prisons. Then at the age of [redacted]teen, I got a direct filed as an adult, and ended up getting two life sentences. And they threw me right in the Big House. We had a little dorm for people that was under 21. But it was getting it.
There’s also such a big gang culture down here where I’m at. So that’s what it was. They throw us together, everyone up under 21. And we are clashing and we clashing and every chance. But there was also at such a young age, that sense of rebellion for the pigs. Every time the pigs will come out and fuck with a during count. We all launching and batteries and pieces of soap at them and everything, just getting them up out of there. Because no matter what, for some reason, when I was young, no matter if we were bumping that day, we were going through it that day, when pigs came around we will stick together. And that changed a lot through the years. I think it had a lot to do with that so many of us had life sentences at 16, 17, 18 years old, and nothing matters at that time. We just wanted to just lash out, just go. And we didn’t really understand what was going on or didn’t understand our [prison] sentences. But we still had that hope, you know?
But it made no sense. Right? So coming through, I would say a big thing that radicalized me that brought me to a revolutionary consciousness would have to be the involvement of the gang culture down here. Back then, it’s very different now, but back then it was like… you have folks that would take you up under their wings and give you the correct books in the correct nourishment. And it’s not happening too much anymore. But back then I was given Che Guevara, I was given George Jackson. These two comrades that had been in my life for the last 20 years. More than most folks that I known on the streets. Man. Che Guevara and George and Jonathan. Man… they’ve been in my life. So I was able to go through those things.
But also, there is such this level of repression here where I’m at, because there’s no such thing as parole over here. So they don’t have to give us programs to help us get the fuck out of here. They don’t have to give us programs to help push us up out of here. Right? So what they do they actually stamp us with these STG (Security Threat Group) files to keep us out of these programs to keep us away from that. Because they know there’s no reason to give us programs. We’re all just in the belly here, and we’re all just going to be clashing here. And there’s no huge penitentiaries over here.
They’ve actually created all these micro-institutions, because they know exactly these… I call them social experiments. They know exactly how many Bloods, Crips, Kings and Vice Lords to keep on these compounds, to keep us at each other, to keep us clashing with each other. They know how many whites and Blacks and Hispanics to keep us at, because there’s really not too many white supremacists down here. I mean, excuse me, there’s not too many white supremacist gangs down here. All the white boys down here are mostly white supremacist unless they were born in the Black and brown hoods, and are part of the Black and brown formations. But for the most part, there’s no solid white supremacist gang where I’m at. They don’t really get no breathing room. Even the pigs are mostly Black and brown where I’m at. So it creates this whole different idea, this whole different structure of repression that we’re dealing with down here. Because there’s no parole, there’s no ideas of reform. And because there’s no ideas of reform, there’s only here and now.
So what they’re doing, as we speak, creating these two different types of prisons. You either have these honor prisons where people can do a lot of time, but have maybe video games or tablets or whatever, or they’re creating these highly surveilled, hyper fascist prisons, that when you go back through the history of different places like California, different places like New York that had all these revolutionaries from the 70’s and 80s… Because the state is starting to feel that pressure, they’re starting to grasp onto those old ideas of repression, and finding ways to keep us locked down. Finding ways to create different types of camps and institutions to keep us locked down, right? So you have SHU programs, you’ve got administrative programs, you got all these different prisons that are popping up. And then they only battle with the idea of these “honor programs”, these “honor prisons”. So there’s this huge separation now, there’s a huge separation on different camps. And there’s nothing to look forward to. There’s nothing looked forward to over here.
So what when we start talking about myths and misconceptions, from state to state they vary, right? There is no reform. That idea is just to perpetuate these money grabs for the State, these money grabs for the places. These honor institutions are not honor institutions, they are ways to formulate more money for the carceral state. When we even talk about what prison is and what the carceral state is… What are these things that so many of us, or so many “radicals” want to want to push out? The idea of prison is just the beginning of the carceral state. This is ground zero. This is where the battle starts day in and day out.
But there is also… Academia which is such an extension of the carceral state because it’s taken our ideas and making them less dangerous. It’s taking these revolutionary ideas and making them less dangerous because when they push that out there now it’s been said through the Ivory Tower. But then we also have places that have forgotten, like these mental institutions. These “mental institutions” are just ways to get people to trial. They are ways to get people to trial to send them into prisons. There’s no help in these mental institutions. It’s pump them with Thorazine and put them on stand.
So when we talk about these different extensions of the Carceral State, we have to remember that this is part of the fight too. We have to battle this shit, man… We have to battle all of that, man. And then like we said, when we talking about fighting, we were talking about physically. I’m talking about that type of solidarity. I’m not talking about the nonprofit industrial complex that’s going to fund the prison industrial slave complex that’s going to go back and fund the fucking military industrial complex. So it’s like all these different things that get so convoluted in this talk of abolition, but what is abolition? What are these conceptions and misconceptions and myths about abolition?
I think one of them is the prisoner. This prisoner rebels that everyone wants to romanticize or fetishize. Most folks in here, man, they just want to go home. They want to do their little time and get out, right? The revolutionaries, yeah, we’re in here. We in here and we’re doing it. We’re the ones that are on these calls. We’re the ones that are trying to build together. And then once they get a little whiff of that… all of us are getting separated, threw in the SHU and suffering from extreme repression. So there’s these formations. Now, I don’t even want to call them formations, there’s these people claim that formations out there that are just grabbing onto any prisoner, any prisoner that wants to say something, and wants to push that idea and push that as a point that now abolition is become fetishized. That this prisoners has become romanticized. This prisoner’s not a comrade. This prisoner is not a comrade, this is just some dude that is probably backed by a bunch of reformists, that probably wants to get parole that has no idea on the struggle, or the movements that are trying to be formed.
You know, we had this idea of these movements, and people want to attach that word movement to all of their formations. But we are reaching to create a movement right now. Because there’s so few of us on the inside and outside that have that truth, that have what I call “George and Jonathan consciousness”. That George Jackson and Jonathan consciousness was actually a true form of solidarity, man. That’s why George called Jonathan his alter ego. And that’s what it needs to be. These formations need to be alter egos of each other. We have to be y’all and y’all have to be us. But at the same time, we need to have a better understanding and be more specific on who we let into our circles, and who we let build with us and create this formations. When it comes to the inside and the outside. The outside needs to not just fucking grab any prisoner, and we need to be more security conscious, and not just grab any fucking person out that has a fantasy that abolitionist so and so. Because most of them just want to exploit us. Most of them just want to add us to a name on some fucking thing that they’re writing, or something that they’re pushing through this Ivory Tower to make us less dangerous. I just think that there’s this level of discipline, and there’s this level of security, and there’s this level of anger and rage that we need to get back to. We need to fucking get back to that rage, man. We need to get back to those places where shit matters, man. Where it wasn’t just about putting prisoner-so-and-so’s stamp on stuff. So I think a lot of these myths and misconceptions form around what is important these days. We’re not going to pretend like us living better in here is not important. But you have a lot of people that’s focused on that.
So, the abolitionists need to focus on these direct attacks on the State. These direct attacks – and when I say direct attacks, I mean focused violence. Because there is this idea of fear that is not instilled in these pigs. They’re not scared to come to work. They’re not scared to come and repress us on the inside. Because once they’re in here, they got these shotguns, and they got these AR-15’s. And they know that we don’t. But when they start letting loose on us, we can’t do anything. So how do we combat that? In here we only have so much urban guerrilla warfare we can use. But out there, that solidarity that we’re looking for, this direct military action that people don’t want to talk about anymore, these underground movements that people don’t want to fucking be part of anymore… I mean, those are the things we need to start talking about. And those are the things we need to start building on.
Host: You just you just drew some lines there, Komrade. And I appreciate that. And I got a couple of different questions. I’m trying to decide which way to go. But I want to ask you both… I think I might get in some trouble here because in light of what you said. There are these abolitionists right now… They call themselves abolitionists, and maybe even like everyone on this call even isn’t the same kind of abolitionist. It’s just that there is multiple abolitionisms. There are folks out there that are organizing for the right to vote, or better Jailhouse Lawyering around conditions. Let’s focus on the voting. Do you consider, either of you, that could be a priority? or to be important? I know it’s actually a point within the JLS demands. I mean, I definitely got my point of view, but I want to hear what you guys have to say about it. And like practically, if it makes sense, not just out of pure principle.
New Afrikan Comrade: From my experience… You know, I believe everything starts with the court system, that’s where all the shit starts, right? Like, in my case now, you know, I was on the run for about [redacted] years. So when I finally got caught and got arrested, I filed a motion to dismiss based on violation to my due process rights. So what they had to do was they had to justify why the police didn’t look for me within [redacted] years. So I knew they did not do no investigation. Because I asked if they went to my mom’s house and they never went to my grandmother’s house. The house that I was at, that they kicked the door in one time and never came back. And at that time, I don’t know if you familiar with the [redacted]… So you know the whole little situation that went down there, you know with the dude. I actually was doing body guard work for [redacted] during that time. So I know he wasn’t looking for me. You know what I mean? It was the hottest spot in the town.
So when I finally get to the hearing, they come up all these documents that have been anti-dated, things scratched off, and they used the documents to force me to trial. Because if had they not shown the justification it was an automatic dismissal. So they used these documents, these false documents and testimony to force me to trial or whatnot. So I go to trial. I mean, it was 3-4 month trial, and had a deliberation for 11 days. There was one lone hold out juror. They removed him, put a white lady back on the on the jury, and within five hours I was convicted. You get what I’m saying? Within five hours I was convicted.
So now that I’m in here… I’m like “Okay, now I know these documents and know they aren’t real.” So I file a Freedom of Information Act and whatnot. So I started getting all these letters from these different law enforcement departments, FBI, and the Department of Justice. And everybody’s saying that these documents doesn’t exist. So I had a homeboy up here. He showed me how to file a lawsuit. He said “Look bro this is how we file a lawsuit. This is how we are gonna get your shit back into the courts.” Right? So I filed a lawsuit and they hit me with this shit called an “Anti-SLAPP Motion” [SLAPP = strategic lawsuits against public participation]. What an anti-SLAPP motion is it usually means it’s a corporate law. And what they said was under the first amendment, they have the right to use any tactic they wanted to, to prove their case.
When I showed him, he said “Man they admitted to that shit?” “Yeah, they admitted to that shit.” “Yeah, we lie, we did that. But there’s nothing you can do about it.” So going through that type of shit and seeing the system or being a victim of that. In my perception things have to start in the court room. And that’s not to say that all the other things that you spoke on… I think everything has to be hit on every point. Wherever it may be with the prison system, the abolitionists, the court, law enforcement, wherever it may be, we got to hit them from every angle. We have to be a full on assault and like the brothers said at some point something has to get dangerous for them to really, really get the grasp of what’s going on around here and to say that we’re serious.
But in the same token, like the brother said, again, people aren’t what they were back in the 60’s and 70’s. This is a totally different environment with totally different people. Even in the penitentiary its [different] now. Dudes are not willing to go to the hole no more. We got TV’s in our rooms. We got phones in our rooms. You know what I’m saying? We got all these amenities that make you lazy and you don’t want to lose these things. This is what they do. So when you’re talking about even if I right now, today, if something went on in here…. I’m getting a prime example. They had a pig in here that was harassing the inmates. So the same dude that showed me how to do the lawsuits. He filed the paperwork and said he was sexually harassing the inmates and had everybody sign it, it got him removed, and I mean, removed from the penitentiary period.
When they called the dudes in that had signed the document, everybody recanted their stories and they ended up bringing him back. And he came back doing the same shit that he was doing before he left. So, it’s hard for even dudes that are serious about pushing any type of revolution to do something, because at the end of the day you will be the only one doing it. And you’ll be the only one paying the consequences. And it’s really not going to have any effect. Because it’s required that the masses get involved for it to have any real effect. People are lacking that passion, that commitment, that dedication to the struggle and to the cause. And like the brother was saying for us coming through the system as young as we was, we got that early. That was embedded in us. So it’s just a part of who we are now. I don’t know how to be anything other than what I am. It just is what it is. It’s all I talk about. You can talk religion and revolution and that’s it. That’s it, nothing else.
Host: So it’s the same question to Komrade. You said about priorities and making choices. You have got to hit them everywhere all the time. Personally I think we got some choices to make. You both basically did something really important right now. You basically, you shared an assessment of inside situation. An assessment of numbers and of force. And even like movement health. If we’re calling it a movement. I even loathe to to call it that. We got like pieces of it. We got like a baby movement thats trying to get on its feet, but it’s not getting there. We got some choices to make. What choices do you think we should be making?
Komrade Underground: Well, okay, so I think that’s important. I also want to go back to the original question, and also talk about what the brother was talking about when it comes to law and the courtroom, because I have a very different stance, and maybe it’s because I don’t see a lot of anything coming out of the courtroom. Is it necessary? Yes, it’s necessary. It is necessary for folks in here to fight their case. It is necessary for people in here to utilize every tool that we have right now. Right? However, me personally, I’m over that shit. I’m over getting denied from the courts. I’m over getting fucking denied these grievances. I don’t do grievances unless they’re mass grievances, like the brother said. And then a lot of times, that’s what happens, man, people recant when they start losing items. So I’m over that shit, man. I’m over going to the court system. And I’m over fighting with only pen and paper. And there are people that still do it. And I commend them and I thank them. But when it comes to me: it’s direct action. It’s direct action that gets it done, man.
So when we talk about prioritizing, and we talked about choices… first and foremost it’s going to come down to you. It’s going to come down to what you’re ready for and what you’re ready to lose. Because in here you have to be ready to lose everything. Everything. When it comes to voting. Is voting important? Fuck no! I would love for everyone to just not vote one year and then see what happens. Let’s see what happens when we when we take that mass approach and not vote. But then at the same time, we can’t live in these fantasies that this is going to happen. I think it is time to start making choices and start prioritizing what’s important. And I think trying to get people out of prison by every single means necessary is important.
But when we talk about getting dangerous, and we talk about attacking things like the courthouses. Or when we talk about attacking things. Like you’ll see headquarters and stuff. These are things that are different from doing them in the 70’s. You have to look at what has changed. What has changed is that everything has become digitized. So back then when the George Jackson Brigade would bomb an institution or would bomb a headquarters, they weren’t just bombing this institution, they were also burning the files. They were getting rid of everything that was held in that headquarters. However now, it’s just going to be property damage. Because everything is digitized and saved in clouds. So we have to figure out ways and make choices on how we attack those systems.
How do we attack the legal system now? How do we attack these voting systems? How do we attack the Department of Corrections when everything is digitized? So there’s things that need to be prioritized on how and the things that we are learning. The things that we are sacrificing. The things that we’re getting into. It’s this hack culture. Penetration testing is going to be so important. It’s going to be so important because these are ways that we can attack the Empire. These are ways that we are going to have to attack the Empire. So when we think about these things, we can’t think on huge mass scales, because a lot of times the masses are not ready.
So who are we talking to? We’re talking to the comrades. We’re not talking to the masses yet. Right now, man, the masses they just want to chill. They just want to chill because the fire hasn’t hit their cribs yet. The fire hasn’t hit their prison yet. But we need to have these conversations. We need to make it a priority to have these conversations with comrades. We need make it priority to take these actions with the comrades. I’m not saying to not support people that are fighting their cases, because that’s important, too. However, there’s a lot of people that want to do that. So let them do that. Let those abolitionists do that.
When it comes to JLS and some of the initiatives that JLS is getting involved with. Are they important? I think they’re important to make noise. I think they’re important because this is what the masses wants to see. But the masses are not the ones that are going to be taking up arms immediately. The masses are not going to be the ones that are going to be attacking the carceral state by whatever means necessary. That’s going to happen later. That’s going to happen later because there’s no neutral side on a moving train. Once this train gets to moving people going to have to pick sides. However, right now where we’re at, that stage where we’re at… It’s like not even important to talk about that. So I think people should want to involve their-self as much as possible. But I think also, we need to be serious about who we are having these conversations with. We need to be we need to not have these conversations with people that are not ready to take it there. And that’s on the inside and outside.
Host: Did you want to have something you wanted to add?
New Afrikan Comrade: So, when we are talking about movement, and I believe it was what brother H Rap Brown that said “the movement is only a phase of the struggle”. So the movements have the ability to change phases as it progresses. And that’s what we’re experiencing now. You know, back in the 60’s the movement was the alpha movement. So there was a little bit more of that guerrilla warfare aspect to the movement. Now it is a little bit more feminized. Not to say in a bad way, because it seemed like the sisters have a little bit more ties with the people than these brothers had.
We have to take what we can get at the time that we’re getting it. I agree with the brother, but when I was talking about the court system, per se, they have to have people start bombarding these court rooms. When I went to trial, I was in there by myself. They were doing what the hell they wanted to do. You get what I’m saying? But if we start having these mass court watches, where we just start having people come together and start going to these court rooms, and putting these public defenders, and these DA’s and these judges on blast. It may have just a little bit different effect. But you know…. Hey thats was the police, my bad. My door was wide open. [laughter]
Komrade Underground: [laughing together] They gonna do an extraction tonight, for real.
New Afrikan Comrade: We just have to set up some different rules, and everything has to be hit at a different time, everything has its place and time. I believe it was Fred Hampton. They asked Fred about the Minutemen and the Weathermen, and what was their relationship with the Panthers. Fred was like “Nah, we stand far our back from them. They’re chauvinistic and individualistic.” When he said that. It was like the time when the NFAC [National Fuck Around Crew] was doing their thing out here. You remember that, right? So, at the same time that was happening, that was a different dynamic. Everybody had seen that as part of the movement, but it was something separate from the movement. That had nothing to do with the movement. It was a racial shit. So we have to be careful when we pledge our allegiance. Like the brother said “we have to talk to the comrades, man we can’t be talking to these outside characters, because they are on something totally different.”
Komrade Underground: I really like what you talked about, about movements changing. Because like you said, I don’t even know if we can call this a movement right now. And if it is, it’s a few of us. But it’s a struggle. It’s a struggle and that’s part of a movement, right. And there’s this idea of the 60’s and 70’s, this revolutionary optimism, where everyone really felt that the revolution was here. The revolution was now. And the pigs also felt it. And that’s a necessary fear that I’m talking about. They created whole systems and broke their own laws and created stuff to stop this movement. So now, because they did that, and they killed off all the leaders of these movements. Killed off all these gang leaders too. I’m going to call them mass political movements back then because that’s what they were moving towards. Organizations or street organizations were moving towards these more politicized ideas, coming out with manifestos, and coming out with things that were in-line, because they were getting politicized by the same leaders. By the Young Lords, by the Black Panthers, by the Black Liberation Army. These folks were either coming from these movements or moving towards these movements. We could talk about Jeff Fort, and how he was helping Gaddafi fund his revolution from Chicago. Back then these these ideas were important. And then what happened? That fear led these pigs to cause a huge wave of oppression and they started assassinating. Then they started breaking us. Man they started breaking us. Man let’s be real. They broke us. They broke us to pieces. They fragmented us. They took us, infiltrated us. And now they not only created a fragmented movement, they created a movement that hates each other.
We can’t even fucking think about battling the right-wing or battling these fucking pigs and battling this stuff, when we can’t even talk to each other. We’re so worried about ideas that this praxis is getting lost. There is no praxis right now because we’re still trying to figure out how to talk to each other. So that revolutionary optimism went to a broken revolution. And where are we taking up the scraps now? How are we picking up the scraps now? Some of us are so fucked up from the losses that happened back then. Some of these street organizations and individuals that lost family, that lost friends, that lost comrades, that lost the ideas, that lost these movements. So where are we now?
Everyone’s running on Twitter to have these conversations and really just looking for friends and people to argue with. It’s broken the revolutionary spirit and we’re fighting. We’re fighting from the SHU. We’re fighting from lonely places in the free world. Because that’s one thing I have seen. The comrades that a solid 10 toes down that I know what my comrades… man, I feel like sometimes it’s just as lonely as me right here in the SHU [Secure Housing Unit]. It’s a scary dynamic to think about it, that we’re still in fear from shit that happened back in the 70’s. And we’re in so much fear that we don’t know how to bring it to these pigs.
New Afrikan Comrade: I agree.
Host: That brings us right to question two, man. We’re talking about the present phase, the present conditions. I mean, the last year during COVID-19… speaking for the outside this whole pandemic has basically revealed a lot of what we thought was there, it basically pulled a lot of blinders away. This last year and a half has been a year of unprecedented rebellion, escape, and strikes on the inside. From the folks in charge of stuff, it’s been a huge spike. As for the the activity? It’s been up and down on the outside. Let’s talk about the reality of how prison conditions during the ongoing pandemic have further isolated prisoners from the outside world. And how this has enhanced or detracted from the resistance movement. Even though we saw this last year, it has only increased activity. Speaking for myself on the outside, I’m just going to put it in there. It basically… we have run into a bunch of limits. The escalation of activity and like the heightening of crisis… We went straight into serious limits. If there’s a word for the outside it’s going to be limits. A lot of us aren’t being honest about these limits that we’ve run into. I can get into that more but I want to hear about like your guys’s perception and reality on the inside right now.
New Afrikan Comrade: As far as the COVID situation? hah… March 15 – they put us on lockdown, maybe on the 14th that’s when everything on the nationwide lockdown. On April 11 it’s been about 30 police up in here. They pull about 20 of us out our room (I was included in that 20) for about 15 of us… now this before they will send all the guidelines. 10 people per group and they just put into place the masking implications on the police. So they come up with the rules, snatch us up, dress us out. They come up in the room, three or four deep in the room, no mask on, no nothing. So we complain like “Hey, man, you’re not supposed to be up in here like this!” They ignored us. The captains, and lieutenants… they don’t have on masks. Nobody has on masks! So, automatically, I’m pushing paperwork. I’ll write their ass up. You up in my room, threatening my life, putting my life in jeopardy.
Like the brother said, I don’t file 602’s… that shit is really a waste of time. And they always ride with the pigs. You almost never win that shit. But I did it anyway. That was a year ago. I’m just now, maybe last week, getting the finishing copy of that 602 back… and they denied me from Sacramento. From the head place. So where I’m at, it wasn’t really that bad like it was in Quentin. I’m like an introvert anyway, so I don’t fuck with people anyway. If they not on my level, I really stay in my room and I do my own thing. So it wasn’t really that bad up here, per se. I just know like other penitentiaries like San Quentin which is really horrible up there. I have a little cousin who was up there and he caught that shit. My mom was just telling me yesterday that her cousin has a dude who is out there in New Orleans they had caught COVID. My guess is when you catch this shit, they supposed to give you liquids. And they were feeding that man solid foods and they damn near killed me.
So a lot of the protocols that they’re doing up here is just to show face. It’s just to show that we’re doing something. Just like the past two weeks, we had two police in here that was sent home with the COVID, with the new strain. They sent him and her home. We came back, she just got dirty again, they just sent her home again. But not one time have they came here to tested any inmates to see if we’re sick. So in my mind, I’m always thinking that their trying to create a dynamic of sickness to keep what they call “hazardous pay.” I don’t really think they’re taking it serious. When they get sick they locked us down. As opposed to clearing out one of these buildings. When these police, they come in here to stay for seven days. Let them go home and the next police that come in, they come here quarantine for seven days before they start their weekly shift. If you’re not making those type of adjustments… in everything that their adjusting is always us, locking us down. You know what I’m saying? Even though we are having visiting again, I don’t allow my family come up here. Straight up, I’m cool. I don’t need no visits. Don’t come up here. I don’t allow them to come up here. It’s not really bad up here.
I really don’t have too much to say on that. I stay away because I don’t believe all the COVID shit. I think it’s over sensationalized. I think it’s just a lot of propaganda. And I think it’s a way to violate people’s constitutional rights. They’re finding a way to change and shift society. They found a way to segregate people… to say how many people can be.. I mean was already doing that shit. Only five people could be in a certain group. But now even more so they’re breaking down how many people can come into the restaurant and things of such nature. In a minute, they will be using COVID to be able to change and redirect the Constitution. Like George says “anytime you overcome one form of oppression, they’ll find another way to oppress you.” And that’s what they’re doing. They find a different way to oppress us because they see the old ways is not working anymore. That people are getting tired of the old ways. So what do we do? “Okay, this is what we do. We will give them a pandemic, lock everybody down, readjust the way of living. readjust their way of thinking and then we will go back to business as usual.” Yeah.
Host: Here in California, at least, we’ve had sickness go through facilities. And in a way COVID has been a little departure. There’s a response is always just to lock people down and they’ll let you ride it out. Take an ibuprofen. You just sweat it out. You cry it out. You shit it out of yourself.
New Afrikan Comrade: [laughing] It’s funny you say that right? About a week ago, man… my body had locked up. Have you ever had a Charlie Horse? Now I get Charlie Horses all through my body. My back, my stomach, my legs, my ankles, my feet. I never felt no shit like this. Have you ever see the movies where the muck tries to come out your body? You get what I’m saying?
Host: Medical is gonna be no use, you just ride it out, man.
New Afrikan Comrade: I go man down. When I’m in there they were seeing my whole body, watching my body just move, my muscles just locking up. So they don’t give me shit. So the lady she calls the doctor and the doctor is on the phone. So the doctor says give him Aspirin. So she hands me Aspirin and I say “I don’t want that shit! Give me muscle relaxers, give me something to stop these muscles from locking up.” So she said “give him a COVID test.” Everything’s COVID. And that’s the new thing. Everything’s COVID now. You go in with a broken leg, they say “It’s COVID”. So they give me a rapid COVID test and I come back negative. They still put me on quarantine.
Komrade Underground: I think this is important for me to talk about too because I had a very different experience from from the fuckin ‘Rona. I didn’t get it. I haven’t experienced it. But I think the main reason is because they also came in my cell late night. They came 10 deep straight to me and threw me right to the SHU. I got, in the beginning of COVID, I got thrown right on the slab. And it was because of the approach I was taking to this virus. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was killing motherfuckers. And I knew that these pigs were going to bring it in. I knew I couldn’t make it. I didn’t have no lab to make it in. I knew I couldn’t get it from the outside world. So I started trying to organize.
I started trying to organize and tell these pigs and create a space not to let these pigs in unless they masked up, unless they’ve got body suits on, and only one pigs allowed to come in here. And you already know man, I started having these conversations and started bringing it to the people and trying to create it. If it wasn’t going to be the whole compound, it was going to be my motherfucking dorm. And then we’re going to see what’s gonna happen. You already know, man, they came masked up with a different type of mask, the black masks, right? And they came in 10 deep and took me straight to the SHU. No reports, no shots, no nothing. Just went straight to the SHU. And I’ve been there ever since. And they’ve kept me here ever since.
So there has been this direct violence. This direct silencing violence that some people have experienced and I just happened to be one of them. But I’m not the only one, after I got locked up… two more of my comrades got locked up. I don’t know what they did when they heard I got snatched up for it, but I know that was on the same shit that I was on and was 10 toes down, ready to ride. So I just see that in certain places, and this was a super repressive institution I was at at that time. They came and snatched me off the mat and disappeared me. So because I’ve been in the SHU, I haven’t really experienced a lot of actual people getting COVID. But I’ve experienced these social experiments that they’ve been using to keep us separated.
So to to add and implement more rules, to implement more reasons to lock down, to implement more reason to keep us from our family, to implement more reasons to stop visitations, and to control. In War for the Cities by Yaki Sayles there’s a part of it in the meditations on the Wretched of the Earth, it talks about how these hoods are being experimented on from the experiments that happened to us in prison. So they have these social experiments that are taken out on us on the inside, because they know all of us getting out or going to go to the same hoods. So when we see the same things happening to our neighborhoods, we are already assimilated, we are used to lock downs. We used to be locked up and we are used to being separated. That’s where they gonna start these things. They will start these things in these Black and brown poor neighborhoods, and expand them from there. They’re going to keep us in these bubbles, they’re going to keep us in these small places, just like in prison. So and then their going to be snatching people off the streets. They’re going to be snatching people off the streets, like they snatch us out in here. So there’s just so many different levels of these social experiments that are happening. But then how much is that affecting this already fragmented movement?
Okay, so this shows us that the monetary system and capitalism and all that shit is bullshit, right? It showed us that everybody in the whole fucking United States didn’t have to fucking work unless you were poor, Black or brown, and working class that became, what’d they call that shit? “Essential workers.” So now, when you’re essential, you are now essential, not to the movement, you are essential to keeping production going. It’s not the money people need because the government’s printing this shit out left and right. The government’s fucking tricking everyone. So it’s just these ideas of “You are essential” instead of saying that “you are expendable.” You are expendable workers now, because we need to keep the beast moving, we need to keep the machine moving. There’s just so many different levels that the Empire has used to attack us on the inside and outside because this is where the movements going to come from. This is where the people are coming from. This is where these protests came from. This is where the mass looting came from. It came from the hood where these folks are having to work now. It came from the idea that the prisoners that are being locked the fuck down.
So now our communication even to spread this fucking word on what’s going out, of what’s getting out of the prison is so difficult right now. Luckily the pigs are corrupt. Luckily, so we can get phones and shit in here. But besides that, that’s still a very small amounts of us. And then within the amount of people that are getting phones, how many people are actually putting in at work? An even smaller amount. So, if they can figure out how to control us? So they’re finding out how to motherfucking break us, man, they’re finding out ways to fragment us even more. So there’s been such where there was already a separation of solidarity. There was already a separation between us and the free world comrades, now it’s becoming even more. And COVID is showing that it’s just ways to oppress us. Right? It’s just ways to keep us oppressed. It’s just ways to keep us locked down in the free world and over here.
Host: Yeah. Okay, both you brought it up. Essentially, like a lot of people on the outside that aren’t acquainted with being incarcerated, or the prison system, they don’t realize that people inside, the lockdown of COVID-19 is nothing new. You already got 99 problems. COVID is just another one. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. It’s a new level of asymmetrical warfare being waged against you, COVID-19 is just another chapter of the same book. Out here it’s like some big dramatic thing. But mostly just more continuation of the same, even though it killed 240 people in California [prisons], like how many people does the prison system kill on a daily basis no matter what?
Komrade Underground: Yeah, for real.
New Afrikan Cromade: Right. Those aren’t astronomical numbers as far as I’m concerned. I need it to be more for me to be a believer. That’s me, personally. I’m not taking those shots. I’m not getting no vaccines, none of that shit. I’ll take my chances.
Komrade Underground: I’m in the same vein. Literally. The same vein. I’m not taking that shit, man. I’m not taking nothing.
Host: It’s one of the few choices that you are allowed. Something you could actually choose on the inside.
Komrade Underground: For right now…
Host: To get a vaccine or not? What you get with an eating each day? You aren’t choosing that. Turning a doorknob? You don’t get to turn a doorknob. Well, the vaccine is a few things you have to get to decide on.
New Afrikan Comrade: I think they weaponize the food. Weaponize the milk. I don’t eat this shit. I don’t drink their water. Everything I do I buy off canteen. So I’m one of those type of dudes. I just don’t fuck with the pigs at all.
Komrade Underground: Salute, man, salute!
I just wanted to get into what he was talking about. About them weaponizing the food, because that’s true. It is this idea that whether it’s on a conscious level that is happening on the compound or something bigger, it’s this food and it’s a formal production. It’s the little things that keep us oppressed in here, like you were saying. COVID is just one of the things that’s killing us, right now. But we have lived in the proximity of death every fucking day we’ve been inside. Death is so close to every single prisoner, that COVID is like “okay, it’s just another thing killing us.” “So and so got COVID? He gonna make it through. He just got stabbed two weeks ago. I know he can make it through COVID.” So there’s this level of death that looms over all of us, that we have to fight.
Not a lot of people know this story, and I’m gonna bring it up. But when I was young, in one of the juvenile dorms I was in, they snatched us all up and what they would do is they would bring stuff to us so we can all get in fights and then because they might have a big bus or a big load of more juveniles coming so they would clear out rooms to make room for these new ones. Send us to the confinement for 60 days and either put us with the adults or just slowly integrate us back in. But this time we went ham, and I went ham on the pigs, and I spit in their face. I’m going through it with them. They were slamming me on my shit and everything’s going down, but I was going hard that day. I don’t know why it was just one of those days that I know this is part of the process: them handcuffing us and beating us up. I just didn’t feel like wearing it man, I didn’t feel like wearing it. I started going ham, spitting on them, they put a mask on me. They were just going ham.
So, when they put us in the showers I was going in on these pigs. I’m talking about “I’m not cuffing up again. I’m not going to my room!” Going ham. This pig got really tired of me, he got really tired of me spitting on him and he finally got the cuffs on me and told me to step to the back of the place. I’m young, I’m like 18 then, and when I stepped to the back of the shower, he walks in the shower and pulls a fucking knife on me. A real, steel street knife on me and tell me how he’s going to cut my nuts off and stab me and kill me. And when I seen that. I seen in his eyes like, “Yo, this pig really wants to kill me, yo. This pig really wants to kill me and he can do it right here! And from that day forward, I knew that every day in here, it’s not only a struggle to survive, but it’s a struggle to not die. So COVID is just another fucking pig without no fucking mask that I gotta fucking deal with.
Host: You said something right there. And you said a lot right there, let’s be honest. But proximity to death, and what it imparts and what it teaches you. A personal story. I mean, I haven’t been locked up, so I can’t relate in that way. I can’t say “I know.” I’m not a brother in that sense. But I just lost my father, like recently, like last week. And on his death bed I asked him “so are you scared?” And he said, “No, not since Vietnam.” He was in Vietnam when he was like, 21 years old. He said “I could have died any day. So I’m not scared. I’m not scared of anything.” It was close to proximity to death, on that basis, and throughout his life, that basically worked in a certain perspective. And a certain strength, and a certain knowledge of self. I know none of you signed up for it, you were placed in this system. And that proximity to death is imposed on you. But there’s something there about the proximity to death that sets your priorities, that sets this passion. And I see it concretizes, it makes solid who you are and what you got to live for. You know how you want to live and you know, how you want to die.
Komrade Underground: I think George said it best, He said “I don’t care about living a long life. I care about living a well and fulfilled life.” And that’s been my mantra every morning that I wake up. I don’t give a fuck about living long. I just want to live fulfilled, yo.
New Afrikan Comrade: You can’t you can’t let death be the main ingredient in how you live your life. We are all born to die, like brothers say. We are born to die. So if it’s you’re time to go, there’s nothing you can do about it… it’s your time to go. So I’m not going to be doing no extra shit, jumping through hoops, taking vaccines and all this shit because I’m scared to die. I’m already half-assed dead anyway, living this motherfucker. Sleeping in this coffin. You know, I sat in here one day and watched the whole room just close in on me. It was just me and the bed and the wall. We can’t let death be the issue on how we live our lives in here. Whether it’s COVID, whether it’s these pigs, whether it’s these inmates. If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen. You got to live the best life you can.
