The Final Straw Radio is a terrestrial radio show and podcast started in 2009 featuring information by, for and about anarchists and other anti-authoritarians. The show airs weekly on Sundays from 2-3pm EST out of Asheville, NC, USA.
Aishah Shahidah Simmons on Love WITH Accountability (Rebroadcast)
This week we re-air an interview done with Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who is a writer, community organizer, prison abolitionist, and cultural worker who has done just an immense amount of work over the years to help disrupt and end the patterns of sexual abuse and assault within marginalized communities. In this interview we talk about a lot of things, her background and how she came to be doing the work shes doing right now, how better to think about concepts like accountability, what doing this work has been like for her as an out lesbian woman, and about her book Love WITH Accountability, Digging Up the Roots of Childhood Sexual Abuse which was published in 2019 from AK Press.
This interview feels very important right now, because we are in a time of overturn, tumult, stress, and uncertainty, and I think that in order for us to really be able to knuckle down and go in this for the long haul itll be imperative for our radical communities to take solid care of ourselves and of each other. I hope you get as much out of hearing Aishah’s words as I did conducting and editing this interview.
Before we get started, as a content notice: we will be talking about some difficult topics in this interview. I will do my best to repeat this notice at regular intervals, but please do take care and treat yourself kindly (however that looks).
To keep up with Aishah, for updates on future projects and more:
Federation of Anarchism Era on Iran and Afghanistan
The collective we spoke to for this episode began as a series of remotely-hosted blogs and communication methods among Iranian anarchists at home and abroad. By 2015 anarchists from Afghanistan had started to join and in 2018 the comrades from within Iran and Afghanistan and those living internationally founded Anarchist Union of Afghanistan and Iran. Since, more individuals and groups have joined up from around North Africa, the middle east and other places in the world and they in 2020 re-organized themselves the Federation of Anarchism Era. Last January, after the assassination by the US Trump administration of the murderous Quds leader Soleymani we spoke with members of the then-named AUAI about the network, living under 19 years of US war and 40 years of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This week, Aryanam, a member of the Federation of Anarchism Era, shares collective answers to some of our questions and a few personal insights to ongoing events in Iran and Afghanistan. He talks about the recent election of Ebrahim Raisi to the Iranian presidency, a man who helped to oversee the death committees that executed thousands of political prisoners, as well what the election of Biden in the US and the two governments agreements on nuclear development and the sanctions the international community is imposing on Iran. You’ll hear about the course of covid in Iran, the release of prisoners last year, the outcomes of the 2019 uprisings against the government and those in 2020 after the Iranian government downed a Ukrainian jetliner, as well as viewpoints of members of the FAE in Afghanistan on the Taliban expansion as the US withdraws troops and words of solidarity for many places around the world in revolt against authority.
You can read reports by the FAE on their website, asranarshism.com, and keep up by following the project on twitter, fedbook, instagram, youtube and telegram (all listed from their website in the upper left hand corner). Keep an eye out for a fundraiser soon to support survival and defense needs of anarchists in Afghanistan as the Taliban takes back more territory and other initiatives. You can hear our 2020 interview with a member of the Anarchist Union of Afghanistan and Iran on our website, where it is also transcribed. A transcription of this interview will be available in the near future.
Week of Solidarity with Abtin Parsa, July 12-19, 2021
As a related announcements, this week the Federation has announced a week of solidarity with queer Iranian anarchist Abtin Parsa from July 12-19th, 2021. Abtin was persecuted by the Iranian government in 2014 for outspoken atheism (a state crime in a theocracy) and anti-state speech, imprisoned for a year and a half at 14 years old. In 2016 he escaped to Greece and was harassed and threatened while abroad by organizations affiliated with the Iranian state. Though given a limited political asylum in Greece, he was arrested multiple times for organizing and protesting, tortured and imprisoned for periods. Abtin was forced to leave Greece and he applied for asylum in Netherlands. In April of this year, Abin Parsa was charged by Dutch police with organizing among immigrants and now faces extradition back to Greece and possible extradition from there (after a prison sentence) to Iran. More on his case and his own words can be found linked in our show notes and on asranarshism.com and the Federation of Anarchism Era’s various social media.
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Opening Theme by The RZA from Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (Music from the Motion Picture)
TFSR: So would you please introduce yourself in whatever way you see fit any name, pseudonym, pronouns or affiliations?
Federation of Anarchism Era: Hello! My name is Aryanam. I yours hear him pronounce a member of the Federation of Anarchism Era and I am most responsible for English translation and communication. Thank you for having me.
TFSR: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for coming on.
So I spoke with folks from the Anarchist Union of Afghanistan and Iran last January. Since then, y’all’ve changed your name to the Federation of of Anarchism Era. Can you explain the significance of this and if there’s been any changes in say how the organization structures or or it’s purpose?
FAE: Yes. If you don’t mind, I’ll start with a little bit of history. We formed our primary nucleus at the end of 2009.Before that, a few people had their individual blogs and and a few anarchists were basically abroad. And at first they performed their collective blog and after 2009they started on facebook, they started their core outside the country. And that was important because anarchists in Iran, like any other group that is opposition to the Iranian government, they get prosecuted really fast. It is really hard for them to find each other. So it would be important to have a core outside the country that is not feeling the same repression and censorshipas the people in Iran. Also, the people from Iran can gather, find each other in one location and start communicating and collaborating.
So, after the reorganization at the end of 2013 by creating their Anarchism Era website, before the only had blogs and facebook groups. But by 2013 when we created our own website, naming itAnarchism Era and by that, little by little people from Iran started joining us. After that there by 2015, we had anarchists from Afghanistan join us and by 2018, we had three independent cores: one from anarchists of Afghanistan and Iranabroad; a group of anarchists in Iran; and a group of anarchists in Afghanistan. By having this three cores, we managed to form the Anarchist Union of Afghanistan and Iran in 2018 after that, a more individual anarchists from Iran and Afghanistan joined us. Before 2018, we also had collaboration with people from Morocco, from Iraq from the other, individual anarchists and anarchist groups from around the region. So by 2020, it became apparent that we are receiving more collaboration, more people from outside Afghanistan and Iran are joining us. So we thought we should reorganize ourselves, one more time and make it a federation. We accept membership from across the world who like to communicate and collaborate with us, they are welcome to do so.
One of the reasons that we are expanding that way is because in Iran and Afghanistan there are multiple ethnicities. For example, in Iran we have have Arab, Kurdishh, Turk,Azeri, Armenian, Baluchi, Turkmen and in Afghanistan we have Uzbek, Pashtun, Hazara, Pashai, Tajik…
So we published multiple articles in different languages, that is, ethnicities speak and the pay attention to basically all these ethnicities in two geographical regions. Even though we formed our federation in 2020, our main focus at the moment and activities are invested in Afghanistan and Iraq andour group abroad, but is mostly in Europe. So, the significance of this action is we are growing naturally, and more people are paying attention to us and that’s the reason that the change our name and reassert ourselves to a federation.
TFSR: Is there an ideological basis to membership in the federation? Is there a shared politic as strict, for instance, as what’s called Platformism, or… Let’s see other word for it
in Uruguay they have a version of platform is… Especifismo? Or is it more like the International of Anarchist Federations, which is Synthesis and are there a lot of chapters in Latin America and in Europe? And the third part of this isdo you have relationships with those other federations?
FAE: Our federation is basically an informal, voluntary organization. We cannot have a ledger and we don’t have air membership fee, because we cannot have a formal organization in Iran because it makes it easier for us to be identified. You have to be doing everything underground.And some of our members are really poor or very young which can not they’re spending their money on the membership fee. So we don’t have any membership fee and I we the form our communication and our groups by informally communicating with each other. There is no consulta. We frequently meet, we basically speak with each other about what is to be done, how do we need to do it and then we go from there.
There are many different anarchist tendencies within our organization . There are anarcho-egoists, anarcho-syndicalists, there is anarcho-communist, there is a small group of anarcho punks. There are many different groups.But the common thing that holds us together is basically living in insurrection. It’s action. We believe that we can not find peaceful way to get rid of this government. We need to be actively, without any peaceful way, we need to destroy this regime. This regime and all of the regimes. We need to be active in the revolutionary way.That’s because there is no peaceful way to interact with this government. The government should showed us that in the uprising in November of 2019 that it does not allow even a peaceful protest to happen in the region. Any action from their people would be met with violence of the State. So the violence needs to be met with violence are the people. And for us to dismantle the regime,and the State.
TFSR:And in particular, when you’re talking about 2019 uprising of the people. This is against the Iranian regime, based on the like, I think, the end of some like fuel subsidies and other subsidies and a lack of employment and social welfare net that the majority of the population was suffering under. Is that right?
FAE: That’s right. The NovemberUprising, it just started with the oil subsidies being cut on. Around 50% of the Iranian population is already below the poverty line, so people were feeling the economic pressure already. And after cutting the subsidies, the people came out that protest, which immediately because of the regime’s violent actions turned into hot uprising. People started chanting anti–regime slogans, they started destroying banks and other properties. They destroyed the statues of the supreme leaders from Khomeini to Khamenei.That was like a turning point for the Iranian people. After that, the regime and Iranian people entered another phase. The majority of the Iranian people understood that there is no peaceful way, there is no soft way to fix this regime. The only path forward is either changing the regime or, we as anarchists say, dismantling the whole state.
TFSR: So can you say, in November2019… When I had a chance to speak to folks from the federation last in January, it was just after the U.S. assassination of Soleimani, who was the head of the Quds? He was, I think, visiting Iraq at the time and killed by the trump regime. And we kind of talked about, among other things, public responses to the assassination and sort of who Soleimani was and also Iranian responses to American intervention and embargo and such. But I am wondering if you could iterate… I don’t think we talked about the Ukrainian air flight. Can you talk a little bit about the repression that followed the uprisings and the deal with the Ukrainian air flight and the public response to that?
FAE: Sure. So, during their November uprising in 2019, the government response was extremely violent. At the time when you were talking through to one of our members, they still did not know the numbers. We knew it was the almost 1,000, we suspected it was more than that, but we didn’t have… That was just an inkling, wedidn’t have any extra information in that regard. Since then, just as recently as two months ago there was a new stat coming out that shows the death rate of the entire Iranian population. It was,unassuming as stats, but there was a interesting point on it. It shows there’s a little jump on the November of 2019, which is about 4,000 people more than on the previous month and 4,000 more more about the following month and more than the same month in the previous year. There was this difference of about 4,000 people. So we are suspecting this 4,000 people there all because of the Uprising and they died because of the Uprising. The regime does not produce any specific amount, butthis is the most direct a piece of information, piece of data that we have about how many people probably died from there and November Uprising. So, 4,000 people died in three days from all across Iran.
FAE: Yeah, so that happened. So that tampeddown the flames of Uprising just a little bit until the Trump regime assassinated Qasim Soleimani, which was a commander of the Quds force of their Islamic Revolutionary Guard. As you said he was visiting Iraq as he did and he was assassinated on the way back, I believe. So, that jump started the another set of protests.
TFSR: There were government-sponsored parades and mourning in remembrances of this head of the Revolutionary Guard who had been… He’d been pretty prominent in repressing populations at home in Iran, right? So I’m sure there was a lot of mixed feelings among the population about the execution, the assassination.
FAE: Yes, there were a couple of interesting things about that. One is that Qasim Soleimani and the Quds force was responsible for killing at least 100 people in the province of Khuzestan,specifically in the city of Mashar. They basically came with the tanks and put down the Uprising their, which we estimated more than 100 people died just in that city in just a few days. Just like that in that one location.
So, the people of Iran… The majority of people of Iran did not like Soleimani, the opposite of what the Western media was trying to portray of the Iranians. And while the Iranian government would like to have portrayed Soleimani as a hero of the Iranian people, the majority of the Iranian people that knew him disliked him.And those that did know him would not go to his funeral unless they were paid by the State to go onto the street, a tactic that every authoritarian state uses. It’s nothing new.
Something that I would like to note is the response of the Western media, specifically there was an article in the New York Times that was saying that the pollution that gathered for the mourning of Qasim Soloeimani in the city of Ahvaz was stretched about twenty miles. Which is ridiculous, because this city of is not that long. Now we can look at the map of the city, and see there how long the the gathering roads stretched and we can measure that it was about 1.5 miles. No more than a 1,000 people. And all of thosewere either people of the State or were paid to be there. After the Uprising of2019, the government clamped down, the flames of the Uprising died down a little bit, the Iranian government shot down Ukrainian airplane, some people say by mistake by there is some evidence of they knew, that they shot at that airplane twice. And the excuse they gave us was that they wanted to bring it down “we shot the second time because we didn’t want it to burn up in the air.” Which is such a ridiculous statement, it makes me, angry. Just mentioning it makes me angry. They shut the plane twice, at first they lied about it. At first they claimed, “Oh we didn’t shoot down anything, it wasn’t us!” Then they claim “tt was us, but it wasn’t on purpose.” Then when the second (missile) came they said “Oh, yes, the second was on purpose,” that they wanted to bring it down. It was such horrible excuses, it just boggles the mind who came up with these excuses in the first place. So that started another set of protests and uprisings. The people were already, especially the student movements in Iran, chanting anti-regime slogans. People were protesting all across country. People were, of course, arrested during these protests.People were killed, executed after they got out also.
But those funerals and gatherings overcrowded between people were during the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic and the Iranian government already knew that this pandemic is happening and is spreading in Iran. They decided on showing force and showing thatthe Iranian people are very supportive Qasim Soleimani and were stricken of his death.They staged their funerals in multiple cities by crowding huge a number of people in small spaces. And at one of the incidents that happened because of this was there at a stampede of the feet during the funeral of the QassimSoleimani in Kermon, the home city of Soliemani. On January 7th, 2020, during this funeral a stampede occurred that killed 56 people. The other effect of this crowding of people in a small spaces to look good under international news (that all the authoritarian regimes use to show their strength and all the people’s support, even though it doesn’t exist) is that a during these funerals the covid-19 pandemic was already present in Iran. An we suspect that a vast majority of people got sick during these funeral proceedings. Because people were crowding in small spacesand they were not practicing any social distancing or anything like that, and they were not wearing any masks.And we suspect, actually, we know that the Iranian regime knew that the covid-19 was present, that maybe it was problematic and it was causing deaths of 1000’s of people already in different countries… But for them to show restraint, they decided to have these(public funeral gathering) proceeding happens without any precautions for the covid-19 pandemic.
TFSR: So, could you speak a little more about how covid-19 was experienced by folks in Iran after it started spreading and people became more aware of it? And also if you have word about Afghanistan… Currently are there vaccines available and have you seen any increase in infections from this new on Delta variant as they call it of covid-19 that’s come out of India? Have you were their experiences of lock downs and what have they been like? And I’ll ask the prison question afterwards, if that’s okay, unless you’re me to throw that in there
So, I guess of note- and I know this is a very long question at this point- I remember hearing early on that the Iranian regime decided to release 54,000 prisoners temporarily as a health measure, apparently driven by a fear that there would be a mass spread inside of the prisons. Which seems to show notable concern for public health that, for instance, the U.S. regime and state regimes here, had no interest in expressing interest preferred for people to die in prison.
FAE: So, let me answer your second question first… As you said there were a few 1,000’sof prisoners released, but all of this prisoner ever non-political. They they didn’t have any political activities. The political prisoners they were kept inside the prisons. Many of them got covid as well. I know some of them died because of that. The regime used covidas basically an executioner.
For the second question about how covid was experience in Iran and in Afghanistan… Well, some of our members’ families and relatives got covid. Fortunately, our members that gotcovid did not have any severe consequences, there were no severe affects. They managed to come out of it okay. As far as in Afghanistan, the situation is kind of worsethan in Iran. So in Afghanistan the corona virus spread there rapidly recently. Some of the problem is there is massive unemployment in Afghanistan and people wanna go back to work, and the workplaces don’t practice safe precautions against covid-19. Also in Afghanistan, there is less clean water and sanitation. And since the recentwar with Taliban, covid-19 is not a priority anymore. The war withthe Taliban is a priority and that caused an increase in the rate of spread of the covid-19 in Afghanistan.
And relating to the vaccination right now, they’re only like 2.5-3% of the Iranian population are vaccinated. The Iranian government decided that they do aren’t going to accept the vaccines find out U.S. or other western countries, they’re going to make their own vaccines with the cooperation with Russia and China. The Iranian people don’t trust the government, so even if they’re the vaccine comes into the market then becomes available, this was big majority of people would not get vaccinated. Which is kind of understandable, because if we do not know if the vaccine is gonna be as effective, that the side effects are as minimalas the other vaccines… Since their government can not be transparent or trusted on any other subject, we cannot trust it on this subject as well. That causes the situation of the vaccination in Iran very dire now.Nobody’s gonna get vaccinated and that’s probably gonna cause the covid-19to become endemic in the Iranian population. Which is not they’re good place to be.
TFSR: I guess, in response, besides the releases of prisoners in the United States, a lot of what was experienced, it was just the the forced shutdown of public spaces and the threat that police would enforce social distancing. There were testing sites available eventually and like as with the U.S. (normally) will do the, majority of people getting punished for breaking curfew segment… Most of the curfews came into account because of the massive protests against police killing of Black and brown folks, but also the majority of people that were suffering from repression from the government for for breaking curfew, ah, were like houseless folks or people that the police would attack anyway, like Black and brown and poor people. In a lot of other countries like in Italy, in Greece and Spain, in the UK, that lockdowns were more effectively an imposed by the government. They were doing patrols in China with drones… Was like a forced lockdown, the response that the Iranian government had to the pandemic? Or was it something else, and what was that like?
FAE: The Iranian government did not really enforce a lock-down like that. In the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of people wereleaving the cities to go to northern Iran to rush to rush to go to provinces of the north.Usually the boojie people do this. They go to the northern city to live in their villas, to basically weather the effect. But they, themselves, they brought their covid-19 and majority of people in the northern region of Iran got sick, they got covid, it spread more rapidly over there. And the residents of those provinces, they were wanting a government shutdown. They wanted for people to stop going and coming up to live in their villas and spread more virus.. But the government did not listen, theystill allowed people to travel all of the places. And after that they did something that is SO counter intuitive… even thinking about it is the very confusing for me right now… People the run to their villas, the boojie people, then wanted to come back. They were like “okay, they don’t want us here. So, okay, we go back to where we came from.” The government then enforced a quarantine then. They say “okay, you gonna stay over there.” They refuse to let other people to travel at least temporarily.
As you mentioned with other governments, in Iran, they used the covid-19 as a means of repression. The breaking of the protesters, an execution method for the political prisoners. They don’t enforce any social distancing if it was for the protesters against the regime, if it was for a state-sponsored gathering they were completely okay with that theydon’t enforce any social distancing.
TFSR: You also mentioned before we started recording how, in terms of travel restrictions being applied or distancing or whatever lock–down or these health concerns being applied to people differently according to class. And this kind of reminds me of the way that, ah, I understand sanctions, for instance, are applied by destroying the social safety nets for the majority of the population, while the rich continue to be able to live relatively luxuriously, traveling to villas in the north or what have you. You also mentioned that the Iranian government was allowing Chinese businessmen and business–people to still travel even after covid pandemic had become apparent to the world, which seems like a sacrifice of the health of the population in order to increase the business opportunities of the bourgeoisie end of the governing class. Is that a fair summary?
FAE: Yeah, so, when the covid-19 pandemic became apparent to be a huge and destructive thing when other countries started closing down the airports to the Chinese government, stopping the travel to andfromChina, the Iranian government did not. So, the Iranian government kept the airports open. And it allowed the Chinese businessman to travel to Iran and from Iran and to travel to Europe. So, basically the bourgeoisie of China used the bourgeoisie of Iran and the Iranian government as a loophole in those travel restrictions until people actually are closed travel routesthrough Iran as well.So, we suspect that on a good deal of the Iranian population getting sick from covid and its spreading in Iran was because of these travels as well.
The thing about Iranian bourgeoisie is highly related to the government. This might be a side note, but I I think it’s worth mentioning that prior to the Iranian revolution in 1979, the shah’s regime wanted to consolidate power into the Shah’s hands. So, he created that one party rule fully consolidated all the political power in his hand and went after religious and the market, theCapital and he wanted to gain control of both of them. Well, this backfired on him because the religious institutions and the Mullahs united with the Capitalists of the market, of the Bazaar and that led to the revolution 1979. TheIslamic Iranian regime managed to consummated all three powers. There is no effective political power that can oppose the Iranian regime, it’sa dictatorship. The religious institutions are in the hands of the Islamic authoritarian regime. The majority of their financial institutions are either run by the higher-ups in the regime by their friends and relatives. So, when we mention Iranian bourgeoisie now, you’re basically mentioning the sons and relatives of the higher echelons of the Iranian regime. That’s how it works in Iran. All the power is consolidated in the Islamic regime. The Iranian bourgeoisie, for the businesses they allowed the airports to be open and they traveled abroad as well, themselves. They got covid, they traveled abroad, those sons of the higher-ups and the regimes, they take vacations in their different countries.
There was another thing that happened during first wave of the covid-19there was a loophole for the Chinese bourgeoisie, Chinese businessman to travel to Iran and used Iran as a hub to travel to the different countries that were closed off to China themselves. And the other other thing was that the Iranian bourgeoisie are directly related to the power structure after Iranian State, they themselves traveled to other countries abroad for the vacations, to get out of Iran and perhaps weather the worst effects of covid-19, but they were already sick when they were traveling abroad. They spread their disease further.
TFSR: And just a quick reminder to listeners that the variants that have been spreading so fast… the the variance from an like… South Africa have started getting infections, likely because they were getting plane flights from people in New York City flying there, where the infections were already spreading likely they got infections. I know it likely was brought in at Milan, where there was a a large outbreak before a of these diseases are spreading because rich business people don’t care about the possible implications of their interaction. So they burn up a bunch of fossil fuels in a jet plane, so they can go vacation or make a business meeting somewhere.
