Queer Activist Perspectives from Southern Appalachia
This week on the show, we bring you the audio of an activist panel from the recent Queer Conference held online by University of North Carolina, Asheville, in March of 2021.
The conference was titled Fitting In and Sticking Out – Queer [In]Visibilities and the Perils of Inclusion. From the panel’s description for the conference:
This panel brings together 4 local (Asheville, NC) and regional groups working at different intersections of queer community support. We will learn about the work these groups do, the particular issues that affect southern queers, the changes in visibility and inclusion for queer community, and the building of larger coalitions of liberation. Representatives from four organizations will be part of the panel:
Youth OUTright (YO) is the only nonprofit whose mission is to support LGBTQIA+ youth from ages 11-20 in western North Carolina. Learn more about their work on their website, and support them financially here.
Southerners on New Ground (SONG) is a nonprofit aimed at working towards LGBTQ liberation in the south. Find out more about their work on their website, and support them financially here.
Tranzmission Prison Project (TPP) is a prison abolition grassroots organization that provides literature and resources to incarcerated members of the LGBTQ community. Learn more about their work on their website and donate here.
Pansy Collective is a decentralized, DIY, queer, music and arts collective that created Pansy Fest, an annual queer music festival showcasing LGBTQ musicians from the south and rural areas, prioritizing reparations for QTBIPOC artists and community members, and community education and organizing around the principles of autonomy, mutual aid, antifascism, love, and liberation for all. Learn more about their work on their website, or donate here.
Phone Zap for Florida Prisoners in Mandatory Toxic Evacuation Site
Over 2,000 prisoners in Florida are trapped inside an evacuation zone less than a mile from a retention pond that is in imminent danger of failing, sending 800 million gallons of acidic radioactive waste water flooding over the local area. According to Deputies, the local jail has no plans or intentions to evacuate prisoners.
Please CALL AND SHARE NOW demanding the safe evacuation of all prisoners at the Manatee County Jail.
This week on the show, I spoke with Comrade Chux, a member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak. JLS is an autonomous network of incarcerated activists from across the so-called US. They have been engaged in organizing and calling for the 2016 & 2018 Nationwide Prison Strike activities. Chux and I chat about the call for this year for folks on the outside to engage for Abolition on August 21 and September 9th, we talk about Abolition, Black August and other topics.
You can learn more by following JLS on Twitter and Instagram or checking out their website, Jailhouse Lawyer Speak, lawyer is singular in this, dot wordpress dot com. You can also find out there about their fundraising, the JLS Mothers Day fundraising effort through Blackstone Career Institute to sponsor paralegal courses for people in Women’s Prisons, prisoners they’re supporting and more.
Comrade Chux also mentions Amend The 13th. From JLS’s website: “Amend the 13th: Abolish ‘Legal’ Slavery in Amerika Movement” is an all-inclusive, coalition-based national campaign and community-based organizing effort which is determined to remove the “legal” and social basis for the dehumanization of those subject to the judicial machinery of the United States – and finally abolish slavery in Amerika once and for all. “ More can be found at AmendThe13th.org.
1 Million Families for Parole, April 3rd, 2021
Another prisoner initiatives similar to JLS that have been mentioned and supported by the group that are worth checking out include the National Freedom Movement, which is calling for an April 3rd “1 Million Families for Parole” rally across the country to extend the following demands:
We demand that federal parole be immediately reinstated.
We demand the creation of a mandatory parole criteria and curriculum based on the specific educational, rehabilitative and re-entry needs of every parole-eligible person.
Sean speaks about supporting Dimitris Koufantinas, prisoner from the 17 November group in Greece who just ended a hunger strike. You can read a translation of his statement ending his hunger strike at EnoughIsEnough14.org. To hear an insightful interview by a comrade in Greece and another in the diasporic Greek community about the situation with Koufantinas and the aftermath of his hunger strike, check out episode #254 of Dissident Island Radio.
Love Zap for Comrade Z
There’s a weekly call-in to support incarcerated anarchist,
Julio “Comrade Z” Zuniga at Darrington Unit in Texas. Supporters are invited to call the Prison Show on KPFT radio in Houston at 713 526 5738 Mondays after 9:30pm CST to give a shoutout to E-Line and B-Line Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee members standing in solidarity with Comrade Z and all of the incarcerated folks at Darrington. There’s an image in our show notes for social media, suggesting to keep the message short and sweet, under 15 seconds.
There is a currently a petition circulating to press the governor of New Jersey, Phil Murhpy, to grant release for elder Black Liberation political prisoner Sundiata Acoli who is 84 years old and has contracted Covid-19. At his advanced age, Sundiata has developed dementia and has ailing health and is not a threat to anyone. He should be allowed to live out his days outside of prison walls with family and community. More info at the petition linked in our show notes.
Bring Mumia Home
Actions and information is going and available at FreeMumia.Com to release aging and infirm journalist, Black Panther, author and revolutionary Mumia Abu-Jamal. Keep an eye on his support site for ways to plug in and join the growing calls to release this great man! 40 years on a sham trial is too much!
BAD News, March 2021
We’d like to announce the release of the 43rd edition of B(A)D news: angry voices from around the world a commonly produced monthly show of the anarchist and anti-authoritarian radio network, on this occasion composed by free social radio 1431AM, a radio station in Thessaloniki, Greece. This month covers 5 topics over almost an hour. Check it out!
RoboCop(feat. Tuesday Tuenasty, Squeazy & Lil Stank)
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TFSR: First up, can you please introduce yourself for the audience with whatever name, affiliation, preferred gender pronouns, location, or other information that you think is useful for the audience?
Comrade Chux: For sure. My name is comrade Chux, the pronouns you can use is they/them. I’m a Member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS). I guess I just want to say I’m in the carceral. state.
TFSR: For those who don’t know, who is JLS? What are its goals and what are its inspirations and aspirations?
Chux: So, JLS is an autonomous, anonymous group of prisoners that are also organizers and jailhouse lawyers, actually. You know, a little bit of the history is JLS started as jail house lawyers. And then one thing led to another and through these network connections, we actually started create this inside Federation almost, right? So JLS has become the movement. You know, it’s not just you know now when people hear JLS, it’s tied to so many things like the 2016 inside nationwide protests, followed by the 2018 protests, followed by now the special rapporteur that’s going on in the UN. And there’s a lot of other initiatives like the Ammend The 13th initiative that JLS signed on and is supporting to get released to all political prisoners. The idea of JLS is also these 10 demands. The 10 demands that you can find on any JLS platform, whether it’s Instagram, or Twitter, or Facebook. And these are what JLS stands for. Every state is also autonomous and has their own needs of that state. However, here, in the broad scale of northern Turtle Island, this is what we demand, this is what we stand for and this is why we protest. So JLS has always gotten inspirations from the comrade George Jackson, from Fred Hampton from even nowadays, different autonomous groups, these autonomous organizations. Every person, every revolutionary, every organizer that has resisted, and moves for decolonization in moving to amplify the prisoner’s voice is who inspire us. So this is something we are constantly growing, it’s constantly moving and it is a constant struggle from the inside having to fight, having to be this voice. Because we now have a platform, we have a voice. And you can hear it.
TFSR: One thing that I think is really awesome that I’ve been hearing more and more in the last few years that I’ve been paying attention to. Prisoners organizing has been, like even folks who are not in immigration facilities, who are in state or federal facilities who are in county jails, making sure to vocally include ICE facilities and the people that are being detained in ICE facilities as comrades and as people similarly suffering under the carceral state. And I think you’re references to like decolonization and like naming that some people call this land Turtle Island is an interesting, like, expansion on the idea of abolition, the recognition that this is stolen land, and that the borders are bullshit. So I just wanted to name that right there.
Chux: I think it’s super important. I think that’s extremely important to talk about the idea of what abolition is. Like the idea that abolition is more than just the state or federal facility. Right? When we think abolition for a long time, we’ve always thought about just the prisons, but we have to begin to think outside of that. Right now. The prisons are ground zero. This is where to start. This is what became of the plantation. But we have to remember there are so many different stripe and so many different types of institutionalization that also has to be included in the fight. We talked about these ICE detention centers, and these black sites almost right. That’s what these ICE detention centers remind me of: black sites. That they just snatch people up, and body snatch them and throw them inside. But another thing that is important that I think folks have to remember, and that is not included enough in the idea of abolition, or even the carceral state is the so called mental institution. These mental institutions have to be included in abolition, because it was the colonizers, and it was the powers that be that just choose how people’s minds work. And so the idea of able-ism is such an important thing that that we have to include when it comes to fighting in the fight and then abolition. Because there’s so many arbitrary laws and rules that can take somebody out of society and cancel them and throw them instantly either into the carceral state or start building an environment where they will eventually end up in one of these institutions, whether it’s an ICE institution, whether it’s mental institution, or whether it’s actually prison.
TFSR: I’d like to explore the idea of abolition a little more. But first, I was wondering if you could talk about the Jailhouse Lawyers Speak statement that was released on the nationwide prison strike for this year. Can you tell us about it and what y’all are calling for and hoping for and who from?
Chux: This initiative is “Shut Them Down.” So you can find it on the JLS WordPress site, as well as on Twitter and on Instagram to find the link. What’s going on is it’s time to reignite the flame with abolition. Right now, we are making a call to any outside organizers and outside abolitionists to show solidarity with the inside comrades. And just inside folks in general, the idea that it’s time to shut them down needs to be an inside/outside work. Abolition doesn’t just work one-way it doesn’t just work from outside-in, nor does it work from the inside-out. This is something that we have to work together on and build community ties with each other. The idea of community is so important right now, especially because of how our community, how our terms, how our abolition has been co-opted by this liberal democrat idea or movement that’s going on these both lose no matter what movement has co-opted all these ideas that means abolition. So I think that this call right now is to reignite the fire abolition, we need to remember what abolition is we need to not fall into the liberal traps that are going on that are taking our terms like “defund” “decarcerate” “divest.” Right?! because those terms are starting to mean nothing. Defund has never just meant to take money a little bit from the police, it’s always meant to shut down the fascist police system. Divest has always meant to take all of your money out of the prison industrial slave complex. Decarcerate means that to decarcerate not just nonviolent folks, not just some people, but ALL people, everyone that is inside. And to get the idea, you take this prison industrial slave complex and dismantle it. And so what we’re calling for we’re calling for an action an outside action on August 21 and September 9.
This action can really just be however you want it to be, you abolitionists want it to be that show that jails or prisons and the protests. You could throw up tables.. zine tables in our neighborhoods to create spaces to talk about abolition, because I’m sure there’s so many people in the hood that are abolitionists that don’t even know because they don’t even know the term. So these are things that we have to create, to create the spaces to have the conversation. So throwing up zines, throwing up spaces, throwing up tables to panels, panels at institutions, panels at colleges, panels at small city colleges or big universities, I think are important. And if you can get any prisoners on I’m sure that would be able to happen through JLS through these different people that are inside. I think having prisoners on these panels are very important. I think that we need to make noise, make the noise we used to make. Right? COVID has separated us. COVID has pulled us apart. But COVID has also showed us that so much of these ideas of the so called American dream or this American experiment is fake, it’s false. I really think that right now, as everyone is getting vaccines, and everyone is feeling a little better about moving around about finding their communities again, I think right now is the time to do this. I think these two days, everyone that’s on Twitter that has been talking about abolition can finally meet each other. And we can start building and working toward this community to shut down this prison industrial slave complex to free all of the political prisoners. To rise from the ashes of the carceral fucking state. And I think it’s important, it is important to have just anything you can do. Anything to do, drop banner do a banner drop. Now banner drops are beautiful, right? But also for folks that don’t want to or don’t feel they’re ready enough to go outside, creating virtual spaces that we now know that are possible grab you and 20 of your comrades or 20 of your friends and do some little writing, do some letter writing to some political prisoners and some letter writing to prisoners that are in your neighborhoods or communities, hold each other accountable, hold each other accountable to create the spaces to fight and to shut them down. To build this community. One thing that is very important is to build this network from the inside and outside. And I think that’s what we need to do. That’s what we’re calling for. We’re calling for the abolitionists to be abolitionists and to step back away from the idea of voting or the idea of reform-y type of attitude that the liberal media and the liberal democrats have. So i think just showing up is important, showing up and doing whatever you can. And there’s so many ideas what I just said was just a small thing. Though the a small things are very important. You look in your areas for the different IWOC the Incarcerated Workers Committees. You can look up the different ABC’s the different RAM’s. If you are out west the Oakland Abolitionist Solidarity crew is amazing in New York you know IWOC in Philly… and these days are so important these days are so important it’s a day that we need to relight this match of abolition.
TFSR: Yeah I feel like there was there was so much energy this summer when everything felt like it was literally on fire around us and we lit some of those fires. But it feels like it’s a recurring theme that i’ve noticed throughout my life is that people on the left were left to center or even just centrists or whatever get so…. can get so aggravated when it’s a republican in office and that’s why the democrats get away with so much more once they get into office they push through. Maybe something that’s not so brazenly and outspokenly racist, carceral, whatever but you know the machinery that gets operated no matter which party happens to be in power in the US. It’s the same machinery, it’s the same bureaucrats, it’s the same three letter institutions. And all of that energy from this last summer I don’t know if it’s just the pandemic tiring everyone out or everyone just sort of let out their breath after January 6 or what.. But I know that there’s a lot of folks out there who know that just because brunch can start up again and just because people are getting their vaccines and there’s not some orange idiot in the White House that everything’s not okay that there’s still growing numbers of… I mean it’s not in a vacuum but there’s like still growing numbers of children that are being put into cages on the border as more people come towards the border to seek safety from situations in Central America but yeah I really appreciate you pointing that out I think it’s really important that people don’t forget who is in office and while they may be more acceptable to some of our palates you got a top cop and you got one of the constructors of mass incarceration in the United States right?
Chux: Yeah I think that’s super important to point out. Right? It’s easy to point out the orange devil. It’s easy to say who the orange devil is, right? Because he wears the color red or because he’s a republican or because of the crazy nonsense and racist statements and hate that he spews. However that’s easy to do. The difficult thing is when you have somebody that is taking these dangerous ideas like most happened in this liberal left or with this liberal democrat idea… they have this way to take these dangerous ideas that we are trying to cultivate and make them less dangerous and when they do that when they co-opt these things then it’s very, very… i don’t know… but it might be more dangerous than going against a threatening enemy. Right? So I think it’s important to remember who these people are.
Who is Joe Biden?! Man, who is he? Man.. he is the writer he is the architect of mass incarceration of this 1994 crime bill. Right? He was the one that started this 85% that started these three strikes that started black and brown… like the war on the black and brown. Right okay yeah, the war on drugs and one thing, but this guy is who made it blatant. “Super predators” who was he talking about? he wasn’t talking about “Amy” or “Landon” right? Nah man.. he was talking about the black and brown kids man that’s what they were talking about. Kids. When they started bringing up the idea of these “super predators” and then we have Kamala Harris, right? Like you said a blatant cop. She’s a cop. She was a district attorney. She was somebody that sent children to prison. She was somebody that sent people to prison constantly, constantly, constantly. So, yeah this is who we accepted. This is who (not me) we wanted. You wanted the devil in the mask instead of the devil that’s just blatant.
TFSR: The phrase abolition obviously has a deep historical weight. And it signifies a lot, as do the dates that were chosen and have been repeated through these last few years of nationwide strikes and protests around incarceration. Would you remind us about the significance of the dates of JLS has chosen to propose and the meaning of Black August to revolutionaries behind bars.
Chux: Sure. I think it’s very important, because I want to mention that most revolutionaries, I want to say all revolutionaries, but I don’t want to just put that blanket out there and be wrong. But most revolutionaries, do not celebrate Black History Month or heritage month. Nah, we celebrate Black August. Black August was one of the most volatile months that has happened in the revolution or in the spirit of the revolution. And on this month, during the daytime we fast, during the daytime we study, during the daytime we feel to each other, and we try to create and grab on to the extent of our ancestors, fallen revolutionaries. And one of the probably the greatest JLS inspirations and they’re pretty revolutionary inspiration is George Jackson. Comrade George Jackson, who was assassinated on August 21. And I guess, I mean, I can talk for hours about George Jackson and Soledad Brother and Blood In My Eye. But anyone that does not know the history or who George Jackson was… I urge you to pick up his book. I urge you to find everything you can about the comrade, because for most of us, he started it all. So then skipping forward to the second day which is just as important to so many of us as September 9. September 9 is a memory that most of us still remember, most of us still recognize as a day of mourning for us. But that was the day that the prisoners in Attica in upstate New York took over. And one thing I want to say about this, and one thing I want you to remember is when this happened, it was because of the volatile and the extreme circumstances that were happening in New York at that time. It wasn’t a planned thing. Right? This was not something that was planned. This is something that organically.. that the revolutionaries that was there because there was revolutionaries there, with Black Panthers there, there was Young Lords there, there were Weather Underground there, there was Black Liberation Army there, there was comrades that were there that feed this organic autonomous movement, and they needed to take hold of it. Because if not, they would have never had those three days, they wouldn’t have had a voice, they would have died instantly. And there’s a brilliant book, called Blood In My Eye, that everyone needs to get that is about September 9. And what happened after September 9. The three days of the takeover of the uprising, followed by the years and years and years of covering. The state covering and the state of New York covering everything that happened that day.
TFSR: I think it’s worth noting also that this is the 50th anniversary of both of those events. The massacres, Governor Rockefeller, massacres of prisoners and guards and staff that were being held hostage inside of Attica, as well as the assassination of George Jackson. So that that significance definitely, definitely is there and it weighs heavy. So the the protests called for this year also explicitly mentioned political prisoners, and the need for them to be free. Over the years, it feels like there’s been distinctions drawn in a lot of prison movements around social versus politicized versus political prisoners. Can you talk about the demand to free our aging political prisoners, in particular, like amidst this pandemic, and so many of them being in their 70s and 80s.
Chux: There’s so many comrades that are inside that have been buried alive in here that we need to fight for their strategic release. I urge people to follow amend 13. Amend 13 has a vast list of the prisoners inside of the political prisoners inside. And I really want to remind people, these ideas of politicized prisoners or political prisoners or prisoners of war, once we all come inside, we’re all prisoners of war. Once they declared a war on the street, once they declared a war on the drug, the war on black and brown, the war on poor people. We all became prisoners of war. Once these Jim Crow laws started locking up black and brown people, and started creating the policies to lock up poor folks. That’s when we all became political prisoners.
Now yes, there are some prisoners that are actually inside because of their work on the outside. And those prisoners, Mumia. Maroon. and I can keep naming them all, but these prisoners are our inspiration as well. These are who we look up to. But not only them, there are so many prisoners like.. I’ll talk about George Jackson. George Jackson was not a political prisoner when he came in first day, when it comes to the terms “political prisoners” but no one would ever deny that he was a political prisoner today. And I need people to remember that.. Man, that just because there are certain ideas or politics on who should be released, who shouldn’t be released. Nah, everyone should be released, and especially the political prisoners and people that are suffering from repression constantly because of their ideas, because of their views, because of who they are. Because their skin color, because of the politics, these comrades are taking it next level. Taking the pain next level. There’s not any days that Mumia has that is an OK day in here. There’s not any days that Maroon is chilling. Right? So I need people to remember that these comrades. These political prisoners are the ones that are and have been extremely repressed and extremely tortured by the system.
I mean, look, with they have done to Mumia. Look. They have given them hepatitis C. They’re giving Maroon and him COVID! Dude! I mean, he’s not around anybody, you know, he’s in the SHU. How is he getting COVID? Like, how is this stuff happening to him? If it’s not the prison, it is not the prison crisis is not the system killing him? You know, so I think this is very important, I think it’s so important to push for the release of the people that should never have been inside. The people that if anything, should have went for some type of Geneva Convention, because that’s the war that will always be tore upon them. So there are so many people in here, so many people we have to remember. And I want people to see who Joy Powell is. Right? There’s one thing that is forgotten a lot here too, is the radical black feminists that are inside, the queer folks that are inside, that get forgotten about. Because of, you know, the numbers, the numbers. There’s not that many women prisons. So the women revolutionaries get lost. However, I know a few, that are suffering just as bad or even worse than the male comrades. So I just want people to go and look up, the radical black feminists that are inside and support them as well. Hear the voices we don’t hear a lot. Joy Powell is who we are hearing from a lot lately. However, we need more.
TFSR: So this last year has been really hard, especially for folks who are being denied the ability to move denied the access to safety, people in cages. It’s also notable that there have been an incredible number of uprisings, escapes, and other resistances because people have the fight in them, basically. Can you talk about what you’ve heard from other comrades about the pandemic, and how folks are making it through?
Chux: Sure. I think it’s important to point out that right now, prisoners have been in prison 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 years that have been experiencing the state violence, this colonial violence, this ghetto violence, constantly. I think that it’s important to note that one of the common threads is right now this last year has been one of the most deadly years for so many of us. It’s easy for us to see our enemy when he has a knife in his hand, or when he has a spray can or when he has hand cuffs. But when we are now fighting against an enemy that we can’t see… COVID… that we know is coming in from the outside. It’s scary. And there’s so many more people that are talking about needing to create these safe spaces and needing to get the fuck out of here because they don’t want to die in here. So they’ll have to wait and fight to appeal and all that stuff. But now it’s so much more urgent. And everybody is just worried. Everybody’s worried that somebody they know is going to die in here that might lead to them. So this enemy, this biochemical enemy that is being reeked upon us. It’s scary. They’re not doing things to save us in here. They are making environments more volatile, more dangerous, more scary! So that’s why you’re seeing more stuff this year. That’s why stuff is popping off. That’s what people are hitting the fences. That’s why you’re seeing, you’re seeing prisons on fire. You’re seeing the Midwest on fire, you’re seeing St. Louis on fire, you’re seeing Georgia on fire, you’re seeing people, 15 prisoners rushing the gate at one time in South Carolina, you’re seeing these things because people want to live! These uprisings are us wanting to live and nothing more.
TFSR: You’ve already listed a bunch of ways that people can engage in their communities: Get together, talk about abolition, make some noise & educate folks. And I guess points where that can especially be noted are these invisiblized spaces of terror that are in all of our communities. ICE detention facilities, jails, prisons, juvenile facilities, mental health facilities, as you said. There’s also a reference to higher education in terms of I guess, like, universities or colleges that work with prisoners, I reckon. Is that is that right? Why? Why JLS has pointed out higher education facilities?
Chux: Well, there’s so many prisons, I mean, there’s so many institutions, there’s so many colleges that actually invest still in the prison industrial slave complex, why there’s so many of them that create these things that the small things that prison need. And I’m not talking about, you know, one that comes to educate the prisoners. Now, there’s some places like different universities that will create great stuff for the state to help the state run the prison. And even if it’s little things, and that’s why it’s important to have these areas, right. One thing about the institution, these ivory towers, is that we have to remember that it is part of and at the end of the day, you know, and it’s blatant! When you see these radical professors like the comrade Garrett Ferber getting kicked out of Ole Miss because of his political views. He was one of the most brilliant historians of the recent times. And all the stuff that the comrades would do for…. I mean, this professor actually had classes on the JLS 10 demands, right? So it’s like the anything that pushes the idea of abolition in the institutions in the “higher education” facilities are not actually trying to further these dangerous ideas or these ideas to shut down the state. Because the state still perpetuate, and still grows inside of the higher education facilities. Right? Inside of these institutions. Inside of these colleges and prisons, right? I mean, there’s only so much of a radical education that someone can get in there. And then it starts turning into a liberal education. I use the word liberal as this big Democrat, watered down idea of what it means to be radical.
TFSR: The demands for 2018 which I think besides a modification of adding the focus on on political prisoners.
Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women
An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor
The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights
The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole
An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states
An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans
No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offend
State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services
Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories
The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.
Chux: So the only thing that’s been changed is number 9. 9 has been revised to “Free all political prisoners.” Because you know for some, and for a lot of people the pell grants were reinstated. I’m not so clear on the rules a number i read at the beginning that it was under a certain amount of time that people can apply for pell grants and maybe it’s extended… I don’t know, but the revision has been to number nine that explicitly called to free all political prisoners. I think what’s important, I think what’s very important is to remember that everything right there is what abolition is. Every single thing that we quoted and you know some people like to argue and say well some of these ideas or are kind of reformist, right? Some of these ideas are… the idea to create a humane living environment. Some people say that investing in the prison industrial slave complex… and you know the argument is that it might be. It might be for the moment. However, we know this fight for abolition is going to be a long fight. We need to be able to live in here. We need to be able to grow in here. We need to be able to educate ourselves. We need to be able to get the opportunity to build and to create. One thing i’d like to point out is purely what abolition is: it is the goal. No matter what road it takes to get there, abolition is the dismantling of the prison industrial slave complex. Shutting down every single prison, shutting down the carceral state that’s what abolition is.
TFSR: Abolition, like the demands towards abolition and understanding these things… there is no one who knows better what is needed to ameliorate the situations than the people who are in those situations. So like while there’s some of those demands that if I was writing a list with my experience and whatever else, I might not prioritize. I’m not going to question that that people that are on the inside and living it day to day feel that these are important things for people on the outside to stand in solidarity as accomplices and to push for.
Chux: Always. That’s for sure and that’s what we look for that’s what we appreciate. We appreciate things like Final Straw we appreciate the comrades out there that understand that our voices are important our voices are out there. It’s not like we don’t have a voice. We do have a voice and just because some people have contraband phones or some people are able to have more of a voice does not mean the voices that are not actually heard are not important either. That’s why I think letter writing and writing to political prisoners and creating networks inside/outside networks are so very important we need more words of prisoners out there. Even if it just comes like this on a collect phone. This is what we need.
TFSR: So there is…. I guess similarly, and this is not a JLS call out.. but so listeners know there’s a very good Millennials Are Killing Capitalism interview with some other organizers from JLS and the host brought this up I think or maybe one of the guests… but the National Freedom Movement is calling for 1 Million Families for Parole Rally on April 3. This is for places all around the country. Participation from wherever you can as I understand because parole is a national issue that affiliates of the National Freedom Movement all around the country are are experiencing a lack of access to it and in particular like worsened by the state’s response to the pandemic by shutting things down by pulling back on access to educational opportunities that would allow people to score the points basically so that they can actually earn their freedom through the system. It’s fucked up, but it’s the existing system that the prisons have set up.
Chux: The strategic release ideas and parole is so very important but for all those people that say “I heard you want to abolish parole” and okay yeah in the end when we abolish the system we’ll be abolishing parole too, but man we need parole right now we need the opportunity to release any prisoner any way we can! So I think that we need people to make these calls we need people to go to these state we need people to learn on how arbitrary that their parole systems are because every state is different, every state that even has them are different. So I think that this is important to fight for those that are parole eligible. I think it’s important for those that have family on the inside or just have any type of idea or want to be part of this abolition movement to find out about these parole systems and trying to find out any way to release as many prisoners as we can.
TFSR: Besides how people can continue following and supporting the work of you and other comrades with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, do you have any other topics that I didn’t ask about that you specifically want people in the audience (whether they’re behind bars or in the “free world” or whatever) that you want to share with them?
Chux: Well I just want everyone to know that the fight is coming and it’s constant. It is a long fight. It’s something that is not pretty, but it’s something you have to work towards. Every single one of us have to work towards this because the carceral state affects our community. These pipeline’s that are sending black and brown folks inside is something that has only increased. Yeah, sometimes you hear the liberal media talking about that “it’s changing or getting better” but from the inside we’re telling you it’s not. It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse as they’re creating more of these types of lockdown institutions and lockdown programs and they’re trying to find the comrades on the inside with these contraband phones. So I think that it’s super important to find your local abolitionist network and build with them. Because we can’t do this alone. Abolition is a communal thing. This idea of inter-communalism is abolition and we need to stick together we need to build with each other we need to find our organizations. We need to find both those communities that are close to us. Then if there’s none that are close to you just contact and call the Fight Toxic Prisons called the Oakland **** call just the comrades everywhere to find out how to create these autonomous networks these federations, these groups in your own area. If there is none contact the IWOC. Contact everything you can to be part of this movement because this is a community thing and we need to build with each other.
TFSR: Comrade Chux, so much respect to you and the work that you do and thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation. Yeah, solidarity.
Steve Martinez Still Resists Grand Jury Related To Dakota Access Pipeline Struggle
It’s been nearly half a decade since thousands of indigenous water and land defenders and their accomplices and allies weathered a difficult winter and attacks by law enforcement and private security attempting to push through the Dakota Access Pipeline through so-called North Dakota. The DAPL was eventually built and has already, unsurprisingly damaged the lands, waters and sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux and other people native to the area. Resistance has also continued to this and other extractions and pipeline projects across Turtle Island and the defense against DAPL surely inspired and fed many other points of opposition in defense of the earth and native sovereignty.
On one night in November, 2016, as government goons leveled fire hoses and “less-lethal” armaments at water defenders in freezing temperatures, Sophia Wilansky suffered an injury from an explosion that nearly took her arm. An Indigenous and Chicano former employee of another pipeline project named Steve Martinez volunteered to drive Sophia to the hospital in Bismark. For this, he was subpoenaed to a Federal Grand Jury, which he refused to participate in. Now, almost 4 and a half years later, Steve is being imprisoned for resisting another FGJ in Bismark. For the hour, we hear from Chava Shapiro with the Tucson Anti-Repression Committee and James Clark, a lawyer who works with the National Lawyers Guild, talk about Steve’s case, the dangers of Grand Juries, and why it’s imperative for movements to support their incarcerated comrades.
The Final Straw Radio: Would you please introduce yourselves to the audience with any names, preferred pronouns, affiliations or other information that pertain to this chat?
Chava: My name is Chava I work with Tuscon Anti-Repression Committee in Tohono O’odham territories, also known as Tucson. And I have done anti-repression and movement defense work for around 13 years, and grand jury support work for the last four or five years. And I use they/them pronouns.
James: My name is James, I use he/him pronouns. I’m a lawyer with the National Lawyers Guild based out of Austin, Texas. And I’ve also been doing anti-repression and activists legal support for about 13 years now, including a number of grand jury support situations.
TFSR: So would you please tell us who’s Steve Martinez and how did he come to be called before a federal grand jury after a brutal night in November of 2016. And what happened with that grand jury back then?
C: Steve started out coming to Standing Rock, really thinking that he was just going to drop off water. And he actually had been working in the oil fields, the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota prior to that, heard about what was happening at Standing Rock, and was really inspired by what he had seen and heard about happening, even though he was also working for the oil fields and the oil company.
He’s Indigenous from Pueblo community in northern New Mexico and also Chicano and grew up in southern Colorado, and just inspired by the Indigenous land resistance and movement happening. And so he loaded up his vehicle with water to come and take it to the camps, and then he never left. And he became really involved in what was going on there. From the point of the summer, all the way up to that night that you mentioned in November. Which a lot of people remember that there were fire hoses used – and, you know, sub freezing temperatures – by law enforcement on water protectors that night in a conflict that lasted, you know, 12 to 14 hours on the bridge in those cold temperatures. And a young woman named Sophia Wilansky was really gravely injured that night, presumably due to law enforcement’s use of so called “less lethal munitions”. She nearly lost her arm.
When she was injured, getting emergency services was almost impossible for emergency vehicles and services to get to that point on this highway that had been blockaded by law enforcement at that point for around a month or more. And in order for her to get to emergency services, she would have to be driven by someone who was on the other side of that blockade. And that person who volunteered to do that was Steve, who was acting as a Good Samaritan doing the right thing in that moment. And then just really, a handful of days later was subpoenaed before a grand jury. And his presence was requested to provide information – they said they were asking for information – related to Sofia Wilansky’s injuries. So any testimony he could provide, or any images he might have taken on a cell phone or anything like that.
Steve didn’t know what that subpoena was when he received it. And so he reached out to a relative that stayed in the same camp that I did at the time – I had gone up there to do legal support for people – and his relative then came to me and said “Hey, can you speak with my uncle? He’s received some kind of subpoena we don’t really know what it is.” And at that time, just pulled his uncle into a tent and that uncle turned out to be Steve, and immediately from that moment that he received that paperwork, he asked for support, and then happened to have one of the best, most knowledgeable movement attorneys on grand juries in camp that day, which is Lauren Regan from the Civil Liberties Defense Center.
You know, maybe it’s just pure luck. Maybe it’s, you know, serendipitous, or that Lauren happened to be there that day. But we were able to immediately get Steve talking with an attorney who could explain to him the process. And then also from that exact day, moving forward, it also began a massive outreach with the thousands of people who were staying in camp at that point, about grand jury occurring subpoenas going out, at least one known subpoena at that point. And then also initiated the nationwide education campaign, because many tens of thousands of people had come and gone from the camps. And so that is where Steve was four years ago. But almost exactly four years later, he was subpoenaed to this new grand jury. And he, again, has refused to comply, because he’s acting in immense solidarity with a movement that he believes in, which is a movement for Indigenous sovereignty over lands and waters, and to protect those things, and a deep love and care for his comrades. And so that’s where we are now. And how we got there.
TFSR: Do people feel like they have an understanding of what this grand jury is specifically about? And does that matter?
J: We’re quite confident that it’s about the situation regarding Sofia Wilansky. One sort of important development between Steve’s grand jury subpoena in 2016, and when he got subpoenaed again in 2020, was that Miss Wilansky has sued Morton County over their use of, you know, these “less lethal munitions” that caused her injury. And in, I can’t remember if it was October or November of 2020, the judge in that Civil Lawsuit made a ruling that she could seek to compel the government to disclose evidence, specifically the fragments that were taken from her arm during surgery. And it was just a matter of days after that court’s ruling in the civil lawsuit that Steve was, again, subpoena to this grand jury. So it’s kind of you know, the timing is is convenient, as they say.
C: Yeah, I think you spoke well, to that, James, the timing is is suspect. And I think it’s also interesting to note that throughout the whole course of legal battles related to Standing Rock – both criminal and civil legal battles – there has been some signs of real collusion between civil court and criminal court. There’s been a number of attempts at SLAPP suits and civil suits by ETP (Energy Transfer Partners) that continue even now. And this timing of, you know, this win in Sofia’s case with that judge to compel the government to turn over this evidence – which I’ll just note there were FBI agents lurking outside of her surgery room outside of the OR, waiting to confiscate those items, while her family is like crying in a hallway. I just think it’s important to remember the cruelty of the state in the course of this entire situation. Because I don’t think that’s most people’s experience when they’re in a really scary, dangerous situation that involves possibly losing a limb or use of that limb.
And so the way that it looks like, the government has been able to make sure Sophie’s attorneys cannot get that evidence back from the federal government is by saying it’s part of an ongoing investigation. And so if there’s a new grand jury looking into these facts from, who knows, what, four years ago? Then they can’t turn that evidence over to the civil court, because there’s this ongoing criminal investigation. So it seems pretty well timed and convenient on their part, and really just a continued leverage of cruelty against Sofia, and against other water protectors who were injured and harmed at the hands of law enforcement. And also unbelievable amount of cruelty leveraged against Steve, who, all he did on that night was the right thing. And now, four years later, he’s dragged back before a grand jury in what seems like just using him as if he’s upon, but he’s a real person with a family and a life. And now he’s separated from them while he’s incarcerated.
J: I think the other key portion of this story, and the cruelty the Chava is talking about, is how Morton County has tried to basically twist the narrative, while all the evidence that we know about points to Morton County law enforcement being responsible for Sofia’s injuries and for the use of these “less lethal munitions”, they’ve always tried to either directly say or insinuate that this was actually caused by other water protectors, or potentially even by Sofia herself. And so the sort of victim blaming narrative that they’ve tried to use to tar the movement, kind of like what, you know, what the government did with environmentalist Judi Bari, you know, when her car got bombed, and they tried to blame her for that. And so it’s kind of a continuation of that, bad actors will inflict horrible violence on activists and then try and twist the narrative to blame the activist for that violence that they’re inflicted.
TFSR: So this is a beginning of a long conversation, but can you tell us a little bit about grand juries? They’re a pretty complicated legal tool that is shrouded in mystery. And yeah, just kind of remind us about what they are, how they operate, and sort of their range and uses, from the mundane to political repression?
J: Yeah, absolutely. Most of the uses of grand jury are pretty mundane, you know, speaking here, specifically about federal grand juries, because it can vary a lot from state to state, whether there are grand juries or how they work. But in the federal system, pretty much every felony case goes before a grand jury. And the purpose of the grand jury is to decide whether or not the government has enough evidence to even bring charges against somebody. It’s supposed to be a sort of screening or gate-keeping kind of function, to make sure that people aren’t brought to trial on serious charges without, you know, at least some amount of evidence. That’s sort of the ideological idea behind fair use.
In practicality, it tends to be much more of a rubber stamp. But there’s a famous quote from a judge in New York that “a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich if that’s what a prosecutor wanted”, because the prosecutor controls the entire process. And so, in most grand jury proceedings, what happens is that a federal law enforcement, federal agent of some type, will go to the grand jury, maybe summarize a police report, give some facts, some details, and the grand jurors will decide if that’s enough evidence to constitute probable cause to bring charges against somebody. And it, you know, typically, pretty quick proceeding, you know, the cop says, “Oh, we did this raid, and we found these drugs, and these people were there and we know that this was their apartment.” And so in that way, a lot of the grand jury uses are kind of unexceptional, even if it is a still problematic in regards to how much power and control it gives to the prosecutors in this system.
In a more political context, what we see though, is actually using the grand jury as an investigative tool. As a way to compel witnesses to appear and give testimony, or compel people to turn over evidence of some type. And this is where we see, you know, analogies to grand juries is like a fishing expedition or a witch hunt, or something. Where people are sort of dragged before these legal proceedings and forced to, you know, name names or give evidence, or something of that sort.
And so, the way the grand jury works is that there’s typically, I believe, 24 jurors – so it’s twice as big as what you think of as a typical jury in a trial. There’s 24 jurors, and the only people in the grand jury room at the time are the grand jurors themselves, the United States Attorney, the prosecutor, the court reporter, maybe some clerical staff and the witness who’s giving evidence. There’s no defense attorneys, there’s no judges, there’s no audience. It all happens very much in secrecy.
And the other aspect is that, you know, sometimes we think about how in a jury trial you have the lone holdout juror that prevents somebody from getting convicted. In a grand jury proceeding they only have to decide by a simple majority. So you can’t have a single lone holdout grand juror, because as long as 13 people still vote to charge somebody or to indict somebody, the other 11 people, their votes don’t really matter.
Grand jurors, again, in opposition to what we normally think of in terms of a jury, grand jurors are not screened for bias. There were situations during grand juries that were investigating alleged acts of Animal Liberation, Earth Liberation groups, where people that basically worked in the industries that were being targeted by these Animal Liberation groups, other people in those industries, were actually sitting on the grand juries that were reviewing the cases that were, you know, allegedly targeting those industries. So there’s no screening for bias. It’s, you know, supposed to be a cross section of the community, but it’s kind of random. And there is a long history of discrimination in who gets selected to sit on a grand jury, who gets selected as the foreperson of the grand jury.
And so, you know, what turns into is this, you know, secret of proceeding with almost no oversight or accountability, where the prosecutor has total control over what evidence they present, they don’t have to present contradictory evidence, they don’t have to present exculpatory evidence, they don’t have to present anything that would be unfavorable to the outcome that they seek. They can present the evidence in whatever light they want. And they can also present evidence that, you know, is illegally gathered, or that wouldn’t be admissible in a normal trial. So things like hearsay, rumor, gossip, evidence that was collected as from illegal search or seizure, statements that were maybe coerced or compelled in a way that wasn’t constitutional, all this all this evidence can be presented to the grand jury, in furtherance of what the prosecutor wants to see happen.
Considering the scope of this, another thing that we see in some of these political cases, is, you know, people getting called to grand juries, to testify about things that are sort of far afield of what they directly experienced. There’s one case where somebody was being asked to testify about something that he allegedly overheard two other people saying, at a bar or coffee shop. Not something that he was directly involved in or directly participating in, but sort of this third or fourth hand rumor that he had overhear.
TFSR: As you mentioned, James, the witness that’s being called before the grand jury, is seated before grand jurors, the prosecutors, stenographers, the, you know, court officials, doesn’t have a lawyer present, right? And a lawyer could hypothetically, if they had a role there, challenge some of those things that might be inadmissible normal court setting. But they also can’t really warn someone about safe approaches towards answering the questions or not answering the questions. Are there safe approaches?
J: So, I mean, this is getting into, you know, sort of the difference between political advice and legal advice. I’m obviously not here to give anybody legal advice, and if anybody’s ever called before grand jury, they really need to have a good lawyer that shares their values and their goals to represent them and inform them of all the nuances and implications here. Politically, I would argue that there is no safe way to answer questions at a grand jury. And this is for a variety of reasons. I think one reason is that you don’t know what they’re looking for. People have an idea that like, “I didn’t do anything wrong”, or “I don’t have anything to hide” and I think that’s generally mistaken. I think part of it is the broad expanse of federal law that things that you wouldn’t even imagine are illegal and felonious under federal law, so you don’t know what’s going to incriminate you or incriminate somebody else. You also don’t know what somebody else might be exposed to. Maybe you have a reasonably good idea of what actions you’ve taken and what things might put you at risk, but you don’t know what your best friend or your family member, your comrade, or your neighbor, your fellow organizer, what they might be subject to. Things that might seem supposedly innocuous or harmless can easily cause significant problems for people.
The other thing that we see is, you know, we have this idea of like, back in the Red Scare McCarthyism, people getting dragged before hearings and being forced to name names, and then everybody that they name then also gets dragged before the hearing in kind of this dragnet approach to investigations. And that’s entirely possible with grand juries too, that the mere fact of you identifying somebody else, even if it’s not in a way that criminally incriminates them, could be grounds for them to get dragged in front of this grand jury also. And then they’re faced with this sort of impossible situation where they have to either decide to testify or face imprisonment for contempt.
And I think, you know, again, speaking politically, I think the idea of solidarity and building trust and cohesion and our movements is really fractured when somebody that’s involved in those movements goes before a secret grand jury and gives testimony that there’s no accountability or transparency for. It’s often hard for people to trust one another in that situation. So that’s how grand juries can serve to sort of, sow this distrust and paranoia and discord within movements and really fracture the solidarity that’s necessary for effective organizing.
C: Bursts, you said in the beginning of your question “Is there any safe way to answer questions before the grand jury?” And, James, you spoke really well about all of the reasons they’re not. That question you asked Bursts is sort of a gateway into strategy that we’ve seen be effective in recent years for resisting a grand jury.
There’s essentially four ways somebody can resist a grand jury: you can avoid being subpoenaed, which means you need to know that there’s a grand jury happening, and that’s actually a lot harder to avoid a subpoena than it sounds. But a subpoena for a grand jury does have to be served to you in person by a federal agent, by a federal law enforcement agent. Doesn’t have to be an FBI agent, it could be an ATF agent, or a CIA officer or whatever. But you’d have to avoid that person. And know that they were coming for you.
You could also receive a subpoena and you could just disappear. Some people have used that strategy to varied success, but it’s very difficult. Because it means you have to basically go on the run, you’re avoiding complying with that subpoena. And it means that you would have to leave the place where you normally live, stop talking to people you normally speak to. And that’s a really difficult way for somebody to exist.
The other thing is that you could receive a subpoena and you can publicly refuse to enter the courtroom. And some people have done that very successfully. Because even entering the courtroom, like James said, we don’t know for sure what’s happened in there, right? So all of your comrades, and the larger movement on the outside of this secretive process, we don’t know what’s going on in there. So you run a risk when you enter the courtroom that potentially could leave some room for mistrust amongst the movement.
But we have also seen this last option where you receive the subpoena, you publicly refused to cooperate, but you enter the courtroom and then you invoke your constitutional rights that apply in the situation and your refusal to testify. Which is the tactic that Steve has used and other recent grand jury resistors have used successfully, is that it sets up a great legal precedent for getting you out of the legal consequence that occurs when you refuse to comply with the grand jury. Which is if you refuse to comply, you could be held in civil contempt for up to the length of the grand jury, and that could be 18 months. And that’s a long time, but we’ve seen the use of this legal maneuver, called a “grumbles motion”, which basically appeals to the judge who’s holding you in a civil contempt of court for your refusal to testify and says, “this person has stated publicly that they’re never going to comply, they’re never going to testify, they have continued to not comply or testify. And you holding them in jail or prison, during this grand jury for their refusal to testify, has gone from this civil form of contempt, to something that’s now illegal, because you’re actually holding them in jail knowing that that’s not going to be the coercive tool that you hope it will be, to get them to comply, and to testify before the grand jury.” And it’s not legal to hold someone in prison in that way, because they’ve never committed a crime, and then the state, the government, has crossed the line, right? They’ve crossed their own legal line.