Komrade Underground: I was gonna say, I think that’s important, though, too, because I don’t want to make it seem like every choice that I make is because of death. Because it’s not. When I say I want to live fulfilled, it’s to know that we are very close to death but still living strategically. right? I think that’s important and I appreciate you for bringing that up. Because those that live with death wishes, they’re not going to get a lot done. We’re going to put out half assed work, and we’re going to put out stuff that’s not important. So we shouldn’t lead with death, you are right comrade, But I really, I really think that just knowing that it’s there. At times, it makes us more frantic, right? It makes us want to push out more stuff. So we have to slow down a little bit, we have to not let that lead us. And just remember that it’s there.
Remember that when it’s time, let’s just go out hard. But when it’s not, let’s still be strategic in every move. Let’s still move with the idea of creating, because none of us are going to be around when this shit sets off. Right now none of us are going to be around when the actual movement or when we come to whatever anyone wants to believe is going to be communist fucking…. not utopia, but just a new world. A new Earth. We’re not going to be around for that. But we still have to prepare and plan and structure our movements to where it matters. Because if we just do shit half-cocked and half-assed, then anything we’re doing is just going to be a detriment to the struggle.
Host: Well, and I think that’s an excellent place to leave it man. You guys both just wrapped it up. And I want to thank both of you for your time and your generosity and the risk you’re taking – you’re calling from your cells right now. So, thank you. And thanks to Shut ‘Em Down media group for making this possible. The first of many conversations hopefully. We need more of this.
Komrade Underground: Hey man I appreciate being here and being allowed, and for this platform. That’s all that we can do is just have some more of these conversations. So I think I’m just gonna leave you with the words of Jonathan Jackson. “All power to the people that don’t fear freedom.”
“Representing Radicals” Lawyers’ Guide from Tilted Scales
Resisting state repression and surveillance is one of the cornerstones of The Final Straw and has been since the beginning of this project. Over the years we’ve featured interviews with support committees, political prisoners, defendants in ongoing cases, incarcerated organizers, radical legal workers and lawyers and others to talk about how power strikes at those who it fears constitute a threat. For those of us caught up in cases, navigating self-defense through the courts, penal system and mainstream media can be treacherous, as we attempt to balance our political and personal goals with our lawyer’s desire to have us do as little time and pay as little money as possible to the courts. Winning in these circumstances can sometimes seem to pit a well-meaning lawyer or legal worker against their own client. Enter the Tilted Scales’ new book, “Representing Radicals.”
This week, you’ll hear Jay from the Tilted Scales Collective talk about this book out from AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, about anti-repression work, and about this book’s attempt to shift the culture of legal representation by intervening with arguments by radical lawyers, more intimately inviting clients and their supporters into the fray and new frameworks for approaching cases.
The Wrong Side Of The Law by Mick Jones from Mick Jones
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TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with any names, pronouns, affiliations, or references that would help the listeners orient themselves?
Jay: Sure, my name is Jay, I use they/them pronouns. I’m a part of the Tilted Scales Collection since 2017, and have been involved in anti-repression organizingmore broadly over the last decade or so.
TFSR: Would you talk a bit about Tilted Scales? Who constitutes its membership and what activities it gets up to?
J: Sure, we are a pretty small collective of anarchist legal support workers who have been supporting and fighting for political prisoners, prisoners of war, and politicized prisoners mostly in the so-called United States. Tilted Scales Collective was formed out of the North American Anarchist Black Cross Conference in 2011 and out of the need to build anti-repression infrastructure more broadly, but what folks were noticing was re-inventing of the wheel every time folks in the United States got hit with serious charges. There was a need to pull together or draw in resources and experience to rebuild some infrastructure for providing legal support. So our collective has written two books, the first book is called A Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant, which is published in 2017. And we recently published a follow-up book called Representing Radicals. And that’s what I’m going to be talking about a little bit more today. We also have given training and workshops about anti-repression organizing, as well as participated in numerous committees and legal support efforts over the years.
TFSR: Cool. And for folks who are unfamiliar with anti-repression work, a lot of our listeners have heard various conversations on the show about it, and those who have been with us for a long time may even remember a chat with folks from your collective about the Defendant’s Guide when it came out. But could you talk a little bit about the framework of anti-repression work or any of the cases that your collective has participated in, offered support for?
J: I guess the idea behind anti-repression work and organizing is that repression from the State is an inevitable part of making change, or building the new world or destroying this one, etc. Repression of some kind is going to be inevitable, people are gonna get hit with criminal charges. So anti-repression organizing seeks to, at baseline, do some harm reduction around the negative outcome of criminal charges. But also use the fact that folks, maybe one person or group of individuals, are facing charges as kind of a vehicle for movement organizing or building bonds of solidarity and coming out on the other side stronger. Some examples that I’ve been a part of… I was involved with the organizing around the J20 case back in 2017. I know other folks in the collective have participated as individuals, not necessarily as part of Tilted Scales, but I’ve participated in different legal support efforts for different mass mobilizations throughout the years, the Eric King Support Committee, etc.
TFSR: It makes sense to be coming out of the ABC conference, because, as you say, most of the work that Anarchist Black Cross does and has done historically is to give post-conviction support to people that have already been given a sentence, are already behind bars in a lot of cases. And so it makes sense to do the forward-thinking of how we A) decrease the number of people that are ending up behind bars, B) decrease the amount of time that people are going to be serving if they are going to do any time behind bars? And, like you say, with the mobilization and popular education element… What is better to stop people from interacting with Grand Juries than to have regular discussions where Grand Juries are a part of people’s vernacular? And what people are talking about, and you may not be able to totally demystify them, but at least making people aware makes them readier to be able to… Just like how talking about CopWatch, know-your-rights type education stuff is going to hopefully get ingrained in people’s brains that they can refuse to speak to law enforcement, or they can make those interactions as safe as possible or whatever. I think that’s super helpful.
J: Yeah, and I think that the Defendant’s Guide definitely hits on a lot of that. I know much of the guide talks about the different aspects that are involved in various stages of the criminal legal process, like what happens pretrial, what happens if you take your case to trial, what happens if you plead out, what happens if you are convicted, what are your options for sentencing and how to think about that? That’s one aspect of anti-repression work – that demystifying piece, the other aspect of it is helping the folks who are facing charges and their comrades move through that process while still advancing or moving forward with their political goals at the same time. And sometimes that looks like bringing those politics into the courtroom or into the way that legal support happens around a case. And sometimes it looks like resolving the case as quickly as possible so that folks can get back to the other organizing that they’re doing.
TFSR: The approach that was in the Defendant’s Guide, and which also shows up in Representing Radicals, it’s like a bookmark, a “This is the thing that you should pay attention to”. Obviously, it’s a lot more filled out in the Defendant’s Guide, but a Venn diagram of personal goals, political goals, and legal goals, and setting that out and working through the process of what that looks like for you as a defendant, what do you want to get out of this? What damage can you legally inflict, hopefully, on the process of repression to make it not profitable for them to ever try that again, or at least decrease the amount of damage it’s going to do in the meantime? That’s a really cool model that you present. I like the visuality of it.
J: Yeah, I like that model as well. I’m glad to hear that it reads well in the Defendant’s Guide. I think it’s been really useful in conversation with folks who are facing charges. One thing that our collective does is occasionally have calls with groups of friends or support crews who are coming together, sometimes after a big action (this happened a lot last summer) to help them think through the next steps in terms of navigating the criminal legal process. Thinking about options kind of as containing discrete but overlapping goal areas, or overlapping but discrete areas of impact is, at least for me. and seemingly other people, a useful way of being able to visualize what options exist within the context of the system that is fully designed to make you feel like you have no options or the only option is to be out immediately.
TFSR: That’s really well put.
So as you mentioned in 2017, you published a very timely Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant, just as over 200 people were arrested during the January 20, or J20 inauguration of Donald Trump had started building their legal defenses. The defendants from that case were over 200 people. This is not in a vacuum, obviously, following months of resistance at Standing Rock against the Dakota AccessPipeline in which I believe thousands of people participated. And a lot of people caught charges, although it’s notable that the federal felony charges all fell on indigenous people. You and the AK Press bumped up the publication date in early 2017 and got a lot of copies into J20 and I’m imagining NoDAPL defendants’ hands. I guess it’s always a good time for books defending radicals to come out, which is a depressing thing also. But would you speak about the general goals of this new book Representing Radicals? Who your audience is? Is this primarily aimed at radicals approaching legal work such as yourselves or legal workers who are shifting towards radical approaches at defense? Law professors? Should we be sneaking copies into public defenders’ briefcases?
J: I was not involved with the Tilted Scale Collective back in 2011 when the idea for the Defendant’s Guide was first dreamt up. But as far as I understand it, the idea to write this companion book has always been there. As you said, the Defendant’s Guide is written to anarchists radicals who are facing criminal charges and to their comrades and supporters and close people who might be wondering how to help them through that process. And, by contrast, Representing Radicals is mostly written to the attorneys who are representing them. So we tried to balance throughout the book the fact that some attorneys are going to be already quite sympathetic, maybe share a lot of politics with their radical defendants. For example, people at the People’s Law Office in Chicago or the CLDC or movement lawyers who’ve been devoting decades, their whole career to defending activists, anarchists, radicals, etc, Balancing the fact that there might be some people’s lawyers, but other people’s lawyers may not understand at all where their anarchist, radical clients are coming from, are less familiar with anarchists and radicals and concepts like movement perspective, non-cooperating pleas, etc.
The other audience that we’re hoping might have interest in this book would be law students who are still figuring out who they might represent, or how to bring in some of their ideals about the world into their legal practice. We really wrote this book coming from the idea that it could be something that defendants or a support committee could give to attorneys and say, “Here’s what you need to read to understand how to provide the best representation for me.” Or similarly, for supporters of defendants who are locked up pretrial, just to have a tangible resource that you can send to an attorney and say, “Here’s what you need to read to understand how to provide the best representation for my friend, partner, comrade, etc.”
One thing that in my own experience being a part of different anti-repression groups over the years that I run to is that oftentimes, defendants, as well as their supporters, run up against a variety of tensions, even in trying to communicate with and work alongside the most sympathetic attorneys, just because the role of an attorney is quite different than the role of a defense committee or a group of supporters. So, like our first book, Representing Radicals isn’t intended to necessarily be a protocol, a “how-to guide” telling lawyers how to do their jobs, but rather a guide to help people think through what they might want to achieve when facing charges, and how their attorneys can focus on those legal goals specifically, while still helping their client balance other goal areas. Personal and political, and whatever other goals a defendant and their comrades might have.
TFSR: It makes a lot of sense, something that I’ve seen in terms of conflicts come up between lawyers and radical defendants / their defense committees, or support committees is this ingrained – I think you’ve touched on this – this ingrained training in the US legal system: A) the concept of innocence and guilt is a strange one, B) also the idea that individual culpability, for a process when there’s way more dynamics in that and it leaves out the social context in so many cases, and people are often stymied from actually presenting social context to flesh out what was going on. I think that that process of thinking through… Like no incident is going to be exactly the same as the next… But like teasing the lawyer who’s reading it into, instead of just advocating or speaking on behalf of their defendant, to get them the best deal, which might include some sort of plea deal where they’re asked to name other people or whatever to get their charge down. If the lawyer’s thought is “My goal is to get my person as little time as possible and to end this in a timely manner”, especially if I’m a public defender and have like a stack of people to handle. And the challenges that the book poses and the quotes, also, which I want to get to in a bit, but trying to open up this whole world of conversations to lawyers who may be very good at doing their job in the way that they’ve been trained to do it. This might get them to think about the myriad of other ways of looking at the outcomes of a trial besides just what charges, what fees, whatever this individual defendant has to pay. I think that’s really important.
J: Totally. You really hit the nail on the head. Throughout the book, we talk a lot about what “the best possible representation” could mean to radicals, and oftentimes, the training that lawyers get in law school, really hammers home this idea that they have an ethical obligation and a professional obligation to provide their clients with the best possible representation that they can, which in criminal cases often equates to ensuring that they come out the other side relatively quickly and with minimal legal consequences, usually plea deals that are going to minimize prison time, minimize probation, etc. One of the shifts that we try to make in the book, a bit of a paradigm shift, is to help lawyers understand that, as anarchists and radicals who are thinking about facing criminal charges from a movement perspective, we’re gonna want outcomes from a legal case that are aligned with our political goals and principles, even if it comes up at personal expense, or even if that means unsuccessful legal outcomes or negative legal outcome. Also helping lawyers see that those outcomes in cases are in line with lawyers’ ethical obligation to their clients, so as long as their clients fully consent to the terms and have an active role in shaping what their legal defense looks like.
One thing that the book does hopefully pretty well is it includes not just our own perspectives, as of folks who’ve got quite a bit of experience doing legal support work over the years, but also includes the voices of a lot of movement attorneys, who’ve been doing movement lawyering for decades, who really restate that point over and over again… That actually it’s your clients and your client’s supporters and the projects and movements that they’re a part of that really should be driving the bus, and that the lawyer’s job is to listen to their clients and help them meet their legal goals, while still balancing their other priorities.
TFSR: The whole experience of going to court is a terrible thing. It’s meant to be alienating and terrifying and make you bow before the majesty of the representation of legal power and the sovereignty of the State to ruin your life. All that like standing and sitting and all the weird churchy stuff, leftover from the time of kings and queens. It feels really important to find this space to intercede and say, “Hey, you’re supposed to be this person’s… you got their back. So let’s talk about how do you understand what they’re saying?”
Also, I really appreciate the glossary that you provide, and some of the key concepts that you’re trying to introduce or shore up in the legal work. Could you talk a little bit about the glossary and what you put in there and what you’re hoping to achieve?
J: We decided to make the glossary pretty early on in outlining the book. And our decision to do so was partly to include terminology that, unfortunately, may not be familiar to every person who might be reading our books, like different identity terms are included in the glossary. And also, we wanted to break down what we meant by anarchist and other radical tendencies. We wanted to be clear about that. But we also use the glossary to explain a little bit these broader concepts: movement lawyering, collective perspective, politicized prisoners, prisoners of war. In the anarchist subculture, it might be unnecessary to define a glossary, but when communicating with a lawyer who doesn’t have experience working with anarchists, radicals, that particular population, it might be a new territory, very unfamiliar.
TFSR: There are also the quotes that you mentioned, which are interspersed throughout. You mentioned already a few, the People’s Law Office in Chicago and the CLDC. Can you speak to what the hope was by including direct quotes from people who do legal work as professionals and who work in movement and the idea of movement lawyering?
J: I know that we wanted to include the voices of movement lawyers primarily because we have experience doing certain kinds of anti-repression and legal support work, but none of us are lawyers, and so we felt as though there are some things that lawyers would just be more knowledgeable about and to speak to with more experience. We also thought that by including the voices of many attorneys who are movement attorneys and represent radicals every day in their professional lives, we could shift the conversation a bit. So that an attorney who is reading the book, who maybe is not in that world, would feel as though it’s more of a peer-to-peer conversation, as well as the added bonus of hearing from folks with a ton of experience doing legal support. By movement lawyering I really mean… I mentioned PLO and the CLDC. But movement-centered lawyering really happens when a defendant and their legal team take into consideration the defendant’s legal, personal and political goals in relation to the political movement of which the defendant is a part. One definition I read recently says that “movement lawyering increased the power and capacity of people involved in social struggle, rather than the power and capacity of the state and legal system.” I like that. So, movement lawyering, in my mind, is an approach that means not only meeting the ethical obligations of an attorney but understanding a radical client’s legal, personal and political goals fully when creating legal strategies and an overall defense strategy. And it means having some mental context for the case itself and understanding how that case situates in a broader movement and then using that understanding to build a legal representation that is going to align with the client’s goals and principles and interests, and possibly, hopefully, the goals and principles and interests of their supporters and comrades.
The other thing I wanted to say was that movement lawyering, even in cases where there aren’t multiple defendants and even when we’re not talking about collective defense necessarily, movement lawyering really does take into consideration other people who might be affected by the outcome of a particular case. That collective perspective considers the short and long-term political consequences of criminal charges and takes into consideration co-defendants’ affiliated groups and broader movement when making decisions about legal strategy.
TFSR: One of these quotes really stood out and I’m gonna read it at length…. The ethical obligation to the greater good by Dennis Cunningham, Esquire. It’s on page 91. “As lawyers, we have it drilled into us that we owe a duty of representation to each client, the rest of the world be damned. If something would make us hesitate before attacking someone else’s interests, our loyalties are said to be divided, and we’re supposed to avoid taking the case or withdraw. But wait, our political clients want and deserve to be represented on a political basis. If a client to whom we owe such unflinching duty demands it, we owe a broader duty to the client’s community or activist group to receive input from and account to their community, show solicitude for the welfare of others in it, act in ways that promote the esprit and effectiveness of the community, and take care not to undermine its values or the goals of the client’s activism. Call it intersectional lawyering, no adversary has ever tried to pierce the attorney-client privilege, because I met in solidarity with fellow plaintiffs, defendants, or legal supporters. My amazing activist clients have always been my teachers and my comrades and helping me hone this practice. And for it, we have all been the wiser, happier, and freer.” I like that quote.
J: I like that one, too. I think I’ve said it already, but one thing that that sidebar that you read from Dennis Cunningham really hones in on and one thing that we try to repeat throughout the book is, again, this paradigm shift from an individual defendant’s best legal outcome to more of a collective perspective that reimagines what it means to provide someone with “the best possible representation.” And within that thinking beyond the best plea deal, the best legal outcome. Yeah, and Dennis really says it well in that quote, thinking through actually, from our perspective, that is what a lawyer should do. And that is the job that they’re ethically obligated to do for their clients. Many movement attorneys do share at least some or many of the principles and goals of their clients. But even when they don’t, I really do feel as though it is the job of any attorney to be able to meet their clients on that place, and be able to provide your clients representation that takes into account co-defendants, takes into account broader social struggles. And that is their job, and that is doing it well.
TFSR: Could you talk a little bit about the introduction of concepts and realities of support committees into this? Because it feels normal for me and for a lot of us, I’m sure, to be like, “Yeah, of course, all your buddies are going to show up to court with you.” What sort of conversation are you hoping will come out of this? What sort of understandings are you trying to bring to lawyers around defense committees? I think it’s really useful that you talk about some of the complications that can come up.
J: In the Defendant’s Guide, we do talk a little bit about defense committees, aka support committees. By that, we mean the folks who show up to provide the political, personal and legal support for defendants as they move through the process. And that can look a lot of ways. And there’s a lot of different names for efforts like this, but all are rooted in community care and support in the face of systemic oppression or state repression. Some examples that come to my mind would be the RNC8, the organizing that was done post J20s, Water Protector Legal Collective, and all the other various support efforts that arose around Standing Rock, various efforts for a wide range of anti-occupation, anti-imperialist freedom fighters over the last several decades. We could refer to a lot of different formations or groups as different support committees, and most referred to them as something along those same lines. Sometimes it’s a formal organization that takes the reins with providing support, but often times, it’s like our buddies or friends, and it’s an informal group of friends, comrades, loved ones, tend to cover a lot of the bases when folks are facing charges.
So in the Defendant’s Guide, we talk about what is a defense committee how to form one, what might it do, what are some areas of tension that might come up? But in Representing Radicals, we really wanted attorneys to view the defense committee, or supporters more broadly, as potential assets for them to do their job well. From the mindset that attorneys and supporters can work together, they have separate goal areas or separate lanes that they’re driving on (to use this sad analogy) but to separate track. But really work collaboratively to provide defendants with a solid way of meeting their political and personal legal goals. Because too often, in my experience of doing anti-repression work, lawyers can view, groups especially, groups of supporters as threatening or feel concerned about attorney-client privilege, feel as though political organizing around a case might detract from the legal representation that they’re wanting to provide, might harm a client case, might do more harm for them, politically and legally, than good. And there are certainly legitimate concerns there sometimes, but we really do think that if we could demystify some of what a defense committee does for attorneys, many of them might hopefully be more inclined to work collaboratively or at least communicate about their boundaries and accept that a support committee might take other actions and that’s okay, so long as it’s okay with the folks who are facing charges. Because ultimately, those are the people who are going to be most impacted by how the lawyer participates and helps the support committee.
TFSR: Similarly, the book talks about the strengths and pitfalls of different kinds of media and breaks down different conceptions. I’m really proud that we could be mentioned among movement media in the book, that just delighted me so much. Can you talk about the things that you touch on and some of the suggested frameworks of approaching media that you makein the book towards lawyers?
J: I want to say that the Defendant’s Guide also talks about media and talks about it more from a perspective of if you and your comrades are wanting to produce media around a case, here’s some ideas for doing and some tensions that have occurred in the past in our experience, here are some awesome folks who are doing media already to reach out to, etc. I think about media as one area where often times, an attorney might bristle at the idea that a defendant, even indirectly through a support committee, might put anything out there about a case before a legal outcome is reached on it. And in Chapter 5 of Representing Radicals, we talk about how media engagement might help or hinder legal goals and some tensions that we’ve encountered in our experience, and also some considerations for attorneys who are advising their clients and their support committees on a media strategy. But the point that we’ve really tried to make is that, ultimately, it’s going to be up to a defendant (and potentially to their supporters) about what gets said to the media or what sort of media is produced. And that’s fine, so long as it’s aligned with a defendant’s legal goal and strategy and that a defendant is aware of and consenting to the impact that certain media might have on the legal case.
In fact, in my own experience, for example, I was involved with the support committee for CeCe McDonald, who is a transwoman in Minneapolis, who survived an attack by a white supremacist man at a bar and was charged with murder after he died. In that particular case, we thought media would be tremendously helpful in shifting the public narrative about CeCe, and also, in my opinion, had a tremendous impact on the legal outcome of that case, she was offered a plea that she felt she could live with, ultimately, and one that was, in terms of legal outcomes, substantially better than, in my opinion, what would have happened, had we not taken a media strategy in that approach, in that particular case.
For attorneys who are advising their clients about media, and many attorneys are going to say, “Don’t say anything at all”. And that is a fine way of approaching media if the client’s goal is to resolve the legal aspect of the case as quickly as possible, with very little fanfare. Engaging with unsympathetic media might not be necessary or effective or desirable, depending on the facts or the circumstances surrounding the case. But, however, like I just said, if the client’s goal is to shift public opinion about the political circumstances surrounding their case or, even more broadly, to shift a public opinion around the political circumstances of the case, so that it may have an impact on the legal outcome of the case, engaging with mainstream media or putting out your own media might be strategically necessary, even if it complicates the legal strategy or make the lawyer add stress to the defense preparation. And so we really want attorneys to understand that there are separate spheres that the support committees and attorneys are operating in. Attorneys don’t have to talk to the media, but other people might and that’s okay, so long as defendants consent to it.
TFSR: It’s cool to hear the experience around CeCe McDonald’s case because she was fighting such an uphill battle with that.
J: For real. And the early media that came out around her case was horrible. And she was facing at first one and then two murder charges in Hennepin County. So I do strongly feel that the political campaign and specifically the media strategy part of it really did directly influence the legal outcome of that case. And then more broadly, influence the community, public narrative around self-defense, around the intersections of anti-Black racism and transmisogyny, and the criminal legal system. I really do feel that media work was very successful in terms of meeting its goals. We were lucky in that case to have a very sympathetic attorney who was not involved in the creation of the media but consented to let the CeCe McDonald Support Committee do what we did.
TFSR: In 2013, one of my co-hosts, William, got to interview Katie Burgess from the Trans Youth Support Network about CeCe’s case. That felt really important for us to be able to participate in that. When you were talking about, before you named CeCe, I was thinking about Luke O’Donovan’s situation in Atlanta where he defended himself against young men who were attempting to queer-bash him. Being around for the court hearing, the actual trial, part of the trial, at least… but just seeing the impact.
Folks in his support committee did a really good job of framing some public narrative around the circumstances. Because I can totally understand a lawyer or legal crew deciding, “We just don’t want to engage, we do want to just keep our heads down, get through this and not become a target for either reactionaries or for the prosecutors. For the prosecutors often times try to frame these narratives around prosecutions anyway, because their literal job is to prosecute, not to resolve a situation towards justice. So if they’re gonna frame a narrative anyway, you might as well try to steer it in a different direction.
J: Totally. And I do think where it gets a little sticky, often it is difficult to talk about the context of a case and the politics of it and the ways that power operates within it, without getting into the facts of the case. And so it makes sense that lawyers would bristle about talking to the media before they’re able to do their job, which is to bring up the facts in court or negotiating a good plea deal based on the facts of the case. But I do think it’s possible. And I also think if someone, especially when we’re talking about situations where the charges might be not very serious, maybe it was a pre-planned mass arrest where folks willingly participated in it and are now facing not-very-serious-consequences, it totally makes sense to talk about the fact. It can, it doesn’t always have to, it could totally make sense to talk about the case publicly before a legal outcome is reached. As long as that fits within the defendants’ broader political and legal goals and strategy.
TFSR:To pop back to the quotes that you interspersed throughout the book, I could see it being pretty useful if a lawyer reads this, and they’re just they’re radical-curious, or if they’re going through law school and they’re trying to find a way to become a movement lawyer. It’s cool to think they suddenly have a list of names, a list of organizations that they can either intern with or contact and reach out and say, “Hey, I read this thing. I’m having these thoughts. Can I bounce some ideas off of you?” There are already organizations, for better or worse, that do varying qualities of jobs from ACLU to the National Lawyers Guild and other groups, other networks. There‘re already networks that include movement lawyers, but it seems like a good tool for networking movement lawyers.
J: Right, we hope so.
TFSR: Are there any topics that I didn’t ask about that you want to share on?
J: Well, I already hit on how this book includes not just our voices, but lots of input from movement lawyers, comrades, and also we wouldn’t have been able to write this book without conversations with other legal support workers who’ve been in it with us over the years. And just like our first book, this book is intended to be an experiment. It’s the wisdom collected from people and their networks for decades and in many of them for far longer than any of us entered the field have been doing this work. We hope that the experiment will help people fight back more effectively and better survive the brutality of the legal system. But we don’t intend it to be a definitive, only way to think about these things, but we do hope that it is useful, and we would love it to be a resource that gets used and built upon all the time.
TFSR: Just out of curiosity, though, the idea for this feels very novel, but obviously there have been periods when the struggle has been heightened, and at least in the US, I can think of certain decades or certain periods of time and movement eras when there has been more activity and more agitation and more arrests, whether it be the late 1800s, during massive labor strikes around the country, or the suffrage movement, or movements to end Jim Crow or the civil rights era, the 1920s communist and anarchist and socialist agitation, the “long 60’s”, obviously, or theClamshell Movement. Are there any other private experiments in this vein that you’ve heard of where radicals with anti-repression experience were trying to formally reach out to change the culture of lawyering, to bring more lawyer comrades into the fold?
J:This is a big on-me, but I can’t remember them. To my knowledge, there have been other publications that are similar to the Defendant’s Guide, but I’m not aware of anything like Representing Radicals that speaks to the way of representing radicals directly. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
TFSR: I didn’t know there was an inspiration where you’re like “Well, this is sixty years old at this point, so not really that applicable, but it is a cool idea”.
J: I would defer to other members of Tilted Scales Collective who are more involved in lawyering.
TFSR: So you are pleading the Fifth?
J: Yeah, I don’t know.
TFSR: How can folks get a hold of the book and keep up on the work of Tilted Scales?
J: The book is available through AK Press, it offers a discount on books sent to prisoners and bulk orders if you contact them about it. We really appreciate that folks from the AK Press and The Institute for Anarchist Studies are putting effort into this book to be more accessible. About the Tilted Scales Collective, you can learn by checking our website, Instagram, and Twitter with the caveat that we are not super active on any electronic platform, mostly because none of us really likes them, but we do try to make it easy to find out resources and we hope it will help people in their struggles. Our website, for example, does have a link to chapter 2 of the Defendant’s Guide, and direct links to other media we produced in the past, as well as templates that may be useful in you getting to work with a lawyer and specifically around navigating collective defense.
TFSR: Thank you so much for having this conversation and thanks for all the hard work and amazing stuff that you do.
J: Thank you, it’s really nice to talk with you and we are excited to see how this book impacts our movements more broadly.
Sonja on NSU-Watch and Autonomous Anti-Fascist Research
This week on the show, we share an interview with Sonja, an antifascist activist and researcher based in the state of Hessen, Germany, and involved in the network known as NSU-Watch. For the hour, we talk about the case of the National Socialist Underground terror group which killed 9 immigrants of Turkish, Greek and Kurdish immigrants between 2000 and 2006 and were only discovered in 2011. Sonja tells about organizing with those who lost their loved ones in the attacks, the uncovering of government knowledge of the networks that produced the NSU and the milieu and international nazi scene it arose from, autonomous antifascist research.
We then speak about the ongoing case of Franco Albrecht, the former German military officer who is presumed to have been planning a false flag attack to draw ire to immigrant communities in Germany, as well as the network of military and police involved in the coordinated “Day X” plot to overthrow the German state. In some ways this interview was meant as a corrective to the New York Times podcast entitled Day X, one which de-centers state agency, opacity and collusion in the plot.
TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with whatever name, gender pronouns, location, political or group affiliations that you’d like the audience to know?
Sonja: Well, hello, I’m Sonja and a part of NSU watch. I will tell you about the organization, and what we’re doing later. I’m doing antifascist politics and research since around about 15 years, and I’m located in a very small town in the middle of Germany, in the State of Hessen.
TFSR: Thanks a lot for being here. I really appreciate you taking the time to work with me on this conversation. So, first up for the international audience, would you lay out the known circumstances around the NSU that sparked the creation of NSU watch?
Sonja: Yeah, I will gladly. Thanks for inviting me, I want to say as well. So in November 2011, two men killed themselves after a bank robbery gone wrong in a small town in Eastern Germany. Their RV, they set it on fire after they shot themselves. And in this RV, a weapon was discovered a Ceska that was linked to a series of murders taking place between 2000 – 2006. And at the same time as the RV was set on fire, a flat in another Eastern German town was set on fire as well. It was the cover up flat of the third member of the core group called Beate Zschäpe was set on trial afterwards. And after she set the flat on fire, she got undercover and sent out a CD to different addresses all over Germany, before she turned herself into the police. And on the CD was a video with the famous cartoon figure of Pink Panther, making fun of all the victims and reading through the murder series.
And so this day, the 4th of November of 2011, was at the same time, it was a shock all over Germany, and especially for the victims families. And also it was a relief, because the families, they were told that they were wrong considering the murder of the family members were racist attacks. So at this day, we found out that there was a Neo-Nazi terror cell, killing nine migrants and one police woman for a series of 13 years or something… being active that time. It was a shock to all of us in the antifascist scene and the anti racist scene, seeing that what we feared always was right, and having the clarity about that this is possible in Germany.
TFSR: So NSU, or National Socialism Underground, kind of considered itself in some ways, continuing the trajectory of Nazi heritage, I guess? And the same sort of goals as far as we can tell.
Sonja: Yeah, they did. They were Nazi group that was founded in a big circle of people in East Germany in the 1990s. They were politically socialized in a very racist time. That was shortly after the German reunification. Yeah, it was a very racist time in Germany with a lot of attacks. And also, the State being very worried about the losers of the reunification and was putting in a lot of money at that time in youth clubs and youth work, which created a safe space for Nazis in Germany. Because there wasn’t the thinking about institutional racism, structural racism, or racism at all in Germany at that time. And so they put in a lot of money to create a very nice and comforting space for the Neo-Nazi youth groups. And that was a time the NSU founded itself. It was also based in the Blood and Honor Network, and also very deeply connected to the Hammerskin Network as we found out recently. They were racists who saw themselves in the tradition of other Neo-Nazi terror groups like the Order. They read a lot of the common texts in the Neo-Nazi scene like *The Turner Diaries*, or the novel, *The Hunter*. Yeah, being part of the music scene in Germany, the Nazi music scene in Germany, being very deeply based in a nationwide network of Nazi groups.
TFSR: What I understand is that, so with the reunification, at least East Germany, which was a satellite State of the Soviet Union, had an outward program of de-Nazification of the area that the Soviet allied government operated in, in the eastern part of the country. But I’ve also heard that there’s a lot of xenophobia in that part of the country and a lot of the Nazi movement maybe had a foothold there. Can you talk a little bit about maybe what the soil was like at that point, and why there was such a rise in Neo-Nazism if it was just international, like the Blood and Honor stuff from the UK or the Hammerskins which started in Texas in the USA. It seems like they couldn’t have sparked homegrown Neo-Nazi revival in Germany, right?
Sonja: Well, in the eastern German States, they had like an antifascist understanding of the State itself. So fascism couldn’t happen in that State. It was forbidden to happen. So it did not happen. And so of course, there was a lot of xenophobia, there was a lot of racist attacks. And there were a lot of groups of young people, not very organized, very spread out over the country. And we have a term for that. It’s called the baseball bat years. Because there was so much street violence in that years. And if we look to Western Germany, there were the organized groups of that time, there was a very structured far-right scene. And when the reunification was done, a lot of the Western German groups went over there and organized the very spread out with Neo-Nazi scene in Eastern Germany.
So it got together very well. And also in Western Germany, in the years after, a big wave of racism connected to the new nationalism rising up to the reunification. And the State reacted like it always does in Germany: it gives props to the far-right. The asylum laws get restricted. People who were affected by the Neo-Nazi violence didn’t get help. And they try to get the Lost Souls back in some way. Like they thought the reunification was a very deep economical crisis for most people in Eastern Germany. So they put in their State for taking care of the Jews and stuff. It was kind of a pampering for the Neo-Nazi movement. That is the same reaction we had in 2015. The far-right, rises, it protests, it takes marches… and then the politicians they give props to that and take away rights from the asylum seekers, for example, or the migrants.
TFSR: So can you tell us a bit about NSU watch and what you all do what Apabiz is, and A.I.D.A? And why do you feel that an autonomous research and recording process without strings tying you to the government is necessary.
Sonja: A couple of weeks ago, a very famous German antifascist and communists Esther Bejarano died. She was a Holocaust survivor. She was a member of the music group in Auschwitz. And she put her life to fighting fascism in Germany. And she said “if you want to fight fascism in Germany, if you want to fight Neo-Nazis in Germany, you cannot rely on the State.” And that is really something we take at heart. I said the fourth of November 2011, was a big shock to all of us, because we have these very old antifascist research structures in Germany, like I have colleagues doing that for 30 years, 35 years now, collecting every bits and pieces of the Neo-Nazi movement, trying to get as much information as possible to do background checks and to put attacks that happen in the background.
So when this happens when the when the NSU discovered itself, we have got to say, because nobody, not the police, not the authorities discovered them. So when they discovered themselves, it was a big shock for us, that’s all we feared, was actually true. Like, if you read the antifascist newspapers we put out for decades now… there was always a warning about weapons and about Neo-Nazis, discussing theories, papers, and concepts. So it was a bitter pill to swallow that we were right all this time, and that we didn’t see it happen, actually.
It was also a shock to see how racist we are as antifascists, because we didn’t listen to the families, the families of the NSU murder cases. They always said it must be Neo-Nazis. There can’t be any other explanation because the authorities there always said “Well, there’s something about Turkish mafia or Kurdish Turkish conflicts or something, it must be in their culture.” Actually, there was a quote in a police file that said “No one of Germans cultural heritage could do this kind of murder: shooting in the face, shooting in the head. This isn’t like German at all. So it must be some foreign culture doing that.” So, and the families that were talking about it, they put on rallies to get the public interest. And we didn’t really listen to them. We didn’t check the media. They wrote about it as Döner killer, Kebap killers. And we didn’t realize how racist that was. We didn’t listen to the families.