So, one hopeful thing that we’ve heard from a lot of places around the world were stories ofr people creating and growing thriving mutual aid in response to that dual catastrophes of governmental and economic failure in the pandemic. How was this seen in Iran and Afghanistan? How did the authorities respond, if there were instances where people created their own civil society responses, was that deemed as a threat and have those mutual aid efforts continued?
FAE: So,one of the examples of the mutual aid aim at Iran after the spread of corona virus was in the city like Isvahan, where people basically decided to not allow increasesof the rents and may even decrease over a significant amount. But other mutual aid activities were, like you said, is seen as a threat to the Iranian regime. They do not like people to self-organize and to try to take care of themselves, because that’s seen as an action against the regime. Even if some people were trying to help other, minority ethnicities in Iran, they started making up charges against them that they were acting against the regime, they are separatists, that they are working with a foreign entity to dismantle the regime. They make claims of their mutual aid organizations that people are trying to make and basically put a stop to all of that. If anything’s happening in Iran, it is unfortunately, on the smaller scale and it’s gonna be underground, they do not allow public self–organization from the people.
TFSR: Pivoting a little bit in topics, the former U.S.President Trump had promised (as an “Antiwar president”) to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by May of this year and that date was switched to September 11thfor the twentieth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks on the U.S. and that was changed by Biden, the current U.S. president. In March, President Ghani in Afghanistan said he’d, be working on a peace process and democratic elections with the Taliban or pursuing that at least. Also, it’s clear that, while the US and NATO powers may be trying to “draw down their forces in the country,” they will not leave the country fully. They’ll leave behind security, analysts, special forces, private contractors and a lot of the infrastructure attached to that. I was wondering how your comments from Afghanistan think that the next year might look. What are their concerns, fears and hopes. Do they expect the Taliban to overtake the existing central government in Kabul? TheU.S. doesn’t think it’s gonna, last more than six months, and what could that look like?
FAE: So, let’s start with the analysis of the comrades in Afghanistan? That is that the government in Afghanistan is probably gonna keep Kabul. Even though it might lose everything else, they’re gonna focus their forces in Kabul and at least save that place. But, then you were mentioning god and the peace negotiations with Taliban…From the one of the reports have got from our comrades in Afghanistan that before the negotiations, they (the Kabul government) released5,000 Taliban members and during the negotiations they released another, here and there, they release another 7,000 the Taliban members. This boosted the Taliban’s the morale and their forces. So at this moment it seems that the peace negotiations have failed. Of course it did, because they got about 11,000 of their members back. Why would they negotiate with the government?Another thing that I would like to mention is we lost communication week are comrades in Mazār-i-Sharīf, in Balkh province for about a week. Just few hours ago we established communication again andthe reason that we lost communication was that the Taliban cut their fiber optic communication. They manage to push them back from Mazār-i-Sharīf, apparently they manage to fix the fiber optic. so we managed to reestablish communication. Yeah, they there were saying that the fighting was intense near Mazār-i-Sharīf, so one of the tactics the Taliban user would be to destroy the power lines, they destroyed the communication lines so that the population cannot ask for help. Without the power lines as many of their infrastructure will not work which would be in benefit of the Taliban. So, in regards to U.S.drawing out is that U.S. forces in Afghanistan they’re, even though they supposedly were a counter-force to Taliban and by them being there and their actions in Afghanistan, they stopped the popular independent movement in Afghanistan. There is little-to-no independent movement to the Taliban. Everything that exists at the moment, is either from the government, or is from the religious or another political party that has their own goal and they want to score our own and political goals regional goals.They’re not something that we can trust and corporate with because our goals and values are not the same.
TFSR: Speaking from a us perspective, as someone who remembers when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and hearing the U.S. dialogue and and the power players talk about it, the “humanitarian, liberal response” in the U.S. has frequently come from a position of “We need to be in there to provide stability.” So, at first it was RAWA, the Revolutionary Afghani Women’s Association that was used as an argument for U.S. military intervention, to say that in order for like a feminist society or for a society where… By the way the U.S. is not a feminist society but saying that “In order for women in Afghanistan to not be forced into a theocratic patriarchal and heavily repressive system, we need to do our part to hold the space to build something so that the people of Afghanistan can take back over there space,” or whatever. That was the argument that was made for a lot of well meaning people in the U.S. I think they’re still concerned that, “Yes,the occupation has been terrible, but when we withdraw, there will be a collapse and move on… There’s no other option. It’s either the U.S. occupation or people living under Taliban rule!” And I think, with what you said about the has been the stamping out of any independent movements in Afghanistan that could provide a sort of alternative or provide something that is homegrown and that would fill the needs and desires of people in Afghanistan who don’t want to live under the Taliban rule and also don’t trust the warlord government. You know it hasn’t been able to flourish. It’s almost as if the U.S…. Not saying that the Taliban is a cancer, but it’s as if the U.S. and U.S. population and government and military was approaching the problem, as Afghanistan is an organ in a body or is a body and that the Taliban is a cancer and the us military is chemotherapy and that we must irradiate the country as opposed to helping support civil society as an immune system that would help to regulate itself.
I’m giving a lot of agency to the U.S. and NATO and the West in this of that feels weird. But I just kind of want to point to like the short-sightedness of the mindset that people in the West, through our “humanitarian approach” have been thinking about sending and bombs and drones, as for the last 20 years.
FAE: Yes, so for that line of thinking… As I mentioned, there are comrades in Mazār-i-Sharīfwho mention that the Taliban cut the fiber optics, and that’swhy they didn’t have communication, internet communication to communicate with us. My first response was like how incompetent is the Afghanistan government and U.S. government that they made their fiber optic cables, that this is essential for the communication so easily accessible that Taliban could destroy it.
So, I don’t think the U.S. regime was thinking of being a cure. They were thinking of their own goals, which was that they wanted to establish the region, to take it out of the influence of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. And they didn’t want it to be influenced by Iran as much as possible because the Iranian regime has forces in Afghanistan as well. They would like to have a militia in Afghanistan. They very much would like to export their revolution to their neighboring countries like they do in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and the same is true in Afghanistan. The U.S. government had specific goals which were, I believe, they would have liked to get rid of Taliban. But they found after the first couple of years after the invasion they realized that objective wasn’t possible. I believe their objective changed to just hold the position, so they can exert power and influence the neighboring region, basically putting pressure on their neighboring country, which has is Iran. And having a base so as to be able to act within the region much more smoothly. The independent of people’s movement is viewed as an insurrectionist movement which is combated by their anti-insurrectionist protocols.
TFSR: Is your impression that people in the Federation within Afghanistan believe that, yes, when the U.S. pulls out, the Afghan administration will be able to hold Kabul and maybe some surrounding area, which is basically fortresses as I understand? And will it be, that the rest of the country sort of ends up living under theocratic rule from the Taliban? Or have they actually already been living under the rule of Taliban and will there be space for organic, organizing and resistance for autonomy? Will that be able to occur?
FAE: So, before the Taliban started this new conquest over the last few weeks, we were trying to start a project, a couple of projectsin Afghanistan. We were already talking about it. We were basically finalizing some of the projectsin Afghanistan.One of them was a starting an anarchist magazine, they publish monthly or biweekly and we publish it online. This would basically increase our anarchist presence inthe region and we doubt that we have more leverage to do more. But this Taliban’s movement basically cut us off guard, we have to scrap those projects that we had. Our forces are so small that they can’t do it alone, and like I said there are no other movement that we can collaborate with.We were trying multiple organizations that were nominally closer to us, but the problem is even if we are like “okay, let’s work together, even though we don’t like each other,” they do not like anarchists at all. They are completely anti-anarchist and we cannot establish a collaboration or alliance in any way.Right now, it seems that the Taliban may have already hold of 70-80% of the Afghanistan region. Yeah, so the Taliban is already there. They may in facthold maybe Mazār-i-Sharīf , maybe Kabul, some other cities in the region like a fortress, as you mention. But our priority is to save and secure our comrades living in Afghanistan. All other projects that we had in the region right now are on hold until further developments. We’ll see what we can do. We are talking with our Kurdish friends and are the are trying to see if there have any experiences from Rojava that they can share with us since they were able to successfully fight ISIS am in northern Syria, they might have some experiences that they can share with us . But this is really hard, because the anarchist presence in Afghanistan is a smallerand more spreadthan is possible to create any strong and independent movement without anybody’s help.
So, right now we are just trying to help our comrades in Afghanistan. At the moment, we are working on setting up a fund for our comrade to send financial aid to our comrades so they can have food security. We want to get them air power generator, just in case the Taliban decided that they’re gonna bomb another power line, they gonna cut down on a power line. And we’re trying to see if he can get them guns, AK-47’s. The last time that we talked to our Afghanistan comrades about it was $500 for an AK-47. We are trying to get some for them. Raiding and procuring them in other ways was suggestedbut after analyzing the situation, we couldn’t safely to do that without risking our comrades.So we decided to first procure food and then get power secured. Then we get them guns and after the there was a suggestion for us to get the satellite internet or satellite phone for all easier and more durable communication. So if we get any money and if you’re figuring any funding we’ll be spending solely for those projects, for now.
Some of our comrades are thinking of migrating but their not positive about the current trends, current situation in Afghanistan. As we mentioned before the U.S. has been there for 20 years. People there born and became adults all while the US occupation. But one of the [U.S.] objective was not allow for the people to develop independent collectives and communities to defend themselves because that would undermine their importance and their presence in the in the region. So, that’s that.
TFSR: So jumping back across borders, because anarchists don’t believe in or respect borders, Iran and the U.S. both had elections in the last eight months or so. We got Biden here and Iranians got Ebrahim Raisi, who I have heard described as a conservative hardliner. What do Iranian comrades expect to get out of their new executive? How do you see the election of Biden in the so called U.S. affecting the people of Iran. Not to continue, as we do, to center the U.S. so much but recognizing that it does have an impact.
FAE: First, I wanna make a note of their their successful boycott of the Iranian election by their Iranian people. Before the election, and there were many, many propaganda and actionsencouraging us to boycott the election. On the day of election, the majority of the voting booths across were deserted. And outside of Iran there were some voting locations for people went there and protested and harassed and identified the voters there, because majority of them are related to the regime. We found that they sons and grandsons the higher echelons of the government and they’re just coming out on vacation and they wanted to go and vote as well. So, we found that out of while we were protesting in different countries, finding the people who‘re voting for the Islamic Republic of Iran. So the majority of the voting booths were deserted. The regime claims that the about 40% of people voted which is obviously a lie. Not many people voted. People, before the election ,knew that Ebrahim Raisiwas going to be come the president, because they were manufacturing consent. So, to say, toward that direction, they were lining up everything for Ebrahim Raisi was to be announced as the president. The regime has a specific goal by making Ebrahim Raisi the president. Ebrahim Raisi, during the 1979 election had many positions in Iran and one of them was. He was part of the DeathCommittee. The majority of the time he was in the judicial position of the government and he was totally involved in the death of thousands of political prisoners in summer of 1988.
We suspect he was chosen as a direct response to the Uprising of November of 2019 and the protests of early 2020.And right now there is a huge workers strike in Iran from the petroleum, the is the sugar cane syndicalist organization in Iran who have released a list of the participating workers and are there is about57 organizations from 57 different companies from different industrial sectors, all participating in a strike. And that means thousands and thousands of people striking right now.
Ebrahim Raisi, we suspect, was chosen to become presidentof Iran as a response to all these strikes The government has not any base among people anymore, like I said after the protests of 2019 and 2020, the people do not trust this government anymore, and they’re not even optimistic about the reform of this government. The majority of theeffort sand thoughts are going concerned with replacing the regime or, as anarchists, for dismantling the state completely. So, Ebrahim Raisi was chosen to basically stamp and destroy the whole resistance in Iran. He is more ruthless and he has experience in the judicial department as it was mentioned, so his function is clear in that department.
As for Biden, in relation to the Islamic Republic of Iran, restarting the conversation with the Iranian regime, regarding the nuclear deals, it allows some breathing room for the Iranian government. If the Iranian government can produce some more money, loosen the sanctions just a little bit would spend it in suppressing the people. We know about this because there was, I believe, a 25 year negotiation deal with China and Iran, in which China received some points. it allows control of some resources in Iran, which is significant, especially in the Persian Gulf, down south. And in return. Iran would get some breathing room and also receiveanti-insurgency tools brought in from being collisions are one of the items is all did receive their anti insurgency toolslike increasing intelligence, it will include anti-riot gas otherriot suppression tools.So, Biden’s negotiation with Iran would probably help the Iranian government procure more funding, which would use a significant amount to repress the people. But it needs to be said that Trump government, with their sanction, was not helpful for the Iranian people. For example, for us to help give funding to any of of our members in Iran. We have to jump through many hoops, because I’m in the United States, I cannot directly send the funding from the U.S. to Iran because of the sanctions. I have to go through many more steps, which is much more expensive to assist our are members in Iran, to fund their projects in Iran. So, the sanctions were not really helpful for us, but less sanctions would probably give the State more breathing room, which allows them to repress people more effectively.
TFSR: I know at one point a year ago there was discussion about having a podcast, I guess in Persian. For internationals outside of Iran and Afghanistan, whether or not they can speak or read Persian languages, do you have suggestions for ways that they can show solidarity with anarchist struggles in Iran and Afghanistan and other people involved in the Federation or where they can keep up on pertinent news. You did mention that there’s going to be the the fundraising soon to support folks surviving in Afghanistan. I’ll happily share the the contact information for that when it comes up I’ll.
FAE: First of all, I wanna thank you for talking with us, having an interview with us. And I wanna thank all of our comrades that shared our perspective and our stories to the rest of the world. When we released the reports of our anarchist comrades in Afghanistan, it was translated in multiple languages and was shared widely. We really appreciate that repaired we thank every single one of you guys. Other than that, as we said, we are working on sending funding to help our comrades in Afghanistan to help in their survival. For different projects, we don’t have anything at the moment, but we would announce them as theyget finalized. You mentioned something about last year we mentioned about the podcast. We might have a podcast now, but in might not be in Persian, but instead in Kurdish. But it is still in the process of developing. We’re still trying to find gay, basically, a satellite, trying to broadcast to Iran viasatellite, because the majority of Iranian people and households have a satellite dish. It is one thing that has not been suppressed by the Iranian regime too much at the moment, so if he had a chance to broadcast to the Iranian people weekly, biweekly, monthly. That would be the best optional for us, but we are working on that Kurdish one at the moment.
Also, we would like to extend our solidarity to to the people inCanada against their horrible genocidal regime of Canada. Also, our son in solidarity with the peoples movement all across the world, from Colombia to Myanmar. We are watching all these uprisings. All this a struggle against the State and Capitalism and we are in solidarity with your guys, comrades.
In regards to what the international anarchist community can do for us to show their solidarity… It might come as a personal opinion, but I believe the rest of the Federation would agree, is you would start the revolution at home. Start the insurrectionist action at home. Basically the same in the U.S. what we witnessed at the George Floyd uprising was inspiring, very powerful, and we we hope you will see that this year. Just do some actions that you guys did last year. Some insurrectionist action. Burn some cars. Burn some police cars, burn some banks. or something like that. I hope you guys have a “hot girl summer”, I wanna be a part of that. Honestly that helps us out tremendously. Let’s keep this summer just like last yaer. The reason that it’s the best form of solidarity, in our opinion, is because the Western imperialism, the Western governments support certain groups. In the Iranian case, they support Iranian monarchists and the Mujahadeen, in which one of the goals is to take over the Iranian state. Basically, they are using their monarchists to set up a puppet state. Naturally, we anarchists are not in favor of that, we were like to dismantle the State. We do not want to have a puppet state in favor of capitalism and Western imperialism. So, by de-legitimizingthe U.S. government or Western governments like the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany, all the western states… It doesn’t matter. By de-legitimizing, by uprising and rioting, you are helping us to do our struggles better. Our struggles are interconnected. Any weakness from your government is helping us and any chink in the armor of our government would help you. Let me put it another way: the Iranian government supports different militia groups in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, all across the region. And Yemen, I’m sorry. If the Iranian regime gets weakened,Peoples movement in those regions, liberatory Peoples moments in those regions can be a strengthened further. They are less repressed because the Militia are not receiving support anymore, so they can grow an and win their fights better. Or if the people in Palestine managed to liberate themselves and not fall into the hands of Hamas, that would weaken the Iranian government, which allows us to further complete its destruction. There was a video from a Lebanese activist from 2019 major Uprising. I think us 21 uprisings, all across the world in 2019.2019 was a year of revolutions. The Lebanese activist was saying “Revolution in Iranian! Revolution in Lebanon! Revolution in Palestine!” Let’s have a revolution in every country! Thank you very much.
TFSR: I love that, comrade. Thank you so much for taking the time and the effort to to have this conversation, and also please say thank you and appreciation and love to the comrades in the Federation. I really appreciate it.
FAE: Thank you very much, comrade. for your time and checking back with us. We really appreciate it.
Joshua Clover is the author of seven books including Riot.Strike.Riot (Verso, 2016), which has been translated into six languages. Scott and Joshua talk about proletarian resistance to the capitalist economy through struggles against circulation of commodities and to fix their prices (riots) and struggles against exploitation and to set the price of wages in the workplace (strikes), how these methods are not as indistinguishable as we are told and the future of struggle against capitalism and extraction, for a new communist world.
Joshua also has the forthcoming book Roadrunner coming from Duke University Press. It’s about exactly what you think it’s about (but, if you’re not familiar with or from Boston, or haven’t ever seen a Stop&Shop at midnight from the beltway, it’s about placing one particular song from one particular band within a wide and fascinating context. This’ll be out in September!)
I am always trying to get people to read the poetry of Wendy Trevino and Juliana Spahr, both of whom take riots and insurrections as a main topic. Both of the books linked too are free.
Speaking of riots, people should always read Gwendolyn Brooks, RIOT.
I am always trying to get people to read Red Skin, White Masks by Glen Coulthard, which is a theoretical consideration on Indigenous struggle that eventually arrives at the fact and the logic of land blockades; it was written before Standing Rock.
I mentioned the work of Charmaine Chua on logistics, circulation, and decolonial struggle; here’s one useful essay.
Here is a link to the book I have coming out soon. Here is a link to the Introduction if anyone wants a sample.”
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David Elmakayes, who is being charged because of his participation in last summer’s George Floyd uprisings in Philadelphia, needs money to hire a new attorney. Currently, his public defender is trying to get him to snitch on other defendants to benefit his own case and David wants no part of it.
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Roadrunner by The Modern Lovers
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TFSR:So you published Riot Strike Riot in 2016. And if anything, it seems like the last five years have really born out your analysis in many ways and that made me really excited to get to talk to you to hear about your perspective over the last five years of global uprisings. And so jumping into that, I wanted to set up the terms of analysis that you put forth in the book so we can get an understanding of the historical trajectoryyou trace, and then the theory of riot that you propose, which I think is super important for us right now.
So the historical context you focus on is broadly the time of industrial capitalism to now — the onset of industrial capitalism — with a dialectic you propose of transformation and popular resistance from riot to strike to a new or change form of riot, which you call “riot prime”. You definestrike and riot as different forms that I’m gonna quoteyou “strike and riot are practical struggles of a reproduction within production, and circulation, respectively”. So I was wondering if you could go a bit into the distinction and the texture of the two forms of riot and strike, the different terrain they use the different relation to time and space, or what it means the struggle for reproduction — the terrain of circulation — as opposed to production?
Joshua Clover: So this is the big ticket theoretical question, and I’ll try to answer it without dodging theory, but in a way that tries to make it sort of useful and accessible in relation to particular, which is one of the goals of the book, to have a sort of theoretical apparatus that can be meaningfully descriptive of concrete events that we’ve lived through and our friends have lived through, and people we know have lived through. Speaking of that, the publication history that you mentioned, even more strikingly, the original talk that this came out of where I started working through these concepts, which from 2012, so before, for example, the Ferguson uprising. And that was something that happened while I was puzzling through the book and I could see immediately that it was super important and I got myself to Ferguson as quickly as I could, and tried to be involved in what happened there and talk to people and so on. And that was sort of the first, I don’t know if confirmation is the right word — it’s hard to think of that dramatic a political episode is like, “Oh, well, good, it confirmed my theories” — but it was certainly a moment where I felt like the things I was trying to think about, and what was happening in the world and the United States were converging pretty dramatically.
So to get back to this theoretical sort of framework…so the circuit of Capital in its entirety has these two interlocking spheres. And one of them is the sphere of production: that’s the place where capitalists bring together means of production, right? So if you make clothes, you’re bringing together textiles and sewing machines and needles in a factory and electricity, and bring that together with workers with labor power, and you make a commodity. And that’s the sphere of production. And then the commodity is launched out onto the market, it sort of makes its way to the marketplace, is exchanged, it’s exchanged some more, it’s consumed. That’s all the sphere of circulation.
So those two spheres are, as I said, interlinked, and neither can exist without the other. But interestingly, almost everyone in the world is in the sphere of circulation, that is to say, we’re what we call “market dependent”: we have to go to the store to get food, or clothes, or whatever, that we need to survive. Whereas only some fraction of the world is dependent directly, at least on wages in production for survival. So those are the two different sort of moments in which we reproduce ourselves, our families, our communities — and here, I don’t mean biological reproduction, right? I mean whatever you do to be alive the next day as a person, as a community.
And so, if you have a wage, if you have a “formal employment”, as we say, often you struggle in production, so you struggle over the value of your labor, that is what a strike is, right? That’s not the only production struggle, that’s not the only way people struggle there, they do all kinds of stuff. They do sabotage and factory takeovers, and who knows, but those are production struggles.