That’s a strategy that’s worked well, but it does require that somebody sets up the infrastructure along with their comrades in the larger movement to support them. And that means being very, very public from the beginning of your situation, which is what happened with Steve the first time that he was subpoenaed to grand jury and what has happened with him the second time that he’s been subpoenaed.
TFSR: So just to belabor the point, because nobody actually said thisI don’t think. You both have mentioned going into the grand jury, and then refusing to speak and getting held in contempt. What happens if somebody invokes their fifth amendment? And why does that make this sort of proceeding so scary?
C: So when somebody goes in, and they’re asked a question by the prosecutor, the prosecutor is going to say something like, “Hey, what’s your name, state it for the record?” So I would say “My name is Chava so-and-so.” And then the prosecutor would ask me, “okay, tell me about what James had for lunch yesterday” and I would say, “you know, what, I’m gonna actually invoke my first, my fourth, my fifth, and any other applicable Amendment rights that I might have?” A prosecutor is gonna be like, “Oh, great. Okay, well, what did James have for lunch day before yesterday?”, I’d say “I’m going to invoke my first, my fourth, my fifth, and any other applicable Amendment rights”, and then eventually, the prosecutor is going to be very clear that that’s my entire plan, while I’m present in their grand jury room, and then they’re going to take me before judge, because they’re going to ask for me to be held in contempt. And then they’re likely to request from a judge that I be given immunity. And that immunity means that anything I say can’t necessarily be used against me. And that’s what the Fifth Amendment provides to us, is like protection from testifying things that would incriminate ourselves.
But what we don’t know is how our words then can be used against someone else, or how someone else’s words could be used against us. So it doesn’t protect us entirely, it just protects us in this very narrow way. And the court and the government call it being “granted” immunity, like there’s some fucking fairy godmother that’s coming and waving a wand and giving us this great gift. But it’s not a great gift. They’re actually imposing and forcing something on us, that strips us of our rights in that courtroom – are very limited rights – and takes them away from us. Because that’s the like beauty of the rights that the state has given us, right? They can give them they can take, and that’s all at their discretion.
So they impose immunity on you and you no longer – when you were taken in before the grand jury – can refuse to answer questions based off of your fifth amendment rights, right? And so then at that point, when you continue to refuse, you’d be taken back before a judge, who then would likely decide, “okay, well, we’re going to put you into coercive incarceration. So we’re going to try and compel this testimony out of you by incarcerating you”, and then things move from there. And that’s where we are right now with Steve, is at that point: immunity has been imposed upon him, he’s being held in contempt, and his contempt will be reviewed on a monthly basis by the judge in North Dakota.
TFSR: So you’ll have mentioned that Steve went before the grand jury in 2016. Steve was again called this year, I believe, before a grand jury and then released, is that correct? Like, where does Steve stand at the moment?
J: Right, so when Steve was subpoenaed in 2016 – his appearance date was actually in early 2017 – and he went and refused to testify. And the prosecutor never pursued contempt proceedings against him, they ended up withdrawing the subpoena, before he had to be found in contempt or be incarcerated or anything. When he appeared, when he first appeared in February, just about a month and a half ago, he again refused to cooperate and very quickly was taken before a federal magistrate judge, found in contempt and ordered into coercive custody for contempt. His legal team filed some motions and objections on the grounds that the magistrate judge actually did not have legal authority to find him in contempt or order him into custody. There’s some, you know, complicated and nuanced laws around that. Basically, he was ordered into jail by a judge that didn’t have authority to order him into jail.
And so his legal team filed some motions and objections and they were granted, and he was released from jail after 19 days of being unlawfully incarcerated. But before they released him from jail, they subpoenaed him again, to the same grand jury to appear on March 3. And when he appeared on March 3, and again refuse to cooperate, this time they brought in front of a federal district judge who did have authority to conduct contempt proceedings. And so at that point, he was again, found in contempt and ordered back into custody.
So I think this is a pretty salient example of just how ripe for abuse Grand Jury proceedings can be. That they can illegally incarcerate you for, you know, almost three weeks, and then the remedy for that is that you get released, but then you just get re-subpoenaed and taken back, and the whole thing starts again. And so, you know, the prosecution really gets…in some ways they get unlimited bites at the apple. I think we mentioned earlier that he can be incarcerated up to the length that this grand jury is impaneled, which is, you know, typically 18 months, but can be longer in some circumstances. But if that grand jury expires, there’s nothing that prevents the prosecutor from subpoena him to a subsequent grand jury. In this way, you know, we’ve seen, throughout history, that grand juries, there’s not a whole lot of check on this. And so they can really be used to harass and incapacitate activists and, you know, entire movement communities.
TFSR: So, how about earlier you had brought up the idea of SLAPP suits. Could you define that for the audience? And also, maybe, I don’t want to take this too far off a focus on Steve, but I’d like to recontextualize this, again, to be within not only supporting someone who has proven himself to be brave and an amazing supporter of other people involved in movement, but besides Morton County law enforcement trying to avoid or state officials trying to avoid possible lawsuits for the damages that they’ve caused to people. How does it relate to the timing right now the operation of DAPL
J: Well to speak to SLAPP suits and what they are, “SLAPP” is an acronym for “strategic lawsuit against public participation”. And it basically refers to lawsuits that…typically it’s large entities like corporations, sometimes governments, you know, powerful people filing against activists or journalists or sort of the little guy, for the purpose of basically retaliating against or silencing their damaging statement. So a lot of times this takes the form of defamation lawsuits, libel or slander. And so maybe a corporation sues this small activist group, and says these statements about us clubbing baby seals are defamatory, and they have to stop saying it and pay us damages. And, you know, a lot of the purpose of these lawsuits isn’t necessarily to win the lawsuit. Because of the power disparity, it’s often intended just to tie up the organization of the people in litigation. That if you’re a big corporation with, you know, billions and revenue and expenditures every year, it’s no big deal for you to spend a million dollars on, you know, a lawsuit. But if you’re a small, scrappy activist group, or citizen journalist or a whistleblower or something, you know, defending this humongous lawsuit can be can be totally debilitating.
And so there are statutes and a number of states that allow procedures to quickly dismiss these types of lawsuits. And that’s, I mean, kind of a whole other conversation. But I would, you know, if people are interested in this topic, the Civil Liberties Defense Center website has a number of resources about SLAPP suits, and defending against SLAPP suits, and things of that nature.
I can’t speak to the situation with DAPL, specifically, maybe Chava can, but I will say that we’re kind of in this moment where a lot of pipeline resistance efforts have seen some success. Recently, there was the pipeline that was supposed to run through Appalachia, they got cancelled. Resistance against line 3, in Minnesota has really been taking off. And so I think there is this sort of moment where, you know, people that are invested in these pipeline projects are seeing the success that resistance movements are having, and are looking for new ways to subvert those movements, undermine those movements and push back against those movements. And so I think, you know, it’s impossible to say like, if there’s a direct correlation between that and what’s going on with Steve’s case, but I do think it is sort of a reminder of what tools the state has against some of these movements, and how those movements should sort of think about making anti-repression and legal support and movement defense an integral part of their organizing throughout their campaigns.
C: I think one of the strategies that Energy Transfer Partners – which is like the larger company that was pursuing the Dakota Access Pipeline, along with many other pipeline related projects across North America – but Energy Transfer Partners goal with SLAPP suits, is not even necessarily to win. It’s a way of industry leveraging the law – in particular laws around RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), which a lot of people are have heard at least that term related to, like, “organized crime” type cases – but leveraging those laws as a way for industry to have a chilling effect on movements that are successful against them. And so Energy Transfer Partners kind of famously filed this outrageous SLAPP suit, including Greenpeace as one of the named parties that they were suing, and asking for, like, almost a billion dollars, I think in damages. Which, they knew they were never going to win that award of money in civil court. That wasn’t the point. The point was to make movements and NGOs, or nonprofit organizations that were supporting social movements against ETPs various pipeline projects, to make them have to scramble and exhaust their resources, both financially and as far as people power, real like human labor, to exhaust them to a point where you’re so focused on fighting the SLAPP suit, that you can’t be focused anymore on fighting the people who are suing you.
And that was dismissed in court because it was outrageous, right? But it doesn’t mean that it didn’t have some of its intended impact, which was to distract people’s energies towards this other thing. And ETP continues to do this. But we also know that pipelines are failing as financial projects. And it was known that the Dakota Access Pipeline was only ever going to be financially beneficial in the short term. It’s basically like a big scam to make a bunch of money at the at the beginning, and that it was going to be a financial failure in the long run. But their goal isn’t to make better energy for anybody if they were they would be pursuing other things. Their goal is to make money and at any cost possible, including the costs of human lives and the earth.
TFSR: So bringing it back to support for Steve, how can listeners support him? What are some good places that they can find out more information about his case? Does he need people to write to him? Are there any campaigns on going besides informing people about the resistance to the grand jury that people could join in on?
J: Absolutely. There’s a website supportstevemartinez.com, there’s an Instagram account @SupportSteveMartinez, and there’s a Twitter account SupportSteveNow. All of these are excellent ways to stay informed about what’s going on with Steve’s case, find out more information about grand juries about you know, anti-repression strategies, and to, you know, connect with what’s going on. Another really vital way to support Steve is to write to him. He really appreciates getting letters. And we know that regardless of what the government says about the nature of incarceration, we know that incarceration is always punitive. It’s always extremely damaging, and difficult, and writing letters and staying in contact with people in prison is an incredibly important and incredibly effective way of keeping them connected to their community, connected to their movement, keeping their time and their spirits occupied and lifted while they’re incarcerated. And so yeah, we definitely encourage people to write to Steve. You can find information – the address and sort of guidelines about what what kind of materials you can send – at his website, or on any of the social media accounts.
And also donations. Donations are being used to put in his commissary so that he can get snacks and food and, you know, hygiene items and things like that while he’s in jail. Also to be used for phone calls, so he can stay in contact with his partner, and other family. We know that calls from jail can be extraordinarily expensive. And then also supporting his partner and his family while he’s incarcerated. You know, they’ve lost Steve’s income since he’s now incarcerated. Bills don’t stop, expenses don’t stop, things like that. And so money to support the people around Steve while he’s standing up for his principles, and standing up for the movement, is incredibly important. Because, you know, grand jury resistance is a community effort, and it takes all of us to support the resistor and the resistor’s supporting all of us. And, yeah, it really takes a community in that way.
C: Yeah, I can’t really stress enough how vital people’s community support is. I think there are a lot of people who listen to this podcast that came and went from the camps at Standing Rock and the occupation there. And tens of thousands of people from all over the world did. And Steve is in prison to protect all of those people, at the end of the day. That’s the reality of the choice that he’s making. And so he’s showing some real solidarity to all of us who were present there and who fought against that pipeline, and for Indigenous sovereignty over the land and the water. But it’s our role to support him so that he can support us. And you know, James did mention that his partner is bearing a lot of the brunt. And that’s the reality of what’s happening, you know, anytime anyone is incarcerated: they are separated from their family and removed from their communities and are unable to fulfill the many obligations that they have to people that they love and they care about. There’s a GoFundMe page that’s gofundme.com/SupportSteveMartinez and that GoFundMe is going directly to support Steve, like James was saying, but also really to support his partner. They have a grandson, who is pretty little and I know that it’s really hard on Steve to be separated from his grandson. And that is something that brings a lot of joy to him, to even be able to talk to him on the phone and on a video chat. And so by people donating to that, it also enables Steve to video chat with his grandson and with his wife. And that’s a real lifeline for him right now.
The other thing that I would just say that people can do to support is be really public about your support. Even your banner drop that says, like, you know, “FREE STEVE MARTINEZ”, and “FUCK A GRAND JURY”, or like whatever you want to put on a banner, that’s actually proof, it’s evidence that can go into a motion to compel the court to release Steve. That there is a wide network of humans across the world, of comrades who support him and are enabling him to continue to stand against this grand jury. So if we show that he has that support, that’s also something that can be utilized in like a legal maneuver to get him released from court to compel the judge to do that. So even if you think your banner jobs are silly and they don’t matter, they do matter! And it shows the federal government that that we have Steve’s back, and he is going to be able to continue to maintain his silence.
TFSR: I’d like to ask you all, if you have anything else that I didn’t ask about, that you want to mention while we’re on the phone?
J: I’ll just add that, you know, we’ve sort of tried to emphasize this again and again, but movement support means all of us. It takes all of us to take action, but it also takes all of us to support each other, and care for each other when things get difficult. And so, again, putting that at the forefront of our minds: when we’re organizing it’s not just about the day of action and the days leading up to it. It’s about the days and weeks and years after that, that we have to continue to support each other, continue to help people navigate these legal processes that drag on and on. And the more that we can anticipate that and prepare for that and account for that in our organizing, the more resilient we are when these things occur. And I know Chava and I are both extremely indebted to all of our elders and all the people who have come before us that have helped teach us these lessons and teach us this information and allowed us to share it with other people. And so everybody that’s that’s sort of tread this path before us we’re extremely grateful for.
C: Yeah, I think if people want to learn more about grand jury resistance there’s a lot of great resources online, but I would really encourage people to check out the Freedom Archives, and anything in there related to Puerto Rican independentista resistance to grand juries. Those movement elders really built the model that we see used today successfully against grand juries. And we really just wouldn’t be where we are now, in our ability to resist this particularly nefarious and fucked up tool of the state, if it hadn’t been for many movement elders from a lot of different communities, particularly in the 1970’s and into the early 80’s and their resistance in national liberation struggles.
And I think the last thing I want to say is just that people went up to Standing Rock to, well people went up there for a lot of different reasons, right? But at the heart of it was to protect land and water and to engage in either, like, your own Indigenous resistance or to support those who are Indigenous and their resistance. But ultimately it was about a movement for liberation, which is what social movements are about. And at the heart of those movements for liberation is a lot of like deep care and love for each other. And having lived in those camps for months and lived in a field in the middle of the winter in so-called North Dakota, I can tell you the only thing that keeps you up at night really is like the deep blue loving care of your comrades. And Steve is really continuing to exemplify that deep love and care for his comrades, and for the reasons that he he stayed at camp after he thought he was just dropping something off.
TFSR: James and Chava thank you so much for this conversation and for all the work that you do. We really appreciate it.
An Ethiopian Anarchist Perspective on the War in Tigray
This week, we spoke with Anner, an Ethiopian member of Horn Anarchists, an anarchist group based in east Africa, particularly in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian diaspora. The group has been around for about a year and hopes to organize and spread anarchist ideas and organizing in the horn of Africa. Horn anarchists is a newer group planning to do work with refugees and introduce anarchist ideas to east Africa. For the hour, Anner talks about the group, the history of post-Junta Ethiopa, the context of the ongoing armed conflict in Tigray, the fighting factions and the displacement and violence suffered by residents of the region as well as the ethnic hatred against Tigrayans by the government of Abi Ahmed and his Prosperity Party.
You can hear more perspectives from Horn Anarchists by checking out @HornAnarchists on twitter or visiting their website, HornAnarchists.NoBlogs.Org, which is mostly in Amharic and Tigrayan but readable in English via online translation services.
*** There is a content warning from 48:58 until 51:01 of discussion of sexual violence in the conflict. ***
Askari by Awate (a song about African conscripts fighting for colonial powers)
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TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself, if you’d like, and tell us a bit about Horn Anarchists as a collective project? What are your shared values? What do you do? Where are you based, and how long have you been around?
Anner: I go by the name Anner and I use she/her pronouns. Horn Anarchists as a collective project started about a year ago with the aim of disseminating anarchist ideas and values and the politics of the Horn. Individually, we were engaged in different anti-fascist, feminist, labor, and refugee solidarity organizing, and we later came together to bring the values of anarchism and some of our works into a shared, collective organizing. Most of what we’ve been doing in the past year has been online, since some of our members are in the diaspora, some of us are based in the Horn of Africa. And we haven’t actually been able to come together and work into a grassroots project as of yet, but we have hopes of doing that. Recently with what is happening in Tigray and the crisis, we plan to meet in Sudan to do some refugee solidarity work in Sudan for those that have been forced to flee their homes because of the genocidal war.
TFSR: For clarification, is there a set vision of anarchism that unites folks, or is it just a set of common values, and if you could describe what those are?
A: As a collective, the values we really uphold are those of equality, kindness, mutual aid, solidarity and voluntarism, especially some of us were radicalized through the different volunteer activities we’ve been doing. Some of us were radicalized through reading “too much of anarchist literature”, while others were radicalized by joining different organizing circles. Those are basically some of the values we all share and uphold.
TFSR: So, modern anarchist organizing in Africa that I’ve heard of has been mostly projects in South Africa, affiliates of the ZACF, or people like Sam Mbah and the Awakening Movement, a syndicalist movement in Nigeria or in Egypt during and after the uprisings against Hosni Mubarak. Can you talk a bit about the milieu or the movement of anarchism in the Horn of Africa. And maybe, if it relates to economic more so or religious or irreligious ideas, musical or sub-cultural genres, like metal and punk, (which) are a big thing in a lot of parts of the world around anarchist communities, or if it relates to regional or ethnic autonomy movements. I’d like to hear your thoughts.
A: Yeah, you’re definitely right about that. Well, when we came together to form Horn Anarchists, one of the things we wanted to do was to study anarchism in the “third world”. Most of the anarchist literature we’ve been studying has been very Euro-centric, so we wanted to understand how the history of anarchism worked in our part of the world, and we haven’t had much luck in that regard. The anarchist movements or any anarchist presence we could find were in very few places: there were some in Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria, a little in Sudan and Egypt, but not a lot, especially not in the Horn. And one of the things we attribute to that is that the settlers in this part of Africa, and especially the highlands of the Horn, are very hierarchical societies that are very religious as well. The two most dominant religions are orthodox Christianity and Islam. And both are very devout to their religion, and that has maintained a very strong hierarchical community that has been passing down to generations and their religion has also been highly tied with the state and people that loved their religion, their god, also had to love the state. So anarchism has not really been welcome in our part of the world.
The way anarchism came in the Horn, especially in Ethiopia and Eritrea has a very interesting aspect to it, as it did not come as a movement of its own, recognized and clearly differentiated between other movements. And actually the way it comes up in history, it is when Marxist-Leninists and other communist movements, communist organizations use it to label each other to indicate that the other was less desirable than they were. They wanted to build a strong state, though a communist state, and calling the other anarchists was a way to make sure that the public loses trust and looks at them with animosity, hostility. It was a way to smear each other’s name, basically, and that’s how anarchism has been used, not anarchism per se, but the word “anarchist”, as a label.
TFSR: Right now we’re speaking in the aftermath of a “police action” against the northern province of Tigray? And please correct me if I mistake any of this, but (it has been) conducted by the central Ethiopian military that has left widespread displacement. It’s been engaged from at least two other countries plus regional and ethnic militia, widespread reports of theft and sexual assault against people in Tigray. I appreciate you coming on to share what you know, especially since the Ethiopian state has done a lot to stop word from getting out about what’s been going on there. For those unfamiliar with the politics and the history of the Horn, of Ethiopia in particular, the history of the conflicts and various state and non-state actors, and their motivations can be a bit confusing. If it’s not too much, would you mind giving us a rundown or a thumbnail sketch of the civil war and its aftermath and lay the playing field for what’s going on right now?
A: Just to give you a rundown of the history to understand how we got here, Ethiopia boasts of having had an empire-building history that dates back to 3000 years ago. What has been central in the empire-building and state-building process has been a claimed ancestry from the biblical king Solomon in which different kings and queens claim they were descendants of King Solomon and hence had a divine right to rule. So this Solomonic tendency has been one of the strongest forces operating in the region until the 1974 Revolution in which the last monarch was overthrown in a coup d’etat and a communist state was established by a military junta that took power from the last king. And this communist military junta created a very oppressive, dictatorial and violent state and started a red terror campaign against other leftist groups that were functioning in the country at the time. By this time, there were quite a number of rebel groups, guerrilla fighters and the TPLF was one of the guerrilla fighters, along with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, Oromo Liberation Front and many others. The military junta was later defeated by a coalition of these guerrilla fighters under the name EPRDF (the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) which was going to lead the country for the next 30 years. The TPLF was one of the central and dominant members of this coalition.
TFSR: Would you talk a little bit about the TPLF? I think in a past article on the blog for the Indigenous Anarchist Federation, your collective described them as a Marxist-Leninist group. Can you talk a bit about them? What their relationship is to the people in Tigray? What part they’ve played in this recent upsurge of conflict with the central Ethiopian regime of Abiy Ahmed?
A: TPLF has a very interesting history. As an organization, it started with tough people and it later became the largest armed struggle in the country. The relationship it has with the state has also been very dynamic. As it first started as a rebel group against the regime, and it would later be in power. But before that, it would craft its manifesto and its program as a political party and as an armed rebel group with the aim of self-administration or self-determination or even independence, if unity does not seem to be feasible within the country. This is what later led to Ethnic Federalism and then Art. 39, which is the most contested article in the Constitution. That is the article that gives nations the right to secession when unity is not possible. With the people Tigray, the TPLF had a very changing relationship. At first, it was very loved and adored by the community, it was hosted by the communities when it was a rebel, a guerrilla fighter, and then it took power, and then it became an instrument of the state, and the violence that is inherent to the state continued within the TPLF/EPRDF. The EPRDF, to remind you, is the coalition that was led by the TPLF. The violence of the state and the violence of the party could not be told apart, and then this started to rough things up with the people that used to adore the TPLF and admire their commitments, dedication and discipline. The TPLF was used as an example of courage, discipline, and dedication, but after it got power, after they got into office and then continued the violence of the state, the relationship was somehow changing with the rest of the Ethiopian state as well as the people of Tigray.
When Abiy Ahmed came to power three years back, that is when the TPLF had a chance to revisit its relationship with the people of Tigray. They resigned from their posts at the federal government and went back…. Members of the TPLF went back to the region of Tigray and started looking back at what they’ve been doing in the past years and apologized to the people for not having represented them enough, for not having done much good in the past 27 years. At this point, the people of Tigray did not really have an option. I personally think it was a siege, as roads to Tigray were blocked by the Fano vigilante group from the Amhara region, and there was very concerning hate-preaching that was done. State sponsored hate preaching that was done against Tigrinya-speaking people. Tigrinya is the official language that people in Tigray speak. They were not labeled as ethnic Tigrayans, but a state propaganda machine used the phrase “Tigninya-speaking” to tell of atrocities that have been done by the state apparatus in the past 30 years.
Abiy was applauded to be a reformer, a democrat and a neoliberal force in the region. In his attempt to prove this, he was making sure to document different documentaries that were run on state-owned media, which were basically exposing the violence of the state and especially how prisoners were treated, how there were prisons that were not even official, underground prisons, garage prisons and all that sort of thing. Very atrocious stuff that was happening. The accountability was given to the TPLF. The TPLF was expected to be accountable for all these atrocities that happened all over the country. Although the TPLF was only one part of the coalition that was running the country. The EPRDF, it was just one member of the EPRDF, the other members of the EPRDF were still in power, they still held office. But later they changed their name from EPRDF and made it Prosperity Party, which is the party that is now in power, the PP. The PP is a very sharp contrast that has been seen from the EPRDF, as it is almost a one-man party where Abiy is the chairman and the leader. And the party basically reflects what Abiy as a person is – very narcissistic, authoritarian, aiming to control everything that goes around. That is one of the threats that many people felt it was a threat to the ethnic federalism and the self-determination of different ethnic regions in the country.
The war against Tigray right now… One aspect of it is this ideological difference between a unitary state that is Abiy, the one that is led by Abiy, that wants to control everything, that wants to assign regional presidents from the center. And then the resistance from a party like TPLF, it was a very strong party. It has been in power for 30 years and it has a well-built structure, it’s very dominant in the region, controls the region and has almost all of the seats in the regional council. It was a force that could contend the central government, perhaps the only regional force that could contend Abiy and the federal government, as all of the others were under Abiy’s wing and he could assign any person to be the president of any region, and the people would not have a chance to either elect them or even have a say in who was elected to administer their regional state. That’s one of the aspects of the ideological side of the war: self-administration, autonomy versus unitarism and unitary dictatorship.
TFSR: What sparked the attack on the ENDF by the TPLF forces?
A: Depending on who you ask, the war in Tigray had different causes. One is the one I’d already mentioned. The strength of TPLF was a threat to Abiy, that Abiy as a person that wants silence and criminalizes dissent, would naturally be against a region that is powerful enough to contend what he is saying and have consequences. One of the ways this has been seen is with the election that the Tigray region held despite the central government, the federal government, deciding to postpone the election using COVID-19 as a pretext. Tigray region has established their own electoral board and managed to have elections, local elections in a way that took the pandemic seriously. They made sure people kept their social distance and they took the necessary measures but made sure the elections happened. That is perhaps one of the strongest measures taken by the TPLF that made Abiy very unhappy.
The other one, especially the one that the state mentions is the attack on the ENDF by the TPLF forces. We don’t know how true this is, regardless there are claims that, after a posed threat, TPLF allied forces attacked the northern command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force, which resulted in a full-blown war.
TFSR: Is the communication blockade limited or has it been limited to Tigray, is still ongoing? I have some reasons why I think that the military would do this, but could you explain why you think it’s important for the military for the ENDF to impose this?
A: The ENDF and Prosperity Party reacted very violently, it made sure to cut all sorts of communication in Tigray, including telecom, internet, phone line, services, electricity and even water services were cut down. The entire region was in a complete blackout. We could not get what was happening. We had family there. We could not hear from our families for months, and there was a complete media blackout as well. And the ENDF was going wild in the dark without needing to think about consequences, believing that maybe the word would not get out.
TFSR: Thank you for that. You mentioned that Abiy Ahmed has gotten a lot of credit internationally. I think he got a Noble Peace Prize for whatever that’s worth for signing this treaty with Eritrea and since the conflict has escalated, there have been reports of incursions by military troops from Somalia and Eritrea, and also a conflict between the Ethiopian government, and I think the government in Sudan, where a lot of people were fleeing violence in Tigray, fleeing displacement. Can you talk a little bit about the way that the borders play into this crisis and the way that other international actors are taking part?
A: Neighboring nations like Sudan have responded interestingly. Sudan has been hosting refugees that were displaced, because of the war, it has hosted more than 60,000 refugees. The numbers would have increased if the borders were not blocked by the Ethiopian National Defense Force. On the contrary, Eritrea has been involved in this war in a very violent manner. The TPLF and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front used to be allies during the Derg regime when they were both guerrilla fighters and then Eritrea seceded and the Ethio-Eritrean warwhat happened, and there was animosity that lasted for almost three decades. And bringing peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea was one of the main reasons Abiy was nominated and later got the Nobel Peace Prize. But this peace process with Eritrea has never included the major warring parties, which was the TPLF, and it was a peace deal between Abiy and the dictator Isaias Afwerki. Members of the media were not told what the peace deal meant and what it constitutes and in retrospect, it seemed more like a war deal, a genocidal war deal than a peace process. As a genuine peace process, this would have first and foremost involved the major, belligerent parties which this peace deal did not. And maybe the whole point of trying to make peace with Eritrea was to eliminate TPLF.
TFSR: There have been reports of massacres in, among other places, Mai Kadra. 600 civilians, mostly ethnic Amharans and Wolkaits. It’s been accused of the atrocity that was conducted by TPLF-sympathetic militia and police. This is one example where it’s considered to have been conducted by people from one side, and yet there have been also attacks and massacres that have been reported by Amharans against Tigrayans, as well as all of these reports that are coming out from the Human Rights Watch and other organizations about assaults by the uniformed military. It’s a hard subject, but can you talk about, I guess, some of the things that you want the international audience to know about, what you’ve heard about what’s going on, and could you read it as a sign of a wider breakdown of the multi-ethnic communities of the country?
A: The media blackout had really influenced the international response to the war. In the first few months of the waronly the Tigray regional state media was accessible, and that was also state propaganda, and then there was the federal state propaganda from here, but there was no way to actually know what regular people were going through. They were both just spreading propaganda and not reporting what was happening on the ground. The first atrocities we started hearing were from refugees that managed to make it to Sudan. They would tell what they’ve seen, what they’ve passed through and the horrors of the war. Although Abiy even went to parliament to discredit these reports by saying that these refugees were murderers and that they were youth organized by the TPLF, he basically labeled them a killing squad and tried to make them and their accounts lose credit. But international media was talking to refugees that made it to Sudan from Tigray and those were the earliest news we heard about what is happening. Survivors’ accounts, those were the first survivor accounts we could hear from the war. Later people came to Addis, especially people that had other citizenship, maybe dual citizenship. There were some: Ethio-Americans, German Ethiopians, and their embassies found a way to bring them back to Addis and fly them back to their countries. And they had more stories of what they had gone through. But the first reports we heard were from refugees in Sudan and then later the phone lines were accessible in a few areas in Mekelle City and a few other cities. The connection was really bad, but we could still get a picture of what was happening, and later videos and pictures and other evidence footage started coming up.
The massacre of Mai Kadra has been used to justify the war. It was the second biggest event that the federal state used to justify the war against Tigray. The first was the attack on the northern command of the ENDF and the second one was the massacre at Mai Kadra. We still don’t know who the perpetrator was, there are different claims. Some claim it was TPLF allied forces. Others claim it was the ENDF. Others claim it was the Amhara militia or the Fano vigilante group. Regardless, there hasn’t been an investigation that every group agreed on, but what we know is that there have been retaliations. Whether it was the Amharans that were killed or whether that was the Tigrayans. We know for sure that there has been retaliation and any other aspect of the war, including the retaliation, the different massacres we’ve heard about, the massacres in Aksum… we’ve heard of massacres in quite a few number of places, the biggest so far being in Aksum where 800 people were killed inside a church, and none of these were reported by the state, as was Mai Kadra. It has been almost four months, but the Mai Kadra still occupies air time and not the others. So the way it was used as a tool for propaganda makes one doubt the genuinity behind the reports.
So I don’t know, I wouldn’t see it as a breakdown of the multi-ethnic federalism. I mean there are signs of the breakdown, but not this war. I just see it as years-long hate-preaching and fascism, to be honest. One of the reasons the Amhara militia and the Fano vigilante group went to war was because they had claims over some of the lands that were occupied by Tigrayans and that is mostly in the western part of Tigray, which we still expect were the worst hit. They were the worst affected. There was an ethnic cleansing almost. Nowadays, one barely finds any Tigrayan living in that region that was occupied by Tigrayans and Amharans have taken over, and this was one of their causes to get into the war. So I would attribute it to fascism than I would to the breakdown of the multi-ethnic federalism.
Without clear evidence of what actually was happening on the ground, despite what the two warring parties were saying on their state-owned medias, I believe the international community was hopeful and optimistic and wanted to take Abiy for his word and that this would be a surgical operation to remove the TPLF without no further damage, but it has clearly been anything but that. If anything, this is a collective punishment on any and every ethnic Tigrayan that not only lives in Tigray but also lives outside Tigray. They have been ethnically profiled – I’m talking about people that were not in Tigray. They’ve been arrested, detained, they had their house searched without a warrants, and then they were harassed, tortured, abused on the streets by people as well as by security forces. And this collective punishment actually dates back, I would say, to 2016, when ethnic Tigrayans were forced to flee their homes. The place they’ve been living in for years, for decades, because they were ethnic Tigrayans, they were forced to flee and go back to Tigray. And since then roads were blocked, inflation was really high, the road to Eritrea was also opened, so inflation was pretty high in the city and as I mentioned before, the hate-preaching, the hate-speeches against ethnic Tigrayans, the labeling… They were called “daytime hyenas” by the prime minister, and this was something that has been building up for quite a few years.
The international community, I believe, was just being hopeful and wanted to take Abiy for his word. But later it became clear that this was not a surgical operation and that civilians were the receiving end of this wrath from Abiy. And now the international community is very alarmed and is trying to influence and pressure Abiy to make sure that he at least provides access to distribute humanitarian aid and takes necessary steps to protect civilians, not even protect, but just stop killing civilians. Now there are also threats of economic sanctions, cutting of aids, and now the international community really seems alarmed about what is happening and keeps mentioning it to Abiy. Although not much has changed about what he’s doing. Ethnic Tigrayans were facing repression. Not only were they illegally detained, illegally searched, even arrested, they’re also harassed and tortured on the streets if they had a Tigrinia-sounding name or if their ID said that they were of the Tigrayan ethnic origin, they were also unable to board international flights, as Ethiopian Airlines was asking people to provide their local IDs to make sure what ethnic group they were from to bar them from flying.
There were also a few indications that there was something like a concentration camp. We have not been able to verify if this was true or not, but you’ve definitely heard about a concentration camp as well.
Many ethnic Tigrayans were getting laid off. They were being suspended from work, especially those that had government jobs. Every member of the military that is an ethnic Tigrayan has been suspended. Also, members of the federal government and organizations functioning under the federal government that were working in different parts of the country were also suspended from work because they were ethnic Tigrayans. Many landlords were also evicting people and telling them to leave their house because, and only because, they were ethnic Tigrayans. This had gotten so bad that Tigrayans could not even speak their language on the street and in coffee shops or in hotels, as they were very alarmed and scared of what that would result in, hearing their language would make the state and security forces, even fascists, do.
***content warning that there is a graphic description of sexual assault coming up. If you’re concerned, please skip the following paragraph***
We’ve recently been seeing that there was footage that was circulating on social media of civilians being killed by the Ethiopian National Defense Force, being massacred in a very gruesome manner. One of the biggest concerns is also rape. There is widespread rape in the cities that are controlled by the ENDF. Both the ENDF and the Eritrean soldiers are engaged in gang rapes of very young girls. At first, it was teenagers and then the reports coming now are of children less than the age of thirteen. And the reason behind, what is being said, is that the Eritrean soldiers were warned against HIV. So the assumption was that young girls would be free from HIV and they were safe options, so they’re engaged in gang rapes of very young girls. And what is happening, what they’re doing to these people… We recently read a report and also saw a video of this young woman that was gang-raped by 23 soldiers for five days, and then they stuffed some dirt and plastic bags and even nails into her vagina. And there was a video circulating of the doctors removing all the stuff that was stuffed in her. The cruelty is unthinkable, it’s inhumane.
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TFSR: How is the response from the international community in your eyes been to the conflicts in Tigray and the repression of the Tigrayan people?
A: When talking about aid distribution in the region, we need to understand what is at play here. There are international aid organizations that had food, medicines, medical supplies, food supplies, ready and packed, and they had truckloads of these items, waiting to distribute but could not get access to the region. The government and the ENDF would not allow access, and that was the main difficulty in helping the people that were starving and that were dying from hunger, thirst and lack of medicines.
TFSR: I definitelysaw a number of critiques in the social media for Horn Anarchists around the distribution of aid and what was actually happening to it. I imagine that some of it is a response to western social media users may be saying, “Look, someone’s already doing something, I don’t have to think about what’s going on over there” or saying, “I can send a few dollars, I just make a few clicks and then I have no responsibility or relationship to this anymore. I have done my part”. Is there any way to… while the wheels are turning in the UN, to try to get some intervention of peacekeeping troops, is there anything that you can think of that people from abroad can do to actually aid the people in Tigray and to send material, to get people fed?
A: Our critic was mainly because of the different GoFundMe accounts that were being started by warmongers that were supporting the war. We feel like it was dishonest to collect money and aid in the name of the Tigrayan people saying that you distributed to the people in Tigray when you have no means of reaching Tigray.The problem was not that there was a shortage of food or medical supplies. There were aid organizations that were ready to distribute, they had truckloads of them. They just could not get access, and regardless of how much money one was collecting in the name of Tigrayans and the people of Tigray, it wouldn’t matter how much money they collected as they would not have any means to distribute it. So our critique was mainly on these dishonest attempts to try and be sympathetic towards Tigrayans by collecting aid and by organizing GoFundMe’s.
TFSR: Maybe people in the audience who are concerned about this similarly could look up and find, for instance, businesses like Ethiopian Airlines, if they live in a city where there is a large international airport – and maybe there is an Ethiopian Airlines stall – that could be a place to apply pressure or any diplomatic, governmental buildings?
A: There are different ways in which the international community can show solidarity with the people of Tigray. The most basic one is tweeting, using the hashtags, making sure that word gets out, making sure there communication and media blackout does not mean the world does not know what is happening. We need to be as loud as possible to make sure that people are aware of what is happening. I personally believe that Tigray should be the center of the world at this moment. Every eye should be looking towards Tigray because there’s another genocide happening in the 21st century. And we can almost be sure that our leaders are going to come out tomorrow to say that never again, to say that they will not let this happen ever again, but this is happening right now and we’re living through it, and we can’t let it happen. And especially, we can’t let it happen in silence. The least we can do is raise awareness, make sure everyone knows about it, make sure our local representatives know about it, respond to it and report to the people that have elected them what they’re doing to try and stop it.
There are also options in helping refugees that have been displaced, most of which are in Sudan right now. Our collective was organizing mutual aid support with refugees that are in Sudan. There are also other initiatives trying to support refugees in Sudan, as well as those in Tigray. Access is relatively better now. We cannot say it’s unfettered and free, but it’s relatively better and there are also initiatives to try and distribute aid in Tigray, though it remains limited. There’s also the option of helping Tigrayan organizers, there are different Tigrayan organizers all over the world, trying to organize protests, rallies and appealing to the United Nations and the governments of the countries in which they reside to pressure Abiy to stop the genocide, to make sure that the Eritrean army leaves Tigray, that the Amhara militias and the Fano vigilante leave Tigray, because the atrocities they’re committing are very unthinkable and horrendous.
It’s also important that people that want to stand in solidarity with Tigrayans hold their representatives accountable for the measures that their representatives and their governments are taking to pressure the Ethiopian government to stop this genocidal war and to pressure their countries and the United Nations to intervene and act – its responsibility to protect civilians. With how bad this is right now, we have heard of confirmed deaths of more than 50,000, but many places are still not accessible and reports have not been completed even in parts that are accessible, but we expect so many casualties, and this is continuing.
TFSR: Back to the theoretical-world for a second, if you were to see after an end to the armed conflict, I’m sure that your collective has talked a lot about what it would be like to transition into a decentralized, grassroots, anti-fascist, anti-nationalist region and…
A: Yeah, we’ve discussed it a lot and what we’ve been hoping was some … okay, there are different fascists in Ethiopia, it’s very interesting. There are fascists that believe in Ethiopian and there are ethno-nationalist fascisms, but they are all right-wing, they all are fascists. And people were trying to fight a certain type of fascism, they go into another type of fascism, they go to their own group. There is quite a number of fascistic groups in the country right now that are supported, that get applauded by the government as well.
What we were hoping that we could have… Let me speak on my own behalf. Personally, I want to start a workers movement. I believe it would be crosscutting among different ethnic groups, different beliefs. And then the poor people of Ethiopia know their problem best and whoever is claiming to represent them and to fight on their behalf at the occupied of their behalf, basically are using them as a human shield. There are quite a few people dying in Ethiopia every day in different parts of the country from thesefascist groups and orgs, and they are very loud on their platforms. They control the media, they control the resources, and people are scared that if they will not align themselves with either this one or that one, there is no fertile ground for people belonging to different groups to come together and fight their own oppressors.
One of the reasons TPLF is known for oppression of the country. TPLF is a minority as I’ve told you. They haven’t been going around and repressing every ethnic group, it’s the structure that has been repressing and oppressing. The people of Oromia were not necessarily oppressed by people of TPLF, it was people that came from that group that were in power. People still feel like “I have been oppressed because they are a part of a specific ethnic group. And the only way I can fight this oppression is if I ally myself with my own ethnic group and fight against the others,” which creates animosity almost with every other group except your own. And then it becomes hard to even talk about class struggle in that regard.
But ideally, I would love a class movement. Class is a very important element in Ethiopian politics now that the politics is based almost solely on identity, and specifically ethnic identity. So you either a certain ethnic group or you are a fascist that believes that people should not mention their identity, should believe in one country, one god, one people. The struggle is very hard.
TFSR: I spoke a few years back with someone who was organizing in Bosnia, and some of the parts of this conversation remind me of parts of that conversation, where he talked about the institutionalization of ethnic differentiation and even if not in application, the institutionalization of “self-rule” and formalization of ethnic difference as being the basis on which people lived in community together. While, ostensibly, it would protect someone from getting repressed by another group and allowing someone to practice their religions, speak their language, these things, it also institutionalizing it into the government and being the basis for the representation of administering public monies or social programs, or whatever, also solidified differentiation between people, that, after the fall of Yugoslavia, where everyone had been sort of united under this idea of class in a lot of ways, as imperfect as Tito’s state was. This person that I was talking to was very excited about the possibility that people had broken out of those ethnic parties that were meant to divide them against each other. And it seems like a very important and critical thing. It makes a lot of sense to me.
A: Yeah, there are some groups that are mobilizing to criminalize organizing around ethnic identities. What we’ve had throughout the history of Ethiopia is.. Ethiopia is an Imperialist country. We have not struggled against these fascists of Italy, but we have not struggled against our own fascism. It’s an expansionist state, it’s an empire, and it has been assimilating into the dominant culture. I can’t criticize when people are fighting for their group rights based on their ethnic identities, they were not allowed to speak their own language, to practice their own religion, as the state religion for so many years has orthodox Christianity. And people were forced to denounce their own identity and get in line with what was considered the state identity, which is the identity of highlanders and Christianity. But this Ethnic Federailsm that most people of Ethiopia are against around nations and nationalities, complete self-determination to the point of secession. It has been the battleground for different political parties that trying to do this, to sort of force and places the arms of the federal government, or actually the regional government, activists from different ethnic groups claim that they will secede if this or that demand is not fulfilled. Honestly. I’m not against people struggling to protect their rights, especially minorities, but how long would that go? Othering is a major problem, especially nowadays when Abiy’s regime is trying to construct the old state of one Ethiopia where all identities are melted into one. Ethiopia is actually called the melting pot of identities into a certain dominant identity.
TFSR: Awesome. Thank you so much for taking the time and working with me to have this conversation. I really appreciate it.
This week we are re-airing a conversation that Bursts had last year with Aric McBay, who is an anarchist, organizer, farmer, and author about his most recent book called Full Spectrum Resistance published by Seven Stories Press in May 2019. This book is divided into 2 volumes, and from the books website [fullspectrumresistance.org]:
“Volume 1: Building movements and fighting to win, explores how movements approach political struggle, recruit members, and structure themselves to get things done and be safe.
Volume 2: Actions and strategies for change, lays out how movements develop critical capacities (from intelligence to logistics), and how they plan and carry out successful actions and campaigns.”
This interview covers a lot of ground, with topics that could be of use to folks newer to movement and ones who have been struggling and building for a while. McBay also talks at length about the somewhat infamous formation Deep Green Resistance, some of its history, and tendencies within that group that led him to break with them.
Links to Indigenous and Migrant led projects for sovereignty and climate justice, and some for further research:
Wet’suwet’en Strong [groundworkforchange.org/wetsuweten-strong.html], which includes extensive educational material on allyship, racism, settler colonialism, and decolonization.
Interview on TFS with Smogelgem, a Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief of the Likhts’amisyu clan, on ongoing struggles against pipelines and moves to create a Wet’suwet’en lead climate change research facility on their lands at Parrot Lake.
Chicano anarchist communist prisoner, Xinachtli, fka Alvaro Luna Hernandez, has an upcoming parole bid and is hoping to receive letters of support. Xinacthli has been imprisoned since 1997 on a 50 year bid for the weaponless disarming a sheriff’s deputy who drew a pistol on him at his home. The last 19 years of his incarceration have been in solitary confinement. Details on writing him letters and where to send them can be found at his new support site, FreeAlvaro.Net, as well as his writings and more about him. He is also one of the main editors of the Certain Days political prisoner calendar, author and a renowned jailhouse lawyer. Parole support letters are requested no later than March 20th, 2021.