And so it was a big shock moment for us that changed a lot of our politics. Like really looking into our own racism, our own focus on looking at the Neo-Nazis and not looking at the victims that close. And so it did a big switch for us in our politics, like we have got to work together with the families, we have to listen to them! They have a lot of information, a lot of knowledge that we need to recognize, and that we need to consider. We just can’t as white German antifascists look at other white Germans, the Neo-Nazi scene, without considering the racism we all grew up in that is all part of our society.
And so after the discovering of the NSU core trio. We said we need to change something. And that’s why we founded NSU Watch as a network of old antifascist structures, of people doing the work for lots and lots of time, to put all the pieces together because the murders that took place all over Germany, mostly Western Germany, But there was murders in Munich, in Nürnberg, there was an attack in Köln, there was a murder in Hamburg, there was a murder in Dortmund, in Kassel, and so on.
And so we gathered all the groups, the local groups and founded the network so we can get the information together to kind of get to the bottom of all of this. Because that was pretty clear at the beginning that it couldn’t be just the three: the two dead men and the other who was put on trial, there must be a bigger network. And afterwards, there were five people on trial besides Beate Zschäpe, but there couldn’t be the network as well. Like, the biggest question of the families is “why did the murderers pick my father? My son? My relative?” And so in general, it’s very clear that it was for racist reasons. But in specific, like, who pointed out that internet cafe? That shop? That flower selling stand? And so it was very clear that then there was always a local helping structure for the Nazi terrorists.
And so, we came together to gather all the information we have, and we have very old research structures in Germany, and one of them is the Apabiz. It is an archive, an antifascist archive collecting all printings of Neo-Nazi scene in Germany. They have a very big collection of all fanzines, of all newspapers, articles, a lot of information gathered from the local groups. The antifascist movement, (of course) in Germany, organized in autonomous groups all over Germany collecting all their local informations. And we don’t have a central station for putting it somewhere. But in the archives, we have a couple of them like Apabiz in Berlin and A.I.D.A. Archive in Munich. And we have a have a couple of others. They are the antifascist structures to collect the knowledge of the generations of local people doing the research.
And so with NSU Watch, we try to gather all the forces and gather all the informations to deal with that kind of work. Because also, not only the murders took place all over Germany, also the investigations took place all over Germany. We had different parliamentary inquiries in all the different States. We had one in the Bundestag, we had the trial in Munich. And so with all this, these different locations of investigation, it was very hard to stay in focus and to get all the puzzle pieces. And for example, we found in the north there was a parliamentary inquiry and they look very deep into the Combat 18 structure there. But the Bundestag trial did not, and also the trial in Munich did not. So we had our people everywhere monitoring the inquiries, monitoring the trial to get all the puzzle pieces together. Because we didn’t know when something would make sense. Like where to put the puzzle pieces, we still have a bunch of them we can’t connect to anything.
And so for me, it’s also… there is no bottom line in the NSU complex. It’s a topic I will deal with… I think… my whole antifascist political life. Because we don’t know when somebody will talk, when somebody will give up information. And so we don’t even get close to the truth in that. And to deal with that kind of perspective in this kind of work, it was necessary to found a network that could get more connected with all the people all over Germany. And so this is what we did, NSU Watch.
TFSR: This is kind of a side note, it’s sad, but also really inspiring that you can lean on these multi generational centers of research that build from a longer movement memory. I mean it’s sad that people are still having to do this work and have these conversations, but it’s pretty amazing that people have put in the work to see this through. It makes me think of things that have heard about the autonomous movements coming out of the 70s. And having a long memory of like things that their parents or local cops or whatever did during the war era, or before the war, or whatever, and recognizing the continuation of a lot of those structures, because the same people in a lot of cases had gone about their lives. And I could sort of think of like a parallel here with the anti imperialist stuff from the 60s and groups like the John Brown anti-Klan committee, and how that sort of fed into the start of Anti Racist Action and other movements here.
Sonja: Yeah, it’s also it’s also a sign of our marginal perspective. Like, in the last couple of years we have academic research about right-wing terrorism. But otherwise in Germany, we don’t have a collective memory of that. We come from a fascist society. We are a post fascist society. Of course, in the 50s, very directly, there were Neo-Nazi terror groups. But in Germany, we just have this memory of left-wing terrorism of the RAF. And so we always have to collect our own information to get our own analysis, because there was never a State or society to back us up.
TFSR: So you mentioned that the folks that went on to form NSU Watch, had realized that they hadn’t listened to the voices of the families of the victims of NSU violence about what they thought was really at the heart of the deaths of their loved ones. How does NSU Watch continue to reflect and engage with survivors and community members and loved ones of those who were killed by NSU violence?
Sonja: Most of the families, they founded their own groups, or there were groups founded to support the families in their fight of memory. Because this is always something the German State wants to get into. They want the remembering of the victims in a polite way. Not not an angry way. Not a political way. And so there are a lot of groups dealing with the struggle around the memory, and how to how to memorialize the victims. And we as NSU Watch… we do support all the groups, all the families that we can.
Something else we did was we work closely with their attorneys for the trial and gave up all our information we could gather. In the first years, we had very intense meetings, looking into every name we found in the complex, looking into every document we could get in our hands. And so we put that all together and gave it to the attorneys of the families to back them up and to give them information besides the State. Because the State was never really interested in researching the network.
Well, the first thing is that we acknowledge our own racism and that we take it in consideration. We learn that for future cases. Now if someone is murdered and the family says “Well, I think this was a racist attack.” We write that and try to support and try to get good journalists to write the true stories. We get in contact with the families and try to support them there.
And also, we did all this monitoring work. We monitored every day of the five year trial in Munich and wrote a report about every day in the trial. We also translated that to Turkish and we did the same with some of the parliamentary inquiries. For example, here in the State of Hessen, where I live and my where my local NSU watch group is, we had this parliamentary inquiry where the family was invited last in the very last session of the inquiry. Which was quite offensive at that point. And to give them an opportunity to follow what’s happening there around the cases of their loved ones, we gather this information and put it out for the public, also translated in Turkish.
And so we see ourselves as one movement now. Which is different. Before, we had this division between antifascists and antiracism activists. There was always kind of an overlapping. But now we’re one movement. We see ourselves as one movement with all struggles, it gets with us. But we were very open to critique around racism to our own structures. I think that’s a very, very good thing coming out of that.
We had these hard, really difficult, racist attacks in 2020. We had the murders in Hanau, which is very close to my hometown, where a racist shot nine people. And yet, there it was shown that this new understanding of what antifascist research is for, and what it’s about, really works great together. Because we could support the families in their struggle, and they get the grip on it. Like they don’t stop asking questions. They don’t stop putting public pressure on the politicians dealing with that case. And I think that was a hard learning process for us. Because before, of course, we thought we were the good ones because we’re fighting Nazis. But it was also a very clear process of seeing how much racism is deeply written into our society and what we have to get rid of and what what we have to unlearn to make a difference. And I think we’re on a good way to that now.
TFSR: That’s really good to hear. That’s definitely a critique that I hear in the US that seems pretty well founded. That a lot of like, people that aren’t directly or as directly affected by fascist violence jump in to be sort of saviors. But don’t listen to the people that are most directly affected or work with them to create victim informed ways of organizing. So that’s cool.
Sonja: Yeah. And also like as white antifascists in Germany, we are also victims of Neo-Nazi attacks. Like if it wasn’t personal.. it was always friends of us. I talked about the baseball bat years. It was against punks and leftists as well as it was against POCs and Black people in Germany. And so we came to the conclusion that as victims of Neo-Nazi violence, we’re not all the same. We don’t live the same lives. We don’t have the same values. But we’re all on force put together in this victim group. And we got to deal with that. And we have to support each other in that.
TFSR: A common experience is that a world without Nazis would be better for all of you. So, there was a trial that ended in 2018, releasing the living member of the assumed core of the NSU, Zschäpe, to Nazi cheers. The case uncovered (among other things) that the group had operated for 13 years all over Germany, as you had said, killing and injuring nearly a dozen people. And that there had been cover ups by different levels of the German government. To name a couple of these cover ups: One the destruction of files by employees of the Federal Office of the Protection of the Constitution. And the witnessing of a 2006 NSU murder by a Hessian police officer for the protection of the Constitution, as a second example. Can you talk about the office for the protection of the Constitution, something about the State links in the NSU case? And, again, to reiterate why it is so important that independent archives are doing this investigation, and the State doesn’t just watch itself.
Sonja: During the discovery, our investigations in the NSU complex, we came to the conclusion that the State is plays a very big role in all of it. The Secret Service… how did you translate it?
TFSR: Federal Office of the Protection of the Constitution? What would you call it?
Sonja: The German word is Verfassungsschutz, which is quite a wordy translation for that. And yeah, it’s a Secret Service. Basically, it’s the Secret Service for inner affairs. So the Department of the Protection of the Constitution, which is called itself. I think it’s a very euphoric name they gave themselves. They had the idea that they could control the Neo-Nazi movement. And they did that with getting informants at the most high levels in these organizations. For example, a very high member of the Blood and Honor movement in Saxonia was an informant for the State. So their main resource for information about the Neo-Nazis scene comes from informants, Neo-Nazis, active Neo-Nazis. They were paid for giving up the information.
And there’s different ways of the Neo-Nazi scene in Germany to deal with that. Some do it in secret. Some do it openly to their comrades and say “Well, we get the money from the State, and we can put it back in the movement.” And there were lots and lots of informants undiscovered in the NSU complex. And there were informants very close to the core trio. There were informants involved in getting papers for them to live underground. And we came to the conclusion that the State knew a lot about the weapons in the Nazi scene. A lot about their goals. A lot about their doings. So it wasn’t a problem of a lack of information. It is the problem that the Secret Service in Germany collects the information to have it and to keep the idea of that they can control it.
The difference is the Neo-Nazi scene in Germany, they rather don’t want to attack the State itself. They’re feeling very close to the State. They want to take over the State. They want to make it more authoritarian. They don’t want to abolish the State. So the working process of the Secret Service doesn’t really get to the victims of the Nazi scene, because the victims are the others, the migrants, the POC’s, the black people in Germany, the leftits, the communists, the disabled people, homeless people, queer people… definitely queer people. And so the Secret Service in Germany is not there to protect the people, but to protect the State.
The Germany Neo-Nazi scene which is very driven forward by this Day X ideology, we will talk about later, I think. So they never get to the point where they want to attack or abolish the State, they get to the point where they kill all of the people that don’t fit in their view of the world. And so, we came to the conclusion that there is a very deep problem in the understanding of right-wing terrorism, because right-wing terrorism doesn’t want to abolish the State, it wants to create a Civil war. It wants to create gaps and widen gaps that are already there in the society. And because there’s no collective memory, no collective understanding of right-wing terrorism in Germany.
We have this theory, what the politics in extremism are based on, we call it the Horseshoe theory. It’s like you imagine a horseshoe, and you have the left end and the right ends, and they’re kind of the same… and they’re kind of the same danger. And in the middle of the horseshoe you have the good middle of the people. And the idea is that the democracy is threatened by the Left and the right-wing extremists, and they have to protect the good middle. This is a theory which comes from the Weimar Republic before, before the National Socialist State. The idea was not that the conservatives or the bourgeoisie put the Nazis into power, but to have this conflict between Right and Left. And that put the democracy into danger. And this is a theory which also continues until today.
So there wasn’t a particular understanding of how right-wing terrorism works. There was always a comparison to Leftwing terrorism. Like they said “Oh, we couldn’t know that was terrorist attack, because there weren’t any letters.” No communiques about it. And so they said, “Oh, well, we couldn’t see that it was terrorism.” And so there was always this necessity for us as antifascists to point out “what are the basic structures of right-wing terrorism? How does it work? What are its goals? What are its methods?” Because we could never rely on that. And so when the NSU discovered itself in 2011, the first thing the Secret Service did was destroy files with information about informants in the direct surrounding of the trio.
And it continued, like the parliamentary inquiries, they had problems getting the files from Secret Service. The trial in Munich, they didn’t want to ask questions about the network. They didn’t want to know about involvements around. And so it was basically us and a few Parliamentitions from the Leftwing parties who had interest in getting into it. And it goes further. Like the informants in the Neo-Nazi scene, they can commit crimes in a certain way, and don’t get punished in a trial. Because they are informants, they get protection from the State. So they can do like propaganda verdicts, or in cases of assault, they can do it to stay in their role as Neo-Nazis. So the the thinking is to be an informant, you still have to be involved in the movement. And so you have to do what the movement does. And you get protection for doing that if you’re an informant.
So there was always the knowledge about it, but we didn’t know how many people there were working in the Neo-Nazi scene for the government and also not that they were so high level Neo-Nazis, like they tried to get all the high level Neo-Nazis working for the State to control the organizations from the top. That was the thinking of the State, or is the thinking of the State. Until now. Only the State of Thuringia, they cut all this information system. But the rest gets more budget for it gets more people doing the jobs. And so, the structure, it wasn’t really broken. Also, now after 10 years, it just works further.
And the top story of that all is the one you mentioned about Andreas Temme. He is and he was an employee of the Secret Service. He was not police, he was an employee of the Secret Service. And he was in the internet cafe of Halit Yozgat in Kassel when he was shot. He claims that he wasn’t there. That he didn’t see the body lying behind the counter, that he didn’t hear the shots. And because it was so unbelievable. There was an English Institute, forensic architecture, who rebuilt the internet cafe and try to get an idea of what he must have been seeing, hearing, and smelling. Because also like if you fire a gun in such a small space, you can also smell the gunpowder. And so they did a recreation of that. But that was considered an art piece, not an academic investigation. I put you the link of the investigation in the link list. They made a video on the 5th.
And yeah, Andreas Temme. He was in the internet cafe he claims to be there for personal reasons for sexting from an anonymous computer. Because his wife shouldn’t know. But it’s very unlikely. And he had two phone calls with this Nazi informant that day. One before, and one shortly after. And one was especially long. And he didn’t tell the truth. Neither in the in the court trial, nor in the parliamentary inquiry in Hessen. And so the truth was never found why he was there. If he was there on duty, if the Secret Service got any information, if he was involved with the murders, if he knew someone from possible local helping structure for the trio or something. He just lied, he just didn’t tell the truth. The politicians, they stood behind him at that point. And when Halit was shot, he just left the internet cafe and he didn’t respond to the call from the police to get people who saw something or might know something about it. And so the police got to him. It was because he got locked in with his phone there on the computer. He left his work phone number there. And so they found him and they arrested him but he was released shortly after because the governor of the State of Hessen said he needs to be protected because he’s part of the State.
And so there’s a lot of silence. There’s a lot of lies in there, and we didn’t get to the truth. After the trial, after the five years of trial and three years of parliamentary inquiry. We still don’t know what drove him there. What was his role in the murder of Halit Yozgat.
TFSR: None of the surviving members of the NSU have gotten any prison time?
Sonja: No, Beate Zschäpe. She’s in prison lifelong. Yeah, the others, they got really light sentences. They were five years on trial. They were released the day the verdict came out, because you get the investigation jail time you put on your normal jail time.
TFSR: I really started hearing about this case, because the New York Times podcast called Day X started telling the story of the case of Franco Albrecht or Franco A, relating to the NSU and government connections, and finally discussing about a wider conspiracy with members of the German military and police to prepare for, or likely to bring about the overthrow of Germany’s parliamentary democracy, which would be replaced with a military right-wing junta. What’s known about the Day X plot and the case of Franco A? And you’re covering it right as in as NSU Watch?
Sonja: Yeah, we do. We sit there in on every day of the trial. And it’s quite interesting, because when I listened to the Day X podcast, it’s such a wide picture of the of the whole case. The trial is right now about what kind of money Franco Albrecht got from the from the government when he was living his secret life as a fake refugee. This is what the trial is about. For weeks now sitting in the trial every day, you don’t get a sense of what’s actually discussed there. Boring, very detailed stuff about Franco Albrecht taking money from the German government. And it’s hard to stay on focus, not to get bored by all these details. It’s very hard.
So Franco Albrecht was a very strange discovery, actually. The State didn’t want to put it on trial. They wanted to do it two years ago, I think, and they just disposed it. They said “No, there’s no case here.” And now we have the pressure from the higher court, the State-wide court, to put it on trial. And so they did it in Frankfurt.
We have these chat groups all over Germany, called the cross groups. Like Nordkreuz, Südkreuz… The Northern Cross, the Southern Cross, the Eastern Cross, Western cross. This division, these chat groups, which are a quite new phenomenon. But like always when there’s new technology available, you take it for organization. It’s not such a surprise actually. The connection between the military and the far-right are very known, especially to the antifascists public in Germany. Like we wrote about it that often, like, years and years, and that in a lot of military bases there are Nazi networks, so it wasn’t quite news for us. The news was how far they got along with their planning. And also the question “what does the Secret Service do if they don’t look into that kind of stuff?” because this is an area of society where we as antifascists, we don’t get any information from there. Like if they want to do it in secret, we are not the people going to the military, especially now if you didn’t don’t have to in Germany.
It was always clear for us that something like this could happen. And it was also clear for us that there’s high skilled trained people in the police and the military forces joining right-wing movements, sharing the ideological backgrounds. No surprise so far at that point. But we were quite shocked about how the State didn’t inform the people who were on the lists, with how the State dealt with that kind of danger, actually. And how and unuseful all the all the different stations of Secret Service are in Germany. We have a special Secret Service for the military. And it was quite clear that they’re not doing their job for years. Because like we know very high level Neo-Nazis in Germany who were part of this Secret Service, of the army Secret Service. They they served there, and afterwards, after they quit their jobs, they held speeches at Neo-Nazi rallies and gatherings. So it was always clear that there’s a deep connection in there.
And so it’s interesting now that the State kind of wants to bar out the public In the case of Franco A. And it works, it works. It’s a very hard struggle to stay on focus there. And also because the same with the NSU case, there’s not the one institution to get to the bottom of it. Like you have the court trial, but the court trial is just there to find the guilt of Franco Albrecht himself, it’s not about the network. If you get a parliamentary inquiry, they don’t have the authority to punish somebody. So we don’t have this one institution which can take care of it all. I don’t think that this will happen. But the information is very spread out widely. And there’s not the one to finally make a call and say “Okay, this is what happened. This is the network. This is what we’re doing.” So right now they have Franco Albrecht on trial but only him for planning assaults on different people on his list, for violating weapon laws, and for getting money from the State living a life as a fake refugee. So this is just his skills at that point. And now there’s different members of the Cross Groups all over Germany, but it’s unclear if they ever get to trial, if they lose their jobs, how their career continues, for example.
TFSR: I don’t think we have said… since you just mentioned what Albrecht had been planning Generally, the story is fucking crazy. Like, some German man? I guess… one of his parents, I think were not German.
Sonja: Yes, French… No Italian. His father is Italian.
TFSR: Yeah. Like he joins the military. He’s been writing about a right-wing push in the German State as being a good thing for a lot of years. I guess like through his high school, he had written a paper that kind of concerned some people. And so at one point during the “refugee crisis.” He ends up darkening his skin and wearing tattered clothing and going into a refugee resettlement office and getting his fingerprints taken, and passing off part of his life (when he’s not on an on the military base living in an apartment under this assumed name) so that his fingerprints are then in the system as the Syrian refugees fingerprints.
A few years later, or a year later, this janitor in an airport – I think in Frankfurt? I might be wrong. Oh, in Vienna – finds a pistol hidden behind a toilet. And it’s got his fingerprints, and they just the police just lay in wait for whoever to come back and grab the pistol and they arrest him. But they noticed that the fingerprints match the Syrian refugee and he’s like “No, no, no, that must be a mistake. I’m a German military person.” The apparent false flag that this person is building is, like, kind of ingenious. And also, it’s it’s crazy to think of what could have happened considering the way that people around the German speaking world where some people were brought out into the streets and just fully angered against what they consider to be the migrant crisis with word going around about assaults on German women. You know, because we are filled with immigrants who have come from other places, I don’t know, and the rise of the AFD around the same time, like it just seems like it’s a big story. Right?
Sonja: Yeah, it’s a big story. And it’s, it’s a perverted perspective on what happened in 2015, 2016. In Germany like this so called “refugee crisis.” People mostly coming from Syria, fleeing the Civil War, they’re fleeing ISIS attacking people. It was a big mobilization moment for the far-right in Germany. like around the 2000-2010 years. The German far-right had an organizational crisis. They didn’t get the success they wanted. And so when 2015 came, they formed a very widespread racist mobilization. We have the AfD in the Parliament at that point or at most Parliaments.
AfD is “Alternative for Germany”. It started out as an anti Euro right-wing Populist Party and got on a really racist way, in a very short time, in two years or something. The AfD was founded in 2013, and in 2015 it was the most racist, openly racist party in the State. They didn’t really see the danger in that. So we had a lot of Nazis who weren’t organized at that point, because we had this organization crisis where a lot of organizations just fell apart. Some of them just got closer together, like we had a Combat 18 reunion in Germany in 2012, 2013. So some of the groups they got closer together, some of them just fall apart. And most of the Neo-Nazis who were organized into organizations falling apart, they were re-mobilized by this racist mobilizations. We had rallies all over Germany, we had attacks of refugees, or POCs, in general, Black people in general. It doesn’t depend on their on their status, it depends on their race.
So we have this big wave of attacks, this big wave of hate, and at the same time, the AfD, and the parliaments and also a lot of the television shows, talking or setting a frame for a new kind of racism, open racism in Germany. And so we, at that point, in 2015, we saw the rallies, we saw the danger of the rallies, and we saw the attacks, but we didn’t know what went on behind the scenes like in this chat groups, in the military. And so the story of Franco Albrecht is a very, very perverted lens of looking at what happened at that time. And if you look at what does the Secret Service say to the rallies at that point, they say “Oh, it’s just concerned people, and some Neo-Nazis trying to undermine them.” But actually, it was racism was new material to get all the different spectrums of Neo-Nazism in Germany, getting together again.
Also, the network of racism and sexism at that point, like you said, one of the main topics of the mobilization was the safety of white women of white German women. And the AfD took a big part of that they put a lot of money in media campaigns. Every time a refugee, or POC, or Black man attacked a white woman, they would push it in the public, and widely over Facebook. They put a lot of money in Facebook campaigning. So there was a misunderstanding. We have a big problem with violence against women in Germany, like a big problem, like all over the world, all over the world. There are femicides. But the idea was to just put the cases in the center of attention where a POC or Black man was the attacker.
And that worked out pretty great. And also like with Franco Albrecht… and also Stephan Ernst, who was the murderer of a politician here in Hessen, in Kassel as well, Walter Lübcke, he was shot in 2019. They both have this telling that the State falls, and the brave German man has to protect the country and its women. And this is also part of the of the Day X – German men have to redefine their manhood and get in the role of the protector again.
TFSR: Yeah, that’s a pretty common narrative. And there’s so much that without taking away to talk about US context, so much of what you’re talking about just reflects things that I’ve seen happen in the US over the last couple of decades too. So I guess, going back to Germany, though, like how does how does the Day X plot fit into the ecosystem of the far-right in Germany today, like with anti vaccine and COVID conspiracy myths, intermingling with members of AfD and anti immigration rallies?
Sonja: Well, the Day X telling is a very old one in Germany, like after we are a nation of defeated. After the Second World War, we had this this period of occupation. And since the bat was founded, so the Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany, there’s always the telling in the far-right, that this kind of State is not the real representative of the Germans. And so there was always the story of how to get Germany back. There’s different colorings of that telling like this, zionist occupied governments, like because parts of Germany were occupied by the Americans, you have a lot of anti American thinking in the Germans far-right. That doesn’t change the fact that they’re very deeply connected and do a lot of work together. But there’s always been this telling about the Germans don’t own their own State anymore since the Second World War.
So, in 2015 when Angela Merkel welcomed the refugees, there was this myth that she’s opening the borders for them. The truth was, there was never breaking a law in that point. There was always the Right asylum laws taking place there. So there was this idea of Angela Merkel letting all these refugees in, and we had this the telling of the Day X movement, I think you would call it more intellectual, new-right movement, that was called the Great Replacement. So there’s a plan for exchanging the people in Germany with refugees. And so there was one moment where a lot of right-wing groups got their mobilization momentum, because they could tell the people “now you see how the government wants to destroy Germans.”
So there’s always the thinking that not the right people are in charge, and that’s the State doesn’t represent the real Germans. And there was a new moment for the for the whole movement. And so the telling of the Day X of getting to the point of civil war, where the possibility is to take over the State. It was very common, always in the far-right storytelling in Germany, but there it got a new momentum. And so a lot of groups, a lot of people, got on the streets got organized in this kind of way. We had like motorcycle Brotherhood’s or motorcycle-like Brotherhood’s coming together, making… they call it neighborhood watches. And so there was always this thinking about “we have to protect our people from the government, which is in that multicultural great replacement thinking.” So that was the big topic bringing it all together.
After 2015, the politicians cut a lot of asylum laws. They stopped the people from coming to Germany itself and reinforcing the border. Now we don’t have the attacks on the refugee homes here, because we don’t have that many big refugee homes any longer here. Because now people are dying in the Mediterranean instead. But the government tried to stop people from coming to Germany itself, as giving the right-wing movement props to stop the worrying about it. And it worked. We don’t have that many attacks here, because we don’t have that many refugees here. But people are still dying in the Mediterranean. And we have this big mass grave now on Europe’s borders. So given the power, right, that kind of props at that point, they lost their momentum for the racist mobilization. And they turned it into the anti vaccination demonstrations.
Now they found a new topic where the government wants to control wants to defeat the German people in their thinking. So we have the same forces, the same people who were pushing forward the racist mobilization, doing now the anti vaccination protests, but also with a different note. There are a lot of people who think of themselves as alternatives, like people who are into alternative medicine, or esoteric, or late hippies, for example, who joined now the right-wing organizations. And that’s a very, very dangerous mixture we got there now. And so the Day X movement move from this great replacement topic, to the pandemic topic now. But it’s the same people, the same groups doing the mobilization there.
TFSR: So I guess looking at this Day X plots from the context of the US, there are many comparisons and parallels that could be made between the development of the different far-right movements here. And the scene from which the NSU and their contemporaries came out in Germany. In fact, historically, there was a cross pollination that NSU Watch notes, such as visits to Germany. I mean, you already mentioned *The Turner Diaries* and *The Hunter* being read or Blood and Honor or Combat 18 from the UK going over, but there’s also a member of the US based White Aryan Resistance and the KKK groups from the US that came to visit and and showed up during the development in the scene with the three core NSU members. Contemporary examples for groups from the US that parallel developments in Germany might be the Oath-keeper movement, could be compared with the Day X plot members of law enforcement and military, or former, stating that the current government that they serve is in decay and must be reformed to a more traditional and radically conservative style. As well as other groups from white nationalist movements like the NSU, with the now defunct Atomwaffen Division, or the Base.
Do you have any thoughts on the international nature of Neo fascist organizing? And what roles those common myths such as the Great Replacement, which you mentioned, which I think it came out of the you said the European new Right, but like, Nouvelle Droite, the the new far-right coming out of France in the 70s? Can you talk about how this cross pollination happens, some of the common myths? And what follows from it for international antifascist organizing? What do we need to be looking at, and where are some good directions to point energy? Or how do we coordinate with each other against some of these common enemies?
Sonja: Well, the internet, of course, is a big factor. In that it’s helping us to get connected like we do right now. But it also helps Neo-Nazi groups to get connected. We have these big heroes, they would say, like Anders Breivik, who published his manifesto on the internet. Which was an inspiration for an attack in Munich three years ago. On the same day, recalling to Anders Breivik, it was the inspiration for the Christchurch attack in New Zealand. It was the inspiration for the attack at the synagogue in Halle two years ago. And so we have this opportunity for groups to organize internationally, and also to find background organizations online for that. You don’t have to have the comrades right at your door. You don’t have to meet the people in person, you can connect with them via the internet and exchange about that stuff.
But of course, there’s also the meeting in person, the the important role of worldwide networks and organizations, you mentioned the KKK. We have KKK groups in in Germany as well. We always had contacts to the US like two weeks ago, an antifascist network called Exif Recherche. They published a very detailed paper on the Hammerskins in Germany and their connections to the US. Like Wade Page, the murderer of the people in the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. He was visiting Germany a couple of times, and also playing with his band. There’s the role of music and concerts, Nazi Nazi rock concerts and organization for that, like there was a lot of exchange of context about that music scene and bands visiting. This is also a great connection for Australia and Germany, for example. Or for Eastern Europe, like Hungary, or the Ukraine, or Russia. People are coming to Germany with their bands, or to see a band, or to visit a concert and in this context of the concert, there are always meetings taking place.
The Hammerskin structure, the Hammerskin Nation is a very big example for that. And also with the example of the Hammerskin nation, when the attack in Wisconsin happened, the German Hammerskins went over there right away to meet with the people of the Hammerskin Nation groups in the US to make a plan how to deal with the situation. And also when the Hammerskins in Portugal were banned, they got help from the other chapters worldwide. So there’s always this supporting structure if you have to live underground. If you need weapons, if you need money, there’s this big worldwide organization providing that for you. And also getting experiences you can’t get in Germany. Like in Germany, it’s legal to shoot a weapon and to own a weapon, but only if you’re in a certain kind of organization, and you have to put in a big amount of paperwork for shooting your gun. And so every time German Neo-Nazis go to the US, shooting in the wild is a big part of the experience there. And also like being violent against other people. It’s always a big part of that.
And I think these two things, like this highly professional, organized, worldwide networks we’re seeing and also the fear of the so called “lone wolf” who can sit in front of his computer in Germany and gets connected with other people and get printings for 3D printed weapons and stuff like that. It’s a It’s a very harsh challenge, I think. But also, what I see is it’s a backlash. It’s a reaction to emancipative movements all over the world. Like, if we look on queer rights, if you look on the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement all over the world, if we see how decolonization fights are supported from all over the world. They are in fear to lose their position, and their right to do. We are on the move, we’re doing what we can.
What I think is very hard to do is to not get lost of the wider perspective. Like “What does capitalism do to these problems we’re facing?” Like “What are the struggles that make us all the same, no matter where we live in the world?” And I think talks like that, like we’re having right now, being interested in the struggles of each other like to learn from each other is very important. And also not to rely on the State, or academia, to find the similarities. Because there’s capitalism all over. Like in Germany, the research is so much driven from where to get funded, and where to get the next project funded, that it’s not about, like finding truth or something like that.
So I think it’s a very important thing to stay connected, to read Twitter news from all over the world, to stay on the pulse of what’s going on around the world, and where it’s a little bit like the struggle we have as fascists in Germany. Where’s our role in all that suffering? And what can we do to create solidarity with each other?
TFSR: Does news about this interrelation between Nazis and the security apparatus surprise members of the community impacted by this violence that you all have spoken with? And I kind of wonder, also, just to tack on there, what the wider response in Germany has been from the general population. Like you said, at one point that our perspective is a marginal perspective, and also that the German government, at least with the NSU case, did a lot to try to stop it from coming to a wide audience. And it was probably the targeting, like with the Day X stuff, at least the targeting of politicians that actually got the national attention brought on it and forced it to trial, right.
Sonja: Yet, the German State declared that right-wing terrorism is the biggest threat now. But they’re not doing anything differently in the structure. They want to get the police forces more diverse, but they don’t want to talk about structural racism. There’s so much going on. Like every day, we get news about a new police chat group sharing Hitler pictures, or jokes about migrants or queer people, about Black people, or Jews. We have a deep problem with institutional racism in Germany, and there’s not one step I can see that makes that any different. Like we have those parlimental inquiries and the State is doing its thing, but nothing actually changes. And also, you have this shocking news about the Secret Service being involved like that. But what’s happening is there’s more surveillance, there’s more budget for the Secret Service, the Hessen secret service here, it doubled its budget from 2011. With Andreas Temme, sitting at the murder scene. It’s absurd. It’s absurd. And so… No, actually, it’s no surprise.
For a lot of the families that were the victims of the NSU, they were all men from the racist murder series. They were all men from mostly from Turkish, or Kurdish heritage. One was Greek. And they were the ones coming to Germany in the 60s and 70s to rebuild the State and they always faced racism in a dimension you couldn’t imagine, and a dimension that wasn’t speakable for them as well. And so, when the police came to them and didn’t believe them, that it was a racist attack and said “Well, there’s something about drugs.” Or in one case, the police made up a woman, the man who was killed had an affair with. The family of Enver Şimşek and the widow of Enver Şimşek. She was confronted with a picture of the blonde woman with two children and they said “Yeah, that’s the second wife of your husband, didn’t you know?” He was trading flowers, and so he went to the Netherlands a couple have time some months to get the flowers. And they say “Well, he must be into drug smuggling and stuff like that.” So the families, they didn’t really have anything in their hands to protect themselves from this kind of institutional racism.
And also, they didn’t have any help, because the migrant community being threatened with so much racism all their life, they turned against the families, because they say “Well, if the police says it must be some kind of mafia stuff, maybe we keep away from the family.” So they were separated from their communities, and they have this second victimization, like, after the family member got shot, they get victimized by the structural racism of the police, of the media, and its effects on the on the society. And I think, from their perspective, they were kind of surprised. And a lot of them, they don’t live in Germany any longer. A lot of them went back to Turkey, because they couldn’t stand living here. Some of them, they picked up the fight, they are part of the movement, they’re part of the organization. But a lot of them they couldn’t bear the pain and left the country.
And so, what what we learned in the last 10 years, and it’s quite unbelievable that it has been 10 years now, since the NSU discovered itself. We learned not to trust the State, in no case. The question, of course, is how to deal with that kind of threatening without the State because like, the antifascist movement, the anti-racist movement, we’re not that many people. And most of the German populations, they don’t give a shit. They don’t give a shit about the victims of right-wing violence because we are the others, we’re the communists, we’re the queer people, we’re the disabled people, we’re the homeless people, we’re the Black people, we’re the POCs. And so most of the of the German society… they just don’t give a shit. And this is really hard to realize.
But at the same time, we have this very big movement that’s a very forceful and strong movement. And also, we have a youth that has a language for what is happening to them, like the victims of the NSU. When they came to Germany, they said that to the children that they should assimilate. And now we have the third generation of, for example, Turkish or Kurdish people coming to Germany, who have a language for institutional racism, for pointing that out for having this kind of conversations.
And also, the far-right, they are taking up like more and more space, like, for example, the murder of Walter Lübcke, he was a politician of the city, which is the Christian Democratic Party in Germany, who Angela Merkel is a member of as well. And he was shot on his terrace and his murderer, Stephan Ernst, he said he wanted to bring the terror to the people he thought were responsible for the politics that brought around migrants in the migrant crisis in 2015. So they shot one of them, and they don’t react to that. This is like really unbelievable. How much silence there is. I’m so wondered why there’s not more anger. But at the same time, we have a great movement, and an understanding, and a language now for doing that. And that keeps us going, I think.