But let’s imagine you don’t have formal employment, you don’t have access to the wage. But still, you’re pretty miserable, your life is pretty immiserated enough that you decide you want to fight back against that misery. Well, you’re not going to struggle in production, because you can’t, but you are out there in the space of circulation. You are still market dependent. And so that’s the other sort of large category of struggle that I look at in the book and that I focused on, which is circulation struggles more broadly.
So often, historically, these are over the price of market goods, right? So if you go back to even before industrial capitalism, the 16th, 17th, 18th century, you get these what get called “riots” that are persistently over the price and availability of market goods. So famously the bread riot — which a lot of people think of is like going down to the baker and liberating the bread — but even more commonly took the form of blocking the road and stopping grain merchants from shipping grain out of your county to somewhere else where they could make a higher profit because people in your county are hungry, and they’re like, “fuck that, the grain stays here, we need food”. So that’s sort of the origin of the circulation struggle of which the riot is the most famous comic. But again, not the only kind, we can think about the blockade and the occupation, various other kinds of things. And that is the form that comes before the strike, which rises to prominence as the main form of production struggle, as you say, with industrial capitalism in the early middle of 19th century.
By the late 20th century — and here, I’m really talking about the early industrializing nations, sometimes called the “capitalist core” — by the late 20th century, the strike, and the historical labor movement has started to recede pretty dramatically, in fact. While the riot begins to return to prominence, so much so that we talk about major political struggles in the West over the last several decades. Most regularly, we’re talking about versions of riots from the small local event to the George Floyd uprising.
So those are the two categories of struggle, production struggle and circulation struggle, and their relationship to those two sort of spheres of capital. I hope that wasn’t too extended a framework. But once we have that, we can maybe get more down into practical events that we’ve all lived through.
TFSR:That’s really helpful and breaks it down in a way that makes sense. One of the things that you do in the book that I find really interesting is you sort of look at the way that riot and strike have been put into opposition as opposed political actions. And this happens on all kinds of spectrums of political ideology, like left and right, or even just in popular representation, where riot is seen as a non-political act, it’s delegitimized. And strike is seen as maybe more worthy — at least certain versions of the strike — and gets put in the toolkit of peaceful protest, etc, as a legitimate way to get what you want politically, but there’s also distinctions that we can see in how they bring down repression from the state. But what you do in the book is to show how these two forms of struggle have continuities, and therefore are more tied to historical moments, rather than an essential difference. So I was wondering if you could talk about that seeming opposition of riot and strike and where you think that they connect and differ from your perspective?
JC: Yeah that’s a really helpful question and I think it has, for me, two important pivots in it. And one is to think about the continuity between riot and a strike that’s often obscured. And the other is to think about their historicity or historicality, I’m never quite sure if the technical term.
So the first thing I’ll say is that the strike originally arises very much out of circulation, a circulation of goods, the earliest use of the term “strike” has to do with sailors on boats that are delivering goods, refusing to deliver and “striking their sails”, as it’s called, right, taking down the sails and waiting and refusing to deliver goods. So that’s clearly in the space of transport of goods to market, which sort of arising from the category of circulation struggles and that sort of era of merchants, but it’s the beginning of the strike.
Tthe strike really arises out of these moments of circulation, and then becomes a production struggle. And then as noted, the tide shifts the other way back toward the riot. And I think it’s hard to pin down dates, and I may have been overly specific in the book, but I don’t know, the 60’s, 70’s somewhere in there. So two things, right? One is that continuity: it’s not like anyone invented the strike, because they’re like, ”Nah, man, the riot’s no good. Don’t do a riot, do a [strike].” It didn’t work that way, historically, that opposition that arrives fairly late in the game. One emerges from the other in this real historical continuity, and/but as you suggested, really helpfully, they rise and fall and ebb and flow in relation to historical conditions. Again, some sort of, as we say, transhistorical idea that “X form of struggle is good, Y form a struggle is bad”. Anytime you hear someone saying that, you should just say, “well, that’s not that’s nonsense”.
The kind of struggle that’s going to emerge, whatever oursort of theoretical or moral judgments of it, the kind of struggle that’s going to emerged is going to emerge from concrete situations. So when you have a massive increase of industrialization, the rise of the factory, the expansion of the formal wage, of course you’re going to get increases in people struggling that way. And when that mode of organizing society starts to recede with deindustrialization, sort of disemployment, production of surplus populations at a global level — and I’m sure we’ll get to that technical term “surplus populations” — then, of course, struggles in the sphere of circulation, where people who’ve been sort of kicked out of employment by automation, or offshoring, or whatever, but still are stuck in the spirit of speculation, well, they’re gonna keep struggling.
And my one great lesson that I’ve learned in thinking about these things is, it’s simple. I apologize for my simplicity, right. But it’s just: people struggle where they are. Period. People run up against misery, and they decide they don’t want to take it, they don’t want to take being bullied by their boss, they don’t want to being unable to afford to survive, they don’t want to take being killed by the cops, and they struggle where they are. And if you get a lot of people in production, you’re going to see production struggles. And if you get a lot of people in circulation, you’re going to see circulation struggles, it’s pretty straightforward, actually.
TFSR:Drawing off the way that the…maybe the history is told to us in the way that it plays out in our imaginations — and perhaps this has to do with the fact that the strike came about also the times that these different kinds of liberationist ideologies of anarchism and communism are coming out — but the strike plays a out-scaled role in our imaginations of what revolutionary struggle means. And the the sense I got reading your book is like this, because you go “riot strike riot prime”, the strike almost seems like an aberration in terms of its concentration of movement power. And that, at least today, I see that the romanticization of the strike seems to out exceed its effectiveness, like people still think that’s where we need to be doing our work, but it doesn’t really quite make sense.
So I was wondering if you have thoughts about why the strike, commands so much power over revolutionary imaginations? And thenthere’s also kind of poetry to the riot, of course. So, yeah, I just wonder if you want to talk about that, and the imaginative power of these forms of struggle?
JC: Yeah. Well, that’s, again, this is a great and complex, rich question. I think, I hope you’re right that the strike was an aberration. By which I mean, not that I bear the strike any ill will, but I hope that human history endures long enough, that we look back on the 150 year period where the strike orienteda lot of struggles in a lot of the world, as an aberration. I’m worried that human history is not going to last that long, and that we won’t have a chance to look back on that as an aberration.
But I think you raised an important point, right, which is that it is a fairly clearly bracketed period and so why did it take on the intense charisma that it did? And I think there’s good reasons for it, to be honest. Certainly, when the strike was on the rise, there was a belief — and a not unreasonable one — that was sort of moved toward an industrial society, a manufacturing society was just going to continue, that it was going to cover more and more of the globe, that it was going to organize more and more people’s lives, organize more and more of social production. And so the belief was that the labor movement, when it came into being, which we have our first strikes in the late 18th century, we have the first Workers Party officially in the 1870’s in Germany. And at that point, it’s on, right? The labor movement is sort of where the action is, in the West at least. And the sense was to just continue to expand. And people thought that for that reason. It didn’t really turn out to be the case, it lasted for a while and not forever.
But during the period of the labor movement’s expansion and consolidation it won a lot of really tremendous victories. The strike, especially when there is high labor demand, is an incredibly powerful weapon. And you know sometimes people read the book as an advocacy book, saying “Oh, you should riot not strike”, which it absolutely is not, it never once suggests that. And the strike, in certain but not at all uncommon situations, is incredibly powerful. It won a lot of victories. It seemed like it was a route not just to better compensation and conditions for workers, but maybe to overcome capitalism. And for those reasons, it acquired a lot of charisma, so much so that I’m sure as you’ve noticed, people love to call things strikes now but just aren’t strike. They don’t involve withdrawing labor, don’t involve interfering with capitals production, but people will call them strikes because that term has a lot of charisma. Two things: one, it deserves that charisma for the victories that it won. TFSR: Mhm.
JC: Two: I think people who are going to struggle get to call what they’re doing whatever they want. If someone wakes up in the morning, and is ready to go out and really try and fight against power as it exists, I salute them and they should get to call with their doing whatever the fuck they want.
TFSR: *laughs* Right?
JC: That said, I do think or hope that we’ll live long enough to see the charisma of the strike wane a little. It hasn’t been nearly so powerful, it hasn’t won nearly the gains it used to win since the 70’s, or 80’s. And meanwhile, other forms of struggle are coming to the fore. I think there was probably even a time a few years ago, just six years ago, eight years ago, when people were still sort of saying, “well, the riot’s illegitimate, it’s not a real form of struggle, the strike is the only real form of struggle”. At this point I think it’s only hard-line workerists, as we say, who hold to that position after the George Floyd uprising last summer. I think people are more ready to recognize that these other forms of social contest can really become a challenge to the present social order.
S: Right. Yeah, that’s an interesting point, just to see how that tide has shifted from just last year, where I think you hear less people talking about how “what we need to do is organize workplaces.”
JC: Yeah, I think if I can just intercede for a second, I think you use the word “organize”. And that’s really a crucial pivot here. So one of the reasons that the strike feels so politically powerful to people, is because of a fairly narrow definition of what counts as organization. Right? And so yeah, well, you have to be organized. And often that just means organized like a union, organized like a political party. And so the strike satisfies that, and a riot or uprising, insurrection does not. It will never work, it’s not organized. Now, that’s rubbish. There’s lots of other kinds of organization that go into an uprising, a riot, you know. Robin D. G. Kelley the great historian has written eloquently about the kinds of organizing that small social groups in Los Angeles did in advance of the Watts riots in 1965 that made it possible. Now, these small social groups often get called “street gangs”, but they’re community groups, right? That get together and figure out how to proceed from day to day. And they did a lot of organizing, but it’s not the kind that gets recognized by like, “we need to organize”. So that’s exactly the hinge I think, is understanding what counts as organization, as we think about political possibilities.
TFSR: Yeah, that’s a really good point. And we could probably draw a comparison to the George Floyd uprisings, the massiveness of them came, in the heat of the pandemic, when there have been mutual aid groups working in all these cities to try and take care of people while they’re losing work and losing access to the things they need to live. So in some way, that kind of organizationwhich doesn’t get recognized in the same way a party or union does, was there at the same time that people started reacting to the continuous murder of Black people by the police. And that may have helped provide a leverage for the size of the movement. So that’s an interesting parallel that you draw from Kelley.
In terms of this, the way that you describe the predicament of the strike today, is really helpful for me to think about, like why it seems less successful. You call it the “affirmation trap”. And this seems to me actually to be super helpful, just in thinking about capitalism and what it produces in terms of how we can even imagine our lives and struggle. You say that all that workers can really struggle for is to reaffirm their position within the capitalist within capitalist exploitation, and that’s a game of diminishing returns. I wonder if you could talk about this affirmation trap and explain that larger arc of capitalist accumulation or financialization that leads to this narrowing of the purview of the strike.
JC: Yeah, absolutely. As a preface, I should note that the concept of the affirmation trap that I developed, one of the sources in thinking through which logic was the phrase and the idea of “cruel optimism”, which is drawn from Lauren Berlant. Lauren is a friend of mine, and she passed a couple of days ago, so I just wanted to mention that and remember her briefly while we’re together and I’m thinking through this problem, because a lot of my thinking is possible because of the brilliant people that I’ve known in my life and Lauren is absolutely one of them.
TFSR: Yeah that is a great loss.
JC: Lauren describes cruel optimism as this way of being stuck in having to feel optimistic about the very thing that keeps on reproducing your conditions that don’t change, right? In the optimism of believing you can get change from edifice, in fact, prevents change. I think in reading her book that maybe one of the main references would be something like voting, right? We’re told over and over again that voting is the only way you can change the world, and yet over and over againit turns out to be the case that we vote for people who keep the world the same. But for me the referent was really usefully labor, right? Which is to say, we’re compelled to be optimistic about labor, or at least to go to work every day, because otherwise we would starve. And yet it’s work that preserves us in a situation of subordination, of being at risk of starving, and so on. So when I started thinking about the affirmation trap, it’s as much as you described, right, it’s that thing of having to affirm — by showing up in the morning — the very thing that keeps you subordinated, and doesn’t affirm but negates you as a human.
And that’s true for each individual, I think with work, but it’s also true for the workers movement in general. And that happened in very concrete historical ways. So as I said, the workers movement had a lot of substantial gains, often through the strike over the century, let’s say between 1875 and 1975. But in the late 60’s, early 70’s, industrial capitalism, global capitalism really enters into crisis. Profit margins essentially vanish. They’re still huge profits, but they’re matched by losses in other places, there’s no systemic growth. And so overall, capitalist profitability really plummets around 1972-1973. And many of the major industrial firms in the US — it’s car companies most famously but there’s other examples as well — face a sort of existential threat. They’re barely making any profit, or they’re generating a loss, and the government is propping them upbecause they can’t afford to have these major industries vanish.
And consequently, the unions find themselves in a very tenuous position, because if they bargain really aggressively and strongly, General Motors is just going to go out of business. And indeed, if the union wants its jobs to keep existing — that it provides for union members — it has to make sure General Motors continues to exist. So it has to bargain for contracts, not that, sort of, push General Motors around and win concessions, but that keep General Motors functional and profitable. And this is a huge transformation in the structure of organized labor — especially the United States, Western Europe, but other places in the world as well — in which unions, in effect, cease being the antagonists, of industrial firms, and start being in effect collaborators, and both of them enter into the task of keeping each other operative and functional. And that sense that there’s a sort of historical struggle to overcome capitalism, that horizon starts to close, long before the collapse of the Soviet Union. We often date the end of the Communist dream to 89’ or something. But that horizon where the labor movement was pointed toward overcoming capitalism, rather than preserving it, really, I think, starts to fade in the 70’s.
TFSR: Yeah, It made me think about the problems that you come into when you’re organizing workers from the perspective of like, keeping them in work. So if you have a miners strike or something, or miners are trying to unionize to get better benefits, but the mining itself is under question now because of climate catastrophe, impending climate catastrophe. People aren’t going to necessarily get behind a miner wanting to keep mining, right? Because it’s doing damage to the earth. And so that’s one of those contradictions. And one of the things that keeps coming to my head — it came into my head when I was reading the book, and I didn’t really have the language for it but I keep thinking about it while we’re talking — we were talking about the the realm of reproduction in a way it’s like, it’s just life, right? The ability to live and to exist. And this is what we’re struggling over and both riot and strike bring us there, they’re sort of an expression of the way that we are made dependent upon the market and state to survive, right? One is through work, and one is through having to rely on the goods that are produced through work to live consuming them.
And so we have all this language to talk about the things that we have to do to live but it’s just about…it’s this question of living right? That we don’t ever get to one thing is , I think about whatever work struggle we have to have within the horizon of getting rid of work, abolishing work as a relationship. But I don’t know if you have thoughts about that, like how…maybe this is like a later question, what’s this realm of living in relationship to struggle?
JC: Well, yeah, I think as it was formulated probably a number of times, but best known to me is in a bunch of writing from the 60’s in France by the Situationist International, right with the goal to get beyond survival, right? So we needed to overcome survival as what our political horizon was. And in some sense, right, both the struggle that depends on negotiating for your wage, and the struggle that depends on the value of market goods — the price at market goods — are both about survival, but neither of them is about overcoming the horizon of survival itself toward what you’re calling a living. Just reproducing ourselves without reference to some capitals choosing to pay us a pittance every hour, or some store that’s going to sell us low quality pasta. And the goal is to get to a place where we can reproduce ourselves.
Sorry, I keep falling into this technical language, I’m trained *laughs*. It’s unfortunate, though, to get to this sort of place where we can reproduce ourselves without reference to the wage or the market and that’s the goal. I think you raised an important moment, which is the sort of conflict now between ecological struggles and labor as a contradiction, we saw that really dramatically at Standing Rock, for example, right? Where the pipeline company never says, “Oh, you have to take down this blockade because we need profits”, they say “jobs”, right? They say, “if you shut down this pipeline with your blockade water protectors, you’re going to be putting a lot of good Americans out of work”. And it becomes a conflict between, on the one hand, people who want access to the wage, and on the one hand, people who want to avoid total despoliation of the climate and the lands on which they dwell and so on. And I don’t think there’s a way to overcome that contradiction. People try to sort of imagine, “well, we’ll have green jobs”. That’s the magic squaring of the circle, somehow, “we’ll have an increase in jobs, but it will be good for the climate not bad for the climate”. And I think that’s a bit of magical thinking, to be honest.
And so I think that really asks us to get back to your question about getting past survival to living. I think that asks us to really think seriously about the zero jobs demand. A lot of, for example, socialists, full employment as a demand. Obviously, full employment, I think, obviously, is A.) not possible and B.) a guaranteed route to faster and faster climate collapse.
JC: And moreover, work fucking sucks. I mean, I have a good job, I’m lucky, I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life, some better some worse, right now I have a good job. I’m very lucky. And I don’t like that job. I don’t like any jobs, work sucks. Having a boss sucks, having to show up sucks. And showing up doesn’t suck, having to show up sucks. And I don’t think there’s a route to planetary survival, that doesn’t pass through the No Employment position, rather than the Full Employment position.
TFSR: Right. And I mean, building off that, it makes me wonder, so all of these questions and struggles often don’t get at the meat of the things: we need to have the basic things to survive, which is: food and shelter and care of different kinds. And the struggles don’t tend to be actually over those things. And it’s hard to get out of the mindset that thinks about some entity, like the state, providing us that right? Which they certainly aren’t going to do and they never have.
So I was just wondering if you if you had thoughts on that, because part of the dream of like the labor movement in the 19th century, that we still have inherited today is that like full automation, the centralized state that controls everything and we can sort of live our lives freely within that, but that obviously never happened. It doesn’t look like it’s likely, and all that the state does is reproduce these forms of exclusion and surplus. So, I wonder, do you think that even shifting our gaze to those basic necessities as as the ground from which we can think of life could be approached as a aspect of the movement without replicating those structures?
JC: I think it could be. But I think that there are some real challenges and real warnings we need to heed. Certainly we’ve seen recognitions of this need, but they’ve often happened in fairly small scale ways. The United States, I’m old enough to live through hardly the first but a sort of substantial “back to the land” movement, and sort of the forming of what get called communes – which is usually, 12 people, one of whom has a trust fund, moving to upstate New York and living together in a farmhouse. And, I say that slightly mockingly, I don’t think that’s a bad idea, but there’s a couple issues with it. One: it often doesn’t legitimately detach from the market and the wage, right? There’s someone who’s still got a job, or still has inherited a lot of capital, is sitting in a bank somewhere and is living off of that, or whatever. And so that’s not a true form of detachment. The other is, of course, it’s quite small scale.
But the real blockage to that is: imagine that started to happen with thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of groups started to try and detach from the wage, detach from the market, and get into subsistence gardening and reproduction of their own communities. Without anyone working for a capitalist without anyone shopping in the marketplace. What would happen then? The state would come for you, the state would come for you immediately. The state would come for you first by probably jacking up taxes really intensely on that activity so you simply couldn’t afford it. And historically, as taxes were invented to drive people into the money economy, and force people to live that way. And so that would probably be the state’s first strategy to force people back into the money economy, to force people back into the labor market, insofar as they’re needed in the labor market. Which is to say, long story short: if people want to pursue this question of communal reproduction — I’m just going to call it a commune, but I don’t mean again, the household, I mean, large scale things — if people want to pursue the commune, they’re not going to do it just by “withdrawingand it’s going to be cool”. It’s going to be part of a sustained struggle with the state on behalf of capital. There’s no route there that’s peaceful, that’s groovy, that is just like, “we’re just withdrawing, we’re gone”. That’s not gonna happen.
TFSR: Yeah, that’s, that’s important. Yeah, thanks. That helps think about where, why that still…yeah we still have to struggle against the state that’s gonna interject itself in any relationship we try to establish outside of its purview. So I can’t now I guesswe’ve sort of moved to the current situation, but one thought, and one question I had, sort of thinking about the current moment, and the phase of capitalism, that makes strike difficult, is how capital flight has worked, right? So we have technological advances that made internationalizing supply chains easier, but then increased the on demand nature of modern production, and that creates more opportunities for choke points in the circulation. Two recent examples of this have been the colonial pipeline that shut off its distribution because it couldn’t invoice the customers and bill them for the gas, but that ended up leading to gas shortages around the southeast. And then the Ever Given cargo ship blocking the Suez Canal created a sort of crisis, and that was like, also, that was accidental, apparently. It’s not, sure, yeah, these might not have been politically motivated in terms of limiting circulation, but they do point to issues of places like where we might think about struggle. So I was wondering if you had ideas about these kinds of circulation struggles from another perspective?
JC: Yeahhhh, you know what? I just want to hover over those two moments, that colonial pipeline and the Ever Given blocking Suez Canal, just because they were such extraordinary moments and glad you pointed them out. And it’s true: both events are political, but that’s different from saying both events were conceived of and executed with specific political goals. And, but there are extraordinary moments of sort of showing us vulnerabilities — choke points is a very popular term, which I’ve sort of come to feel ambivalent about, but that’s fine. But so I think they do point to, sort of, possibilities for struggle, but I think what they point to is not just the fact like “oh circulation, capitals’ more and more dependent on it” which is true, right? Capital as industrial capitalism has become less profitable. Large firms have tried to really make their distribution of goods, their circulation of goods far more cost efficient. We’ve seen this massive build out of global shipping, especially since about 1985. Really dramatically trying to improve turnover time and cost per unit of shipping and cut down on those costs as a form of venture capital struggle, and thoseproduce vulnerabilities. There’s no doubt about it.