Mumia has Covid-19
It was announced last week that incarcerated educator, broadcaster, author, revolutionary and jailhouse lawyer Mumia Abu-Jamal has been experiencing congestive heart failure and tested positive for covid-19. There are actions scheduled in Philadelphia before the airing of this broadcast, but you can find more info and ways to plug in at FreeMumia.Com
Transcription, Zines, Support…
Thanks to the folks who’ve been supporting this project in various ways. You can pick up merch or make donation that support our transcription work with the info at TFSR.WTF/Support. Our transcripts are out a week or so after broadcast and we’re slowly starting to transcribe older episodes. Zines can be found at TFSR.WTF/Zines for easy printing and sharing. You can find our social media and ways to stream us at TFSR.WTF/links and learn how to get us broadcasting on more radio stations at TFSR.WTF/radio! Thanks!
U.N.I.Verse at War by The Roots from Instrumentals Album
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TFSR: So I’m very proud to be speaking with farmer, organizer, artist and author Aric McBay. Thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation. Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself, what stuff you’re farming, for instance, where you are, and what sorts of organizing you’re involved in?
Aric McBay: Sure. And thank you so much for having me on your show. So I farm just east of Kingston, Ontario. We have a vegetable CSA farm Community Supported Agriculture. So we grow about 40 or 50 different varieties of vegetables, and we provide those to about 250 households in our area. We do kind of a sliding scale to make it more accessible to people. And we normally host a lot of different educational events and workshops. But of course most of those are on pause right now.
In terms of community and activism or community engagement, I have worked on many different causes over the years. I’ve worked with militant conservation organizations like Sea Shepherd or doing tree sits. I’ve been a labor organizer, I’ve been a farm organizer. I’ve helped start community gardens. A lot of the work that I do right now is about climate justice and about other issues that are topical, at different times in my area, especially prisons, and housing right now. Prisons are quite a big issue that the nearest city Kingston has the largest number of prisons per capita of any city in Canada. So prisoners issues continue to be very important and I think that the situation with COVID has only kind of highlighted the ways in which prisoners are treated unfairly, and in which the prison system actually makes us less safe, makes our society more dangerous rather than less so.
TFSR: Well, you did an interview with From Embers at one point, which are friends of ours and members of the Channel Zero Network. They also had a show recently, or I guess a couple of months ago, about the pandemic and the history of pandemics in the Canadian prison system. And it’s like, yeah, it’s pretty sickening. And you’re on occupied Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee land, right?
AM: That’s correct. Yes.
TFSR: And this is Tsalagi and Creek land where I’m calling you from. So you’ve been thinking and working around big picture ecological survival, and as you said, ecological justice for quite a while. For someone picking this up on the radio and maybe not keen on environmental concerns, can you give a kind of a quick snapshot of where the civilization is in terms of destroying the Earth’s capacity to carry complex life?
AM: Sure, and it’s so easy to forget about or to push aside because the other emergencies in our daily life just keep kind of stacking up. So right now, we are in the middle of really a mass extinction on on this planet. And industrial activity, industrial extraction has destroyed something like 95% of the big fish in the ocean, has fragmented huge amounts of tropical forest and deforested many tropical areas, including much of the Amazon at this point. But it’s really climate change that’s kind of that global, critical problem. The temperature has already gone up nearly one degree from their kind of pre-industrial norm, but the emissions that human industry have put into the atmosphere of the greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, are already enough to set us on a path of significantly greater warming. That’s even if we stopped, you know, driving cars, or burning coal today.
And so that produces a bunch of different challenges. Of course, we’re going to see already more and more hot weather heat waves, like we’ve certainly been seeing this summer, more extreme storms happening more frequently. But in the long term, the outlook is potentially very grim. Depending on the emissions that are produced around the globe, we could be looking at not just one or two degrees of warming, but potentially five or six degrees of warming by the end of the century. And that produces a very different world from the one that we live in. Even two degrees of warming would be enough to essentially wipe out all of the coral reefs on the planet, to wipe out entire biomes.
We’re at the point where even relatively conservative international organizations understand that climate change could displace hundreds of millions of people, could create hundreds of millions of climate refugees around the world. And there’s never been any displacement like that. You know, when you talk about making a place where where potentially billions of people live, much harder to live in, and much harder to grow food. And, you know, we’ve seen things like the so called Arab Spring, for example, and the situation in Syria where those areas of unrest or those uprisings were triggered, in part by prolonged droughts and agricultural failures. And we have seen the streams of refugees coming from those places, especially in the United States, has really increased the amount of xenophobia and racism I think that a lot of people on the right feel comfortable demonstrating.
So the ecological crisis is not just about fish and trees, it’s really about the kind of society that we’re going to have in the future. For human beings, are we going to have a society where fascism is considered kind of a necessary response to streams of refugees moving from equatorial areas, as of local economies collapse? Are we going to see an even greater resurgence of racism in order to justify that? Are we going to see much more draconian police response to deal with the unrest and uprisings that could happen? So our future, our future in terms of justice and human rights really depends on us dealing effectively with climate change in the short term, because climate change is not something that we can kind of ignore and come back to and 20 or 30 or 40 years. There’s a real lag effect, that the emissions now those are going to cause warming for decades or even centuries. And the response is really nonlinear. So what I mean by that is, if you double the amount of greenhouse gases that you’re putting out, that doesn’t necessarily double the temperature impact. There are many tipping points. So as the Arctic ice melts in the Arctic Ocean, and that white snow turns to a darker sea, then that is going to absorb more sunlight, more solar energy and accelerate warming. It’s the same thing in the Amazon rainforests, the Amazon rainforest creates its own climate, creates its own rainfall and clouds. So you can easily hit a point where the entire forest is suddenly put into drought and starts to collapse.
We really need to prevent those tipping points from happening and to act as quickly as possible to prevent catastrophic climate change, because it’s going to be almost impossible to deal with, in a fair way once that happens. And that’s really the idea of climate justice, right? That the impacts of global warming are disproportionately put on people of color, on low income people, on poorer countries. And so if we want to have a fairer future, then that means those of us who are living in more affluent economies have a responsibility to reduce those emissions. Those of us who have more affluent lifestyles, their main responsibility to deal with that, to produce a future as well, that is fair and just and where human rights are still important.
TFSR: And like to, I think, reiterate a point in there, it seems like fairness and justice are good rulers to kind of hold ourselves to, but it seems like it’s for the survival of the species, as well as for the betterment and an improvement of all of our lives with these eminent and emergent threats. Resolving this and working towards working together with everyone is the best option.
AM: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s true. And I think one of the reasons that I’m interested in organizing around climate justice is because it’s one of the ultimate areas of common ground, right? It kind of connects people who are in many different places and working on many different struggles. Because activists who I work with, who are mostly anti-racist activists, understand why this is important. I mean, we’re already seeing that impact around the world. And activists who work on food security and hunger, I mean, it’s totally clear why climate change is important, because our ability to grow food in the future depends on avoiding catastrophic climate change. When I’m working with anti-authoritarians, it’s the same thing. So I really do see climate justice as an important movement building issue, something that can connect a lot of causes that might seem more disparate from from kind of a distance.
TFSR: I think your work does a really good job of pulling together, the fabric, sort of like weaving together these pieces and patchwork to say that these are all interrelated. And for us to ignore one of these elements means that we create a much weaker fabric, if even something that’ll hold together at all. Your most recent and huge two part book was entitled Full Spectrum Resistance, and the first subtitle was Building Movements and Fighting to Win, and the second was Action and Strategies for Change. Can you share what you mean by “full spectrum resistance”, and what you hope these books will bring to the table for folks organizing to not only stop the destruction of complex life on Earth, but to increase the quality of our survival and our living together?
AM: Of course. So I wrote this book because I’ve been an activist for more than 20 years, and almost all of the campaigns that I worked on, we were losing ground, right? I mean, that was the case for many environmental struggles, but also in struggles around the gap between the rich and poor, around many other things. But I saw in history and around the world, many examples of movements that had been incredibly successful. And the fact that a lot of the rights that people take for granted today – a lot of our human rights – come from movements that learned really valuable lessons about how to be effective. Movements that didn’t know necessarily know at the beginning, what would create kind of a winning outcome. And so full spectrum resistance is an idea that I think encapsulates some of the key characteristics that successful movements need to have, especially when they want to move beyond maybe a single issue or a local concern.
So one of those components of full spectrum resistance is a diversity of tactics. I think that’s really critical. I think one of the reasons that the left hasn’t been as successful in recent years, is that it’s really been whittled down to a couple of main tactics, it’s been whittled down to voting, and to voting with your dollar, right? To kind of ethical consumerism. And those are very limited tools. And they’re tools that leave out the vast majority of tactics that movements have used in the past, right? Successful movements like the Civil Rights Movement, or the suffragists or their movement against apartheid in South Africa. They used a huge range of tactics. I mean, they certainly use things like petitions and awareness raising tool at different times. But they also use tactics that allowed them to generate political force and disruption. So a lot of people don’t realize that, you know, to win the right to vote suffragist movements use property destruction and arson quite frequently. When people are talking about Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement, people often use Nelson Mandela, ironically, as a reason why we shouldn’t be disruptive. They think of him as this really peaceful guy because he spent close to 30 years in prison. But Nelson Mandela helped to create the underground armed wing of the African National Congress. That was a struggle that used armed self defense and sabotage extensively in South Africa. And allies used all kinds of economic disruption, especially divestment around the world to try to pressure the South African government. And we can take a look in more detail at some of these case studies if you want. But I think a diversity of tactics is really critical in building movements that win. Because if we stick to only one tactic, then that really limits our ability to escalate, and that limits our ability to adapt. It’s easy for those in power to understand how to undermine one tactic, if it’s the only one that we use.
I think another aspect of full spectrum resistance is cooperation among different kind of…constituencies, you might call them. So those in power can stay in power through divide and conquer, right? That’s one of their primary tools is to split resistance movements or social movements into different manageable chunks, like “militants” and “moderates”. So they can split the people who are willing to go out into the street and protest with kind of maybe a broader, more moderate group of people who support them. And they can just go ahead and arrest you know, a small group of militants in the street, if they’re able to separate those people.
Let me, actually let me give you an example of how a diversity of tactics and this cooperation can work. One of the movements that I talk about, or one of the campaigns that I talk about in the book, is an anti-apartheid group that organized in New York City at Columbia University in the 1980’s. And they were an organization that was trying to get Columbia University to stop investing in companies that did business in South Africa, right? South Africa was kind of a resource empire at the time, there were huge mineral resources that were being extracted, and people were making a lot of money. But because of the racism, because of the authoritarianism of that apartheid system, people around the world were really struggling to generate political force to put the pressure on to end the system of apartheid.
And so Columbia University, like many universities had big endowments, big investments. And there is this group is called the committee for a free South Africa at Columbia University. And they started with kind of classic strategy of awareness raising, so they held discussion groups and teachings about apartheid. They had, you know, petitions to try to convince the government of Columbia University to divest from South Africa. And they really did everything that you were supposed to do, right? They did all of the things that we’re kind of told, told that we are supposed to do in order to succeed. They built that public awareness and understanding, and they hit a wall. They got to the point where the administration and faculty and student representatives in the student government all voted for divestment by the top level of government, their board of trustees overruled them. And I think that point that they reached is a point that a lot of our struggles eventually meet, right? Where we’ve done the things that we’re supposed to do, but still those in power refused to do what is right. And it was a real turning point for those anti-apartheid organizers. And their attendance at events started to decrease after that, because well people thought “hey, this struggle is over, the Board of Trustees isn’t going to diverse, so what can you do, we just lost this one.” But those organizers, they weren’t willing to just give up, they realized they needed to escalate to win.
They decided to plan a series of disruptive simultaneous actions, they started a hunger strike. And they took over a building, they blockaded a building on campus and said “we’re not going to go anywhere until Columbia University divest.” And this was a big risk for them, right? Because they’d seen this declining participation. But it actually worked. They started with a handful of people at this blockade. And more and more people started coming. There’s this fascinating statistic about this campaign. Before the blockade, only 9% of the student body considered themselves at least somewhat active in that campaign for divestment. So only 9% had shown up to a rally or you know, signed a petition. But in the weeks to come, 37% of the entire student body participated in that blockade, by joining rallies or by sleeping overnight on the steps.
So, you know, that kind of divestment campaign, I think is very important. Now, in part because that campaign worked, Columbia University eventually did give in and did agree to divest. And that shows to us, you know, the value of a diversity of tactics, the value of disruption, the value of cooperation between people who are using different kinds of tactics. I think that really is something that we can learn and apply very effectively. And then the current day, another key part of full spectrum resistance is that solidarity between movements, to avoid the divide and conquer tactics that those in power try to use. And the fourth thing is really an intersectional approach is to try to synthesize the different ideas and the different philosophies that motivate different campaigns and that motivate different movements. Because we’re in a time when I don’t think single issue campaigns can succeed anymore, certainly in the context of climate change, but also in the context of rising authoritarianism. We need to look at how we can build that shared analysis, build genuine intersectionality in order to create movements that are truly powerful and effective.
TFSR: So with the Columbia example, it’s really interesting to point to that, I hadn’t heard of that before, and that seems like there’s a lot of lessons to be gathered from that. With what we’re talking about with the scope of climate change, like the larger scope of climate change, obviously, is you can break it down into smaller and smaller points of this extraction thing happens in this place, those materials are transported here, they’re processed here, they’re consumed or subsidized by these populations are these organizations. So I guess, like the level of amplification of resistance that you’re willing to apply to a situation should scale according to what you’re trying to succeed at doing.
With this wider scope of resistance to something that you could look at as a whole as the way that governments backup energy infrastructure, and monocrop industrial agriculture, the scale of this…I get kind of lost between that point of pressuring the people at the top of the university to divest once all the other steps have been denied, like the scaling between that and looking at, say, for instance, the US government and pressuring them…I kind of just get lost in the clouds at that point. I’m like, well, the US government is going to want to continue business as usual as much as it can, in part because of its investors, much like Colombia, but also because it’s sustaining a more “holistic” system. How does the anecdote of Colombia and the resistance there fit into a wider scope of looking at governments and the ecological destruction that they’re involved with?
AM: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think one of the biggest challenges of the climate justice movement is the way that climate change and fossil fuel emissions, it all just feel so overwhelming and so diffuse, it’s hard to figure out, where should we actually focus our energy. But I think that many, or most movements in history, at some point, faced a similar problem, right? I mean, the anti-apartheid movement that Colombia was was a part of and were supporting. That was a movement that lasted for generations, the African National Congress was founded in 1912. And certainly at different points it was very unclear what people should do, you know, what was actually going to work against such a violently repressive regime. And so for me, I think there are a bunch of things that we can and should do to help address problems that seem really overwhelming or diffuse. And one of them, of course, is just to keep building our movements and to keep building our capacity and our connections. Because as long as we feel like we’re kind of isolated individuals or isolated pockets of resistance, it’s hard for us to see how we can tackle bigger problems. And that isolation is not an accident. Any authoritarian power especially wants to keep people divided and distrustful. So it’s important that we build cultures of resistance, that we build real connections with each other, and that we celebrate movements in the past that have won, so that we can kind of build up our capacity.
And I think it’s also important to look for areas where we can have early wins or kind of low hanging fruit. Areas where the problem is not as diffuse, but where the problem is more, is much more concrete or much more tangible. And so a great example of both of those things that work would be some of the mobilization against fossil fuel that has happened in so-called Canada in this year, and in recent years. So I don’t know if all of your listeners have been following this, but in February and March of this year of 2020, we saw some of the biggest Indigenous solidarity mobilizations in Canadian history. And those were kind of provoked by a particular flashpoint on the west coast. So there’s a settlement called Unist’ot’en which is on a pipeline route, there’s a site where the Canadian government and a variety of oil companies have been trying to build a series of pipelines to the west coast so that oil and fracked natural gas can be exported. And the Indigenous people who live there, the Wet’suwet’en, the traditional hereditary leaders have been very committed for many years to stop that from happening, and have essentially built this community on the pipeline route to assert their traditional rights and to assert their Indigenous sovereignty.
And in February at the beginning of February 2020, the government sent in really large armed force of RCMP officers and other officers, to try to kind of smash through different checkpoints that Indigenous communities had set up on the route leading to this site on the road, and also to destroy the gate that was keeping oil workers from going in and working on the construction of this pipeline. And the community there had been really good at building a culture of resistance over years, not just amongst Indigenous people, but among settler allies across the country. And so when that raid began, there was a really powerful response from many different communities. So a Mohawk community located just west of me, Tyendinaga, they decided to blockade the major east-west rail line that runs through Ontario, and that is kind of a bottleneck for the entire country. And other Indigenous communities started to do this as well, to set up rail blockades. And essentially, the entire rail network of Canada was shut down for weeks. You know, there were massive transportation backlogs.
And there were other disruptive actions as well, things like blockades of bridges – including international bridges – blockades and slowdowns of highways. And there was all of this mobilization that a year or two ago seemed inconceivable, it seemed impossible that any kind of disruption would be able to happen on that scale because nothing like that had happened before. And it was a really powerful movement that did cause the government to back off and cause the police to back off and start these new negotiations. And you know the COVID pandemic was declared at the same time as a lot of this organizing was still happening, so it’s kind of unclear what might have happened if that action had continued without a pandemic. But the rallying cry for a lot of organizers at that point was “shut down Canada”, which the pandemic did on a much larger kind of unanticipated scale.
But I think that example of the Wet’suwet’en solidarity and the disruption around it really points the way to potential successes and potentially more effective styles of organizing for the climate justice movement. And I think they have done a lot of things, right. They built that culture of resistance. So they didn’t just wait around for kind of a spontaneous uprising to happen, which I think almost never happens. They had built these connections over many years and build capacity and people had trained each other and trained themselves. And they had a particular location that they were trying to protect, right? So it wasn’t just “let’s go out and protect the entire world and protect all people.” You know, it’s hard to mobilize movements around something that’s so vague, but there is a particular community of a particular group of Indigenous people on a particular spot. And I think it’s much easier to mobilize folks around tangible sites of conflict like that.
The last thing that they did that was really effective, and that I think we can learn from, is that they turned the weakness of having the fight against this diffuse industrial infrastructure into a strength. So instead of just saying, “Oh, well, there’s so many pipelines, there’s so many rail lines, there’s so many highways, nothing we can do is going to make any difference.” The movement kind of said “Hey, there are all of these pipelines and rail lines and highways that are basically undefended, and that we can go and disrupt – even if it’s only for a day or two – and then move to another site. This actually gives us the potential to be incredibly effective, and to cost oil companies a lot of money and to cost the Canadian economy a lot of money.” Because that’s often what it boils down to right is “can we cost a corporation or a government more than they’re getting from doing this bad thing?” And I think that the Wet’suwet’en struggle has been an example and a demonstration of how to do that.
TFSR: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that that points to a really cogent point in terms of how to think about this sort of resistance. There were, what, 200 years for the Canadian government to think about its relationship to Indigenous communities and the sovereignty of like…them just pushing through sovereign territories to get what they want to extract, to run railways, to put pipelines in or whatever. And so appealing to the logic or the “reasonability”, or the sense of justice of the people that were representing the bodies that were sitting in the chairs in the suits in government – who were enacting the logic of capitalist settler colonial government – was not working.
But what did work was showing that if you do not see this point, we will shut down your ability to do this, or we will escalate to the point that you will have to like, step up further, and push back. And I think it’s a point that often gets lost. And I think, consciously, it’s been inculcated out of us, I guess, that’s a way to say it? Like, in the United States at least, we’re educated that the example of the suffragettes, the example of Gandhi, the example of the resistance to apartheid in South Africa, all of these examples, the winning view that’s given by the power structures when they educate us is that reasonability won out because of the justice of the cause. And because people went out and put their bodies on the line, but also like their petitions were eventually heard, their voting actually was the effective measure that changed the balance of power and that forced those in power to recognize the justice of the demands. And I think that’s like pandemic offers an interesting insight into, again, how that’s BS, like marches don’t stop people in power from making decisions. The threat that marches bring with the amassing of angry people who can do damage, or who can disrupt things, is what actually makes people in power look at marches and why that specific way of engaging is considered dangerous to those in power and why they want to stop that sort of thing.
I think that there’s a parallel to be drawn between that great example with the Wet’suwet’en folks and the resistance that was given to the attack on Unist’ot’en and Gitdimt’en gate, alongside of what we’ve seen, during this pandemic, in a lot of countries, and particularly the United States – where I’ve heard this morning on the radio, which, hopefully, hopefully, it’ll be wrong by the time this gets broadcast – but the US where I’m based, has a quarter of the deaths from COVID-19, around the world, and yet we are something like 5% of the world population. Those are similar numbers to how many people are incarcerated in this country versus the rest of the world. And people in power, at this point are not representing that they have the ability, the capacity, the interest, the will to actually stop this pandemic from spreading, and killing off the people that are most marginalized – starting off with the people that are most marginalized – in our society.
And so it seems like appealing to that same wing of power, the ones that profit off of ecological destruction when it comes to scaling back ecological destruction, and trying to reverse that trend, doesn’t seem that reasonable. But the sort of like direct action instances that you’re talking about, in coordination with other methods of dialogue and culture building, feels really important and exciting to me. I don’t know if you think that seeing the reaction of governments during pandemic is comparable to the vast amount of knowledge of ecological destruction, is an apt comparison or not?
AM: Yeah, I think you make very important points. And I think that, especially under capitalism, one of our continuing challenges with those in power is that they always consider profit more important than life, right? They always consider profit more important than human safety and human wellbeing. And that applies whether we’re talking about incarceration or COVID, or climate change, or police departments. And because of that, those in power are almost never convinced or persuaded by arguments to do the right thing. And that’s the case in the examples that you’ve mentioned, as well. If we look at those historical movements, we have been given a really sanitized kind of false narrative about how things like the Civil Rights Movement worked, or the suffragettes – or the suffragists, rather – we’re told, hey, that, you know, the Civil Rights Movement, just finally convinced people because people like Martin Luther King were willing to risk getting beaten up. And that’s what changed things. But that is not primarily what changed the people who are in positions of power, right? I’m sure there were a lot of people on the sidelines, especially in the north, who saw Black people and white people being beaten up by police on the Freedom Rides, for example, and that changed their opinion about things, or that helped mobilize them to do something about racism. But the racism, especially in the Southern states, and segregation, that didn’t end because of the Civil Rights Movement, giving a good example, that was dismantled, essentially, because of different kinds of force, political force, and sometimes physical force.
So in the Civil Rights Movement, we can look at the example of the Freedom Rides, when groups of white and Black organizers rode buses through the South where they were supposed to be segregated. And those buses were attacked by police and vigilantes, violently attacked, people ended up in hospital, buses were set on fire. And that didn’t actually end until essentially the federal government intervened, the federal government sent in troops to escort those Freedom Riders around the South to kind of complete their journey. And I think that’s something that people forget often, that racist violence didn’t just end because of a good example. It ended because there was some other form of force being employed. And I think people also forget that a lot of the non-violent demonstrations, the Civil Rights Demonstrations in the south, were protected by armed groups like the Deacons for Defense. The Deacons for Defense were an armed group before the Black Panthers, that was in many cases made up of military veterans, Black military veterans, who decided that they were tired of seeing civil rights marches getting attacked by the KKK or their police, and said we’re going to use our right to bear arms, and we’re going to go down there and defend people. And so a lot of the nonviolent actions that happened, were protected by armed Civil Rights activists.
So these sorts of things get written out of the history, especially by the in power, because those in power want to seem like the good guys, right? They want to seem like, “Hey, we are the ones who are going to come down and give you the rights, if you can provide us a good example, we’re just going to gift you these rights, these human rights” and that’s almost never have things will wind they will one because people were willing to struggle and people who are willing to disrupt.
I think that ignorance of social movement struggle is a form of white privilege. I have seen this at many different workshops, and many different talks that I’ve given, that often at the start of a workshop, I’ll ask people when they’re introducing themselves to name movement that inspires you, or name a campaign that inspires you. And oftentimes, the people who are coming to that workshop who are white organizers, who are newer organizers, they don’t have such a large repertoire to draw on, right, they’re much more likely to name a movement that happened locally or a movement that’s been in the news. Whereas a lot of the organizers who are people of color or from other marginalized communities, they can list off a ton of movements that inspire them that they’re learning from. And that’s important because marginalized communities understand better how to deal with those in power, how to get rights and how to protect your rights. And that’s often through social movements and through struggle, whereas people who are used to those in power looking out for their interests, especially, you know, middle class white men, they can afford to ignore social movement history, because they haven’t really needed social movements in the same way, or they don’t appreciate them.
And so when we have situations like we have now with growing authoritarianism, much more obvious racism, the climate emergency, people who are in positions of privilege, they find themselves at a loss, because they don’t know that movement history, so they don’t know how to respond. And it’s often movements of color movements of marginalized people, those are the movements that are going to teach us how to deal with these deep systems of injustice, these deep systems of inequality.
TFSR: So I guess, shifting gears back to like questions of wider approaches towards resisting ecological change, over the last couple of years there have been a few groups that have garnered a lot of headlines, and gained some sort of recognition and interplay with mainstream media, with governments around the world. I’m wondering what your full spectrum approach towards resistance sort of use the efficacy, or the impact of groups. I’m thinking of 350.org, Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion, do those feel like single issue approaches towards ecological struggle? Because I know that there was some critiques definitely in the UK about extinction rebellion, specifically, the leadership weeding out people who are wanting to bring up questions around not only ecological devastation, but also around racism and around the existence of industrial capitalism, and its impact on that.
AM: Yeah. And I think that’s a big problem. I think that you can’t really address climate change without talking about capitalism, you can’t address climate change without talking about racism. And I think that, in general, the big liberal movements against climate change, or the big liberal organizations have failed. Partly for that reason, probably, because they’re not, they’re not looking at the root problems. They’re not radical organizations, right, they’re not going to the root of the issue. And so they’re not going to be able to use the tactics that will resolve it.
I think at this point, companies like Shell Oil, and you know, a variety of petroleum companies were very aware of climate change, going back to the 1960s. I mean, they had more extensive research at that point into climate change than the general public. And when I’ve done research into organizations that have fought against offshore drilling, for example, you can see that even in the 1980’s, oil companies like Shell are already building their oil rigs with taller legs in order to compensate for the sea level rise they expect to see. So the issue is not that those in power are totally ignorant of climate change, it’s that they’re making a lot of money from climate change and they think with all of the money they are making, that they can deal with the consequences for themselves personally, although not for everyone else.
And so that’s a huge problem and in some ways it’s slightly different from COVID. You know, in Canada, I think one of the reasons that we’ve seen a much stronger national response is because very early on the prime minister’s wife tested positive for COVID. And so clearly the impacts of the Coronavirus have been disproportionately bad for communities of color and for low income communities, but there still is much more potential for affluent people to get it. Whereas something like climate change, I think those in power have felt very isolated from especially in more northern countries. So that’s a huge problem. And that’s one of the reasons that just appealing to the good sensibilities of those in power is not going to succeed.
Maybe I’ll speak mostly about Extinction Rebellion, because when I was doing my book tour last here, and traveled from coast to coast in Canada, I ended up doing workshops about direct action and movement strategy for a lot of different Extinction Rebellion groups here. And I think, you know, from what I’ve seen, the people who have participated in those events have been very committed and strongly motivated, they understand that it really is an emergency, but they don’t always have a lot of history in kind of activism, or they don’t have as much movement experience as some of the other groups that I’ve worked with. Which can be good and bad, right? I mean, I think, you know, a lot of the liberal left, the reason that groups keep failing to address the climate crisis is because there’s kind of a standard issue dogma about how we need to convince governments to change and ask politely, and so on. And that’s really a dead end. So I think for people new to a movement or getting newly active, they are potentially more open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.
But I think that the Extinction Rebellion kind of movement in general, in Canada, and definitely in the UK, has not done a very good job of, of including the needs of Indigenous communities, and has not done a good job of including the needs of communities of color. And in particular, I think we see that in the relationship between Extinction Rebellion, and the police. This was a discussion that came up in almost every XR group that I have spoken with, that that kind of official line from XR in the UK is that you’re supposed to have a good relationship with the police, you’re supposed to go to the police in advance of an action and let them know what’s going to happen. And, you know, as a direct action organizer myself, and on many different issues, that sounds absolutely ridiculous, for a lot of reasons. One of which is that you lose the element of surprise, which is one of the key strategic advantages that smaller resistance movements need to have. But also, because if you go and try to cozy up to the police, or try to expect them to give you a good treatment because you’re bringing them a cake or something, I mean, that is really kind of a white focused thing to do, right? And that ignores the long standing grievances of Black and Indigenous communities in particular, because of the violent treatment that they’ve experienced at the hands of police. And of course, that has become even more obvious in recent months, and you know, the amount of attention and mobilization is long overdue. I think that’s been a real weakness of Extinction Rebellion, and I think it’s going to need to address that, and other climate justice movements will need to address that in order to succeed.
I think another challenge to Extinction Rebellion has been that they still are kind of assuming that if they make a strong enough argument that those in power will change their behavior. Because one of their big demands has been for those in power to tell the truth. And from my perspective, as an organizer, that almost never happens, right? Well, those in power rarely tell the truth and you don’t want to give them the opportunity to dominate the messaging. Those in power, whether it’s the corporate PR officers or government PR, I mean, they almost always dominate public discourse. And so if we have an opportunity to put in our own message, we should be doing that not kind of punting it back to those in power so they can either repeat the same business as usual line, or try to co-opt or undercut what we’re saying. I think there’s a huge strategic mistake. And what it means is that even if you’re blocking bridges, you can be doing that essentially as a form of militant lobbying, because you’re putting the potential for change in the hands of other people. And I think that movements that have succeeded in overturning deeply unjust systems In the past, they have been able to build up communities of resistance, they’ve been able to build up movements that can direct the changes that need to happen, and movements that are led by the people who are affected. In climate justice, that means, you know, we really need to highlight the voices of Indigenous communities, we need to highlight the voices of communities of color in the global South. And if we don’t do that, not only is it morally wrong and a moral failing, it’s going to be a strategic failing as well, because we’re not going to have the experience and the perspective we need at the table to create movements that will win and to create strategies that will win. It’s a real dead end.
So, you know, from my perspective, the most exciting movements that I see around climate justice are being led by communities of color, are being led by Indigenous communities, and that are incorporating people from a lot of different backgrounds. But keeping in mind that it’s not an option to fail here, it’s not an option to say, “Oh, the government should reduce emissions. And if they don’t, I guess, oh, well, we’ll go back to what we’re doing”, we actually really have to commit ourselves to to winning this struggle. And I think a lot of affluent white communities, because they’re insulated from the effects of climate change, at least so far, they don’t have that same motivation. They don’t have that same drive to win, they don’t have that same genuine sense, I think maybe of desperation even. So for them, the risk of getting arrested a few times maybe feels like a bigger risk than the risk of the entire planet being destroyed. I think the calculus of risk for Indigenous communities is often different, which is why we see them taking so much leadership like in the case of the Wet’suwet’en.
TFSR: So there’s the example of the Wet’suwet’en in terms of not only a sovereignty issue, but also the ecological impacts and the solidarity that they’re offering to the world by trying to blockade the extraction and eventual burning into the atmosphere of, I believe the tar sands, right, from Alberta. And then skipping to a not specifically ecological movement, the Black leadership and leadership of color in the Movement for Black Lives and the movement against white supremacist violence and police violence that sparked off with George Floyd’s assassination, but also has spread around the world because anti-blackness is so endemic in Western civilization. I’m wondering if there’s any other examples of current movements, particularly around ecological justice, that you feel inspired by that are led by communities of color and frontline communities?
AM: Hmm, that is a great question. I think that we have seen, you know, in Canada in particular, but all over we have seen many different movements that are Indigenous lead, I think that’s often the movements that I end up working with or supporting. The Dakota Access Pipeline is another example of a movement that has been Indigenous lead and has been very successful. I think, around the world, I see a lot of hope in organizations like La Via Campesina – the international povement of peasants and small farmers – which is a very radical movement that looks to overturn not just fossil fuel emissions, but also capitalism in general, that looks to create fundamentally different relationships between people and the planet, and to create community relationships. I think that sort of thing is really exciting. And I think when you look at food and farm based movements, there’s a lot of mobilization potential there, because food, like climate, is one of those commonalities between people that’s common ground. Everyone has to eat every day. And so I’m very excited about the tangibility that movements around food like La Via Campesina have the potential to lead to. I think there are a lot of migrant worker and migrant justice movements as well that really understand the connection between climate and justice in a way that a lot of liberal movements don’t.
I also think that a lot of the really effective movements and groups that are led by people of color, they’re often more local, kind of environmental justice movements, they are not necessarily as big or as well known. And they sometimes don’t want to be, right? I mean, they’re not trying to kind of mimic the corporate structure. They’re not trying to become a gigantic NGO. And I would encourage people to look for those movements that are close to you, to look for those movements that are led by communities of color and that are led by Indigenous people, and to try to connect with them and to support them. If that’s not the work that you’re doing already, how does that work connect? And how can these movements help to support each other, and to develop a shared understanding, and a shared analysis of what’s needed for action.
TFSR: Cool, thank you for responding to that one. One thing I thought of was the Coalition for Immokalee Workers – which is an immigrant led struggle based out of Florida – they do a lot of media work, but they also are addressing like the real impacts of the epidemic on undocumented populations and farm worker populations in so called USA.
So people who are also familiar with your work are going to be familiar with the fact that you co-authored a book called Deep Green Resistance, alongside Lierre Keith and Derrick Jensen some years back. And DGR, besides being a book, is also an organization or a movement, a call out for a movement. And I know one notable thing that was mentioned around Extinction Rebellion was the idea of putting your name out publicly and saying “I’m going to be participating in this direct action”. And that was the thing that I recalled anarchist being critical of DGR, and ecological resistors, where people were asked to sign up publicly and make a pledge to participate in this movement. But I know that you’ve left DGR, you have made public statements about why you have left Deep Green Resistance, but I would wonder if you could reiterate those right here and talk about the group and like why you came to leave it?
AM: Sure. So when writing Deep Green Resistance, what I really wanted to do was help people to understand the climate emergency and to understand better some of the tactics that would be required to deal with it. I do think now versus 10 years ago there’s a much greater understanding that we are in a climate emergency, and that more effective action is called for. It wasn’t my intent for there to be a group or an organization by that name. I kind of figured well, other people who are doing work already and other organizations will hopefully incorporate this analysis, or it will help to mobilize new people as well. And when some of the people who had read the book said, “Oh, we should make an organization about this”. I said, “Well, okay, great”. And it was really a fairly short period that I was participating in that, in kind of the first few months, because unfortunately, what happened when groups started to organize and people started wanting to get together for kind of trainings and conferences, my co authors became very transphobic. There were, you know, people who are asking, very reasonably, “oh, can I use the correct bathroom when I come to this event?” And they would say no. And, you know, it reminds me a lot of what’s been happening with JK Rowling recently. Instead of kind of responding to this critique, or instead of responding to people’s concerns about this, they really doubled down in a way that made it impossible for me to keep working with them, or to keep working with that organization.
I’m someone who is fully in support of trans rights and trans inclusion. And I think that their anti-trans attitudes were really detestable and really destructive. In part, because, you know, a lot of experienced organizers who had been getting connected to the organization left after that, totally understandably. So, it was really disappointing and heartbreaking. And I think that the choice that they made, basically destroyed the potential of that organization to be effective, to be kind of a viable movement organization, because it was such a toxic attitude. And I believe that, in general, it’s good to give people a chance to change their opinions or to learn from their mistakes, because there’s no perfect organization, there’s no perfect movement, right? There has to be potential for growth and for improvement, there has to be potential for everyone to kind of take feedback and learn. But at the same time, if it’s clear that someone is not going to do that, then I’m not going to keep working with them, because it’s not a good use of my energies, and it’s not an I don’t want to be connected with an organization that’s going to be transphobic, or that’s going to endorse any other kind of oppression.
It was a very disappointing experience in a lot of ways, but I think there’s still a lot of valuable content in that book in the book, Deep Green Resistance. I think it still had an an impact and beneficial ways in that it helped to in some communities or in some sub cultures, to accelerate and understanding of the climate emergency. It’s just disappointing that that was the outcome. I think that hopefully it will be a lesson for other activists in the future and for other organizations, to really, from the very beginning of your organization, to set out so much clearer ground rules and clearer points of unity about anti-oppression that everyone will agree on. I think a lot of movements or organizations can emerge out of kind of an ad hoc approach, can kind of coalesce together. And I think it’s really important to pause and make sure that you’re on the same page about everything, before putting in too much effort before putting in too much commitment.
TFSR: So besides the transphobia, another critique that’s come to the DGR approach that that was sort of laid down in the book, was valorization. Maybe not in all instances, but in some instances of like a vanguard, or like a military command structure. Which, in a military scenario and like combat zones, I’ve heard it like I’ve heard anarchist talk about like, yes, it makes sense to have a clear lines of communication, someone who’s maybe elected into that position for a short period of time, and who is recallable, be a person that will make decisions on behalf of whatever like a group is in an activity. Is that an effective approach towards organizing ecological resistance? On what scale is that an effective or appropriate model for decision making? And is there a conflict between concepts of leadership versus vanguard command structure?
AM: Sure, I don’t think that we should be having military style command structures. Part of the critique that I was trying to create speaking for myself, was that consensus is not always the ideal decision making structure for every single situation. And I think, especially in the early 2000s, in a lot of anarchist communities, there was this idea that consensus is the only approach and if you don’t believe in always using consensus, then you’re kind of an authoritarian. And I think that’s really an oversimplification. I think consensus is very good for a lot of situations, right? It’s good for situations where you have a lot of time, it’s good for situations where people have a similar level of investment in the outcome of a decision or where people have a similar level of experience, perhaps.
But consensus has some flaws, as well. And I think one of them is that, you know, if you have a group of, say, mostly white people and a handful of people of color, who are trying to make a consensus-based decision about something that has to do with racism, then you’re not necessarily going to get the outcome that you want, because that is a system that can downplay inequalities in experience that are real, right? Some people have more experience of racism or, or systems of oppression and consensus doesn’t always incorporate that.
So we were talking a lot about the Wet’suwet’en example earlier, the Wet’suwet’en struggle. And when settler allies have gone to Wet’suwet’en territory to help, they actually have to basically sign off and say, “Yeah, I’m fine to accept Indigenous leadership for the duration of my time there. And if I don’t want to accept it any more than I can leave.” And I think there’s a place for a lot of different kinds of decision making structures. So for me, it’s like tactics, right? I mean, there are some tactics that are really good in some situations, and really not very helpful and others. And I feel like with decision making, it’s the same way. For myself, I prefer to work in consensus situations most of the time, because that’s a way of making sure that you’re incorporating a lot of different perspectives. But I think when you do have a very tight timeline, you know, it makes sense, as you mentioned, to consider electing people or to have people who are maybe on a rotating basis kind of in charge for that action. I think that there’s room for a lot of different approaches in terms of decision making. And like our tactics, our form of decision making has to be matched to our situation and to our goals.
TFSR: So it feels like when talking about ecological devastation, and like the precarity of where we’re at as a species, in particular – again in western civilization – that there’s this misanthropic approach towards looking at problems and solutions in terms of human caused ecological unbalance. It’s sort of a Manichaean approach. And people talk about there being too large of human populations, or historically, that sort of numbers game kind of leads to a eugenicism position. That puts blame on poor people or indigent people, and darker skinned people, as they tend to be more marginalized in the settler colonial societies in this parts of the world. And often, like, even just those nations are taking up more resources, those nations are developing in a way that’s inconsistent with you know, ecological balance.
It feels like that sort of approach is one that ignores the question of how populations are interacting – or the economic systems that populations are kept within – with the world with, quote unquote, “resources” with other species. And there’s often a presumption affiliated with that, that we as a species are alien to or above the rest of the world, that we’re not a part of nature, that we’re separate from it. And I think there’s some kind of like Cartesian logic in there, because we can think about ourselves to be self aware, in a way that we understand. We presume that not only is there a lack of agency to other elements, within our surroundings, with other living things…I guess it goes back to, like, in the western sense, stories of genesis. Of human beings being given control over the natural world to determine how those quote unquote “resources” are used, as opposed to being a part of that natural world, and that we have a responsibility for ourselves and for our siblings. Can you talk about why it’s important to challenge like, sort of the fundamental weaknesses of the misanthropic approach that looks as us as outside of the natural world? And how shifting that question actually allows us to make the changes that will be required for us to possibly survive this mess?
AM: Sure, yeah. I mean, I understand why people get frustrated with humanity. But I think, both from a philosophical perspective and from an organizers perspective, blaming humans in general for the problem really kind of obscures the root of the emergencies that we’re facing, and it obscures the things that we need to do. I think some of what you’ve talked about, it’s really different forms of human exceptionalism, right? There are some people who don’t care about the environment at all, who are human exceptionalist, who think humans can do whatever we want, we’re immune to the same kind of rules that other organisms follow. We’re immune from the effects of the weather or the planet or the ecology. And of course that’s ridiculous. But at the same time, we have at the other end, people who really believe a different form of human exceptionalism and believe that humans are doomed to do bad things, that we’re kind of doomed to destroy the planet. And I don’t think either of those things are true. I think, you know, if you look at that history of humanity and our immediate ancestors, for millions of years we managed not to destroy the planet, or even put the planet in peril. It’s really a fairly new phenomenon that specific societies, and especially specific people in specific societies, have been causing this level of destruction. And that destruction is not really about population, it’s about wealth.
If you look at someone like Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon who’s bringing in what? $12 billion a day that he’s adding to his his fortune, $12 billion in profit every day, compared with someone living in, say, Bangladesh, who’s barely emitting any carbon dioxide at all. There’s a huge disparity. And I think that people like Jeff Bezos would probably be happy to have us say, “Oh, well, the problem is just humanity. The problem is we’re going to destroy the planet. And I guess we have to build rocket ships and go to other planets, because that’s the only way to solve this problem.” Whereas really, it’s about wealth and capitalism. It’s that people in very wealthy countries, and especially the richest people in those countries, are doing most of the ecological damage, and who also have the power to stop doing that ecological damage if they chose and if they were willing to give up some of the money that they’re making every day.
So as an organizer, one of the reasons that I avoid that misanthropic approach is because it just doesn’t give us a lot of options, right? Like, if humans inherently are the problem, then do we just wait for humans to go extinct? I mean, I’ve certainly heard people say, “Oh, well, I guess the earth is going to come back into balance.” So you know, that kind of line of thinking. But for me as an organizer who works on many different issues, from prisons to gender equality, to you know, farm worker issues, that’s not a good enough solution. It’s not good enough to just throw your hands up and say, “oh, what can we do? It’s human nature,” because it doesn’t address the root power imbalances. And it also doesn’t give us any models for how to live better. Because that’s also what the misanthropy kind of obscures. It obscures the fact that the majority of Indigenous societies for the majority of history have lived in a way that has been beneficial for the land around them. And there are still many traditional communities and many societies that managed to live without destroying their environment and destroying the land.
And so I think, you know, if we say, “Oh, well, humans are just the problem”, then that kind of frees us up that burden of of learning more and actually changing our lifestyle, maybe, or changing our approach. I think it’s really important we look at the root of the problems that we’re facing, which in terms of climate, and many other things, is really about capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, these overlapping systems of inequality. And I think, again, the solutions that we need to find have to do with looking to those communities that have been living in a better way, whether that’s Indigenous communities or communities that have struggled for genuine equality, genuine racial equality, gender equality, all of these things. And those are the kinds of communities that can help us to not just survive this climate emergency, but after that, and now to have communities to have societies that are actually worth living in. That are fair and inclusive, and where people aren’t constantly in this competitive struggle, and on the edge of precarity in this, you know, doggy dog situation. I think it’s a very good news story to look past that misanthropy and to look at societies that are worth living in.
TFSR: So your two books, in a lot of ways – just at least by the titles and by what we’ve been talking about – a lot of what they map out is strategies for resistance and strategies for challenging the current system. And I’m not sure if there’s a strong focus on what you’re talking about right now the like, “what are people doing in other places, what have people been doing?” Are there any examples, or any good roads towards gaining that knowledge that you can suggest? You mentioned just listening to people that have been living in other ways and to the people that have been most affected by the impacts of climate change and racialized capitalism? Are there any authors or any movements in addition to the Wet’suwet’en for instance, that you would suggest listening to or looking to?