TFSR: One thing I didn’t think to ask about, but it’s sort of occurring to me now is for all the talk of like Neo-Nazis in Germany, we haven’t talked about antisemitic violence very much. And I know that, yeah, it seems like NSU Watch came into existence with the realization that like, these specific groups of like, Kurdish, Turkish, and the one Greek gentleman, were being targeted, and so we focus on those specific populations, but to talk about Neo-Nazism in Germany without talking about anti semitism feels a little strange. One of the people on the kill list I think, for Franco Albrecht is Jewish and was being targeted I think for being Jewish. But I might be wrong about that. But can you talk about it?
Sonja: Yeah, you’re right. It’s Anetta Kahane.
TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about antisemitism in the in the modern far-right in Germany, as pertains to the conversation we’ve been having?
Sonja: In 2018 we had the attack of the synagogue in Halle. It was a on a high Jewish holiday. And the perpetrator he couldn’t get into the synagogue because they have a very good security system. Also, the Jewish communities in Germany, they don’t depend on the State as well. After the attack in Halle, they had police protection for some time. And now on higher holidays, but also they took care of themselves. Like they had a big wooden door and very skilled security person at the entrance. And so the perpetrator couldn’t make his way into the synagogue. So he shot a queer woman on the street. And then he went on people hunting in the city of Halle, and he went into a Kebab shop, and killed the owner, and attacked another person.
So antisemitism in Germany is always connected to the far-right thinking. It’s always one of the motives. And we have like these different kinds of racism, these different kinds of racist pictures, like the Jews being the “superior, always in control kind of people” and the people coming from other parts of the world are the “wild and aggressive and hyper masculine” threat to the Germans. And so in Germany, the far-right is still driven by the idea of the Volksgemeinschaft, which is the community in the Third Reich. And this is really based on Blood and the country they’re living in, still. And we still have this thinking of the Third Reich in Germany, in so many different levels, like there was never true antifascist movement.
So the struggles were always connected. Also, the antifascist movement in Germany is deeply inspired and connected to the survivors of the Holocaust. And there was always this tie together. One of the problems we faced in Germany is that all the leftists were killed in the concentration camps, as well. And we only got the Social Democrats who survived the concentration camps. And so after the Second World War, we had a very weak left-wing movement there. And so they’re different perspective of marginalized life coming out of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. And so we always had this thinking of having this this one struggle and having to support each other.
But it’s also a very complicated history, because Germany itself, it made itself the world champion of remembering… like, getting rid of such a heritage and dealing with such a heritage was a very big political topic in Germany. And so there was always the telling of how Jewish life in Germany is, and the reality of Jewish life in Germany. And so this was also and always a very marginal perspective. And antisemitism is one of the basic foundations of right-wing thinking in Germany. It comes in such different shades. And also we have a huge problem with daily antisemitism, as well as daily racism in Germany. And we’re still debating here publicly, if we’re an immigrant country. No matter where the people are coming from we still have this very folkish thinking, like, there’s this group of people living here for 1000s of years and we’re the “real Germans.” And that’s really hard to get rid of.
Also in the laws, also to get a word like “Rasse”, which is the translation for race, but we don’t use it in the daily talking out of our Constitution, for example. It’s very hard to really get an emancipative perspective on German politics, because there’s so much shit going on, and very different variations. And the attack and Halle, it reminded us again, reminded all the society about the threat that Jewish people are facing in Germany. And of course, they are antisemitic attacks on a daily basis, like restaurants getting attacked, people getting attacked wearing openly Jewish clothing, for example. And it was always a topic for antifascists as well to deal with that. And yeah, like the attack from the perpetrator in Halle, who wanted to get into the synagogue to kill people, Jewish people doing their prayers there, you can switch to a different form of racism if that doesn’t work. And so right-wing ideological thinking is always inspired by racism and antisemitism in the same kind of way.
TFSR: Thanks for answering the question that I didn’t ask you about before. And also, you had made references, for instance, right at the beginning to the survivor of the Holocaust, who had been doing music in Auschwitz and spoke about not not relying on the State.
Sonja: And she she’s actually a very great example for how the struggle can get together. Because she and her daughter, they found music group with some rappers of Turkish heritage. And one of these rappers was also living in Köln, which was attacked by the NSU with a nail bomb. I don’t remember the year actually. But yet, and they were founding this music group together doing rap songs and Yiddish songs together, talking in schools performing at rallies and stuff.
TFSR: That’s awesome.
Sonja: Yeah, that’s really awesome.
TFSR: In the US, one frequently sees the liberal State use real or perceived threats to public safety as an opportunity to increase surveillance and repression of autonomous movements and communities, such as repression of the radical ecological and animal rights movement after the September… actually prior to the September 11 attacks in the US, but the widespread surveillance and attacks on immigrant and particularly Muslim or Muslim perceived populations after 9-11. Or we develop, I think pretty, like insightful fears about further clamp down on Black Lives Matter or antifascist movements following the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, which was conducted by far-right extremists. Are there any such fears that you all in Germany see or have concerning the State’s response, as all of these insights are rolling out about things like the NSU, or DAY X, or Franco Albrecht’s case in particular, where the State uses the rising violence that’s brought to the public eye coming from the far-right, as a means of repressing everything in the middle of that horseshoe that you referenced?
Sonja: Yeah, definitely, like we had two big laws passing in the last couple of months. One gives the Secret Service the possibility to put on a trail on everybody’s phone without having a court acknowledge that. So the same Secret Service who is funding the Neo-Nazi movement still in Germany, and being involved so much, and also being involved in the destroying of the evidence can now put a spy app on everybody’s phone. We have this big budget increase for the secret service as well. And there’s always the telling “well, we could have stopped it if we would have more persons doing the job, or more budget for doing so.”
And the opposite is the case like we had this in a different direction with the attack in link to the IS in Berlin. The case of Anis Amri. Where it’s clear that there was an informant directly in the surrounding of the attacker, and didn’t do shit about it. And as always, I think they play with the fear to increase public surveillance, and it’s quite ridiculous. We have so much Neo-Nazi terrorism going on. And it’s all like separate people, no networks, no groups, no deeper insight there. And on the other hand, we have very big cases of criminalization of leftist or ecological movements.
They’re like, right now, we have a terrorist case here in Germany, where a young antifascist called Lena. She is in jail for, I don’t know, more than half a year now. And they attacked a Neo-Nazi. He wasn’t hurt that bad. I think he they may have hurt his leg or something. So there was just physical violence on a very low level compared to what Neo-Nazis do all over Germany all the time. And she has a terrorist trial now and is in jail for half a year for attacking this well known Neo-Nazi who was also a member of the Atomwaffen Division, by the way, in Germany.
And what is also very concerning is all the stuff going on in the police forces like, also with Nordkreuz, for example, where police officers took a sketch of a house of a person who was threatened. And these sketches were found with the Nordkreuz people. So you have police giving away private information about people and giving it to Neo-Nazis. We had the same thing here in the State of Hessen, where an attorney of one of the members of the NSU case the attorneys name Seda Başay Yıldız and she got death threats by email. A lot of people did actually. The sender calls himself NSU 2.0 So directly relating to the NSU case. She found out that the police in Frankfurt looked up her address. She protected it from public institutions giving it out to people. You can do that if you’re part of a threatened group. You can say “my address is secret” and only the police can look at that. And so she found out that the information in the email, which included her daughter’s kindergarten address, her personal address, and her daughter’s name and age, they were giving out by the police in Frankfurt. And so we have a lot of this connection that directly from the police to Neo-Nazi groups, or other cases of death threats there.
This is a huge problem where there is no actually dealing with that right now. Everyday we get a case where some police officers get together in telegram groups or WhatsApp groups sharing racist pictures or thinking there. And some of them are put on trial, but there’s always the saying that “first of all, it’s just a joke. Second of all, there’s not enough public to get a verdict for that.” Because in Germany, if you want to do hate speech, you need public for that. And if you just have five people in a WhatsApp group, that’s not public enough. You can hang a swastika flag in your living room, you can’t put it outside your window, because there’s public and if you do it in private, it’s fine. And so there’s not so much punishment for this kind of behavior. And also in Germany, we don’t have any outstanding force to investigate police stuff. The police investigates itself, I think it’s the same in the US maybe. And so they cover up each other’s asses for for doing so. We don’t have anything to handle with that, actually.
TFSR: Well, thank you so much for having this conversation for all of the details that you’ve brought, and I really appreciate the work that you all are doing. How can listeners find out more about NSU Watch and support you in this work? and get involved even!
Sonja: So we were on social media. We do have an Instagram and Twitter account. I sent you the addresses so you can pull it up. We also have a very good English website where you can get information about the work we’re doing. Actually, one big help if somebody of you out there can speak German, is to help translate the texts antifascists put out. Especially… I mentioned the big research paper from Exif Recherche. It’s talking a lot about the US, because they all do it on in their free time and not paid, they didn’t have the power to translate it. So if you’re open to that: offering help for translation, that could be awesome. Yeah. And otherwise, just help us push. That’s a big help, actually,
TFSR: A lot of solidarity to you. And thanks for having this conversation. I really, really appreciate it. Yeah, thank you so much for being interested. You can find more about NSU-Watch’s work at NSU-Watch.info/en/ or follow them on Twitter (@NSUWatch) and Instagram (@NSUWatch)
On this special midweek release, you’ll hear Swift Justice, incarcerated Abolitionist in Alabama affiliated with the Alabama Resistance Movement and Unheard Voices OTCJ. Swift talks about some current situations in the Alabama Department of Corrections, legislation ongoing around prison slavery due to the exception clauses at the state and federal level (specifically the 13th Ammendment), covid-19 behind bars, groups doing well in the struggle and organizing that needs to go further and actually engage with incarcerated comrades and updates on the recent attack on Swift’s mentor, Kinetic Justice. Check out some of Swift’s writings on his supporters blog at SwiftJustice4Freedom.wordpress.com.
You can hear our past interview with Swift here as well as our interview with Kinetic and Bennu on the founding of the Free Alabama Movement. For more Alabama prisoner perspectives from over the years, you can search Alabama on our site.
Protesters will take action against increasingly torturous and fatal conditions at the prison in Green Bay (GBCI) at noon on Saturday, August 28, 2021. The protest will include a march to the prison, speeches from advocates and people who’ve done time at GBCI, and relaying messages from people currently held there. The demonstrators will use large banners, loudspeakers and noisemakers to attempt to reach and express solidarity with people confined in the prison.
WHERE: Green Bay CI, 2833 Riverside Dr, Allouez, WI 54301
WHEN: 12:00 Noon on Sat August 28, 2021
Conditions at prisons across Wisconsin have deteriorated in recent years, and GBCI is one of the worst. Money that was intended to repair and improve the 123 year old prison is instead being used to create more solitary confinement cells and control units. People held there describe it as a conversion into a supermax style prison.
Staff at GBCI frequently neglect medical emergencies and drive their captives to self-harm and suicide. Those held in the restrictive housing unit (RHU) often express fear for their lives. When summoned to investigate deaths or litigate suits against the prison, local law enforcement and judges support the prison, enabling continued atrocities.
The demonstration at GBCI is part of the national SHUTEMDOWN2021 mobilization called by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a prisoner-led organization. The goal of SHUTEMDOWN2021 is to raise awareness of the prison strike JLS plans for next year, and their 10 demands to end slavery and improve conditions in prisons across the US. Wisconsin organizers are also planning educational events in Milwaukee, and a large demonstration at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) on September 9.
Unity And Struggle Through The Bars with Mwalimu Shakur
This week on the show, you’ll hear our conversation with Mwalimu Shakur, a politicized, New Afrikan revolutionary prison organizer incarcerated at Corcoran prison in California. Mwalimu has been involved in organizing, including the cessations of hostilities among gangs and participation in the California and then wider hunger strikes against unending solitary confinement when he was at Pelican Bay Prison in 2013, helping to found the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, or IWOC, Liberation Schools of self-education and continues mentoring younger prisoners. He was in solitary confinement, including in the SHU, for 13 of the last 16 years of his incarceration.
For the hour, Mwalimu talks a bit about his politicization and organizing behind bars, his philosophy, Black August, the hunger strikes of 2013, the importance of organizing in our neighborhoods through the prison bars.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Jonathan Jackson at the Marin County Courthouse, the assassination of his brother George at San Quentin in California and the subsequent uprising and State massacre at Attica State Prison in New York. Black August has been celebrated at least since 1979 to mark these dates with study, exercise, community building, sharing and reflection by revolutionaries on both sides of the bars. In the last decade across Turtle Island, you’ve seen strikes and protests and educational events take place around this time of the year as we flex our muscles.
This year, as you’ve heard us mention, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak is calling for weeks of action for Abolitionism under the name “Shut ‘Em Down 2021”. You can find out more at JailhouseLawyersSpeak.Wordpress.Com and follow them on twitter and instagram, linked in our show notes, alongside links relating to this weeks chat. You can hear our interview with a member of JLS from earlier this year about the “Shut ‘Em Down” initiative, or read the interview, at our site and in these show notes. Also, check out our interview with the remaining member of the Marin Courthouse Uprising, possibly the oldest living political prisoner in the US, Ruchell Cinque Magee.
Shaka Shakur Hunger Strike
New Afrikan prison rebel, co-founder of the New Afrikan Liberation Collective and IDOCWatch organizer, Shaka Shakur has been interstate transferred hundreds of miles away from his support network to Buckingham Correctional Center in Virginia (recognize that name?). There was a call-in campaign this week focused on VA Governor Northam, director of VADOC Harold Clark, VADOC central regional director Henry Ponton and Warden Woodson at BKCC. This was in support of Shakur’s hunger strike in protest of the transfer, his time in solitary prior in Indiana for having his prescription medication, being moved into solitary at BKCC with minimal hygiene and no personal materials. As noted in the transcript about his hunger strike at IDOCWatch’s website, the transfer interrupts civil and criminal litigation Shaka Shakur had pending in Indiana and has caused him to be halfway across the country after his own surgeries, the loss of his family matriarch and another aunt, the hospitalization of mother and other health hardships.
TFSR: Hi, I’m wondering if you could introduce yourself for the audience, maybe like your name, your location, if that’s useful, any pertinent information that will help the audience understand you.
Mwalimu Shakur: My name is Mwalimu Shakur, and I’m in CorcoranState Prison, where I’ve been for the last 17 years, 13 of which were in solitary confinement. But, you know, due to our massive hunger strikes in challenging this legislature inside of prison, the bureaucrats decided to let us out to the general population.
TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about some of your background, where you came from, how you became politicized, and how you identify politically now?
MS: Yeah, well, I came from Los Angeles, California. You know… gang violence was a problem in every neighborhood around the whole LA County area. As well as most of Southern California, but I grew up in a gang neighborhood, and not having really no political education, and only knowing the street way of life. You kind of navigated through court cases, you know, cases that put you in prison. But once you come inside of here, you have older individuals from your same community and other communities around the country who became politicized. And they became politically mature, so they can re-educate others that come in.
And for me, landing in prison, or what the drug mentality, gang mentality, criminal mentality all together. It put me in a situation where I was always involved in physical combat with others. You know, people I knew from my area, and then we have race riots. So those types of things that put you in solitary confinement. And when you go to solitary confinement, or you catch an infraction, those in SHU term, they’ll place you around more politicized individuals, who’ve educated themselves, studied their own history, study, politics, economics, a vast array of things. And being around those guys, that was the program on the inside. So I was able to start educating myself. I educated myself, so much so that I developed it into my practice. And it gave me a discipline, that became second nature to me. And once my mind started opening up to this new reality, I started seeing things more clearly, and I realized and understood why my community was the way that it was.
It wasn’t because we wanted to do these things, it was by design by those who oppress us and control us so that they can put us in their prisons and enact a modern day slavery type practice. Being in prison, that’s exactly what it is. So that’s what happened to me. And now, the more I still learn, the more I’m able to teach, and hopefully stop others from making those same mistakes. And if my teaching is correct, the way it was with me, then we can stop this school–to–prison pipeline which is what we say when you have a lot of people from inner city coming to prison, not knowing what to do with their self, they usually end up here. And we’re trying to break, break that curse, break those habits.
TFSR: A lot of people in the listening audience may not understand what you mean, with talking about how the situation was set up, particularly at this time, like you went in during what could be called like the heyday of mass incarceration in the United States. And if you could maybe break down, since you’ve been in for a while and some things have changed greatly, somethings have stayed the same. There’s this guy named Biden, I’ve heard about that has a still pretty prominent politics, that was pretty prominent. And some of the political decisions that put a lot of people in particular, Black and brown folks behind bars at that time. Can you talk a little bit about that context?
MS: Yeah, well, in the inner city, they flooded it with cocaine. You know, as if to say that the little progress we’ve made in the 70s, from the 60s revolutionary era, would quiet us and stop us from progressing as a people and as a culture. So you flood all the inner cities with this cocaine, okay? A lot of us partook in selling it, not knowing or really having a vast understanding and just further destroying our community and our people. So we became hustlers in the drug game. Gangs were rapidly building and growing. And then they put guns on the streets.
So now with the gun wars, and drug wars… basically the administration, I think and believe, had it set up that way so that they can take taxpayers money to build more prisons and create more laws to put us in and clearly show you the problems that are happening in those inner cities. And they created it, you know, and when you study it, you see it unfold that way because the only ones being hauled off into these prisons is Black and brown people. And the sentences are outrageous. Without a murder just for like selling small amounts of cocaine, you can get a lot of times – double digits, Okay? And then they enacted other laws, like the three strike law and made it seem like we were the worst people on planet Earth.
And in all actuality, that’s not really true. If you wouldn’t flood the inner cities with that cocaine and had made it possible for us to have better quality education in our schools, made it affordable to go off to college and learn a higher field of study so we can be successful in this country, we would have had more success. But the ratio, you know, people Black and brown playing sports was very limiting and that was the only ticket that I see out if you weren’t being a drug dealer. So that’s why I say it was by design, when you studied you see that mass incarceration boom, is still in effect right now, right? And what we’re doing is trying to challenge some of those laws and get them out of here. Because we recognize what they did. And with some of the laws changing, it’s like they’re admitting it, that they did do this and now it’s time to make it right. So that’s what I see.
Awesome, thank you so much for sharing that. Part of the context that I have for you and was excited to have you on the show is because you have a long history of struggle alongside of other prisoners against unethical situations, against cruelty, against mass incarceration. One of the points in the struggle of prisoners that I’ve heard you refer to was participation in the hunger strikes against basically unending use of the SHU or solitary confinement. Can you talk a bit about it? People may have heard of the term SHU or secure housing unit? How does that differ from solitary confinement more generally? Is there a difference?
Well, no, there’s no difference. I mean, we refer to solitary confinement is to AD-SEG, administrative segregation, which is what they first put you before you get the SHU term. The situation is the same. 23 hours locked down. Except for once you once you go to the SHU, that’s when you can have appliances like a TV or radio, okay? In AD-SEG, you can’t have those two things, but you can have everything else. You still go to yard every other day for a few hours. And you’re in a dog-like kennel-type cage, where they put a urinal, so that you can use the restroom. But you have no contact with another human being. You can see from cage to cage, but you can’t contact them, you can’t touch them.
The only human contact you have is if you have a celly. So the practices are the same. The length of time, in AD-SEG is not as long as it is in SHU. Like I said AD-SEG is like a pit stop before you get to Security Housing Unit. And within a Security Housing Unit. You can’t have the type of things you can have on in the general population. You can’t take college courses, you can’t go to school. You can’t take a vacation. You can have a few books. You can have no tennis shoes. Just like, some type of shoe that’s not really designed to protect your feet, you can put on like a shower shoe, but with a little bit more support. You could have no athletic shorts, no T-shirts. We took like two pairs of T-shirts to make a long sleeve T-shirt in case it was cold. So you couldn’t have sweat suits, thermals, beanies, nothing like that, to keep yourself warm.
It’s a real inhumane practice to have. You pretty much break a person down to nothing. And you put them in a cell, like I said, confined for 23 hours a day. And it was just because of those conditions: the small portions on the trays, the lack of quality healthcare, always being handcuffed every time you do come out of the cell to go to a shower, which is like five minutes. If you’re in Pelican Bay, then you’re not in a dog cage, you are in a little cage right behind your cell so you see nobody.
So yeah, we all came together talking through the doors, talking through the toilets, to each other and decided to come up with a strategy to get out of here. To get released. It worked because, united we stood on a hunger strike. And then we started challenging the injustice that puts you in there, like the gang validation. And then we start challenging the practices that they use to keep you in there. Like, if you talk to another inmate who’s a gang member, then you get another point, and it keeps you in there longer. And mind you, you are going through a classification every six years to get considered to be released. So it was really inhumane, the practices were. We just came up with the hunger strike strategy as well as challenging the rules in order to get up out of here. And for the most part, it worked.
TFSR: You talked about participating in the hunger strikes against SHU containment. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between the administration and gang status? There’s a term, you’ll be able to come up with it, but, basically where if you’re assigned a gang status, because somebody else pointed at you, the only way in a lot of cases to get out of the SHU at that point was to basically claim that someone else was a gang member, and give false testimony in a lot of cases, to be able to reduce SHU time. Is that Is that a fair description? Is that what happened?
MS: Yeah, well, what it is, is the administration, they look at who they feel is against them as far as political-ness. Like for us New Afrikans, I could speak on that. We’re not a gang, but being a politicized, conscious, New Afrikan means you can challenge the conditions and wake others up to that knowledge on how to do so. And what they do is they’ll put that gang label on you, because they put the gang label on the other ethnic groups, and it will stick with the other ethnic groups, if you’re a gang member that came from society, and you come up inside of these prisons and you group together, and you form your structure.
So what they do is they put that label on you. So they can get away with the type of law book that they write. They come up with these rules, just like the bureaucrats and society come up with rules and different laws to get legislation passed, okay? The bureaucrats in prison do the same, they get a book where it gives them the rights to whatever they consider gang practice: like reading certain types of books, certain type of cultural literature, a certain type of drawing depicting that literature. Anything you read, study, or practice, if they consider that gang participation, they’ll slap you with that label.
Okay? And if you rack up… they give you points for everything you do. Okay, if you speak this Swahili language, they say you are communicating in code. Okay, so that becomes a gang point. If you exercise a certain way, in military form, that shows unity. They look at that as gang participation with other gang members. So it’s whatever the rules they can try to come up with to make stick on you, which gives them their little right to hinder you. And once they have enough points, like three to four points, they then can put you in solitary confinement indefinitely. And what it does is, they give you an indeterminate SHU, which is only six months. But every six months, they just keep stamping it. So then you stay in there for years and years and years and you only go to committee every six years if you have an indeterminate SHU. So that gives me the right to keep you in there. And then when you go to that committee, they stamp you again. Saying, “well, we see them talking to another gang member, he hasn’t denounced his association”.
So, you know, those little things keep you in solitary for that length of time, and the only way to get out is parole. And if you debrief, go through the little process of dry snitching or telling on others, informing on others and work for them, or you die. You know? And we wanted to take that power back. So we all got together and decided, you know, let’s come up with these strategies to do so. But it’s a flawed system. We challenged it, it worked because we didn’t have the political maturity to understand that in order to beat their system, we should unite. But once we develop that, we found those strategies to be significant in winning our freedoms from behind that wall. So now, they can only use this SHU practices, if you catch a SHU-able offense. You know, whatever they deem a SHU-able offense by getting caught with a weapon or participating in some type of a riot or melee, assault on the staff, anything that will warrant SHU placement?
TFSR: Mwalimu, just to make a point, on the on the gang jacketing, and the files, and the debriefing and everything. Like, if you get paroled out… and like a lot of people are going to end up staying with their families because they don’t have money. So if they can go anywhere, they’ll try to stay with their family. Oftentimes the ways that the California government defines gang membership, there’s a relationship to… they say like, “Oh, it overlaps with family.” So it seems like it complicated it too, when you go and you stay in your cousin’s house or whatever, they are then associating with a known gang member and this kind of thing. I’m not sure if it still is the case, but I think in 2013 this was still the case, gang injunctions would then come into play where maybe if because you’ve been communicating with your cousin, who’s on the outside. When you get out maybe you can’t go to the neighborhood that your your cousin lives in, because they’re considered to be gang associated through family connections or whatever. Is that right?
MS: Well, it’s true still because yeah, they can gang jacket you. But once they do background checks on your family, and they see that they’re not involved with the street gang or anything like that, they will back up but they will still watch you. Most people, the family already knows about them, and what to expect in case they parole to a loved one’s house. Now, if you go to your neighborhood, and you are a member of a street gang, then the parole department is going to watch a lot more, because if the street gangs is under any type of surveillance for any type of activities that they have, they’re going to see if you’re participating in things like that. And that’s also avoidable. It’s all about you and what you want to do to integrate back into society.
For me, I was working, went back to school, and living a productive life, where they couldn’t pinpoint me for doing things with known gang members from my area, or anybody else I might have ran into that I knew, because while they’re watching me, they’re seeing that “Okay, he may be speaking to people, but he’s not doing anything that we consider illegal or gang activity.” So, they won’t push on you so hard, they’ll gives you a little leeway. But for those that do go back out there and do anything like that, you’re just setting yourself up for failure, you know? Surveillance capitalism, you see it all over now they got cameras on telephone poles, and certain community areas where they can watch the neighborhood and see what they’re doing, and things of that nature. So the community is under surveillance, you know, normal people under surveillance. I mean, so they’re watching everything you do. But it’s up to you, that individual, on how well they want to be productive out there and what they want to do while they’re out there.
TFSR: Yeah, what you’re describing, though, with, like the inside / outside affiliations, and the constant surveillance is counter-insurgency. Right?
Right. Right, right. And they do that in here as well as out there. I learned that firsthand by being in the SHU and being investigated by ISU officers and IGI who are supposed to work with gang members in prison. But they’re going out there in society and work on parole agents, and other Sheriff departments and patrols certain gang neighborhoods. And that’s how I got arrested, actually, on three violations that I obtained. I was arrested by them, you know, and I didn’t commit a crime. But one of my violations, they put me back in prison for being out past curfew because I stopped at a gas station before I got home, and then they were the one’s harassing me! Okay? Then I’m at home, you know, it’s a decent hour, but they came to my house, saying “Well, you are living above your means.” You know, just little chickenshit things like that. It’s the thing that they do when you have their gang jacket on. And like I said, it gives them that right, because of their flawed law book that they put together, that they target us. You know?
TFSR: During the last portion of our conversation, you were talking about the the prison strikes, the hunger strikes across California prisons that actually spread way beyond that, around concerns of solitary confinement. And you talked about when people realize that when they were unified, they have a lot more strength. Can you talk about that sort of organizing. That inspirational moment and the hard work that you all put into create negotiations and some sort of like, de-escalation between different crews, whether they be specifically racialized crews, like the Aryan Brotherhood? That sort of stuff that inspires people still from the Lucasville uprising and from Attica before it?
MS: Yeah, yes. When you show a person your purpose, and you can sometimes take race even out of it, and just show the love for humanity. When you take a stand for others who are being oppressed. And you show them the conditions in which they’re being oppressed, they can understand and say “That makes sense.” So what we was able to do was, let them know that there’s a bigger picture than this little bickering that we had going on for generations and generations. And when you show them that bigger picture, and they see that “if we unite with you all, whether our interests are the same or not, and we can reach the objective by doing so, then let’s do it.” And then the whole time, while you’re doing that, you still show them your correct views, your correct ideology, what you proceed. You show them the incorrect ways in which they’re being treated by the government. You show them that it’s a class struggle, and not a race struggle, and you use these teaching moments, you know, to show them that it’s the race caste system was devised by the two party government system. To show you that “look, if you divide yourself from the Negros and the Indians, then we will give you special privileges,” but they’re not getting as those privileges. So now you show them that, “look, you’re serving their interests as much as we do, or we are. And if you believe in American values, you’re going to lose because they’re not going to treat you the way you think you deserve to be treated.” And you can clearly see that with people that go off to war. So when you show people where they’re wrong is that and who is responsible for the wrong they’ll lean more towards you.
And that’s what we were able to do with the other ethnic groups in California, as well as when we got the word out to society, and had a lot white people, a lot of Mexican people, a lot of other ethnicities join forces with us, in solidarity, to help us overcome the challenges that we were facing here. And we had a lot of people from other countries like maybe Europe, you know, where there was a lot of civil unrest, and a lot of organizations who established themselves, they were poor people organizations. They realized that it was a class struggle. And that’s how you win the masses over. You know a lot of times people just, they have a feeling, they have a thought, they just need to be pushed to exercise that thought and give into that feeling. And when you show him that you’ve got that love and support for them. And they feel that strength, they tend to latch on, too.
TFSR: What were some outcomes actually, of those strikes. I know it led to higher court responses and admonition of the state of California for its practices. How have things changed because of that mass movement of people, and how has that peace that was brokered, and reflection, that it was a class struggle, and not a race struggle… Where does that seem to fit in the California system to you now?
MS: Well, now that they let us all out of solitary confinement, you know, that was one win. And then they can only use solitary confinement or the SHU for if you catch a SHU term. You know, it would have to be a criminal infraction, just like if you’re on the streets, and you catch a case and you go to prison. They have to utilize it the way it was designed. So they can’t use those practices no more. Also the guard union took a hit, because a lot of them can’t work in the SHU no more and get that hazardous pay, which is like triple pay. So they lose out. The Board of Prison Terms has said “You know what? We’re going to have to start letting some of these people out of prison and back into society.” So the laws have been changing.
Since we’ve gotten into the general population, and utilize our practices, and shown them, you know, this revolutionary way of doing things. When they implemented their own self-help groups, which are like robotic programs to teach you how to have common sense the way they want you to, you see how they’re doing it, and you change that narrative and create your own self-help groups. Things that you know will really work. And you’re working together with other ethnicities, and you’re increasing the peace and showing this younger generation “You’ve been misled, you’ve been misguided. You know, we’re the ones who made mistakes, and had the faults, it’s time for us to change that.” And when you do that, you see legislature saying “Okay, well, they know the truth now. They know what really happened. They know how the Three Strikes were devised. They know who pushed the crack cocaine into the neighborhoods.” we’re taking the power back by realizing that there’s a peaceful way to get things done, there’s a peaceful way to bring these changes.
And if you keep telling the truth, you take the power out of their 1% class of hands, and you win more of the masses over. Because you make people who didn’t know, understand, you know, by teaching them those truths. And then they research those facts on their own and they’re more willing to want to help you. So a lot of changes are still needed, but we got the ball rolling. And that’s one thing that I can say is happening right now throughout the California prison system.
TFSR: So this year, Jailhouse Lawyer Speak, which is a coalition based around and in prisons around the US and a lot in the South, is calling for days of action, solidarity and education on the outside with folks struggling on the inside on August 21, and September 9. And I’d like to hear later about Black August and about education and the 50th anniversary of George Jackson’s assassination, and how people participated in the Attica Uprising also. But I’m wondering if you can say a little bit about the importance of having people on the outside acting in solidarity and understanding the unity between inside and outside as well as the differences. And just to sort of like point to that trajectory of activity… the inspiration of the hunger strikes in California that spread the movement in Georgia, in the early 2010s, the Free Alabama Movement and the strikes that were happening in Alabama and Mississippi around that time and the sort of like chronology of struggle. Could you talk about the importance of the inside / outside solidarity and the upcoming dates of the action and education?
MS: Yeah, well, the inside outside solidarity is of paramount importance because we don’t want separation. We don’t want the 1% class to think that people in society look at us as bad people, you know? They need to understand that it’s important to support us on the inside because we are the ones who will be fighting once we get out, we’re the ones who are going to fight with them, to help them challenge different conditions out there that are still oppressing them out there is as it is in here. You know, it should never be a divide. It should always be unity.
You know what we sparked in California by recognizing our conditions, we’re glad that it trickled over into the other states because they were up against the same type of oppressive slave conditions. I mean, they didn’t start in California with the three strikes, for example. They started in California, and that actually spread to other States, and they just call it something different, but the condition is still the same. So the importance of knowing that, will build that unity, and people outside will see the importance of this, to stand in unity with us on the inside to get things done because t takes us all in order to beat back Capitalism and Imperialism.
What we would love to see more of, is a lot more changes being done in the Constitution, like Ammendment 13. Keeping those clauses there allows them to still keep those practices, those slave practices. And people on outside needs to really understand a lot more of what they’re up against. And if they are working with anybody in here, we can always show them to look at Liberation Schools. It teaches you something that the American public school system didn’t teach you. We teach the truth based on all cultures, how they’ve been oppressed, economically, politically, militarily. And the need to eradicate those backwards ways of thinking and doing,because you know who established them. And if you know that, then you can fight them a whole lot easier. So we look forward to continuing our Liberation Schools and winning the masses over that way. We look forward to supporting you all out there. As well as I know, you guys will look forward to helping us on the inside. And yeah, we can talk about it a lot more than next time I get a chance to call.
Working inside and outside is the best thing possible so that we break away from that dividing line, that they try to put there because they want to keep you separate. Unity in the masses is of paramount importance, if you want to go forward in this class struggle, because we need to unite, helping each other with whatever we got going on, that reaches a positive objective of change. You know, and like what you’re doing now, this right here builds unity of the masses, builds solidarity, this reaches people so they can see their purpose. And if they need help with anything, and there’s others who might have a semblance of how to make it happen for them, then, you know, by all means you should always assist. You know, and that’s what will keep the unity strong. People always want to be able to lean on their comrades and loved ones and sometimes other people have better programs or something else is working, that they might not have working. And you always want to help people so that they can achieve their goals, just like how you want to achieve your goals.
TFSR: So we’re talking right now, in August, that’s the 50th anniversary of the Attica uprising as well as the assassination of George Jackson, which, as I understand in 1979 began being practiced mostly by Black radical prisoners, and then by others in solidarity, the practice of Black August. Can you talk a little bit about the practice, it’s important to you? And also a bit about the education and the Liberation Schools?
Yeah. Well the purpose of keeping the practice going of Black August is what the month means to New Afrikan revolutionaries and fought and gave their life to win freedoms that we have in here. They put their life on the line to challenge these conditions. So, the Liberation Schools, from the onset is to teach that, about our history, our cultural practices, because this is something that we didn’t learn in school. And when you learn through the Liberation Schools, it allows you to go out there and not compete in the capitalist market, but understand what Capitalism is all about and utilize your finances for socialist practices. You know, helping grow Black–owned businesses or other oppressed ethnic groups in the communities, businesses, and building that unity and solidarity. Because what you learn is that we all have shared cultural practices. In Howard Zinn’s book The People’s History of the United States you learn how divided line was established and by whom. You learned the importance of solidarity and unity and how to help each other, you know “Each One Teach One” practices come to mind. And you see the importance of doing so. So yeah, this whole month, we pay reverence to those who paved the way for us, basically, and continue with this study. And practice the exercising, something we do in unity. Just to feel strength.