I don’t want to exaggerate those because capital is pretty resilient, to use the technical term, right, which is pretty effective at having multiple routes to move things around, to be able to reroute, to evade a blockade or something like that. So I don’t want to exaggerate how vulnerable capital is. But it’s definitely a site of struggle, a site of contest. It’s important to note that when there was the struggle to try and bring down that Egyptian government in 2010-2011 — it actually starts with strikes in Mahalla in the textile region, then there’s massive riots and occupations around the capitol in Tahrir Square most famously — but the hinge event is the Suez workers threatened to go on strike. So that’s at once a strike and a circulation struggle, where they’re going to block circulation through the canal, and that’s the event that actually brings down the government, that proceeds by two days, the collapse of the government.
So this is sort of an interesting combination of phenomena. What’s most important to me here is who this indicates as the subject who’s involved in struggle. So if we say working class, I actually think that term misses some things: it assumes people who are working for a wage, who go to work in the morning, obviously, that’s inaccurate, because all of us do all kinds of work. And there’s reproductive labor in the home, we’re doing eldercare, we’re doing childcare, all kinds of things, right? But usually, “working class” sort of refers to wage wage workers. And the thing about a circulation struggle, the thing about blocking a pipeline is: you don’t have to be a worker, right? To shut down a factory with a strike, you have to be a worker and refute and withdraw your work. So it really limits who can take part of that option to workers in that site to the working class.
Whereas shutting down a pipeline, anyone in the entire proletariat — which is not just the working class, but everyone who doesn’t own the means of production, isn’t a capitalist — can take part in that, anyone can show up in the pipeline. As we saw Standing Rock where any number of my students — right, I’m a teacher — any number of my students were like, “I’m failing for a couple weeks, I’m going out to Standing Rock” and I was like, “Godspeed”. And you can just show up and be part of it and take part and that’s I think what distinguishes circulations struggles, is they’re open as tactics of struggle to anyone, you don’t have to be a worker to take apart.
TFSR: That’s interesting, too, because of one of the brushes they use to tar the riot is the discourse around the outside agitator, right? So the strike has a kind of belonging to it the workers belong there, and because of that “belonging”, they have some sort of voice that demands to be heard. Whereas the riot can always be seen as be painted that way, like that it’s outside, that is not coming from here, that it’s someone’s neighborhood, but not theirs, whatever, that is being demolished, or even if it is, there’s the people who are doing it wrong. But what you’re saying, with circulations it’s actually this, more open form precisely because you don’t have to belong to be to participate in it. Yeah, I don’t know, that creates a different kind of space, I guess, for struggle.
JC: That’s really well said. I mean, I think you just did a better version of it than I did, right? But you’re right, right? The, for a variety of reasons, the strike can make these sort of moral claims, you know: I go to my workplace, I use the tools every day to make whatever I make at my workplace, and I have some sort of moral right of disposition over those tools, I can decide they’re not going to be used today, that the strike is on. Whereas that moral right doesn’t seem to transfer to the scene of the riot, the scene of the blockade, the scene of the occupation. At the same time, that space of let’s say, the blockade, truly belongs to everyone, right? To go back to Standing Rock as an example, which I find very useful — it was led by Indigenous people, water protectors, and rightly so, given their historical habitation on the land — but it was also open to anyone. That land, if we want to believe any of the promises that were made, even by governments, that land belongs to everyone. And it’s everyone’s right to protect it, possibly everyone’s obligation. So, in that sense, circulation struggle, I think, has a broader sort of ethical compass to invite people in, in that regard.
TFSR: Yeah. That is, yeah, that sort of, I think, puts it in a really interesting and important way. Because it maybe creates more possibilities of solidarity, too, to think that yeah, that your voice belongs there. But since you’ve brought up Standing Rock, I want to think a little bit about how you describe, the modern, or current form of riot, “riot prime” in the book. Because you trace this back to a slightly different history than the earlier riots, to anticolonial uprisings and slave rebellions, or that’s like an additional part of it, a thread that comes into play in today’s riot. And you say that today’s riot is always racialized, a question of surplus, surplus population. So I wanted to hear you talk a little bit more about the effect of racialization in understanding the riot, the way it’s talked about, and then maybe if you want to bring that into play with the uprising after George Floyd’s murder, or the experience of Ferguson that you had, because that seems like a good examples for the racialization of riot.
JC: Yeah. So this gives me a chance to track back to our very opening discussion about sort of the technical and theoretical categories. And I’m going to try and lean on them again, but toward this very concrete experience of racial violence, community defense, and things like that. So there’s, I think, various ways of being excluded from the “formal economy” as we say, the “wage economy”. One of the ways is sort of classic land dispossession, so we can think about Indigenous people in North America being dispossessed of their land. And not always just to be bargained for labor force as workers, but sometimes it’s just like, “Get the fuck off the land, we’ll kill you if we have to, to get you to leave, you’re not wanted, we’re not even going to include you in the labor force”. So that’s one way of being made rendered surplus to the economy.
Another way of being rendered surplus to the economy is you work in a car factory that goes fully robotic to compete with lower overhead firms in Japan or South Korea, and you’re kicked out of your job as you’re replaced by automation, by improved processes. And so that’s another way you can be sort of excluded from the wage and rendered surplus.
So these are different kinds of surplus, but they’re both super racialized, right? So for example, I talked about Indigenous populations, that’s racialized obviously enough. In the United States, to choose a single example, if you’re going to get excluded from a workplace by industrialization, Black workers get fired first. This is a long standing tradition, even has to do with union policies of “last hired, first fired”. Unions were very slow to allow Black people into unions, and into productive labor, they tend to get hired later and then I’m fired earlier. So people who’ve been rendered surplus in that way are also racialized.
But this is not just true of the United States, if you go to look to both France and the United Kingdom, which is, you know– this book also came in the wake of really massive rioting in France in 2005-2006, and then, quite famously, the the Tottenham riots in England in 2010, and these are profoundly racialized as well. You get large immigrant populations, often from the Mashreq, the Maghreb in England, often from the West Indies, as well. And these are again, far, like the unemployment rates in those populations are inevitably twice as high as they are among white Europeans. And so those are people who, by virtue of being unemployed, are not in production, but they are in circulation and that’s where the riot is.
So these riots of surplus populations are inevitably racialized in the West because of the ways that dispossession and exclusion are racialized, and dispossession and exclusion produced the population of riot. So they’re always going to function that way. And then, here’s the kicker: once you exclude people from labor, you exclude them from labor discipline. As you probably have experienced in your life, if you have a job that’s a discipline, you have to be a certain citizen, you have to show up in a timely fashion, you have to comport yourself in certain ways. The job forces you to be a certain kind of citizen. But if you don’t have that wage discipline, what happens? Well, what happens is you get policed much more dramatically to make sure that discipline is imposed, because there’s no wage discipline, there’s police discipline, the state discipline. So these populations are far more subject to state discipline and to state violence. And that’s what we see over and over again, that kicks off the riot. Almost inevitably. We look at the George Floyd uprising, and it’s a struggle with the state right? With the cops, against the police, because the police are the instrument of this discipline, the state of the instrument of the discipline and has to be, because there’s no wage discipline when you have very high unemployment, exclusion, dispossession…you know, where jobs were, the police are. And this is always the case.
TFSR: And also just listening to you describe that history, it makes me think about why the riot currently takes on such a bigger role than even seems more hopeful in a way, as a point of struggle. Is that the previous iterations didn’t, sort of, attack the whole, all the interconnecting parts of capitalism in the state, which relied on dispossession of Indigenous populations and enforced labor by enslaved populations that became racialized. And if that part of it isn’t addressed, we’re just doing a labor struggle, it’s never gonna fully lead to a liberation, because we’re still living off of that, those profits, right? We’re, whatever the fumes that still exist from those profits. And so, once the racialization of the struggle becomes apparent, it seems like then it’s actually being truthful, in a way, about where the enemy lies, or I guess, to put it in a simplified language.
JC: I think that’s right. I mean, I do want to avoid a anti-solidaristic account where strikes are for white people, and riots are for, are for BIPOC or however you want to phrase it. I don’t think that’s quite right. And moreover, I think that opens up the riot — the uprising insurrection — to all those outside agitator claims. Well, here’s the right, the correct person to be part of this struggle, and here’s the incorrect person who shouldn’t be party to it and who’s just clearly an agitator. And I’m more interested in a possible sort of solidaristic politics. My experience of the George Floyd uprising was that it was led by Black proletarians but it wasn’t racially exclusive in any sense and I think that efforts to paint it as such are counter revolutionary–
JC: -and that it was an important moment of a partial — always partial — solidarity, which I think opens possibilities for the future.
TFSR: The narrative that I think was pretty generalized in my area,– when there was Black youth–led uprisings in the street, in the wake of George Floyd — the discourse of outside agitators — white anarchists — came in and then the Black elder leadership also took on that role. But the fact of the matter in the streets was that it was a multiracial coalition led by Black youth who are innovating the point of struggle and talking about it differently than the people that have been shepherded through the movements over the last few decades.
But coming off that idea of solidarity — and this is perhaps what you saw, maybe in Ferguson, too — you talk about it in a really important way. Because there’s the racialized surplus population that you just described previously, but I think the population that’s rendered surplus today, as production gets further and further withdrawn– so, you’re a teacher, I’m a teacher too, teaching the students in university who were expecting jobs after a BA, leave with no jobs and horrible amounts of debt. And so in a way there’s no pathway for integration, even for white people who were promised a place in this system, that just doesn’t really exist anymore. So I was just wondering about how you might think about that, how that plays out on the ground, or how we can articulate that more explicitly to form bonds of solidarity.
JC: It’s certainly an interesting moment. We finally — after almost 50 years now of national decline — have reached a moment where the possibility of national decline can be admitted. And the reason it can be admitted is because the consequences of it have finally arrived on the doorsteps of the white middle class, if we have to use the term “middle class”, I think we all know that’s a deeply ineffective term. But we’re getting to the moment where we’re seeing declining life chances for white populations who never in the history of the nation have had anything but Improving life chances, increasing life expectancy, increasing income expectations. And now we’re seeing that moment where all life chances are starting to decline and diminish for that population of reasonably well off, not utterly impoverished white people. And so we can now talk about decline.
So the question is: is that population newly confronting political economic exigencyable to enter into solidarity with the truly immiserated proletariat, especially the Black proletariat, Brown proletariat, and so on? Is that possible? There’s moments in which I do not have much optimism. You look at the data from the January 6th insurrectionists, right, and it’s all notimpoverished, but middle class white people with a particular feature being they live in counties that either are or are adjacent to sites in which there’s diminishing white populations.
JC: That’s a really interesting study by Robert Pape at University of Chicago, who does really useful demographic studies of things like this. So in that sense, if we want to talk about a downwardly mobile, white middle class as a sort of significant demographic slice, the moment of January 6th is a moment of extreme reaction against — extreme hostility toward — proletarians of color. At other times, we’ve seen lately more optimistic moments. I describe the Occupy movement — and again, maybe optimistically, I don’t know, I think I should be allowed the occasional moment of optimism — I described the Occupy movement as an effort, a failed effort, but an effort to find a solidarity or a collaboration between the downwardly mobile, white middle class, who just encountered the collapse of 2008, suddenly experienced vast amounts of indebtedness, as you say, really limited potential for future employment or advanced or anything like that. Trying to find a way forward with already immiserated populations, especially Black populations, others as well, it didn’t quite come off, but it was try. One hope for the future is if that can come off better next time. And if that short of alliance, I don’t know if that’s the right word, but if that sort of solidarity, starts to manifest, I don’t know, I think it’s on.
TFSR: Yeah, you put it really clearly. What we’re up against really is like the recruitment of those newly surplus white populations from fascists and the like — and clearly that’s happening across the globe — but the anti fascist movements seem to be pulling out more people, at least right now. Like the George Floyd uprising was way bigger than the Open Up movements during COVID, and then the January 6th, whatever that was.
JC: Yeah, that’s important to remember, it’s important to remember the scale of the George Floyd uprising, which you put together all of these, alt-right, far right nativist — wherever you want to call them — movements, and the George Floyd uprising dwarfs them. And that’s really important to remember.
TFSR: Well, thinking again, about the global context, when you talk about the racialization of the riot — and in the book, you are focusing, as you said, on Europe and the US — but in the current state of the riot, you describe how what was like a peripheral colonial conflict comes to the colonial center, to the metropole, but I’m wondering how you see the decolonial struggles continuing right now. And then how that might be tied in with climate stuff and Indigenous uprisings around the world?
JC: Well, I do want to be slow to comment on this, only because I’m not sure I’m an expert on anything, but I did a lot of studying and trying to learn things for the purposes of the book, and limited my field so that I could get some sort of handle on what was happening in the capitalist core. And I don’t consider myself much of an expert on the rest of the world, so I don’t want to sort of wax knowledgeable about things in which I’m still learning. There are people who are doing really interesting thinking about this, my friend Charmaine Chua works on logistics, but she’s doing really interesting work in relation tologistics, decolonial struggle, surplus populations, and try and learn from her and other people who are doing similar work.
I do think, when I talk about colonial strategiescoming back to the core, I’m not the first to mention that, Aimé Césaire — who wrote Discourse on Colonialism — talks about that exact phenomenon, of fascism as techniques of colonial management being sort of adapted for Europe. And various other people have tried to sort of study this since then. And I think that’s right. And I think it goes back to Frantz Fanon is a really important moment in thinking about this. And I think it goes back to what I was saying before about the difference between wage discipline and police discipline or state discipline, right? So colonial management has — not in every case, but consistently — been a form of police management. Fanon described the colonized world as the world of the police station and the barracks — so the population gets managed that way, exactly because you colonize people as an imperial power, you don’t magically give them all nice paying jobs, and they want to be good citizens, it doesn’t happen that way. In fact, you’re just kicking them off their land and managing them via sheer violence. And those methods in which you have to manage a population with the police and the army, rather than with the paycheck, are increasingly the case in the core.
So that’s sort of what I mean about colonial methods coming to the core is that increasinglyit’s good state violence as a mode of management and I think that remains true all over the globe. It’s just that we notice it in these so-called high wage countries more dramatically as a change over the last few decades. Whereas in lots of places in the world, it’s not a change at all. I was just reading George Manuel, who’s an important Indigenous theorist and historian who wrote a great book called “The Fourth World”. So he’s, he’s from Turtle Island — what gets called Canada — but he makes a trip in 1971 to investigate Indigenous life in New Zealand among the Māori, and then Indigenous people in Australia. And he takes a very clear note of, particularly the brutality and state violence meted out to Indigenous people in Australia endlessly. So this is a global phenomenon, but I don’t want to say much more than that, because I don’t want to claim any expertise where I don’t have any.
TFSR: Yeah, no, and I appreciate that. But the way that you put it in the book that really stood out to me was helpful, was that you talked about the difference in the early time of the riot, was the state was far and the economy was near. And that now we’re in a situation where the state is near and the economy far, even though we’re like, the riot is still in circulation and the market and consumption of goods. But what we are facing, we can’t attack the producers of those things, we’re faced up against the police, which brings us basically back to that description that Fanon has of what what the colonial experience is, and that, in a way seems to me to be a just a kind of, I don’t know, in all my reading, it’s like, this is where the state goes, right? It goes to, instead of further subtilization of discipline of the population, it goes to literal brute force to keep people in order. And that has to do also with the diminishing returns of capitalism as a global structure of the economy. But yeah, that, again, I guess it’s good to not draw too many neat comparisons or analogies among things, because it is different in different places, and the climate catastrophes that we’re facing will make that difference much clearer.
JC: Yeah, that was well put that was. That was, I think, a clear description. And it’s a real challenge, right? I don’t want to be fatalistic, but this switch where once the state was far — police are a relatively recent invention, right — once the state was far up, the economy was near, you could go right after the merchant. You could go down to the baker, you could go to the grain merchant and just fuck with them. And now much harder to do. And if you do do that, great, so you go down to the local department store — if you live in a place where there’s a department store, a big grocery store — and you loot it — and that’s great, I salute that — but even that, that’s only temporary. You get some supplies that’ll last you for a couple of weeks, that’s not a revolution.
And this is an actual problem, right, which is to say: I think you have to fight the state, I think you have to fight the cops, I think there’s no way out that doesn’t pass through that. And I don’t want to delude myself that we can somehow route around that moment. But you can’t get locked into a ritualistic struggle with the state. I think we saw that, like in Greece, for example, which, after the 2008 collapse, Greece popped off first. And for the classic reason: the cops shot a kid who was on his vespa and riots popped off, and they just kept going. And it turned into… I appreciate, again, I appreciate people who leave the house ready to struggle. There was a certain calcification where it just became sort of a march on the parliament and attempt to storm the parliament. Massive defence forces around the parliament building in Syntagma Square squaring off, this happened sort of repeatedly. And, it’s important not to get trapped in that moment, you have to figure out a way to get past the militaristic confrontation with the state, but you can’t route around it. So you have to figure out a way to get through it.
TFSR: It seems, in a way, that they were, in Greece, were able to, or in Athens, able to create at least a temporary zone of somewhat autonomy in Exarcheia, or something like that. And this is actually, leaving that specific example behind, going to my next question, just about where you’re headed in your analysis, because the dead end of facing of with the state is that we aren’t demanding concessions, right? Because they’re not going to redistribute — you say in the book “redistribution is off the table” — and in fact, we’re the crisis for state and capital, but the population is actually their problem, and we’re not asking for anything.
So what you say in the book is, “the next step is riot needs to absolutetize itself toward the commune”. And you talked a little bit about the commune, but I was wondering if you had some more thoughts about are your current thoughts — given the changes in what’s happened — on how the riot can produce the commune. Which you say, I think this is really important, is a tactic and a form of life’s, not the end goal of what we’re trying to achieve.
JC: Yeah, so that I mean, that gives me a chance to try and set forth a little bit of what I’m trying to figure out for book I’m working on right now, which I hope to finish over the next nine months or so, which is sort of specifically about this problem, or several of the problems you’ve mentioned about the limit which is the end of capitalist growth, it’s diminishing returns, but also the limit of climate collapse and sort of those as two limits that we confront as we try and figure out what revolutionary struggle might look like. And I am trying to think more carefully about the commune. Not so much as what the riot becomes — I think I put it that way in the book and I’m not sure I love that formulation — but I think about what arises, in some sense, alongside the riot.
So I’m going to go back one more time to Standing Rock as a really useful example. So Standing Rock is not a riot, really, although there might have been a couple little riots in there. But it is what I call a “circulation struggle”, right? That larger category in which the riot is the exemplary form. So it’s a circulation struggle, it’s trying to stop capital from circulating, it’s trying to stop that oil from moving through the pipeline. But there’s also the camp right, actually, there’s a series of camps at Standing Rock — I think in the end, probably around 10 distinct camps, each has its own name, they’re almost all founded by Indigenous women, they have various sort of makeup — but those camps are what I would call “communes”, right? Not in the sense that they’re sort of an achieved form, “here’s our own self government now, now this is how we live”, but in the sense that they took up the question of reproducing the community, “social reproduction” to use the technical category.
Because if you’re going to have that blockade for months and months and months, you have to have food, you have to have shelter, you have to have care, you have to have medicine. And the camp arises alongside of that as a commune, and what’s vital here is that they’re the same thing, right? There’s no blockade without the commune. And there’s no commune without the blockade. It’s not like they’re two different solutions that you throw at a problem. It’s that they’re indistinguishable: the care work of the commune, and the antagonism, the direct antagonism of the blockade, are not two separate phenomena, and you sort of choose your adventure. It’s the same people doing both things. It’s a single activity that has as one side of it the commune and the other side of it blockade.
And I think that is my real source of optimism, right? Is that we see those circulation struggles, which are inevitable — again, I’m not saying they’re good, I’m not saying they’re bad, I’m saying they’re inevitable — the structure that capital takes is going to be in circulation now, and it has to be blocaded. And seeing that that inevitable blockade — there’s going to be more and more of those — arises in the form that’s also the commune, this, I think, points toward a way forward. Because we have to eventually get to that moment that the commune promises without necessarily delivering, of breaking free from the things on offer from capital, the wage and the market. And that breaking free has to happen and the commune is the promise of that happening, and the effort to figure out how it can happen.
TFSR: Yeah, I love how you say that. Andthat makes me think, again, what I mentioned in the very beginning about maybe some of the strength of the George Floyd uprisings came from the fact that people were doing the care work of mutual aid at the same time that they were getting in the streets, fighting the police. And thinking back to the way that people talked about the Paris Commune or even May 68 in Paris, those are moments of lived experience that can then be drawn upon, right, of something, of another form of life — even if it didn’t last — and replace whatever. But if you experienced being in the streets with people that forms a kind of community. But I really like that you put the care work and the struggle together. That’s something that I’ve been, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around too because it dissolves those divisions of labor that were sort of imposed upon us by the state, the market and the divisions of the spheres of life too, to say that there’s work and home or something.
JC: Yeah. So the thing I would add, right, is that that mutual aid that was practiced during George Floyd uprising, for example — so there’s a bit of a challenge here and the term “mutual aid” is a very common one. Anarchists — I don’t identify as an anarchist but most of my friends are anarchists, and they probably all think I’m an anarchist too, so, and I would take it as a term of honor. And certainly in anarchist communities, the idea of mutual aid is an essential one and it has been for a very long time. But it’s super important to me to think about all the activities that already happened in communities that don’t identify as anarchists, that don’t identify as activist, but that are mutual aid, right? There was all kinds of mutual aid in Minneapolis. St. Paul already, in advance of people who understood that as a practice and had a theorization of it and had a commitment to it, roll up, and I’m glad they rolled up because I want as many people rolling up as possible there. But it’s important to recognize that mutual aidas a practical matter already exists in those communities and has to, it has to for amiserated communities, communities of color, to survive. In the current situation, there has to be a lot of mutual aid being practiced all the time.