AM: Sure, well, in closer to me, I think the Indigenous Environmental Network is a movement I look at a lot, the Migrant Rights Alliance is an organization that I’ve been paying a lot of attention to. So a slightly older book that I think is important is called Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth, which is edited by Steven Best and Anthony J Nochella, and that’s a compilation of writings from many different people that kind of brings together anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism. I think that book is a really great place to start. And I think also, for me, a lot of the case studies that I talked about, a lot of movements that I talked about, are examples of people who’ve tried to kind of bring this intersectionality together in the past; Black Panther Fred Hampton was an incredibly powerful organizer who brought together, you know, this anti-racist, anti-capitalist approach. People like Judi Bari, the environmental activist who put forward a philosophy she called “revolutionary ecology”, that synthesized feminism and Earth First! and kind of working class analysis of capitalism.
I think people like that are really important to listen to. And I think, you know, it’s no coincidence that Fred Hampton was assassinated by the police, or that Judi Bari was bombed by the police. Those in power are really terrified by movements that take this intersectional approach and by people who do this, because, you know, when we start moving in this direction we can be incredibly effective and bring together a lot of different groups and movements, and have a really powerful transformative impact.
TFSR: Thank you so much for having this conversation. Aric, could you tell listeners how they can get ahold of any of your books or where they can find your writings or follow your ongoing journalism?
AM: Yeah, so you can find out more about Full Spectrum Resistance by visiting fullspectrumresistance.org. And you can also download some additional resources and read or listen to the first chapter there. If you want to look at some of my other work, you can visit aricmcbay.org, A-R-I-C-M-C-B-A-Y dot org. And I also have a Facebook page, Aric McBay author.
TFSR: Thank you again, so much, for taking the time to have this conversation. And yeah, I appreciate your work.
AM: Thanks so much. Likewise, it’s been a pleasure.
This week we are getting the chance to air a conversation that we had with writer, anarchist, and agitator Vicky Osterweil about her recently published book In Defense of Looting, a Riotous History of Uncivil Action published (Bold Type Press, August 2020). We get to talk about a lot of different topics in this interview, how the book emerged from a zine written in the middle of the Ferguson Uprising of the summer of 2014, its reception by the far right and by comrades, her process in deciding what to include in this book, the etymology of the word “loot” and ensuing implications thereof, why you should totally transition if that’s the right thing for you to do, and many more topics!
Dimitris Koufontinas, a political prisoner of about 30 years in Greece and member of the Novemeber 17 movement that struggled against the Greek capitalist state for decades has been on hunger strike for roughly 53 days and is in danger of dying. His hunger strike is in part in protest over being transferred to a more intense prison, Domokos, despite reforms in the penal code stating he should be sent to Korydallos prison in Athens. No doubt this decision is based in part on the grudge of the reactionary current Greek regime, New Democracy, which suffered the 1989 assassination of then-Prime Minister Bakoyannis at the hands of N17. Solidarity actions have spread across the world. An easy place to keep up and get some inspiration in English is at Enough Is Enough, linked in our shownotes.
Malik rally in SF
On March 7 from 12-2pm at 111 Taylor St in San Francisco, there’ll be a rally in support of SF Bay View National Black Newspaper Editor Comrade Malik. Malik is currently suffering punishment at the hands of the private prison corporation, Geo Group, which runs the half-way house he’s remanded to at the end of his federal sentence. Geo Group has silenced Malik not only as a human speaking out about an outbreak of Covid-19 at the halfway house, but also as a journalist who has had his work phone taken away and threatened him with a return to prison. You can make donations and learn more at linktr.ee/FreeMalik
Political Prisoner Letter Writing
Sunday, March 7th in West Asheville Park, Blue Ridge ABC will be hosting a political prisoner letter writing event from 5-6:30pm. They’ll provide postage, names and addresses as well as stationary for those who want to come by and write to political prisoners with upcoming birthdays or prison rebels facing repression. A little letter goes a long way.
Thanks again to all of the folks supporting this project in various ways. We’re about to send out our second batch of zines to patreon supporters and have been building our transcriptions and zine formatting thanks to diligent work of comrades. You can learn more about supporting us monetarily by visiting TFSR.WTF/Support, we invite you to send zines of our conversations available roughly a week after broadcast at TFSR.WTF/ Zines, you can share us on social media with more info at TFSR.WTF/Social and learn about how to help spread these ideas on more radio stations by visiting TFSR.WTF/Radio.
Fire Ant T-Shirt Benefit
A quick reminder, we’re still selling Fire Ant Journal T-Shirts to benefit anarchist prisoner Michael Kimble, which can be found at thefinasltrawradio.bigcartel.com alongside our other merch.
TFSR:Thank you so much for agreeing to come onto The Final Straw. Would you introduce yourself for listeners with any information about yourself you would like them to be aware of?
Vicky Osterweil: Sure, yeah, I’m so glad to be here. I’m a listener of the show so it’s very exciting. My name is Vicky Osterweil, I’m a writer and editor and agitator. I’m based in Philly. I also run a podcast with my friend Cerise called Cerise And Vicky Rank The Movies, where we are ranking all of the movies ever made. And I also this new book that came out last year, In Defense of Looting which I know we will be talking about. So I write, I do the podcast and things, I’m around.
TFSR: That’s amazing! Is your podcast available on all of the things or a certain streaming app?
VO: It’s everywhere, we are also on Soundcloud and all the podcast apps. If you like movies and two anarchist girls talking mostly about movies with their perspective, it’s a good show for that.
TFSR: That sounds exactly like what I want to be listening to right now cause everything is so weird. But as you said before, we are here to talk about your recently published book In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action which was published by Bold Type Books in August 2020, but I’m also curious to hear about your other written work, cause you’ve written pretty extensively before that. Could you talk about some of your other works, topics of interest to you, and what initially got you into writing and eventually being an author?
VO: Totally. I’ve written a lot about movement politics, anarchist politics, I’ve done a lot of organizing with an eye toward street movements, I’ve done a lot of writing, reportage, but not like a journalist, I don’t have training for that, so it’s a combination of theory and activist report back. I also do a lot of culture writing – about movies, video games. I was writing pretty extensively for a few years in Real Life magazine, it’s a great magazine about a sort of tech critique, about the political economy of video games, and how that played in the Trumpism, this resurgent fascism and stuff. So I’m all over the place in terms of writing, I’ve done some art writing as well, but I think mostly it’s culture and movement politics.
In terms of what got me into writing, I was a big reader growing up, I thought I’d be a writer of novels and poetry, but I also liked reading movie reviews and that was how I stumbled into getting paid to write. I eventually was part of the early editorial board of the magazine The New Inquiry, an online magazine based in New York, and I was an editor there for many years. I still help out when I can. That shaped my writing into a non-fiction direction, and that also had to do with why becoming an author was an adaption of an essay I wrote during the uprising in Ferguson. Writing is a muscle and at this point, my fiction and poetry muscles a little atrophied. I sort of wish I could have some of them back honestly, but at this point, I write history and non-fiction, it’s where I’m most comfortable. This is how I ended up here.
TFSR: That’s amazing. You mentioned you are an anarchist. I personally love that. Would you speak about your process of radicalization?
VO: Totally. I think I’m a middle millennial, like a lot of white kids who are anarchists now. At that point, I got introduced to this politics through punk, but I was always a big reader and a big nerd, so I was also reading books about punk, that was also how I got introduced into this politics, also through movies. I was lucky and I didn’t have to have really horrible life experiences that forced me to radicalize early, so I think about it as being activated rather than radicalized. I was already identifying as a radical and then in 2011 I happened to be in Barcelona during the movement of the squares that was there. I’ve done some activism back home, I’ve been involved in housing struggles in 2008-09 in New York, but that experience of encampment movement in 2011 in Spain also coincided with my first professional writinggig. I got paid 50 dollars to write five paragraphs about it. So it was a funny moment. Then I came back to the US pretty convinced that it was going to happen here and threw myself into organizing what ended up being the beginning of what would be Occupy Wall Street.
And since then, everywhere I lived, I’ve been part of a variety of different movements, often with a focus on police and prison abolition. I’m less of a formal or formalist organizer, I tended to be more street action-oriented in my thinking and organizing. The movement often shaped what I’m working on as well. So when I say I’m an anarchist, for me that means anti-state all the way, anti-capitalist all the time, anti-oppression of all kinds. Also, I don’t like organizing that imagines that we have to capture the state on our way to change, I’m really against that. Also, anarchist is just a descriptor that has come around to be the people who I most often find affinity and solidarity with. That is not everyone in my life by any means. I just think that other than anti-state and obviously anti-racist and all the variety of anti-oppression politics, for me the question is about who I find sympathetic to move with, talk with, think with and fight with. What I have found over time is that it has tended to be anarchists, but certainly not exclusively, and there’s been a lot of anarchists I don’t like either, so it’s more about a sense of sensibility that I recognize in anarchism at its best that I vibe with than a really strong sectarian commitment. As we talk about the book, for me, the most important historical body of theory and practice has come out of the black radical tradition in the United States and the Caribbean, and that often overlaps with anarchistic principles and ideas, but not always, and I think that combined with increasingly thinking through indigenous resistance. For me, so then to go again and circle back, a different claim. I also think that one of the ways that had really influenced me very early to think about was to think through and with movement as it happens or has happened. And to start from the principle that the people fighting for liberation know what they are doing and to try and learn from that, to study and move with the way that movement happens and has happened, and to learn those lessons. Again, I consider that a somewhat anarchistic tradition, but there are a lot of Marxists who have followed that as well and a lot of non-sectarian people who have followed these dreams as well. That’s in a nutshell.
TFSR: Thank you so much for going through that. It’s really interesting to hear how you talk about how it initially happened for you and how you were in Barcelona and the movement of the squares moment and your political progression over the years. And you said you were super convinced that that kind of thing was going to happen here. I hate the phrase ‘the moment we are in right now’ because sometimes I think that this phrase particularly is a little bit missing the point of seeing a political and historical continuity of what we are experiencing right now, to say like “Oh, this aberrant moment we are in”, no, it’s actually a pretty logical conclusion of a series of all the shit sandwiches that we’ve eaten for many generations, some of us. But I’m wondering, as somebody who was in Barcelona that particular time, did you see any similarities to what has happened or what is happening now?
VO: Yeah, I think it does inform my perspective to some degree with a sense that we are in the middle of – and I think most people would agree with this on its face but don’t actuallycenter it – in the middle of an international moment of upheaval and revolt that is largely unprecedented, it has been centuries since we’ve seen anything like it. I think the period of the beginning of an anti-colonial uprising in the 50s through the long 60s into the 70s, in the wake of that there has been a long period of retrenchment and of course there have been powerful and important movements in that gap, but I think since the collapse of 2008 and more specifically at the beginning of uprisings in 2011, we have been in a decade of a really increased and intensifying struggle. In terms of where we are now, I’m a bit of an optimist when I say this, but I think we are at the beginning of the middle of a historical period. Something started in 2008 that I think the wave of neofascism that is still ongoing but hasn’t quite succeeded in either precipitating a total world war or totally capturing the globe. There is obviously Modi in India, there are really powerful people, powerful fascists all over the world, obviously in Brazil as well. So it’s not just to downplay it, but that fascist moment globally was the back-swing of a decade of struggle and change. I think capitalism is in a really deep crisis that is going to involve a transformation of the nation-state as it exists, labor as it exists, and the ecological moment is utterly unsustainable and disastrous, to say nothing of the pandemic. All of which is to say I think we are at the beginning of the middle of what could be a revolutionary process, there is certainly going to be an evolutionary process for society. Society in 20 years I think will look very different from how it does now or how it did 20 years ago. That’s not necessarily for the better, but it is going to be very different in some ways. There are also continuities and a way to hold both of these things in tension, that there are these long continuities that we are also just a shadow of 1492. We are still living through the apocalypse of Settler-Colonial genocide on this hemisphere. That moment is one historical moment that has built to this point of total ecological destruction and the role of anti-blackness and slavery in the plantation in that is so important.
I think another way we could think about where we’re at right now, particularly in America, is a third reconstruction we are in. So, obviously, the first reconstruction is the period of the Civil War. The general strike of the slaves, as Du Bois called it, that really lasted from the 1850s through the 1870s. As Saidiya Hartman has pointed out, tragically failed to truly upend race relations, but threatened to for this thirty-year period of revolutionary upheaval, driven by formerly enslaved people almost exclusively. And then, of course, the second reconstruction is often the civil rights movement, which extends from 1945 up through 1975 and the repression of the movement that happens then. So, again, speaking optimistically, I think we’re in a third reconstruction, the George Floyd uprisings last year were, by some measures, the biggest in American history. Certainly the largest uprising since the long hot summers of of the 60s. 1964-68, but probably were on par in the United States with a historical shift of that magnitude of the civil rights movement, of the Civil War. And I think that that is exciting and frightening and necessary and is also in response to ends combined with global trends in ecology and capital that we’re witnessing.
TFSR: Yeah. I think that that’s a very interesting take on “the moment that we’re in” and based in history and very well-considered, I thought. So, you brought up the summer of 2020 with the George Floyd uprisings and the uprising in defense of black life and black lives and the timing of the book’s publication was smack-dab in the middle of that summer. I know that the book was in the works for quite a number of years before that, ever since the Ferguson uprising when the pigs killed Mike Brown. Could you talk about the timing of the book, the book’s evolution, and what initially led you to write and research the book?
VO: I started working on a book in 2015. I was actually approached by a publisher to turn the essay that I wrote during the Ferguson uprising, also called In Defense of Looting that you can see in New Inquiry. I was approached to turn it into a book-length study which I did over about 18 months and then for a variety of reasons, the original publisher who I was supposed to be with didn’t do a very good job handling the manuscript, they didn’t get at it for a long time, they didn’t do it ever. It sat on the shelf for a few years until I got frustrated and moved it to the wonderful people at Bold Type. An editor there has since left, but Katy is really great. So we had it scheduled actually for October of 2020, it was its original pub date, and when things hopped off in May, the publishers decided to push it up as far as they could, which, with production schedules in the way that works, ended up being mid-August. So that’s why the timing of it was very fortuitous. There’s a footnote in the book, where I say that I’m doing final edits on this. I say the Third Precinct is on fire, it was like that at that point. Literally, the book had been basically finalized, and all I could do was get this little note in there and there’s an error in it because I was literally doing it that night, with the live stream open on my screen.
In some ways, the timing of the book ended up being quite good because of this delay that happened and it ended up matching with the movement. It was very gratifying. In the book’s conclusion, I talk about how there is going to be another one of these uprisings like Black Lives Matter against the police and the carceral state and white supremacy. It’s very dangerous to make claims like that. As a writer, one is always very worried to do that, so it was good to have that happen. But obviously, that analysis just emerges from the experience of movement over the last ten years, I was not alone in thinking that and feeling that it was certainly going to happen.
TFSR: That’s so interesting, that you are very emblematic of where we were all at when the Third Precinct was on fire. You’re rushing to get this out and you’re experiencing all of these things, and while this very prescient book you have is being rushed to publication, it’s very dramatic in a way. So, the reception of the book itself has been something that has gone all over the place and, for instance, when I was researching your topics of conversation for this interview, I came across a lot of really inflammatory, right-wing screeds related to your book. Would you talk about this and why they might have been galvanized in this way and also what the reception end of the book has been by non-enemies, comrades?
VO: Obviously, in the immediate aftermath, it was pretty intense. There were a bunch of doxing attempts, my family got harassed. My parents got harassed…
TFSR: That’s awful.
VO: Yeah, there was a lot of transphobic and antisemitic harassment that I don’t want to downplay, it was very upsetting. But also, it was very instructive. So the book came out in August. The movement was really at its height, the last week of May, the first two weeks of June. By August, it had started to peter out of the streets, the election was beginning to take on the anti-political power, to recapture the narrative, and I think what happened with my book was that it actually offered an opportunity for a lot of people who otherwise didn’t want to be seen, to be talking down about this really powerful and very popular movement. My book provided an opportunity for a lot of leftists and liberals who wanted to distance themselves from the uprising because I was a white girl writing a book that meant that they could attack it without their actual racist… I’m not trying to say that people who attacked, who don’t like my book are racists. That is not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is the way it functioned in August of 2020 exclusively was as an object of hate for the movement that had just happened. My book became a very safe way to attack the movement, and so it had nothing to do with the actual content of the book in some ways, except that I think that the liberals who attacked it and the leftists who attacked it assumed that it was hot-take-ey, vacuous garbage of the kind they put out. They said it was dangerous, that it hadn’t been carefully researched, that it hardly was in the process of years of activist experience and an amateur researcher, non-academic. I think they felt it was a target worthy of their disdain, which ended up, I think, really spreading the book. My favorite was a lot of right-wingers would share it on Twitter being like “Oh, she copyrighted it. Here’s a link to download it for free”. I was like “Oh, no, don’t read my book, it is terrible”. It also was very pleasurable in a certain way. I said that from the left to the far far right, within two weeks all of them had condemned it. From some socialist organizations all the way to like Newt Gingrich, all the way toV-Dare, Brian Schatz in Hawaii, literal politicians. And the way they unified and demonstrated what I consider a unified class fragment. I mean not to be too Marxist about it or whatever, but this class interest in private property was revealed very quickly by all these people condemning this book, and that was very instructive and interesting. So that was the enemies. Basically, I had one NPR interview and all of my enemies in the entire country drop their trousers and showed us what they wore, that was incredible.
TFSR:[laughs] I read about that, it’s amazing!
VO: Very powerful, but honestly that was really the movement, that wasn’t really me, right? I’m being cute, but as a result, a lot of reaction I’ve had from comrades was being like “No, this book is cool, it’s interesting”. I’ve been very gratified I’ve had a lot of great conversations like this one with people who read at. With the quarantine, I didn’t get to do a book tour, so I didn’t get to go to infoshops all over the country and talk to people which I had been looking forward to. Getting to have some of those experiences even digitally has been very pleasurable.
I’m excited to start seeing real, engaged critique, people pushing against and through the book and the work in it. I’m excited to start seeing some of that emerge now. I think we’re starting to get to that period. So I’ve been very gratified and received a lot of positive feedback from comrades, and it’s allowed me to meet and talk to a lot of people all over the country, and that’s been really exciting.
TFSR: I really loved the interviews that you andZoe Samudzi did about the book, in the earlier days.
VO: Oh my god, I was so excited to get her to talk with her and it was such an honor. As I said, I’m a Final Straw fan, suddenly all these people, thinkers I’m so excited of want to talk to me and with me, and that’s so gratifying. That really makes it all worth it.
TFSR: Anybody who looks even slightly closely at the right-wing push back, especially after moments of popular uprising or insurrection, or even in moments after horrifying disasters like Hurricane Katrina. You can see this focus on looting and the looter and in many ways, it’s wrapped up into this really horrific property worship and also equally, if not more so horrific anti-black racism. So I think that that is like something that we can’t early understate. And we can’t really overstate it, rather.
VO: Totally. The final chapter of my book is about how in the wake of the 60s and in particular with Katrina, but also the blackout rioting and looting in New York in 1977 and in the LA uprising in 1992, how looting became the perfect dog-whistle for precisely tracing and, more broadly, historically, it has functioned as a tracing of the relationship between property, whiteness, white supremacy and anti-blackness. I think, in the wake of particularly George Floyd, but even Black Lives Matter, a lot of what white Liberals even used to use as dog whistles about crime urban what have you... A lot of those dog whistles have been proven to be what they are, which is dog whistles, right? Which is a way of saying racism without being racist. Looting has remained as a final dog whistle that’s available to people, even people “within the movement”, to express anti-blackness and ended as a defense of property.
TFSR: Yes – and that’s maybe a perfect segway into this next question I have – which is: because words have meaning and power and also legacies and things that we can point to that are true about them, would you talk about the origins of the word “loot” and “looting”?
VO: Yeah, absolutely. Loot is taken from a Hindi word, the word “lut”, which first appears in a handbook for Indian vocabulary for English colonial officers. The word literally enters through colonizing police, basically, photo police. There’s this really telling word, the first recorded appearance of it in English. I’m is gonna quote here: “He always found the talismanic gathering-word loot, plunder, a sufficient bond of union in any part of India”. What that quote is saying is that the word “loot”, the idea of the relationship to property allows colonial officers to unify what would otherwise not be a unified people. The Indian subcontinent was not India when England got there. I mean, obviously, it emerges out of some historical conceptions but the state of India and the nationality Indian, which embraces a billion people and hundreds of languages and religious practices and cultures was imposed colonially. What is so interesting is that the word “loot” was already recognized from its very roots as a word that could describe a relationship to property that produced racialization, racialized Indian people, it was a sufficient bond of union in any part of India. So this idea of a deviant relationship to property that is projected onto racialized others by settler-colonial and anti-black society is present from the very first appearance of the word.
The earliest appearance of the word “looting” features racial epithets in it. The first time it appears refers to “Chinese blackhearts” and “hirsute Sikhs”. From the very beginnings of this word, it has meant a deviant relationship to property, which is visible among racialized people. That’s what this word has always been. It has always been this word that lives at the intersection of white supremacy, colonialist violence, anti-blackness, and the imposition of property and property law. It makes sense to me. I mean that’s also just etymology but it makes sense that as a tactic as well, this tactic of attacking property has been given this word that has such a racialized and colonial history.
TFSR: Totally. When I read that in In Defense of Looting, it blew my mind because there’s another word that is in the common lexicon of coded racist language, which also comes from the Hindi and has direct ties to resistance to colonial violence in India. That word is “thug”. That was so interesting to me because I didn’t know about the etymology of the word “loot”, and it just shows to me as somebody who’s Desimyself, who is part of the Indian diaspora, it just called back to me how influential the British colonization of India is still, and is still worldwide. It’s very interesting to me. So thank you for bringing that to light and for talking about it.
VO: Yeah, doing research for a book is not often like super exciting, but when I encountered that in the OED, I did freak out a little, I was like, “Oh my god, this is so much cleaner than I thought it would be”. Sometimes you think you’re gonna have to pull something out, that’s really subtle. It’s going to be really complicated and you open the history books – that’s one thing studying history has really taught me – it was actually much more open and naked than you think, we just haven’t been taught it. [laugh]
TFSR: Yes, the through-line is so simple that it’s almost a little bit suspicious. How can something be so simply presented or rendered in language and society as these two figures of the “looter” and the “thug”? You touched on this somewhat before in the interview and also elsewhere extensively, but you write about the radical reclamation of the figure of the looter. Would you expand on this topic?
VO: One of the things that was, I think, really powerful about the original essay that I then developed into this book was the claim that the first image in America of a black looter was an enslaved person freeing herself. That was informed by Saidiya Hartman’s work Scenes of Subjection, where she talks about how the enslaved saw themselves as stealing away or even just having a meeting they refer to as stealing the meeting, which was the coy and ironic, but also deeply subversive way of understanding that once a person has become property, then any action that they take necessarily absurdly violates the very principle of property on which it’s based. I just had a whole talk about this recently that people can see on YouTube called Against Non-Violence. One of the major ways in the last 60 years especially that movements have been managed and repression has functioned, is through this myth of non-violence, which I think crucially doesn’t mean less violence, but is a specific ideology about a certain kind of controlled form of action that doesn’t really violate the law. And one of the things that that has done has been to narrative-ize, in particular, the civil rights movement. In the 50s, there is the good non-violent thing in the South and in the late 60s, there was this bad, violent, militant black power thing in the North. That was mistaken, and that was too extreme. That’s the narrative that we have, which is based on a few selective historical truths but is really just totally mythical. It’s a totally made-up narrative and one of the ways it functions is to exile the looter from that movement and to say, when you talk about the civil rights movement and people who fought for freedom in the black freedom movement in the 50s and 60s, the image that comes to mind is the March on Washington or the freedom riders, or the lunch counter sit-in folks, all of whom were incredibly brave and powerful and who aredueas much respect as they receive, I think, probably more, but part of giving them more respect is recognizing that many of those people would then go on to participate in urban rebellions. Many of those people would protect themselves with guns and would fight back with KKK Night Riders in the South, as they were organizing to recognize that, for the vast majority of people in that movement, non-violence was a tactic that was effective sometimes or ineffective other times. It wasn’t a philosophy and it wasn’t a way of being.
So, if we recognize that and if we bring the looter back into the image of the movement, then I think we start to see, so the history I just sketched – good in the South, bad in the North. What that tends to do is actually skip over the years 1964 to 1968 very often, and the reason those years get skipped over, I think, is because they’re a period in which there are 750 black anti-police riots and civil rights riots in the country, 750 in a five-year period. It’s incredible: it’s a mass uprising that in 1968 had brought the country so to the brink of a revolution that you then get the emergence of the Black Panther Party, DRUM in Detroit. But then also the American Indian Movement gets really militant, the antiwar movement gets really militant. We have this explosion of militant revolutionary struggle explicitly as such, and the reason that that happens, because they’ve been pushed by four years of increasingly large and common rioting and fighting and looting that has grown directly out of the civil rights movement. And there is another important point to make here: in 1963, Martin Luther King’s Birmingham campaign starts non-violent, but it ends with days of rioting, torching police cars, throwing rocks back at Bull Connor, and it makes sense to consider Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 as perhaps the first large urban riot of the period. That history is totally forgotten and ignored.
So, if we talk about – and I think we should – the activists in Birmingham, the black folks in act in Birmingham fighting for freedom as this important pivotal moment in American history – which it was – we have to embrace the rioter and the looter who was there and who was this core part of that movement. If we jump forward in history now, during Ferguson, during Black Lives Matter 2014, 2015, that wave of movement, people really disavowed rioters, they said rioters and looters aren’t part of the movement, they are not acting politically, they are not really activists or protesters, when in fact, it was precisely rioting and looting that had brought the movement into existence. It was the basis of the movement. That tactic spread the movement and made it happen. So when I talk about reclaiming the looter or thinking through the figure of the looter, I am trying to trace a history of a form of resistance that goes back to the earliest days of the plantation, where black folks rejected property law, rejected white supremacy and the rules of whiteness by looting themselves by organizedly and openly stealing white property, namely themselves, and then attempting to imagine to live otherwise. And having that act of theft and looting as this first moment of possibility, this necessary first moment starts to really change the way that I think I learned to think about struggle and history. And if we see that that continues into the present of the looter, both in the slanders that reactionaries used to attack looting and in the figure of the looter herself and what she represents, then I think we can begin to genuinely embrace and learn from the revolutionary tradition in this country and this world.
TFSR: Yes, absolutely. We’re all probably familiar with it, just through osmosis or passively consuming mainstream or right-wing media, but what are some examples of reactionary push-back against the looter and maybe some responses that you might have to those?
VO: Totally. I think, there are some common ones, like rioters are destroying their own neighborhoods. It’s really common which I think is based on really misunderstanding how power works in the United States, but also anywhere, that geography is equal to power, people who don’t own anything live in neighborhoods they don’t own, those neighborhoods exploit them, they’re not their neighborhoods, and there’s this idea that, like OK, if the people who own those businesses aren’t super-rich, then somehow they’re also part of the community and then, when looters attacked them, they’re destroying this community institution, whereas like what the research shows – and I think a lot of people experience the summer – both that black, indigenous and proletarian neighborhoods in America have a much higher concentration of chain stores, pawnshops, really exploitative businesses. But also that looters and rioters know what they’re doing, the targets they’re hitting. I mean, if people remember in Minneapolis, where a huge swath of the section of the city was totally basically looted and burned to the ground. There was an independent bookstore that just stayed standing through all of that. And we saw that in the 60s, too – some local businesses will be protected, others will be attacked. And that’s because probably, if you live in that neighborhood, you go into that store where the prices are too high and you get followed around by the manager, and you know that one of the managers sexually harasses the employees, some of whom are your friends. It’s this really backward way of thinking about what community and neighborhood look like.
Another really common one is: they are opportunists, they’re criminals, they’re not protesters, they don’t know what they’re doing, they’ve nothing to do with a struggle. I hope that has been proven… Just the sheer size and widespreadness of the George Floyd uprisings, I think, really put that one to rest a bit, but there is still the idea that the looters are “not activists”, are “not left”. And I have a dual response. On the one hand, it’s true, they’re actually not the left. The left in the United States, which didn’t really exist when I was coming up but certainly exists now, is like these very organized projects, mostly focused on electoralism and recruitment. And the people who were rising up over the summer weren’t the left. They weren’t the organizers, they were poor, black people and their friends and comrades across the country. And the left was often trailing behind things. But that is different from them having nothing to do with the struggle or them not knowing what they’re doing or they’re just like apolitical or they’re criminal.
All of these ideas, I think, are just belied by the fact of the way that, over and over again, movements are borne by those actions. Movements are like the entire political nexus of the country is shifted by people looting and rioting, in a way that to think of Bill McKibben had Earth 360 thing in New York in 2015 or something, where millions of people came out, no one remembers it. It had no effect. Not to disrespect the organizers and what happened there, but if we’re talking about real effective change which is whatthat claims to talk about then looting, rioting needs be considered. But also, by talking about criminality, talking about good protesters vs. bad rioters, we also do the work of the state of reproducing a label of some people are disposable. Some people are real political subjects and some people are disposable, and some people should be ostracized, and some people don’t have a voice. And that’s obviously a structurally anti-black and racist procedure.
The one that I think we actually will have to worry about now, though. So the outside agitator troop again George Floyd revolt, it didn’t really hold up because it was happening everywhere. People are joking, what is there, some Antifa HQ somewhere in Iowa sending out thousand of troops? It obviously doesn’t make sense, but what has, in fact, the state has flipped the script successfully, with the help of a lot of activists with the idea of the inside agitator, the white supremacist who has started the riot secretly, the police provocateur. This image became a very powerful counter-insurgent tactic over the summer. And I think what the “white supremacist started the riot myth” comes from is the exact same place as the like “They’re opportunists and criminals, they don’t know what they’re doing”, which is that it starts from the presumption that there is no way someone could start a fire and also believe in freedom. And then it figures out a way to justify that presumption by saying “Okay, therefore, the people who started the fire must have been nazis”. It’s really backward.
Maybe this is gonna sound flippant, but it makes me think of there was this big movement, like a conspiracy theory to imagine that William Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, and if you look into this whole range of academic work about that… It actually just comes from a conservative commentator being like “Well, William Shakespeare was a poor, uneducated, queer guy. There’s no way this poor, uneducated weirdo wrote these books” and then, from there finding a way to explain how in fact he didn’t write it. That’s the nicest version of what I hear when I hear people saying that looters were white supremacists. You start from the premise that they’re not part of the movement, and then you figure out a way to explain that, and the state has really manipulated that. In September, there was this press release that came out from Minneapolis saying: “Oh we’ve arrested this guy. He was a white supremacist biker. He started the movement”. There hasn’t been a trial. There hasn’t been any more evidence given. I followed up on it a week ago, I couldn’t find anything. There is no truth to that, but it’s circulated. This idea is circulated that the movement was started by a racist, by a white supremacist. This is very effective for the state and it’s a struggle that we’re gonna face in all of our movements to come.
TFSR: Thank you for giving voice to this topic, because I felt a little hesitant to ask the question just because I don’t want to define the praxis and analysis of this topic by reactionary right-wing push back against it, but it’s obviously something that’s important to be informed of and be knowledgeable about and why people say what they say. And also the whole conspiracy theory-like universe that we are in right now that is very much aided and abetted by the internet. It is one which probably warrants several episodes of any radio show or podcast, but that’s very interesting how these conspiracy theories get started. Holocaust deniers, for example, or anti-vaxer stuff, for example, or anti-masker stuff, for example, is all has really troubling right-wing roots.
VO: I think if it was only right-wing people doing it, it would be easier to argue with that. But part of the reason it’s so important to talk about it now, if people remember during over the summer, in mid-June, Richard Brooks a twenty-five- year old black man was murdered in the parking lot of a Wendy’s drive-through, and there were riots in response and Wendy’s was burnt down and a bunch of “movement people”, activists on the internet said: “Oh, my god, it’s so suspicious, there was this white girl there, they combed through these videos, they identified this woman. They said like “She is an agitator. She’s a cop, she’s deep state”, whatever they said about it. And then she was arrested with all the evidence provided by people on the internet and it turned out she was Richard Brooks’s partner and she’s facing decades in prison because internet sleuths decided that no one could genuinely want to burn down a Wendy’s. It’s so dangerous to think this way. Her partner was stolen from her and she was filled with a rage and a tragedy, and a frustration, and a desire for change that brings all of us into the street. But it was so direct and lived for her. And to then have “the movement” work for the police and put her in jail, and now everyone stopped talking about it. Everyone who’s part of that stopped talking about it. They went silent, it hasn’t been brought up again because they were working as police. And when you think this way, you are thinking as police. It’s so important to understand that it’s not just right-wing, that there is this big left strain of this stuff, and that this paranoid conspiracy stuff is fundamentally antisemitic, but also anti-black and is fundamentally about distrusting poor people and black people for knowing how to rise up or knowing what they’re doing. And it’s so important that we fight against that if we want to have a chance of not reproducing these violences.
TFSR: Just to reiterate something that you said, making a really clear distinction between a cop infiltrating movements, which is something that does happen, and people within movements doing the work of the state is, I think, just crucial and a cornerstone to having any movement that is approaching a state of health or healthiness.
VO: One thing that is valuable to learn from revolutionary history is that there are gonna be infiltrators and snitches at every level and behind every form of tactic, unfortunately. The 1905 revolution in Russia, not to be too nerdy about this, but Father Gapon and the head of the left-wing SR terrorist organization were both Okhrana secret police plants. They were both secret police, but they lead this massive revolutionary movement that eventually led to the Bolshevik uprising 12 years later. It turns out now we found out that people very high up in the Black Panthers, all key were snitches. There are certainly police operating within our movements. It is necessary to understand that, but you cannot accuse people of it because, for example, the American Indian Movement, one of the ways that AIM got taken down was that infiltrator just started accusing everyone of being an infiltrator. That’s one of the ways that infiltrators work as they sow the suspicion that other people are infiltrators and it leads to splits and violence. Unfortunately, we don’t know who is going to prove or going to get flipped because they get arrested for a drug crime or a personal crime and do time or whatever, there’s plenty of different people. But what we do know is that they won’t necessarily destroy the movement nearly as solidly as paranoia about them will. They’re just one tool the police have, they’re not our most dire enemy. I don’t know where to where to go from that really, except to say that in my lifetime, in this decade of organizing I’ve, never seen people successfully identify a snitch, but I have seen people blow up groups and movements and now put people in prison on the basis where they thought someone was being one who turned out not to be.
TFSR: It’s hard to know where to go from that, but just to state that this is a thing that the state does and a thing that we also do to each other and not to say that anyone’s a bad person or place a value judgment on any person or whatever. But just to be aware of it, this is a tactic that is extremely destabilizing is very important.
So the book itself goes through various points and moments and tendencies and tangents in history to support a logical reformation of how we think about uprising, riot, and various tactics associated with those events. Would you go through your process of choosing these historical moments in defense of looting?
VO: When I started out, I really was focused on the Civil War, the general strike of the slaves from Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, and then thinking through reconstruction after that, and the civil rights movement. They seemed to me the most relevant and important moments. When I started out, I was actually asked by an editor to include stuff about the labor movement at the turn of the 20th century, which I’m not sure… I mean I’m glad, I’m proud of the research I did, I liked the chapter that’s there. I don’t know that it necessarily fits fully cleanly in the rest of the book, even though I like that chapter on its own. I was trying to focus on looting as a tactic, the context in which it emerged, rather than just jumping from an instance of looting to looting. I think one of the things people who read my book have said to me was like “This book doesn’t really like talk about looting even so much”. And I think that’s because the defense of looting is not describing looting. The defense of looting is describing how property and the law and anti-blackness and white supremacy are villainous, and that looting makes sense in that context to transform and attack those systems, rather than just saying like “Here’s one place where looting happened, and it was good, and here’s another place where looting happened and it was good”, which of course, I do as well. But as a result, I ended up thinking through the 60s a lot, but to some extent, the book turned into kind of the history of the last 200 years. The last 200 years of United States history. That’s what the book ends up being, for better and for worse. I think there’s some strengths to that, and that means that I’ve glossed over a lot of stuff in, and for people who are well-versed in this history there’s probably a lot of repetition that they’re familiar with my book.
In terms of making those choices though, it also just happened somewhat naturally as I was doing the research. I would just find stuff that seemed really important to include, and then that would expand a section, and then suddenly that section would be a whole chapter. So I came very organically through the process of writing. One of the things that was really interesting was I thought I had read a lot of books, that I was pretty well-informed about history already before I set out to write this book. Discovering how little I knew was really beautiful and humbling and interesting. We don’t learn very much about history in this country for good reason. So part of what informed me when I was writing about was that I was learning. I was learning so much during this research. I was learning so much. I knew so little of this, and everything that I learned, that I felt really changed the way I understood a period or a topic, I tried to put in the book.
TFSR: I love that, it’s beautiful and also frustrating. Beautiful, on the one hand, because you are able to do this, but also frustrating because all of this stuff is so buried and you really have to hunt for it, but I think it’s through books like yours and books like so many other folks that we can have access to all of this historical knowledge, which is so vitally important for understanding why we do the things we do, and why things are the way they are.
VO: Exactly. And these books are available. I hope my book functions as bibliography as much as anything. Other people have done such incredible, important work and it’s a cliché, but standing on the shoulder of giants, not just the intellectual giants, but also the rioters and the looters and the maroons and the indigenous fighters. All of them have given us this beautiful body of knowledge and possibility that the state and capital have failed to fully suppress, and we can access it, and people are working to do that.
TFSR: Absolutely. The book came out last year and you began it’s in the midst of the Ferguson uprising of late summer 2014. Since the publication of the essay and then the book, have you had your thinking supported or shifted by anything you’ve seen unfold in the world?
VO: Absolutely. My thinking was so deepened because of the movement in Ferguson. I started on this practice of research, which led me to all of this history and this black radical tradition. Before I had read Du Bois and a few other things, but really diving into this body of work, discovering really carefully, reading through some people like Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman Sylvia Wynter, Ida B. Wells’s work – all of these people from the 60s, Rosa Parks and Gloria Richardson, there’s so many people in America and abroad, like Paul Gilroy and Sylvia Wynter obviously is Caribbean. But there is this huge deepening of knowledge that I was spurred onto because of Black Lives Matter in 2014-2015, because of the rebels of Ferguson, it has totally changed me. Since then also I’ve been involved in a lot of prison abolitionist and police abolitionist work, again often driven by the families of the people who are incarcerated, and that has deepened my understanding and my knowledge. Standing Rock and the various indigenous fights, particularly in so-called Canada, they’ve been so powerful of the last few years have also forced me to really reckon with the indigenous roots of all European philosophy and the way in which so much of leftism and European enlightenment thought is built on indigenous theorizing and black theorizing that has been captured and made invisible through the white academy. So in many ways, I’ve engaged over these years with such a huge body of work. In that period I’ve also transitioned and have really taken a lot of revolutionary gender thinkingand trans thought more to heart as well. I don’t even know how to begin to describe the deep change that has happened, but I think what I’ve really learned, if I were the summarize it as briefly as possible, is to trust movement, to study and look at movement, to try and take it as seriously as possible as it’s going, and to see what people are saying and to listen, and that the basis of any learning about revolutionary process starts there.
TFSR: Absolutely, and you said at the comment about transitioning, speaking from my own experiences, also a trans person, there is nothing that will shape your view and solidify your view of the world more than being the actual embodied person that you are and not having I an embodied personhood that is gifted or foisted onto you by the state and the medical-industrial complex. That really warms my heart to hear that… I wanna like push a lot of love in the direction of people being their actual full embodied selves as much as is humanly possible.
VO: Totally and that discourse can be very frustrating sometimes, but the basics are that finding your gender and your sexuality, having those experiences be in line with your internal experience, I don’t know how to describe it exactly, is incredibly liberating and is the basis for so much.
TFSR: Yeah, so huge plug for transitioning if that’s what you need to do.
VO: It’s never too late to stop being straight.
TFSR: Definitely! Yes, it is never too late to stop being straight. So are you working on any next project you’d like to tell listeners about?
VO: At the moment, I’m keeping it a little close to the chest cause, I’m a pretty lazy person. I love to not work. I’m trying to write a book about anti-work, but it’s proving very slow, so maybe there will be another book at some point, hopefully in the next few years, but I’m not super concrete right now. I do a podcast and a bunch of writing, and I freelance a lot. So, stuff comes out pretty regularly, and I do amazing interviews like this.
VO: That’s all stuff that I love and am working on that, but nothing more direct to plug.
TFSR: I think that we’re so driven to work all the time and the myth of productive individual is something that is having poked more holes into, but I think for myself as also somebody who would identify strongly as being workphobic or a lazy, I so support it when people take breaks, I so support it when people just be, do fun things or do nothing or all the good stuff. So it’s cool to hear you talk about that too.
VO: We think of it as like the puritan work ethic, but it’s also the like Settler Colonial and anti-Black work ethic. Work-shy is like a famously racist phrase that applied to indigenous and Black people. All these concepts are interlinked, the way that we think about this world of work and productivity and property is all connected.
TFSR: Absolutely, I think it was maybe in In Defense of Looting, but I read a synopsis of modern day of working-class work conditions. It can be summed up in the phrase “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean”, which is a lot of us who work in the restaurant industry have heard this phrase thrown at us by managers and how that whole ethic of like “you need to be respectable and standing all the time and smiling, and all that stuff, has direct ties to what was enforced upon people who were being forced to work on plantations for free.
VO: Exactly. A lot of the early what we think of as modern management stuff like you’re saying “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean”, employee surveillance, all these things that we think of as like part of the neoliberal, whatever revolution in labor conditions, actually are traced back to the plantation, and you can see that it was precisely under those conditions that these “modern management techniques” were developed and they just have reemerged with this techno gleam that makes them seem new. There is also this continuity.
TFSR: It’s so evil, I don’t know.
VO: Yeah, it is exhausting, it obviously does make one want to take a nap.
TFSR: It does! Absolutely, and I think that is a perfect reaction to something like that, like “No, fuck you, I’m going to take a nap now”. Where can people see your past body of writing and learn more about, keep up with you? Do you have a social media presence that you want to shout out or anything like that?
VO: Yeah, totally. You can follow me on Twitter. I’m @Vicky_ACAB because all cats are beautiful, obviously, and I like movies a lot, so you can find me on Letterboxd I’m @nocopszoneand then @ceriseandvicky on Twitter. That’s the podcast if you’re interested in the movie side of things.
TFSR: I’m gonna be looking at that podcast, so then thank you so much for your time. This was such a delight and a pleasure to get to connect with you digitally. Is there anything that we missed on this interview that you’d like to give voice to in closing?
VO: No, just to thank you for having me in, and it’s been such a pleasure and I look forward to meeting and talking to many more people. I guess I would just say people like me who write books, we’re just people, just reach out, I’m really excited to talk to you, comrades, just talk to me, I’m friendly, I promise. I’m just some random person, too. Anyone can do it. Anyone can do this work and there’s a lot of cool and social status that gets built up and intimidation. Don’t be intimidated. We can do this ourselves, we can make the world we want to see.
TFSR: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day, and this was such a delightful conversation. I can’t wait for people to hear it.
The last year has been a trying time for everyone. Among the hardest hit have been prisoners who have seen increasing infections of the covid-19 virus brought in by guards who live off site or other prisoners transferred in from other institutions, prisoners who don’t have the luxury of free movement during the incessant lockdowns their wardens employed as a band-aid measure to limit transmission, prisoners who don’t have effective healthcare in non-pandemic times and who across the board have had limited to no access to personal protective equipment. In many cases, incarcerated people have had their lives put on hold, the hard-fought programs they rely on to earn earlier releases paused during this emergency situation, access to the outdoor for exercise and socializing with others in their institutions unavailable because of under-staffing or concerns of spread. This sort of situation, hearing about the spread and deaths on the outside and being unable to defend yourself or loved ones, undoubtedly has a lasting impact on our psyches.
For this hour, Bursts spoke with a member of the Perilous Chronicle about their report “First 90 Days of Prisoner Resistance to COVID-19” concerning the spike in measured prisoner resistance in the forms of work and hunger strikes, fights with guards, riots and escapes from facilities ranging from county jails, state prisons, ICE detention facilities and federal prisons across the so-called US and so-called Canada. The report begins coverage of events on March 17, 2020, when protests occurred at facilities on either coast naming concerns of the approaching pandemic as impetus. Our guest speaks about the data they’ve been able to gather, their approach and specific incidents. The report, published November 12, 2020, will soon be followed with more information concerning the trend as it spread, including overlaps with the Rebellion for Black Lives of the summer of 2020.