TFSR: So you mentioned, like the practices and the importance of sharing this, learning and mentoring, and study, and focus, during the period of Black August, and also like redirecting funds back into socialistic endeavors. Could you talk a bit about sort of the legacy for you of some of the big ideas, and some of the big thinkers. George Jackson obviously comes to mind. His struggle, his writings have been like greatly influential to folks that are doing study behind bars. I know that you’ve done work on projects that have collaborated with George Jackson University. And also, I would like for you, if you if you’re okay with it, to break down the term New Afrikan, which you’ve defined yourself as. I think some listeners may be unfamiliar with that term and some of its lineage.
MS: Well, the New Afrikan term is your ideology. You know, we consider this our New Afrikan being as we’re descendants of our ancestors who came over here as slaves. So we don’t use the term African American or Black or… We try to refrain from those terms, because those are the terms that the oppressor wants to call you and to see things in his way is just not the correct way. So that’s why we call ourselves New Afrikans, it’s an ideology. And all ethnicities who are revolutionary nationalists should always refer to their self in a way that they feel comfortable, not in a way like the oppressors feel like referring to them. And you know, most of my role models, so to speak: yeah, George is one; Mao; Marx; Engels; Amílcar Cabral; Patrice Lumumba; Kwame Nkrumah; Jomo Kenyatta. All those who took the liberation stands, Che Guevara, to challenge oppression, and unite the people, and challenge the conditions that were oppressing them, not just the people. Those who sacrificed their life, paved the way for us. The spirit lives on in the hearts and minds of all of those who continue to do the same, because, as you can see, the problem still exists.
I do like Huey’s concept as well, because, creating a party, which Lenin spoke about, a party or self-governing organization of the people. You know, that’s basically what Communism is. And Socialism is your economic practices. So it works in hindsight, as long as you’re always keeping the People in mind. When you create programs for the People, they are programs designed to help further the people along, and keep them thinking about self sufficiency. Because that’s what it’s all about. You don’t need to compete in the capitalist market, work your way up the capitalist chain, because you’ll never make it to the top. In understanding that, you want to wake up the minds of others who don’t yet know that. And that way they won’t be running around like dogs chasing their tail, so to speak. Lost and caught up just trying to make ends meet. They’ll make things better for themself. Okay?
TFSR: You were just telling me about the liberation Schools. Can you talk a bit about what y’all do and what the idea is?
MS: Okay, with us, it’s always about need. So, as far as like the Liberation Schools, we try to bring the material, the cultural material, historical material, where we read it and studied it, and we practice our way of life like our ancestors did. And every program we create, is a program of need. So when we grab the certain books, by for instance, Chancellor Williams has a book called The Destruction of Black Civilization, and it tells you how it was destroyed in Africa. Okay, Then he tells you, he does a sequel, part two: The Rebirth Of African Civilization. And that tells you how to build these self sufficiency programs that are designed to allow you to implement socialist practices that are programs of need that people have, so that they can continue to raise healthy families. You know?
Like for instance, we created one program, I have to use a pamphlet so you can get the in depth details of it. But like for instance, one of them was like building a community grocery store. And let’s say for instance, I have enough finances to rent a space and build a grocery store. I use a comrade or friend in the community that has their own construction company, and I spend money with them who is not going to charge me a lot to build the grocery store. Okay, the grocery store, all the stuff that I’m selling in a grocery store, let’s say or instance there are four or five people on my street who have organic fruits and vegetables. The soil is ripe for planting and growing foods and vegetables. So I take all their groceries, all their stuff, I pay them what they want for this, reasonable price, and I turn around and sell it to other people. And what you see is the practices of implementing that. And everybody has enough. Everybody is not in need. And the concept continues.
And you can use it with other things like a clothing store. I have a friend of mine who’s a good artist. So I might want to go to another friend of mine who has a linen shop, and buy some linen, and then take my other friend’s art and transform the art onto the clothes and start a clothing line. You know what I mean? And go to another friend of mine who owns like a store similar to Walmart, and put my stuff in his store and have him sell it for price. So that everybody has enough money. Everybody is working and contributing to each other’s businesses, and we’re growing and thriving those businesses and living off of that. Those socialist practices are what’s missing in the communities. And if there is a lot of, you know, what we call a mom and pop spots, the community businesses, thriving those businesses allows for a safe environment in a thriving community. And that’s one of the things we teach in the Liberation Schools. One of the ways that we’ll be able to implement socialist practices.
People get other things out of it. Because we don’t just study New Afrikan history, we study all oppressed people’s history. Mexican history, First Nation peoples history, which they call them Indians or Native Americans, because that was all of Central South America. We study American history. When you study other culture’s history, you fill in the gap that’s left out of American history, where all of us played a part in history, and we fill those in. We study theology, break down the different religions, show how cultures worship God in different ways. Some comrades are Muslim, so they can talk about that. Some comrades are Christian, Hebrew Israelites, Judaists, you know, I’ve heard all different types. We just study all the sciences that we can and some of the arts. And there’s people who are more well versed in languages and in other forms of study than a lot of others, so they study on an advanced level, and then some study on a beginning level. And as long as you can grasp the concepts, and implement them into your practice it will change your way of thinking and how you relate to each other. When you see that each other has a need, and you learn about core value systems, and you try to complement those needs based on their core value system.
TFSR: So, to go back to the example that you gave, of both starting markets and trading with each other and using each other’s resources and such, how does the socialist approach not allow for the re-creation of a bourgeoisie within that community? Certain people have access to certain resources? And if they continue to hold on to it, doesn’t that just reproduce the class dynamic?
MS: Yeah, if you can’t show people the importance of the socialist practice, then yeah, they’ll stay with a bougie mind. And that’s middle class mainly because they try to reach for that 1% class. A lot of them don’t make it. So if they want to continue to reach for it like that, then you have to just let them do what they do. You know, but for those who see the importance of the socialist practices, you continue to welcome them in and show them the importance of sharing those resources. Because you don’t want to be materialistic, if you if you become too materialistic, then the capitalist mind has as engulfed you. You continue and you start thinking like the 1%, which is what they they want. You see it on a TV screen all the time, the lavish lifestyle. They want to showcase that so that you can see that that is success. And it’s really not. You know?
I was in the streets, and I was a hustler and I used to think that that was the way to be successful. When I realized, after studying my history, when I came to prison, that all I’m doing is stepping on my own people, hurting my own people and creating genocidal practices as well as menti-cidal practices by destroying people’s mind. Making them think that this is the way to be, and it is not. So you have to use a practice that we call “eradicating backwards and unprogressive ways of thinking and behavior.” And when you read and study more, you see that that’s the most important thing to do. You know? And when you apply that mentally, you have to encourage others to do the same. But yeah, if you can’t reach everybody, so if you can’t, you just got to let them pretty much fall to the wayside.
TFSR: I’d love to hear more about your ideas on, for instance in Corcoran, in your study group where, like people have limited access to material resources, there’s… literally the institution is there to keep people separate from each other and monitor their relationships. Sharing knowledge is definitely an aspect of socialism. But is there are there other practices or or ways that people relate to each other that sort of reflect on this socialist practice you’re talking about?
MS: Us who come from the inner city, you know, we’ve swallowed a lot of our differences. And we see that there’s a common goal. And that common goal is keeping it peaceful on the prison yards, and not let anyone disturb that peace so that we can make it back to society where our families and our community needs us. So we can undo the damage that we did with the selling of drugs and the gang banging and the, you know, things like that. So we pretty much understand our conditions. And we know that we are our own liberators. So we fight to do just that. We’ve already, because of our agreement to end all hostilities, we’ve already got football tournaments going, basketball tournament, softball tournaments, handball tournaments, things like that. We share in the practices of implementing the self-help groups. We know how to build better men. We know how to interact with each other to help each other thrive and overcoming any injustices that come our way. So we help each other with law work and stuff like that, filling out 602’s, medical forms. Anything like that to show and build unity, which helps with the solidarity.
So coming across those lines, youngsters coming in here who have a different mindset, they see that, and then they realize “Wait a minute, we thought it was like negative and violent!” And we show them “No, this is why it was violent at first, it was CO’s behind it starting all that.” You know? Then of course when there is bloodshed, it’s hard to stop it. But we show them the importance of building that unity, and why we’re resorting to a different way of doing things. And they’re starting to relate to that more. So it is a lot of action. And we were trying to take the hands out of these CO’s, slowly but surely.
I mean, we’re up against the California Guard’s Union. It’s real big and powerful. But, you know, we’re not going to let that discourage us. We’re going to keep doing the best that we can, so that we can overcome this and get these laws to change, get these Parole Boards, hopefully, with people from the community on them, that would have more sympathy towards us. And let us out instead of believing in Capital Punishment. But yeah, it’s still a work in progress, but it’s working. It’s working in a good way. So much so that the governor is letting people off death row, and letting them transition into prison, so they can function in a normal environment. So hopefully they can get a Parole Board date or win their case in court. You know what I mean?
TFSR: So I guess the specific question, again, about the place that you’re being held, or at least the state. So in terms of the demonstrations that are being called for by JLS that we’ve talked about, or mentioned before, between August 21 and September 9, asking for folks on the outside to spread the Abolitionist message and work with comrades and connect with comrades behind bars. I was wondering if you could talk about some of the issues that are specific to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation system, where you’re currently being held. And any sort of insights on what you would like folks on the outside to be working on, or programs that they could be coordinating with, based on the conversations that you’re hearing and the reality on the ground, where you’re at.
MS: Well, where we’re at, if comrades on the outside were building Liberation Schools, that will be of paramount importance, because now they’re educating themselves on the need and the importance of transforming the inner cities into positive places, getting rid of all the negative things. And that’s mainly what we’re doing in here, because our self–help groups, we’re finding needs, and trying to meet those needs. And what the state does is they want to create self–help groups that the prison board will accept. So they can transition back into society and be a robot basically, for them. And we don’t want that, that’s not therapeutic programming. Rehabilitating is people who want to change. And they know what they want to change. And if you create certain types of programs that help that change prosper and thrive, then that’s what’s needed.
And that’s what we’re trying to do. What outside comments can also do is work with organizations that are already doing things in prisons, whatever it may be. If it’s creating newsletters, newspapers, podcasts. Whatever it is, so that people in here can let you know what’s going on. And you can find ways to help that, to bring about those changes, that’s what’s needed. We really would like to see people from the community on these Parole Boards, instead of ex-police, DA’s and people in the legislature who only want to control us all. We don’t want to see them because they don’t really want to help you. You know? If they help you transition to society, then they don’t have a job. They have a job when all these prisons stay full. So that’s basically what’s needed.
TFSR: Are there any sort of organizations that you want to name that folks would get involved in? Like, you were one of the founders of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Commitee? So I don’t know if that’s one that you’d want to name or Oakland Abolition or any other sort of groups?
MS: Yeah, IWOC is always… whatever state you’re in, whatever city you live in, there’s a chapter, and we’re trying to create more chapters. But yeah, IWOC is a good group to get involved with because their Abolitionists and activist, and a lot of them have other professional fields where they can utilize those tools to help transition us out into society and create safe space for us to be involved in community work. They challenged legislature. Initiate Justice is another organization that they really challenged legislature and try to get… They’re guiding Senators and State Council members to pass certain laws that will let us get out of prison earlier than what is expected. You’ve got Critical Resistance, they’re pretty big, and they work to abolish prisons altogether. But a lot of them are activists. You got California Prison Focus. There are some other organizations out there in society and different states. I can’t think of them all right now, but any organization that’s working with inside people to make conditions better on the inside, as well as transform those communities into positive places like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in the South. You know, those are organizations you want to be a part of. We have a lot of organizations that we’ve established like the Revolutionary Intercommunal Black Panthers Party. That’s an organization that deals with racial schools. Prison Lives Matter is a new organizations like Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, where we’re trying to continue to connect ourselves to these other prison plantations throughout this country, where we continue to develop consciousness through our education, and our revolutionary theory. We can apply that to practice so that we can continue to grow and thrive as a class, not just as a nation, but as a class of all ethnicities, and struggle to win our freedoms.
You have to liberate the mind first before you can liberate the body. That’s something that I always tell people. That’s something that people can get involved with, and if they’re not working with anybody on the inside, they can always go to my website and contact me, go to other comrades who might have websites and contact them directly. So that that way we can help them get that extra push they might need to get involved in something.
TFSR: Can you say what the what website publishes your writing?
MS: Yeah, I got two different websites. One’s a penpal website and it’s called Wire of Hope. You can go to wireofhope.com/prison-penpal-terrance-white and you’ll see some of my writings on there. My comrade she put that that website together in order to establish relations, not so much as romance. If that happens, that’s a good thing, but to get us a voice out there as well as have people in the community connect with some of us on the inside so that they can work with us with doing positive things out there. And then I got my own website is ajamuwatu.wixsite.com/ajamuwatu
Ajamu means “he who fights for what he wants” and Watu means “people”. So if you put that together, it’s saying “he who fights for the people”, a Swahili word. And you’ll see a lot of my writings. My writings are mainly about education. How to build and create self–sufficiency programs, how to develop political thought, how to apply revolutionary theory to practice.
And one thing I always tell people is never be embarrassed if you go through the political immaturity stage, because that’s a given. You have to develop your own way of doing things based on your understanding. There’s no big me’s there’s no little you’s. But as long as you are studying cultural history, politics, economics, African history, you will see the holes in American history. And you’ll be able to see the lies that they put out there. You know, a lot of the reading material that we read is like, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States of America which shows you how the 1% class divided the rest of us in the 99%, and how they’re continuing to exploit us through their Capitalist system. The more you read, and learn, and study, the more your mind will open up. So you’ll see where there’s a problem, and you want to challenge that problem any way you can, as long as it warrants success. I would always encourage people to do that.
TFSR: And Mwal… Mwalimu… *laughs* Sorry, I’m still learning, you know? I guess we are all learning right?
MS: Yeah, well we’re all alive and learning. It took me a while to pronounce them all right too. You know, it’s funny because in Swahili dialect, the A’s are pronounced like “e” and the I’s are pronounced like “e”. So it’s backwards for the English vowel sound. The U was pronounced “oo” The M is pronounced “oom” you know, so it takes a while, but once you get the hang of it, it’ll flow like water. *laughs*
TFSR: Yeah, I guess it’s just about practice, and praxis. Comrades, thank you so much for having this conversation. I really appreciate it. And I really value you taking the time and making the effort to get in touch and be in touch about this. I wish you total solidarity and take care of yourself. Keep in touch.
MS: Well, thank you. Thank you. I appreciate you for having me, man. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you, comrade, people of like mind, in order to go forward is always a beautiful thing. You know, I enjoy meeting new people. I enjoy working with people and helping them out as best I can. “Each one, teach one” is something that we have to continue to do. And “can’t stop, won’t stop” is something we have to continue to be mindful of. So yeah, I’m always here for you all as well. Thank you. Appreciate you all so much. It’s always a pleasure.
This week on the show, William and Scott are presenting an interview with Alice and Dolly, who are two people working toward Disability Justice and Mad Activism (among other things), about the prevalence of movement misogyny in antifascist currents, world building as antifascist and as community defense, ways to rethink harmful patterns in movements, and some things we can do to make each other safer. The show initially got in touch with these guests based on a Twitter thread that they co-authored about these issues. Check out our podcast at our website later today for a longer conversation.
You can follow Alice on Twitter @gothbotAlice, and to read Tema Okun’s work which Dolly was referencing on unmasking and addressing white supremacy culture you can follow the link in our show notes – or – search “White Supremacy Culture” on your search engine and follow the results to the pdf on the dismantlingracism.org page.
On July 12 Kevin “Rashid” Johnson was transferred from Wabash Valley prison in Indiana to the custody of the Ohio Department of Corrections, being brought directly to their intake center in Orient. He would remain there for less than three weeks before being sent to Lucasville prison on July 30th.
… More details in the actual post, listed above at Rashidmod…
For Virginia: #1007485
For Indiana: #264847
For Ohio: #A787991
Charlene Burkett, Director DOC Ombudsman Bureau (Indiana)
402 W. Washington St. Room W479
Indianapolis, IN 46204 Ombud@idoa.in.gov
Richard Brown, Warden
Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, Indiana
. … . ..
Gothbot Alice: I’m Alice, I am an anarchist and an anti-fascist, I have my hand in lots of different organizing spaces, particularly around, like Disability Justice and Mad Rights. I identify as a mad person and a care worker. Those things really impact the lens that I look at the world through and the way I engage with other people and organize. So thank you so much for having me. My pronouns are they/she, I’m really excited to be here to talk with y’all today.
Doll Parts: Hey, I am Dolly. And I’ve been doing some organizing work in all kinds of different capacities for 20 years and have been affiliated with different kinds of folks at different points. I’m most interested in disability justice and abolition, especially psychiatric abolition. And part of that reason I like don’t necessarily align myself with specific movements is because of the stuff we’re talking about today. I had experiences with anarchist groups and other leftist organizing that really felt like it was replicating the power structures that we were supposed to be pushing against. So I don’t necessarily align with any specific ideology that way.
TFSR-William: That’s super real. I’ve been hearing that story from a lot of folks who formerly identified as anarchists or aligned themselves with the anarchist tendency. So that’s, unfortunately, something that we see a lot. And that’s a huge shame, in my opinion. So thank you for saying that, I think it’s something we should be talking about. We’re here to discuss a topic which you posted about on your Twitter back in mid-June of this year. And it’s notable for us as a show that we don’t really seek interviews based on Twitter threads, usually, but this is such an important topic and, like you said before we started rolling, Alice, is something that people are really hungry for to discuss. Namely, this is the prevalence of movement misogyny and the prioritization or deprioritization of certain areas of work within the anti-fascist current, depending on how they are socially gendered. Would you begin by giving a working definition of movement misogyny?
GA: Yes, I’m happy to. And actually, before we jump in, I just want to point out that this conversation is not about a specific person, although we know a lot of people will think it is. We aren’t going to talk about any individuals today, because that’s not really the point. We are talking about a pattern of behavior that we have witnessed in Dolly’s in my combined 20 years of organizing. People often want detailed descriptions of abusive situations in order to believe that they’re real. But details don’t make an experience more real, but they do retraumatize people. And the content can cause trauma responses in the people listening, and we’re not here for that. What we are here to talk about is how misogyny in the movement is replicating hierarchies that exist outside of it and are causing minoritized people to replicate the networks of support that we have to create in order to survive the world within our movements. But with even more secrecy and even higher stakes. So that said, movement misogyny is the misogyny that exists in our movement spaces. It relies on paternalism and white supremacy and colonization and all the things that we seek to destroy. It relies on all of those things in order to keep us in these boxes and spaces and hierarchies that are harmful to people. Dolly, do you want to weigh in with maybe a better definition?
DP: Misogyny, for me, has a strong connection with policing. Misogyny is a way that we police people’s labor, that we police people’s access and things like that to information, power, all of those things within our society. It becomes embedded in our practices and our institutions. It disappears. Because we’re so used to participating in it in other places, it shows up again, within our movements.
TFSR-Scott: I was really excited to talk to you all because, in the post, you give a lot of very concrete examples of how this shows up in organizing work. I hope in our conversation, we can get into different specific spaces, but maybe because it was specifically in terms of anti-fascist work, which is something that gets a lot of attention, and people don’t quite understand. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how it shows up specifically in that kind of organizing.
GA: Absolutely. I like most things I do, I value collaboration. Actually, Dolly helped me write that thread. I think it’s important that, as we’re discussing things like this, that we remind ourselves that these discussions are meant to happen collaboratively because that’s how the impact is made. In terms of how this is showing up in anti-fascist spaces, I think that there are hierarchies in anti-fascist work that exist. I think that the work that is glorified and prioritized is the research piece of it, the doxxing piece of it, where that is invaluable work. I think that it’s not the only anti-fascist work that’s out there. But it’s the work that is getting people’s attention, it’s the stuff that’s respected. But there’s also all kinds of other anti-fascist work that’s happening that is deprioritized, I think. Like I mentioned in the thread — and folks who follow me on Twitter will know what I mean, people who know me know — that I think that care work is anti-fascist work. Because of how damaging anti-fascist work is on our minds and on our bodies and our outlook, that in order for people to maintain and be well in this work we rely on the care workers. And care workers really don’t get a lot of respect and support.
DP: And that work isn’t even recognized as actual work, right? It’s just expected from us.
GA: Yeah. And it’s holding the movement together.
DP: I think the other part of that for me is that we both care a ton about care work. And world-building is so important to me. And I feel like when I was young in movements, I was — I still have a lot of rage. But I had all this rage and movement building to me was about where can I put this anger, that’s the right place to put it. A lot of my work showed up as, I guess, things that people typically associate with movement building. Then there was a shift for me because, in those spaces, they were so dominated by white cis-man energy, that I have shifted my approach and world-building has been so much more of my work since then. It’s often not even seen as even part of the work, I think. So, care work is unacknowledged entirely and as a thing that’s happening. And then world-building sometimes gets written off as like you’re messing around, or it’s not important, or it doesn’t matter. After whatever revolution you’re working towards, you want something to be there. And if we don’t make a plan for what that world looks then we’re just gonna replicate the same shit, that’s just what we’re doing.
TFSR-W: Yeah. And, revolutions aside, I don’t even know if something as clear-cut is going to happen, but we need stuff to be in place now. There are so many people who don’t have their needs met, who don’t have housing, who don’t have adequate food, or water or anything like that, who are just being systematically crushed by existing systems. We really want to talk more about world-building, but for any listeners who are maybe unfamiliar with the term, would you give a couple of examples of what you mean by world-building?
DP: World–building can look like mutual aid, it can look like creating spaces for people to live in community with each other. It can look like developing relationships that resist the hierarchies that un-belong people. Anything that creates something alternative to the way that hierarchical structures are working now. Anytime we’re able to build something that can give us freedom from those institutions of power or something that resembles freedom from — I don’t know if it’s possible to just be free from them at this point — but something that resists, that keeps people cared for and safe and creates the space that we want to live in. Whether that space is digital or in real life or otherwise.
TFSR-S: As I was listening to you speak about… one of the things that you opened up with movement misogyny as a kind of policing that and a way that our anti-authoritarian spaces replicate the structures of authority that we are trying to resist. It’s also similar in the way that care work gets invisible, as in capitalist labor, right? The feminized labor of housework, networks of care that we rely on to survive, and then that that work in movements also just gets shunted aside, deprioritized, or treated as if it’s not important, as if we’re actually on the verge of revolution or something. And we all have to just be manly warriors. And that really irks me a lot, especially when plans are being made for any kind of specific organizing thing that people want to focus so much on this one aspect of the thing that makes the space uninhabitable in so many ways. And one thing in what you both wrote that I really liked was thinking about care work as self-defense, too, because anti-fascism is often seen as a form of self-defense, right? We’re protecting ourselves against fascists. So I was wondering if you wanted to expand a little bit on the way that care work is also a kind of self-defense.
GA: Absolutely. I see care work not just like self-defense, but community defense, because we’ve got these brilliant comrades that out here actively harming themselves by doing this work, whether it’s anti-fascist work, or mutual aid or crisis response or whatever. It’s hard, it takes a toll on us. And to act like it doesn’t does a great disservice to the movement. What ends up happening is people inundate themselves with the research and expose themselves to the absolute worst shit, the worst kinds of people, and the worst kinds of violence, so that we can turn around and report on it and expose these people. But we have to come up for air sometimes. And I think that’s really hard to do. It helps to have networks of people who can remind us to take care of ourselves. But since that’s not really happening, folks are burning out and leaving the movement or killing themselves, or both. We’re losing people, we are losing people because the work is so awful and harmful. And so when I say care work is community defense, what I mean is that, who are folks relying on when things are so bad and so painful? Well, we’re relying on our friends that normally step into care work roles, right? And in a way, I see care work as community defense, because it helps keep our community well so that we can sustain in this work, so we don’t burn out, so we don’t kill ourselves. Does that answer your question?
TFSR-W: Yeah, totally. I’m wondering if you would be willing to talk a little bit about the circumstances that led you into writing the Twitter thread? If not, that’s totally okay. And we can move on to another question. But just so folks can get a sense of where your mind is at with that.
GA: I’m happy to speak on that. It was a weekend of celebration, but also ended up being… I experienced a mental health crisis. Dolly was with me, actually, and was able to be supportive. I think the things that contributed to us wanting to write this thread were the things that contributed to my mental health crisis, which is just feeling burnt out and really frustrated with the way people are treating each other, and sad, really sad for my comrades and for myself. I’m somebody that experiences really big, intense emotions, that’s part of my madness, that’s part of my mental health experience. It’s one of the symptoms that shows up in the DSM under my psychiatric labels. That’s something that I navigate the world with an understanding of. And so that means that the good things feel really good. And it means that the bad things feel really, really, really bad. When I started to come out of that crisis space, I told Dolly that I wanted to write something about this because it was just in my head and we had spent days talking about it, as it related to personal stuff, but also generally, because none of this stuff happens in a vacuum. So we got some lunch and we sat down and we cranked it out. We didn’t have any idea that it’s gonna be so well-received. So that was nice because we did spend some time. We were very intentional about it. We thought about making it a blog, but we know nobody clicks through, they’ll read 37 tweets, but they’re not gonna click through and read a blog. Dolly, do you want to want to speak more to that?
DP: Yeah, that’s such an interesting thing that created us doing this was a great example of a ton of the things we’re going to talk about today. We were getting together specifically, so that we could do celebratory things, like experiencing joy and making sure that was part of our political experience too. And then, we’re both mad people. So crisis is always on the table. I don’t think it was unexpected that some crisis stuff was going to happen. But we were reflecting on how often that crisis isn’t created by the state or the things that we would think it would be created by. I think our madness, we are disabled by the state in the way that structures are set up. But I don’t think that those things cause disability for us, but the things that cause us pain and crisis, are all the things that are happening with our comrades. And that felt very bad. And then we started reflecting on all the times that things had happened, all of the ways that we’ve had to become someone new, or move into a new movement space, or keep big, scary secrets, and only talk to each other, literally just each other. And how that’s not the point. I don’t do any of the organizing that I do to feel that way. And we feel that way too often. And I think it’s not just us. The number of Black and brown people and femmes and mad people and other disabled folks that just get trampled on by the movement is really disheartening. So we wanted to bring it into conversation not so that we could point fingers or anything or blame people, but so that we can talk about the whole point of this movement-building is to address these issues. We know, we’ll make mistakes, and we ought to be able to adapt and change. But a lot of what we’ve seen is that anytime someone’s behavior is challenged, they can like take a break for a little while and then make a comeback, or there’s no real accountability process. And we’re not doing an accountability process for this bigger issue of how our movements make this possible.
TFSR-S: I’ve actually been put off a lot from anti-fascist spaces, I mean, not anti-fascist spaces, because I want every space to be anti-fascist, but working in anti-fascist organizing, because it is super macho to me, and the truth that anti-racist skinhead movements, which, I think, is getting a lot of attention. Now, I came up in the scene like that, which for me, was a form of self-protection. But I just wonder, because you move in those spaces, if you can talk about how much of this shows up in anti-fascism? Is it the image of it that gets pervade rather than the actual reality of what the work is like? Because you talked about how so much of the care work gets invisiblized.
GA: Yeah, I do think that anti-fascist work is portrayed as white cis-men doing this glorious investigating and getting all the credit for it. And the way that folks have to engage when reporting on it is very machismo. I’m frustrated by that because that is not the reality. Not every anti-fascist researcher out here doing kick-ass work is a white cis-man. And it’s so frustrating to me. But the reason we think that is because of who gets to be elevated, and the voices that are typically elevated are those of white cis-men. It does erase and invisiblize everyone else. On the one hand, that can be very protective. Because the Nazis and the state are after us. So if people think that we are someone different than we are, that can be protective, that can help us survive. But it also takes a toll on people’s mental health, not being able to be authentic in who we are, not be able to recognize our intersecting identities, and all of the secrecy and anonymity, there’s a dark side to that. One, it helps protect the abuse that’s happening in these spaces. Because we have to remain so secretive. But, also, it’s isolating and isolation kills people. I so badly want things to be different. But also I can understand why things are the way they are. And it’s demoralizing. And it hurts as somebody that does this work, it’s painful.
DP: I want to call out something really specific that I see happen, which is around sexual relationships is that often–times, young femmes are brought into the movement by a partner, or they come into the movement, and then there’s someone who swoops in. I’ll let Alice talk about 13th Stepping in a second, that’s what we call it. But I think that there are these power dynamics that show up that very directly replicate the power dynamics of sexual abuse. And that secrecy is this core component of it. So when you already have a need for secrecy, we have to be exceptionally careful about how far you get in those secretive environments. And we ought to be doing things to protect people that have been targets of abuse in other parts of our lives and making sure that those secretive or anonymous or confidential spaces are actually safe for us. Because otherwise, we replicate things like sexual abuse. And whether something sexually abusive is actually happening, we replicate that dynamic, where there’s no one you can go to, there’s no one you can tell, and you’re going to lose your family, your comrades if you talk. And then you’re just going to be out on your own. That setup is already existing because of the level of confidentiality we have. So by not doing things to address how power showing up internally in our movements, we’re going to just replicate that power dynamic of sexual abuse.
TFSR-W: I think you both bring up such an important point. As anarchists, and I know, not all are anti-fascists or anarchists, I know that there’s a situation there, there’s a discrepancy there. But there’s this tension between the secretive nature and there needing to be a secretive nature. But how that aspect of anti-fascist work really feeds this other extremely toxic and harmful and potentially fatal other sexual predation dynamic, which is totally a huge problem. I’m not being super articulate right now. But I think it’s such an important point, that these two things are true. And these two things need to be teased apart as soon as possible. So thank you for bringing that up.
GA: I agree. I also think things definitely need to be teased apart. If you want to start organizing with someone, or you have an AG or whatever, before any actual organizing happens, sit down and have a conversation about everyone’s collective ethics. If we are not all ethically aligned, then people are going to come in and fuck up and destroy the good work and the people doing the good work. And we should be talking about our collective ethics anyway. And we should be interrogating within ourselves and within each other, why we feel the way we do about certain things, that is how we grow and learn. And it should be central to being in community with people. And if we say that we have a collective ethic around protecting each other, we protect ourselves, then we need to be about it.
DP: We need to protect each other from each other sometimes. I also think it’s okay for there to be conflict and for us to struggle and make mistakes too. If we have those collective ethics, then we have something to hold each other to and they have to be stated.
GA: Yes, absolutely. Dolly, you mentioned 13th Stepping?
DP: Yeah, I want you to talk about that because you’re better at talking about it than me.
GA: So, in 12-step spaces, Alcoholics Anonymous, NA, all of it, there’s a thing called 13th Stepping, or the person would be the 13th step predator. And the 13th step predator is the person that’s been in the rooms for a long time and preys on the newly sober people coming into the rooms. Dolly and I really tried hard to find another term for this kind of person and this kind of thing that happens, 13th Stepping. But we feel it’s actually perfect. It very perfectly describes what is happening in our movement spaces. None of this stuff is specific to anti-fascism, that just happens to be the space I have a hand in or whatever, but also it’s all over movement spaces. It’s in Disability Justice spaces, it’s happening in anarchist spaces, in the fucking DSA, it is happening. And so 13th Stepping would be someone that is that maybe has more clout, or social capital, or has been in the movement longer, or knows more people or whatever, taking advantage of newer folks coming into our spaces. It’s fucking gross. Now we have a term for it. So when it shows up in your space, when you’re seeing it happen, that’s got a term, it’s called 13th Stepping. And we should be acutely aware of who those people are and how they’re doing harm to our movement and to our comrades.
DP: I think there’s a piece of identifying when that individual is doing it. And then also, we need to be making sure that we’re not making that possible for people to have that kind of power, and that the only way to get close to that power is to be an anti-fascist girlfriend, or whatever, if it’s an abolition movement is to be an abolitionist’s girlfriend. So there need to be pathways for all people to share power in our movements. So anyone getting into a position where they’re going to have that kind of power also might mean something is going on in the movement space that we want to address and talk with people about it. Power in and of itself isn’t bad. It’s what we do with that. If someone does gain that level of power, they ought to be finding ways to redistribute it. And if they’re not doing that, then we create these dynamics, and they’re always going to exist.
TFSR-S: I just want to pull on some of this, because one of the things that you’re talking about that I think is really important is entry points for people to get into this work. If we have this vision of a different world and we’re building it, we want people to join our movements, our spaces, our community. I’m not against an erotic introduction, if you come in because you’re crushing on someone, and they introduce you to that. But I think you’re putting on something really important in the way that the culture of secrecy can create these power dynamics that isolate people who come in through it. And then the other thing what you’re saying makes me think about is how the terminology and languages that we use within our anti-authoritarian, anarchist, anti-fascist spaces about how we’re supposed to be. Those can be armed to protect power abusers in various ways, and particularly around calls for accountability. But also just in little things, like we need to be so secret that no one can ever know anything we’re doing and no one can join in. Do you have concrete examples of ways to counter that kind of isolation that can come in with joining a movement? Are there ways that we can invite people safely and securely without making a fetish of secrecy?
GA: This is a good question. This is also a hard question. Because I am one person, and I do not claim to have all the answers to this, I’m just an observer. I have a lot of opinions, and I’m sick of seeing people I love get hurt. I think that connecting people to groups, as opposed to individuals, making sure that lines of communication are open. Having moments where people can engage in conflict openly so that it becomes commonplace. So that if someone’s having some interpersonal shit with another comrade, it doesn’t have to be “take that shit outside, deal with it on your own”. There’s a difference between privacy and secrecy. I think that privacy can be important for people who may be don’t want to air out all their dirty laundry, that’s fine. But also, we should be creating spaces where having it out with a comrade can happen, and it doesn’t mean that everything’s going to end and everything’s going to be over and that people have to pack their bags and get the fuck out. We can have conflict openly and it doesn’t have to be hostile or shitty.
DP: From my perspective, there’s this core function of movement-building that’s about aggressively belonging people, like we need to belong to each other. And so much of the things that harm us or systems that are set up to purposefully unbelong us. You can’t be secret from each other. We need to be able to have space for us to know each other. And it doesn’t have to be know everything. Knowing each other doesn’t mean knowing every detail about someone’s life and where they live, their social security number, whatever those things, even their legal names, but we have to belong to something to be able to behave ethically toward each other. And I do think we have to stop caring… It’s amazing what you can get done when you stop caring who gets the credit for it. Sometimes we still hold on to wanting to have credit for the things that we do. And so there’s this shift back and forth between secrecy, privacy, and then someone wanting credit, and then the folks who have created privacy around their group get into different positions of power because someone wants credit and behaves in different ways because of that. If we can share the credit across the board or not even care who gets credit, maybe there’s no credit for work that’s done. And if we can make sure that there’s an essential function of our movement-building that is about being in community with each other, those things help.