TFSR: Yeah, I appreciate that. That’s so important. It goes back to what you’re saying, you could call it a strike if you want, whatever the terminology. And I think the same thing about anarchists, I identify as anarchist strategically, but it doesn’t matter to me. But the thing that even Kropotkin, talking about mutual aid is that it’s a spontaneous organization that happens, it doesn’t need to be imposed by outside or whatever. It’s what people do all the time. And that I guess, like “care” might even be a better word for the, going back to what you were talking about in the commune at Standing Rock.
JC: I think that one of the things that’s hopeful for me, I don’t know how it is where you live, but in the Bay Area, which is my home, there have been moments when there’s been a really aggressively contentious discourse that sets sort of care and militancy in opposition, often in gendered ways, but not always. In which like, we have a joke like “look at that manarchist” that joke about manarchism, militancy. But if you think about that example I tried to suggest of the blockade and the commune being a unity — not just two things next to each other, but a unity — you can see it sort of dissolves that opposition, the idea that like, “Well, some people are committed to care as a practice and has these virtues, and some people are committed to militancy and has these virtues”. Eh. I think that like you look at scenes like Standing Rock — and it’s not the only example, it‘s just an easily available one from the last decade — you see that that opposition is overcoming practice all the time.
TFSR: Right. I guess what I think that your book really helps do is to break through the sort of the false inheritances that we have from a romanticize narratives of struggle and revolution that create those kinds of divisions that that don’t exist or didn’t exist. And in that light, I guess, just to ask you a final sort of broad question: do you have any other insights that you might offer to the current modes of struggle or anything that you’ve seen lately as a kind of innovation that excites you?
JC: Well, I think there’s a highly specific and a highly general answer. The highly specific one is the great US innovation of the last year was burning police stations. It’s widely known as a global phenomenon, as I never hesitate to point out, on the first night of the Egyptian uprising – that I referred to earlier — a decade ago, 99, police stations got burned. So that phenomenon is known globally. But it’s essentially unknown in the United States where the sanctity of the police and the sense of the risks of militancy,outweighing the virtues of militancy, are so powerfulthat that sort of breaking of that barrier, so that that was suddenly on the table. I think that’s probably good news. And two, three, a thousand Minneapolis’, that’s a specific one.
The general one is a way of dodging your question, right? Which is to say: I think what’s most important, to sort of wrap around to the beginning, is to understand why certain modes of struggle emerge. Not to say “we should do this”, or “that’s good, and that’s bad”. But to understand why people…like, prescriptive accounts, like “this is the right thing to do” I actually don’t think are very helpful. In part because I deeply believe in the proletarian struggle. I deeply believe in people fighting for their lives and fighting for freedom and fighting for emancipation, not as an enactment of theory, but as where theory comes from. You don’t say like, “oh, here’s the right way to do it, I have a theory” and then you deliver that to people. Anyone who does that can fuck off. The point is you’re attentive to what actually happens and actual concrete circumstances, and you try to understand why it’s happening. And that’s where I would want to end up, is on the team of trying to understand sort of the shape of history as it emerges, to understand what might be possible rather than sort of delivering some prescription about the best thing to do.
TFSR: Yeah, well, I’m really grateful for the work you’ve done to, sort of, to illuminate those things and I’m excited, I don’t know if you want share a little bit about what you’re working on now, because I’m excited to hear where you’re moving next.
JC: Oh, I probably gave as good as summary as I can give. So it starts with the fact that we still have the same two problems thatAimé Césaire says in the Discourse on Colonialism I mentioned earlier. He says that “question civilization, by which I mean, European civilization has bequeathed us two problems that we have not been able to overcome, which is the problem of colonization and the problem of the proletariat”. That is still true. We still have the same two problems, the struggle with those two problems now happens within two incredibly powerful limits: one is the end of capitalist growth, there’s no more growing your way out of problems. There’s no more increasing employment, there’s no more capital accumulation to redistribute, to sort of buy the social peace. So that’s one real limit. And then climate collapse is the other limit.
So two problems, two limits. And those are the conditions in which we are compelled to sort of struggle for freedom, struggle to leave the realm of necessity and enter into the realm of freedom. And I think thatlooking at the kinds of struggles we see emerging, the things that I’m calling “pipeline blockades” the things that I’m calling “communes”, and things like the George Floyd uprising, trying to think about these as ways that people are trying to figure out a path forward, against those two problems and within those two limits.
TFSR:I’m really excited to read that when it is published. And I’m, yeah, thank you for engaging these questions and bringing it to bear on, like, what’s happening now.
JC: I really appreciate your thoughtfulness and your giving me a chance to ramble on a little bit.
This segment was first aired on TFSR in 2013 and then again in 2015. We thought it was time to share some of the story of Chicanx, anarchist-communist political prisoner Xinachtli, in his own words. Throughout the segments original audio, I used his state name of Alvaro Luna-Hernandez as he had not yet adopted the moniker Xinachtli, which means “seed” in Nahuatl. Xinachtli is a collective member at and editor of the Certain Days political prisoner calendar.
Xinachtli is serving a 50 year sentence since 1996 in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for aggravated assault on a Sheriff in Alpine, Texas. The Sheriff was serving a warrant for Xinachtli’s re-arreast at Xinachtli’s home. When questioned on the nature of the warrant, the Sheriff pulled a gun and Xinachtli was able to disarm him and make an escape without harming the Sheriff significantly.
After a few days of man-hunt, his mothers house was surrounded by numerous local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and the house was beseiged. It was only a 9-1-1 call from Xinacthli made stating that he was not being allowed to surrender that caused the troops to stand down and he allowed himself to be taken into state custody.
The grounds for the arrest warrant have since been overturned, but based on the post-facto word of the Sheriff that Xinachtli had pointed the gun at him, Xinachtli was sentenced to 50 years. He’s been determined to be a political prisoner based on his participation in multiple cases against abuse by prison officials and police, his jailhouse lawyering, advocacy for Latinx and other marginalized people in Texas and his political stance that the US and state governments occupying the Southwest of Turtle Island is a racist and illegitimate regime.
Here is featured an interview with Xinachtli that we received from comrades in the Anarchist Black Cross who were doing support work for him. The original interview was incomplete, missing the voice of the interviewer, so we did our best to edit and reconstruct the audio to better fit a conversational format and present his conflicts with the Prison Industrial Complex, his views on his political prisoner status at the time of this interview and his views on his case. More info on his case, plus his writings and ways to get involved in his support campaign can be found at FreeAlvaro.Net.
You can write to Xinachtli by addressing your envelope to:
Alvaro Luna Hernandez #255735
W.G. McConnell Unit,
3001 Emily Drive,
Beeville, Texas 78102
Be sure to use Xinachtli only in written content meant for him, prison staff likely won’t deliver envelopes with Xinachtli written on them.
TFSR: Could you tell listeners about your persecution by law enforcement in Alpine and other parts of Texas and your participation in the Chicano rights movement?
Xinachtli: The history of my involvement in the community organizing, not the original movement, but after back in the 70s and 80s, which led to my my re-arrest – aggravated assault case. That started everything back in Alpine in Brewster County, Texas. Well, you know, my incarceration now, is unjust. I’ve been persecuted by the police in Alpine because of what I was doing and my long history of involvement in exposing police brutality in Alpine. For example, I was a witness to the murder of Ervay Ramos, a 16 year old friend of mine who was shot and killed by Alpine police – Bud Powers, in June, the 12th 1968. And I witnessed the murder of Ramos because I was with him that night. In fact, his case was published by the US Commission on civil rights.
You know, just like everything else, Powers was given the probated sentence. I don’t think he even served a day in jail. I think he passed away a couple of years ago, but he never served a day in jail. And of course, you know, this is just a continuation of a legacy of police brutality against Mexican Americans by the police in a multitude of social injustices that happen in Chicano Mexican American communities and so forth. Like education, racist education, segregation.
TFSR: What was it like to grew up there for you?
Xinachtli: When I was raised in Alpine? I attended the Centennial School, which was a segregated school. I mean, back in even in the 60’s… 68, 67… all the schools were still segregated. That was part of the legacy of hatred that the police always had for me, because I was… in a sense, I was a rebellious youth, you know? I mean, I was supposing police abuse of Chicano youth in the barrio and from that point forward pushed into the criminal justice system at a very young age. I even spend time here close to a facility here when it used to be the Texas Youth Commission. It used to be the facilities for juvenile offenders. And it used to be in Hilltop. I did a year. I think I was 14 years old. I did I did a year then. And, I mean it’s just been confrontation with the police, with the criminal justice system, and so forth. You know? Until until back in 72, 73 I was sent to prison at a very young age again for destroying some police cars. Right there in Alpine. And from that point forward, I mean, it was just have a lot of problems with the police and so forth. Then which led up to this wrongful capital murder conviction, which to this day, I have always proclaimed my innocence, you know, I had nothing to do with it.
TFSR: Can you tell us about that capital murder conviction?
Xinachtli: The robbery and murder of the night clerk at the Ramada Inn in Alpine in September of 1975. It was Capital murder. The state was seeking the death penalty. My court appointed attorney was Melvin Gray, out of the San Angelo. I was charged. My uncle, Juan Herandez was charged. Palmina Hernandez was charged. And allegedly she was the one that turned state’s evidence and put the blame on me, see? But it was her and my uncle who had robbed the clerk and killed him. I had nothing to do with it. I was nowhere around there. But since all the evidence showed that I was never around there. I mean, like the footprints, all the tests that was done on the evidence that was collected by the police never matched. But they never said anything about it. They wanted me. They didn’t want them. She was granted immunity for prosecution. She died in a car accident a few years back. Juan Hernandez, he was convicted in a jury trial in Crane County, but his conviction was overturned on insufficient evidence. He’s also deceased.
Okay, so see? The state was seeking the death penalty. The jury couldn’t agree on the death penalty. So the state waived the death penalty during the punishment phase and they said “well just give him a life sentence. That’s cool.” So the jury gave me a life sentence, but the state was seeking the death penalty. And they had just opened the jail in Fort Stockton. The brand new jail, but they had me housed in Pecos, Texas. Close to my trial, they they move me to the new jail in Fort Stockton. Pecos County that’s Pecos County Jail.
TFSR: Here Xinachtli tells us a bit about his most recent conviction, garnering him the 50 year sentence and what led up to it.
Xinachtli: So when the jury found me guilty, I was awaiting sentencing. Me and three other inmates overpowered the jailer and took his gun, locked him in the cell, open all the cell doors for all the prisoners and told them they could leave they wanted to. And we took the jailers car and we drove all the way through Marathon to the Big Bend National Park and into Mexico. You know, of course, there was no bridge there at the Big Bend National Park. So we left the car and we swim across the river into Mexico. When they saw the car two or three days later through the air, because there was a big manhunt for us. They saw the car. They started trailing us and…. Texas Rangers, FBI, the Mexican police. So when they accosted us on the other side of the river…. we had to shoot out because we had…. I took all the Sherrif’s arsenal. I had all the weapons from the Sheriff Arsenal. I took them. Machine gun, and shot guns, and weapons, pistols and all that. So when they came up on us, we started shooting. Nobody was hurt, nobody was shot, nobody was killed. We ran out of bullets. And that’s when they apprehended us brought us back across the river. I think we were what? Two, three miles into into Mexico? Right there in Santa Elena, Mexico. And they brought this back and that’s when they had me handcuffed and in leg shackles and all that. And that’s when they beat me up.
TFSR: And at that point, some of the officers saw the severity of the beating you were getting and reported to higher authorities to save your life. Right?
Xinachtli: Yes, some of the officers saw the beating, and they went and called the Justice Department. They told them to go check on me because they they thought I was dead. So that’s when the Justice Department Criminal Civil Rights Division got involved in the case. And they indicted indicted Hill and May. And prosecuted him in Federal Court. John Pinkney. He’s in private practice now in San Antonio. John Pickney, he was the assistant US Attorney handling the case. Although I never did testify against him because being said that it was a trial strategy. He never called me to testify against them, but they weren’t convicted. The other inmates did testify against them. Because because they were first offenders and they had no criminal record. I already had… at that age, I was 22 years old. But during all this time I became I became politically aware inside prison. You know, I was involved in the Ruiz trial and the Ruiz case. You know, we went to two federal court to testify on behalf of all all Texas prisoners and so forth.
I was on parole on this conviction. March 11 of 1991. I was paroled after serving 16 years in DDC. And I went to Houston. I was very involved in community organization. You know? I was a delegate for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. I organized a lot of civil rights groups and so forth. Married Elizabeth Perillo. And then after a few years, we had a divorce and I went back to Alpine. And when I returned to Alpine that’s when the police started harassing me.
TFSR: Xinachtli talks about the aggravated robbery charged that the Sheriff use to legitimize the warrant for Hernandez’s arrest.
Xinachtli: If it hadn’t been for the aggravated robbery case, there would have never been the assault case. Some drunk guy in a bar said that I had snatched some money from his from his hand. And the bartender was right there witnessing everything. And he said that the drunk man was lying. Because he witnessed everything. He said, he followed me and him outside. And he had a wad of money in his hand and the wind blew the money up from his hand, because it was real windy on the outside of the bar. And because I brought all these witnesses in at a pre-trial hearing, I was acting as my own attorney. They had no choice but to have it dismissed. They dismissed that case. But the assault had had already happened. I mean, it was it was as bogus as they come.
TFSR: So this 50 year sentence that you’ve been serving since 1996. Tell us about it.
Xinachtli: This new sentence stems from my act of self defense against Sheriff Jack McDaniel. He’s also deceased. He was the sheriff of Alpine. And I was on parole up when I was charged with aggravated robbery case and made bond. He goes to my house to arrest me and he gets mad because I asked him for the copy of the warrant of arrest. I was never notified of the withdrawal or anything. So when I questioned him, he went for his gun. And you know, when he went for his gun, I took the gun away from him. I disarmed him. You know, to be honest with you, I was scared. I thought he was gonna shoot me. Because I have seen all this brutality from all of them. You know what I’m saying? I mean, I had seen when when Ron was was killed, I had seen a lot of brutality from the police. You know what I’m saying? Well, I took the gun and I ran. And then about a few blocks down the road. My wife picked me up, and she took me to Marathon, 30 miles away to the Marathon Post. On our way back she was arrested. See, she was pregnant, then she was expecting a child. Alvaro Jr. On our way back she was arrested and charged with hindering apprehension. I was indicted for the aggravated assault on the Sheriff. So after, you know, after that I had a jury trial. They had a change of venue to Odessa, Texas, and I had a jury trial and I was convicted on one count of aggravated assault on Sheriff McDaniel and not guilty on another account of allegedly shooting a police in the hand, Sergeant Curtis Hines. And I was given a 50 year sentence.
But the the old…. the ’75, ’76 conviction was used as part of the justification for increased punishment. The aggravated element comes in when the sheriff said that I pointed the weapon at him. The way it happened, really, by me disarming him and fleeing from the scene… It’s not aggravated. See, the aggravated even though it was a weapon, I never used the weapon. See what I’m saying? But he’s saying that I took the weapon away from him, and pointed the weapon at him, and threatened him. See? That’s what makes it aggravated. KOSA TV channel 7 in Odessa did a live interview because when I fled the scene, they had a manhunt for me, and it was broadcasting all throughout West Texas. They were they were hunting for me. There was a manhunt for me. So when KOSA TV goes to interview the Sheriff initially… he tells them exactly what happened! That I disarmed him, took his gun and fled, which is true. You know? I disarmed him. But I never threatened him with it. I never pointed the weapon at him.
My hired trial attorney, Tony Chavez out of Odessa, subpoenaed the video. And I remember as if it was yesterday where the news anchor Daphne Downey out of Odessa KOSA TV came into the courtroom. She had a copy of the VCR video and they was gonna play that before the jury. But it was never played before the jury. Mysteriously, this video has come up missing. Nobody can locate it. Daphne Downey from KOSA TV said that since they moved location to another building, that all of their videos, all their archives were donated to the University of Texas at the Permian Basin, the journalistic department. Twitch and a lot of other people have tried to help me locate that video, but nobody seems to know where it’s at.
TFSR: Xinachtli, is there anything that reporter could do if the actual videotape of the Sheriff’s testimony is missing?
Xinachtli: If the reporter can recreate? You know, what the share of relayed to him then. See, because there’s partial testimony. In fact, even some of the some of the offense reports that the sheriff wrote that initially, he told the truth: that I never threatened him with a weapon. I just disarmed him.
TFSR: And when did the Sheriff’s story change?
Xinachtli: After he talked to the District Attorney. Because probably what happened is that the District Attorney told him “Well, I mean, it’s more serious if you say that he used the weapon against you, and threatened you with it. That makes it aggravated, that makes it a first degree felony, which carries a more aggravated sentence, a harsher sentence.” And that’s exactly what happened. See? Because at that time he started… the sheriff started filing all kinds of charges on me. For example: He charged me with disarming him. He charged me with assault. And then he charged me with resisting arrest. I mean, he just kept finding all kinds of charges on me. And then he finally charged me with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Which was the more serious of all the charges. But in a lot of his police reports, even his pretrial deposition that he gave in the case.
Another thing about my lawyer, he was a paid lawyer. Tony Chauvez was a hired lawyer. I think it was about about two months after I get convicted. The federal government hits him with a Rico Indictment for drug distribution, drug conspiracy, involvement with a with a Ojinaga Cartel, Midland Odessa Cartel. They issue 20 some count indictments against him and he immediately enters into a plea bargain with the federal government and pleads guilty. He agrees to surrender his law license, and he gets 30 months in federal prison and he was disbarred from the practice of law. See, at that time… at the time of my trial, the federal government had been investigating him for over five years. And in fact, his home and his law offices were being wire tapped.
I have never been able to obtain copies of those wiretaps. Because my theory of the cases is that if the state and the federal government law enforcement agencies were working together in this big criminal conspiracy out of West Texas, involving the use about 30 or 40 defendants. If they were working together then the prosecutor that prosecuted me knew that Tony Chavez was under investigation by the federal government, because the case started as a state case. All these legal grounds that I had, like the suppression of evidence, the wire taps, the lawyer being under investigation being convicted.
Some of those issues have never been really fully developed, because some of the evidence…. I don’t even know. Because I’ve never had a chance to get a hold of all this evidence, like the wiretaps on his office. What was the nature of investigation? You know? There are some people that have filed some Freedom of Information Act Requests. And, the state and federal governments, they have released some documents, but they haven’t released all of the documents, and they’re claiming exemptions on the other documents. Refusing to release them. They have deleted some of this information, because, you know, I’ve always said that there was a conspiracy between between the police. The police didn’t want me back in Alpine. They knew that I was back in Alpine. And as soon as I got back from Alpine from Houston, they started harassing me. They had me under surveillance. They even sent this heroin addict, by the name of Mary Valencia, to try to entrap me. She later told me this. You know? But the lawyer never called her as a witness during the trial.
TFSR: Who was Mary Valencia?
Xinachtli: Well, see. She was a worker at the motel in Alpine. I was staying at this motel in Alpine. Bienvenido Motel. And she was a custodial worker there. She used to go in and clean rooms in the motel. She was a local heroin addict. I mean she had a bunch of theft charges. And, she later told me that the police had approached her to try to set me up. The police had approached her to find out what I was doing. Because at that time, I was doing some freelance paralegal work for an attorney out of Fort Worth by the name of Alex Tandy. You know, and I used to spend a lot of time in the law library at the (unclear) State University or at the county Law Library. In fact, one day, when I was at the Law Library in the county courthouse I saw Sheriff McDaniel as he was walking by, and he looked at me and he said… These were his exact words. He said ” Well, I see your back.” I told him, “Yes, I’m back.” And he said, “Well, just keep your nose clean.” I told him “Well, the people who need to keep their nose clean are the police, and you! Because all you do is steal from the county. That’s what you do. Steal from the county and beat Mexicans down.” And you should have seen him, he got really agitated.
From that point forward, I mean, they continuously stopped me on the streets. I mean, they even had the Border Patrol drug dog run through my car. You know, they they were all under the impression that I was using drugs that I was selling drugs, because I had started dating this girl who was known for drug use. Maria Imelda. Imelda, was her name. She was an old friend. And, that’s why they always said that I was using drugs. That I was a drug addict, and all this. Which was, you know, I was just trying to, I was dating her, and I was just trying to take her off the streets. In fact, she was the one that got pregnant and had my child.
You know, she was the one that was there at the at the house when Sheriff McDaniel came up that morning to try to arrest me. She was nine months pregnant. Two weeks later, she had the baby when I was in jail. See? And she testified on my behalf, even though they told her that if she testified…. they tried to intimidate her by by threatening her that if she testified on my behalf, that they were going to charge her too. She said “I don’t care. I’m going to tell the truth.” So, you know, she testified. And she testified to the truth. That I never pointed the gun at the sheriff.
TFSR: What is the likelihood of your parole?
Xinachtli: Well, see? I’m under the new law, which is the Half Law. That’s the new aggravated law. You got to serve 25 calendar years out of 50 to be eligible for parole. That’s just to be eligible for parole. You know, that’s why they The Half Law. You get 100 years, you got to do 50 calendar. If you get 50, you got to do half. 25. So that’s the aggravated element of a felony first degree case where there’s a weapon involved. Where you use or exhibit a deadly weapon. You know? And there is a factual finding an affirmative finding. What they call an affirmative find in the use of a deadly weapon that automatically makes the case aggravated. Under the Half Law, you got to do, you got to do half before you even are eligible for parole.