Soon after this conversation was recorded, on February 6th 2021, prisoners at the St. Louis so-called Justice Center, aka The Workhouse, engaged in an uprising, taking over the fourth floor of the facility, flooding toilets, setting items on fire, busting out windows of the facility and waving banners. This was the 4th and 5th protest at The Workhouse since December and had escalated after mismanagement, lack of proper PPE, covid-19 screenings, warm clothing, access to recreation, price gouging, people awaiting trial in the postponed court hearings for months because they lacked money to pay the bail, filling meals and the lack of medical care of prisoners known to currently have the novel corona virus among other reasons that echo a lot of what our guest today talked about. You can find a good summary, including prisoner statements, in an article entitled “This Is Genocide”: St. Louis Inmate Issues Statement on Horrific Conditions Behind Revolt on It’sGoingDown.org
In case you missed it, the A-Radio Network broadcast it’s 6th Transnational Live Broadcast of Anti-Authoritarian and Anarchist Radios and Podcasts, this year from studios around the world cooperating via the internet (thanks to the magic of audio comrades in Thessaloniki and others). You can now hear members of the A-Radio Network (producers of the BAD News: Angry Voices from Around The World) discussing various topics with international perspectives from Slovenia, Greece, Germany, Russia, Belarus, the UK, Turtle Island (specifically us at The Final Straw), and occupied Walmapu (aka Chile) speaking on various topics around the pandemic and repression, mutual aid organizing, prison and resistance and a Spanish-language section specifically with updates from Abya Yala, in so-called Chile, broken down into topics of 1-2 hours of audio for ease of listening. More at the A-Radio Website.
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All We Got Iz Us (instrumental) by Onyx from Last Dayz
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TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself to the listening audience with any name, you want to share preferred pronouns, and any affiliations that makes sense for the purpose of this conversation?
Perilous: I’m a researcher at Perilous Chronicle, and through Perilous I’ve been studying, kind of researching and reporting on prisoner resistance riots, protests and other forms of unrest for the past few years.
TFSR: Cool. And is that the maingist of what perilous does? And why do you think that sort of work is important?
P: The project was formed out of conversations that wanted to try to document and basically build a timeline of prisoner protest movements since 2010. Maybe we hesitate to call it like a singular movement, but like, basically all these different acts that are just basically too diverse almost to think about it as a single movement that have been occurring inside the US and the Canadian prison system since 2010. We limit that just for our own capacity, we can’t study the whole world at this point, at least. But we basically are interested in looking at prisoners who have organized hunger strikes or even have you know, organized prison breaks, different riots, hostage taking…everything from huge rebellions in which guardsfire live roundsand there’s tactical riot teams that come in, to prisonersattacking guards and setting a trashcan on fire. We’re interested in all of these different sort of acts that are happening inside the prison system.
Yeah, so it started from there. And then we quickly realized: while that is stillkind of at the core of the foundation of the project, we’ve really honed in more recently on two aspects that we think are…there’s a relationship withthe sort of the audience,like, what are we positioned to do well, and what do peoplewant from us? And what do people like that we put out? We’re really focusing now on sort of more investigative journalism, a little bit of breaking-news kind ofreporting, but often kind of more in depth reporting.
For instance, one of the Perilous journalists wrote this really amazing piece on the Lauren Reed case, down in the southwest, the self identified email anarchist, who is picked up by the feds. There’s already reporting on that, but sort of like in–depthreports on different stuff related to the prison system, and also kind of like data–driven research. And what that means — I know, data is sometimes a scary word to people — but this means doing really clear fact–based research. Specifically this came out andonce COVID hit the prison systems in the US and Canada, we wanted to really carefully document like, how many events? How many of these in each facility? How many facility types? I think that’s kind of, in part, what we’re going to be focusing on today in this interview.l I’ve done the journalist stuff, too, but now I’ve been mostly focused on the sort of data report data tracking side of things.
TFSR: Any media project has an audience — and as you say, you’re trying to figure out what your audience likes to engage with, and would look to you all for what you do well — but there’s also a purpose, whether spoken or unspoken, to why a project focuses on a specific issue. And I think that there are other projects like the Marshall project, for instance, or The Intercept, that will talk about prisons, but specifically, putting the focus on the agency of people behind bars to engage in numbers more–than–just–one is an interesting choice. I wonder if you have anything to say about why your project is explicitly focusing on collaborative actions against the prison system against, you know, not even justfights between prisoners?
P:Well I think that’s very perceptive. I think, in part, it was just looking at the landscape of research projects focused on prisons. That’s very general, but that would include stuff like The Intercept, to the Marshall project. Where I live, one of the big driving forces trying to shrink the prison system is the libertarian right, because of budget balancing things. So they’ll put out really important and interesting reports on shit.
But looking at this entire landscape, there isn’t a project like ours. And that’s not tosay we’re the best thing out there. I don’t think that’s true, either. But to just actually be honest, as far as we know, this iswhy the project started. There’s been efforts in the past, different efforts to document, especially around the 2016 prisoner strike. And I’m also not an elder, I’m sure stuff like this has been done in the past. But the short answer to the question isall these projects just don’t do what we do. And we think it’s, at the bare minimum, we think it’s an important part or should be an important part of the discourse. And in a broader sense we see our project as basically a big intervention in this discourse, andreally centering what prisoners say, and more importantly, what prisoners do.
Oftentimes, we don’t know what they say about what they do. And we try to reach out somehow, and maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. And we’re not corrective in the sense that we just only focus on what prisoners say and do and like, they’re the truth tellers of all. I mean, also part of our reporting often includes reaching out department corrections for press releases, reaching out to family members, guard unions, etc. We want to tell the full story of these events, because we think these events are significant. But they’re significant because prisoners did them. So that’s at the core of the project.
And I think, in a way, your question…like we don’t have to come out and be like “we think prisoners are important” you know? I mean, yes, yes, we do, we think that. We think the prison systems are in crisisin a general way. And we think that the waves of resistance and protests over the past decade aresignificant to what happens next. But like, we don’t want to say thatevery article, you know? We justtry to tell the story and highlight the actions that the prisons are taking.
Which for me, this is why I do any of this at all. Basically being moved by prisoners back in 2016, who have really put themselves —in the September 9th of that year, and the National prisoners strike, the 40th anniversary of the Attica Rebellion — you know, you have to be really brave and courageous to do what these prisoners did. And at the very least, for me personally, I mean, this isn’t my mission statement of the project, but that’s important. One of the things we can do on the outsideis help tell those stories, and tell the stories in a way that humanizes them too and isn’tjust like “freedom fighters bravely set this trashcan on fire” or something. We want to tell the story with the good and the bad parts. Because we think that’s what the prisoners deserve, to have their story told, to have their voices out there.
So that’san even deeper core of the project in a way. We use these other ones you’re referencing, like we use The Intercept, we have a relationship with an Intercept journalist, for instance, not Glenn Greenwald-
TFSR:formerly of Intercept.
P: Yeah, right *laughs*. And we have stuff like the Prison Policy Initiative, and…these groups aremuch different. Probablythey probably they get paid, for instance. They do. But I mean, these groups are all super important, we use them too. But we have something that they don’t have. So I would like to get to the point where it’s like, Perilous is almost like part of that ecosystem, not because we have the same politics necessarily, but because all our research complements each other.
TFSR: So in November, y’all released a much lauded study on the first 90 days of the COVID 19 pandemic and prisoner resistance in the so called US and Canada. How was the report received? And can you talk about the methodology that y’all followed?
P:Yeah, this was an exciting moment, I think, for me, and for the project. We were trying to figure stuff out for a while. I mean, the project’s been around for, I don’t know, four years? Almost? I think we’re coming up on the two year anniversary of our public launch, but I think we were probably meeting for a year and a half before that. And this sort of data tracking — which is not what we call that — we been trying to do for a while. To be able not only to research past events, but research events as they’re happening. Andthe collective really rose to the challenge earlier this year, in part because of similar dynamicsI just was referencing. Like, man, shit was so bad. And what people were doing inside seemed so important. I mean, because itseemed like this death sentence and in fact was a death sentence for too many, and continues to be so.
So I think, in part, being inspired by the actions people were taking inside, and in part because we had a little bit of preparation; the way the virus spread geographically, we started seeing these news reports of other places. I remember specifically Italy, rebellions and prisons happening in Italy as COVID hit there. I know right before [you and I started recording this interview] you referenced the mass release of prisoners in Iran, I think you said 50,000? That sounds right. I remember reading about that too. And the collective of Perilous, we were like, it’s quite likely this will happen here. And we were kind of positioned in a way to be the ones that focused and do the initial reporting on that.
And I’ll temper that extremely, becauseI really can’t emphasize: I feel like so much this work relies on the work of so many other researchers and journalists. Part of the report we were able to put out was only possible because of all these journalists from all sorts of media organizations focusing — in March, April, May, June — on prisoners. And that’s great, because otherwise we couldn’t have done what we do. I meanwe’re really at the end of the day, a small, humble organization. That also applies to sort of prisoner support organizations and other media organizations of all sorts of stripes. So family members, too. You see what I’m saying? We’re not doing all the reporting ourselves. We’re often relying on other people’s reporting, but basically putting it all together and seeing if it talks to each other through the medium of data.
It took us a long time to get the report actually out, it was mostly done — I don’t know, if people didn’t burn down the third precinct in Minneapolis — it probably would have came out in June. But that changed a lot of our priorities for a little bit. Interestingly the report we released goes through the middle of June, so you do get to see the sort of overlap of the George Floyd rebellion, mostly in the streets, some prisoners would reference it still talking about COVID though. Basically, everything that happens inside people are talking about COVID, which makes sense.
So, it came out in November, it came out through this relationship with this journalist, Ella Fassler, who was great. Ella reached out to the Perilous and it was like “your project’s cool, can we work together?” We’re like “yeah, we have this report we’ve been sitting on will like send you a draft right now if you want to start writing and pitching it to places.” So basically, we released the report the day that Ella’s article in Truthout came out. It’s a great article, called Report Finds Over 100 Rebellions in Jails and Prisons Over COVID Conditions. I mean, truly big shout out to Ella. It could have been likely that the report came out on our website and no one saw it, but because it came out Truthout. I mean, also, because there was, in fact, over 100 rebellions in jails and prisons in the US, we counted 119 in the first 90 days in the US and Canada, maybe one or two of those are non events, but there’s probably numerous, countless other events that we just don’t know about.
So anyway, it came out in November, and got reposted on Slate, and got picked up a lot of places. Which washonestly just really exciting for us. Because like, prisoners had been taking action, and then we’d been reporting on it, and it seemed like we weren’t doing it in the best way to communicate it to the larger public. Which is kind of what the project is about. And this feels like we succeeded in this goal, and that feels really good. Democracy Now, for instance, picked up this Truthout article and put it in their headline section. Noname, you know, this communist rapper, posted on Instagram. All these little things, they matter to us because it’s also a confirmation of people wanting this research and reporting done that’s focused on prisoners and what actions they’re taking.
We talkabout conditions, we talk about budgets, we talk about COVID spread in that reporting, but…I don’t want to take any of the sales out of this excellent show, but I also don’t want to get too bogged down in the details of the methodology. The base of it all is: prisoners act, and then we try to report on it. The collective talks about the methodology on this long episode of our podcast on our website, o if you are interested in that…I just don’t want to get too bogged down in the nerdy shit.
Basically, we count a single event as when two or more prisoners take action. And, not that it doesn’t happen, we just exclude events that are just groups of prisoners fighting each other. That’s not tominimize the significance and violence of that in the dynamic in prisons, butwe just have to limit ourselves. So we’re focusing on stuff that’s not that, even though it’s often the same conditions that lead to both. Prisons are just these violent, terrible places and that violence is gonna find outlets in many different directions.
We started on March 17and ended on June 15th. March 17 is not arbitrary — 90 days at the end of the day is an arbitrary length — but we kind of wanted to end in the transition to the George Floyd rebellion period. It seems like there was a change that happened in the way the rebellions were playing out. But March 17 is chosen because this is, as far as we know, the first actions occurred in the US in which the prisoners articulated COVID as the reason they were protesting. There was an action in New Jersey, and also one in California.
TFSR: And those are two different kinds of facilities, right? One was an ICE facility and one was a county jail?
P: Yep. And following the one in New Jersey, there was a string of similar actions. Basically this ICE detainee hunger strike, about COVID, and then outside supporters were doing car caravans. Which I don’t know if people could remember back in March, feeling like we had no idea what this meant, what the pandemic meant, what the virus meant. I think that’s a general truth for everyone. Some people immediately dismissed it, but we all around were like, paralyzed in a way, of what was happening. And these car caravans, I remember seeing that and being like “oh, okay, but we can still do stuffthat’s not just in your house or on your computer”. And again, the first thing is the prisoners act, these ICE detainees went on hunger strike, and then Never Again Action, a network of Jewish activist, starting this car caravans. And then a few months later wewere like “oh, we can actually do other actions besides cargo vans.” I want emphasize…I know personally, for me, it was so beautiful to see that because it wasin this moment of fear and paranoia and uncertainty, it was like “oh, people can still protest or something that seems important.”
The methodology is:we count an event, like I just said, and we have a pretty basic system — which we’re improving on now — of data extraction, kind of data entry thing, oftentimes from other reporting, sometimes original reporting, and that’s the relationship between the Perilous journalist side of things and the data side of things. And so we look at the different event types, a hunger strike is different than a food strike, protest is different than an uprising, maybe they would be both, an event can absolutely have like multiple event types based on our schema. But same with facilities, there’s many ways of doing it. Oftentimes a county jail will have a contract with ICE, and so it’s like both of these things, even though the populations will be segregated, we just mark it as both. Then we mark state prisons are different than federal prisons are different than ICE detention centers. We track of which prisons are private, if there are private prisons, and what company runs it. We also track if the guards attacked the protests, what weapons did they use. We track a number of different things that just comes from looking at other articles, looking at independent research that the Perilous Chronicle has done, and then trying to put it all together and just pulling some numbers out of it.
And there’s a second step to all this data stuff, though, we don’t really want to do in a way. Like we kind of want to put this report out and be like “these are some initial thoughts on it, there was almost 10 escapes in the first month of this stuff.” And it’s like, what do people make of that? Like, why did that happen? Well, COVID, you know…this is a second level of interpretation that we almost want people to use in lots of different ways. We want journalists and other researchers and academics to use it. Unfortunately, I’m sure like some law enforcement someplace, download our data set. I mean, they’ll be reading it through a totally different lens. But, you know, we put it out, and we want it to circulate. Because for us, the most important thing is to emphasize how widespread the actions were: the diversity of the actions, the diversity of the facilities, the geographic spread of it, across the US and Canada, the number of participants which we count as best we can. And that’s really, at the end of the day, what the report does, like here are the numbers, and some other details, do what you will with it. Which is scary, but that’s that’s how it works, I think.
TFSR: Often on the show, we have guests who call in from behind bars, or we’llput together a segment based on an interview through letters. We try to amplify the voices of prisoners as much as possible. And while they can generalize their circumstanceto some degree, they’re limited, obviously, from being in prison to the scope at which they can talk about experiences. Like a few weeks ago, I got to talk to Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun of Free Alabama Movement, and he’s been participating in these wider discussions among incarcerated folks around the country. So that is a bit different of an example, but one thing that I like about the work that y’all put out, and this report, is the opportunity to look at like, okay, numerous facilities in these geographic areas are having this sort of reaction, and how does that relate to the spread of Coronavirus or the prior history of those facilities, or the amount of connection or activity on the outside? So I think that your report — even if you don’t want to do that second level of conclusions, or whatever, that are based on your own experience — this does allow for people to get these takeaways related to policies and repression and resistance. Are there any takeaways from the report in terms of resistance during the pandemic that you’ve observed that you feel comfortable waxing philosophical on?
P:Yeah. The first part of that, which I think is what you’re getting at, we’re able to put all the events together so they talk to each other in a way. That’s something that I would like to think we would offer to prisoners who see themselves as part of the movements, currently incarcerated people — not to reinforce the prison walls, in a way to say that people outside aren’t — but I have access to more research stuff. I know this from talking to people, like my friends on the inside. So a lot of criticisms of the project, though, it’s like we haven’t really…we can’t do everything. We’ve tried some ways of sharing our project with people on the inside, and we haven’t really come up with the best way of doing that, besides maybe describing it over the phone. Or I think people have actually sent inprintouts of the article. But that’s not really facilitated on the website.
I mean, it is a digital project, so we can’t do everything. But I guess if people — whether that’s you or other listeners even — had thoughts on how to do that, in a way that isn’t a whole separate project, that would be interesting to hear about. As far as the conclusions based on the research, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here, that may be totally waxing philosophical, but for me one of the most interesting things, not maybe the biggest part of the wave of rebellion — which it does feel fair to call this first 90 days of resistance to COVID, it’s like something like a wave — it’s like something similar about much of it. Even if there wasn’t some sort of formal coordination, in the same time period responding to similar if not almost exactly the same conditions, a lot of the prison systems dealt with COVID in similarly inadequate ways.
I think the biggest thing is the size of the number of events. But within that, one of the things I was drawn to the most was the emergence of this demand for immediate release. And, I’m willing to be corrected on this, but in the short amount of time I’ve been paying attention to prisons and prisoners stuff, and being in support organizations and doing media work, I just don’t think that’s a demand that people normally say. Like, you’re in prison, and you have a list of demands, and one of them is “let me out of prison”, right? I mean, that happens over and over again, during this period, because prisoners early and accurately described COVID as a death sentence for people who arelocked up. It’s truly tragic. It’s hard to dwell on it in a way. No one, in Michigan where I live, was sentenced to death. Andthey’re just in there, getting sick, and dying, or having permanent symptoms.
So early on, people were like, like even the big national prisoners strikes, the demands were better wages and stuff. These are all like, good things, they wereways to kind of publicize. And I know that those demands made sense in that moment, in lots of ways; I think we could have some other debate about that. But putting that aside, the demand for immediate release, or not even an immediate release of yourself but the immediate release of elderly prisoners-
TFSR: …or people who are reaching the end of their time already, like a few months away.
P:Yeah. Exactly. So there’s policies, there’s like legislative talk off and on in different states about how to strengthen prison population, but this was a new thing. And I think it’s a really amazing thingbecause there’s something common sense and simple, in the best way, about this demand. It’s the single best thing that the systems can do to make prisoners a little bit safer, rather than masks and hand sanitizers and testing guards temperature and stuff. And everyone kind of knows that: the different state governments, the different federal, you know, ICE and stuff, everyone kind of knew this. And then in a way, it’s still tragic, but the way thatthey didn’t act, it’s just like an obvious thing. I feel like prisoners were like “you need to shrink the prison population today or we’re gonna die.” And they were right. And it sucks they were right.
In a study we actually marked that, when prisoners were either released a list of demands, or they talked to the media in some way, we looked at what they said. And every single time they said something about COVID, anytime we have a prisoner quote, they mentioned COVID. Which isabout half the events were like that. And then a good number of those, I don’t have the number right in front of me, but a good number of those, they had something to do with immediate release. So that’s, that’s one of the things I was most struck with.
And the second one related to that — in its own kind of direct–action–oriented way — is the high number of escapes. Okay, there were nine clusters within this 27 day period. So that’s from March 23 to April 19. And we have an attempt to escape in May. But just to focus on these nine, one of them — it was an attempt, they were on their way out and got got — we marked it because it was a big effort, a significant effort. And so just to look at the other eight for one second, some prisoners went on a hunger strike and wrote this letter to the media that was demanding to be released, which is amazing. Because in this moment, it’s like, “oh my God,this is impossible to imagine” and now prisoners are doing this. A few people got released, and I don’t want to minimize that either. But it was obviously, absolutely, in general, totally inadequate.
There’s these nine escapes in this early period, right in that psychological time when we were all unsure and nervous and uncertain. And these people, they just literally jumped the fence, or walked off. And because there’s only nine of them, we got to look at the sort of time between escape and recapture. Which is just like, what do you draw from this? I mean, I’m not really sure. But it just seems significant that this demand comes out of immediate release, and people are immediately releasing themselves also.
I think thatfocusing on prisoners actions are important because they’re one of the players that will decide how this plays out. I mean, they’re like, if shit is terrible, like it is right now they’re going to…my friend Nino says this phrase “the riots will continue until prisons are gone”. So it’s like how will the actions of prisoners affect how that plays out. And I think with that in mind, the emergence of this demand for immediate release, along with the actual, immediate release — only temporarily, of lots of prisoners all across the country — I think is significant to that larger narrative.
TFSR: I think some people are probably, like maybe not regular listeners, or whatever, but are going to hear that demand for release, and think that it’s like using your first three wishes to wish for more wishes. But like it is so fundamentally…it’s the only option. In a situation where, on the quote unquote “best of days”, without a pandemic, when full fundings in effect, when the system is functioning at full capacity, it still cannot provide adequate health care, adequate programming, adequate rec time, you know, religious facilities, visitation. It can’t provide these things that it claims as a correctional system to be there, and organized for the purpose of. So they, better than anyone else, have known from the beginning.
I’ve continued getting letters from prisoners in various parts of the country saying “hey, I need you to talk about this. We’ve been promised here in Texas, here in California, here in North Carolina, here in Illinois, like we’ve been promised PPE and we’ve not gotten it. I can write down the documentation of when the state announced that they were going to be releasing a nonalcohol–based sanitizing fluid that they were going to be giving to prisoners. We haven’t gotten that. We’ve just been on 23 hour lockdown. So even those of us who like could potentially work towards getting a shortened release are being put on hold because we can’t get those hours. We can’t get those programs. The staff are just basically rats carrying the plague in and we’re a confined population that has to live with this.”
The jail system here in Buncombe County — where Asheville is — decided when the pandemic started happening, that they worked with the police department to decrease the amount of arrestable incidences, so they were just, in a lot of ways, ticketing and releasing people. They released 300 people from the jail and have been keeping the population way lower. For the most part, unless there’s like extenuating circumstances that I’m sure they can argue, but like decreasing people being incarcerated forsimple property crimes, or possession of drug crimes, for instance. They are on contract with the federal government and they have 200 beds that are being held for federal prisoners, that hasn’t changed.
But I think that it begs the question, like “Oh, cool. So if the county can decide which of these instances they will put someone behind bars for and charge them a bail, and all these different circumstances that rests most heavily on poor and other marginalized parts of the community, if they can listen to people’s demands of like, ‘Oh, well, I’m going to be released in three months, or this guy is going to be released in three months anyway, can you just let him out now?’ or ‘this elder has chronic health concerns, and a stint in prison could be deadly’”. Rightfully, I think administrators look at that as a threat because they see the erosion of the position that they are the blue line betweenchaos and safety in our society, that their jobs are necessary and that prisons work. And that everyone who’s in there needs to be in there.
P:Yep, you’re touching on a lot of significant dynamics happeningkind of in response to the pandemic, and I think George Floyd and subsequent political crises have all played into it. We’re talking about prisons here, but even in some sense the essential worker framework — which is a messed up, to force some people to work — frames the economy in this totally new light. Like, what do we actually need? Like, that’s the question that framework poses to me anyway. And similarto what you’re saying, on the optimistic side isoh, if you’re able to do this, these things that we want, don’t put people in a cage for property crimes and drug stuff — I mean, at the minimum, right? We want more than that — but like, you can do that right now. Let’s just keep doing that. As the return to normality plays out, depending on how the vaccine goes and stuff, I think people — whether that’s prisoners or people in the outside world — will fight to hold on to some of these gains they got during this period. Everything from tenants fighting for different protections, to unemployment access being made more widely accessible — mildly available to people who have been out of work because of the crisis — to prisoners.
I think of myself as an optimist. And I feel like you just had the optimistic take on this stuff locally, which is great to hear, seriously. But in Michigan? I don’t know if they got anything to hold on to. I mean, maybe they got some righteous sense of anger, but I mean, they’re getting killed, and they’re gettinga free five minute phone call once a day. Because visitation is canceled. Maybe they fight to hold on to that. I mean, that would be I guess good, as long as they get visitation back. But the first thing you said was that the release is like the wish to get three more wishes. That’s really funny. I hadn’t thought of that framework. Of course, that’s the case, but it’s also thatsome people are always gonna think that prisons are working.
I know, you said this thing about the administrators feeling nervous about their power being eroded during this time, and I think that is very legit. I think the director of the Department of Corrections is stressed about that. And I’m thinking mostly anecdotally about Michigan here because these dynamics play out differently everywhere. This is getting a little bit away from Perilous, but I don’t think anyone actually in the prison system thinks they’re working. No, that’s too strong, I’m retracting that. Even guards, they know that there’s innocent people in there. That’s easy to get, there’s literally innocent people who get out, get released and get paid a bunch of money because they were tortured for 30 years for something they didn’t do.
Iget the sense that a lot of people know it’s a fraud. It’s a hollow core to the whole idea that prisons do anything positive in a structural way. The way it’s played out in Michigan, for instance, is like I said, the libertarians want to cut the budget, the left wants to shrink the prison population, the prisoners are fighting, the guards are also fighting. Yeah, they’re the ones literally carrying the virus in and out, but also the guard union right now is fighting so hard for the resignation of the director of the Department of Corrections, Heidi Washington. There’s some of these car caravans around prisons and the guards are so stoked about it, too. It’s sort of like everyone against the government kind of,even though the guards are government workers, I’m not trying to absolve them, my sympathies are clearly with the prisoners. But you had this optimistic “maybe people can hold on to these gains” it seemed like you were almost saying and I like that a lot. But maybe the biggest gain here and other places is that there’s been almost the this ideological sort of shift, and a lot of people knew was kind of a fraud but now it’s like oh the policies that the Department of Corrections is handing out and that the state government is making possible, there’s no more illusions about what things are now in Michigan. Because it’s just been a huge death toll, some of the worst hotspots in the country.
So anyway, I just wanted to add to that and like the context for why maybe I see theimmediate release stuff is so much than some sort of clever workaround. I think it’s like a common sense solution to what people now have to acknowledge. Even townspeople that live in prison towns they’re at risk too, for the decisions made in Lansing, and at the Capitol.
Anyway, just to respond to your rant with a rant man. It’s like I yeah, oftentimes, the immediate release stuff comes with other demands, too, like for personal protective equipment, and all sorts of stuff. That’s often there. But then they know that in a way that things are falling apart. There’s a sense that things are falling apart, things are in crisis, things are in this terminal decline. I probably would have said that before this year, but now I’m more certain of it, because I feel like lots of other people that would not have said it a year ago. And I do in fact think that some of that veneer has been scrubbed away, because of all this shit in the past 12 months.
TFSR: Yeah, I can’t imagine that. Guards — no matter what state they’re in, and if they do have a union, like in Michigan or a few other states — I can’t imagine many people besides truly evil souls wanting to go in and really enjoying their job being prison guards. I’m sure that most people are just, you know, paying for college, kids college and whatever, sloughing through and they know they’re hated, and they know they’re doing a despicable thing. And I’m sure that now…what’s the phraseyou used? What the government’s been calling people that work in grocery stores…
P: essential workers.
TFSR: Yeah, essentially, sacrificial workers, it puts the lie to like, I’m sure that they already realized that before. But they can’tbe happy that, at a certain point, how much money is it worth it foryour position to be perpetually understaffed, you being in danger of getting shivved by someone, everybody hates you where you are, and your boss is literally going to send you in there to be a carrier for plague for all these people like.
P:Yeah, sacrificial is a great framework. That’s great. You have to sacrifice the prisoners and the guards, and the people living around the prison. Because if you don’t sacrifice them then the system falls apart, or something. That’s great, I like that framework of sacrifice, I think it’s really useful. I don’t know, that hits.
TFSR: I mean, the alternative would befundamentally changing the way that the system works. And the people that are at the helm definitely don’t want that to happen. I kind of wonder, so you mentioned before, in these conversations and reports that y’all were working with, there was constantly that discussion of COVID coming up, which makes a lot of sense. But also, because of the overlap with the George Floyd rebellion, that started seeping into at least some of the dialogue, or some of the like reasons, or some of the statements that you were hearing from or about prisoners in uprising. Are there any other insights, any sort of things that you were able to glean out of that that stand out, that show up in the report or not?
P: Yeah, it’s a super good question. It’s a question that we’re interested in. And instead of really diving into the extent of that, we just decided to put the report out, but luckily, tune in soon, to perilouschronicle.com for report number two. Because this one went so well we’re gonna do a follow up one. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be basically 2020 in review, so try to take the full 12 months. And part of that one will be focusing specifically onthe interaction between actions inside and the George Ford rebellion. I do know that period, basically, from May 28 to the end of the report — the middle of June — there’s a handful of these actions in which basically, people reference the rebellions in the streets. And that’s really cool and important.
I just don’t know, at this point, how much more I could say about the interaction. I mean my hypothesis is that the way things played out around the country, after, you know, people responded in Minneapolis to the murder of George Floyd and people know the narrative at this point. I’m sure it changed so much. I would guess it changed the ways prisoners were acting, thinking about their actions and articulating their actions to the media. But at this point, I don’t know a lot more than that. It would be interesting to see ifnew tactics emerged, or if old tactics changed. These are all questions we want to answer with the next report, basically.
That’s a long way of saying: I don’t really have a lot to say about it *laughs*. But we’re really interested in that. Part of this is, when I talk about the collaboration of the central this project, if incarcerated sinners, or anyone, has thoughts on this stuff, we’re not professionals or anything, we’re just a couple people that just like to do this because we think it’s important. Because we’re nerds. So if people have thoughts on these sort of questionsplease reach out. Or if they have events that they think should be coveredthat aren’t on our site currently. I mean, all these things. Do you have thoughts on that?
TFSR: I asked Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun about this and he expressed, “we were hearing about this on the outside, we were hearing lots of things, things that just didn’t really make sense and couldn’t tell who was saying what, what was actually happening.”
I remember seeing Jeremy Hammond using a video call to record a bunch of the other people that were incarcerated with him, making their statements, in various languages, about the Georgia Florida uprising and in solidarity with the people on the inside.
P: Right, right, right. I remember that. Yeah.
TFSR: He was probably still in a federal holding facility. God, I forgot that was in like, April or May. No, that had tohave been in May or June. Now I’m just like, the year was such a long year! But I remember where I was when I was having that conversation. After seeing that videoI got to interview Jeremy for the June 11 episode.I don’t know, I remember seeing stuff passed around, for the most part getting out. But I know that also, when talking to Sean Swain or whoever else that I talked to, and having them talk about what they’re experiencing from the mainstream news. But they’re, they’re getting so many things that are just so filtered. Unless they have loved ones that are like in constant communication with them and keeping them up to date on stuff.
It seems like it was inspiring to a lot of people that run the inside. And this is me speculating, but I would imagine that where they were getting a sense of conversations around the abolitionist demands that were being put forth on the outside around police, that there was some resonance around that, but actually I don’t know. Besides those few instances of anecdotally me talking to people, or seeing that video, I can’t really speak to the experiences of folks on the inside, you know?
P:That’s actually helpful. And also did it play out the other way? I mean, it’s hard because so much of how I think the mainstream understanding of stuff is like: what do people say about what they do, like, what are the demands of the George Floyd protestors. Or, you know, in some sense it’s a totally silly question. To some extent it’s important, also. But I say that to say, I don’t know, if people on the outside, it resonated with what people were doing on the inside. So the reverse. Like the George Floyd rebellion, actually, as a product of this prior wave of rebellion, or rather, maybe just similar conditions. Anyway, all these sorts of dynamics, they’re there. It’s complicated. It’s hard to say conclusively, it’s impossible to do so. Unless you’rean arrogant sociologist at a university.
P: But if you’re more of a participant just trying to know a little bit more, so it can help you make decisions about what’s important. I guess we’ll try to do that in the report, to see what is the other resonances between inside and outside the George Floyd rebellion and the prisoners responding to COVID? Hopefully answer some of these questionsyou and I are just saying right now.
TFSR: The next question that I had written down, it’s kind of already gotten touched on, between these discussions and my rant and your rant. But I wonder if you have — maybe stepping outside of your role as someone speaking on behalf of the collective Perilous — any things that you’ve gleaned out of looking at not only inside action, but also the outside actions that people have taken, or the dialogue around prisoners during this year of Unprecedented Death Sentences by Disease?
P: Yeah. I referenced this earlier, but it’s important to not reproduce in our own heads the prison walls, to imagine them as these insurmountable barriers. Not only because we literally saw videos of people jumping over them this year. Or last, sorry, last year. I mean, did 2020 ever really end though? Are we just in 2020 until-
TFSR: It’s the long 2020.
P: *laughs* Yeah. But like we were saying, also in negative ways the virus goes in and out there, the prison walls are in fact porous. So in some sense, the distinction between inside and outside…*smiling* I’m not coming at you, obviously, it’s something that I do too. It’s something to grapple with, on the ways that that limits us. That being said, there are these concrete differencesbetween the two, easy access to the internet and stuff. The short answer is: I’m inspired byall of these different things, people acting from where they’re at. Like the car caravan and stuff early on…I already said it had this effect on me that was really positive. And it’s like feeling hopeless in a way and then seeing these people like “okay, we have cars, we’re safe in our cars, we won’t spread the virus.We’re safe, you know, safer. And we can show our support for the hunger strikers.” That was really important. And in the same sense the big, huge rebellions arealways inspiring to me, because now I get some sense of the difficulty of organizing in prisons, the social dynamics and the risk involved. But also the prison breaks. You know, there’s sort of some Hollywood–esque moments, like this little video, where is that? In Washington? You referenced it earlier–
TFSR: *laughs* Not yet, but I was going to in what was going to be the final question. But the Yakima Community Detention Center.
P:Oh yeah, right. Well it’s this video of this guy just chillin in his car. I don’t think it was planned at all. And he just pulls up, he’s listened to music, it’s like salsa music or something, I don’t remember. And these people are literally jumping over the fence. And then also one of these escapes, a handful of prisoners escaped from Arkansas Community Corrections on April 12.
TFSR: There’s McCormick in South Carolina too not that long ago. That was like at the end of 2020.
P: Oh yeah. Totally. The one I was thinking of actually, he was captured in Arkansas. But a handful of people just I ran out of Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in Oklahoma and one of them lasted for three months. But they finally found him in, and it was like a car chase, he ditched his car and then tried to swim across the Arkansas River, and there was like police chasing him on boats. And they did finally get him.
Anywayat the same timecar caravans have almost become normalized in a good way. At least here where I live. And just the sense that, you know, we’re getting away from the project, but like, I’m just personally always inspired by people taking action from where they’re at, figuring out what makes sense, and doing stuff, and experimenting. Andthe best parts of the past 12 months have been the result of that.
TFSR: Well, thanks a lot for talking. Where can people follow and get in touch with Perilous and how can they support the project?
P: Yeah, so we’re on twitter.com, I think it’s @perilousprisons. And then perilouschronicle.com is our website. That’s where new research articles come out, the new data report will go up, different sorts of things like that. Lots of resources on there at this point, and we’re constantly figuring out ways to make it more easy for users to access those resources as well. Also let me pull it up real quick, if you want to write uswe would love, we receive some prisoner correspondence. And especially if you have details on events we either haven’t covered or we’ve covered but we’ve missed a detail about it, you can write us at: PO Box 38 Tucson, Arizona. 85702. And we also use email, that’s info@parallels chronicle.com
TFSR: Since we’ve startedtrying to fund a rolling like transcription of episodes, hopefully this will get transcribed in the next couple of weeks and made into a zine and that can be easily sent into prisoners. So that’s part of the goal.
P:That’s awesome. Seriously, that’s super cool. I’ll probably bug you off the recording, just bounce ideas around on how we might do something similar.
TFSR: Hell yeah. Lovely to chat and keep up the great work.
adrienne maree brown is the writer-in-residence at the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute, and author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds and the co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements and How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office. She is the cohost of the How to Survive the End of the World and Octavia’s Parables podcasts. adrienne is rooted in Detroit. More of their work can be found at adriennemareebrown.net
If you like Scott’s interview style, check out their interviews with Kristian Williams on Oscar Wilde and Eli Meyerhoff on higher education and recuperation. Also, to hear an interview with Walidah Imarisha, who co-authored “Octavia’s Brood” with adrienne.
So much heartfelt thanks to the folks continuing to send us donations or pick up our merch. We’re almost at our goal of sustainability, but still not quite there, but the one-time donations have definitely cushioned that need. If you’ve got extra dough, check out our Donate/Merch page.
As an update on the transcription side of things, we’re still rolling forward, comrades have gotten each episode so far this year out and we’ve imported the text into our blog posts and imported links into our podcast after the fact about a week after the audio release! Also kind soul has done the immense work of making zines and downloadable pdf’s of almost all of our already transcribed interviews up until last week! Those posts are updated and linked up to the text and you can find more by checking out the zine category on our site.
The Final Straw Radio: Thank you for coming and talking to us in the Final Straw. Do you mind introducing yourself with a pronoun and relevant information you want to give?
adrienne maree brown: Yeah, so, my name is adrienne maree brown, I use she and they pronoun. I am a writer based in Detroit and I’m the author of Emergent Strategy, Pleasure Activism, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood, and most recently, and I think what we are going to talk about today, the author of a book called We Will Not Cancel Us and Other Dreams of Transformative Justice. I have been a movement facilitator and mediator for over 20 years, close to 25 years now. And most of the writing work that I do is rooted in the experiences and questions that have come from those places. That’s who I am for people who are meeting me here.
TFSR: Thanks! I’m so excited to get to talk to you and I wanted to dive into your most recent published book because it offers a lot of food for thought, especially for people who are engaged in different kinds of community processes and accountability and larger projects of abolition and transformative justice.
amb: Oh, one thing you should know and it may show up for your listeners, too. I have neighbors upstairs and today is the day that they host the preschool pot, so if you hear big thumps and bumps and things like that, just know it’s kids playing and everyone’s all good.
TFSR: That’s a good [chuckle]. I also have a sleeping cat that may awake and attempt to hang out on the computer.
amb: Real life continues happening even during Zoom calls, so…
TFSR: I kind of wanted to just jump in into the stuff thinking about listeners have a basic concept for abolition and transformative justice. The first thing I started thinking about when preparing to talk to you was that way that cancel culture which you, you know, you reverting in the title, it’s become a kind of meme at this point. And there is plenty of critiques from the radical liberatory side which is the one that you are offering, but also right-wing conservative perspectives, like I’m thinking of Trump getting kicked out of Twitter, or the J.K. Rowling transphobic stuff that prompted this all of these rich and powerful people to talk about cancel culture, so I was wondering what you think… How do we differentiate those critiques from the liberatory side vs. the powerful side?
amb: Yeah, I feel like I’ve had to explore this a lot more since the book came out than I ever did before. I’m really not following what right-wing conservative people are up to or saying or doing. It’s literally not a part of my world, my conversation. So when I wrote the initial piece and people were like “Trump uses this language”, I felt like “What?” I don’t follow him, so for me, it was interesting. I can totally see the right-wing using the critique of cancel culture to dodge accountability and to me, the major distinction is what is the impetus of the critique. For me, it is a love-based, abolition-based impetus. I do believe that as people who are fighting for abolition, there are conversations we need to have, questions we need to be asking and practices we need to get good at that are related to how we practice being in deeper accountability with each other and starting to develop an expectation that accountability is possible when harm happens. Because I believe that those twin expectations are what lay the foundation for a truly post-prison, post-policing coexistence. So that to me feels like the primary thing is that when someone like J.K. Rowling is being like “No, cancel culture is being no good”, what she is fundamentally fighting for is like “I want to protect my right to be oppressive, to basically cancel or deny the existence of other people”. And what I think we are fighting for is the right to protect as many people as we can from being harmed, denied, erased. So there is a call, you know, to me, the difference is also people talk about call-out vs. call-in and this kind of things, I think a lot of what we are doing is that we want to actually pull ourselves into more interdependence, relationality, accountability. And that feels like a huge distinction.
TFSR: That’s a good point, cause the words can become slippery, especially as they get co-opted by people who don’t have those horizons that we have.
amb: When I was trying to figure out which words were are going to fight for, and how we do that fighting for. It’s hard, but I do think it’s worthwhile in some places. Abolition is actually still ours, transformative justice is still ours. I don’t think cancel culture necessarily is the one that is ours. For me, We Will Not Cancel Us is about the activity, like we are not going to cancel people we need to be accountable for. How do we do that?
TFSR: Yeah, this is a very important distinction, because cancel culture is already a mainstream critique of this thing, probably they see it as a youth phenomenon on social media. And canceling is a thing that people do, but it’s not a whole culture necessarily.
amb: It’s not, and what I think is interesting is that there is a culture of disposability, and there is a culture of conflict avoidance, but I think the cancelation… So much of it is rooted in social media culture, so social media culture is a shallow engagement, clickbait headlines, very surface-level arguments, and then canceling people. It all goes together: trolls-gone-wild, then we are trying to build a movement and how do we navigate and organize around social media as a part of building movement, and how do we harness it as a tool? I think what’s been happening is that it’s been harnessing us. We’ve got drown into the way social media works as if that’s how a community works and changes.
TFSR: There are two different levels that we can use social media as a tool for things that we’ve done historically to protect ourselves, but then there is this other level where it takes on another meaning. One thing I was thinking about reading your book is that probably also the most notable mainstream version of this that gets discussed is the #metoo. It’s called a movement, but from what you discuss in your book I don’t see it as a movement, cause it’s an isolated ax of naming something. It’s not necessarily a struggle in the streets. And I’m not saying this as a judgment, I’m reserving judgment of like it’s effective or should people do this, but I’m interested in thinking about that, not having a basis in a tangible community.
amb: It’s interesting, I think it depends on where and when you enter the MeToo conversation. If people enter the conversation as like this happened related to Harry Weinstein, a year and a half ago now, then I think that’s the case. But if you take it all the way back to the work that Tarana Burke has been doing for years, that was very tangible and the work that she has continued to do is very much tangible, happening in real-time, in real space, in real relationships and calling for changes that happened in the offline world, and using social media to help push that along, to spread that. But I just did an event with them recently and I was blown away by how much they are inviting people into offline practices. And I think ‘movement’ is a kind of slippery and tricky term. I see people telling like “We are starting a movement”, I don’t think that is how movement works, how things take off or people get called into something and like what is actually moving. And I look at, like, is policy moving? Is our sense of identity moving, is our sense of capacity moving? And in that sense, I would say that to me MeToo is absolutely a movement because it has moved and transformed how people negotiate the intimate relationship, intimate harm, how people negotiate being public or non-public about the harm that happened to them. So I would see it that way.
TFSR: I like that idea. I was thinking, bell hooks distinguishes between political representation and pop culture that doesn’t get grounded in grassroots. But the way you mention it makes sense, and the thing I admire about the call-outs that happen, cause though we could read from a lens of canceling or even carceral sort of minds, but it also is demanding accountability and giving voices to people.
amb: Absolutely, and that’s what I think is interesting is who do we listen to, so if we listen to Cherana and Nikita and so many people who are now working in that space, one of the things they talk about all the time is… this is actually not about destruction, it’s not about trying to bring people down and destroy them. We are trying to heal trauma, to end cycles of harm, and end trauma that has come from that harm. And I think this is one of the most interesting pieces about the distinction between what I had actually an issue writing about and the larger culture of cancellation and call-out, cause call-outs are rooted in the communities I come from – brown, queer, trans communities. And the reason why we initially needed the strategy was because the power differentials between us and the folks who were causing harm were so vast that we couldn’t be heard as equal parts of the story-telling, we couldn’t be heard in our survival. That’s still the case in so many scenarios where “Oh, these workers need to call someone out, or call out an institution, a corporate entity because the power dynamics are so vast. And with Harvey Weinstein, with R. Kelly, with some of these big public cases, I hundred percent support those, I’ve tweeted that, those make sense to me because the power differentials are so big that the only way to potentially stop this harm is by making this huge call. I think the difference is then how do we handle it when the harm is much more horizontal, within a community, where there might be slightly more positional power, slightly more social media cachet or something, but no one is wealthy, no one actually owns anything, no one has long-standing security in any kind of way, and a lot of time we are talking about survivors, where everyone is in a situation of survival or something.