GA: I do want to add one more thing. In terms of cultivating the spaces that we want, that are safe for people, and I know we’re getting there, but we need to believe survivors, we need to believe when people outcry that some fucked up shit has happened. I mentioned it right at the top of this, but there’s this idea that you need the graphic details of someone’s experience of violence or abuse in order to believe that it happened. That’s some shit you need to work out with you. If someone comes to us and says, “Hey, I got a diagnosis of cancer. And I’m really scared”. We’re not like “Show me the paperwork, or I don’t believe you”, right? We don’t have to personally experience cancer to know how bad and shitty cancer is, why do we do that with other things? Why do we do that with interpersonal violence? I don’t understand it. It doesn’t make sense. It’s antithetical to what we’re supposed to be moving toward and building. And this idea that I need receipts in order to believe you… Nobody outcries because that’s healing and enjoyable. People outcry because they want to protect other people who might be victims in the future. It’s about protecting the community and letting people know a person is not safe. No abuse survivor ever was like “I’m so glad I had to tell a bunch of people about this”. Sorry, maybe that was a little tangential.
TFSR-W: I think it’s all related. Those are super important points to consider. Two of the things that came up for me when Alice, you were talking about people needing to be comfortable with conflict. That really resonated with me, because I think that we, like the rest of our society are… For as much conflict as we do have, we are still very conflict-averse or conflict-avoidant. And that really stems out of respectability politics that is super neoliberal and is really divorcing people from our human processes that are happening internally anyway. And also, Dolly, when you were talking about credit, immediately, I started thinking about that person that punched that white supremacist on Live TV during the inauguration. Do y’all remember that? I don’t know who did that and I don’t want to know and it’s like we all did it, in my opinion. So this is super beautiful to think about.
DP: It’s better if none of us ever know, right?
TFSR-W: Yeah. And that’s the thing too. But there are certain things that internally we need to be talking about. Anybody who’s been paying any amount of attention to the news will know that so-called extremism, for lack of a better word, is on the rise, far-right style. And I think that anti-fascism has a crisis narrative built into it. I have definitely noticed within anti-fascist currents that this crisis narrative definitely contributes to these harmful patterns and the way of “Oh, we don’t have time to deal with that right now, we’re in the middle of a crisis, I would love to hear…
DP: Urgency is white supremacy in action. That whole narrative is just pushed forward by white supremacy culture, it’s so frustrating to me that we fall so easily into that. Do you have more to say about that, Alice?
GA: It’s really fucking harmful. It’s an absolute lie. Here’s the other thing. Yes, the crisis narrative absolutely exists. And it’s an out for people who don’t want to deal with other shit. And if you’re somebody that’s pushing that, “I don’t have time, I don’t have time, I have to work on this”, that’s a you-issue, get right with you, connect with people because that’s not how it has to be. And actually, as anti-fascists, we know that we’re about to put out research on someone or drop a dox or whatever, we have to make sure that we are incredibly accurate. Because we know what happens when we identify somebody as a fucking problem, as a neo-nazi or whatever. Their lives change dramatically because of that. So we have to have this incredible level of accuracy that surpasses mainstream media. Our attention to detail has to be immaculate. That takes time. That does not happen overnight. So even though this whole crisis narrative exists, we’re not actually embodying that, because we know that we have to check and double-check and recheck and check again, and have somebody else put eyes on it before it even gets pushed out. And that’s how it should be. So then, this whole idea that “I can’t be doing anything else cause I have to be doing this”, first of all, it’s centering yourself in movement work. I think that’s icky. And it’s just a lie. That’s avoidant behaviour. I don’t mean to get real clinical, that’s kind of gross. But just be honest with yourself about the fact that “I’m using this work to avoid all the shit in my life that I don’t want to do”. Be radically honest, because then we can address that or not. But saying, “I don’t have time to do other things, because this is what’s happening right now”, that’s bullshit. I reject that.
DP: I just want to talk about Tema Okun’s work on white supremacy culture, because so many of the things we’ve just talked about in the last few minutes are on this list of the components of white supremacy culture, so I just want to read them, because I think what this article does that I’m gonna reference and I think we can add it, when this gets published, we’ll send a link, but it’s about white supremacy culture and the characteristics of it. Each characteristic has a description, and then it also has antidotes, so we ought to be talking about this within any kind of groups or organizing that we’re doing. But perfectionism is part of it. Then the sense of urgency, which I feel is a huge part of this feeling that there’s this crisis that we have to act now. Defensiveness, where we want to protect the people that we care about. And we’ll do that even in the face of seeing evidence that they maybe are not doing the right things. Quantity over quality — pushing work forward so that you’re doing more of it. Worship of the written word, which I think is deeply connected to the fetishizing of doxxing, which I want to say is really important work. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be doing that. But I think that has a connection to some of the academic nature of anarchists and anti-fascist spaces that is not always helpful. Thinking there’s only one right way, paternalism, either-or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism. “I’m the only one who can do this thing.” Progress is bigger and more, believing in objectivity, and the right to comfort. And those are all the things we’re talking about. Those things are harming our movement because we’re replicating white supremacy culture.
TFSR-S: Yeah, I think that’s so important, historically, the gay liberation movement and Black feminist movements pointed out that when you prioritize one aspect of struggle, and then second arise, something that often gets called an identity thing, then you’re leaving all these people out of the quest for liberation. It’s important to call that out as white supremacist. But the other thing that it makes me think about with that crisis narrative, going back to what you were saying and ways that we replicate the world we’re fighting against, this idea that we have to constantly be working and burning ourselves out with no moments of rest or joy — is also replicating all those aspects, and, I think, is what goes into erasure, diminishing of the importance of world-building and care work, because no one can actually live that way, and when they are living like a semblance of that, they are relying on networks of people to keep to prop them up, usually, you get invisiblized. To make this a puzzling question. You talk about the need for joy, I wonder what that can look like from an anti-fascist perspective. How do we push against this thought that we have to constantly… Things are so shit. How do we push against the thought that all we have to do is fight against it? That we can do something else, celebrate, create those relationships.
GA: I think we need to pause and celebrate. We don’t do that. We should, and we should be able to find ways to be in community with each other, when we pause and celebrate. I think wrapping up a major investigation, we don’t just have to go onto the next, there will always be another investigation, but really intentionally baking into your process, the space for joy and for pleasure and for celebration. The other part of working in community with other people is so that we can hold each other accountable. Holding each other accountable to that. Just making sure that “Hey, you just wrapped up the investigation whatever, what can we do? How can we connect and just chill and be with each other and not make this about the work? That’s just a very basic jumping-off point. Dolly, do you want to speak? I love your thoughts about that.
DP: I think that creating intentional spaces for joy is really important. Then there’s something that happens before that or alongside it, which is about coming in accountability for our healing, because we all have to heal from all this stuff that we’re also fighting against, and that’s so deprioritized. We don’t even talk about the fact that this impacts us and that healing is important or matters. It starts first with us, but healing doesn’t happen individually, healing happens in relationships because relationships are also where harm is enacted. So building strong, close relationships that are built around shared ethics and care is the starting place for me. I think there’s great value in things that feel good. We should be thinking about sex or substance using in ways that are fun or helpful or meaningful to us, or having people over for dinner, feeding each other is important. Touch is super important, whether it’s sexual or non-sexual touch, just creating spaces for our bodies and our minds to experience joy and creating a setting where joy is a likely outcome, instead of just creating a setting where we’re dealing with fighting and resistance. Because joy is also resistance. If you’re experiencing joy, for me, experiencing joy as a mad disabled person — that is already resistance, because this is a world that was set up for me to feel joyless. That was set up to take that away from me. And I think that’s true for all of us in some ways, so that should be a sort of central component of our organizing.
GA: I love that so much.
TFSR-W: I also really love that. It’s an excellent question and excellent answers are super provocative. While you were talking, I was really thinking about two older utopian novels that at least the anarchists that I know really love. The first is The Dispossessed and the second one is Woman on the Edge of Time. Those two books, first by Ursula K. Le Guin, second by Marge Piercy, really show that a liberated way of being that is divested from the state and is divested from cis-hetero-white patriarchy is constant work. You constantly have to be interrogating, you constantly have to be working at it, and those two novels do such a good job of being like “and you also fucking party”. Or you take space, or you don’t do the work. That’s an integral part to people’s lifeways and people’s ways of being. Thank you so much for that. I think that’s something that we’re really missing in the whole workaholism tendency to internalize white supremacist structure is something that infects everything.
DP: I do want to mention that ideas about this are not mine, a lot of ideas about this kind of world-building come straight out of Black queer fem work. adrienne maree brown has a lot of great work around this, Audre Lorde, folks like that. To be clear, as usual, Black queer fems have really paved the way for this, and we haven’t been doing it right in other spaces.
TFSR-S: I love also the way that you emphasize creating situations where the outcome would be joyful or celebratory. It points to something we overlook a lot because “anti-fascist” has negative word connotations, “anarchist”, too, is against stuff and for me, part of anarchism is wanting to destroy the order of this world. I wanna elaborate on anarchism that has positive ideas to it, not necessary blueprints. I don’t know if anti-fascism has the same space for that because it’s maybe more specific in terms of a tactic than anarchism, but thinking of these ways that we engage our life as creating possibilities at least, openings, rather than tearing things down. That was really provocative to me, what you’re saying.
DP: I think we have to focus just as much on building what it is we do want, as we do on resisting, what it is that we don’t want. The worst parts of institutions are set up to keep us moving away from things we don’t want, instead of moving toward something we do want. And the concept for this comes out of a practice called intentional peer support. It’s an alternative to your traditional mental health intervention. It was really deeply moving for me to start thinking about what it means to move toward what we want, instead of all of the time moving away from whatever is bad. Even if I might be doing some of the same things, it changes the way they feel and it changes my sustainability in the work.
TFSR-S: What that really made me think about is another weird way that we replicate these policing of ourselves and our movements is that I feel like people are so much quicker to judge and criticize those moments of releasing joy as based in bourgeois values or something, and then uncriticize all the other kind of work that gets done on the struggle front. There is where misogyny and white supremacy can creep in, because people aren’t as ready to criticize the ways that we engage in that as the space of joy.
DP: I always like a discussion where we create things together instead of one where it’s like teaching, so I think we should all be contributing in the ways that feel right to things. I wanted to connect, I think that some of the drive around this is how much movement-building sometimes is connected to college campuses, because I think that that’s part of how we end up connecting to… that’s part of how we start replicating white supremacy culture. Because there are a lot of especially white folks who are introduced to liberation ideology through education systems and those education systems and faculty within them and staff are often not very critical of the oppressive nature of academia on its own. I think there’s a setup there for thinking about everything in terms of a critique and study and working hard, and all the capitalist framework around it. Because, if that’s where we’re being introduced or where many people are being introduced to these concepts, they’re still being exposed to the problematic nature of how capitalism shows up in academic institutions.
TFSR-S: I think that’s a really important point, and there was something else you wrote about. That a lot of ranking of anti-fascist work replicates hierarchies of academia and I guess other institutions that prop up the state. And we think about so much of this knowledge creation, as if it is liberatory in itself, but without thinking about the locations. That’s really interesting to me too, cause a lot of the visible anti-fascist work is probably more around when the alt-right was really going for it what is happening on this is because they were getting like speaking engagements and that is where anti-fascism started getting media attention in the more recent years. But why is that happening? Why is that happening on college campuses and creating that situation of conflict? And there are those ideas of free speech or whatever that come into play, those institutions prop up. They aren’t neutral, they uphold the system. I really love that you bring that into a critique of academia.
DP: And there’s a lot of policing of language in movements that makes me pretty uncomfortable, especially when we start thinking about having movement spaces really be open to people with a broad range of disability and accessibility around language. There are a lot of spaces where movements have become very inaccessible for people. It’s also the movements that are getting the most public attention look like that, but I know of all kinds of movement-building things that are happening. They look very different from that but they’re not very often perceived in mainstream spaces as what movement building is.
TFSR-W: I think that the movement-building work that I’ve seen that happens in these spheres often gets sidelined. I definitely agree with that.
One of the internal processes that we have for dealing with conflict is the accountability process which — lots has been said about it, it has a really interesting history and gets used in different ways, but it seems that embedded in the language of accountability, there is still some tools for misogynistic abuse, demanding the care and labor of accountability to somehow prove someone who has done harm has cleared themselves, which, to me, is extremely punitive and it’s just replicating the logic of a carceral system. Do you have any insight into the limitations of accountability processes and how, in your view, can these processes be turned into further abuse?
GA: When I think of accountability processes, I don’t think of one specific process. I think of it as a victim-centered process. Any process that places a victim in front of their abuser is not accountability, that is blood sport and fucked up. Unless, of course, a victim would like to confront their abuser in a space where people are around to bear witness because I think bearing witness is really important, but anything that’s forced onto a victim, I would say, replicates all the symptoms that we’ve talked about, where a person is forced to have to prove that they were harmed. I also think that it’s not a one-size-fits-all. Each situation or accountability process can be unique, depending on who is involved, what community we’re talking about. I think that accountability should look different and should suit the needs of those who are harmed. So sometimes that’s based in educating someone on “These are the behaviors that you were exhibiting and they were harmful, and so we want you to read a bunch of shit and do better”. That’s okay, that’s one way. Sometimes what people want is for an abuser to leave the community and that’s okay, and if somebody is really invested in accountability, they will leave when they are asked, and if they’re not invested, then they can fucking kick rocks. Either way, there’s the door. I think other accountability processes can include physical retribution. Sometimes anass-whoopin’ is what the situation calls for, and I think like as long as these things are victim-centered, we can make space for all of them. Just because one way worked out well in one situation, does not mean it’s gonna work out well at another one, just because one sort of accountability process didn’t work out well, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have the capacity to work out well in a different situation. I think we need to remain very limber and flexible. Accountability takes time and energy, it takes the work of many members of our community. Accountability processes shouldn’t be secretive and closed off, because the idea is to make our communities safer.
DP: I love this question because we disagree on some parts, and we’ve talked a lot about it. So I want to start by saying I was raised in a world, I think we all were aware, where punishment is… so I’m gonna say some stuff later that sounds like nice stuff, but I want to be clear that things have happened like “Take that person who did this thing and shoot them in the street”. That’s where I go, and so I think that it’s hard for us to imagine something better than what we currently have. Starting there is helpful, we are all going to have an inclination toward punishment and we have to own and know that before we can go into doing something differently. Accountability also only works if we are holding people accountable, it’s not about accountability for, like you perpetrated against this person, you’re accountable to them. Accountability is holding us accountable to our collective ethics, and so, if someone has violated our ethics and there is a victim involved in that, or there’s not, maybe there’s a violation that’s different, someone has violated our ethics. We ought to have talked about before that situation occurs, how we first pull each other in when we see it happening before it gets too bad, and how we respond when someone transgresses. In our communities, we have to have talked about those things and I don’t think we really do that. Then, when something happens, what accountability looks like is we’re trying to find out who’s telling the truth and who’s to blame and who’s going to be saddled with work to do to be better or whatever. If we shift the perspective from that individualized place to a collective place. it can feel a little different.
So what we’re holding people accountable to, is to our community and its ethics, and the community is responsible for holding that person accountable, not the victim of something that happens, and let the person who transgressed is part of that accountability, engaging in the process as well, because the idea would be that we want to be accountable to each other. If all of that is true, then things get really easy. But what happens is that we don’t have those things in place. I don’t know if people always actually want to be accountable, I think sometimes people would rather be punished because they don’t have to change or work harder or be anything else, because you take the punishment, and then it’s over. There’s no accountability in punishment. So oftentimes what I see happen is, even when a punishment wasn’t assigned by a group, people self-punish in ways that are very visible, that make people think they’re being accountable and they get to show back up in our movement spaces having not changed anything at all and then they do it again. It makes it possible for other people to do it because they see exactly what the pathway is to not having to be accountable.
GA: I’m glad that you brought up relying on and holding us accountable to our collective ethics. I think it ties back into what we’ve talked about at the beginning of this conversation. If you’re gonna be working with a group of people, the first conversation we must have is about our collective ethics. What do we hold most dear when it comes to the way we treat each other, the way we view the world and we’re not doing that. We have to come up with ways to handle shit without any sort of infrastructure to be able to do it. That’s a crisis narrative — showing back up — and it’s white supremacy. Dolly, you are right, we do a little bit disagree about this. This is a good opportunity for me to interrogate some shit in myself about the stuff. This is why these conversations are important.
DP: Right, and because we’re learning about different ways in our movements, we’ll do it wrong, and sometimes the only response that we have to protect our community is to push people out, and we can know that that’s the wrong thing to do, and know that’s not the better option right now that we can think of, that we can figure out, and keep working toward doing something better. But I think I would rather push someone out of my community than have them perpetrating against people all the time.
GA: I agree
DP: That’s how I feel, because I don’t know a better way why, but I want to keep working on a better way.
TFSR-S: Thank you so much for giving all these different ways that it can look and portraying it as accountability as limber, like you said, we have to be flexible. It seems and I think it’s really important how you connected to this idea of a collective ethics. One of the things I keep thinking about is how so much of the stuff that comes in, that creates these complex… end up harming and isolating people and driving them to self-harm. But potentially those are things we could try to account for in advance by doing certain things like setting up collective ethics and thinking also of those, I think, as something that would have to be flexible, not like something wielded like a rule to like shun or cut people out. And then also bringing people into spaces and checking up on them. I like the idea of care-accountability, too. You bring up a really helpful perspective about concrete tasks, concrete things we can do to connect with our groups and people in advance of the problem, rather than constantly being on the back foot when a problem arises, which always happens.
DP: Right, I think there’s no sustainability in a movement that’s not held together by our ethics, because the movement is bigger than us, which is, for me, that’s what’s compelling about it because I need something bigger than me, that’s a bigger, bigger and better than me, cause I have a lot of things I don’t love about myself. For me, that’s a really important part of my mental health, being involved in something bigger than me. But we can tear movements apart when we let movements be about just individual people and their individual relationships. When we shift our focus to a more collectivist mindset, it’s about our community, it’s about a community’s values, and about the community’s ethics and protection. Then it starts to look different, how we think about accountability and relationships and transgressions against our ethics, too.
TFSR-W: And also, I think it’s really important. We can know that something’s the wrong thing to do but not have any other form of recourse and getting comfortable with that uncomfortable tension is, I think, a really important provocation as well. In the beginning, you told that you received a really positive response to this Twitter thread. Would you talk a little bit more about that and any conversations or thoughts you’ve had since posting that thread?
GA: I was pretty blown away about how impact… We’re in an echo chamber, that just happens on social media platforms and in digital spaces. As far as echo chambers are concerned, I like mine, it’s fine. I love my comrades, I love being able to engage with people. I got a lot of private messages from comrades who are feeling plucked up and burnt out about things and having trouble finding the words to express the multifaceted frustration that we’re all feeling, given the misogyny that exists in our movement spaces. Folks are feeling trapped and exhausted, we’re spinning our wheels. More than anything, the message that I got was people were just happy that to be able to have some dialogue around this. With an understanding that none of us are perfect, none of our community spaces are perfect. We are imperfect, and perfection is not what we’re striving towards, but we would like to feel safe. And feeling safe should almost go without having to say. We all deserve safety, and lots of folks are feeling unsafe, and it’s sad. We all recognize it and at the end of the day, I saw faith in the movement. I saw faith in my comrades. I know that this is all really heavy, but I plug into this work because it’s bigger than me, like Dolly said. As somebody who experiences madness and suicidal thoughts and stuff. Being able to engage and plug into something bigger than myself is the thing that keeps me alive. And I think that’s true for many of us and we all recognize we have work to do and so yeah. The reception was really great, I love everybody that reached out and talked to me about it. I’m overwhelmed by folks’ support. It makes me feel hopeful. I don’t use that word a lot.
DP: We both feel weird about hope, but I think that some of the reception Alice’s about the community that you’ve created on Twitter, where people are engaging in conversations about care work and the politics within movements and stuff already because that’s the space that you go and you show up with vulnerability, and you model these things and part of the reason we’re getting that reception is that you’ve created some community that we’ve been talking about today. I just wanted to recognize that.
GA: Thank you. I appreciate that. I think you’re right. I have tried to do that. I’ve tried to be intentional about it, and I appreciate that you noticed that. Thank you!
TFSR-S: I’m so thankful and grateful that you put yourself out there to start this conversation and allow us to have this conversation, because we need to find ways to be able to find each other, and it’s a risk. But it also is amazing to have these connections and I’m really happy to be in connection with you.
GA: Thank you. The feeling is absolutely neutral. Thank you for inviting us to talk about this. It has been a really great conversation.
TFSR-W: Absolutely. It was such a pleasure to get to meet you and sit down and hear your words and experiences about these things, and I think this is a very urgent conversation, not to bring it down or anything, but I think that this is a really urgent conversation that needs to be happening within movement because there are so many new people who are getting interested in this kind of thing, as the world heats up on several fronts. So I think we need to know how to get our shit on lock or whatever, for lack of a better phrase. I hope that this will help and that people have gotten something from it and I am also just wondering if there’s anything that we missed in this interview that you wanna give voice to, enclosing or any words that you would leave listeners with for this interview.
GA: What do you got, Dolly?
DP: I think I mentioned toward the beginning of our conversation how much I felt very motivated by rage in my activist career. But this side of the work is all about love. Focusing on how you build loving, caring connections that are not based in holding power over people is where things come from. Spend some time putting some rage on the back burner a little bit, so we can focus on love.
GA: I love that. Folks who follow me on Twitter are in that same vein, tell your comrades you love them, tell them again.
TFSR-W: Where can people follow you on Twitter?
GA: I am at @GothbotAlice, I only exist on Twitter.
DP: I only exist in real life, so you can’t find me anywhere.
TFSR-S: Thanks so much for sharing your insight and wisdom and ideas. That was a really beautiful way to end it.
TFSR-W: I am really looking forward to sitting with this audio. I have the privilege of being the one to edit this audio for our broadcasts. So I’m really looking forward to that process because I really enjoyed hearing your take on all of these topics and I hope that we can collaborate together in the future and sit down again or anything like that.
GA: We would love to come back! We’ve got plenty of opinions on things.
TFSR-W: Cool. This is all that this radio show is about, trying to form connections between people and trying to do the stuff. So thank you for being a part of it and thank you for doing your own work. I really just appreciate y’all so much.
Asheville’s Policing Crisis with Ursula Wren of Asheville Free Press
The city of Asheville likes to make headlines. The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, or TDA, has been working alongside other tourism industry groups, to make an impression in the minds of people worldwide and entice you to visit this little mountain city with it’s big fuck-off estate, the Biltmore, the beautiful mountains for hiking, waterfalls for swimming, artsy and craftsy culture for consuming and rivers of beers for tourists to tube down. But in the last year, Asheville has, once again, let its “crisis in policing” also reach national and international audiences with two New York Times stories (1, 2, which are pay-walled fyi), one reaching the front page, which spoke about a 34% attrition rate of the Asheville Police Department since the George Floyd Uprising and renewed, local efforts to defund or decrease the police in Asheville in favor of social and restorative infrastructure. The article spoke mostly from official viewpoints. According to the Asheville Citizen-Times, to deal with the bad press, the APD hired a public relations firm called ColePro Media for $5,000 a month to shift narratives and bring the veneer of progressive policing back to our fair, “land of the sky.”
This week, we spoke with local journalist, activist, abolitionist and anarchist, Ursula Wren of the AvlFree.Press about Asheville’s “crisis in policing”, a brief blooper roll of Asheville police foibles over the last decade, homeless camp evictions, prior and current efforts to restructure public safety, the reactionary business effort to bolster the police with blue ribbons of support, housing issues and other fare.
To hear our conversations on struggle against the opioid crisis and overdoses in Western NC, check out our interviews with members of the Steady Collective (2018 & 2020)
You can find a transcription of this interview as well as an imposed pamphlet for easy printing in about a week on the blog post for this chat or alongside many of our past episodes at the link TFSR.WTF/zines . You can find ways to stream the lengthier podcast of this and all of our episodes or follow us on social media by visiting TFSR.WTF/links.
You can support our ongoing transcription efforts, which get topical and timely anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist and all the other good anti’s texts into a format for easier digestion for folks with hearing difficulties, easier mailing into prisons, easier translation as well as searching by search engines by checking becoming a patron at patreon.com/tfsr or making a one time donation or purchasing tshirts, stickers or other merch. More info on that at TFSR.WTF/support. And if you want to hear us up on your local community or college radio station, more info is up at TFSR.WTF/radio.
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The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Burl Ives from The Big Rock Candy Mountain
TFSR:So could you introduce yourself for the audience with any name, pronouns, location or other info that could be useful to the listeners?
Ursula Wren: Yeah, so my name is Ursula Wren. I live in Asheville, North Carolina. I use she and her or they and them pronouns, I kind of alternate between the two. I’m a police and prison abolitionist. I consider myself an anarchist. I’m a writer. I do web programming work, I design. I try to be creative in service of liberation, like a lot of people that you have on this podcast, and I’m really excited to be here.
TFSR: Yeah, thanks so much for being here. We don’t talk about Asheville very much here, but I think that a lot of the discussions and a lot of the work that people are doing around here is interesting — maybe not more interesting and stuff that’s happening elsewhere — but I’m glad this is gonna air on national FM at some point. So random listeners get to hear it.
UW: Very cool. TFSR: So Asheville has been in the media spotlight for a bit in the past year or so because of the “crisis in policing.” The uprising from last year seemed to be a major shifting and breaking point for policing here in Asheville, despite obviously, years of the police being a problem, including the reemergence of widespread discussion of the APD murder of Jai “Jerry” Williams, and the beating of JohnnieRush a few years back. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about if you see that being a major focal point — like definitely there was a lot more discussion about police abolition coming about and defunding the police — but if you could sort of like set the stage with what you’re aware of, of what’s been happening in the last year to year and a half around policing here.
UW: Yeah, so it definitely seems like Asheville has been in the spotlight quite a bit. You know, we had that front pageNew York Times article about us, about a month or two months back, something like that. I see that as mostly a reactionary effort, that has been sort of a concerted effort to try to undermine some of the gains that have been made last year, I’m not the only person to make this observation. There’s been a media blitz of pro-police propaganda, and almost exactly one year after the largest civil rights uprising in recorded history, as far as I’m aware. And you know, it’s hard to ignore the implications of that happening almost on a year to date.
I would want to say one thing that comes to mind is sort of why this has been happening, not just Asheville, but everywhere, is that the FBI puts out a quarterly crime report — I think it’s called like the Uniform Crime reporting, UCR, something like that — and in the wake of that report, there’s just been a ton of crime wave propaganda, based on misinterpretation of the data. I mean, even on the FBI website, if you go look at that data, they recommend not trying to look at trends and stuff it, because the way the reporting works changes and all that other stuff.
So I would love to just sort of give a little bit of a brief history timeline of some of the things that have happened with Asheville police in particular, and why we might be more of a hot spot than other places. We’re a bit of a microcosm because we’ve lost something like 30% of our police through resignationand retirement. And just to put that in context, for people who are not around here, Asheville is about a sixth of the size of Portland, about a fifth of the size of Atlanta in terms of population in the city proper. That’s not even including their metro areas, which are way, way larger. So it’s only been about 80 cops who’ve left our force, but that is about 30% of our force. And as you sort of mentioned, the “crisis in policing” isn’t new here. We’ve actually had five new police chiefs since 2005 and several of them have resigned amid controversy of various kinds. One of the earlier ones was named Bill Hogan, and he actually resigned amid some controversy about missing evidence, including drugs and money that they couldn’t account for. And then you mentioned Johnnie Rush, and Tammy Hooper was the police chief during that incident, it actually came out that the police department was conducting surveillance on several racial justice organizing groups here in Asheville, and she lied about it publicly and then had to backtrack.
TFSR: That was during the Jerry Williams incidents right. Or, or was that Johnnie Rush?
UW: You know, both of them were pretty close together. I actually have a breakdown timeline here we can go through.
UW: So yeah, I’ll just start with that. So there were three Black men killed in one week in 2016, and that’s where I’ll start. Jerry Williams was killed on July 2, 2016. He was shot seven times by a cop who’s still in the forest named Tyler Radford. Alton Sterling was killed on July 5, so three days later, by the Baton Rouge police, Louisiana. And Philando Castile was killed July 6, so the very next day, near Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed in 2020.
So I’d say that the 2020 organizing efforts were an outgrowth of the organizing to happen here in Asheville, back then. In 2016, there were marches, there was even a group that like occupied the police station for something like 36 hours. I don’t know if you remember that. They had some demands, one of the bigger demands that they put forth was something called “Million Dollars for the People”, which sort of like, is echoed in defunding the police. But basically, the actual police were expected to get a million dollar increase to their budget. And there was a community effort basically in response to these killings, that demanded that that money be put towards community stuff, community programs for safety. Like I said, very echoed in the defund the police movement several years later. Ultimately, unfortunately, that failed. Then the million dollars went to the police sort of as a nod to racial justice organizers. The city implemented this thing called “the equity department”, and they put body cams on the cops.
So February 2017, was sort of the crescendo of the Million Dollars for the People thing. In August 2017 Johnnie Rush was beaten and tasered for jaywalking. And for folks who aren’t familiar with that story, I’d recommend looking into it, there’s a lot of details. But basically, it was at night, there was no traffic or anything. This Black man named Johnnie Rush was trying to cross the street and a cop, I mean, just kind of wailed on him and beat him within inches of his life. And this is all caught on body cam. But that didn’t come out until way late. So that happened in August of 2017. It didn’t come out until March of 2018. Tammy Hooper had a meeting with the public. And during that meeting, because of the Johnnie Rush situation, she was accused of surveillance and she denied it publicly. So that was in March and then in May, it actually came out that she was lying, and that she had been surveilling a couple of groups, one group called Showing Up for Racial Justice, and the local BLM group.
So then she has announced to resign in 2018, but she doesn’t actually, it’s not effective until 2019. Then we had another chief for 45 days — which is wild to me — who quit for personal reasons. And then in March 2020, we got our current chief. So May 31 of 2020, our brand new chief was giving orders to tear gas children and babies and people in Asheville for demonstrating in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. So that sort of brings us up to the Defund movement.
TFSR: The funny thing about chief Hogan, to break down the evidence from scandal: so at the time, the Asheville 11 conspiracy case was going on — people who were arrested, accused to be an anarchist riot, on May Day of 2010 — the lawyer for a couple of the defendants asked to see evidence in their case. And the evidence room was unable to come up with this bag of broken glass, this broken phone and a hammer that were allegedly in there, tied to the case. And so the lawyers called for a survey of the evidence room and came back with — of the 10% of the evidence room that they had surveyed to see what was there — something like 20% of it was missing, including 1000s of dollars in money, a whole bunch of weapons, a whole bunch of guns, apparently tools like hammers and stuff. And the civilian who is in charge of the evidence room resigned to just sort of like skip town. We lost the chief and I think there was another cop that quit over that. And I think with that 45–day–cop, I may be wrong, but it seems like if he came from Greensboro that he was the one whose son had gotten a DUI hitting a pole on Merriman Avenue. And when the cops showed up, they found an unregistered gun in the car. But the charges just sort of seemed to go away for the son of the chief. And so there was sort of a question about them covering up investigations internally.
So we’ve got a great history of good-old-person policingin North Carolina. But yeah, thanks for that breakdown. That’s really…that’s memory lane for me *laughs*. So can you talk a little more about the more recent iteration of the movement to call and pressure the city to defund the Asheville police department? As you said, there were echoes between what happened in 2016 with the Millions for the People and what happened in 2020, and what’s continuing I guess. What sort of tensions exist between like the city’s politicians, the bureaucrats and the police department, and what’s the deal with the monuments and the manure coffin that I keep hearing about?
UW: The manure coffin. Okay, yeah. So had or has depending — some aspects of it have died down — but there were a few aspects to it. It was people calling into City Council, like every single meeting and demanding the defunding of the police. There’s some problems with this strategy, namely that the City Council they own that process and they moved very quickly to sort of shut down — I mean they were being barraged with calls, every single meeting — so they put in a bunch of restrictive stuff to just tamp that down. And it has largely worked.
TFSR: Which is basically shutting down public comment on a public meeting, right?
TFSR: So the public good and make comments on a lot of different stuff.
UW: Right. And just to be clear, “legally speaking”, they didn’t shut anything down. They just added a whole bunch of new hoops, you had to jump through, like you had to register in this like, you know, certain window of time, you had to provide personal details about where you live, and your name and your phone number. And basically, they were asking you to give all of the information necessary for them to make a list of dissenters, which is maybe not what they would have done, but it certainly doesn’t feel good to activists to give them that information and so readily. And yeah, they had like names and phone numbers attached to the calls that they were playing publicly. So yeah, unfortunately, that was pretty effective.
There were some other aspects of the defund movement. There were some really good, like militant street actions and shutting down streets and highways that went on for a couple of months, you know. Like, every couple of weeks, there would be a big street action, and I mean, they would do a pretty good job of totally shutting down streets, which was great. There were some theatrical aspects. Like at one point, there was a giant check floating around. Like people had made a giant check for 50% of the police budget. And they taped it to the library door or something like that, to sort of demonstrate where that money could go, I guess.
There was this one demonstration where people made pink slips for the cops, like firing slips, and were handing them out to cops on the street. And like repossession tickets, and putting them on cop cars. Asheville has a bit of a reputation for being like an “artsy city” or whatever. And I thought that was an interesting way— that stuff got on the news, more, you know, made its way through the public conscious through social media and stuff more than the more militant actions did. So I thought that it was a good way to lift up the rhetoric.
So yeah, there was a decentralized day of action, which was where this like anonymous activist group put out a call for people to go do things like that. And folks, you know, did some, some tagging of buildings and did, like a, there was a big…I’m not sure what the word is, but it was made of cloth — not really a banner because it was attached to the wall — of art that you see all over the internet, of a cop under a Klansmen robe, like with the Marilyn Monroe picture with the skirt blowing up. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all *laughs*. TFSR: Yeah, yeah.
UW: So things like that, you know. But I would say that overall, the defund movement was largely rhetorical. It was effective in terms of shifting narratives. And if the cops are to be believed, then the shifting narrative has a lot to do with why we lost 30% of our cops. So I chalked that up as a win even if we didn’t get abolition, we managed to get 30% of the cops to quit just by being mean to them. Which I think is a win.
So yeah, that’s sort of the defund movement. I would say the only material gain that we got was council agreeing to remove some monuments. Like you mentioned, they have not really followed through super well. So they removed one monument that was to a Confederate general or something — I’m not even actually sure what it was for — but it was definitely Confederacy related near the courthouse. They removed that sort of quietly one night without much fanfare. But there is a giant, I mean, I don’t know…do you know how tall the Vance monument is?
TFSR: No idea.
UW: It’s huge.
TFSR: It’s not very tall right now, which is great.
UW: Yeah, it’s it’s significantly shorter, but it was, you know, like super tall obelisk in downtown, dedicated to this man whose last name is Vance. And he was a slave owner.
TFSR: And a governor. And in the Confederate military, too.
UW: Yeah. All around racist guy. For sure. Yeah, giant obelisk downtown, the community had been trying to get that removed for years and Asheville, after a lot of kicking and screaming, did decide to take it down. It has not come all the way down yet, because it keeps getting ensnared in legal battles with these, like Confederate, you know, historical society groups.