And my case is… see? I’m considered a political prisoner. I’m recognized internationally as a political prisoner because of my community involvement in the streets, as an organizer, as somebody who would protest, police brutality, protest injustices and so forth. You know? I mean, I was a delegate before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, because of that involvement with my community. When I was in Houston, my case has been mentioned in law journals and books and so forth, including my Jailhouse Lawyering back here in prison, Mumia Abu-Jamal and his book *Jailhouse Lawyers*. He mentioned me. There’s that book by Matt Meyer, *Let Freedom Ring*. They also Chronicle my my case from going all the way back to to the Alpine case.
TFSR: So, Xinachtli, where do you stand with your appeals process?
Xinachtli: And of course, I’ve exhausted one full round of appeals. You know? When I was convicted, I appealed my case to the Court of Criminal Appeals. They denied it. I filed in Federal Court. I went to the Fifth Circuit US Court of Appeals. I went to the Supreme Court. I’ve never had licensed assistance from an attorney on post conviction. I did all the work myself. You know, I never was able to collect all the evidence that was withheld. Although I did ask for it. They never they never released it. You know, like the wire taps, all the other evidence, because I know, there’s a lot of evidence that that could be developed on the prior convictions. If I could reopen that case… that would certainly knock out this other case. But I have to take it against one step at a time, you know. I mean, right now I’m in a Control Unit back here. I’ve been back here for 10 years on basically what they call administrative segregation. I’ve been in solitary confinement for the last 10 years back here on this unit on this new sentence.
In the cell by myself, when I go into recreation, I go by myself. Every time I exit the door, the cell door, they have to handcuff me with my hands behind my back. We get searched every day. I get back three times, two times, a week outside recreation in a yard. Which is… you know a cage. That’s all that is, cement, high walls, all you can see is the sky. The day room is in front of the cell. You know, I mean, you can see the next inmate who comes out to recreation, but that’s about it. There’s no contact. There’s no… I mean, you go to and recreation for an hour a daily. Like this morning I was out there this morning. After you finish rec, you go to shower, and then they put you back in a cell. You know, this is just it, I mean, you go out once.
TFSR: Can you talk to the other inmate as you pass? Can you carry on a conversation?
Xinachtli: Well, I mean, you could holler at him. But I mean, that’s all you hear: hollering. Back in this facility in fact, they just had one that hanged himself last week. There’s a lot of people who have hanged themselves. Who have committed suicide. And I have always complained about that. You know, I’ve always complained. But no. The repression. The the sensory deprivation, the isolation. I mean, we don’t have access to TV. We got access to a typewriter. We got access to a radio, small little radio, but you got to buy those on your own. You know, we have no access to television. Yes, we get Law Library, about three times a week. We order a Case sites from the law library. And that’s how I do my legal work. Well, there’s no limitation on correspondence, but there’s a ten person limitation on your visitation. And you can have visits every week, as long as you maintain a clear disciplinary record. Because if you violate serious disciplinary rules, then they’ll send you to another part. And you have to serve 90 days segregation, minus all of the other privileges. They totally strip you of your property and everything.
TFSR: Xinachtli before this interview in late 2012. When was your last visitation?
Xinachtli: I hadn’t had a visit in a while. uhh… years! Yeah, I think… Let me see the last visit I had. I’ve had a few friends that would drop by. Twitch has come by. A friend from Canada, Sara used to drop by every now and then. I had some family members sometimes come, but I hadn’t had a visit… you know, in a while. Very little. The expression that you find is through pen and paper. It’s through my typewriter. And I mean, you could sense through, I guess, through my writings… the passion, the anger, you know, the despair. Still, there’s…. I cling to hope. You know, because I’ve seen a lot of injustices. What the system has done to a lot of people who speak out against it. They try to crush you. They tried to break your spirit. I mean, They try to just isolate you and just crush you. You know what I’m saying? That’s the power of the state. And I realized that. But no prison or no solitary cell will be able to break my spirit.
I know that I’m right. I know that my cause is just. And I know that. I know that the police assaulted me. But I have no power. You know? They have the political power. They own the court systems. How many Mexicans are killed down across the border every day? And who gets charged all the time? Ya know? we do. You know? we do. So that’s the power. That’s the power of the state and the political process. I know. That’s the only hope that I have like reaching out to people who who have a sense of justice. You know, people that I can appeal to for a sense of justice. Because I know that there’s a lot of people out there, powerful people, that don’t want to see me free. Because they know what I can do. They know the power of my spirit. They know what I could do as far as organizing people making people stand up to fight injustice.
And that’s what I do, that’s what I used to do. If you don’t conform to the system, to the political system. If you step outside the political system and you seek independence from from the political process from the social economic process, then you’re a troublemaker and the only place they want to put you in jail or put you in a grave.
Updates from Greece
1431 AM, Thessaloniki
Greetings from Thessaloniki, Greece. From Free Social Radio 1431AM. On 23rd of April anarchist Vangelis Stathopoulos was sentenced in 19 years in prison. Solely because he tried to help an injured comrade, Chatzivasileiadis. Late he was self injured during the theft attempt. There is no solid of evidence that *Stathopoulos participated in the theft. But even in that case, he could only be sentenced for a misdemeanor. But after phony evidence and anonymous calls, a counter terrorist service, he was tagged as a member of a terrorist group called a Revolutionary Struggle. Basically, Stathopoulos is in prison for his anarchist identity, which he clearly defended in front of the judges and for his attempts to get injured adversary and to have access to a doctor. Since then, many actions of solidarity have taken place throughout Greece, until the every cage is burned until everyone is free.
On May 12 a new law was passed by the greek government about child custody. The law states that child custody automatically and compulsorily goes to both parents equally in case of divorce or even when both parents recognize legally a child born outside of marriage. Up until now usually the custody was given to the mother with some rights of visitation from the father, and in the cases that the custody was given to both parents it was because they both peacefully and collectively agreed so, not because a judge decided so. This new law and its authoritarian power over a child’s life does not include parameters of the child’s benefit or opinion, and even more for cases of domestic abuse, as it recognizes that a parent loses the right for shared child custody only after if they are found irrevocably guilty of physical violence, which is rare in cases of domestic violence. Under this law, all decision for the child must be taken from both parents, and if they don’t agree on something then it’s up to the court to decide. A parent can appeal on this decision but it can take years of court hearings and meanwhile the child is shared like an object with its abuser.
The Hatzidaki’s bill is the continuation of a long series of laws of the Greek state, where under the pretext of increasing the competitiveness of companies that will thus contribute to the economy, started the overall deregulation of the labor market with the main characteristics of changing the schedule from fixed to flexible working hours, reducing labor costs and labor rights. The modern working day that has been shaped thanks to the previous legislations that have been implemented, is full of insecurity and pressure due to the fear of dismissal, low wages, “split” working hours, increased rates of work. Many bosses in Greece don’t pay the workers their gifts, put employees who are suspended to work, insure the employees for 4 hours and make them work 8 and 10 hours, sexually harass, commit violence, bully.
All this with the support of the state that consciously allows such practices to be perpetuated and even proceeds to consolidate and worsen them, probably submitting on June 17 the aforementioned bill, in which you provide: Elimination of the eight-hour period and imposition of 50 working hours per week, with the imposition of individual employment contracts.
Bosses will be able to employ employees up to a maximum of 10 hours per day, without additional pay, provided that within the same 6 months they pay the hours with a corresponding reduction in hours or breaks or days off.
Increasing the hours of legal overtime to 150 hours, with the increase of the limits the legal overtime work will become cheaper. The possibility of a legal claim for re-employment is abolished (even in the case where the dismissal is deemed abusive) with the payment of compensation, thus giving the bosses full immunity for the dismissals.
Abolition of the SEPE (Body of Labor Inspectors) and its transformation into an “Independent Authority” (in fact it will be fully controlled by the state)
Criminalization of the strike guard that will lead to the termination of the strike with a court decision under the pretext of the possible physical or psychological violence that can be exercised by the strikers. At least 33.3% of the services are required, in addition to the security staff, which means that a large part of the workers will have to work during a strike.
Remote voting, electronically, in particular for a strike decision. The measure undermines both the exchange of views and the General Assemblies themselves
Mandatory file of all members of a union and its activities, so that employees can exercise their union rights, in the already legislated Register of Trade Unions maintained in the information system “Ergani” of the Ministry of Labor Flexibility in remote working in the form of either full-time or part-time employment.
R.O.S.E. 93.8FM, Athens
Open Assembly Against Green Growth
On June 6, the open assembly against Green Growth and Wind in Agrafa called together with other collectives in Tymbanos, where work has begun on the installation of wind turbines, and the construction of the substation. Taking advantage of the pandemic and destruction of the area from the Mediterranean Cyclone Ianos. Despite the attack by the repression unit, the protesters resisted and regrouped, continuing the mobilization, shouting slogans, making it clear that they will not back down until the work is stopped. In it’s call, the open assembly calls on the inhabitants of the agrarian villages in the cities of the plain to be vigilant for a cessation and blocking of the works for a relentless struggle for land and freedom.
Sexual Harassment on Athens Social Transport
On the occasion of ever increasing complaints about incidents of sexual harassment in the neighborhoods of southern suburbs, a mobilization was organized on Friday, the fourth of June 2021 at 9pm with a call the metro Argyropouli station. The mobilization is inspired by the Reclaim the Night Movement that emerged in the 70’s in Britain from feminist groups to reoccupy the city for women in the night. The central slogan was “On the street, on the metro, at night, to be free, not brave.” The Gathering in the metro station of Argyropouli in a very positive atmosphere remained in the area for about an hour to highlight the collective presence and protection of women against the incidents that took place in the metro Argyropouli in previous weeks. Then a block of up to 150 people was formed that crossed nearby streets and alleys within the next two hours and finally passed through the shops and ended up in a nearby Square. The march had strong chants with slogans against gender based violence, patriarchy heteronormativity, police violence and sexual harassment in the restaurant. Many people reacted positively, went out on the balconies, applauded and even went on their way. The initiative was organized by the newly formed Witches of the South Team. These mobilization, the first of its kind in our region, leaves behind an optimistic mindset in terms of struggle.
Government Witnessing Changes
Since first of June, according to an instruction of the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum. Public servants are prohibited from attending as witnesses in trials where the public is accused of illegal acts as it is said to safeguard the interests of the Greek state. The directive informs the Civil Servants that the testimony in favor of the opponents and against the Greek state constitutes a disciplinary misconduct and a criminal offense. As mentioned below, the affidavit of ministry officials is allowed only to support the allegations of the Greek state. As always in the ministry against which a series of serious cases are pending even at European level. The state is getting shielded in every way.
Cindy Milstein On Mending The World As Jewish Anarchists
This week, we air a conversation between Scott and anarchist, author and organizer Cindy Milstein. The conversation is framed around the most recent compilation that Milstein has edited and contributed to, “There Is Nothing So Whole As A Broken Heart: Mending The World As Jewish Anarchists” (AK Press, 2021). During the conversation, they speak about walking through the world as queer, non-binary Jewish anarchists, Palestine and Israel, Milstein finding increasing healing and ritual among diasporic Jewish anarchist and other communities, antisemitism from the right and the left, argumentation and Cindy’s relationship with Murray Bookchin and more. [00:10:28 – 01:44:47]
And Sean Swain speaks about the recent meeting between Vlad Putin and Joe Biden [00:01:48 – 00:10:26]
Just to briefly mention, the latest episode of BAD News: Angry Voices From Around The World for June 2021 from the A-Radio Network is now up and downloadable. Hear anarchist perspectives in English from Thessaloniki and Athens in Greece as well as Colombia and Ethiopia! Keep an eye out the middle of each month for the next episode!
Thanks for your support!
Thanks to the those who support our project! We have a new update on our patreon about prisoner support and the transcriptions. If you want to, you can share us on social media or in person, contact us with show ideas, buy merch, donate or support us on Patreon or Liberapay (more on that at tfsr.wtf/support), or contact your local radio station to get us on the air (more at tfsr.wtf/radio). Your support keeps the episode going, keeps us paywall and paid add free, and the transcriptions rolling.
TFSR: Could you introduce yourself for the listeners? Your name and pronouns and any other information that you’d like people to know about you?
Cindy Milstein: First, I really want to thank you for having me on the Final Straw and preparing so well ahead of time for this. My name is Cindy Milstein. And I use they or he for pronouns. And yeah… prior to the pandemic, I was doing a lot of anarchist organizing, including anarchist summer school, and was part of the Montreal Bookfair Collective. And I focus a lot on doing care, solidarity and grief projects. And I also do books! So I’m on the show today about the latest anthology I just did.
TFSR: Yeah, I was really excited about this book: “Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart – Mending the World as a Jewish Anarchist” which is out with AK Press. Particularly for me as like a queer anarchist Jew to see all this writing that you put together by people who are navigating those things being queer, anarchist, and Jewish. And I think the book provides a really beautiful take on all the kinds of feelings that I’ve tried to work through for myself, and my relationship to Jewishness, and the book as a whole makes a case for how Jewishness fits into queerness and anarchism… As an ethical, political way of living in this world, which is also the way that I’ve heard you define anarchism before that I find really helpful. But before we dive into some of the stuff in the book, I want to just talk… mention, you know, the recent widespread attention given to Israel’s violent occupation of Palestine. It always comes up now and again, in the mainstream media, but we know that this is an ongoing thing… the state’s genocidal treatment of Palestinians. So I wanted to ask for your thoughts on how Jewish anarchist specifically can speak out and respond to the ongoing Palestinian struggle for liberation.
CM: Yeah, I also wanted to start off and saying that my heart is really heavy with all the Palestinians who are having to deal with… yet again, massive amounts of death and destruction. It’s too bad this keeps happening. And I was thinking about how as Jewish anarchists, you know… maybe this plays into, in a way, why the anthology came out too… And why there’s a resurgence of sort of Jewish anarchism… I was thinking about a lot of people that were anarchists or anarchistic who did something called the International Solidarity Movement. Was that like 20 years ago or something? Mostly? And people would go to the occupied territories and help with olive harvests and be there as, you know, bodies in solidarity doing both contributing through to helping Palestinians with things they needed, also being bodies against the Israeli state.
Anarchists Against The Wall was another project. Again, not everyone was anarchists in it, but it was Israeli, including anarchist Jews. So there has been a tradition of Jewish anarchists engaging in really tangible direct action and solidarity in Palestine, and the State of Israel. And then you kind of flash forward and the past few years… I was thinking about this a lot. It’s not, again, by at all anarchists but some Jewish anarchists have been really involved in groups like “If Not Now”, and “Jewish voices for Peace” and other groups like that. And that have been doing a lot of work within Jewish institutional structures in larger Jewish communities on Turtle Island, and other places to try to switch away from this conflation of Judaism with Zionism and there’s been a lot of groundwork.
So then we come to this moment. I don’t know, it’s just felt really powerful to watch! It’s been really moving. The solidarity demonstrations are massive. They were instantaneous and in so many places. But just the one I went to, which wasn’t huge, in Pittsburgh. I felt this even there with a few 100 people. It was, you know… Muslims, Jews, Palestinians, Christians, anarchists. And it felt so much a deeper form of solidarity, where it wasn’t as unusual in a way for there to be people coming there with the fullness of who they were in a solidarity. It just felt really moving. And myself included in that I and a couple other queer Jewish anarchist decided to make some banners and one of them we made there was “Solidarity With Palestine. Abolish the State.” We had lots of kind of debate about that. How do.. should we be bringing a perspective? I thought we should. But I was really struck ahead of time and when we brought it to the solidarity demo people were really receptive to having Jews there naming that they were Jews bringing their views. There were other signs that other Jews had brought there weren’t anarchists that were… you know, “Judaism Does Not Equal Zionism” and all these things! But that would make it clear that they were Jews and I think and… as many people by listening have seen images of the solidarity demos, there’s so many demonstrations in which Jewish anarchists and also radical Jews were being really clear about who they were at the solidarity demonstrations.
Now, why is that? It’s not to be like “Hey, look! Here I am.” But I think that’s because Jews are told we should have an extra responsibility to that struggle. For us to be contesting the way the State of Israel is instrumentally using what we understand to be the beauty of Jewishness and Judaism to uphold the state and occupation and colonialism. I think it’s really powerful to say “No”. This is not this hegemony of a viewpoint. And I think the other thing a lot of Jewish anarchists have been doing is holding spaces for the grief of people being killed.
Again, I was part of a… I didn’t organize this, but some Jewish anarchists in Pittsburgh organized a really beautiful Kaddish a mourning prayer for a half hour in the Jewish neighborhood on Shabbat. Which means a lot of Jews are walking around seeing us do this, and it was a half mile from the Tree of Life Synagogue. It was the same corner where they had done many different vigils, grief rituals, and other things around the white supremacist murders at the Tree of Life only a little over two years ago. So it just felt really powerful to be there and say that we understand because of our own traditions of mourning, why those traditions actually compel us to be in solidarity with other people and their pain. When they’re sick, or dying or after death. And it actually… it isn’t just those traditions don’t just apply to us, they compel us to be here for other people. It was very beautiful.
So I want to say just to wrap this up with Jewish anarchists… because I’ve just been watching around I think it’s like a lot of anarchists, but Jewish anarchists have been really throwing themselves for Palestinian solidarity forms of direct mutual aid, and doing a lot of really beautiful speaking and writing and organizing. Again, very visibly. And I think that’s a change. It’s a real palpable change this time. Not just Jewish anarchists. But there’s a sea change in the kind of incredible attachment to Zionism, among Jews, and I feel like Jewish anarchists… I’m proud in a way that we’re at the forefront, because we’re anti-statists. So I guess the last thing to say is… I think the difference of what Jewish anarchists bring to this moment is that we bring the things we’re speaking like it isn’t just the State of Israel, it’s all states! It isn’t just colonialism in this region, It’s colonialism everywhere! It’s not just occupation here, et cetera, et cetera.
And the last thing I want to say is a form of critical solidarity that said, “we will be in solidarity with the Palestinians to become liberated. And when people are liberated, we understand how liberation has often gets perverted into states and ends up doing exactly what people want it to liberate themselves from. And we will be in solidarity and when people liberate themselves, we will be in solidarity with those who are then looking for forms of autonomous self determination that are outside states.”
TFSR: Yeah, that seems so important because in addition to the way that people talk about the responsibility of Jews to speak out against Israeli state violence against Palestinians, then you add the responsibility of anarchists to provide a take on these situations, that’s also anti-state. That was solidarity… but not saying “well, we need to support anything that’s going to be against that state.” Some leftists or state communist type people will like just take whatever side is against the US or Israel. So it’s a more nuanced approach. And I think that’s… I’m really glad you brought that up. To think about those two things kind of overlapping and the Jewish anarchist response.
CM: You know, there’s also anarchists who aren’t Jewish, who are doing profoundly beautiful work right now. In terms of creating all sorts of actions, beautiful actions, direct actions and other forms of organizing. But I’ve really appreciated at this moment, where in a way maybe the responsibility… The mosque that was being targeted during Ramadan. I was breaking my heart for my Muslim anarchist friends and Muslims in general that were having to have the Ramadan hurt. But some of my friends were Muslim anarchists. I understood the meaning of them trying to do Ramadan in different ways that are outside often the normative ways that get done in Muslim communities. Doing it in anarchistic ways. And also the pain of that during a pandemic. And then to have that sacred space be turned into a war zone.
But I really… that mosque just really touched me as an anarchist. Because I’m like, “here is a space. That’s a sacred site.” It was a sacred site for all different peoples. Centuries and centuries ago. And it’s because of a state and colonialism, it’s been turned into this horrible battleground, right? So in a way as Jews, for us to say Jewish anarchists have a special relationship to say “could we envision a time when we could come to different forms of solidarity again?” Across our various understandings of our of who we are and stop essentializing it.
So I guess that’s my last thing I think Jewish anarchists bring really to this moment is looking at people is deeply, fully human and messy and flawed. And instead of just going “The Palestinians” being like, “there’s a range of viewpoints within the Palestinians!” There’s a range of viewpoints… and there’s no category that is some essential… pure… right? I feel like Jewish Anarchists have been helping against this sort of essentialist politics. Which leads more toward fascistic forms of thinking when you just flatten people out to one category, instead of seeing the fullness of people and being in solidarity with them through moments and then through other moments being again, in critical solidarity. I think that’s a much more respectful way to look at each other as full human beings and see the pain.
Even the solidarity demo I went to was just so beautiful because I was just watching… it was kind of… the people hosting it were more liberal… you know? I’m still glad we went. But they were so sweet about anyone that came up and wanted to talk and I was really struck by people just wanting to come tell their stories of their relationship to that place called Jerusalem. It was a very moving to listen to people’s histories and personal stories of their connection. And then not wanting it to be both an occupation, a battleground, and a state. A place where the state and settlers are engaging in it… you know?! Human is a flawed term. But anyway, from a very experiential thing where it broke across these kind of barriers. Anarchists seem often good at doing that, in a way where we’re able to see kind of the messy fullness. And Jews are definitely good at that. So combine Jewish anarchist and wrestling with all the complexities in the questions.
TFSR: Yeah, what you said really struck something in me to think about why it would be that Jewish people, specifically Jewish anarchists, who would be positioned in a good way to kind of take apart those essentializing identities. There’s something particular about how the history of Jews in all these different places they’ve been let in and kicked out and harmed and I don’t know… used for things, that allows them to think about identity… for us I guess… to think about identity differently than we get told to from our dominant culture. That that’s really exciting idea. I don’t know if you have any other thoughts about that, like why we’re as Jews and Jewish anarchists in such a good place to kind of articulate identity not as flat or singular thing, a decentralized thing?
CM: Yeah, I mean the more I’ve come back to my own as part of what this Anthology, this sort of resurgence of Jewish anarchism, which just feels so beautiful and moving. I think we’re all in this incredible “we’re so glad to find each other! and we’re so glad to all be like learning so much from each other and challenging!” I like feel so challenged, and in a good generative way, of myself. like “Wait! I never understood that. I understood this!” You know? And so some of it for me is a lot of: “Well, this is who I am” or “This is the culture I was raised in.” And then the generosity of so many people right now who are Jewish anarchists, who … it’s a range of experiences.