And that to me, as I’ve stressed, has got much more complex, and again, that still doesn’t mean that we take it off the table. It might still need to be. I’ve witnessed, I’ve held, I’ve supported the situations where we have tried a million other things to get this person to stop causing harm and this is not the move. And I think that is the case… A lot of the push-back I got from people when I published the original essay, they were like “Hold on, in a lot of these cases, we have tried everything”. Don’t take the power out of the move that we do need the capacity to make. And that was not my intention in writing and it’s not my intention now is to say “How do we make sure that we are using the tactic precisely when it needs to be used and how do we make sure we have other options when we need other options, right? This is not the first thing people jump to.
TFSR: I guess that’s the thing with social media, and we have so many examples of it, especially because being harmed is a really isolating experience and being able to voice it really scary…
amb: It’s so hard.
TFSR: We see the representation of that on social media that can give you the ability to do something even if you wouldn’t reach out to your pod or whatever. That’s a distinction that, I don’t know, I don’t know…
amb: Well, just briefly on that point, that’s also part of what I’m fighting for. As someone who is a survivor myself and who really has to battle like “Would taking this public be healing for me? Who would I share this with that it would be healing for me? How would I actually be able to heal the pattern that happened here? What do I want for the person – multiple people in my life – who have caused harm?” And it’s a very intimate reckoning. I can’t outsource like “Here is what I landed on, and that’s what everyone got to do too”. Because it’s very intimate. What I do know is that I want the result to be satisfying. If people are taking this huge risk to tell these stories, I want them to be satisfied that they are not able to get justice, but they are able to get healing. I think it is often what happens with the way the call-outs play out right now. A lot of what happens is people take this huge risk, tell a story and now they are associated with that story. It’s now they become a public face of the worst thing that ever happened to them, and sometimes there is some accountability, but often there is not, sometimes the person who caused them harm just disappears and goes somewhere else and keeps causing harm. For me, I’m just like “Hold on, let’s examine this strategy and figure out how do we actually make sure survivors are having a satisfying experience or healing and being held, and getting room to process and not having to be responsible for managing anything to do with the person who caused them harm.
My vision is where we live inside of communities, that have the capacity and the skill to be like “That harm happened to you – we are flanking you, we’ve got you, you are being held, we are attending to your healing. And that there is also enough community to go to the person who caused the harm and hold them in a process of accountability and also healing”. Because fundamentally, we know something’s wrong if someone is causing that kind of harm, if someone commits sexual assault, if someone commits rape, steals resources, abusing power. We know that actually some healing is also needed there. Not that the survivor needs to guide the healing, but the community does need to be responsible for it. I think we are a long way from that. Where we need to be heading if we call ourselves abolitionists is we have to develop a capacity to hold all of that in the community, so that we are not outsourcing it to a prison, to the police.
TFSR: Yeah, it’s interesting in this transitional period, we are not there, it that vision just discussed, we are trying to reach that. There is that experience that so many people have and you’ve probably seen and had it yourself where accountability processes go wrong or a call-out isolates someone and the person who caused harm gets scrutinized and their process doesn’t happen or even I feel like processes can be used to wheel power within subcultural communities, whether that is anarchist or queer, and exclude people. So there is a high level of burnout or disillusionment with these processes, and I just wonder what you think about how we counteract that. That’s another form of healing that is needed.
amb: Yeah. I keep pointing people to these two resources, they just came out last year, which to me says so much about how early we are in the transformative justice experiment. And to place ourselves in a context of time, helps me to drop my shoulders. Be like “Of course we don’t know what the fuck we doing, these processes are fucking hard and everything” because we are so early and we have been… Mariame Kaba talks about this, that we had 250 years of the carceral experiment, of well-funded policing and prison systems rooted in enslavement practices, had a long time of those being well-funded and we have never had a period of experimentation in what we are talking about – transformative justice and abolition practices – have been well-funded. Of course, we don’t have the resources to do it.
So one book is Beyond Survival by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha which gives a history of transformative justice, which talks about the people who were doing it before they knew that they were doing it, maybe they didn’t call it that, but just different kind of case studies and models and experiments so people can see that we have been innovating and adapting and trying to figure this out. That feels like one resource for people to say “Go look, we are not the first people to fuck up”. We still don’t know how to hold this, we are learning. The other resource is Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan put out this workbook called Fumbling Towards Repair, and I’m in love with this workbook because it’s very tangible as a resource. Here is how you can do a community accountability process in your community when something happens. It’s rooted in the idea that Mariame talks about which is it’s not going to be a one-to-one shift from the carceral state to a perfect transformative justice system that someone else still holds outside of us. It’s going to be a system where we want to defund the police and the state and redistribute resources into a million different options in our community including that many of muscle up our capacity to do community accountability processes. And if we are doing one for the first time – I remember the first time I did one – I went in with a big dream of healing and I came out mid-level satisfying, like I said my piece, and this person agreed not to do whatever.
So I just think it’s important to be humble on a grand scale about the fact that we are still learning these things and there is a lot of people in our community who actually are developing some expertise around this, but you are developing an expertise in something that is very often a private process, so it’s not something you are writing out like “Honey, let me tell what I just did with this horrific person”, a lot of it is very private and quiet, and I think that also skews the sense of this moment because a lot of times the initial call-outs, initial accountability moves are much more public, and social media takes them very far, but then we don’t see what happens behind the scenes, we don’t see what was happening behind the scenes to lead up to that moment, all the things that are behind. So if we were able to be like “Ha! We don’t know how to do this yet, we have to learn how to do this. And learning happens mostly through failure. We learn by trying something, it doesn’t quite work, then we make the adjustment. We have so much to learn. We have to learn what roles work best for different people, who are the mediators, who are the people who can hold these processes, who are the people who are like “I’m a healer, I can hold a role in a community”. Do you have to experience these accountability processes yourself, can you just read about it and hold it? There is so much to figure out, and to me, it’s actually exciting. We are in an exciting place potentially for transformative justice and abolition. But not if we stay committed to outsourcing those we deem as bad or the processes themselves. It’s more like how do we turn to be like “Yeah, we don’t know how to do this, let’s learn”.
TFSR: Right. I actually had an opportunity to teach a queer and transformative justice class, it was very well-funded, it was right when those books came out, I was so excited, look at all these new books on this. Teaching this stuff to young people seems important, but also familiarizing them with the fact that it’s not a one-to-one replacement or solution. I use a lot Walidah Imarisha’s Angels with Dirty Faces because she talks about it not being a resolution we are used to within a Capitalist society…
amb: Exactly, and looking at those three stories, cause I think that’s the stuff, looking at these different real-life scenarios and being with the complexity of each of these human beings, I think it is such a great book. I also point people a lot to Mia Mingus’s work, particularly the work around apology, because so much of it is, you know, you are trying to get water out of the stone, it feels like “When I really need is an acknowledgment of the harm you did and an apology for that. Few people know how to give a good apology. There is a myriad of resources that we’re building and generating and slowly bringing into a relationship with each other. I think in ten years, it’s going to look very different.
TFSR: There is something interesting I was starting to think about. You talked about the privacy of the intimacy of situations that need this kind of handling. If we start having people specializing in training and that stuff that go around doing the work, we can run the risk of professionalizing it.
amb: I hope this is not the… To me, that’s why the workbook model is so exciting. And I say this is someone who has worked as a facilitator for the last 20 years. I recognize what happened for me was I had the skill, those I used in my community, and then it became a professionalized skill. Suddenly people started “We’ll fly you to all different places to do this”. For a while, it worked for me and allowed me to work with very exciting movements, but it also has the impact in the long run of making people think that they have to fly me in rather than looking around and see who in their community has this capacity and strength. I wrote Emergent Strategy to help with spreading those tools and I have a book coming out this spring called Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy. Facilitation and Mediation. And for me, the idea is similar, the workbook is like “Pick this up, integrate the skill-set, find the facilitators, the people who are like this in your community and do mediation, who are drawn to it, and let’s start to have more capacity for local reliance in these different systems and needs. I think the professionalization and the sense of bringing someone from afar to do this – we can do this, it’s possible on the level of the community.
TFSR: I know since you post so much from Octavia Butler that maybe you are kind of seeding the communities, then figure it out themselves.
TFSR: And thinking about Emergent Strategy and the new book you’ve just mentioned, OK, in We Will Not Cancel Us, you talk about the sort of supremacy within us and connect it to the diagnosis that the Oankali make in Octavia Butler’s book about the problem with humans is like…
amb: Hierarchy and intelligence…
TFSR: Yeah. I see that work that you do, the writing that you do as part of the process, the internal process that we need to do to unlearn supremacy, the hierarchy within us… And that would work on so many different levels – power, masculinity, and all these things.
TFSR: Do you see this as a sort of thing that takes place in culture, is it internal… It seems like you’re initiating a new genre to have an “anti-authoritarian help book” or something.
amb: [laughs] Thank you. The other day I was interviewed and they said that my new genre was “facila-writing”, writing stuff that facilitates people through a process, so I’ll accept this too, “anti-authoritarian help books” I do think that is something that happens at both ends and I say this like one of my great teachers, mentors, was Grace Lee Boggs who is an Asian-American freedom fighter based here in Detroit, part of the Black Power movement. And she said we must transform ourselves to transform the world. And when I first heard it, I was like “No, we have to go out and transform all the fucked-up people who are doing bad things, we are good”. It took me such a long time to understand what she meant, which is any of the systems that we are swimming in have also rooted inside of us, and as we un-root them, uproot them, we unlearn things inside of us, then we become both models for what it looks like to be post-capitalist, post-nationalist, post-patriarchal, post-white supremacy, we become models of that, we become practitioners and scholars. We actually understand what it takes to do that unlearning. That feels like such a crucial part of this.
In We Will Not Cancel Us, I reference my friend Prentis Hemphill’s essay Letting Go of Innocence because that feels connected to this. First, we have to recognize we are not above the people who have caused harm. They may have had different circumstances, they have let us to moving our harm in different ways or processing our traumas in different ways. I think it’s such a blessing, you know I have a life of trauma, but early in my life I was given tools around therapy and healers, I had a loving household, a loving jumping off board from which to process the trauma of being alive in this time, which I think everyone actually is experiencing at some level. I interact with people and they didn’t come across the idea of therapy or they thought that’s not an option or a healer – that’s private, that’s something you don’t do. And that energy is going to move somewhere. So I don’t look at myself as above anyone who ends up in the prison system or anyone who ends up canceled. I just had different circumstances and they allowed me to process the trauma in a different way. That’s internal work that allows me to be present with the fact that capitalism is in me, petty jealous behavior is in me, judgmental behavior is in me, and that I have to examine what is white supremacy, what is patriarchy, what are those things that live in me. I keep uprooting that.
At the same time, I do believe it is cultural work and that is why I write books instead of just having these thoughts in my head or only doing the work with a small group of friends, as I am interested in dropping seeds into the culture to see if other things can bloom. And my experiment with that, with Emergent Strategy, was so exciting to me because I released the book, didn’t really promote it, I was just like “Look, if there are other people hungry for these ideas, this will spread, if they are not, I will know that I’m alone in Detroit looking at ends and that’s fucked. I felt kind of OK either way cause the Earth is still offering its amazing lessons regardless of people see it through my book or not, but now I know that that strategy can really work. And We Will Not Cancel Us similarly, we did a couple of events that just felt like important conversations to have with Charlene Carruthers, with Cindy Weisner, with Shira Hassan, and with Malkia Devich-Cyril who wrote the Afterword. But mostly it was like the book is out and people are either reading that or not. And I have a lot of people who were like “I’m reading this”. I got a lot of messages from people who are like “I’m really surprised based on the first essay to what happened in the book, I’m surprised. I see what you did, I see the growth”. That’s still not the perfect book, it was a quick process, but to me, it feels important that people are reading it in their own groups and talking about their own local culture. Because social media is not the whole world, and so much is happening in our local movement circles, and how at a local level we are integrating these questions of “Well, how do we handle harm? How do we handle conflict when it arises? What are our case studies? Are there people who we have canceled or tried to dispose of? What happened with them? Where are they now? Did they stop causing harm? Did that work? If not, what else could work? Are we putting people in the line of the state, in the eyes of the state?” Just having it as a local conversation.
The thing I’m interested in is a culture of discernment, a culture of mature, generative conflict, and I think that’s so important on this journey towards an abolitionist future is it’s not just a policy change that will make that possible, it has to be an entire cultural shift, and culture shifts because lots of individuals shift.
TFSR: That’s a good way of thinking, cause the internal work, we are sort of taught to think of the internal work as of the work you do for yourself, your goals and your profession, but actually the internal work and this stuff, it turns you into a potential facilitator. I’m not perfect obviously, but I’ve done a lot of work, and the work that I do allows me to enter the situations from a different place, that I can help facilitate them. It’s not because I’m better or to be above them or avoid them completely, cause that’s impossible.
amb: Yes, and I think right now the culture that is being produced is one where people have a lot of fear around making mistakes which limits how honest people are, because if we are being honest, we are making mistakes all the time, and we have fucked-up thoughts all the time. One thing that I appreciate about my best friendships is that I can say something that is wild and my friend will go like “That’s wild, girl, you can’t say that, and let’s examine where that thought came from”. I grew up in a military household, in a capitalist family. I have to know that that shaped me that by the time – I went to an Ivy League University – all those things shaped me. And so as I’m unlearning this, a lot unpack there, and if I’m above that unpacking or I’m hiding from ever making a mistake, then I can’t do that learning. We want to move from a culture where people are terrified to show up to a culture where people are excited to be able to be like “Here is all of me and I know I have work to do”. And if it’s a culture of belonging, where even if you are fucked up, which you definitely are, you still belong to your species and you still belong to your community. And belonging means you are in a constant state of growth.
I’m rereading bell hooks’ It’s All About Love, and she uses this definition of love which is that you have the willful extension of yourself towards the nurturance of another’s growth or your growth. I want love-based communities, to me, that’s what it looks like when you see that someone has fucked up or failed, you are like “I’m going to willfully extend myself towards your growth” so that there is room to come back. That doesn’t mean people are ready for that. I held space for people who were like “I am a flamethrower, I’m in a flamethrower phase of mine, I’m just going to throw flames and everything, and then I was like “OK, this community just needs to set some clear boundaries, so that you know it’s not OK for you to be burning down everybody’s everything.
And that’s a particular move that says “You have a space here when you are ready to come back, and until you are ready to come back, we have to set this boundary. And again, there is no public shaming needed for that, there is no public humiliation, we don’t get pleasure from boundary setting, it’s just a boundary that needs to be set. So that is a kind of cultural shift that to me feels important.
TFSR: That’s an interesting way of putting it, to try and talk about it without shaming. In a relationship, I try to say “If I fuck up, tell me, cause that’s a learning experience for me, it’s an opportunity for me to hear your thoughts and know something else and also not do that again if I can avoid it.” It’s surprising that so many people don’t expect that, you have to normalize that.
amb: Right, because people don’t even realize that this concept of perfectionism is one of the ways capitalism plays out within us and within our community. That there can be some perfect and we can buy our way there or fake our way there or botox-or-plastic-surgery our way there or something. But actually, no one is perfect, people are making mistakes all the time, and I love how you said that, Scott, that a mistake is a place where an aliveness becomes possible, and learning becomes possible. There is also something really important. Just that piece around boundaries. I want boundaries from other people around me. I want to know what the boundaries are that I need to uphold and honor, even if it hurts. I think about it, in my most intimate relationship, when someone’s like “No, adrienne, you can’t cross this line”. And I’m like “Me? For real?” and them “Oh yeah, let me integrate that”. Because it actually isn’t personal, that’s that don Miguel Ruiz shit. Don’t take it personally, when you stop taking it personally, you recognize that people’s boundaries are about them, taking care of themselves, and you can love them by upholding those boundaries. Even that is part of learning.
I know a few people who have been through big call-outs and now they are sitting outside of a boundary, outside of a community that they once felt so at home in, and it fucking sucks. And I’m holding the boundary and I’m learning what I need to learn out here in order to be able to make my return. Even if I think there are other ways to do it, fundamentally, what we are trying to do is to develop a culture where we can set boundaries, the boundaries actually create growth and space for actual authentic love to be possible.
TFSR: It’s so funny, I always thought about the thing I liked about hanging out with anarchists is that I can leave any situation and people don’t need an explanation for it. I’m just like “I’m done”, with that ability to… there is not the same kind of expectation to participate beyond your limits.
amb: Because there is a practice of non-attachment, a practice of really being free around other free people, which is very uncomfortable for people who are… Ursula Le Guin wrote about it in The Dispossessed, that’s I really still identify as an anarchist, is that what it really means to be free is so at odds with how our culture is currently structured. We don’t realize all the ways we are weaving ourselves into a self-policed, self-controlled state, and we are making all kinds of agreements – control me, control me, police me, correct me, control me. I’ve just noticed that in the past year my visibility has gone up to a whole different level, which means that a lot more people think they should have control over me, and really staying free within that context is like “Oh, I’m glad I have developed the muscles before this visibility, that I am free and I deserve to fuck up and make mistakes and I can handle being in public, and someone is like “Yeah, I fuck up”. I am a human being, visibility doesn’t make me less human, but it is a muscle that I wish more people were thinking about even developing, much less practicing.
TFSR: Yeah, you have your podcast, but also your book model is a process. We Will Not Cancel Us is presented not as a finished…
amb: Yeah, it’s a process and I made uncomfortable decisions in it. It would be much easier for me on some level to just pull down the original piece and be like “That’s embarrassing. I made mistakes and people can see that”. But again, if I step outside of it, if I don’t think about it so personally, then I can imagine some young organizer being able to read a book and go back and see the piece and make a connection and be like “Oh, this was what you learned and improved, you still have room to grow, this could be better, sharper, clearer”. And I’m like “Great, you write the next book”. Keep this process going.
I recently got to be in a conversation with Angela Davis which is wild, she is someone who I really look up to, but I also love how I see her handle critique in her life. People come to her and are like “Why are you like this, whatever?” And she’s like ” Yes, exactly. Those questions are real questions that I’m in”. That she keeps herself a living, breathing, growing being who is learning and changing all the time. And she’s like “I’m not the same person I was when I was being pursued by the government when I was arrested and all that, when you campaigned to Free Angela Davis, now I’m this Angela Davis and I will continue to grow”. And I’m like “That feels like a great model for those of us who hope to be elder organizers, elder activists, elder radicals. Grace continued to be curious and grow, Angela continues to be curious and grow, and I want to be that. If I have the blessing of being old, I want to be that kind of an elder.
TFSR: I got what you mean, to have a continuation and the inter-generational connection for a diversity of people coming in now, stuff that is happening and just sharing our knowledge and experience and also getting theirs, cause they have a different perspective.
TFSR: I’ve seen this tactic used when there is a serial abuser in a community, someone who the community doesn’t believe can be accountable, they do a general call, flyering, posters whatever. There is also in science fiction like Woman on the Edge of Time, there’s this idea that eventually, if you keep harming, you get killed, right?
amb: In Woman on the Edge of Time, you get one chance. You mess up one time, they give you the tattoo, if you mess up again, they say “We are not doing prisons”.
TFSR: I have an organizer friend who says that part of abolition is maybe the community decides that that’s it for you, that’s the vision of it. I’m not saying that everyone everyone needs to adopt that, but there is also revenge and stuff like that, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on this.
amb: I think it’s complicated because I will admit that I have one response – here is my theoretical, philosophical higher-self response, which is that we have to keep building our capacity to hold even the most harmful people, somehow we have to figure it out. But then a part of me is in communities regularly and has had to hold and set those boundaries and has seen that person, I’m like “You literally don’t care, you must work for the Feds, you are just… when they are passing out fives of happiness and joy, you miss the entire bucket, you don’t know what happened”. I’ve seen this side and I’ve definitely been in a place where it felt like there was no other option. What I mean inside of this is I am not actually judging what communities have to do to survive and I don’t think that any of us can do that for other communities. At least I’m not trying to judge, I’m not trying to be like “You all are weak, cause you need to do whatever”. My thing is, there is something around how we feel inside of it. Any of those times when I finally had to be like “Look, they are not willing to stop causing harm, we have to set this boundary”, for me, it’s been a move of grief and relief. Like we just have to make this call and prayer, cause I know us holding this does not mean that the harm is going to stop and they are going to find someone else to hurt. And at an individual level, this is always a thing, someone has been abusive to you, do you call the person they start dating next and say “Look, this person is going to fuck you up” or you just like “Well, I hope it goes better for them”? People make different calls about that. The things that helped me through this: one is I do believe that people change. They may not change at the pace that we want them to. I do believe that sometimes a hard boundary is the only way to get people to change. I’ve seen it happen before, I’ve seen it happen to people who had that positional power, that they were abusing and abusing, and finally were like “You don’t have it anymore”. And that’s where they actually were able to turn inward.
So I do believe that hard boundaries sometimes can be the most powerful thing. I do think it’s difficult with the flyers and revenge. I’ve said it before – that person just needs to get their ass kicked. That what needs to happen. I struggle inside of the same complexities. I think it’s the important piece here. What I want us to get good at as a community is feeling like we have as many options as we do actually have and practicing all the options. A lot of what my writing is in this time is let’s not just above all the options that help keep this person in our community or help this person to heal from the harm that clearly has happened to them, or help this scenario play out differently. Let’s not leap over all of that to have the very first thing we do is, say, plaster this person’s face and name and the intimate stories of the worst moments of their lives all over the internet and then anyone can see. For me, that’s the move that I’m trying to keep us from. To be like “First, let’s understand the history of that person. What do we know? How do we protect the survivor from any further harm? Is the person actually open to mediation or any other process? If they are, who are the right people to hold that, we need multiple people to hold that?” And so on and so forth.
Now, I think we need a boundaries school. If I were creating a school that everyone in the movement had to go through for the next year, it’s the pandemic, and we are like “OK, you can’t be on the streets, let’s all go to boundary school, let’s all go to abolition visioning school and figure out when we say ‘Defund the police’, what responsibility are we taking on in that scenario?” I would have us be in some real serious schools. I think Prentice Hemphill could run a boundary school. I have visions on this step. And Sendolo Diaminah could run the school on abolitionist visions and on practicing it at the local level. Andrea Ritchie could do that, Mia Mingus, Mariame Kaba, there are so many people. There is a lot of learning and political education and practice education that we could do because there is pleasure in revenge, there is pleasure in being able to finally say “This asshole is an asshole”, there is pleasure in all those things. But I think it’s a temporary pleasure that doesn’t actually change the conditions that will lead to more harm happening. I want us to get the pleasure mostly from healing and knowing that we have a chance from the conditions that the harm will not happen anymore.
TFSR: That’s a really good way of putting it. I was thinking about glorifying Fanon sort of violence that cleanses things. Going back to Butler, she explores violence in terms of community, but she holds it in complexity. She doesn’t endorse it, she shows detriments to it.
amb: Yeah, and there is something fascinating. In one of my favorite explorations that she has, which is The Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind, those are two books inside the Patternist series, there is this character Doro, who is a straight-up body snatcher. I remember doing a series of reading groups around this where eventually, a whole huge interconnected network has to take him out because he just cannot stop causing harm. He literally can’t survive if he stops causing harm. But I was sitting in one of the reading groups one time, and someone turned to me and was like “Did she ever try to heal him?” The lead character is one of the most amazing outstanding healers that’s ever existed. And the person said, “Did she ever try to heal him?” I went back and read the book and I couldn’t really see it, cause she tried to argue, she tried to demand, she tried to shame, to run away, she tried a million things to hold him accountable and ask for him to change, but there is not really a moment that she laid her hands on him the way she did with others, and reached into that place where he was a child, his entire family had been killed, and this was the strategy that emerged for him to survive. I always come back to that, it moves me to tears each time, cause if we look at each person causing harm as a child who has been harmed, it changes the conversation, and I think it can change what’s possible. I keep wanting to make this distinction, but that to me is not the work of the person surviving their harm, for me as someone who had been and is being abused, it’s not my job to be like “Oh, I can see the child in you”. But I think in the community, we need to grow that capacity. We have to help, to figure out getting this person to therapy. That might be the mandate. I do feel there are things like that, like if you want to be here, we have to know you are getting support, if you want to be here, we have to see this commitment to your healing. And that would be a sophisticated future if that was happening.
TFSR: That’s a really good point. I was really intrigued in the book about this idea of how we feed intp surveillance and sort of a counter-surveillance. I just wanted to hear more about that idea. Is it airing dirty laundry, is it leaks that get turned against us? Again, it’s like, I’m thinking COINTELPRO and we are bringing all this stuff back to black queer organizers who use call-outs as self-defense. How do you conceive this kind of surveillance?
amb: I think it’s an interesting conversation and it’s part of why I was really excited to have Malkia write the afterword because Malkia grew up as a child of a Black Panther who has really done a lot of scholarship around COINTELPRO and surveillance and who has been fighting around facial recognition and surveillance and all these things. I feel I learned a lot about what Malkia thinks about these things. I wanted to bring this conversation into the larger conversation that we are having which is I don’t think we’ve ever healed from COINTELPRO and I don’t think we’ve ever really figured it out. There are people who are doing really interesting work around how do we relate to living in a completely overwhelming surveillance state, how do we relate to the fact that infiltration is very common and expected. And we can see the patterns of it play out, that is very hard at an interpersonal level to ever know who you can trust and who you can’t trust.
I just saw a screening of Judas and the Black Messiah which talks about the infiltration of Fred Hampton in the Black Panthers in Chicago, and it’s just devastating to know that people show up inside movement spaces with the intention to cause dissent, harm, and to keep us from justice and liberation. But that is definitely happening. And at meetings, I’m like “Hmm, I think that person is here for the wrong reasons. My response to this is mostly like “Let’s be overwhelmingly on point with what it is we are up to and hope that we sway them and they become a turncoat to the government, whatever. But that is very unrealistic. And much more realistic, since we have to be thinking how are we building trust with each other… For me, it’s all of the above, that is airing the dirty laundry piece that harms us mostly in the eyes of our opposition. They are like “Hey, they don’t actually have unity and solidarity, they are everyone at each other’s necks. And even if it’s true, I don’t think it serves us to have that be public and transparent. And I don’t think it feeds to generative conflict, if the move is that we put people on blast rather than sitting down and having a face-to-face conversation, I’m concerned about that. Zoom, face-to-face, whatever it is.
But then I also think there is something around how we isolate people. If we are taking someone and we are like “This person caused harm in our community” and we are putting that on the internet, then that person is now isolated out of the community and if someone who is surveilling and is looking for like “Who could we turn into an infiltrator, who could we reach in those ways, who could we take out, who could we disappear”. To me, it’s saying “Here are our weakest links, here are the weakest points of our movement. Come get us”. And I think right now, because the movement has grown so fast and because social media is such a bizarre space where people think they have a relationship with people they never met, they don’t know anything about, they don’t have any sense of an actual history for, we are in a really endangered species’ zone, when it comes to our movement work right now. That was a big impetus for the writing that I did, cause I was being asked to do these call-outs, and then I would go look who was asking me to do this call-out, it was almost people I didn’t know and there was nothing to show me that this person’s ever done any other community work. I can see that they’ve done other call-outs, but I don’t see anything like “Here is what they’ve built”.
I said this in many places: I’m much more moved by people who are creating, building, growing the movement, rather than people who are like “My job is to destroy this institute or organization, or turn down this activist, whatever”. That’s not organizing work. And we definitely have people in movement right now where I’m like “They may not be on the State’s payroll, but they might as well be based on how they spend their time, how impactful is it growing efforts of actually being able to advance a united front, something that is complex organizing strategy. So I just think we have to be more mindful around it. To me, even if you don’t agree with me, even if you are just like “Fuck that, it’s more important to be able to call these people out”, I’m like “That’s fine”. And at all times, let’s not pretend we didn’t live through COINTELPRO and not pretend that infiltration and subterfuge and undermining and sabotaging our efforts is not a possibility for what’s happening right now. To me, it’s not learning from our history and be able to transform the future, which is what our job is.
TFSR: That’s such an important point. That we can be serving the state in ways that are unintentional and holding up a purity…
amb: If we are already embedded in philanthropy, we already have so many compromises. We can’t also be throwing our people into those hands.
TFSR: Exactly, we need to accept that we are not pure and not expect other people to be pure. That was a really helpful way of way of packaging it, thank you.
amb: Thank you for this conversation. You have really good questions and I hope that it serves us all.
This week, I spoke with John from the Working Class History collective and host of their WCH podcast. We spoke about the new book, “Working Class History: Everyday Acts of Resistance“, that WCH has published through PM Press, their archives, methodology, the project of popularizing working class, movement and human-sized history and a bunch more. [00:05:53]
If you thirst for more conversation with John, you’re in luck as Firestorm Books will be hosting a presentation with him about the book on February 25 from 7-8:30pm eastern or UTC – 5. You can find out more at Firestorm.Coop/Calendar.
A transcription, downloadable pdf and imposed zine should be up in about a week here!
Transcription & Support
As an update on our transcription project, we’ve sent our first batch of zines to patreon subscribers over $10. Much thanks to everyone who is contributing at whatever level. We are still $75 short of covering our minimums for the transcription and podcasting fees, so if you think you can become a sustainer consider visiting patreon.com/TFSR. If you don’t like patreon, we can receive ongoing donations from liberapay or paypal, as well as one-time donations via paypal and have merch for sale in our big cartel store.
If you don’t have cash but want to help out our project, that’s great! Reach out with show ideas, tell some friends in meet space or on social media, rep our content, print out some zines and send them into prisoners, rate us on podcasting sites, translate our work, or if you have a community radio station in your area you want to hear us on, get in touch and we’ll help you. We have some notes on our site under the broadcasting tab as well, for our weekly, 58 minute FCC friendly episodes.
Letters for Sean Swain
Our comrades continues to be denied access to regular communication with the outside by the Department of Corrections in Ohio as well as Virginia where he’s being held. It’s also notable that his website is currently down. Sean has a complaint pending before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission for the torture he suffered at the hands of the state of Ohio. He is also collecting support letters for his bid for clemency. You can find more details on instagram by following Swainiac1969, SwainRocks.Org, our Swain tab or by checking out the script up at https://cutt.ly/Hkph3KY.
Thanks to Linda from Subversion1312 for reading this week’s Sean script. [01:18:02]
BAD News #42
The latest episode of BAD News: Angry Voices from around the world by the A-Radio network has just been released. You can find find past BadNews episodes at the A-Radio site. This month, you’ll hear calls for support for the evicted ROG squat in Ljubljana, Slovenia, prisoner and prisoner solidarity updates from Greece, excerpts from a discussion of Russian anarchists about the current protests across that country and Alexei Nawalny, and a short piece highlighting the 100th anniversary of the death of Piotr Kropotkin.
FREE OUR COMRADE & RELATIVE STEVE MARTINEZ! Thank you for the birthday wishes, let’s use this energy to Free & Support Steve! He resisted a Grand Jury for the second time in regards to alleged events from the NO DAPL struggle in Standing Rock, is currently NOT cooperating with authorities, & is awaiting federal extradition! Steve needs our support! Steve helped save our friend Sophia Wilansky’s arm from gettin blown off by military weapons, & he is a solid & brave Indigenous warrior! We are asking our comrades to call the jail to DEMAND they release Steve who is wrongfully in custody at: 701-255-3113, & PLEASE WRITE STEVE in Burleigh Morton Cty Jail at:
Po Box 2499
money orders can also be sent to him in his name at that address, as well as to his government name above on jail.atm.com
We’re sharing a short rap by imprisoned indigenous, emo man, Loren Reed. Loren is facing years in prison for poorly chosen words in a private message on facebook during last summer’s uprising. We’ve mentioned his situation before. You can learn more by following Tucson Anti-Repression Crew and you can hear a great interview on Loren’s case done by fellow CZN member, the ItsGoingDown podcast. You can donate to his support by cashapp’ing TARC ($TucsonARC) or paypal’ing to paypal.me/prisonsupport, don’t forget a note saying “For Loren”.
Daniel Alan Baker
In the run-up to the January 20th presidential inauguration, the far right around the US was threatening large, armed and violent rallies at US state capitols across the country. Daniel Alan Baker, a US army vet, former YPG volunteer combat medic, yoga instructor and leftist activist called for people to counter what could have been seen as the deadly sequel to January 6th events in DC. He was pre-emptively arrested by the FBI and is currently being held at Tallahassee’s Federal Detention Center. Like Loren Reed, he is facing years in prison for statements made on social media. For more information, check out this article in Jacobin Magazine, or a great chat with supporters of Daniel’s from CZN member-show Coffee With Comrades. Updates can be found at Instagram by following GuerillaGalleryTLH.
A-Radio Network Live Show
Join the A-Radio Network on Saturday, February 13thof 2021 from 14:00 till at least 20:00 o‘clock central European time, that’s 8am to 2pm eastern or New York time for our 6th transnational live broadcast of anti-authoritarian and anarchist radios from deep within where anarchy reigns.
Since 2016 this is an important part of our yearly gathering of the A Radio network. Due to the pandemic and strong restrictions given by Governments all over the world, this year’s gathering was forced online. But don’t worry, against all odds we will nonetheless join together online on February 14thto broadcast an international show full of interesting contributions and discussions with/from comrades based in different parts all over the world. And you, dear listeners are also invited!
So far, our topics will include international experiences of: prison resistance; anarchy in the time of covid; Far Rightwing threats; and experiences organizing mutual aid!
The show will be carried by (a) transnational and militant spirit which hopefully is highly infectious.We promise our bad anarchist jokes aren’t lethal.
You will find a more detailed schedule, a player for the show and a link to the livestream soon onwww.a-radio-network.organd if you’d like to participate, you can also reach out to member projects that can be found on that same site!
TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with your name pronouns and any projects you affiliate with for the purpose of this conversation?
WCH: Hi, I’m WCH:, he, and I’m the host of the Working Class History podcast.
TFSR: Would you tell us a bit about the Working Class History project, how it got started, who was involved, and why you started it?
WCH: Basically it came out of some discussions that I have with some friends a few years ago. We’d been involved in lots of different activist groups over the years and publishing projects, and involved in different campaigns. Myself, I spent most of my time organizing at work. And social media, it’s obviously a really powerful tool, and we were thinking about how could we try and put out information—radical sort of information—on social media in a way that would go viral. And we’d also got very interested in reading about the history and learning about past struggles, because the more we did organizing ourselves and were involved in social movements and such, the more it gets a bit sort of frustrating on one level seeing in general, mainstream society, that there’s so little connection that most people have—especially people of our generation and younger—have with mass working class oppositional counterculture which used to exist. Especially in the UK, where I’m from. Most of us we don’t have that organic link with the past anymore where there’d be generations of union families in certain communities. We wanted to think how can we try and not bring that back immediately, but draw that link with the past and at the same time on the (you want to call it the Left or whatever or the workers movement or whatever term you call for it) thinking that so many people get involved in stuff each new generation gets involved in stuff, and they repeat the mistakes of the people that came before them. So all sorts of thinking about how can we try and learn from these struggles in the past and try and help get these lessons to new generations of workers and activists that crop up every generation. And then we thought people seem to like anniversaries, so let’s do that. We started doing that on social media. And we were hoping that it would be viral and it was a lot more successful than we thought, in that. Because I guess for people who are, like, a bit lefty or whatever, seeing a post on social media about something happened on this day, it gives them an opportunity to share something with friends, colleagues in a way that doesn’t seem random, because it is about something that happened today. So now I’m not just lecturing all my work colleagues and family about the Paris Commune of 1871 or whatever, it’s like, “Oh, this is a historical thing that happened today, this is interesting and you might find it interesting, too.” And I think it worked in that way. Because it does give an organic and nice way of sharing information without being a bit fun and without being preachy, or lecture-y, or whatever. So that’s where it came out of, and then as the project’s got bigger we just started trying to do other things like a podcast to look into a bit more detail. Because sometimes we get comments on the on post being like, “Oh, this doesn’t have a lot of background in it, or this should really have a bit more detail.” It’s a social media post. It’s not a PhD thesis or something. We recognize that. We wanted to look into stuff into a bit more detail so we can do it in a podcast. And for people who don’t like looking at stuff online and want to have more of a reference work, we’ve done a book now.
TFSR: I’d like to talk about the book. One thing that you described in there is not a thing that I’ve ever experienced growing up in, I guess, middle class community in the United States, is a knowledge or an expectation or an experience of what a multi-generational working class feeling is. I have tons of friends growing up who were working class. But I think that a thing that you’re describing and that your project is building towards is a little bit different and a little bit something that I’d love to hear if you have any more like insights into how it’s been described to you the sort of like edges that you’ve danced around in trying to create it and what a working class culture in the UK where you grew up, for instance, felt like. What delineates that from just the experience of people who are poor and working and trying to get by?
WCH: I grew up in the southeast of England which is one of the places where the erosion of sense of working class identity has really been very successful especially with policies brought in by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and onwards. The major industries where workers were best organized and most militant were systematically divided up and then defeated one after another, first with the mine workers, then with the print workers, also around the same time period steel workers, and shipping workers were defeated as well, and then later dock workers. So that was one side of it. And then another side of it was around housing, where social housing was attacked and instead ‘Right to Buy’ was introduced, which gave working class people the ability to buy their own council house, which was—especially in the southeast of England where I’m from—massively successful at converting what was a relatively large group of working class people who mostly were Labor voters and identified in that line of things. It was very successful at turning that collective sense of identity into a massive atomized individuals who can do better for them. Because buying your own council house was a move which did help those individual people who did it significantly. And that was the area that I sort of grew up in amongst a lot of people where that had happened. So their families had bought their own home and then had a sense of themselves as very middle class, mostly conservative individuals striving to do the best for themselves that they could. I’m one of the people from that generation that had no connection with these working class oppositional cultures that I just learned about later when I got into lefty ideas and radical politics.
TFSR: Would you mind talking a bit about the book that y’all just published through PM Press and sort of the process that you went through of compiling it? And what do you hope, as a project, that this book will spark or will bring out and people
WCH: The idea for the book came out of our discussions with our publishers, PM Press, who are a great independent, radical publisher, and who contacted us to see if we’d be interested in doing a book, because we hadn’t really thought about it. We were doing social media posts, and then a podcast, and we’d been involved in some print publishing in the past, but it was a huge amount of work and that put us off the whole-put us off the whole thing. PM talked us into it. And we were excited to do it because on a personal level, like, I love books. Books are great and doing one is great. Even, say, for people who follow us on social media, because of the large amount of other people are putting up posts and algorithms, people won’t see everything that we put out most the time only a fraction of a percent see anything that we put out. And also, because of algorithms, certain posts get much more prominent than others. So especially things that are more about countries where more of our followers live, like the US, that stuff gets a lot more engagement and then a lot more people see it. So people who even do follow us on social media might get a very narrow view of the historical events that we have in our archive. And also, of course, a whole bunch of stuff there aren’t photos of. And in this book we do have a lot of photos, we’ve got over 100 photos. We’ve also been able to feature a lot of stories from our archive where there are no images that exist, so we can’t put them on social media.
We wanted to put something out for people who enjoy consuming content in a different medium. And also to have more as a reference that you can flip through without having to look at a screen or whatever. And it was exciting to be able to think of putting together in terms of a whole, creating as a whole thing. So taking a random selection of everything that we post over a whole year, instead of what we normally do, which is every day we post a couple of things. It was good to think “we’ve got 366 days out of the year and these are the countries that we’ve got events about and we want to feature them the biggest amount of countries and have the most diverse range of stories possible with respect to gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation, race, ethnicity,” and that sort of thing. And with the idea of the book being as diverse as our classes—we acknowledge in the introduction to the book that we have made a lot of efforts in this regard but we still have a long way to go due to the nature of the bias of the sources available to us, which are disproportionately about white guys in more developed Western countries. Most of our research over the past few years has been trying to find out and uncover stories about different parts of the world. But even that is tricky because of language stuff and even knowing what you can Google and such. So, while we’ve still got a way to go, we are still pleased at the range of different types of stories that we feature.
TFSR: It’s quite the tome. And it’s been remarked upon before, like, how much of it—so like, two events out of every date out of the year, including the February 29—which, “thank you” from leap your babies. And I appreciate the fact that there’s an index in the back because there’s a thing to be said about the way that we think about information and that we categorize it if your main impetus is, like, “what is the day today?” “What else has happened on this registered day in history?” That can be, in some happy ways, a bit lackadaisical. You’re not going to be flipping from one page to the next and saying, “Well, then what happened after the workers rose up or after the Soviet tanks came in or after, like, the British military massacred people in Kenya?” It’s interesting to just sort of get these little bite-sized morsels of history. And it seems to invite the reader to embark on a journey of research on their own afterwards, and sort of build the context for themselves as to why this is like important—build an understanding and maybe build wider networks with folks that were more directly affected by those historical events.
WCH: Yeah, that’s what we hope it will do. Like, we list all the sources that we use for each of the posts in the back. So that we do hope that if people see something that is interesting to them, they will go and look into it further. Because in our stories, we don’t try and tell people what they should take from them or what they should think because of them. We don’t want to tell people what to think or anything like that. Obviously we have a perspective, there’s a reason that we’ve put these stories in here. We want people to be able to read these stories and then look into them further if they want and figure out for themselves what the relevance is for them, their lives, and any struggles that they’re involved in.
TFSR: Class has a lot of meanings when it comes from different voices. And we’ve talked a little bit about your experience and basically with how class had been experienced by some people in the part of the world that you had grown up in. Can you talk a bit, for the purpose of this project, which I think was started by people in various parts of the world and not just in, like, the UK, for instance. Can you talk about the standards you used to determine something in the book or in the social media posts or in the podcast, or someone that falls within the parameters of what working class is? And why is it important to view it as a position of agency?
WCH: I think there’s so many different ways that you can talk about class. And they all have some validity. But for us, what’s important is we don’t use it as a system for classifying individuals. Our interest in it is as a political tool which is, how can we best understand society? And how can we then use that understanding in order to change it? And we think that class is a really essential tool in understanding that, especially living as we do in capitalist society. So capitalist society is based on the dispossession of the majority of the world’s population. We are dispossessed of means of production. So land, factories, workplaces, etc., we’re dispossessed of that. So that either by enclosures in European countries, and by colonialism pretty much everywhere else, were dispossessed of that, and therefore, we have to work for a wage for people who do own the means of production, who do own land, factories, blah, blah, blah. And that’s the defining feature of capitalist society. And that’s our broad understanding of class and how we use it. The defining feature of working class for us is this dispossession and then the requirement to either work for another or if you can scrape by on state benefits, if your government provides benefits, or petty crime, or whatever else you have to do. Some people use it—and I think in everyday parlance in the UK, it’s much more of a cultural thing. So what class someone says they have is often more to do with someone’s accent than anything else. The kind of British version of Donald Trump, the guy who hosts the Apprentice TV show, he’s, uh— I don’t know, if he’s a—he’s probably not a billionaire. He’s a very rich business owner called Alan Sugar. He sees himself as working class because his background is—that’s his background and that’s like his accent. And he can think that and that’s, that’s fine. That’s one sort of interpretation of it, but for our perspective, he’s an employer. And his wealth is from exploiting the people that have to work for him because we don’t own businesses.
So obviously in the US there’s even different —there’s all kinds of different ways we’ll have a talk about class. Like, in the US, unions mostly talk about the middle class, talk about being middle class. Because of struggles over the past 100 plus years, a good number of people in blue collar jobs have been able to improve their conditions to the point where they can have a decent standard of living because of the struggles they’ve had. So that there’s a lot of union talk in the US of unions defending the middle class, blah, blah, blah, which is funny, really, especially from a UK perspective where middle class normally means kind of like posh people that like films with subtitles and stuff. So we use it as, not about classifying individuals, but about understanding and changing society. So for example, in our archive we have stories about Oscar Wilde, the author and poet and libertarian socialist. And sometimes people will say things like, “He wasn’t working class.” And it’s like, yeah, fair enough. But his political ideas and the kind of world that he wanted to create was one in which working class people were in control of society and were really able to make the most of our lives and live vibrant, free, beautiful lives. That’s the thing that interests us the most, that for us is the key thing.
TFSR: There are examples in the book that do not take place directly within the framework of the means of production and employment—you point to the intersections between the dispossession and the wielding of state, religious, or social power against populations that are marginalized, whether by ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, place of birth. Can you can you talk a little bit about that widening too of the framework of working class? Because I’m sure there’s some people that are some pretty strict Marxists or workerists out there who are of the perspective that, “Well, that’s all fine and good, but that is not working class.”