TFSR: Yeah, I think the upkeep was the Sons of Confederate Veterans, like they were the ones who would remove paint and who were, quote unquote, “responsible for the upkeep”, which sounds like an ability to funnel money to this group of good old boys. But as I understand, like the latest— there was a question along the way in the past when it had been discussed of who had the authority to remove the monuments — and this is not dissimilar to the silent Sam question at UNC Chapel Hill, where the University would say we have authority, the county would say we have authority or we don’t have, everyone would say we don’t have authority. The state would be a part of it. And in this case, as I understand the state has put an injunction on removing the base of the monument saying that the city doesn’t have the jurisdiction to remove it under some historical monuments laws on the books. I don’t know if that’s— is that sound about right?
UW: That’s not what I have heard. But, you know, I, to be honest I gloss over when I start trying to read about legal proceedings—
UW: — so I’m not sure exactly who it is I thought that it was a confederate preservationist group that was suing them, but definitely somebody is suing them right now.
TFSR: That could just be the state of North Carolina.
UW:*laughs* I mean, they are kind of a confederate preservationist group. So yeah, somebody’s suing the city right now to get them to stop removing it. Unfortunately, for those folks, they have already removed almost all of the obelisk, all that’s left is the base that says ”Vance”. So that’s sort of dragging out. I, you know, I read an article about it every, like couple of weeks where they’re like “oh, and here’s some more nothing that happened in court, and nothing has moved forward with this”.
So yeah, in addition to those things, folks asked for them to change the names of a bunch of streets, because we have a ton of streets that are named after slave owners as well. It seems like, at present, they’re not going to proceed with that, because business owners don’t want to change their marketing materials. Just such a perfect demonstration of capitalism and white supremacy coming together against community demands, because it’s just a street name, but people don’t want to change what’s— they’d rather have the name of a slave owner on their window than pay somebody to come change the vinyl.
So last thing from what you just said, was the manure coffin, which I’m excited to talk about. It wasn’t really theatrical. It wasn’t meant to be fun. The coffin was part of a protest that happened on the day that some Kentucky grand jury released indictment information in the case of Briana Taylor. And from what I can tell, from what I saw, it was mostly younger Black folks trying to demonstrate their grief and their, you know, they wanted to symbolically bury some of the folks who have been killed by police. So what they did is they took a coffin that appeared to be constructed out of something like plywood, and they dropped it at the front door of APD’s headquarters, and they poured dirt over it.
The cops took that gesture, despite the fact that these folks were standing outsidechanting “Say her name, Breonna Taylor!”. I mean, the flyer that went out in preparation of this event had Breonna Taylor’s name really big on it, despite all of that the cops turned it into a victim narrative for themselves. And they said that it was a threat against their lives. And they also made the false claim that it was full of manure, which is just such a wild thing to lie about. Because it was, yeah, it was a closed coffin that they pouredmostly what looks like regular dirt, and maybe a little bit of potting soil, over the top off. I would say this type of “we’re actually the victim here”, twist is a big part of their overall media strategy and narratives that they’ve been putting out over the past year. But yeah, it definitely wasn’t not a threat to them at all.
TFSR: Yeah, and there’s like, it’s a pretty terrible PR move also to try to symbolically shift the significance of the soil inside of the box to being animal feces, when it’s about laying to rest people that were victims of state violence or like anyone, but yeah. It’s a grasping at straws type thing.
But to just sort of step back — and thank you, thank you for that breakdown — to sort of step back to the question of — because I packed that, that with a lot of different elements — there is a tension that that has sort of come to the fore visibly between city politicians. Like the pressure, according to City Council, activists had left signs requesting that City Council members vote to decrease police funding at the residences of some of the City Council members, and that was considered to be a threat by the city council members, or was presented as such during one of the one of the meetings that happens every other week.
But during the pressure campaign that folks were trying to call in and apply pressure, it wasn’t just that people were calling into City Council — obviously, this is during COVID and so people couldn’t show up and stand at a podium and talk because these events were close to the public, which creates a huge amount of obscurity to the process and difficulty to like participating in this quote unquote, “representative democracy” system we have. But also, I think it came to light at some point to a lot of people that actually City Council isn’t directly responsible for the hiring, directly responsible for the budgeting choices for the police, that it comes down to the bureaucratically appointed city manager. Which kind of while people were attempting to — I don’t fault people at all for taking the approach of attempting to use the rules in place to shift agency and apply pressure and make the changes happen that they want to see happen — but it seems like the power, the existing power structure for the city already had the barricade set up and ready for people to come up against. Can you talk a little bit about those tensions between the elected city officials who maybe did want to make changes, maybe didn’t, and the police department and the city bureaucracy?
UW: Yeah. So you know, you said something earlier about how they were basically trying to pass the buck on the monuments, right? There’s always mechanisms in place with these systems where everybody can just shrug and say, “oh, not my department”, you know, it’s sort of they like, they diffuse responsibility in such a way that there are these failure points that are designed to — I mean, City Council’s job is basically to be yelled at, and not do anything about it, right? They can pass things…but for the most part, when it comes to actual change, the mayor loves talking about the “weak mayor system” we have here in North Carolina. I’m not clear on all the details but basically what it boils down to is what you just said, which is: the mayor is an elected person who doesn’t actually have the power to do all the things that she claimed she wants to do, and has to instead defer to the city manager, which is an unelected position, appointed position, and the city manager is actually the person who, in this case, is responsible for the police department for all of city staff.
So a big rhetorical strategy that you see out of city council is basically being like, “oh, we’d love to help you with this stuff, but you see, city staff has told us we can’t, and we don’t have the power to override them”. So I mean, I’m a cynic. So of course, I see this as a ploy. If they really wanted to, they could find some way…they find ways to make things happen that they want to make happen. In my experience. This sort of diffusion of responsibility is just, is very clever. And there have been a couple of folks, never at the same time, on City Council who— we had a council member who did actually support, vocally supported cutting the police budget in half. Which was the demand by a group called Black AVL Demands, which was like a multi generational Black organizing group. And their number one demand was cut the police force budget in half. And we had one council member named Brian Haynes, who actually was in support of that. He’s no longer on Council, we actually had an election in the middle of all of this. So, you know, we lost a potential ally in Brian Haynesduring all that. He was planning to retire anyway.
And now we have a new, more progressive council member named Kim Roney, who has not been vocally in support of defunding the police, but has sort of always voted “no” on anything that gives them more resources or money, things like that. But again, the power is diffused in such a way that she doesn’t really have any power as far as I can tell. It’s more of a symbolic thing, that there’s always one “no” on the record.
I’d say there was some other sort of tensions, especially among the leadership because of Chief Zack being brand new, having just started in March of 2020, which is basically right before COVID kicked off here. And I mean, obviously, COVID was already happening across in other places in the world, but typical American fashion, we weren’t really concerned about it until it started affecting us. And that’s started happening in April, late March, early April, so Chief Zack had not been in place very long. And then, of course, the George Floyd Uprising started happening in early summer.
TFSR: So you had mentioned a little while ago about the attrition rate of the police department and the city losing about a third of its police force due to retirements or cops quitting. Can you talk about why this is a crisis? It’s not like the police actually get trained for a long period of time before coming on to the job, right? It’s not like they have to go through a four year degree program or something like that. Why are they so concerned? How abnormal is this? Like, how long does ittake fora city to replace a cop? Where are they going and what what are they doing as far as we know,
UW: According to the police department, it’ll take a long time, several years at least, to get the police numbers back to where they were from this attrition. They say it takes as much as a year to get someone from the point of “I want to be a cop” to actually being able to do that job on a daily basis without being at a training capacity. And this could have something to do with the fact that Asheville is a nominally progressive city and we put our police through more training than the average police does. I’m not actually sure. But I know we do like Verbal Judo training and things like that.
So I know in 2020, for example, they graduated six cadets, and five of them have already quit. So the point in that that I’m making is that they put quite a bit of money, time and resources into training these cops and it does not guarantee the cops will actually stay cops. According to the chief, a lot of the people who are quitting are younger, newer recruits, who basically just feel hated immediately upon becoming cops and decide to change career paths. According to the chief it’s about a 50/50 split between people who are like, “Wow, I didn’t realize that I would be this hated, I’m gonna go do something else. Like, I’m gonna go be a refrigerator repairman or something like that”. TFSR: Awesome.
UW: Yeah, which is great. And people who just moved to — Asheville is considered, you know, a blue dot in a red sea because we’re in North Carolina — so a lot of the cops just move to the county or move to a surrounding city where it’s more friendly to police and they continue being. But I think a 50/50 split is pretty good. If we can get 50% of people who quit to stop being cops altogether. That seems like a good number to me.
TFSR: There’s a billboard in the city on Patton Avenue that’s, you know, pretty prominent as you’re driving from West Asheville down towards downtown that’s just like four, I think, four very diverse — ethnically and gender — police officers in uniform and then an empty spot in the middle with like a frame and it says “This could be you!” or whatever. It’s like an advertising campaign from the Greensboro [correction, Winston-Salem -Editor]police department, which like for folks who don’t know, is a much larger city. It’s what? Like two and a half hours to the east of here. And they’re, I guess they’re, they’re being like, “Nobody likes you in Asheville? Come on down to Greensboro. We love cops, we’ll hire you”. But I was surprised to hear that that wasn’t where, that wasn’t necessarily what was happening with the police that were leaving, they were probably just like, well, if they’ve already got the training, and that’s paid for, we can just scoop them up.
UW: Right. Yeah, I mean, and again, like I said, we have to trust what the chief is saying. And he has political reasons why he would fudge these numbers. But according to the chief, it’s been about half and half in terms of people who have just totally quit the job, and who have moved to other departments. They also tend to cite low pay, which, without getting too much into the weeds on this, Asheville in general is an extremely expensive place to live, pretty much everybody here is underpaid. It’s the tourists with money who come and drive up costs.
So yeah, the police force despite claiming that they’re underpaid, they start higher than the median salary here in Asheville. Maybe some of them are going to get better pay elsewhere, maybe some of them are going to find a more “friendly” area to police. And apparently half of them are quitting altogether.
TFSR: Because of paywall *laughs* I didn’t actually read the New York Times article that came out, but I do know, I’m familiar enough with one of the cops that featured prominently in there, is a white officer, is queer — Lindsay Rose is the name that I saw in the New York Times — it sounded like they had said that they had quit because they had felt people were being mean to them. But I had also heard that they had been rehired. So maybe some of that saved budget from the cop attrition has gone towards upping their pay. I don’t know if you have anything to say about that.
UW: I actually do know for a fact that just a couple of weeks ago, City Council voted for a budget that does increase policepay, they’re all getting raises. And they are actively using the attrition. So they fully funded the police force again, despite this attrition. So they gave them the same amount of funding as they had before with the larger number of cops. And they’re using that extra money to try to refill those positions, but they realize they know that they can’t do all of that in one year. So the extra money is going towards giving all of the cops a raise and more training and technology, of course. So I have more to say about Lindsay Rose, about the media angle, but we can come back to that when you get to that question.
TFSR: Can you talk about what sort of material changes have happened with police in town in terms of patrol areas and frequency of patrols and response times? And has that affected crime rates? Like one thing I’ve seen [that] is good [is] the cops saying that they are not wanting to show up to certain kinds of calls or I guess be doing the foot patrols that they were doing before? Is that, do you have any insights on that?
UW: Yeah, I’ve said it a few times, but just to reiterate: it’s been about 35% attrition, they have refilled some of those roles, but not nearly all of them. So there are substantially less cops. That’s definitely the biggest material impact of the last year. As a result of that they have, as you said, they released a statement saying that they would not always respond to certain kinds of infractions crimes. To me it read as a piece of political theater, because the things that they list are things like a simple assault that is reported after it occurred, or a theft under $1,000 when there’s no suspect, which like, I don’t know, I’ve never been one to call the cops much, but from what I understand, they don’t really help or do anything about in those situations anyway. Like, what? What is the cop going to do if they show up after an assault has occurred, a simple assault has occurred. Which, “simple assault”, just to be clear to anybody who might not know is something like being punched. It’s not, you know, it’s nothing super violent. It’s…simple.
So yeah, to me, it read as political theater. Of course, the chief has come out and publicly sort of lambasted anybody who says that it’s political theater, but I remained steadfast in my conviction that it is political theater. There have been a few more, in terms of crime rates, as I mentioned, at the top, there was this FBI Uniform Crime reporting standard, they released these reports every quarter. Notably, the reports don’t include a lot of, like, major cities and things like that— I think it’s something like 30–40% of police forces around the country are actually involved in this most recent report. And that’s been used to sort of foster this narrative of a “crime wave”. In terms of our local crime statistics that I’ve looked at, there has been a few more gun related crimes, and things of that nature. It’s also worth mentioning that gun sales skyrocketed in 2020. I don’t know the exact numbers, but it was huge. Like a huge increase in the amount of guns that were sold. And I’m not anti-gun or anything, I just, I think it’s important to point out that if there are more guns, it follows that there would be more crimes committed with guns, because there are more guns.
So in terms of our local crime statistics, it looks, to me, mostly like everything is remaining flat overall. The overall crime rates are — people will say this all the time — are way down from like, the 90’s. And there are a multitude of reasons that I don’t want to super speculate on as to why that is. But this fear mongering about there being this big spike in crime just doesn’t bear out in the data that we have. And the data is notoriously manipulative, and things of that nature. But you know, if you accept their framing of looking at the numbers, even that doesn’t bear out. The increase in gun crime is offset by decreases in other types of violent crime. So even violent crime rates are not trending upwards right now. They’re pretty much flat.
TFSR: Yeah and I guess a point–a point of mostly white supremacists fear mongering around violent crime and the othering of folks — and just, whether it be racially or poor folks or whatever, will tend to focus on gun crime, rhetorically as a thing that is coming from those populations — but so this is-this is like a third hand thing. I was at the grocery store, I was listening to two people talk about a shooting recently that happened at a bar in West Asheville, where somebody drove up and like shot into the place. Which is scary. It’s definitely scary. Yeah, the cops are not going to stop that. Well, super gun advocates say the cops are not going to stop that and that’s why people need more guns. Which is not, I‘m not making the argument that people need to bring guns into bars. But that’s the argument finally that law enforcement makes is “we will track down and trace the person that was in traffic that got out and shot into the bar”. Which, possibly from security cameras they might be able to do that sort of thing. But like honestly, it’s pretty, it’s pretty unlikely. And more cops in this situation does not mean less of this sort of incidents. Like there’s a lot of things that can sort of like lead into that situation, including the fact that we’re in the middle of a year and a half long pandemic. There’s relatively high unemployment. People are on the verge to eviction. People are continuing to try not to get sick or care for people that might get sick from this increasingly dangerous pandemic but—
UW: — largest wealth transfer in, I mean, I don’t want to, I don’t want to make a false statement, but from what I understand, one of the largest wealth transfers ever occurred during this pandemic. The poor got significantly poorer. And the rich got significantly richer throughout this global crisis. And that has to do with the crime data, stuff too. Like what you just said, speaks to something about the crime data. Which is, there’s so many levels on which we have to sort of combat their narratives, while also combating their framing, right? You have to either accept some of their framingstuff, like that the gun crime thing that you brought up. It’s like, “why are we even discussing that in relation to their being police attrition”? Because they don’t really have anything to do with one another? More cops does not make there be less gun crime. There’s conflicting evidence on whether or not that is even the case.
TFSR: Yeah. So thanks for running down that engine with me. So can we talk a little bit about what you’ve learned about the media angles on this? Like, what–what is mainstream media saying about this? And what is the APD–Public Relations connection? When did that start, and do you have any details on that?
UW: Yeah. So and this goes back to officer Rose, you mentioned earlier. She’s an interesting character in this aspect, in particular. During the protests last summer, to sort of take it back, there was, after the first few days of tear gassing and stuff like that, the community support kind of swelled. One of the ways in which this manifested was people started showing up to protests prepared to take care of folks who were tear gassed. And they actually set up a medical — it had medical stuff and snacks and water and things of that nature — in an alleyway near where the protests sort of coalesce downtown. Right after, I think it was actually like five minutes before curfew — because you know, last summer, all these cities were putting out these curfews which drew ACLU ire — but right near the curfew, the cops, according to the folks who work there, without warning, sort of stormed this medical tent. And not only did they like, you know, throw the folks who were working the table to the wall and stuff like that. They started actually destroying the medical supplies. So there’s this photo, that goes around that’s been going around by a local reporter named Angie Wilhelm, of a APD officer stabbing a water bottle. So they were stomping and stabbing water bottles—
TFSR: — in full riot gear.
UW: In full riot gear, yeah. And that photo went national, right? It got a lot of attention and went viral on Twitter. Folks who are listening to this might have even seen it, maybe not realized it was Asheville. So that was obviously a horrible PR moment for Asheville, which is a tourist town that tries to market itself as “progressive” and “liberal” and stuff like that. Directly after that incident the Asheville Police Department hired this company called Cole Pro Media, which is a PR firm. Interestingly, the PR firm, if you go to their website right now, it’ll have a bunch of talk about how they never spin anything or anything like that. They’re just trying to help police be more transparent and accountable, is their line. But the local paper, Citizen-Times, did a little bit more investigating and found an earlier iteration of Cole Pro Media’s web presence in which they advertised that they would help cops outsmart journalists. Like openly stated that that was one of their goals.
So this transparency and accountability language reappears in that New York Times article. The New York Times sent this guy here to interview the chief of police, the mayor, of a handful of locals and they ran it on the front page. And one of the cops that they interviewed was officer Rose, who you mentioned earlier. Officer Rose quit the force pretty spectacularly. Because as a queer person, they didn’t feel like the queer community was being accepting of them being a cop. And according to the New York Times article they went back to retrieve their badge to give it to their mother or something like that, and—
TFSR: *mockingly* Awww.
UW: Right,so sweet. And Chief Zack talked them into rejoining the force as a, I can’t remember the exact term, like community liaison or something like that, right? And in the New York Times article, it’s notable that they use the same language, “accountability and transparency”, like it’s almost word for word for their justifications that they gave for hiring this PR firm. Was we want to be more accountable and transparent. So then, you see that she came back to do that job and then is on the front page of the New York Times, like posed up in this very dramatic photograph of her, like, looking sad out a window. And it’s hard not to tie all that together in my mind: the water bottle incident, the PR company, the victim narrative of the coffin and all of the stuff that’s been happening very recently with the, you know, “we’re losing cops and we can’t keep up”, the accountability and transparencylanguage, officer Rose going into the New York Times, they started a community engagement division of the police force, which officer Rose is also on whose job is again, using that accountability and transparency language.
TFSR: What do cops in Asheville actually do? It seems like the evictions of houseless folks that happened over the summer this year from public parks put a lot of stress on the APD’s morale. Can you talk about that, and what you see is the relationship between homelessness, nonprofits — or what some might call poverty pimps — and harm reduction efforts with the police in Asheville?
UW: You can’t really understand the function of Asheville Police Department without understanding that we are primarily a resort town. We make the majority… I say “we”, the people who actually have money and capital in the city… make the majority of their money from tourism. We’re known as “beer city”, we have a ton of breweries and bars. In fact, it’s been suggested to me very recently that we might have one of the highest numbers of breweries and bars per capita from just about any city nearby or anything like that. We have a ton of breweries, and the craft beer scene is really big, the music scene. We’re also nestled in southern Appalachia, it’s a very lovely environment. All of that to say that those are used as justifications for why we need to focus the lion’s share of our resources, as both a city and a county, on appeasing tourists.
So one function of that, one aspect of that, is that we have the most bloated police force per capita of any North Carolina city. To my knowledge. And the reason for that is because police in the city function to use their fascistic language, in my opinion, “keep the streets clean”, right? And what they mean by that, of course, is not, you know, like public service of picking up trash. They mean by keeping the streets clean that they want to keep folks who tourists might not like to see, such as unhoused folks, out of line of sight.
So to me, that’s just so remarkably fascistic, the idea that human beings are trash to be cleaned up. But that is one of the major functions of the police. And there are several, you know, reactionary, right wing business groups who are super focused on that tourist money who make this argument themselves all the time. I don’t have to put words in their mouth at all, they will straight up say, “why can’t we use more tourist money to keep the streets clean of unhoused individuals?” I mean, they’ll call them homeless folks.
So it’s really important to understand that’s one of the major functions of Asheville police, is keeping the town free of things that might remind folks who are coming here to have a cozy vacation. They don’t want anything reminding them of capitalism, the failures of capitalism. You know, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of the folks who work in Asheville can’t actually afford to live here. I think it’s the most expensive city in North Carolina, from what I understand, to live in. So keeping unhoused individuals out of sight is one of the biggest functions of the police. We’ve long had an affordable housing crisis in the city. And it’s just getting worse recently with all of the recent buyouts and stuff that these investment firms are making.
TFSR: And Airbnb’s.
UW: Oh, yeah, Airbnb, that’s a big one, huge one. A lot of them are not even, like, legally allowed to exist. But of course they do because folks can just list their house on a website. That’s about to get a whole lot worse, because, I mean, we’re recording this today on Saturday [August] the 31st and as of today, the eviction moratorium, federal eviction moratorium has expired. There might be something in place at the state level, but in any case, that’s signaling the end of protections for renters, who are behind due to the pandemic. So that’s sort of a high level. What the police do in Asheville has a lot to do with basically keeping it a comfortable place for rich tourists.
In terms of the like, day to day what they actually do— somebody put out a really cool zine last summer, that’s sort of where they like, actually sat and listened to police calls, or on the scanner or something like that — I’m not actually sure how they did their research — but documented a lot of calls. There’s also this group called AVL Watchdog that got ahold of call center data and like actually broke it all down. So basically mostly what Asheville actually does, according to this, is traffic stuff. Assist motorists, deal with improper parking and things like that. That’s 23% of their time. According to this. To be more clear, it’s 23% of the calls that they get. How they actually spend their time can look a lot different from the percentage of calls that they get for sure.
What’s notable on this is that when you’re talking about things that a lot of people consider harmful, such as theft or violent crime or anything like that, you’re down in the like, I mean 5% were reports of theft, including shoplifting. 3% of their calls had something to do with mental health, people having issues publicly. So the point being that it’s such a small amount of what they actually do on a day to day basis, they mostly just exist to keep unhoused individuals out of sight. And one part of that is, they have been evicting folks from these public parks. There was a big one, there were two that really drew a lot of attention very recently. One was on literally the coldest day of the year of 2021, so far. And the police decided to evict a camp of folks who were camping under a bridge. And the reason that they did this is notable, it’s because they got a report from this thing called the Asheville App, which is tourists using it as a direct line of communication with police and city council and stuff. And you know, the officials of various capacities. So there was a report made, and then within a few hours, they went out there and evicted this camp that was under a bridge.
And then there were folks camping at a couple of different parks, public parks. Which as I understand it was where they were told to move, to the public parks from more public spaces where they had been under bridges and things like that. I’m not sure of the details of that, but from what I understand they were directed to go there [by the city]. And somewhat recently, they decided that they weren’t allowed to be there either, and sent out notices that everybody had to get out. And they gave them like a week or something like that to get out. Most of the folks not really wanting more trouble for themselves and more legal trouble, did decide to just move on, find somewhere else to be. One camp in particular had some folks who were like, “no, we’re not going to move”. And they ended up sending out something like 30 cops, which of our police force again, just a reminder, we lost 35%. That’s a big proportion of our police, 30 cops is a lot of our police.
So yeah, they sent out a huge proportion of our police to evict this camp, they made several arrests of folks that they claim are activists. But again, there’s…it’s not like those are two distinct categories of unhoused folks and activists. So yeah, that’s what police do in Asheville. They function as an apparatus to basically hide the effects of the policies that they want to uphold, the policies of never ending growth and tourism.
TFSR: So I did kind of bring up harm reduction efforts in that question, and maybe that wasn’t the best place to bring it up. But this next one, I think is. So there was recently a push by a small section of right leaning business owners in the city to put up a very ugly-ass, boot-licky billboard in support of the police, and to get local businesses that specifically support the police to put little blue ribbons in their windows. You know, because the FOP [Fraternal Order of Police] stickers that a bunch of diners have in their windows aren’t enough, or whatever. But I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the billboard effort and any of the characters or group names that are affiliated with the push against public visibility of homelessness, or of safer alternative harm reduction opportunities for intravenous needle users or other folks that are using illegal or concentrated substances in our community. Like I know Steady Collective and Firestorm — and we talked about this a couple of years ago — we’re getting a lot of pressure from the West Asheville Neighborhood Alliance. Which sounds like a very legit group but in fact is is spearheaded by some some people that are pretty far to the right and involved in some of the counter-protests to BLM stuff last year. Yeah, wondering if there’s anything you can say about WANA or the billboard or the blue ribbons or that sort of thing?
UW: Yes. So I have not gone down the West Asheville Neighborhood rabbit hole just yet. I only know what I’ve heard from other folks. And like you said, you guys probably have some great information in your archive about the situation with Firestorm collective, which is a local bookstore and coffee shoprun by anarchists and in a collective fashion, and the Steady Collective, which is a harm reduction program here in Asheville. Not necessarily run by anarchists from what I understand, but just yeah, harm reduction, syringe exchange program and outreach program that works with drug users to mitigate some of the effects that they face, not only as a result of using drugs, but uhhh being in a society that criminalizes people for things that other folks can do in their homes without facing persecution to the same extent, at least.
I can say that the billboard is part of a very concerted effort for this group that’s calling themselves AVL Business Owners. They actually had a private meeting with the mayor about a month ago. I say “private”, it was at a place called the ISIS Music Hall, which is a concert venue in West Asheville. And they only invited business owners, that’s why I say it was private. They sent it out via email to local business owners and invited them to come. And we’re very upfront about the fact that they were not going to talk about defunding the police or anything like that. They asked for people to submit questions in advance. And then they were going to have a moderator who basically spoke on behalf of all these folks.
So over the course of this meeting, they brought up a lot of issues, mostly anecdotal issues around folks using drugs and sleeping and sort of just existing in their line of sight. And their solution to that is to crack down on them, to have more police and more punishment for these folks who are already being displaced by the systems by these very business owners and their insistence on profits, through the means of tourism. So, that business owners group is called Asheville Business Owners and they are responsible for both of things that you mentioned. The big ugly billboard — that’s, I think, at the intersection of patented Haywood, in West Asheville — it just says, “Thank you, Asheville police department. We support you” or something like that, and has their email address firstname.lastname@example.org, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if folks drop them a quick line to let them know how much they appreciate that billboard.
That same group is also responsible for the Blue Ribbon campaign — which is kicking off on August 1, which is tomorrow as of the recording — where folks are going to be putting blue ribbons up on their business fronts to signal their support for police. So these folks are all very concerned about unhoused individuals in particular. In the invitation email, to their meeting, they were very much like “we are not going to be discussing homelessness”, the majority of the meeting was about homelessness. Without even meaning to they make these connections for us. At one point, one of the folks who were in the meeting asked “why can’t we use the money that’s generated from tourism to do something like build a facility to send homeless folks to?” So yeah, the connections between drug users and unhoused folks, and these right wing businesses is super thick, there’s a lot of stuff there. To bring the harm reduction efforts into it, they are all of course, very against harm reduction, because they see it as you know, through that sort of outdated lens of enabling, as opposed to you know, helping people stay alive. And they want instead there to be further criminalization, further punishment of these folks.
TFSR: I know, it’s it’s impossible to speak on everyone’s behalf, but if you could talk a little bit about some of the alternatives that people are proposing to police here in Asheville or have been or were last summer. If your impression is that people from over–policed communities are participating in creating those demands, or if it’s like… I know sometimes it gets proposed that it’sa bunch of white middle class activists that are presenting these things when really they don’t have a sense of the problem. Outside agitators, I think they call them.
UW: So yeah, I’ll start off by saying that I think that the idea of alternatives is sometimes the wrong framing for what a lot of folks actually say in this space. From what I understand from reading abolitionists like Mariame Kaba and folks like that, in many cases, they say the best alternative to the things that police do is simply nothing at all. And that sometimes trips up well meaning progressive liberals who do think we need to one to one alternatives. But in reality, the alternatives I hear from a lot of abolitionists are focused on background needs, and giving resources to people in ways that don’t have a one to one relationship with “crime” but instead, they’re more focused on building healthy communities.
And again, I don’t want to speak for anyone, but I can tell you that, from what I’ve observed, there was a group that formed very early on last summer during the protest movement called Black AVLDemands. It was, according to them, a multi-generational Black organizing group. They put forward the demand that sort of overtook the public discourse locally of defunding the police by 50%. To my knowledge, they didn’t really put forward any direct alternatives.
There is another group, totally anonymous group, that has identified themselves as multiracial, including Black folks, just to be clear, and they’re called the Defund AVL PD Instagram account. They actually put forward some more concrete ideas. I actually have a little list of those here. They suggested that the police funding could go towards jobs programs, restorative justice programs, affordable housing — which as we’ve talked about is a huge issue in Asheville — public education, mental health service, evidence based substance use treatment and harm reduction services, rent subsidies and eviction diversion, and free public transportation, which we do not have here.
In addition to the Defund AVL PD group, there’s another group called the Racial Justice Coalition. They have a community liaison named Rob Thomas, who is a Black man who is from Asheville, has a deep ties to the community here, the Black community and has some personal experience with the justice system in particular. I just want to quote him, because I think it’s really important that we hear from somebody who’s not me, who’s not a white person on this issue. So this is Rob Thomas talking about defunding the police:
“I want to be totally transparent about my stance on defunding the police departments. I don’t think that the call to defund the police is going to solve all of the issues within law enforcement. What it does do is free up funding so that we can start up alternatives while keeping law enforcement active. We can create structures that can replace some of their duties as has been has been shown in other cities. The culture of policing is directly reflective of the culture of America. Structural and institutional racism is embedded in the DNA of America. And the only way to change disparities in policing, disparities in school systems, disparities in government, and disparities in the criminal justice system, is to completely dismantle the systems as they currently stand and restructure them completely. This may sound drastic, but if you look at where we are now in racial equity, and where we were 100 years ago, you will see that many systems have been completely overhauled. I’m looking at where we need to be measuring against where we are right now.”
So that’s to offer some outside perspectives. You know, folks have offered everything from “we need these specific things that will help folks have the resources that they need to prevent crimes in general”. And then we have, yeah, spoke to people saying we need to completely tear down the system and then restructure it from the ground up. There’s also been talk of Reparations in Asheville. The City Council passed a resolution for reparations. And for folks who aren’t familiar with some of the sort of city government jargon, a resolution is really just them all agreeing to read something out loud that they agree with. It’s not really an actionable plan. So they basically apologized for racism and said that they would do better. Part of that was they’ve been attempting to institute a reparations program, which does not provide any cash payments, it sort of uses market mechanisms and city contracts to attempt to transfer some wealth towards Black folks. But even that program has not been going well.
TFSR: Yeah, for folks in town, there’s actually a really nice mural about reparations and the demand for the city to actually cut a check on it on the side of the El Dorado building on Haywood Road in West Asheville by the artist Destro. Shout out to Destro.
UW: I mentioned way earlier that they created the Office of Equity in response to some of the protests a few years back. That office is currently sitting with zero, not a single person who is a full time employee of that office. They had an interim director that they just appointed, like the day before yesterday, after two directors have quit. The first director who quit very publicly said that they were not getting support from the city, from the city manager in particular and that’s why they were quitting. And there is no other staff in that department at all. So they had made a promise to have this Reparation, I’m not sure the exact word, but this “Reparations Coalition” or something like that, up and running one year from the day that they declared it. And that deadline passed kind of without fanfare, I think like a week or so ago.
So yeah, the only material thing that I’ve seen and heard in terms of alternatives to policing is: there is talks the city is looking into a CAHOOTS model crisis intervention team. Which, again, for folks who aren’t super familiar with that, CAHOOTS is a program that I believe was started in Oregon…Eugene! Yeah, there we go. And the point of that group is basically if someone’s having a mental health crisis or something like that, you can call these folks and they’ll come and they’re not police. And they will help defuse the situation and de-escalate and that sort of thing without getting cops involved. So that’s the only like, straight up alternative that I’ve heard really being floated.
TFSR: I understand thatyou did not just do all this preparation for this conversation. I’m wondering if you could talk about projects that you’re involved in, any sort of support that they need, or how people could learn more?
UW: Yeah, so I try to do as much as I can in service to liberation. I do design work and things like that, for anybody who needs it. One of the things that I like to do, or spend a lot of time doing at least, is researching the police and the media narratives, as I mentioned earlier. One of the group projects that I’m working on as an outgrowth of that is we’re trying to launch a new locally focused news blog. We’re calling it the Asheville Free Press. By the time this airs, it will have launched if everything goes according to plan. So if folks want to find me on Twitter, it’s just my name, Ursula Wren and the Asheville Free Press is just going to be a website http://avlfree.press. And yeah, we’re gonna do, we actually have a couple of pieces lined up about things that we’ve talked about in this this interview. I have a more in depth reporting of what all was said at that Asheville Business Owners meeting with the mayor, and a more thorough debunking of the manure coffin victimization narrative that cops have talked about. Both of those should be out by the time that this airs. So yeah, that’s, that’s what I’ve been working on. Asheville is home to lots of great media projects and my goal is to just sort of do what I can to help contribute to that in any way I can. I’m so glad that I got to be on here and talk to you about this. That’s definitely part of that for me.
TFSR: Aww, that’s, it’s my pleasure. I’m glad to have you on.
UW: In addition to the media project that I just mentioned, I am 1/4 of a screen printing collective called Syndicate Press. We do, like, live events where we print propaganda t-shirts, for lack of a better term. There’s a shirt that you’ll see all around Asheville that says “Fund communities, not cops”, and that was something that we put together. So, those are the projects that I’m involved in.
TFSR: Well, Ursula, thank you so much for taking the time to have this chat and all the work that you do. *trying to keep a straight face* We’ll see you at the barricades, comrade.
UW: *laughs* Alright. Thank you so much Bursts.
This week, we’re excited to (re-)present a 2015 conversation with Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley, editors and authors of their book out from AK Press entitled “Dixie Be Damned: 300 years of Insurrection in the American South”. The book is a study of Maroon, Indigenous, White, Black, worker, farmer, slave, indentured, women and men wrestling against institutions of power for autonomy and self-determination. All of this in a region stereotyped to be backwards, slow, lazy, victimized and brutal. The editors do a smash-bang job of re-framing narratives of revolt by drawing on complex and erased examples of cross-subjectivity struggles and what they can teach us today about current uprisings in which we participate.
Throughout the hour we explore some of the examples that became chapters in the book, critiques of narrative histories and academia and what new ways forward might be towards an anarchist historiography.