But a lot of Jewish anarchists are really going back to Torah, and teaching it in ways often, almost all overwhelmingly, well, maybe it’s the people I hang out with. They’re trans and queer Jewish anarchists. And I think there’s something to this, like when you go back and you start looking at the text. I’m no scholar in this yet, but I’m really enjoying going and scrutinizing. The whole structure is intended to be a communal, educational, ongoing investigation and you have all these things written down, but then it’s this living… it’s intended to be argued with and interpreted and debated and questions are elevated. It intends for you to question.
I keep going back to this word, but I think it’s a really prominent within Judaism is “we wrestle”, you know? We wrestle with everything. And even a friend of mine who does believe in God. I don’t. At one point I said, “I don’t believe in God” and they’re like, “but there isn’t that notion of belief in God.” In Judaism. There’s like a wrestling with what God is in what context, and where, and how that plays itself out because it’s different depending on… there’s a bunch of different names or time periods or context.
But it’s also… “Do you do trust in it?” Like if you start translating some of the words that are originally connected? Do you trust and in some kind of thing that’s greater than us? And I go… “I don’t know?” It’s like all these, it just raises these different questions. There wasn’t, there wasn’t an answer. I don’t know. I just… somehow you combine things that we think are just our cultural things and you say, “well actually even if I’m not religious” let’s say or “I didn’t come through that training. I don’t believe in God, I’m a product of the culture of 1000’s of years of people that have used those tools to keep together.” So I don’t know, somehow that you bring that to anarchism, which is also about questioning everything and not believing in authority.
I think that the two together work really well because there are plenty of Jews that will still believe in authority and will wrestle with and debate and raise all these questions in order to solidify authority whether it’s justified or not. But there’s very conservative and hierarchal forms of Judaism. But then anarchism is questioning hierarchy, and you bring those two together, and it’… Yeah. I don’t know. I think there’s something. I still don’t even know what the answer is to it. But there’s so many stories within Judaism and the Jewish experience and Jews throughout history that have had to rebel and had to figure out ways, it’s just, it’s also just so prevalent.
So many Jews have had to become, or desire to become rebels or resist the dominant culture, because the dominant culture mostly did not, and still doesn’t in a lot of ways accept. Whatever the rationale for why you need the state is because we’ve been pushed out across the world, most Jews have never had citizenship or been parts of states or been protected by them, or before that empires! We’ve all we’ve been our own autonomous communities for most of our history until the very recent history. The State of Israel is so young. It’s such a baby, right? And it’s not the whole, it’s such a minor part of Jewish understanding of how you stay together. And in a very anarchistic way before that.
TFSR: The state is a relatively new invention anyway.
CM: I mean, I guess maybe for even for this idea that Jews connecting, I was saying protection. Okay. Yeah. So, I understand at some point most people that face enslavement and displacement, and genocide, and destruction of all their institutions, their languages, etc. At some point we’ll turn to trying to figure out ways to protect themselves. And Jews have engaged in a variety of ways to protect themselves. Some Jews thought that the state would protect them. Others of us like anarchist Jews understand that states do not protect us. But I get how…you know. I think one thing that gives us stuff specially positioned to understand that states don’t… we understand that almost nothing has protected us. And that we have to protect ourselves. And other communities have experienced that too, not specifically just Jewish. If you’re Black and Jewish. If you’re Black, other communities…indigenous, or indigenous and Jewish, a whole bunch of other categories of people have experienced that.
When you combine that again: Jewish with anarchism, there’s a special … we’ve been pushed across all borders. We don’t really belong to any nation states. Whenever there’s been moments of mass antagonism toward us. It’s turned into violence. We’ve only pretty much… sometimes other people protect us, but they’ve been people, not states. Communities, not states. And that, in a way, is beautiful, too, right? It’s like we figured out how to protect our community. Self defense and community resilience. And now you have this moment. I think that our Jewish anarchists, feel such affinity with people who are like…. the Palestinians that are like… we were having to figure out how to protect ourselves, and we know how to protect ourselves, and we know how to resist and we’ve been doing this now for a while. And in a way, there’s this recognition of like “we get that that’s what you have to do to keep your community together.” Yeah, because most Palestinians are in diaspora now, too, right?
TFSR: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good point. And it’s interesting because that main narrative of the necessity of the State of Israel to protect the people often blinds people to the fact of what’s going on between Israel and the Palestinians, where it has such a reminiscence to the things that the Jews have experienced from violent states in the past. I really would like also, just to go back… One thing I heard and what you were saying was like the idea of… instead of belief in God,like wrestling with God made me think about, committing to wrestling with God and committing to the question. Its also like the way to enter just sort of commit to the struggle as, like not an endpoint that we’re going to reach, but something that we have to keep doing and keep asking. So that we can always counter where power starts to collect and do its thing.
CM: Yeah, but you know in a way… I think why it’s been really increasingly powerful to me as, a like, non binary, queer, Jew and an anarchist is to bring all these things together. But within anarchism, we do wrestle as anarchists with things all the time. Constantly! Like, okay, there’s a pandemic, let’s wrestle with what this means now and how the world’s going to shift and what we should do to respond. But we don’t really have places that bring us together to do that regularly. I know a lot of us are, myself included, are grappling with… this has been a hellish or one of the most hellish 13 or 14 months, a lot of us are… collective trauma. A lot of us are doing really badly. As anarchists, I know, all of us need to be talking about it, and thinking about it. And working through wrestling with what just happened to us. And we’re not. There’s no place to go to do that. And as a Jew, who’s an anarchist, I know I have places to do that, because Judaism for 1000’s of years, Jews have survived.
Jews have been around almost 6000 years or 1000’s of years. Any diasporic peoples in a way that haven’t been protected by states or empires or, you know, church hierarchies, have figured out how to create community without states. Yeah, and have kept their culture together without a state. And part of that within Judaism is a really intricate amount of ritual and holidays and time and creating time for things. And so I was especially struck by it this year, maybe because this year has been so hard, but during Passover, eight days, you don’t necessarily celebrate every day, but that time period asks of us, and it has for 1000’s of years, to get together and for hours wrestle with the story of what it meant to be enslaved, what it meant to engage in forms of resistance and direct action to get out of that. And then to leave and not know where you’re going. To be liberated, but not free.
The first moment in this year, it really struck me, was to create this temporary space to start bringing people together. And that felt sacred, that we could begin to sort of process it and heal from it. Feel whatever! I’m not gonna describe it religiously, but some people might. This space that… like as anarchists I mean… here, we are in Asheville, and yesterday, you and I went to Firestorm: anarchist feminist queer collective bookstore, 13 years birthday party in a park. I’m visiting. For a lot of us it was the first time we’ve been with queer, feminist, anarchists together in this beautiful space of celebrating and gathering, which is what our spaces are usually. Right? And it just felt like “Okay, this is what all of us need!” Right?
Within Judaism there’s so many places like that. And so we set up these spaces really regularly in Judaism. During Pesach we come…. Passover, we constantly are debating “So what does it mean to liberate yourself? And then, how do you? In the story, you have 40 days where people are wandering around trying to figure out how to create freedom, or how to begin to understand that? But you really, every year, wrestle with it. Are we good enough to be free? How do we be free? How do we liberate ourselves? Do we do a good job of it? Blah, blah…
And this year, the conversation I went to online about it, someone pointed out because Jews like to go “Hey! But there’s another piece to the story. You can go a few more pages ahead in the Torah, it talks about how there’s this whole debate about how do you treat slaves well!” And they go “why would we have done that after we just liberated ourselves from slavery?” And it was like, “well, that is a part of wrestling.” If you become the person that suddenly is free, maybe you’re not as free as you think. And what if you start enslaving other people? Shouldn’t you start wrestling with why you’re doing it and how you’re treating them? And then maybe you’ll start thinking “Hey, this isn’t what we want to be doing.” So we have this really nice conversation about how does sometime liberation turned into the opposite? Which is exactly what’s happening right in the State of Israel.
And I’m just like, “Okay, this is why as a Jewish anarchist I’m just really appreciating spending more time within radical Jewish circles.” In one person’s conversation, [they] said “Why do we think even as radicals and queers…. “ (they weren’t anarchists in this space, but it was definitely a queer space, radical space…) “Why do we think what it’s telling us in this passage is that all humans have the capacity to enslave other people.” And if we don’t continually revisit that, remember that, and reject it. We’re prone to doing it again. More than if we forget to talk about each year. And I thought that, “I feel like anarchism needs more…” It needs grief rituals for when things happen our communities instead of maybe it happens sometimes maybe it doesn’t. It needs holidays outside of capitalist time. There’s such a richness within Judaism of ways to create community without states ways to create solidarity without states.
TFSR: Yeah. And also like practicing, almost like practicing conflict, in a way, like the arguments and the reinterpretations…. in a way that doesn’t divide s community up. Or tear everything apart or make you enemies. There’s so much arguing and disagreement that is actually a richness rather than a problem or something to run away from.
CM: A lot of Jewish anarchists are very generous people. It’s really interesting. It’s because Judaism, there’s such a compulsion, you need to be studying and teaching and learning all the time to whole your life that’s completely another value within Judaism. The reason there’s so much sacred out of capitalism time in Judaism is meant used to spend time studying and learning and teaching and sharing ideas. And so, I was mentored by and learned a lot from Murray Bookchin. And he was very generous. Another Jewish anarchist. Murray was such a lovable and such an intense… So Jewish! Eastern European Jewish. Ashkenazi Jew. But like when I first met him, he was like encyclopedic, his mind was just like, amazing. The first year I was like, “Okay, I know, there was critiques of his ideas, but I can’t [argue], like he’s just… I can’t figure out the way…” And then when I did and start arguing with him… he loved that.
And everyone was kind of scared because he really argued intensely. But then when I started we became … in a way…. I feel like that’s we broke through and had a loving relationship. when I would argue back… could finally argue back. He was teaching me to be able to argue back with him, even though it pissed him off. It’s kind of like, “I don’t want you to disagree with me, but I want you to argue with me. But that’s how all of us feel,” you know? Like, I want to argue things! But then I understood within, like Bookchin and a lot of his argumentative style, you could on the one hand find there’s a host of other reasons… his bitterness, blah, blah, toward the end of his life which I kind of understand the older I get… It’s like, how can we not be? Yeah, I’m not going to get bitter. But you can get tired being an anarchist for a long time, because people don’t stay anarchist for life or a whole bunch of other things.
But Murray had a really great mind about wrestling with ideas. Some phenomena would happen and he would want to debate, and argue it, and think about it, and really intensly! And we’d be almost nose to nose, almost screaming at each other about an idea. And then we would stop I would go “I love you” and hug each other. And that’s so…. at least culturally, how I understand Judaism to me. Yeah. So I never took it as he was upset with me. And I get that I do that sometimes when arguing. And I’m like, I’m not being intense because I’m angry. I’m just enjoying, like, so enjoying that our minds are moving so intensely, because none of us know the answer. And I did appreciate this about Murray. He was like if I teach you nothing else, I want to teach you to think critically, and always imagine something else. Even if he ended up disagreeing with me, that really is what he wanted. That’s such a Jewish thing. I want you to learn to think for yourself. And then I want us to continue to argue and none of us know the answer. And we’re not going to…. always based on the context.
If you look at his body of his work… let’s stick with Murray for a bit. His work is mostly very dynamic. You can disagree with different periods of different shifts. But he’s this… he’s constantly trying to reinterpret his own ideas through lens of society and reinterpret society through the lens of new ideas, bringing in other theorists. Because he’s only one person he didn’t… there’s a whole host of things he ignored and didn’t bring in right? Queer theory, colonialism… you know but what he did was so similar to a Jewish practice of continuing to push yourself and challenge yourself, wrestle and, you know?
As anarchist, I think we could stand to bring in, whether they are Jewish or not, a more generous sense of wrestling with ideas. I create a lot of anarchist spaces where I’m like, let’s all come into the room and pretend none of us know the answer, because none of us do! And have a big conversation about it. I’ve been so perplexed, I’ve tried that experiment so many times. It is really hard to get a roomful of anarchists to set aside with their preconceived notion of the answer they think is right to solving capitalism. I’m like… if any of us knew we would have done… or whatever the question is. And I think it’s so much more interesting to me, and I really am coming to understand this be more than my Judaism and my anarchism is: that it’s actually okay for us to come in with questions, not answers and then together, question the questions and wrestle with them and come out with more questions and maybe a little bit better understanding, that’s probably the best we can hope for. I don’t know. I guess I’m wandering around on different topics, which is another very Jewish trait, you wander around and you come back to somewhere, but a very diasporic trait, you wander around, but you know, kind of where you’re going.
TFSR: No, I love that. I mean, that’s something I share too. And it’s an experience I’ve had to with people that are close to me being like “my wanting to argue about that is love!” It’s not, like anger or anything. And my intensity sometimes can read that way. But I am always wanting that and I love just like having to face the conflict, rather than let it sit. Because that’s when we like get silenced and don’t work together. And I don’t know, it’s much better to work those things through. So I can see that, you know the opening this line of like Jewish anarchism… trying to bring some of that Jewishness into anarchism, too. And it does seem, again, I said this in the beginning of our conversation, but this book seems timely in a way to me because I’ve been part of communities doing the same kind of thing that this book represents. And then, through my conversations with you around the book and meeting more and more people, who are all like “this is a moment to rethink it all.” And so actually a question kind of along that line and going back also to how you’re saying there’s a sea change in terms of like the way that people are starting to distinguish Jewishness from the State of Israel from Zionism… Your book also shows how there’s different forms of Judaism. And like, even what you’re talking about, it’s not a uniform thing is not a one centralized hierarchy of like thought and beliefs. And new book contains all of these counter narratives to those stories. So I was just wondering if there’s more of these kinds of perspectives that you might want to share here. Things that get left out, when we think about what a Jew is, what Judaism is, what being Jewish means… the diversity of the practices that go to make up Judaism?
CM: Yeah, yeah. I’m not sure I can answer that whole question. Because Judaism is… again is so enormous. And there’s so many different understandings of it. I’ll speak to … maybe within the like radical anarchist Judaism that has led to this anthology is like, me generally. Especially before the pandemic, which made it harder, but finally me being like “Hey, I’m just I’m so much more comfortable in the diaspora, being diasporic. Both maybe from my own trauma and ancestral trauma, just this compulsion to move.” I’m realizing that’s part of how I protect myself and safety in a way. But also this way in which diaspora is like making connections and being really intentional about community and scattering seeds. And I don’t know… I like doing that. So for a few years I was just going. When I was in all of these different communities across Turtle Island, and a little bit of other places. It was so striking to me. Suddenly, everywhere I go, people go “Hey, you happen to be staying tonight in a house where everyone’s queer Jewish anarchists! We’re also going to have a Shabbat dinner!” And then you’d sit down, people would start talking about how they’re doing language… Latino and Yiddish language classes or they did a demonstration together as anarchist Jews, or blah, blah. I was “What is going on?!” There’s suddenly… and then I started being looped into friends going, “Hey, we’re gonna start every month meeting up some of us who are queer and trans for Rosh Chodesh.” Which is like the new month and do conversations and rituals around that. Which I’m still doing! And so I thought “okay, something’s going on.” I think that’s one reason I logged in diasporic.
Two is, I really like seeing the bigger picture about trends that are happening. And I was like “something’s going on.” And so then this Anthology… between putting out a call and asking people to write. It’s actually been surprising to me since it’s come out. Almost some things I was intentionally trying to do. Other things have been like this beautiful surprise! So there’re about 40 contributions to it, magical stories, really heartbreaking. A lot of vulnerable, really moving, poignant stories, very honest and open, poems are at work.
And I mean, I definitely had a viewpoint in things that I like. I wanted pieces that were not assimilationist not Zionist, not statist. I want people, all the pieces to be challenging white supremacy, to be anti-colonial. There were things that I without saying that… anti fascism is like a big theme, that are threads through it. But I really wanted people to speak from their own experience and their own trauma. And I think one thing going into this anthology that really struck me is, and maybe it’s because for me, I’m just like, “well, I don’t know what else to do but say the truth of what I see in the world in myself.” Which also feels like I understand coming a lot of my cultural Jewish experience kind of a directness because we put out what we want and we start wrestling with it.
I just realized how many people that are kind of coming in new to both their Jewishness and their anarchism and saying “well, maybe I can do both, and my queerness!” Not everyone in the anthology is queer or trans, but a lot of people are. And a lot of people were like “Who am I to say?” Because, within the wider anarchist and left and radical progressive circles… people see Jews as like, “What do you guys have to complain about? You’re not facing any difficulties. You’re not, you know… you’re fine! There’s no antisemitism, there’s nothing going on. You don’t have any trauma. You don’t have this.” And I was like “I know that’s wrong.” I don’t want our whole story to be one of trauma, but we have profound amounts of trauma ancestrally and contemporarily. From how we’re treated, including as Jews, and there’s still globally but it also in United States, there’s antisemitism is not going away and it shifts and it changes, but it’s not gone. And it can be deadly as we found out as expressed in the anthology. There’s a lot of pieces on the Tree of Life, because that was kind of a pivotal moment that happened during the anthology being produced.
So the differences that struck me in this was I really wanted people to speak to their experiences with a forcefulness and a boldness and not hide that, because I understand that it isn’t a contest. We have just as much stake in fighting white supremacy and fascism. Because white supremacy and fascism are fundamentally anti-Semitic. See Jews as other. See us as a threat to white supremacy. A threat to states. And we are! I want them to. But I also understand that they target us as people they want to kill. Right? I’m not saying it’s all the same. The history of anti blackness is not the same as a history of antisemitism, or anti indigenous understandings, or anti… all the other anti’s that are part of the founding of… let’s just say, the United States. But there’s a pretty serious connection between them all, there is a very powerful and real connection between them all. And our fights, our fates are linked, our liberation is linked, our pain is linked.
And so to come back to your question on the differences. I want people to be like “it’s okay to say that. It’s okay to say that.” Because, I really felt the pain of a lot of Asians lately. A very flattened out category, because I know that does not encompass all the diversity within that phrase. So my apologies for using that as a shorthand for Muslims or other people that go “why don’t we get named as often?” Or “why don’t people see us?” Or “Why do people buy into the stupid stereotypes that make it seem like we’re not in the bullseye of fascism or the state or hate or all these other things.” Right? And that pain of like, I know, we can’t just have a laundry list of things. So I wanted this anthology to humanize. I feel like when people see pain, each other’s pain, they understand colonialism has stolen a lot from all of us. Capitalism has stolen, the state has. That pain feels similar even if the histories are different and through that pain, we can understand that the way to lessen those losses and create liberation. Freedom is going to be a shared struggle.
But the experience in this anthology, to come back to that question, really surprised me after reading. So many people want to write about their relationship to coming to spiritual practices. Whether that was going to Rabbinical school, or embracing trusts in God or understandings of God. There’s that which in another Jewish anarchist book wouldn’t have gotten there. And there’s a profound amount of sort of wrestling with spirituality and rituals and other huge… people engaging in a lot of ritual. Different understandings of how you can use it as a personal practice or a political practice or combination there of. I think it also shows the spectrum of people coming in through, and what their relationship to Judaism was, whether they were raised to be religious or not religious or Zionist or not Zionist. Or whether they were Jewish or converted or not. How they came to it. I really wanted people stories to be their own unique stories to really show that it isn’t there isn’t this one path there never is.
But I really wanted that to be like… the differentiation of our experience is a strength. Not just Jews. In any understand whether we’re queers or feminists or indigenous. But there’s something I think I like showing in anthology is like a dialog that shows you know how difference can not end up meaning that people have to be antagonistic to each other. I don’t know. I’m trying to think of what your question about, like different kinds of Judaism? I don’t know. I think I’m not answering the question as well as like, what different types of Judaism there were in it, because I think a lot of them it’s more an emphasis on how they choose to approach their Jewishness or their Judaism or their political practice.
TFSR: I think you answered again, in a way that I wasn’t expecting. But it’s by having every contributor be forcefully, vulnerably sharing their experience, you show that each person’s experience of Jewishness is different. And yet also kind of is Jewishness right? Or Judaism. So then it’s like, that becomes the kind of multifaceted version. In a way, my question kind of would leave, like, “there’s these different kinds of Judaism and like a, and b, and c” but actually you’re telling me through the book that what we see is that there’s all these different ways. They’re all these strategies, rituals, practices, struggles. And for me reading, it was so helpful as almost like, therapeutically because it’s something that I mean, maybe as you’ve said, my Jewishness is something I’m constantly struggling with. Actually, that made me think some of the stuff you were saying that maybe, in a way, I feel like Israel as the focus, and then the kind of history of the legacy of the Shoah, as a kind of defensive of why Israel needs to be. The same way that we see identities get flattened out, antisemitism, I feel like gets flattened out into this one thing. I could relate to the book a lot of the ways that I’ve been brought back into Judaism beyond just sort of a cultural identity has been through trans Jews and seeing how they … because I’m always like, “I can’t be Jewish and be queer, and be a feminist” and now I’m seeing all of these trans Jews finding ways to do ritual, and in the book there’s one piece that I thought was so beautiful about hormones, like a ritual, a Jewish ritual around having your hormone shot. So for me I was wrestling with that my own internalized antisemitism of the fact that I couldn’t be like anarchist and Jewish or queer and Jewish. And one of your pieces in the book that I found really important and beautiful was heartbreaking is you kind of going through all this sort of everyday antisemitism. I think non-Jewish people don’t realize that like we as Jews face … all the time. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that, the experience of sort of mundane antisemitism, not like the big violence, but even in like left spaces that should be on the side of Jews. If you have some thoughts about that you would like to share.