WCH: And that was one of the reasons that we specifically chose the name that we did, as opposed to something more populist like “People’s History” ala Howard Zinn, a historian who is a big influence on us. Because those vulgar— want to call themselves Marxists or workerists or whatever, are a problem. People who, while they talk progressive talk about overhauling society and building a new type of world, what they often mean in a lot of ways is that they mean that for white male factory worker-type people, and everyone else like women, or Black people, or Indigenous peoples should pretty much be quiet and stop being “divisive” until the revolution, and then all the other problems can be sorted out and hunky dory. And we think that is pretty terrible, in short, not only from a moral perspective, but also it’s completely counterproductive. And it’s a misunderstanding of what class is. While these people may often criticize what they see as identity politics, which is, in most cases, just people in oppressed groups fighting for their own self-interests. They, in fact, are adopting a crude identity politics of their own on the identity of being working class, which they normally also see as excluding other types of identities. And class doesn’t exclude other identities, it overlaps and intersects with all other identities. Obviously, most trans people are working class, most other LGBT people are working class, and the vast majority of the world’s working class are people of color. And they’re located primarily in the global south. And every other type of oppression and exploitation overlaps and intersects with class. For example, things like abortion: wherever you are in the world, whatever the laws are, generally, if you’re rich, you can get an abortion if you need one. Whereas if you are poor, you may not be able to get one, even if it’s nominally legal where you are.
So things like abortion rights are inherently part of a class conflict, class struggle. Abortion rights is just one example—all other types of oppression, racism, homophobia, transphobia, all that sort of thing is very much linked to class, and any single part of our class, fighting for our own interests, benefits all of us because these workerist-type people who would say that struggles of women workers against the pay gap is a section— is a sectional thing, not in the interest of a class of a whole, say, they don’t have that same perspective when workers in one industry go on strike, or one employer go on strike for a pay increase, because they rightly recognized in that case that a victory for one group is a victory for all. And it’s exactly the same with different sections of the working class divided up by any other arbitrary characteristic.
Things like the super-exploitation of migrant workers, or particularly oppressed racial groups, the low pay for black workers in many countries, fighting against that specific racism, exploitation, raises the bar for everyone. So there’s not the constant race to the bottom, in terms of paying conditions where employers can use us to undercut one another. So we thought that was really important to get across. And also point to, historically, that often it has been the most oppressed and the most underpaid workers who have been at the forefront of organizing for better pay and conditions. Not like some populist lefty is trying to say about migrant workers being used to undercut good union jobs or what have you. But more often than not, migrant workers are really at the forefront of workers struggle fighting for better paying conditions and have been. And through history, whether it’s people like agricultural laborers in the United States, or whether it’s people like cleaners in London, England right now, leading so many struggles. Obviously, historically, in the US, women textile workers were often forgotten about. But women textile workers were the first group of workers who properly organized in factories and took strike action. And in the (US) South, black agricultural workers and workers in industries like logging and mining were central and leading in organizing and fighting for better paying conditions, which benefited everyone, including white male workers who often tried to exclude women or black people from their unions.
TFSR: So I’ll totally admit that I haven’t read the book cover to cover and the intro says that I don’t have to so I can just pick it up whenever and say, like, I wonder what happened on June 15. But I am looking forward to continually reading portions as the days passed. I’m noticing a libertarian bent to the stories that are told, for example, I haven’t seen any acts of state by so-called worker states represented as working class events in the book. Could you talk about that a little bit?
WCH: Yeah, well, our approach is summed up in our slogan which is on the back of the book and on our social media accounts, and that’s, “history is not made by kings, politicians, or a few rich individuals, it’s made by all of us.” So that’s the perspective we’re coming from. So the act of politicians and governments isn’t particularly interesting to us because we’re believers in the principle that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. And that was one of the rules of the First International—the first big international socialist organization. And that’s our view of things, that the thing that drives history is not the actions of governments, politicians, or the powerful, it’s the everyday actions, often really small and unnoticeable, by millions, hundreds of millions, billions of us. So that’s what we focus on.
Although we do feature some events which have been done in our name. That have been done by governments which call themselves representatives of the working class. Because we think that as well as learning from successful struggles in the past, we should also learn from our mistakes where terrible crimes have been committed in the name of the working class. So some of the things we include are things like the Soviet Union re-criminalizing homosexuality, which was decriminalized during the 1917 revolution and then in the 1930s was re-criminalized. And that led to the huge numbers of gay and bisexual men being sent to the gulags, to labor camps, to suffer horribly. And that was done in the name of the working class and fighting fascism. We think it’s important to remind ourselves of these things that while those of us who say we want a new world, our ideas are beautiful ideas in a lot of ways. And that we want to create a great world where there’s a lot more happiness and joy than we have now, and a lot less suffering. It’s important to bear in mind that having these lofty ideas in our heads doesn’t always mean that that’s how they work out in practice. And we should be constantly vigilant not to think that the ends justify the means when it comes to certain things.
TFSR: You talked about the limitations of the project in the introduction, such as the limit to two events represented for each day. You also mentioned where you’re starting from, the types of events that you’re aware of, linguistic factors that determine the scope of what you could include. But can you talk about this work in your project in the social media, or in the archives, the work of translating your social media posts on the days of history? Or if you’ve had success through translation to bringing histories that were formerly out of your reach into that wider fold of your project?
WCH: Can I check? Do you mean translating stuff from other languages into English? Or do you mean vice versa?
TFSR: Into English is what I meant, to bring it to your existing audiences. But also, I would imagine that there’s a give and take when it comes to the fact that you’re now doing translations into Arabic and other languages and it seems like you’re trying to expand that framework. Is that right?
WCH: We are very fortunate in that a number of people have got in touch and have launched sister pages, essentially, of Working Class History in other languages. So at the moment there’s WCH sister pages in Arabic, Farsi, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Norwegian, Swedish, and the latest one is Romanian, which is really cool and really exciting to see. Some of those groups also are researching their own events and writing up their own history more about their part of the world. So the Farsi page has a lot of stuff about Iranian radical history, which is really fascinating. And the Arabic page as well about the Middle East. And that’s great, because that’s teaching us a bunch of stuff that we didn’t know. And the Portuguese lot as well are writing a load of great stuff, not just about Portugal but about—especially about struggles in former colonies like Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, and Bissau. So that’s really great for us. And in terms of us finding out things because, as I said, when we first started the social media page, we got a few radical history calendar-type-things and went through and wrote some stuff up, but the ones that we found were massively US and Western Europe and male-centric.
So like I said, the majority of the time we spent looking up new things have been to try and diversify that and correct the bias and imbalance that was in it right from the beginning. And for doing that—not that I want to give any big corporations any praise—but I love Google Translate so much. It’s such an amazing tool that it can do pretty decent, pass-able translations from so many languages into English. So we do use that a fair bit to find out about things. The problem with it being that if writing about something is only available in a language that you don’t speak, you wouldn’t even necessarily know to look something up there unless you had knowledge of it in the first place, which you might not have if it wasn’t in English, if you see what I mean. So it’s a bit—it’s a bit chicken and egg. Basically, when we find out about something in a country or a place that we haven’t heard of, we can use that as an entry point and then read things about it and use Google Translate. And then that references other things which we can then look up. We go down rabbit holes. It’s quite a fun way to—like, nerdy, but a fun way to spend an afternoon like going down a rabbit hole. I did that recently just reading up various things about struggles by Japanese students and things in the 1960s and 70s. I’m sure that there’s lots of stuff that has been written about kinds of stuff by people in academia at some point or by students at different universities or whatever. That’s not the background that we at WCH come from. We wouldn’t even know if any of that stuff exists because most stuff that’s written for academia is then just never heard from again by anyone outside of it, which is a shame I think.
TFSR: Or it’s just behind a paywall so you have to have the JSTOR—shout out to Aaron Schwartz, but most people don’t have that sort of access.
WCH: Exactly. So problems remain where, in the availability of information around the world, but at least on a positive, things do seem to be getting better in that regard. And I think a lot of the time just driven by ordinary people researching stuff and writing it up and then sharing on social media, and then you can find out about it, look into more and what have you, and find more kinds of things that have been digitized around the place. And the more of everything that’s made available online and translated, eventually, the more that we get to find out about all of it. But so it is exciting seeing new things get to get digitized and put online. Yeah, it’s a slow process.
TFSR: Like off topic a little bit, but to the Google Translate thing? Yeah, Google is a terrible company in its application. But also, like, six years ago I was in Istanbul and I remember—like, I don’t speak any Turkish—but I remember sitting in a cafe and one of the workers came up to talk to me because I was sitting in reading, and they asked me what I was reading in Turkish. And I was like, showed them my phone and, like, typed in to Google Translate to translate into Turkish, like, “I don’t speak Turkish, sorry.” And they just put up their phone and they were like, “Okay, well, I was wondering what you were reading—” We just had this conversation showing screens to each other and eventually got to see this, like, barista’s artwork that they wanted to show me that they had drawn and it was just neat to be able to have this conversation that would have been excluded if not for the fact that we had this intermediary technology standing between us. It’s Utopic if not for the fact that it’s owned by a terrible Skynet corporation that is trying to control all the library books.
WCH: I guess you could say at least their business model is more to let people use stuff for free and then just make money off our data in private information, rather than—don’t know if it’s better or worse. Certainly we can make use of it more than, like, the other companies that buy up historical images and then their model is to try and own all the images and then make people pay to use them. Those terrible, terrible things. Capitalism is like, it’s bad?
TFSR: It’s like it’s enclosing everything. So have you considered making a Working Class History page in Esperanto?
WCH: If someone would like to take that on and do that they are very welcome to.
TFSR: Very diplomatic.
WCH: We’ve got a bunch of stuff about that. Esperanto has a really exciting and interesting radical history. And, sadly, a guy that we are planning on doing an interview about him—a guy called Eduardo Vivancos, just died a few days ago, aged 100. He was a guy who, he fought in the Spanish Civil War in the Durutti Column Militia and survived the war, obviously, but he was also a very prominent Esperantist who wrote and did a lot of stuff spreading anarchist and working class ideas in Esperanto, and was able to communicate with lots of people in China and Japan, in particular, at that time. So I think certainly that Esperanto was a really exciting Utopian project at the time. It has a really interesting history.
TFSR: It’s really easy to point to the limitations of it being such a Euro-centric language and what have you. Like, it’s definitely an imperfect thing, but the approach and the desire to have some sort of universal tongue among peoples, it’s a really beautiful idea. A universal tongue that’s not distinctly just English or German or French or Spanish or whatever else. I know that Radio Libertaire in Paris has a weekly Esperanto show that tries to teach listeners how to speak it, which I think is pretty cool to see that still alive. I don’t know.
WCH: Just you saying that and I think that is—the idea is really cool and really Utopian. But what popped into my mind as well is also—also recently what is also about things like Indigenous languages. And so many languages are dying out. I say “dying.” Have been eradicated essentially by colonialism and neocolonialism, particularly with the spread of English. So it is heartening to see, it seems like there’s been a real like growth in interest in trying to—particularly by indigenous peoples—to re-popularize things like indigenous languages and other languages are dying out, which I think is also really important because on the flip side of universal communication there’s also that, like, because of how our brains work, so much of the language we speak shapes how we can imagine things and how our minds work and having languages die is—those whole ways of thinking die out along with them and which is really sad.
TFSR: So in the US, the last national regime was pushing a program of patriotic education, attempting to reform and shape the inculcation of public school students away from influences of critical race theory and projects like the New York Times 1619 projects, as well as “People’s History” ala Howard Zinn, who you mentioned before. States in the US have, with various levels of success, attempted to bar ethnic studies programs and to ban books like Zinn’s. Can you talk about the approach of “People’s History,” which you mentioned as being—or at least in name, at least a bit populist—and it’s maybe like, Zinn’s work or Studs Terkel or other documentarians of working class experiences, how it’s, like, influenced y’all in working class history and why you think the reactionaries find it so threatening, like that sort of approach to popular history?
WCH: Some of the stuff especially being pushed by the last government was extremely worrying with their very blatant attempts to rewrite history, especially for, like, right wing people who like to complain about Black Lives Matter activists trying to rewrite history by removing some statues, and they actually try to rewrite history by making a lot of shit up and lying about it. It’s ironic at the least, especially as it’s also so completely nonsensical that—yeah it is good that there has been a real growth recently in more people-based history, more grassroots history, more Black history, more Indigenous history more history told from the perspective of Black people, Indigenous peoples, and so on. And that is great, and that so many people are out there doing that. But at the same time, that idea in the right wing that these ideas are, like, Marxist indoctrination of schoolchildren is predominant in any public education system is to such a complete joke that. I mean, it’s obviously not funny because it’s extremely disturbed. The fact that a lot of educational institutions pay at least a bit of lip service to teaching about slavery or the civil rights movement, I think a lot of teachers and educators are doing really great work. In a lot of ways, the way that history is still taught for the most part is still very much top down, Euro-centric, colonial, blah, blah, blah.
So anyway, that’s a bit of an aside. People like Howard Zinn was really a big influence. Reading his book for the first time was very exciting. And I think on a personal level, I don’t think I really realized it at the time— I read “War and Peace” as a teenager by like Leo Tolstoy who was an anarchist, but I also didn’t realize that at the time. And intersperse—because the books about the sort of war and all these countesses and counts and whatever. And it’s really fucking long. For anyone who has or hasn’t read or whatever, interspersed through this really long story is a kind an essay about the nature of history. And the thrust of it being that, like, history is not—obviously Napoleon or whatever is a great man of history, but Napoleon is not what has made this history happen. What’s far more important is the infinitesimally small actions of tens of millions of people every single day that goes to create what history is. And I think when I read that, at the time, I thought that was a bit random that this essay was in here amongst all this sort of stories of aristocratic love and intrigue and everything. That actually stuck with me way more than the rest of the book. I think that probably had a real impact on how I think about things later. So obviously it did have an influence on me personally and on WCH in general.
And for reactionaries, yeah, it is threatening because the idea that we as ordinary people have the power to make history and change society is the most threatening thing for the people who are in power now. Because what is in their interests is the fatalistic idea which I think—I don’t know about most people, but probably most people have at least at some time—is that things are the way they are because that’s the way they have to be, and there’s nothing we can do about it. And things will never change, blah, blah, blah. Which is obviously what people thought under Feudalism that the divine right of kings was something which could never be—which was, it was in the natural order of things and it could never be question never be changed. But then when people realize that, actually—Ursula LeGuin was a legendary anarchist, feminist scifi author, who sadly died a couple of years ago, said, I can’t be the exact words, I am paraphrasing. It’s not the right quote, so don’t quote me on it. “Any society that’s made by humans, however, can be changed by humans” which is, of course, true.
TFSR: I think there is some truth to the argument that they’re rewriting history. Like when we push different narratives, it doesn’t mean that people are making up facts. But history is a narrative that—or a series of narratives that we choose to accept or that are accepted by institutions and that shape the way that we view ourselves and we view the society in which we live. And a fundamental shift in that way of adopting, funnily this view that two pacifist at least anarchist-adjacent individuals like Tolstoy and Zinn had of the world…I wouldn’t call it Cultural Marxism like a lot of people on the right do. I think that it does pose a threat to the way that the world is constructed. And we can think outside of the Feudal bounds that we’re stuck in now even.
WCH: Yes. Yes, I concur.
TFSR: Along those lines there is the rewriting of history. But this isn’t even necessarily part of it, this is a byproduct of the fact that people are rethinking their relationship to historical figures who are in primacy in the historical framework—the historiographies that most of us have grown up in the US under in mainstream society. It’s been the history of great men, to paraphrase Gang of Four.
And the breaking down of that, the rethinking of these public figures who do have statues around, whether it be Christopher Columbus, or Thomas Jefferson, or General Robert E. Lee, or Conquistadors or missionaries on the west coast—they’re not even just in the West Coast of the United States. Cecil Rhodes, or whoever—like, statues have been toppled. Statues were at the center of Unite the Tight number one in Charlottesville in 2017, August 12. It was a fight over statues and public representation. And similarly, throughout the United States south there have been the toppling of other statues and monuments, either to individuals or to symbolic ideas of the southern soldier, like, facing north ready to, like, fight back the siege and re-impose—continually impose white supremacy. Symbols like this mean a lot to people. Enough for people to fight over or to like struggle to destroy to build something else. Like, I’d be interested in hearing how Working Class History members felt during this last couple of years, but in particular, this summer during the uprising that took place in so many places around the world.
WCH: It was an exciting time. Not to play down obviously, it came out of horrific events the brutal on-camera murders of unarmed Black men around the US—not to downplay the horror of it. The upsurge in Black-led, self-organized protest and militancy, not just around the US, but that also had an impact, partly because of US cultural dominance of the planet in large part, that also saw similar protests breakout all over the world, and as well as parallel movements in Nigeria—again about police brutality by the colonial era police force. So on the one hand, there was the Black Lives Matter movement. And then at the same time, from our perspective, it looked like a real surge of interest from people in radical history, people’s history, the history of past movements and colonialism and social movements. We had a massive growth in new followers and interactions with our content that was unprecedented, which was exciting for us as a history project, but then also seeing how many of the kinds of discussions happening were about history and the nature of history and the telling of it was interesting and inspiring as well.
Talking about the negative impacts of colonialism that’s not something which I can recall being on the public agenda in my lifetime which is tremendously significant. And then seeing the physical manifestations of that top down—bourgeois if you want to call it right wing, colonialist, capitalist history in the statues of right wing, rich, enslaving, genocidal monuments have been built to these—I think (that) these statues that—they say what our civilization is supposed to be about. That’s what we acknowledge and revere is wealth, genocide, racism, colonialism, and all that. And seeing those symbols being toppled, or damaged, or just graffitied and denigrated. And my favorite one was the Colston statue in Bristol, of an enslaver in Bristol, just being thrown in the river. Chefs kiss! That was really sort of inspiring to see.
Then for some people on the right to complain about, oh, this is rewriting history. These things are happening because people have studied history and a lot of cases, their bodies and their selves, they’ve experienced and lived this history through their ancestors, the trauma and they’ve possessed that and they know their history and the history has been studied and it’s being talked about and this is happening because of the actual history of things. The statute is not the history, the statue is a piece of metal put up by some rich person. This is being done by people who actually know the history, not just whoever Tucker Carlson or some other right wing [beep] spews out about whatever—and especially because so many of these statues as well were erected in in the US south were erected by pro-Confederate, pro-slavery groups like the Daughters of the Confederacy, literally in an effort to rewrite history and change the narrative about what the Civil War was about. About state’s rights as opposed to the enslavement of human beings. So, it’s an interesting time to be a People’s Historian.
TFSR: Some of the stuff that happened over the summer really, like, reminiscent of that, like—and this is like an old, I don’t know how old it is, like the two examples I can think of are—as flawed as the invasion of Iraq was, it’s very flawed—as much as I wish that it had not happened—like, the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein was a pretty powerful public image. At least, I’m not sure how much it was organic and how much it was put together by the invading forces—or the like decapitation of the statue of Stalin in Budapest in 1956. That’s a, there’s some really cool photos of that. But people like their symbols and also people like destroying their symbols.
WCH: And also all the right wing hysteria about them is like absolute nonsense. Like I don’t know if it was seen over here in the US, but in the UK there was this right wing counter protest to Black Lives Matter that happened by these mostly fascists, and mostly fascist Nazi racist types. And from having been crying about, “Oh, they defaced he statue of Churchill,” or whatever. Obviously you can say a lot of bad things about Churchill or whatever. But also, Churchill did—was involved in a big war against Nazis. So I’m not really sure that he is your boy as much as you think. I mean, yeah, he was a racist, genocidal anti-Semite pro-fascist, whatever. So they had this big protest but they got caught on camera like pissing on statues because they’re just drunk Muppets pissing on the statues that a couple of weeks before they were like, “Oh, look at these thugs,” crying like Churchill was a racist on [inaudible] or whatever. Being like, “Oh, that’s outrageous,” and then they just go piss on them. So, how real is the outrage, huh?
TFSR: Yeah. Yeah, here, I don’t know. There was—I remember seeing footage of like a certain neighborhood in Philadelphia where just a bunch of Italian American people were out in this park defending a statue of Columbus because they were afraid that someone that Antifa was gonna come and topple it or something.
WCH: (There) could be a few less statues of Christopher Columbus and some more statues of like Sacco and Vanzetti and Carlo Tresca and if you want to tie in American statues.
TFSR: Yeah totally. A statue the Galleani. I would appreciate that more than, like, a statute of Frank Rizzo. I think they took that one down at least but it was like a racist reactionary. Police Chief in—
WCH: Yeah, in Philly. I think that got blown up at least once or twice didn’t it?
I don’t know about that. The—maybe? The ones that I remember being—or the one that I remember being blown up that was to the police was the—
WCH: Haymarket one.
TFSR: Yeah, the Haymarket one. I think that’s great. That’s maybe the best thing the Weather Underground ever did.
WCH: Yeah, it was similar to a statue of Margaret Thatcher was decapitated by a man with a cricket bat when it was unveiled in England a few years ago that was a fun day.
TFSR: That’s awesome. Back to the interview…
WCH: Yep. Yep. Yeah.
TFSR: So I’ve been a fan of the Working Class History podcast for a while now. Would you talk about the work there and what you choose to cover in it? And do you have any favorite episodes that stand out?
WCH: Well, as I said, we started doing the podcast to try and look some more into some of these stories, and in particular, capture the voices of participants who took part in some of these movements and struggles, to learn from their experiences. We’ve been doing that for a while now. And in terms of what we choose to cover, we’ve got a massive list of episodes that we want to work on. It’s like 160 episodes or something and constantly growing. What we’re trying to do right now is prioritize producing episodes about social movements where the participants are at risk of, because of age, not being able to— And sadly a couple of people that we had lined up to interview about things have died recently before we were able to speak with them. So we’re trying to do a fair bit of stuff about struggles in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s right now, for the most part. Again, as with the rest of project, we tried to have a diverse selection of different types of stories and movements.
We’ve got a couple of series that we’re working through. They’re kind of intermittent series on themed things. We’ve pretty much wrapped up now our series about the Vietnam War where we had a lot of episodes about that, including possibly—I don’t know if it’s my favorite one, but certainly one of—it’s a miniseries about the Columbia Eagle Mutiny where we speak with a guy called Alvin Glatkowski. He was a merchant sailor during the Vietnam War. He was working on a ship with a friend of his, called Clyde McKay, that was carrying 10,000 tons of napalm to be used by US forces in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. He and Clyde hijacked a ship at gunpoint and sailed it to Cambodia, which was neutral, and his story is incredible. He hadn’t been recorded telling that story before. Hearing him tell it and then being able to put it out was something that personally I’m really proud of. And it’s a great story and a crazy story as well. So that’s a favorite, for sure.
Also, on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion in New York, where LGBT people rose up against police harassment, was able to get in touch with few people who participated in the rebellion and were involved in the organizing afterwards, where people set up the Gay Liberation Front, which revolutionized the LGBT rights movement. That was really inspiring to talk to these people as well.
Another occasional series we’ve got is about the British Empire. And we did an episode on the—it was quite timely actually because it was while a recent wave of riots were happening in Hong Kong. I met with a bunch of people who were involved in the Hong Kong riots in 1967 against British occupation, British colonialism. And that was super interesting because I knew almost nothing about that before starting doing the research for that episode. So it was super interesting just to learn about their experiences growing up in British colonial Hong Kong. Especially because it’s always spoken about quite widely is an example of British colonialism done well, and getting to the meat of that. Because up until these riots took place, Hong Kong was a trading post, obviously, but also had a large number of super-exploited factory workers working in like really appalling conditions, making things like—the factory where it was started was a plastic flower factory, and things like that. And it was these riots in 1967 that were successful in substantially changing the nature of British colonialism in the country from a more openly violent and repressive, racist colonialism to, I guess you call it, I don’t know, a more kind of—more friendly Hillary Clinton-style of colonialism, if you want to call it that. So even these examples, people choose of colonialist capitalism being not so bad or what have you, it’s not due to any—it’s not due to the benevolence or the generosity of the oppressors or exploiters or the business owners or whatever. It was due to the self-organized struggle of the workers and the people in the area. So that was really interesting chatting to them as well. And also, in that one of the people I was talking … During the riots there was like a really high profile murder of a right wing talk show personality and that murder was a notorious unsolved murder in Hong Kong history. One of the participants in the interview basically told me who did it. Enough time had passed. And not the name of the person, because obviously they have descendants who could essentially the reasons behind it. I’m kind of a true crime buff, like in my personal life—it doesn’t accord with my political views at all. Other than that I do—
TFSR: Everybody gets their your guilty pleasures, that’s fine.
WCH: No, exactly. And a lot of stuff I listen to is about miscarriages of justice and stuff like that. There’s too many. A really great chat I had as well was a guy called Tariq Mehmood who is a member of the Asian Youth movements in Britain, who fought against racism in the 70s and 80s. Those are the first ones that jump into my mind right now. I’m sure I’m forgetting… I could keep going but I won’t.
TFSR: I know y’all had taken a break at some point. And so I dropped off and restarted it. But the ones for me that really stuck out—and I had to like do a little searching because it’s been a while—are the anti-Zionism movement in Israel I thought was a really fascinating multi-part episode. There was the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, and sort of contextualizing that. And just the Angry Brigade episode I thought was really fascinating to hear voices affiliated with that. And the Grunwick Strike in 1976 I had no context for, that just sort of, like, opened up a lot of conversation for me of experience of, like, workers struggle in the UK among immigrant populations. And there’s just a lot in each of those discussions. And it’s really easy to talk about the context that you can grab out of that that explains where we’re at right now. It explains little snippets of these struggles that people have had that resonate with experiences that others have had. I really enjoyed those ones.
WCH: Cool, thanks. Some of those early ones, apologies for anyone who listen. The quality of them isn’t so great, but we have got better since then from a quality point of view as we’ve learned. And there was a reason that we did the Grumwick Strike episode first. Because we thought that was important just from the things that we’ve spoken about today, because that was an example where this was a group of—they were East African Asian women workers who self-organized a massive and militant struggle that lasted two years. And were unfortunately defeated in the end because the forces against them were just too powerful. Up until that point, the British trade union movement was chauvinist, essentially. The overarching thrust of the movement was towards excluding Black and Asian—Asian, meaning South Asian, primarily anyway—workers and trying to protect privileged conditions for their white members, as opposed to organizing all workers and fighting collectively for better conditions. And the women in the Grumwick Strike pretty successfully exploded that (myth). Obviously there’s still that chauvinist, nationalist current within the work, but it’s much more minor now. Worrying it seems to be getting a bit bigger with—it’s unclear how really it is, and maybe more Twitter-type personalities, villains like Paul Embry who are trying to resurrect this pro-nationalist idea of a traditional working class of white blokes—as opposed to workers uniting together in our class interests. That strike really successfully changed the general atmosphere of the workers movement in a way that made working people stronger, because of course we’re stronger when we’re united fighting against employers, when we’re not fighting amongst ourselves over scraps.
TFSR: So are you all seeking more help with the project? You’ve talked about sister pages coming up and translation work. If you are looking for more help in providing historical insights or translation work, I guess, like video editing, what sort of ways can people participate?
There’s all kinds of ways people can help out. The primary things that we need help with at the moment are things around fact checking research and translation. So if anyone is up for helping with that, that would be amazing. Just get in touch. Email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
TFSR: And where can listeners find out more about your work and grab the book?
WCH: Well, you can follow us on social media, just search whatever platform you’re on for Working Class History. You can listen to our podcast on every major podcast app like Apple, Spotify, whatever, just search Working Class History. There’s links to all of our information on our website, workingclasshistory.com. And you can get the book on our online store, which is at shop.workingclasshistory.com. And all of our work is funded through our readers and listeners on Patreon where you can also get the book for free depending on your patron level and access exclusive content at patreon.com/workingclasshistory.
TFSR: John, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you Thanks a lot for taking the time.
WCH: It was really fun, thanks for having me. And I hope that for the theme music for this you can get the rights to a Gang of Four “Not Great Men,” because I think that would be very appropriate.
The Security State, Far Right and Media Post-January 6th
This week on the show, you’ll hear two segments: chat with Spencer Sunshine on the far right and the government’s reaction following the riot on January 6th in DC and some perspectives on political content removal and social media from anarchist media platforms ItsGoingDown and crimethInc.
First up, anti-fascist researcher Spencer Sunshine talks about the aftermath of the January 6th putsch attempt in DC, mainstream media and Democrat narratives of concerning domestic terrorism, reporting of participation of law enforcement and military in the riot, anti-fascist research, what the stepping down of Trump has meant for his radicalized base and Spencer’s thoughts on claims of rehabilitation by former White Nationalists like Matthew Heimbach. There was a good article published by IGD on the state’s response to January 6th and what it can mean to anti-repression activists here. Also, a great place to keep up on what’s going on in the far right in the so-called US, check out IGD’s “This Week In Fascism” column, soon to be a podcast.
Then, you’ll hear the main host from the ItsGoingDown Podcast and a comrade from CrimethInc (both affiliates of the Channel Zero Network) talking about implications for anarchists and antifascists of the silencing of far right platforms and accounts and how similar moves have silenced the anti-authoritarian left. We talk about perspectives the media may have missed around “deplatforming” by tech giants like Patreon, Facebook and Twitter and how easily the normalization of ejecting non-mainstream narratives follows the trail of profit and power, and the importance of building our own platforms and infrastructure.
A little housekeeping note. For those listeners able to support us on Patreon with recurring donations, we are still fundraising to pay comrades to transcribe and format our episodes into zines moving forward. We’ve started with January 2021, putting out a weekly transcript for translations, search-ability, access to non-aural learners and those with hearing difficulties as well as making it easier send these interviews into prisons where broadcasts and podcasts may not reach. We are still $120 behind our base goal for this. So, if you have some extra dough you can send our way, it’d be much appreciated. We won’t paywall our content ever, but for those who donate at our patreon above the $10 level, you’ll get a monthly zine in the mail sent to you or a prisoners of your choosing in the US as curated by us, plus some one-time gifts.
Other ways to support the project include sending us show ideas, giving us feedback, sharing us with your friends and enemies, or talking your local radio station into playing us on the airwaves! Get in touch with more questions…
From the Fidencio Aldama Support Fund:
We’re raising funds for Fidencio Aldama, an indigenous Yaqui prisoner framed for murder and locked up in Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, Mexico, for his participation in a struggle against a gas pipeline. Fidencio has been in prison since October 2016, was railroaded through the courts, and is currently appealing his conviction. Support will be ongoing, but right now we need funds to get a copy of the case file, help pay for communication, and potentially cover some legal fees.
Xinachtli, aka Alvaro Luna Hernandez, is an anarchist communist Chicano political prisoner in so-called Texas. His supporters have put together a new website for him that can be found at FreeAlvaro.Net. He’s got a bid for parole coming up this year and could use letters of support! Please check for updates on other prisoners and how to support them in the monthly Prison Break column on ItsGoingDown.
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“Let Me Be The One You Need” (instrumental) by Bill Withers from Managerie – Remastered
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Transcription of Spencer Sunshine interview
The Final Straw Radio: Would you please introduce yourself with your name preferred pronouns and any affiliation that are relevant to this conversation?
Spencer Sunshine: My name is Spencer Sunshine, he/him and I have researched, written about, and counter-organized against the far right for about 15 years.
TFSR: So we’re speaking in the days after January 20 2021 and I’m hoping that Spencer, who’s made a name for reporting on far right ideas and organizing from an antifascist perspective, could help break down some, a bit, of what appears to be going on the last two weeks in the US. The mainstream media has been filled with the squishy sound of liberal hand wringing over the broken windows at the US Capitol. As larger portions of the political and economic establishment have chosen to distance themselves from Trump’s claims at the election was stolen, the media has reported on the far right street movements that have been violently engaging not only portions of the population they consider enemies, such as the Movement for Black Lives, or solidarity with immigrants movements, or antifascist and leftist more widely, but increasingly, they’ve also been engaging physically with law enforcement. Can you talk a bit about the framing that the mainstream media and the Democrat Party have been using as a rush to apply terms, like insurrectionaries or terrorists, to what took place on January sixth?
SS: It’s a sort of good and bad thing. They’ve used a lot of language that perhaps doesn’t reflect what I think went on on the sixth, you know, as you said, they’ve used “terrorists”, it’s a “coup”, “attempted coup”, “insurrection”, you know, talking about the “domestic terrorism”, talked about the need to have new laws about domestic terrorism. You know, along with some good things, like a recognition that it’s a violent, antidemocratic movement based on lies, right, or conspiracy theories and propaganda. So there’s good and bad things about how they’ve talked about them. Unfortunately, the worst thing is the way they’re talking about them can easily be applied to the left to and that’s the real, that’s one of the real dangers at the moment.
TFSR: One element that surprised some of the folks and is the swath of groups with competing ideologies that shared space and took action, which, some of which appear to be coordinating. Like, I’ve heard reports in the media that Proud Boys are being accused of having used radios to coordinate certain specific stochastic activities at the Capitol. Kathleen Beleuw, who’s the author of Bring the War Home, has talked about what happened on the sixth, less as an unsuccessful coup attempt, but more as an inspirational flexing by the autonomous fire right, of their Overton window, a la the Early Acts in The Turner Diaries. Is this a helpful landmark, and can you talk about some of the tendencies and groups that are known to have engaged in a coordinated manner around the capital push?
SS: Well, with all due respect, I disagree with Kathleen Belew, as I do on many points with her, I believe this is more a crime of opportunity. And in a sense, the left would have done the same thing if there was a big angry demonstration of 5,000 people and they thought it might be able to storm the Capitol, you know, I could see that happening. Of course, I could be wrong and maybe she’s right, but I think this is a high point for them. It’s true that it was a bunch of disparate groups, but these disparate groups have been acting together under the same banner for quite a while, like really, for the last four years. And at some point, the white nationalists are in or out of it. And there were some white nationalists there, you know, the Groyper’s in particular, but not that many. There were organized groups, I mean, we will find out more, and there’s a lot of wild talk and speculation, and I’m hesitant about a lot of this stuff. So you know, we’ll find out more, how many people were acting in a coordinated fashion, and what they were. Some Oath Keepers were just charged with this. I had no doubt that the Proud Boys were, they have a long, long time street experience and know how to act together as a group. It’s unclear how the actual storming, how many of these people were important in it, and the groups of people driving deep into the Capitol, you know, most people have seen that scene where they’re like, trying to slam the door on a cop and the police are really not sure if they can hold the line against them, like how many organized actors were involved in that?
I think we have to admit that most of the people who went in were not prepared to do this, and were not in organized groups, I think that that’s pretty clear. I don’t think it’s unusual that they’re acting under the same banner, I think the important thing is largely this has been a more moderate group of people, the street actions, the militant street actions have tended towards the more ideological extreme groups, you know, Charlottesville was fascists, and then it’s been largely Proud Boys and to some extent, Patriot Prayer, and now this action, which is you know, an attack on liberal democracy, whatever we think of that, that’s what it is, was done by more moderate political forces. And that’s a really terrible sign. But again, I think it was really a high point for them, they were able to do it because of not their militancy, but a security failure on the part of the Capitol police. Which again, we will find out how much, or to what extent that was intentional, by higher up’s who decided not to put more than the regular police defending the Capitol. It obviously wasn’t true of most of the people on the ground, I mean, one cop was murdered, and the others were clearly engaged in pretty fierce fighting, even though a handful may have, you know, helped facilitate this. So my reading of what happened: I think it’s wrong to call it a coup or an insurrection. If it was an attempted coup, Trump had his chance, they succeeded, right. He could have declared the dictatorship then and should have, and he certainly did not. So I mean, I consider it a takeover or an attack, but mostly a crime of opportunity.
TFSR: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about, like the off duty law enforcement military that participated alongside of civilian Trumpers, and with uniformed police, in some instances, allowing protesters to pass through blockades. Does this, I mean, this has been a long time policy as long back as the Klan’s existed they’ve had affiliations with the police. And I know that back in the 60’s and 70’s, and 80’s, there’s been a push to get more active white supremacists in law enforcement agencies. Does this give a glimpse into a shift in the success of the far right organizing in those institutions? Or is it just kind of more of the same and something that was actually advertised beforehand from the you know, from the Oval Office?
SS: It’s a little hard to say. So first off, the security forces being involved in far right movements is something that happens globally, it’s not special to the US. There’s a huge problem of this in Germany right now. It’s true, there’s been a lot of attempts at recruiting by far right groups, current and former police and military. I think for real, full on white nationalists, they’ve drawn some. I think a lot more have been drawn to the Trumpist movement, and because this was more politically moderate, I would expect more cops and soldiers. Some of these people who are being reported as being arrested are retired, though, I think about half…maybe I shouldn’t say [that], but a number of them that are being reported aren’t current. And if you’re retired, you are in a different position to take part in, you know, further right political activity. And this is pretty common as people leave security forces to move further to the right, or publicly expressed for the right political views maybe that they had before.
It’s always a problem of the alignment between far right forces, and especially lower level police. That’s not new. I don’t know how many really are in these groups. I think the numbers are wildly exaggerated by the groups themselves. Like, the Oath Keepers say that, you know, are specifically oriented towards recruiting current and former police, military and first-responders, but I kind of doubt that they have very many active people from these backgrounds, you know, who are currently serving, who are members of the organization. You can join that organization if you’re just an everyday person, it’s largely a paper tiger. So I’m a little dubious about the claims of how many people are involved or what percentage of police and military are in these groups? I think the opposite is true. There’s a larger percentage of police and military in various far right groups. Clearly, it’s of some substantial-ness because they said a quarter of people arrested are military. This may be a bit of a side effect of who’s been arrested, though, and not the whole demonstration.
I think it’s pretty clear that police and military, it is a speculation, but that they’re more willing to engage in aggressive actions, they’re more trained to do that, and they’re inculcated, military particularly, are inculcated within ideology that it’s appropriate to use violence in the form of political aims, no matter what those aims are, right? I mean, that’s what they’re doing in the military. They’re using violence to forward the US political aims, but they carried that idea over into private life, too.
TFSR: So since the sixth of January, you know, I’ll quit harping on that day, pretty soon, there’s been a lot of chatter about the far right getting doxxed by antifa, as the state was building its cases against participants in that push. Do you know if there have been any antifascist researchers that have been actively feeding information to authorities, or if it’s just the government doing its own work and Hoovering up whatever OSINT from the public happens to be out? Like, DDOSecrets, for instance, has been hosting that trove of Parler content on Amazon servers and putting it out for free, so that’s up for state or non state actors to engage with. I wonder if you have anything to say if there are, quote-unquote, “antifascist researchers” that are actively feeding information to the state, if you think that’s a good idea or bad idea, or what.
SS: I don’t know of and haven’t heard of people who self identify as part of the current antifascist movement who’ve done that. Now, of course, if people out there local far right activists as being there, they show evidence, it is logical that the authorities would use that intelligence to arrest people. And that puts people in something of a bind, like, do you not, you know, out this information, in order to make sure they don’t get arrested. So I think people have largely decided that they’re going to put that information out there, and people can do with it as they will, which has always been the case with doxxing. Um, I don’t know how good the authorities are at at finding stuff on their own. It seems like people who are are outed first and then arrested. I think what’s interesting is a lot of liberals have decided to suddenly do this work, and they’re doing the bulk, I would guess they’re doing the bulk of the doxxing or outing, and they have no qualms about this and they’re definitely feeding information to the FBI. I would guess what you describe is coming mostly from from them.
TFSR: So as the centrist consolidate power in the national government, and the FBI have been knocking on doors and arresting members of the far right, and also some anti fascist and Black liberation activists across the country. For instance, one of the bigwigs in the New African Black Panther Party was visited by FBI in New Jersey recently, and a former YPG volunteer who does community defense work in Tallahassee, Florida was arrested after posting on social media that people should go and oppose any far right armed presence on the 20th. But Biden’s denunciation of anarchists throughout the uprising rings in my ears, does this signal Democrats engaging more actively in a three way fight? And what do you think that that will mean for those of us anti-authoritarian left’s? Could this be like, a way to Trojan-horse in a domestic terrorism claim against antifascists that Trump wasn’t able to get through, alongside of the building up, or ramping up of like, quote-unquote, “Black identity extremist” pushes that his administration was making?
SS: I don’t think the way that Trump addressed the antifa movement is going to be carried on by the Biden administration. I mean, a lot of things Trump said just didn’t make any sense, like the domestic terrorism designation, because there isn’t one. It’s true right now that they’re trying to introduce new laws about domestic terrorism, which is ridiculous, even from a liberal perspective, because there’s plenty of laws on the books to do that, as we’ve seen over and over again, used against the left. It’s clear that any crackdown on quote-unquote, “domestic terrorism” is going to at least peripherally affect the left. There’s many reasons for this: Biden really wants to reach across the aisle to the Republicans, and he’s going to want to throw them at least a little bit of raw meat, so they’ll make some arrests, even if the pales in comparison to the far right. Also, once FBI agents, this is a real problem they get when they make busts and convictions, it’s good for their career, and as they run out of far right activists, they’ll want to find more terrorists, and if they can’t do that, produce more terrorists. And that will ultimately turn their attention to the left and Black liberation movements and such.
I don’t know I kind of expect Biden to talk left and walk right about these issues, I think he’ll give lip service to Black Lives Matter. I think they’ll continue to be arrests, especially as you know, if conflicts continue to go on, if there continued to be, you know, military demonstrations in cities after the cops kill more Black folks, as they will. I don’t expect a big crackdown on the antifa movement, especially now, as the antifa movement has sort of gone in a seesaw motion about whether it’s popular with liberal liberals or not, like four or five times, and it’s “in” right now. And unless something really dramatic happens, I think it’s going to kind of stay that way, that after the capital takeover, liberals and centrists sort of have understood in some way that something should have been done about the street forces. And the antifa movement is the only thing to inherit the mantle of having done something about them. So I don’t expect it, I hope not, it is possible. I think there definitely will be some people thrown under the bus just to make an appearance of the both sides-ism by the federal government, though.
TFSR: I guess to correct the question that I asked, because I totally failed to recognize the fact that it was Muslims and people from Muslim majority countries that were the main target following 911, of a lot of anti-terrorism legislation, and a lot of the enforcement was focused on entrapping people in immigrant communities and of the Muslim faith into quote-unquote “terrorism charges”, even if there was, you know, a manufacturing of the situation.
SS: Yeah, sure how much of that is gonna continue? I’m not sure how much of that has happened in the last few years even. But I believe that these techniques of entrapment will continue on for whoever. And it is possible if the whole terrorism thing, you know, domestic terrorism thing amps up that they’ll turn their attention back to the Muslim community. There’s enough of an industry built around that, that they can use that base, and they can always come up with some more people to entrap.
TFSR: So we were promised on January 20, that we would see a day of massive right wing protests at state capitals around the country as well as in DC. Obviously, DC was totally locked down and militarized pretty tightly. What do you think contributed to the relative quiet of the days since the sixth? Was it the drumbeat of the media, the chilling effects of federal arrests, the shutting down of Parler and silencing of other social media, the far right or Trump making his way out of office or conceding as much as he did? And what do you think it says about the future of the movement that he really helped to galvanize and whip into fervor?
SS: Well, I think Trump conceding really deflated them, right? They were inflated by this idea that he was gonna fight to the bitter end or on, and Q-Anon even had this, their last ditch theory was all those military, the National Guard was in DC, because Trump was finally going to arrest the satanist, pedophiles, and that was what the military was actually there for. But I think in general, his concession deflated them, I think the massive turning of public opinion against them, including by non-Trumpist republicans really chastise them. And they realized that was a bad move, that was really bad PR to do that. And to repeat that on a state level, you know, in state capitals was only going to further de-legitimize them. I think, you know, as I said before, their success was a failure of the security forces, and I think statewide, once the government decides it’s not going to allow militant political action, they can control that situation. And that was definitely what was going to happen, you know, in various state capitals.