Asheville-based punk collective called Bandits Never Die, in conjunction with the DIY-Bandits label, is doing an online fundraiser for Pepe, the founder of DIY-Bandits who is doing time in Federal prison. We interviewed Pepe before he went in in 2019, you can find a link in the show notes about his reflections of preparing for prison and what he’d learned about the realities of families of people serving time in the BOP. The benefit is a limited time print of a t-shirt and or poster and 100% of proceeds will go to support Pepe while he’s in prison (https://banditsneverdie.bandcamp.com/merch/i-want-to-believe-t-shirt-poster-combo). You can also see Q&A’s and some videos of Pepe before he went inside at his blog, https://preparingforfreedom.org
Anarchist bank robber and prison rebel in Greece is still healing from the attack he suffered at Domokos prison at the hands of guards under the New Democracy administration. G. Dimitrakis was held for a period in solitary confinement after the attack rather than be transported to a hospital to help treat his serious wounds, likely as an attempt to inflict permanent damage or kill the rebel. There is a new letter from Mr Dimitrakis that was kindly translated into English by comrades in Thessaloniki available on June11.org that we invite listeners to check out and will link in our show notes, alongside the original Greek. You can also find his firefund to raise court costs to argue for a quick release for Giannis Dimitrakis at firefund.net/giannis. Our Passion for Freedom is Stronger Than Their Prisons!
As a quick reminder, you can find transcripts of each weekly episode of our show at our website by clicking the Zines tab, as well as on each episode’s page. We also have choice past episodes transcribed and available for easier reading, translation, printing and mailing.
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TFSR: We’re speaking to the editors of a new history book out from AK Press “Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South” – Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley come on down. Thank you so much for your time.
Saralee: Thanks for having us.
Neal: No problem.
TFSR: So considering the relative popularity of regional histories and what this book is actually about, what brought you to write this book? And how does it diverge from what one might expect from a Southern history?
Neal: Yeah, there’s a lot of regional histories out there, and Southern history is sort of its own genre that draws up, perhaps a niche, but highly, highly fanatical crowds. So, that is something we encountered when we first started talking about writing the book. You know, our take on it, first and foremost was that we’ve read a lot of those histories, but always found them really unsatisfactory in either even remotely dealing with these kinds of rebellious moments and social movements and whatnot that we deal with in our book. But when they do deal with them, there’s these sort of very highly-scripted narratives, choreographed almost, if you will, that seek to explain the kinds of tension, social tension and social war that you see in the South. You know, just the short answer to your question, I think, is just that we found those explanations, highly unsatisfactory, in actually explaining, the roots of those tensions, and the kinds of conflict that happened in those rebellious moments and how those moments speak to today. Right? How they speak to the present. You know, we’re anarchists, we sought to write a book about Southern conflict and social conflict and social war in the South that speaks to those politics, but also just that actually speaks to the present in general.
Saralee: And I think that while there is volumes and volumes of regional history, specifically about the South written. There’s not much to speak of regional history written by anarchists right now. And we hope that in doing this, also, it inspires others to kind of take on regions that they live in and look at inspiring histories of revolt from around different regions in the South, and not just the South, but the country. And I think, furthermore, this problem that we have a lot as anarchists, especially Southern anarchist, is that we are constantly looking at history that’s in one sense, not our own, for inspiration. Whether it’s to the big cities in the US or Europe. And I think for us, it was about trying to find things that resonated. Because in order to have the history be relevant in your present, it is important to know about what revolt has looked like in your own region.
TFSR: To be a little more direct, Neal, when you were talking about tensions that get danced around? Can you talk more explicitly about what kind of tensions you’re talking about, in terms of histories written of the South?
Neal: Yeah, absolutely. It’s something we deal head-on with in the book, and that have this hypothesis as we’re doing the research and from our own politics and experiences. But that became more and more frustrating and explicit, as we learn more, and as we talked as collaborators and thought more was specifically like the way the progressive narrative has shaped the South. And I mean that in the broadest sense possible. I don’t mean, like left Democrat. I mean any narrative that seeks a sort of progressive version of history. And so with that the specific examples like you’re asking, could be the the way that people who do history with that narrative, gloss over social conflicts that are inconvenient to this idea that progress with a capital P is something that happens gradually over time and inevitably that it happens through modernity, industrialization, citizenship, the granting of rights from the State, etc.
And so there’s these pockets of conflict that we probably disproportionately focus on in the book. For example, after the Civil War during Reconstruction, pockets of conflict during the Civil Rights Movement, that breakout of both rights and Black Power, organizing models, labor conflict that breaks out of the workplace, only model. So these are kinds of examples that we focus a lot on in the book. To give a very specific example for Reconstruction, a lot of the major social conflicts that emerged post-Civil War involve various populations of dispossessed either, you know, for example, all Black communities or former slaves or mixed race communities of Indians and former slaves and poor whites in other areas of the South, challenging not just the former Southern regime, the former Confederate regime, but also simultaneously challenging Northern models of redevelopment that bring in waged work that bring in contracted labor that bring in certain industry. And so they’re fighting sort of a war on two fronts: one against this “capital S South” and one against “capital N North”.
That war, the fact that dispossessed people would actually burn down plantation property in rejection of the idea of labor contracts. And the rejection of paid labor doesn’t match with the traditional historical notion that slaves were trying to transition from slave labor to wage labor. So that breaks with both the traditional kind of lefty progressive vision, also the Marxist vision that people like W.E.B. Du Bois would would espouse.
Saralee: Also, in a lot of these registries, even Leftist academic ones, you have the problem that was that Reconstruction failed, right? That it was the Southern backwardsness, and there was this failure to instill this Northern project. So what we’re looking at is not that it was a failure, but that it was also rejected, actively rejected from the beginning.
Neal: That’s maybe a more specific example of what we’re trying to dig into real deep and get at this idea that the alternative to the traditional notions of like the conservative South that’s posed by most folks as like rights, citizenship, democracy… it’s not a real alternative in that actually those things existed and came about as ways to contain social conflict. And that’s a larger truth that’s sort of taken for granted and anarchist discourse, but we wanted to dig really deep into Southern history and figure out how that’s played out here. And we wrote this book for an audience at large, not just for Southerners. Because a lot of the major conflicts in the United States that have determined where political economy has gone, where social movements have gone, have all honed in on the South. So the major wars fought on this country’s soil: Revolutionary War, the Civil War, really primarily deal with the question of what to do with labor and political economy in the South, what to do with potentially rebellious people in the South, specifically what to do with people of color, specifically, African folks. And so this history becomes meant to anyone interested in questions of social movements or recuperation, or how social conflict is happening today.
TFSR: When y’all talk about the American South, what are you pointing to? What does that signify geographically, historically, and culturally?
Saralee: Yeah, this is a… this is one that we wrestled with a lot at the start of the of this project, one, because, of course, we wanted to include so much, you know, we wanted to think as broadly as we could about the South and include as much interesting conflict as possible. But obviously, that wasn’t… it’s not possible. And we are already kind of recovering in working with a lot in the 200 some pages that exist now. But I think one of the ways is to look at where, in kind of a pre-Civil War idea and definition of the South in terms of how specifically slavery played out in the Southeast, was an important marker.
What were the slave states? What were the states that did withdraw from the Union and engage that conflict. Because we knew we were going to be dealing with a lot of Civil War and post-Civil War land struggle. And so that was really relevant. I think, also, a lot of it had to do with what we found and what we had access to, and narratives that kind of found us in the process of writing the book. Neal and I have spent most of our lives in North Carolina. I spent a lot of my life in Georgia. You see a lot of Appalachian struggle show up because those are histories that are really palpable when you’re trying to look at these things like autonomy and less politically motivated struggle. Appalachia always comes up. So, I don’t know… How else would you characterize?
TFSR: First off, what do you mean by less politically motivated forms of struggle?
Saralee: Well, what I mean by that is in the way that people defined how they were in conflict and what they were rebelling against and what they were working towards. And so we definitely were trying to find periods, you know, in areas of rebellion that were not kind of self organized as Marxist as socialists, even as anarchists, but were more organized through kinship, through through ideas in connection to land, through ideas and connection to various forms of dispossession. Does that make sense? Rather than for a specific Political agenda, party, organization, platform.
Neal: Yeah. So, I think that sort of anti-political bent, if you will, and I realized that’s not a conventional use of the word. But I think Saralee summed it up pretty well. But that anti-political bent becomes important for two reasons. One, is that it speaks to our current political moment in the 21st century, where, you know, increasingly, you’re seeing riots erupt all over the country all over the world that don’t betray in immediate politicality in the sense that you can’t point to it and label it very easily. You can’t identify clear demands, clear representatives, clear negotiators, until those people try and emerge from outside kind of like the the ambulance chasers of whatever riot you’re talking about. And so, because so much defines our current political moment and the moment that anarchists seek to intervene in and engage in, that makes the history in which social struggles will also look like that back in the day, really important because it speaks to the present.
The other reason I think that anti-political bent is very important is because without it, you can’t actually digest social conflict in the South, because the South hasn’t had a lot of the same degree of politicization of social movements that have happened in the northeast, for example, or the Midwest areas like Chicago or the west coast, where you have, for example, large immigrant communities bringing very established philosophical ‘isms’ like anarchism, socialism, communism into social movements, and really giving a very clear political trajectory to those movements. That happened a lot less in the South for a huge array of reasons. And that’s not to say, when we say that a social struggle isn’t political, we’re not saying that it doesn’t involve visions of new ways of living, new forms of life, that it doesn’t involve questions of decision making, or egalitarianism, or questions of power dynamics, or ethics of care, strategy. What we’re saying is that it doesn’t involve an institutionalization of narrative of structure, if that makes sense. And I realized that’s a little vague, but I think that becomes particularly important in the South because of how the South developed differently.
TFSR: What stories do you focus on in your seven chapters? Why did you choose those? And what are you hoping that the reader will derive from them?
Saralee: I guess, just to give an overview… the book starts in early 1700s, and runs along the colonial territories of Virginia, North Carolina, and the Great Dismal Swamp. Looking at a kind of evolution from the Indian Wars against colonial settlements into maroonage as a form of both escape from plantations and slavery into a form of attack. So the Great Dismal Swamp was an area that was deeply feared and hated by colonial Europeans. They didn’t understand that kind of geography, they didn’t like the animals in it, and then quickly became associated with territories that were controlled by escaped slaves. And so that area is… it’s important. Not only because of how long of a period of revolt that went for well into the 1800s. But also, just from the beginning of the book, setting up the importance of the figure of the maroon, and the social position of the maroon as not something that was just an identity formed out of escape or running away from these systems, but directly engaged in attacking and trying to end slavery.
So I think that creates like a strong basis for some of the kind of subjects that we look at throughout the rest of the book. And then we move on into the Civil War period, specifically in the Ogeechee area between the Ogeechee rivers and Coastal Georgia. Where we are looking at the kind of struggle for land and autonomy and for life without labor contracts that Ogeechee people were engaged in, in that area. So from like, 1868, to 1869, but definitely starting from the onset of the Civil War to well into like the early 1900s. Along all those tracts of land that Sherman initially had kind of gifted back over to former slaves, and then that was immediately rescinded by Johnson.
So looking at that, and then into another period of really interesting Reconstruction Era revolt called the Lowry Wars. Which was in coastal, eastern North Carolina. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the Ogeechee struggle because while the Ogeechee insurrection was pretty much entirely Black former rice workers, were rice slaves, the Lowry Wars focuses on a multiracial banditry of Lumbee Indians, poor Scots-Irish whites, who had kind of integrated into the Lumbee ethnic and cultural world, and also former slaves who had escaped and joined the Lumbee tribe. And their attacks on Reconstruction plantation society similar to Ogeechee in that planters were returning to lands trying to trying to kind of reassert their power that well at the same time Northern labor institutions like the Freedmen’s Bureau were trying to get people to go back to work through introducing of the wage contract to the labor contract. And so we see a lot of different forms of resistance in the Lowry’s there. And then there’s a little bit of a leap into the coalfields and Tennessee and I’ll let Neal talk about a couple of chapters there.
Neal: Yeah, so from there the book sort of takes a bent towards focusing on what at first glance might be a more sort of traditional radical or lefty history in the sense of focusing on labor and labor battles. But the labor battles we choose to focus on are pretty specifically chosen to highlight a struggle that challenges that model. So, the next chapter that comes to pass is called the Stockade Wars, which refers to a heightened period of conflict in the early 90s in eastern and central Tennessee, between Black and white free coal miners, as well as almost entirely Black prisoners in conflict with various mostly Northern owned coal companies and railroad companies as well as the actual state of Tennessee and the National Guard. And they’re they’re basically fighting against the convict lease, which is what a lot of listeners will be pretty familiar with, probably, but was a system of re-enslavement by which almost entirely poor Black folks were imprisoned for small offenses, and then they’re physically leased out to private companies to do their labor, especially in mining and in railroad, also often timber as well in the deep South.
They’re fighting that system, which was a way to undermine the power of waged workers as well as exploit the dispossessed generally. So that resulted in a pretty unusual alliance of people fighting out of their own interests and social networks against those companies in the state of Tennessee. You know, what comes to pass is that laborers and prisoners end up burning down company property, looting company property, and then setting prisoners free, giving them clothes and food and helping them get out of the State. So you have a situation where Southern white folks are actually freeing Black prisoners and helping them get out of the state. And so some pretty unusual alliances develop in that context that we don’t often read about or think about. It’s not a typical workplace struggle, if you will.
And then, with some interludes, we skip on to a Wildcat struggle led by women also in eastern Tennessee, in the mills, in 1929 in Elizabethton, Tennessee. It’s a bit of a leap, but it involves similar issues that are at the fore. But we focus also to a large degree on some of the gendered constructs that break down in the heat of a wildcat struggle at primarily to mills and Elizabethton, Tennessee in 1929. And the dynamics of conflict internal to that movement. The ways that the union sort of helicopters in at the last moment to try and sort of negotiate the struggle and how that dynamic plays out and how that prophecies what’s going to happen in central North Carolina with the much larger mill strike activity starting in 1930.
From there, the book goes on to focus on a period of Civil Rights as well as Black Power and urban riots that happens in the late 60s, sort of dealing with like, digesting how the New Deal and how other government programs managed to kind of subsume and contain that period of radical labor conflict. And so what you see decades later is a lot of really heightened social conflict that deals directly with the identities around which some of those new deal concessions, avoid or sell out, right? So Black folks, women, queer folks, things like that, movements like that.
And so we deal next with urban riots that erupt beyond the boundaries of both Civil Rights and Black Power as narratives. And we try and deal with some of the urban riots that are have often been ignored in the South as emblematic of a kind of social struggle that can’t be contained by the Political narrative with a capital P. And so it exposes some of the limitations of Black Power and identity, as well as the rights framework that the Civil Rights movement is basing itself around.
And then to sort of close out the book. The last chapter deals with a large women’s prison rebellion in 1975, in Raleigh, North Carolina. We chose that because we wanted to focus on a prison struggle that hadn’t been talked about much we also chose it because we wanted to focus on something dealing with prisons, just because of how that’s emblematic of where political economy and institutions of control and exploitation are headed. But in that time period in the early and mid-70’s, it prophecizes against sort of the world we live in today. And so we focus on a five day uprising at a women’s prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, and sort of internal dynamics of that revolt and how activists sort of negotiated for it and within it, how the administration’s dealt with containing it, etc, etc. And then we close out the book with a concluding sort of a more meta chapter that basically is our own notes for historiography that might break beyond some of these leftist narratives of Southern history that we’ve been attempting to challenge throughout the book as a whole.
TFSR: So the 40th anniversary of that struggle in the Raleigh women’s prison is coming up in June. Is there anything going on? Do you know?
Neal: There should be! It would be a great June 11 thing for people who celebrate June 11. I guess, for listeners who don’t know that is, but it’s the remembering and celebrating long term anarchist and eco prisoners struggles. But yeah, no, I mean, there absolutely should be.
Saralee: Every Mother’s Day there’s a big demo, which was just last Sunday, at the… what’s kind of closest to what was the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women. So it’s basically the same facility in the same neighborhood. And I think maybe because of that, it’s hard to turn around and do a June event, but there definitely should be.
TFSR: I’m not trying to interrupt the flow of questions. But since you’re gonna be doing a book opening right around that time… the event will be spoken about in a public setting again, which is pretty damn cool.
Saralee: Definitely. That’s a really good point. We should we should bring that up.
Neal: You should just show up. And, you know, yeah, go ham with that.
TFSR: Throw bananas from the crowd.
Neal: Why aren’t we doing anything for the 40th anniversary? But I don’t know sir!. Who’s that crazy man with a banana?!
TFSR: And I warned you!!! Can you talk a little bit about the process of collaborating and writing this book, like do the chapters come out in each of your voices? Or do you find a different, not third position, but like fourth or fifth?
Saralee: Whoah, that’s deep.
Collaborating has been for both of us one of the most frustrating and surprising and just kind of alchemical experiences of the last few years of my life, I think. Neal and I came into this project with a lot of affinity and I think a lot of seeing a lot of each other in each other. That makes sense? And being like, “Oh, we can work together!” And then, you know, obviously, through any kind of deep collaborating like writing a book together, I think we just were able to strike this balance where my writing background is deeply abstract and theoretical, and I had never written anything this kind of concrete and material before. And I think it was really helpful to have Neal’s writing background which is really different than mine. To be able to force deadlines, and also to just kind of know. He’s had five more years on me of writing. So I think we kind of ended up playing this dance between deadlines and having to just like force stuff out and just get it done. And then also, having a really good editing process between the two of us. We both catch different things and see different things. I don’t know, it’s been really interesting.
Neal: Yeah, I feel like if two or three years ago, somebody’s been like “you’re gonna collaborate with one person on a writing project for two and a half years.” Or two years, or however long it’s been? Maybe three at this point? I would call them crazy, and never want to do that. But I think, because it emerged gradually, we learned how to do it sort of over time in a way that was… you know, it wasn’t like we were writing for a university that gave us a deadline. This is our own project that we’re passionate about. And that we have written in… basically in the cracks of the things we actually do with our lives, which are a lot of wage work, and then a lot of actual political activity in the streets and projects that are our primary priority, I think.
And so, you know, and all the friendships and ethics of care that have to come along with those things. Those always take priority. And so this is a project that emerged in the cracks of those, and I feel like at least for me, I got a lot better at collaborating without an appropriate amount of space for it to take up and ways to communicate about it. But it’s an intense thing. I think for anybody who’s listening… everybody knows if you ever tried to just write text for a flyer with another person, it can be really hard. You know, you can kind of be like two bulls with horns slamming into each other about it. But try doing that for three years! You know?
It’s been a joy. I’ve actually really enjoyed it. I’ve become a much better writer and a better thinker, and I think a better person through it. Hopefully a better communicator too. In terms of your question of voice. I think that’s up to the readers to tell us what they think, that we did a good job with the voice. But I think at least what we were going for was the same voice in all of the chapters. Our vision for the project at the beginning was not to have the book be read and experienced like an anthology by different authors but by one voice and one political vision and set of ideas and interpretations. Which is not to say me and Saralee probably agree in terms of interpretation about everything, but for the most part the book is a singular shared set of narratives around what we’re researching. And I think we did a pretty good job with it. I feel pretty good about it, having read it more times than I care to ever again, through the editing process.
TFSR: So would you say it’s the kind of book that someone could just pick up and delve in anywhere? Or does it serve the reader more to start from, you know, introduction and go through the whole thing?
Saralee: Well, I think if you start from the introduction you get more of a… I mean, definitely, we wrote in the introduction to be read, not as some kind of like aside. We spent a lot of time collaborating on the introduction and conclusion and was most fun, I think, for both of us to write those. But no, the thing I love about this book is that you can just pick it up, start in a section that you already have interest in, or maybe something’s inspiring you to read that. And then if you like it you can read the rest. So I do think that’s helpful. Especially in dealing with such a big book. I don’t want the size and like the scope of the narratives to be intimidating, or to feel like, “Ugh, I have to read all of this?!” So yeah, people should read it however they want, really.
Neal: I’m gonna add one thing on there. I do think, you could pick it up. You could be in a bathroom and pick up one chapter and just read the chapter by itself and get something out of it. But the chapters are inter-referential both directly in the sense that you’ll see a sentence that’s like “just like in Ogeechee blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” That’s the next chapter, whatever. But they’re also inter-referential in terms of the ideas. Just to give an example, the kinds of interpretation we have over conflicts around citizenship and assimilation that occurred during Reconstruction period speak directly and immediately to the kinds of internal conflict and recuperation and containment strategies that the state uses during the Civil Rights period.
Specifically those two moments Reconstruction and Civil Rights 60’s / 70’s era. They speak to each other in history, so they speak to each other in the book. You’re going to get a lot more out of reading about those urban riots in the way that the state contains them if you read about the way the State sought to contain conflicts post-Civil War. Because the strategies are very much related and the way they manipulate and exploit and contain Black rage, specifically Black rage are highly connected. And so actually, the book is very much a unified whole, in that sense. And I do hope that people read all of it.
TFSR: Through a few sections of the book you talk about the creation of whiteness, can you talk about race and how y’all tried to handle it in this book?
Saralee: I think that any book or text that is grappling with the history of the American South, but also the history of this continent has to directly deal with the forced enslavement of millions of Africans, of the genocide of the people that were here before colonizers showed up. And also, through that the creation of whiteness as something separate in a privileged kind of non identity, then the marked identities of people of color that were created through these violent colonial regimes. So it’s not a separate topic, you know what I mean? It’s just how we have to look at this history. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant, right?
So I guess, I don’t want to treat race as like a separate topic. It’s part of the narrative and kind of spirit of every single chapter throughout. In terms of specifically the creation of whiteness, one of the reasons that the Great Dismal Swamp was really important for us, just looking at the struggle on the dividing line of North Carolina & Virginia, is that some of those very first distinctions between the indentured Anglo servant and the enslaved African happened in these territories and in these struggles. So what happened when an indentured white and an enslaved Black… Well, those terms weren’t even used yet but an indentured Anglo and enslaved African ran away together. What happens when they’re both caught, right? And so, the history of how those two subjects are created differently is the creation of Whiteness in that early period. And then you see it evolve throughout the book. You want to talk about the evolution of it?
Neal: Yeah. I mean, so I really like what Saralee said. We are not interested in talking about race as like this separate thing, or even as a separate product of identity. But part of this larger whole of development and resistance that are always happening, you know, in tandem with each other and against each other. We talk a lot especially in the earlier chapters about primitive accumulation as this sort of… it’s a classically Marxian concept but we take a pretty different take on it. And we’ve been influenced by people’s like Sylvia Federici’s understanding of that, whereby primitive accumulation is not a one time event, but something that continues to happen over and over and over again. It’s sort of capitalism, or what the State or various structures sort of constantly weeding the field, if you will, to renew their own projects.
In much the way that Sylvia Federici highlights a focus on the witch hunts and women’s reproductive power and women’s bodies in Europe as an often overlooked aspect of primitive accumulation for capital in Europe, the creation of Whiteness as a concept as something which previously sort of disparate groups could could gather around. And likewise, the creation of different ethnic groups and identities and Blackness becomes a part of that process, it’s part of primitive accumulation in the United States. It’s something that hasn’t been talked about, perhaps as much as it should be as a way that Capital made its own development possible on this continent. It couldn’t have happened without it.
And so on the one hand that’s where you find the origins of Whiteness. It’s also where you find the origins of Black identity, not just as a victim of these forces, like democracy or divisions of labor, but also in the process of resisting those forces. So, Blackness emerges in places like the Great Dismal Swamp where people, on the one hand, are victimized by Capital and plantation life and the State, but they’re also coming together and forming a sort of pan-African identity vis-à-vis their resistance, so they have direct agency. And that’s also something the Marxian narrative of primitive accumulation never takes into account is the actual agency of the dispossessed. They tends to view them as sort of passive pawns. And we see this process of primitive accumulation also as one in which resistance takes place. And that’s the source of a lot of these identities. And so when we talk about race, we’re trying to take that larger picture into account and you know, whether or not we succeed in that is up to the reader, but that’s what we’re going for.
TFSR: And I like the way that you see on page 268, where you address this. Like where you suggested, for example, that race and its inherent violence could be re-framed from question of identity and belonging to a method of government. And where you go on from there, I thought was also another interesting way of posing it, not only in direct relation to that ongoing process of primitive accumulation.
So you get a bit heady and introspective with your views on history, historiography and storytelling. So, what were some of the things you were wrestling with in writing and editing this book concerning… I guess, in particular, what I was getting at with that question is…
Saralee: Well, I think an interesting thing that happened in writing this book is that… There’s a theorist, Walter Benjamin. He was an antifascist, and I don’t want to call him a communist because he would have hated that. But he lived in in the early 20th century in Europe, and he killed himself at the at the border between France and Spain when he thought he wasn’t able to escape the Nazis. He wrote these really beautiful, right before he died, these really beautiful theses on the philosophy of history. It’s a text that I discovered when I was really young and probably really misunderstood it. It didn’t really actually come to make any sense until I was engaged in this writing project. And Neal had also been reading Benjamin and been playing with that as well. And, honestly, I think to give a shout out to the work done by folks in the West Coast who wrote that and I think they they brought Benjamin into the anarchist context in a really fierce and relevant and beautiful way that made me realize it was okay to read non-anarchist theorists and use them when trying to write a book like this.
But yeah, I think basically, the work by Benjamin by Federici by Foucault, you know, all those kind of European all-stars. We don’t use them to to try to sound important or to try to like obscure our own ideas, but I think we tried to pull out threads of their concepts of history that just felt really relevant in our context and more specifically for Benjamin. So, our goal in working with such a large amount of material and definitely having to… we had to order the book in somewhat progressive fashion just in the sense of dates. But we wanted the actual work to speak beyond that. And so, for us getting away from the linear progressive narrative that Neal was talking about earlier is looking towards a version of writing and doing history where capitalist time, colonial time, all these different structures of time, that are that linear progressive narrative break down in these in these moments of rebellion.
And that’s the word rupture that we use a lot, right? Is to kind of mark where the time of work, or the time of imprisonment, or the time of enslavement is destroyed, even if just momentarily by those actors, by those subjects. The difference between something like a rupture, or what we would say, and what we’re referencing a lot in the insurrectionary time and historical materialism an introduction, And then something like a progressive version of revolt is that at the end of a progressive revolt, the idea is that the subjects are reinstated and are just in a better position than they were before. Right? Those are things like rights and things like getting your demands met, right? And then what we’re looking at that breaks with that concept of time, is the time of the rupture, where you don’t return to the same subject position afterwards with just better conditions, right? Life kind of halts for a while, and new life forms and new forms of activity are created. And obviously, we know these are temporal. These are temporal junctures, they don’t last. But they’re important for us to to seize on and to hold up. And it’s those memories that get washed under, and get erased, and get ignored in progressive histories. Is that helpful?
TFSR: Yeah, definitely. It seems like, and I hope I’m not just reiterating, but in those moments, if you ever experience those moments of rupture, when the world stops, it’s like you can see the potential for a line of flight out of it at that point. It’s like you can see that utopia or not…you know, whatever, whatever Uopia. You know?
Neal: Yeah, I think for us, that’s where for, well I should say for me, but I think for us? Where, for example, a lot of these writers, these theorists, but especially Benjamin, becomes really exciting because he had a lot of courage to basically break with the Marxism of his day which was saying that communism is a product of these inevitable but gradual historical forces. And, you know what that does is it takes agency away from us as actual people acting on the world. And it also means that to a large extent it’s this inevitable, despairing version of history. There’s not really… for example, I remember Marxists, orthodox Marxists responding to the Zapatista rebellion when that broke out and was big in the late 90’s. They would be like, “well, it’s really inspiring, but doesn’t really matter because they haven’t become proletarians yet, so they can actually progress”
Saralee: Or Du Bois says says the same thing about the Maroons In the South.
Neal: Right, Du Bois sort of writes off the Maroon rebellions as this thing where like, well, they haven’t become wage workers yet. So it’s like, they wouldn’t know how to make communism yet. It’s kind of arrogant. And it’s also just writing off this period of really important history. And so in our historiography, and you in the conclusion we sort of… it is a bit heady, I suppose. But also we try and get into a lot of concrete examples as to how that progressive version of history causes historians to ignore really important stuff. Because they don’t find it interesting, because it doesn’t present any possibility to them of the gradualism they’re looking for.
And to your point, the important things in those insurrectionary moments… One thing that’s important is that sometimes a riot leads to an insurrection, which leads to a social revolution. So, it’s not just a visionary, imaginary exercise, they do actually lead to real ruptures that can be permanent. Right? But also, even when they don’t do that, like what you just said, Bursts, that I really like is that they are these lines of flight. You’re in this moment, behind a barricade and you suddenly realize life doesn’t have to go back to normal. The line of flight can go towards any of these things that we have words for like the commune or anarchy or the wild or whatever.
And so doing history differently allows us to see, I think with more clarity hopefully, those moments that provide a line of flight. Whereas, for example, doing history of vis-à-vis, the traditional labor history model, just to give an example tends to not give you a line of flight so much as a way to see how to press for individual workplace demands. And that doesn’t actually provide you with the same kind of line of flight, as might a Wildcat strike in eastern Tennessee whereby they burned down all the city infrastructure and steal from the rich. And so it’s not just a matter of they’re more militant, it actually is that the content and substance is different.
Saralee: And how people are transformed in those moments are different.
Neal: Yeah, that is another aspect of this messianic quality that Benjamin talks about is that it changes the actors themselves. And that becomes really important when you talk about all the ways that race and Capital and gender and the State have made us who we are. We need those moments of transformation. We need Fanon’s psychoeffective violence to change ourselves. We have to go through that violent process or otherwise we can’t change ourselves either. So, there’s an individualist component just as much as a collective one. Yeah.
Saralee: Yeah, like that.
Saralee: Yeeeeeah. Psychoeffective Violence.
Neal: That’s, by the way, my DJ name.
TFSR: I was about to say that! I was about to say that needs to get looped, and just like… a good beat underneath it. Anyway, this brings me to the question about what is an anarchist historiography? And are you attempting to frame one out at the end of the book in the conclusion? Or is it more of a challenge and a call?
Saralee: I think we attempt to frame it out, but it’s definitely through the context of the narratives in our book. And so, we don’t kind of transpose an idea of our historiography onto just a blanket future concept, if that makes sense. I think it is a call for sure. For me, this whole book is a call. I want to see more anarchist in this work and doing history. And I hope that it’s a provocative call in the sense of it creates dialogue and creates more discourse around what an anarchist historiography could be, because I think we’re definitely also looking for that in comrades and looking to push these ideas and make them better, make them more present to our times constantly as well. But what would you say Neal?
Neal: Um, yeah, I mean, in its best moments I think it could be interpreted as a call to new kinds of historiography. Speaking personally, I mean, I am an anarchist. But I’m not really highly invested in that word as an identity. And I’m not particularly interested in things like historiographies, or critiques or things like that being connected to that word. I question how useful it is. I think, for me, I want historiographies that are negative and critical of the things that exists now. I’m sort of less interested in them affirming a singular narrative and then calling that anarchist. I think it would be a step backwards. Anything that presents itself as singular or universal. I mean, I don’t think we could substitute an anarchist narrative for a progressive one, or for a Leftist one. I think that would be futile and bad. You know, a step backwards.
So I’m interested in people writing history and interpreting and taking on that task, seriously, as it informs the conflicts we’re living in now. Because it does. And I’m interested in people doing so in ways that are just as critical and combative as like all the sort of fiery polemical communique type things that we read now on the internet in utter abundance. You know, I think people should fight over and delve into these ideas that are historical with that same degree of passion. I guess I would be interested in seeing that. I would never expect a singular anarchist historiography to emerge from that. I would expect a diverse and contradictory array of historiographies to emerge that have certain sort of principles in common, like a rejection of Leftism, like a rejection of the progressive narratives that we were confronted with now.
And also a rejection of the way that the Academy owns history. That’s something we don’t have in the interview, but it’s something we’ve talked about in public discussions and talks that we’re hosting with this book. Pretty much I think anytime when we go and talk at university, we’re probably going to be basically presenting front and center a critique of how the academy owns this material. Because we’ve had to confront that in our own research as non-academics doing a somewhat academic kind of project in all the degrees of the real things like money and time and professionalism and salary and tenure that invoke privilege around who gets to own and do history are something that anarchist should also deal head on with. Anarchists already have been dealing head on with as well as a lot of non-anarchists. But in terms of the historiography, I’m probably a little skeptical. I am less interested in it being anarchist, but I’m definitely interested in more critical historiography is emerging. And, and having a deeply sort of negative and critical take on how things have developed with history. Is that vague? I don’t know.
Neal: Okay, good.
TFSR: Where can people expect to run into y’all on this series of speaking engagements? Do you have a schedule slated?
Saralee: Yeah, we have the beginnings of a schedule. We’re having an actual release party like a bacchanal celebration, no formal speaking, you have to dress up.
TFSR: Like what? Like Bacchus.
TFSR: Toga party.
Saralee: We’re hoping that people actually bring their formal attire. We don’t get to see each other in formal attire enough because we’re poor. But I think that’s May 31, in Durham at the Pinhook. So that’s kicking off a couple of weeks of local events. So then we’ll be Greensboro, June 1 at Scuppernong Books. We will be in Durham, June 3 at the Regulator. We will be at the International, which is an anarchist run space in Carrboro, on June 8. June 14th will be in Atlanta at the Hammonds Museum with some people who have been involved in struggles in Atlanta that were actually written about in the book and mentioned in the book. So it’ll be really exciting. June 14. That’s a daytime event. And then June 20, in Raleigh, at So and So Books. We’re hoping to be in Asheville in July whenever Firestorm opens and invites us. And then in the fall, we’ll be doing some stuff on the west coast. And then we’ll also be doing a big Southeast Midwest tour. Then eventually in the Fall also in Northeast tour.
Neal: We took joy in making the Northeast have to be last. Sorry!
Saralee: Yeah, if you want to see us soon, you’ve got to come to us in North Carolina or Georgia, but we’ll come to you at later.
Neal: Yeah, and you can get the book off of probably AK Press’s website. You can also get it from us. I hope you can get their website. You can get it from us as well if you come to our events. I want to, if it’s okay to do a totally disgusting plug, we also have a poster series that we’ve put together that deals with like four or five of the themes of different chapters. And they’re really big, beautiful, like three foot tall, full color original watercolor art themed around like protagonists in different chapters with text that was written by us and Phil. And they’re really big and beautiful and wonderful. And they’re going to be sold with the book at different events and stuff pretty cheap. So thanks to P&L Printing for helping us with those because it gave us a really, really good deal.
TFSR: Thank you, Denver.
Saralee: Yeah, what’s up?
TFSR: Oh, cool. Thanks so much for chatting. And is there any other disgusting plugs you want to make before we stop recording?
Neal: Yeah, go crazy on June 11th. Get real. Get hard. Go hard.
TFSR: Stay hard.
Neal: I want to send some shout outs anybody listening to this who helped us with this project. Or was a patient ear or who gave critique, because there’s a lot of those people out there and we owe so much of this work to them. So, thank you to all those people.
Saralee: Thank you to all the rebels in the last two years that have given us inspiration as well.
TFSR: Yeah. And go hard, stay hard.
Neal: Yeah, that’s good. Why don’t you make that a T shirt.
TFSR: Hey, I’d actually be stealing it from Ida.
Saralee: And Atlanta…
TFSR: Yeah, they won’t mind. We’ve been speaking with Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford about their new book “Dixie Be Damned. 300 years of Insurrection in the American South” published by AK Press. More about the book can be found at AKPress.org