I don’t know how much the move towards other platforms really motivated that you can always get the word out. So that I don’t think was an important factor. I think people are biding their time, biding, ha ha, their time about what the next move is, but I think their movement’s going to shatter. It’s going to, well, not necessarily shatter, but it’s going to have a bunch of schisms, there’s going to be a fight for the soul of the Republican Party, and the non-Trumpists are going to try to take it back. And they’re going to be on good ground to say “Trump lost and so you don’t have the popular ideology”. And then, of course, some people are going to, you know, move out of the movement towards a more radical position and a more anti-current, some people say an “anti-state”, I think this is the wrong thing, anti-current US government position and anti-police position, and we will see more brawls with police, and more turning against even the moderate Republicans then is already there. So there’ll be a splinter amongst the Trumpist street forces that way, between the Back the Blue people and those becoming more and more radical. And the way that Neo-Nazis, long ago, decided to, sort of, move back towards the center about this, but you know, in the 80’s, decided that they were going to take a revolutionary position, and the police and the federal government were their enemies.
TFSR: Kind of on that line, I was wondering, so in the last couple years we’ve seen the dissolution of, the disappearance to some degree, of visibility, at least around groups like RAM or The Base, or Atomwaffen Division. And I’m sure that like, there definitely were some arrests, but I’m sure not everyone just gave up on the ideology. Where do you think that those folks are putting their energy now, do you have any speculation on that?
SS: That’s a good question. You know, by 2018, the fascist groups involved in the alt right, pretty much collapsed. You know, as Richard Spencer’s speaking tour got shut down and Traditionalist Worker Party fell apart in the Night of the Wrong Wives, that was really kind of the end of that being such a big and growing movement. And then the feds decided to smash Atomwaffen and The Base after the El Paso massacre, they finally were like, alright, well, this is a problem. And when they want to disrupt a network, they can really do it. So they have arrested most of those people and that’s put the more radical, well “militant” is the wrong word, the pro-terrorism, part of the Neo-Nazi and related milieu, has scattered it, has shattered it, really.
The biggest group now, this was something that a lot of people overlooked, but American Identity Movement dissolved the day before the election, who were one of the two big remaining white nationalists, you know, fascist groups. And they seem to have entered the Groyper movement, which is the real living part that’s come out of the white nationalists — well almost white nationalists because I believe they do allow in people of color, but run by white nationalists, part of the remaining part of the alt right — and they have done an entryist move to try to move the Trumpist base to the right. And they were, of course, present on the sixth, they had flags, they were present as a bloc. So that’s the main thrust of things. I think people maybe who were involved in 2016, 2018, I think a lot of them have probably given up being politically active. New people, especially tend to cycle through activists who are really active, you know, often cycle through an 18 months, a year. James Mason actually calls it the 18 Months Syndrome, which I like. And there’s a similar thing on the left, where a lot of people get involved in these mass movements, and then burn out pretty quickly, although some of them will remain. But I don’t know, it is actually a good question of where a lot of these people went. I mean, the people who run groups that help ex-white nationalists leave have said there’s more and more people coming to them, and coming through them. So it’s clear a chunk of people have been leaving the movement for the last couple years.
TFSR: Well that’s good news. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the Groyper movement? I know Nick Fuentes is the name that comes up frequently with that, but so they identify ideologically as fascist and are entryists into the Republican Party. Is that a fair description?
SS: I don’t know whether they identify as fascist or not. I mean, they’re definitely trying to downplay that. I mean, I think they are, and they originally were trying to enter the Republican Party very openly, and take positions and local GOPs. I think more they’re trying to influence the base more at this point. But it’s not a movement I’ve watched real closely either, to be honest. So I mean, they haven’t been at the forefront of anything, but they’re sort of simmering in the background, but I think they’re in one of the better positions moving forward. They haven’t disbanded. They’re not organizing independently as white nationalists. There’s a question of: do you organize independently as an independent political movement or as an adjunct, and somehow part of a bigger movement, and they’ve picked that strategy. And it seems like a successful strategy as all the other groups have collapsed, except Patriot Front, who are digging down into their sectarianism and their events are decreasing in size.
So I don’t know they’re, I think they’re in a good position, they’re in the best position of the white nationalist style groups. And I think going forward the militias are also going to be in a good position, they can easily pivot towards being anti-federal government, which are their traditional talking points. I was actually kind of surprised they were able to keep up their movement as much as they did under Trump.
TFSR: Yeah, I guess the idea of centralizing your authority, like, it seems like there’s a lot of strains, and I’m gonna forget the names of these specific divisions within a lot of the militia movements, but that sort of align with the idea of a strong Sheriff or like some sort of like constitutional sovereign, Dominionist, I guess, is a term that falls in there. And it seems like having a strong central authority that, to some degree is viewed as imposing, even as much as he didn’t, imposing like Christian values could sort of, like a lot of people were internalizing this idea of Trump as their strong leader, as a representative of America and of masculinity and all these things, so even if he was in the central government, he wasn’t viewed as being of the federal government. SS: Yeah I mean, I think that’s how they viewed him. He was a sort of singular figure and because he was fighting, quote-unquote “the swamp” they could say that was the federal government that they were opposed to. I agree that their basic themes were all reflected in Trump. The there’s an interesting history to this, that backs that perspective up, is a lot of the original militia movement comes out of a white supremacist group called Posse Comitatus, that was founded in 1971. And there was a split amongst white nationalist after the collapse of the segregationist movement by the civil rights movement, and the new laws by the federal government supporting civil rights.
Basically, one wing — and this actually happened specifically in a Christian identity church, a white supremacist church, run by a pastor named Swift — moved towards Neo-Nazism. And the thing with the Nazis is that they want a big government, you know, with total power and an economy that they alter in some ways, they want some control over the economy. And so Richard Butler took over Swift’s church and moved to Hayden Lake and established his compound and move towards Neo-Nazism. Another person in this church, William Gale founded Posse Comitatus, which, you know, became the basis of the militia movement. Instead of wanting more centralization after the failure of the segregationist movement, and wanting to take the government over — or take a government over, establish a new government — he moved in the other direction. And he said, Well, states rights failed, but what we need then is essentially kind of county rights, we need more decentralization, because then we can resist the federal government this way. It’s the same themes as you pointed out, it’s the same themes that are being pursued in two different tactical directions. The militias, I thought they did a very clever thing: all their talking points should have led them to oppose Trump, and they did a very clever move to somehow convince their base that they should actually support all the talking points that they, you know, all the things that they’ve opposed all these years. But I mean, it just shows us that what’s driving them is not a true desire for decentralization, but it’s merely a tactical way to achieve these reactionary goals.
TFSR: Localized, patriarchal, like authoritarianism, sort of.
SS: Yeah, pretty much pretty much.
TFSR: In a recent story in The Guardian, people monitoring the far right Q-Anon conspiracy movement speculated that the vanishing of Q Drops and a loss of faith in the community may lead to a large repelling of former followers. Would you talk a little bit about, because we haven’t really talked about Q-Anon on the show, and I’m sure that listeners have heard tons about it and maybe been doing their own research, there’s lots of podcasts about it. But would you talk about the antisemitic roots of conspiracy theories like Q-Anon, and efforts by white nationalist movements to draw them in?
SS: Yeah, I think they’re being black pilled. They’re already red pilled, right, because that’s like Trumpists. So now there is a real fear a lot of them will move further into sort of fascist circles. And and some of them will, I mean, I’m hesitant to say the majority of them will, but even if a few do that can be a significant gain for fascists in the United States. Most conspiracy theories have a relationship to antisemitism, either they’re sort of washed out de-anti-Semitized versions of conspiracy theories, where they emerge from them, keep the same structure, so often keep the same targets but sort of remove being explicit that they’re being targeted because they’re Jewish. Soros is a great example of this, right? Where as it’s become more popular, it’s not, it’s become unspecific that he’s Jewish. And people will even say, Well, that doesn’t matter. But the whole conspiracy theory was a traditional antisemitic conspiracy theory, and it was specified that he was Jewish and that’s why he was being targeted.
And once you get into these conspiracy circles, they move around. I always see it as a shell game, so you have three shells, and one of them is antisemitism, one is a sort of washed out antisemitism, and one of them is just something else. And the you know, the coin or whatever, the shells are constantly moving around, you have to guess which one it’s underneath. And so as people get in these discussion circles, there’s all kinds of cross pollination, and part of that cross pollination will be antisemitism, because that has created so many of the conspiracies, so many conspiracy theories originated as antisemitic conspiracy theories.
This idea of the global one where a government became the New World Order was antisemitic, all the stuff about the Federal Reserve, that was formed as an antisemitic conspiracy theory, Cultural Marxism, Soros, the list goes on and on. And once you get into conspiracy theories, it’s a narrative. It’s actually a pretty standardized narrative that’s been around a couple hundred years. And once you believe in that narrative, which is a fact free narrative, nothing stops you from moving into bigoted territory, right? You’ve already become dis-attached from facts and reality, you’re already playing around in a fantasy world and often switching around who’s the agent of a conspiracy.
So at some point, you know, the Jews, or specific Jews will become the target of the conspiracy theory. And you’re not epistemologically grounded, you’re not grounded in your sense of what you accept, to resist this anymore. Not for most people. Occasionally for Jews, people will draw a line, and a few other people, at the Jews being named, but, you know, sometimes you may get Jewish people who embrace these conspiracy theories, so.
TFSR: I guess I’m a separate, separate and final note, Matthew Heimbach has been repackaging himself as a former white nationalist. I didn’t know if you had any thoughts about his instance, in particular, but I’d be curious on your thoughts of how we as an antifascist movement can assess supposed turns from white nationalism and people who are drawn to the limelight, and what time maybe should pass, and what reparations would look like to prove that someone has actually moved away in more than just words from the activities. Do you have perspectives on when it makes sense to judge that someone has left the far right and can be listened to for useful perspectives?
SS: Yeah, I do. I’ve spent a long time talking to formers and I sort of helped someone who had already left the movement, he had just left, navigate this process over a year or two. I think it takes people a couple of years. A lot of this problem has been introduced by a group called Light Upon Light that’s run by a quote-unquote, “former Islamist” who attracted a bunch of quote-unquote, “former Nazis”. The problem is the group has allowed people to keep what are more moderate, far right views: Islamophobic views, anti-antifa views. And normally, formers or groups of formers, make people go through a process, make them make amends, and expect them to embrace some sort of equality for all, right? At the very least. Not to become left wingers, but embrace civil rights and equality for all as part of the repudiation. And Light Upon Light did not do that.
Jeff Shoep, who came out of the National Socialist Movement, almost overnight, became a former who was speaking out, and while I do believe he in particular, has honestly left white nationalism, I don’t think he’s gone through this process. And then his friend Heimbach, you know, again, suddenly, in a matter of months, declared himself a former white nationalist, and he, I don’t believe at all by his statements has left it in his heart. And now he’s left Light Upon Light and move back further to the right. And I just, I just don’t believe that he has, I think people should take a couple years and go through a process. They need to confront why they were attracted to this movement, they need to publicly talk about the damage they did, and they need to make amends. And, you know, I think this is not an instant process, and anyone who does this in six months or even a year, I wouldn’t necessarily trust.
Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t trust that they’ve left the movement and a sense of detaching themselves from those networks and stuff. I just don’t believe they’ve gone through this process. If you’re talking about when should we take their opinions seriously, I think they need to sit down with it. And all the former’s will say this, everyone I’ve talked to, or maybe the Light Upon Light people don’t, but like, they need to sit down and have a real internal dialogue about what it was that attracted them to this movement, and how it is that they’ve moved past these ideas, and if they have. It needs to be a real reckoning with themselves. So people who come out and immediately try to posit themselves, especially as very public formers, you know, I don’t buy it,
TFSR: I think also like, and again, as you say, it’s like not, it’s not to be expected that someone’s gonna move from, you know, from a far right, white nationalist, Neo-Nazi perspective, into an anti fascist or leftist perspective, or whatever. And maybe that’s not to be expected, and that’s fine. But like, Heimbach in particular is an individual who has been trying to hold and build a space that would like draw this third position. And so he’s already had a long time working through ideas of how do I appeal to the people on the left? How do I use language that will appeal to people who are left of center? How do I draw on narratives of identity politics and equality? You’re like a quote-unquote “right wing multiculturalism”, you could almost say, so, you know, that’s not to say that he couldn’t change. But he seems like someone who especially particularly has a prevalence towards being able to being comfortable using language in a way to manipulate people towards an argument that they wouldn’t think necessarily of adopting in the first place. I guess anyone that’s an organizer is going to try to do this sort of thing. But for me, in particular, I look at him and I look at his closest to like National Bolshevism or other projects like that, and it makes me think, like, I want to see for sure that he is doing this other work before I necessarily believe that comes out of his mouth.
SS: Yeah, no, I think the Third Positionists are in a better position to do that, because they tend publicly not to denigrate people of color. That was always his shtick in Traditionalist Worker Party, and tend to say that they want to stand up for the interests of the working class, and they’re interested in environmentalism, and it’s pretty easy to move that and claim it’s just not a racist perspective anymore. And you know, he doesn’t seem to have changed his tune very much. You know, it sounds like stuff he said in TWP. And he certainly hasn’t said what was wrong with TWP, and he hasn’t made any amends, people have to make amends. I believe they do. And he just hasn’t gone through any process. So there’s no reason to believe him.
This is gonna continue to be a problem where people like him say they’re leaving, but don’t seem to be leaving at all. I mean, they may leave the networks, and that does mean something, you know, that does mean something. But that doesn’t mean, I’d rather that they not, I don’t want these people really to join the left, not for a few years. We’re not going to gain that many of them. I think after a few years, and after going through this process, they can, but we’re probably going to have more and more people do that, like leave the networks, but still, you know, still talk far right still have more moderate far right views?
TFSR: Well, I was hoping that you could maybe tell us a bit about where people can find your writing, the publications that you’ve put out. For instance, 40 Ways to Fight Fascists: Street-Legal Tactics for Community Activists? Where can people find your stuff? And how can they support you on Patreon?
SS: So 40 Ways to Fight Fascists: Street-Legal Tactics for Community Activists is a guide I did with PopMob, the Popular Mobilization group in Portland, Oregon, that’s helped, bring people to the demonstrations out there. It does what it says on the tin, it offers 40 things that are legal, actions you can take to combat a fascist in the violent far right, a lot of options in there for people who can’t get out on the streets for whatever reason, if they’re, you know, physically disabled, or they have to take care of their families, or they’re elderly or whichever they are, that’s available for free on my website, it’s spencersunshine.com/fortyways, there’s printable PDFs there. I encourage people to print them out themselves and distribute them in their area.
My other writings are all available on my website spencersunshine.com, almost all of them are free. If you want to follow me on Twitter, it’s where I’m most active transform6789, on Facebook and Instagram, if you like funny, anti-far-right memes, follow my Instagram. And of course, I am an independent researcher and writer, I used to work for Think Tank, and I have left them and I don’t have any organizational support. So if you like to throw me a few clams on Patreon, you know, just Spencer Sunshine.
TFSR: That’s awesome. Is there anything else that I didn’t ask about that you want to mention?
SS: Yeah, sure. I think it’s a big Pandora’s Box about what’s going to happen for the next year, I think people need to be very aware and stay active for the next year. And I think the anti fascist movement, and monitors, you know, who don’t identify with that term, it goes up and down in reflection of the growth of the far right. And I think what happened last time, because I caught the big boom of the 80’s and 90’s, and then it went down and then it came back up in 2016-17, during that time almost all the structures collapsed. People need to make a plan and people need to make a commitment for having a longer term structure that stays in place in the way, for example they have in Germany and such, because it takes a while to get moving. And that’s a bad thing, because that means the fascist and other movements will move first, and will have to play catch up. And we want to try to prevent that situation from happening again.
TFSR: And I think that like one thing, when people think about anti-fascism in the US is we don’t necessarily have a positive vision towards it. Like, we maybe think or talk about people confronting in the street or doing the ongoing research, which is very helpful for communities to keep themselves safe, maybe training, but I think that there’s other groups, like for instance, PopMob that you wrote that piece with, that are doing above ground discussions and work around other things, and include anti fascism. So maybe this is also a good time for people to find their own, like positive antifascist projects to engage with.
SS: Yeah I think there needs to be like PopMob does, a lot of open grassroots and legal organizing, also, that can sustain for a longer period of time, that isn’t connected to the militant antifascist stuff. That turns too many people off. And it’s not always the best way to deal with some of these problems. If we want to reach a broader group of people, there needs to be a different kind of organizing, it can’t have the label of everyday antifascist, which is what PopMob uses. Or it could have another label, like I take the position of “it doesn’t matter”, you’re doing you know, it’s almost sometimes called The Work, you’re doing work against the far right or you’re not. So we want to make the work accessible to people.
And that can include really positive things, I think people should do — and I’ve covered some of this and 40 ways — a lot of educational work. This is done in Germany and other places where the antifascist movement is much broader. Like one of the things I like is memorial events where people that have been killed by the far right, or there’s been historic massacres, to sort of keep this on people’s minds in the community about what the stakes of this are. And just that this is a political movement that comes and goes in America. And you know, you can have reading groups or other other things, and understand that this is a movement that’s really part of American life. There’s been fascists, there’s been Nazis in the United States since the 1920’s. We’re, you know, coming up, I think 1922 was the first Nazi, so we’re coming up on 100 years of Nazism in America. And these other far right groups go back, you know, anti-Masonic theories were popular in the 1790’s.
Andrew Jackson’s presidency is often looked at as the first, kind of anti-liberal, far right movement that starts this consistent thing, the Klan starts in the 60’s. So we have to be aware, this is a permanent fixture of American life, and it may have a more moderate form, you know, sort of like Trumpist stuff that’s attached to the right wing of the Republican Party, or may have a more vicious form of Neo-Nazis and rather violence, street movements, and this isn’t going to go away.
People need to learn how to pay attention to this. I think the left lost vision, lost a sense that this was here, from 2000 to 2016, or 17, neo-liberalism became the single enemy on the right. And there became a loss of vision that you know, there could be this other populist far right, that was very vicious too.
TFSR: Thank you so much, Spencer.
SS: Thanks for having me on the show.
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Transcription of Interview with IGD & CrimethInc
TFSR: Would you please introduce yourselves as you see fit and whatever projects you affiliate with for the purpose of this chat?
CrimethInc: For the purpose of this conversation, I’m just a participant in CrimethInc Ex workers collective associated project.
ItsGoingDown: I work on ItsGoingDown.org which is a news media platform and podcasts and radio show, along with CrimethInc, The Final Straw, the Channel Zero Anarchist Podcast Network.
TFSR: Since the right wing riot in DC on January 6, many of the larger social media platforms have begun purging accounts affiliated with far right groups and tendencies present at the Capitol and big data has been de-platforming apps like Parler. Can y’all maybe talk about what you’ve seen with this and how you think it bodes for anti-authoritarian projects on the left that challenge the state?
IGD: I‘ll start off. I think one thing to point out is that there’s a narrative that this is, like, de-platforming censorship. I mean, obviously, we can point out that this is coming from private companies, not the state. I mean, the First Amendment is supposed to stop the state from censoring speech, and people’s ideas. It doesn’t have anything to do with private companies. I think which is interesting, because I would argue that there’s probably more evidence to support the fact that the government has put more pressure on private companies to de-platform anarchist, antifascist and people on the left. But I would say the tendency to remove far right groups and figures from platforms though has not come from like, you know, people picketing outside Twitter or sort of this push from below. Which is sort of how the right portrays it. It’s instead come after large scale incidents, things like at the Capitol, or Charlottesville, where these companies basically have freaked out.
If you read the book Antisocial, which is sort of like a history of the alt right online, I mean, literally, as Charlottesville was happening, the people at Reddit, like the people that run the company, were scrambling because they were terrified they were somehow going to be found legally responsible for what was going on. And they were literally purging all these big accounts. So it really has nothing to do with a personal political stance, or like getting pressure. I mean, from what I’ve heard from journalists and other people that have talked to people at Twitter, or have relationships, they’re very aware that certain people on the far right are literally, for years, have violated the terms of service. But yet they’ve made a decision not to ban them because either they have big accounts or they feel if they got rid of them that that would just cause too much of a riff, or a problem.
I think Trump is a really good example: they finally got to the point where they’re like, okay, we know that he’s gonna be on his way out, we can finally make a decision at this point where, you know, we can get rid of him, and we’re not gonna be in this weird political situation. Like we can successfully do that. And it’ll look fine because he’s just messed up so bad. I think like Alex Jones is another good example. They chose to get rid of Alex Jones at a time when he was facing all these lawsuits for the Sandy Hook stuff. So I mean, they made a good decision to take him off, because if they would have allowed him to continue, they might have been held legally responsible.
So I think that we have to remember that these corporations usually are taking these moves to remove stuff because they don’t want to be held legally responsible. I think the other side of the coin is like the stuff that they’re doing around things like Q-Anon or COVID-19 Truther-ism or stuff like that, there is a lot of pressure for them from different forces to get rid of that stuff. So it’s a little bit different. I think, like in that instance, recently, like when ItsGoingDown and CrimethInc was kicked off Facebook, I think that was very much an instance of people that were tied to the Trumpian state putting pressure on Facebook to remove certain pages. And in fact I think it’s very telling, in that instance, the names that Facebook gave the press when they were talking about the stuff that they removed, even though it was much larger than just several accounts. But it was you know, ItsGoingDown, CrimethInc, and the Youth Liberation Front in the Pacific Northwest. It was like they got a like an Andy Ngô dream list of accounts, especially for what was happening at the time, which is, you know, Portland was like the big story. So it made total sense to get rid of that stuff is very strategic move, and it had nothing to do with stopping violence or things in the street or anything like that. I think that there’s very different dynamics at play, in short, going on in terms of like how people on different sides are getting thrown off, just to start off the conversation.
C: Who they ban is an indication of the balance of power in our society, basically, to build off what what you’re saying. They ban people if they think that they could, that their speech on these platforms could contribute to a legal risk, but the legal risks are also determined by the balance of power, what’s viewed as legitimate, and how court cases would be likely to go. You know, they certainly would not have banned Trump from Twitter if Trump had won another term by a majority of votes and controlled everything. They would have been trying to figure out how to make peace with him because he would be the one calling the shots. They were able to ban him on his way out, and Jack Dorsey maintains that he was compelled to ban Trump by employees at Twitter who were pressing him to do so, that may be true, that may be the equivalent of labor organizing, but it certainly would not have happened if Trump had less power.
So that’s one of the things we’re gonna have to talk about, repeatedly in this conversation, is how the line between who is banned and who is not relates to the balance of power and how groups that are already targeted, and that are already marginal, can engage with that. The other thing that I want to speak to regarding the recent bands of Parler, and Donald Trump from social media platforms, is that this is taking place in a context in which the state apparatus, the FBI, the police, and so on, are dramatically refurbishing their image for the Biden years. And this whole sort of liberal centrist discourse that has been sympathetic to criticism of the police or the federal government over the last four years under Trump is shifting to cheer-leading for these things.
This is part of the shift to the right that is taking place across society even as the extreme right is excised from legitimacy. You know, and it’s taking place in the same context that now we see self-professed liberals calling for people from the Trump administration to go to Guantanamo Bay. Just accepting the premise that there should be a Guantanamo Bay when not that long ago, liberals were calling for Guantanamo Bay to be abolished.
So we’re really seeing state censorship, corporate censorship, and all of these things that previously would have only been endorsed by right wing groups become extended now to to become liberal discourses or even left discourses. And the risk is that whatever corporations, or for that matter governments, do to the far right, they will always use that as a cover to do the same thing to what they perceive to be the opposite numbers of those groups on the far left. So, as my friend said it, it’s not a coincidence that in summer when Facebook announced that they were banning Q-Anon militia groups, that they also banned CrimethInc, ItsGoingDown and dozens of other anarchist and antifascist journalists and publishing groups, that they will always take those steps. And so really, what we’re seeing is a re-consolidating of power and legitimacy in a political center that will absolutely go after the very same people who have been struggling against fascists all this time.
IGD: Just to kind of drive that point home real quick: two months ago, the New York Times did a little video on like New York Times opinion (if you go on to YouTube and type in “New York Times opinion Q-Anon” it’ll pop up) but it’s a short 10 minute video about Q-Anon. But like, two thirds of the way through, what they do is they say, like, conspiracy theories aren’t logical and then they use like several examples: they talk about conspiracy theories around the JFK assassination, they bring up something else, and then they say “look at anarchism”.
And it’s funny, because they have this picture of Noam Chomsky that pops up — which, of course, Chomsky has submitted stuff and had stuff run in the New York Times for years, which is I find ironic — but they say “anarchism has always never worked and always imploded whenever it’s been put into practice”. Which anybody that knows the history of anarchism knows that actually not true, that it’s actually a history of states and outside forces and fascists and Stalinists and capitalists destroying anarchist societies and projects. I think that that example in itself is telling because what they were trying to do is they were trying to create a narrative of that, you know, we’re the center, we make sense, you know, we’re based on facts and reason. And then there are these crazy people outside, whether it’s Q-Anon on on the right, or anarchist on the left, you know, and those are the real wackos, and stuff like that.
I think it’s also telling too that we could do a whole thing about Q-Anon and like, you know, the various forces that support it, and have pushed it, whether it’s people, state actors, or even people with deep pockets, and, you know, moneyed interests and stuff like that, as opposed to anarchism, which is this grassroots movement from below that’s existed for, you know, over 100 years. Wherever poor and working and oppressed people have struggled, there’s been anarchist. I mean, obviously, the two are very different, but they’re trying to really draw that line between them. I think that example, just kind of like really solidifies for me, at least, you know, the coming terrain of how the center sees things,
C: Right, you know, in a phrase, “narrow the Overton window”, they’re not saying “get rid of the far right, because they kill people”. They’re, you know, they’re saying, “narrow the Overton window, consolidate the legitimacy of the center and emphasize the legitimacy of the other groups”.
IDG: Yeah, and I think that’s why, going forward, it’s going to be important to push back, in terms of what we’re talking about here, but also in terms of any attempt by the state to enact new “domestic terrorism laws” that really are going to come back on us much more hard than anything on the far right. I mean, the state has more than enough tools to arrest everybody that’s already going online saying “yes, we will commit the crimes today, and here’s my address, and here’s what I plan to do, and here’s my five buddies I’m talking on discord about it with”. I mean, they’re very apt to go after those people if they choose to do so. What they chose to do over the past five years or so, as we’ve seen an ascendancy of social movements, is instead double down and focus on Black Lives Matter, who they’ve labeled “Black Identity Extremists”.
We know that there’s a “Iron Fist program” that the FBI has developed, this has been documented by outlets like the Intercept, which like COINTELPRO, they’ve only described in documents as a program to disrupt the Black liberation movement. We know through Fusion Center documents, like police and FBI and homeland security agents are looking at things like InfoWars as like legitimate sources.
If you look at things like the BlueLeaks, some of the stuff that’s coming out of that is just incredible, like FBI agents believing that antifascists are being paid by Bitcoin through ads on Craigslist to go to protests. I mean, it’s just batshit. But obviously the state has made a decision over the past couple of years to, surprise, surprise, go after autonomous anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-racist movements from below as opposed to looking at the burgeoning far right threat. And now it’s outside their door. Now, it’s actually at the point where it’s starting to disrupt state power. And cause, you know, Democratic senators and house representatives to go into hiding at the Capitol. Now they want to paint it as this big issue where, you know, they’ve been killing us for years and stacking up corpses, but now they want to paint it as an issue that, you know, has to be dealt with.
TFSR: Well, the whole thing was run by a “Mad Dog” Chomsky, as they say, you know, the whole riot at the at the Capitol on the sixth. Well, I mean, kind of pulling back, you’ve both made the point that the experiences that you’ve had around getting pushed off of social media platforms, or fundraising platforms as years before, with subMedia and IGD off of Patreon, has been an effort by private corporations measuring the balance of power, and maybe the proclivities of the people that run those specific platforms in some instances, but oftentimes, worrying about how it’s going to look to their stockholders, and kicking off anti-authoritarian, leftist and anarchist projects from those sites in those platforms. Can you talk about a little bit about what the impact has been on your projects during that and sort of how you dealt with that?
C: Well, we were fortunate in that people responded immediately to the news that we’d been kicked off Facebook, when we were kicked off over the summer. There was actually a groundswell of support, I don’t think that was about our specific projects, CrimethInc, ItsGoingDown, and the other projects that were kicked off, so much as it was a spreading awareness that, rather than banning groups according to what risks they pose, groups are being banned for political reasons. This is a concern that is going to affect more and more people, I think it’s probable that the eventual endpoint of this trajectory is that it will be very difficult to talk about anything except centrist politics on these platforms at all.
So when we were kicked off Facebook, you know, there’s this open letter that 1000’s of people signed supporting us and directing attention to the situation, it didn’t really impact us that much. Even the groups that we know that we’re not kicked off Facebook were negatively impacted by the Facebook algorithms after this, so I think if we had not been kicked off, it would not have been very much different results in the long run. We’re still seeing the same amounts of traffic to our website, maybe we’d be seeing more if we hadn’t been kicked off?
I think it’s really an issue of what is legitimized, if they make it seem socially acceptable to ban people on the basis of their anarchist beliefs, from being able to communicate on these platforms, that is a step towards being able to legitimize other measures targeting people. And certainly when it happened, we were concerned because we’re like, well, you know, if you’re going to raid a village, first you cut off the electricity to that village, and diminishing our ability to communicate about what’s happening to anarchists and other activists against white supremacy and government state oppression is one of the steps that you’d have to take to be able to increase the ways that people are targeted. And when we talk about the push now to invest more resources in the state, those resources are being put directly in the hands of the same sort of people who did the capital building occupations, so we can be sure that there’s going to be more repression in the future.
But we’ve been fortunate in the dying days of the Trump administration, there was not the political will to carry that out. It’s possible that there still will not be, but we will have to do a lot of organizing, that doesn’t depend on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, to be able to maintain the ties with people necessary to weather the kind of repression that we can expect to see under the Biden administration.
IDG: Yeah, a couple of things. I mean, the thing with Patreon was so funny, because originally far right, I believe it was Greg Johnson, and that whole kind of crew — which is, interestingly enough, tied to Matt Gates in Florida — but I mean, they have launched a campaign to try to get IGD kicked off of Patreon. And originally, somebody from Patreon responded like, you know, well, actually, we think it’s really important that antifascists have their work supported and stuff like that. To which they were like, Oh, my God, how could they do that? But when Lauren Southern was then kicked off after she was engaged with a group of white nationalists trying to block and putting the lives of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea in danger because they wanted to create clickbait media for you know, Youtube and stuff like that, they were basically forced to do this kind of pound of flesh thing where they had to kick something off. And people like Tim Poole lobbied them to have ItsGoingDown removed.
I think it’s important also to point out that like in the example of Facebook, before they even kicked off, ItsGoingDown and CrimethInc, they really drastically changed the algorithms and the way that pages work. They also made it harder to get certain news sources. I mean, this affected the entire news media industry and anybody creating alternative media was severely impacted. This impacts everybody from Newsweek, down to Democracy Now to us and stuff like that. And that was designed to basically streamline Facebook as a way to generate money, they wanted people to pay to get clicks, basically. Which of course, you know, results in an output, which is that if you have money, you can then pay for more exposure. The end result is something like with the 2016 Trump administration run, where it’s like, they have lots of money, and they can actually pay and flood the internet with lies, and, you know, total fabrications.
You can look at everything that Cambridge Analytica did over the past couple years, in terms of the Trump election campaign. There’s a great documentary on Netflix called the Social Dilemma that’s about social media and the way the algorithms work. But the point is they’ve been slowly kind of pushing off independent, anti-capitalist left wing voices from the platform, since like, 2017, since Trump came into office. I think if you look at the breakdown of the most trafficked sites that basically are on Facebook, like the websites that are news based, that get the most clicks, it’s like The Daily Caller, The Daily Wire, Breitbart. It’s like, generally right wing or very far, right Trump-aligned websites.
That’s what basically Facebook has become, it’s become an echo chamber of boomers, talking about Syrian refugees coming to kill them and kick their puppies and stuff like that. And it’s no surprise then that when the pandemic hit, you saw literally like, hundreds and hundreds percent increase in Q-Anon and COVID conspiracies and stuff like that. I think it’s telling again, with the ban of the certain antifascist and anarchist accounts, they literally had to go back and create new rules to kick them off. They were like, well it doesn’t have to necessarily support violence in the speech, but it can kind of allude to it, or the people that are reading it can support it in the comments or something. It’s so vague that literally anything they could potentially kick off.
But of course, it’s just like when police passed a new law against dumpster diving, or like, people smoking outside, or, you know, the homeless people on a bench or something like that. I mean, it’s not necessarily that they’re gonna enforce it all the time, but that gives the police that tool to selectively enforce it, you know, whenever they want to. So it’s a, you know, an invasive instrument, which they can use to attack people whenever they want to. It’s been building I mean, the commons of the internet, if you will, has been becoming more and more policed, and obviously, ideas that attack the status quo, especially that are critical of the state, critical of white supremacy critical of capital they’ve been going after.
TFSR: So it makes me wonder, like, why do, I mean and our project does to some degree engage with social media, and tries to spread our message through it. I fucking hate it personally. But considering all of the downsides to working with social media, considering that there are all these algorithms that you have to constantly try to figure out how to work around, considering getting de-platformed all the time, considering the fact that so many of these social media platforms frequently hand over information or allow backdoors into law enforcement to surveil “extremists”, quote-unquote, in whatever shade you find them, whether it be the far right, or anarchists or autonomists or what have you. How do you all fall on the line of: are we promoting continued use of these platforms by engaging in them? How much are we giving clickbait to law enforcement, who follows who clicks on what? And how much are we actually reaching new audiences? Or are we drawing audiences away from these platforms while still engaging with it?
C: So as we’re talking with people from subMedia about this — because they were proposing that we should organize a campaign to have anarchists withdraw from Facebook, for example — coming out of those conversations, I spoke with some comrades overseas. You know, in some parts of the world, anarchist projects still rely chiefly on Facebook. The occupied social center, Rog, that was just evicted today in Ljubljana, Slovenia, the statement about the eviction is on Facebook, that’s where you have to go if you want to see it. And I said, if we were to make a concerted push to have anarchists withdraw from at least the most compromised social media platforms that involve the most surveillance, how do we do that in a way that doesn’t mean that we lose contact with groups like yours that depended on Facebook chiefly. And they made the reasonable argument the anarchists in their community already are in touch with each other, already communicate with each other through platforms like Signal. But the thing is that they have to be in touch with people outside of their community in order to have the reach that they need to be able to put into effect their ambitious projects to actually change society. And that’s why people maintain presences for radical projects on social media platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, despite all the compromises.
For us, as anarchists, I think the challenge is always to be in this world, but not of it, to take action in a social context when the terrain itself is against us. As anarchists we’re always fighting not only our adversaries, but against the terrain itself, we’re trying to transform it into something that fosters horizontality, even as it surveils us, even as it rewards those who have the money to buy the kind of media exposure that they need, even as it structures the distribution of information according to existing power disparities. So I think you should never use a tool for the purposes it was designed for in a capitalist society, but at the same time, I don’t think that that always means that the best thing is for us to just refuse unilaterally to use these tools, because for good or for ill, human discourse has largely been fitted to these structures now and the question is more how to subvert them than how to refuse them entirely. I think that we should evaluate the effectiveness of our interventions on corporate social media platforms, according to how efficiently they move people from those platforms to more secure and more reliable formats for engagement. Does your tweet just result in 1000 likes? Or does it actually compel people to form affinity groups and reading groups and to do in person organizing? These are the sort of questions we need to be asking.
The process of determining who will be banned from social media is also the process of establishing what the social consensus will be. I mentioned earlier that it’s determined by the existing balance of power. But it’s not just the result of pre-existing conditions, it also gives rise to conditions. And when it comes to this process of establishing social consensus, what isn’t and is not acceptable, we have to be in that conversation. You know, and actually, we made a lot of progress over the last couple years in helping to shape widespread notions of what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, you know, many people now are critical of police, are open to the idea that the entire justice system or the state apparatus, the capitalist system needs to be deconstructed, that our society needs to be reorganized. And we have to establish access to all of these people to be able to have the conversations that need to unfold. We just should never trust that the platforms that we’re using, the ones that we didn’t build, we should never trust that they will do the work for us or that they exist to fulfill our goals.
IGD: Yeah, I mean, I think the question that you’re asking is a big one. And I think we should be definitely talking about it. I think that, you know, there are alternatives being built. You know, right now, there are servers that are on Mastodon that are creating basically an alternative to Twitter. Right now ItsGoingDown has like, I think, coming up on almost 5,000 followers, which is pretty good, considering you know, that project hasn’t really been promoted that much and it’s been slowly building. But there’s a growing community of people. They’re not only building kind of alternative social media infrastructure, but joining and following being part of the discussion.
What have we gained from like being on social media? I mean, the fact that, for instance, the Washington Post is quoting various Youth Liberation Front collectives across the country about certain things happening, or quoting various tweets from ItsGoingDown. I think what’s happened is that as anarchists have become part of the story, our voices then have been harder to basically remove from the conversation. And the fact that it’s out there and people are looking at it, that means that they can’t just brush it aside and say we don’t exist, we don’t have something to say. On the other hand, that means that as soon as those voices are gone, or they’re taken off, or they’re taken away, or even if a corporation can come in and say, “Oh, these people were naughty, and they said bad things, and they’re promoting violence” I mean, we can turn around and quote that and run with that. So I mean, if those voices are taken off, that means that we’re taking away from the conversation, and it’s just as likely that we’ll be quickly forgotten, or people won’t reach out to talk to us.
I think that going to the Biden administration, I mean I would guess that the platform that anarchists have gotten over the past four years is going to get a lot smaller in terms of doing the mass media is going to be willing to talk to anarchists. I think that there’s gonna be some people like journalists, that are anarchists that have developed the following that will continue to write and, you know, continue to get their stuff out there, but I think that it’s probably a good guess that they’re gonna less, and less be willing to reach out and talk to anarchists about what they think about anti-fascism or community organizing or different struggles happening. I mean, then again, we’ll see I mean, who knows what’s going to happen in the coming terrain?
You know, I just think, also, too, we’ve built up a large following in a lot of these projects and hopefully that’s not going to go away. Like ItsGoingDown, I would say that probably right now, we have just as many people, probably more, that listen to our podcasts than maybe go on the website and read the articles. You know, the podcast community, the people that listen to the show is very massive, and like we have a radio presence and stuff like that. But again, like, as the other person brought up, how do we translate that into like real world engagement?
The last big point I’ll make is that I don’t think that just because social media is such a defining element of our daily lives that we just basically have to give up and just say, Okay, this is the terrain in which we talk to people on like, this is it, this is the only way. We should actually really work at going back and remember that we can actually interact with people face to face, like we can actually have a public presence. I think like getting back to being really good at that, and doing that well. And, you know, having posters up, having flyers, tabling regularly outside, producing publications, running physical spaces, I mean, we do all that stuff and we do it pretty well. The fact that we have this network of infrastructure, like imagine if the alt right had the same amount of physical stuff that the anarchist and autonomous movements have, it’d be terrifying! You know, like, in some cities there’s multiple spaces.
The one great thing about social media is that I mean, if you put something out and it goes very far, or if you’re speaking to something that’s happening, you have the opportunity to reach other people in the public that are already involved in the anarchist conversation or projects, stuff like that. So I mean, the exposure to anarchist ideas, over the past four or five years has grown exponentially. And obviously, we want that to continue. But I think we’ve got to plan into that, that we very well may be kicked off a lot of these big platforms. And the way to make sure that that’s not going to stop what we’re doing is to, you know, have the ability to organize our own communities like in the real world.
TFSR: Yeah, I totally agree. And the work that we’re doing online needs to be a first step, or a part of a conversation, that draws more people into those real life engagements, because we’re not gonna find liberation, we may find comrades on the way, but we’re not gonna find liberation through these platforms. And I know both of the projects that the two of you work with are in and of themselves alternative platforms with so many different facets to how they communicate and the range of voices that they contain within them, which I think is really awesome. I’d like to finish up by asking sort of, are there any like interesting discussions that you think or platforms or directions that people could be taking, where they think about how we diversify the way that we get our voice out, as we’ve faced, either silencing through platforms shutting down or shutting us out? Or, for instance, the other day when signal was down for a good long period of time, I think people started exploring other encrypted applications. I know that CrimethInc, for instance, is also recently engaged with an app called Signal Boost, which I think is interesting to use a new tool to create encrypted phone trees. I don’t know if you had any closing thoughts and examples that you want to bring up.
IGD: Yeah, I think Mastodon is great. The downside of course, is that there’s not a huge amount of people that are on it that are outside of you know, the anarchist space. But you know, I’d remind people that like, for instance, on Twitter, we’re probably the largest anarchist presences, I think it’s like 1% of the US population is on Twitter, and it skews more towards celebrities and journalists, politicians and stuff. It’s definitely not an accurate representation of, you know, the proletariat, the United States or something like that. So, again, even these social media platforms are somewhat limiting, and that I think the real work remains to be done on the streets. And if we can build a visible presence there, I mean, it doesn’t matter if they’re going to kick us off of some social media. I mean, obviously, it’ll matter, but we’re still going to have those connections to people where we live, and I think that’s ultimately what’s what’s really important.
But yeah, I would encourage people to check out Mastodon, if you go to itsgoingdown.org, there is a link right on the site where you can go and check out our Mastodon. There’s basically, the way the Mastodon works is, there’s all these different groups that have servers and they all federate together, it’s pretty cool. It’s definitely anarchy in action on the internet.
I would also encourage people to check out the Channel Zero Anarchist Podcast Network, which is growing. We just included the Indigenous Action podcast, and Sima Lee’s Maroon podcast, it’s growing all the time, there’s great shows, there’s just an amazing network of content that’s been produced. It’s just you know, anarchist politics across the board, from a variety of different groups and perspectives, and also just topics that people are talking about, whether it’s people talking about tenant organizing, or stuff that’s going on in the prisons, or anti-fascism or news or theory, there’s a whole breadth of stuff that’s going on, that people are covering.
C: Just to conclude, from our perspective, as an anarchist collective, that’s now more than a quarter of a century old, we proceeded the social media era. You know, when we got started, we’re mailing each other packages of raw materials to make zines, basically, via cut and paste, we were talking to each other from payphones, you know, and the different kinds of media platforms that we’ve had to use to communicate have shifted dramatically since the mid 1990’s. We’ve won battles and lost battles on each of those fronts, but the terrain keeps changing and the struggle continues, you know.
The good news is that the same forces, the same dynamics and tendencies that are driving us off of some of these corporate media platforms are going to erode the relevance of the platforms themselves. Facebook is not going to be the most important communications platform for the generation that is coming of age right now. And we won’t have to reach them on Facebook, we may have to figure out how to make Tiktok videos in which we lip sync to songs in order to get our ideas across. Which is terrifying for people like us, we’re basically boomers, you know, but the struggle continues; we just have to adjust to a new context and knowing that that won’t be the final phase either.
Throughout all of this, as my comrade said, the engagement in the real world, IRL, on the streets ,is going to be one of the most important things. Even if they ban us from every platform, if there are stickers, if there are posters up in public, if there are dramatic actions that speak for themselves, other people are going to report on those and the word will get out there. My hope is that in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people start to feel at ease coming back together again, that there will be a renaissance of embodied in person social life, and that people will want to be around each other at gatherings. And that we will see people forming reading groups, hopefully establishing new info shops, and that over the past year, we’ve gotten to experience the limitations of having our entire social lives take place through zoom, you know, for those who even have computer access. And there will be an eagerness to return to more embodied in person projects and relationships. For me that that is the foundation of the most effective politics, because the ties that you can create there and the things that you can do together are more intimate, more deep rooted and more powerful.
TFSR: It was such a pity that the together space that happened earlier this year and through a lot of the summer couldn’t very easily be followed up with a continuation of that, and like a deepening of relationships with all the people that I met in the streets.
TFSR: It was definitely like deadened residence afterwards. I want to echo what you said, like, let’s hope for this year. Let’s make it happen.
C: Yeah, exactly. Let’s make it happen. And this is a good time right now for anarchists and other ambitious creative people who have everyone’s best interests at heart to be brainstorming what kind of projects we could kick off this summer that will draw people together, that will involve being in physical space together. Maybe this is a time when people could get their hands on spaces that could host some of these mutual aid projects that have gotten off the ground, and then we could be watching films or reading zines and discussing them together or whatever the 2021 version of that would be.
TFSR: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation. I’ve really enjoyed it. And yeah, I’m so glad to engage in similar projects to you and get to share space and call you a comrade.