CM: Maybe it speaks to all the different experiences like… or what I was saying about wanting people to be able to speak directly to their experiences, because I’ve had so many experiences where in general, people do not see antisemitism or take it seriously. Like the January 6th Capitol assault being very recently… the far right, we have explicitly a whole bunch of symbols, explicitly antisemetic symbols and words and practices. Because white Christian supremacists, evangelical prayer as part of it, which I feel like is an assault against all sorts of things that aren’t white, that aren’t Christians supremacist. But there was very little conversation about antisemitism or Q Anon, or all these recent phenomena. A lot has shifted, where abolition is being named, or anti Blackness is being named, or white supremacy. And that’s a phenomenal leap, because those things were not being named. But antisemitism still, it’s almost never spoken.
And for years being in radical spaces, it’s almost like… antisemitism-lite in this sort of sense. “Antisemitism isn’t real because you all have power.” And that’s at the heart of a lot of the conspiracy theories, right? The Jews are behind the scenes pulling the strings. So when you’re in leftist or anarchist spaces and people are basically saying, “We don’t need to hear from you because you have all the benefits of society.” And I’m like “we’re also anarchist for a reason!” And we’re talking about the liberation of freedom of everyone and hierarchy. I mean we can look in every category of people that are seen as oppressed or targeted people and find some people that have better off situations. So I think it’s this mythology that Jews are somehow both all fine and have lots of power.
I just kept thinking how much that hurts is when you needed people to come to your aid because you were being targeted for antisemitism. And nobody… people just got angry at you or laughed at you, or went on with what they’re doing and ignored it. The pain of how that feels no matter what our identities are, right? And the peril to me as I understand is you can keep ignoring it until something awful happens. So one of the stories that I talked about that is [when] we happen to be in Pittsburgh, and some swastikas were painted on anarchic spaces a week or so before the Tree of Life synagogue murders. It’s not a direct relationship but you know, those two spaces made a choice not to tell anybody it happened and to buff it over. To not publicize it. To not take it seriously. To not warn even the people that use that space, some of whom are Jewish, and they know that! Or queer! So this way in which “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything and we’re not gonna take it seriously.” And then a few days later, white supremacists walks into a clearly labeled Jewish space.
As Jewish anarchists we get that it’s all these things are dangerous, right? I used a quote at the beginning from a piece I really like called *Feminism Hurts by Sarah Ahmed* She talks about how patriarchy hurts because it’s still happening, you know? And so I really liked that piece. It’s feminism hurts or feminist hurts. I can’t really remember the exact title. But she talks about all these little moments that happen in your daily life if you’re treated as female or treated as hetero-normative. That the patriarchy just makes all these assumptions and you keep trying to tell people about them. People don’t take them seriously because they’re like, “Oh, that’s just someone…” There’s just all these little things you can almost not get words to.
And I was trying to show in a way with antisemitism. A lot of us who are Jews have just had so many experiences. I’m like questioning, thinking we eat odd foods, to joking about practices, to not taking seriously when people like are treating us with antisemitism. And then now I think another reason why there’s a resurgence of Jewish anarchism is because there’s a resurgence of fascism around the world and we viscerally understand. So many of us have parents or grandparents or know people that survived Pogroms or Shoah or other attacks more contemporaneously. And I think people think it’s like the some far off distant thing and I think it’s not… I don’t know if to call it antisemitism but this way and not taking seriously. The pain is when people kind of go “You don’t understand what it means to have your people tried to be killed off by structures” and I was like, “I mean it’s horrible that the Holocaust industry, whatever you want to call it, turned it into almost a parody.” I don’t know where.
In the State of Israel was using it. But that was like a massive genocide and it wasn’t just Jews. It was Roma peoples, and queers, and people with disabilities, and all the anarchists pretty much. It wiped out so many people. But underpinning that was antisemitism. So you can’t understand especially in German forms of fascism, national socialism, you can’t de-link antisemitism from it. But even contemporarily now, in the last four years, the number of like, all the neo-Nazis in the swastikas you still don’t hear people talk, like suddenly that’s completely de-linked from this history of antisemitism. And as someone who’s Jewish that feels so disturbing. I don’t understand how you can stop saying Nazis have anything to do with an anti semitic logic and they have it in the room. I mean, we can go into the analysis of like “what does it mean theoretically, antisemitism” or “what does it mean historically?” But there’s just a pain in which people not taking it seriously when not that long ago, they were trying to annihilate every single Jew in the entire world, including every single space and every single book and every single grave, and there was going to be one museum left that had pieces of Jews… so you could go look and see to show how weird Jews were. That was the end result of it, you know.
It’s like, even if that didn’t happen, which it didn’t. I don’t understand why that pain doesn’t…. Of course we have pain, you know?! I was thinking I saw this thing the other day (I copy edit books for a living) it was in a book. Totally unrelated… Just a little tidbit about the schools in New York when there was a wave of immigration or a lot of Jews trying to get away from Pogroms before Shoah and poured into New York City especially, and had really huge Jewish communities. A lot of them spoke Yiddish and the public schools in New York were like “we will not allow Yiddish to be spoken in the public schools.” And so they would wash the kids mouth out with soap if they spoke Yiddish. They would punish them. And it’s not equivalent history. There’s the pain of being like “I lost Yiddish.” My Great Grandparents spoke Yiddish. And my dad spoke it, and he wanted to teach me. He was really young. And I was like “why do I want to learn this language?” Because they screamed at each other all the time in it so I wouldn’t understand what they were yelling at each other. But now I’m like “that language was intentionally killed off by the State of Israel officially, and the Nazis were trying to destroy it.” And then you have a contemporary history in New York and I think about the residential school history. It’s not the same history. I’m not but where we’re going to take indigenous children away, and we’re going to beat their languages out of them, like, quite literally.
And the pain of people losing their languages. That’s a pain. And there’s so much more that happened in those residential schools that is horrible and painful that continues to this day. And for us to understand that, again, I really want to come back to that the pain I feel over loss of language. And a lot of this research as a queer Jewish anarchist. It’s like “let’s relearn languages.” There’s many different kinds of Jewish languages. And same with indigenous languages. And the beauty of relearning them is, you tell different stories about the world, you understand the world differently, you reconnect to the natural world. Because language has all, diasporic and indigenous languages have a connection to the natural world in a way that a lot of dominant colonial languages don’t. And you understand that we come from a pluralism of people that didn’t know borders, that knew sharing space together in different ways….
I don’t want to romanticize indigenous peoples or Jewish peoples or any diasporic peoples. Peoples had conflict. People had asocial behaviors, people have things that… community riffs, etc. But they had all sorts of rituals and structures and ways without carceral logics. Without states without colonizers. To deal with them in a totally different ways. And if we bring back even those languages, let’s say we will have different words for understanding how to deal with things, conflict in our community, that isn’t about prison industrial complexes, for instance.
So, to come back to emphasize antisemitism hurts on this really personal level. And I want people to take it seriously because the more… when the Tree of Life happened, I went to this beautiful solidarity rally, but I know a lot of, almost all, the solidarity rallies that happened made this huge connection to white supremacists are coming into Jewish spaces and killing people that they can clearly see are Jewish. They’re coming into black churches, they’re going into mosques. They’re going into places where they can find the people that they think are who needs to be eradicated.
I think the resurgence of this new Jewish anarchism is like a lot of people are starting to wear visible signs of being Jewish, Kippahs and embracing how they look and embracing practices in public spaces that clearly signal. Holding up a sign that says “I’m a Jew at a demonstration.” Two years ago, I know a lot of my friends were scared to do that because of the fear of being targeted by white supremacists. And now, we should be able to do that, right? I don’t want us to have to hide any more than anyone else should have to hide who they are. So people not seeing the antisemitism within…
To come back to that lastly it really has been painful to me. I expect antisemitism is in the world. And I know most people don’t see it or take it seriously. But what’s painful is when your own community doesn’t. In the same way when my own anarchist community doesn’t take patriarchy seriously, or doesn’t take forms of hierarchy seriously. It pains us extra because we’re like, “but we should know better.” It’s not any worse, I would say, but it’s more painful. And I think the last thing I learned is that a lot of Jewish anarchists have this really weird fear of when push comes to shove… who’s going to protect us? We are going to protect everyone else. Like anarchists are really good at protecting each other and other communities… mutual aid and solidarity.
But I think part of the trauma of being a Jew is history has not been on our side. We have had by and large to protect ourselves way too many times. And whether that’s a false narrative or just a feeling or trauma… but you know, it brings that up for me in my anarchist communities, if you don’t take antisemitism seriously now and it’s just someone being a jerk to me about it in a public space. What happens when, you know, they come into our Jewish spaces and kill…. People say “Okay, yeah, fine, still, it’s only a synagogue. It’s only Jews.” I don’t know, I think even to some degree, the Tree of Life… there’s a couple really poignant pieces in the book. There’s a bunch about the Tree of Life. But there’s some about Charlottesville and other moments where, you know, fascist were yelling, blatantly antisemetic phrases, or targeting synagogues. And no one was thinking to protect those spaces or taking seriously again, those slogans.
The hurts! Of course it hurts. But it just doesn’t hurt it has consequences in terms of who’s going to ultimately get killed or targeted when it gets worse. And I think unfortunately, it’s going to get worse again. Like that Capital assault was just the beginning of a euphoria from what they know their capable of… White supremacy, and White nationalism, Christian evangelicalism, White supremacists know what they’re capable of and I feel like the reorganizing. It has not gone away.
So in this moment if we could take more seriously anti-Asian, anti-brown people, anti-Black people, anti-indigenous, the anti-queer, anti-disabled, anti-Jew, anti-Muslim, and say “Okay, this isn’t just a fucking laundry list. This is our lives.” And that “We care a lot about each other and that we have shared pain, and that we have marvelous…” I guess that’s what I want to say with the anthology is a lot of stories of pain. In the Shoah, I think that’s also the other problem is like “Oh, this whole stupid narrative. The Jews went to their death, like sheeps!” Total crap. There’s so much resistance. You know, it wasn’t just the Warsaw Ghetto, which is an amazing story. If you read the story, it’s a gripping story, because there was a lot of socialists and anarchists organizing that went into that. But there was all sorts of acts of resistance by Jews and non Jews, but especially including Jews during that time period that has gotten erased.
A beautiful book, I just remembered the other day again is *Blessed is the Flame* – about what resistance looks like. When you’re at the last moment when you’re about to be, you know, shoved into the crematorium or something. I read about 100 autobiographies of people who barely survived Shoah and each of them talked about what resistance is possible when almost no resistance seems possible. And that’s what the *Blessed is the Flame* is about. And yet people still resisted. And we still are. But we resist in ways that also are about resilience and joy and beauty and creating life. So a lot of the forms of resistance that happened, as why I point to this book *Blessed Flame*, but also looking at a lot of these autobiographies and what people did was they wanted to have a Shabbat before they knew they would be killed in a concentration camp, or they wanted to write down their name to keep or some or things they wanted to keep alive. The spark of the beauty of how they understood their Jewishness or their Judaism or their rituals. It wasn’t, you know, just trying to pick up arms or trying to do other forms of direct action or blowing up a crematory – which were good, incredible forms of resistance that happened too. But yeah, just the way in which even in the worst moments people want to create life. Because that’s what we do… and beauty.
So this anthology is full of all these Jewish anarchists. “Okay, the world’s really bad right now we’re facing fascism and ecological ecocide and now this pandemic, and capitalism…” There’s so many things that are so overwhelming, and we’re going to do it as joyfully and beautifully and lovingly and resiliently and queerly as we can till the last, very last moment, and that is resistance. You know? That is resistance because they don’t want us to live. Us living is resistance. But us living… I don’t mean just like surviving, I mean, trying to thrive, to love. There’s a lot of really beautiful pieces like that.
I am diverging off the antisemitism part. But maybe coming back to the queerness and the trans-ness, I think I wanted people with this anthology to see both the pain and the beauty. And so with antisemitism, you can see here’s the pain, but the beauty of it is, there’s a lot of Jewish anarchists that are doing beautiful anti fascist resistance. And they’re using their rituals as part of that, or their wisdom and their queerness and trans-ness. Part of that I’ve been really struck by is that there’s another thing have been stolen from us and indigenous people and Black people and a whole bunch of other people who have been made diasporic and colonized and destroyed by states… we’ve had a lot of things stolen from us, like elasticity and dynamism in gender.
Within Judaism from the beginning, there’s all sorts of ways, there’s stories of people without pronouns, and there’s five or six different ways of understanding gender, and there’s a lot of spaces. A friend of mine was talking me recently about how trans-ness, or non binary people, non conforming people are often associated with Twilight. Within Jewish writings… with liminal spaces, with in between spaces, and they are considered the most holy and the closest… if you believe again in some kind of holiness framework. Because they have the most ability to see in a way.
In a way, bringing Judaism, and queerness, and anarchism, and trans-ness together creates a wider frame to see more. You know? Non-binary people, you’re not stuck in this box. You see a spectrum that so much more beautiful and offers so much more possibility. And so we see antisemitism, we see anti-Blackness, and we bring those together… we’ll see a better way to struggle against it. But we’ll also see all the practices we share. They’re so beautiful. How we’ve kept communities together without states, and how we’ve done community self defense without police. How we resolve conflict without cops. We’re not going to have to expropriate from each other steal from each other. We can learn and borrow from each other. We can share land together without having to be a state.
There’s plenty of diasporic people of all different genders and colors, and indigenous or non indigenous, that had all sorts of ecological and harmonious relationships with land and using it for different seasonal harvesting or gleaning or commons.. We’ll have so much more wideness of a lens, and I think that’s why I want people to see both how much we’ve lost as Jews. How much has been stolen from us, and how much we’ve been devastated over the centuries. It just widens the lens with each moment in history and there’s more.
I just learned this thing recently about the witch trials, I love Silvia Federici’s book – as a lot of people do – about the witch hunts been this massive way to kill off healing arts, and mending arts, and queers, and non binary and feminists in a way to rein in massive amounts of queer women, healer people murdered in the name of being witches. And then I overlaid that recently by learning about how much of that was tainted with antisemitism and potentially why some of the understandings of what witches look like because people equated them with Jews. A lot of antisemitism that led into who got killed during that time period. That only broadens the horror of that moment. And gives us more understanding, especially as queer anarchist Jews to be like “Wow, of course, we’re going to fight against those things with other people.” And we’re going to try now. There’s a whole bunch of Jews that are doing healing arts, grief rituals, and mending rituals. Because we’re reclaiming this beautiful thing that was killed off at this moment. 500 whatever years ago.
TFSR: You bring up a lot of really, really interesting, important parallels, in listening to you. Thinking about how… this is making connections in my brain. I connect like the kind of State based thinking with the kind of like universalism of Christianity in ways that tries to narrow our…. make our narratives uniform. That’s what cuts out the histories of resistance both with like Jews or Black resistance during the time of slavery. It makes it seem like this like simple thing. In a way I connect that with “leftist spaces” where they’re, like “look like your particular problem as a Jew – with like antisemitism that can come later. We’ll deal with that later. Because there’s more pressing issues right now.” I’m not saying that we should be playing the oppression Olympics, but to secondarize whatever kinds of experiences of oppression that we have based on like embodiment, or like perception. I think there’s the history of antisemitism going back. You know, it’s completely entwined with the development and the subtilization of oppression that comes with like the formation of the state and the development of capitalism and markets. I don’t think we can disconnect that from all the other things. Again, there’s always like, risk in analogizing. You’ve been very careful to say “it’s not the same what happens to different groups of people, but…” And I really like the connection you made with feminism because like with Sarah Ahmed too, like she talks about being like a kill-joy. My internalized antisemitism… sometimes I’m like, even just bringing up antisemitism is like “Oh, that’s like an annoying Jewish thing to do.” You know what I mean? And it’s so prevalent because people are ignorant of how much antisemitism is just basically woven into… implicit antisemitism is woven into our lives. Even just thinking Jews are powerful and therefore can’t be experiencing kinds of oppression because there’s been some kind of assimilation. That was really helpful to me to kind of tie these things together and I thought you did a really…. just bringing those parallels up was important and kind of building off the resistance and ritual…that’s something else that really struck me from your book from various writers. You have mentioned a few times how the kind of horrors of the Tree of Life massacre kind of shadow the book and there’s a lot of responses to that. Your previous collection of *Rebellious Mourning* is about grief and mourning. So I was wondering if you wanted to talk a little bit about like Jewish rituals as forms of resistance or even direct action. One of the things that gets talked about in the book is particularly mourning and sitting Shiva as a kind of communal thing. So I don’t know if you have more that you want to say about that. But I would really love to hear more of the kind of Jewish resistance.
CM: Yeah, I think for variety personal reasons have been really drawn to loss, grief and mourning, but also because it’s a part of life, you know? And as queers, anarchists, and Jews, and other identities, they’re probably listening to this. We know, we are gonna experience a lot of loss. And so how do we handle that? We want to lessen unnecessary loss. And we want to… I don’t know, skipping over it doesn’t make it go away. And not using it as a form of instrumentalness, but to both allow us to fully begin the journey of processing it so we don’t…. people need each other to do that. Otherwise it is almost impossible to ever kind of integrate. Grief doesn’t go away, you just have to integrate it in ways that allow me to journey forward with your grief in a better way.
What I love about Jewish grief traditions, just to focus on those. Traditions around sick, dying, and post death… I think they all pretty much ask of you to do it in community. And so you’re not supposed to leave a body alone that is dead, until it is properly buried. Is that possible? I think that’s why the grief of when police murder people and the bodies are left in the street… The horror of that! It is horrifying. It’s horrifying for the people that know that person and love them. It’s horrifying for those…
I’ve been around many of those, unfortunately, watching those bodies for hours in the street, and the indignity. There’s so many levels, it feels horrible. Then denying people the capacity to be with that body and stay with that body. Right? And do it in community so they can process it. And I think why those moments when the police do that. That felt horrible and powerful to people is that you stand there for hours together and you create your own sort of communal space of helping, I’m gonna just wash the time again, you can see the pain and people instinctively want to be with other people. To be there for the friends and the family to help them process the horror of this for that moment and not skip ahead.
And Daunte Wright… I was just struck by that, because I love Unicorn Riot when they’re right at the scene at the very beginning and some other live streamers right when he was first murdered. I would just watch for hours where people were like “Before we go to the police station, we have to sing songs to the ancestors” which they did. “We have to circle the body and be here with it, we have to write.” And so what I appreciate within Judaism, is it’s understood for 1000’s of years we need… we don’t want people to be murdered by police. There’s also a long history of Jewish songs and tradition. Jews have not liked police for a long time. We want to get back to a time when we can stay. It gives you things that are already there to turn to that makes sense, right?
It’s like you should be with a body, but also sitting Shiva is 7. Shiva means 7. It’s like when someone you have a loss or someone dies, you’re supposed to, as a community, stay together for seven days and talk and laugh and cry and eat and sing and be there. And if anyone has experienced someone who they love dying, you know, especially, I mean, there’s so many different things that happen with grief. But that first week, especially, it’s almost just… it’s so unreal and you just don’t know what to do. And the capitalist industry tells you to start worrying about buying things – coffins or arranging funerals. But the beauty in just being with other people is really profound. And knowing that that’s the beginning of the journey.
And then there’s a lot of different traditions, but how do you come out of that week? There’s a lot of intentionality. One thing I’ve heard was like, with people, you walk outside and you walk around a block together to help you transition back into the world. Okay, so these are such beautiful moments, right? And so a lot of Jews and there’s a whole bunch of other traditions I could go into. But a lot of Jews have been doing a lot, as Jewish anarchists and others, like with the Tree of Life. You know, again, I think it was just because that was people’s practice. It’s like that happened and people started sitting Shiva in the street around where it happened because this is what they do as their practice as the ritual.
And because the community was in pain, and because it’s in a extremely long term Jewish neighborhood. It’s everywhere you walk. Like, it feels powerful to me, because I don’t really ever experience being around lots of things, where there’s so many Jews, you know, even if they’re not all my type of Jews! You see yourself in a way, you know, but yet here they are completely feeling like everyone sort of been a target. And in this neighborhood that’s clearly a target, you can easily find Jews in this neighborhood, and people chose to sit in the street again and be visible and do this grief ritual. Then it became a direct action blockade in a sense too. But I’m not even sure that was, who knows whether that was the intentionality. But who cares! It doesn’t really matter? Right? How do we use these rituals, not in the sense of “We are going to do the Shiva so we can have a blockade!” But be like “We need to be together now, we can’t go home.” We have to be here together.
And then over in Pittsburgh, there was a lot of intentionality for that first year. In Jewish rituals every month you’re supposed to do something, then after the first 11 months, and the 12, then there’s every year, it never ends, if you have someone that dies within Judaism, there are moments to remember that person, because remembering is keeping them alive, and the love alive, and the honoring. So that Jewish anarchist queer community in Pittsburgh was doing like, a lot of monthly and weekly rituals and ceremonies and on the one year did a really beautiful -which I end up coming to – a really beautiful Shabbat, that combined grief rituals, but also, were doing political organizing at the same time. I don’t think they could have if they didn’t have the community to be processing. They don’t have to also happen in the same place.
But when we seen how profound it is… a lot of direct actions lately where people are like “You’re destroying sacred land with pipelines. You’re killing off sacred bodies with your cops.” I think people are creating grief spaces around them, whether they’re doing it explicitly or not, and bringing them because a lot of Jews are going “It’s okay to be both anarchist and Jewish now.” Which is a new thing again, and this is what’s really distinct about this moment. And if you read the anthology it’s so different than any other Jewish anarchism before… and to be spiritual.
That’s been challenging for me, because I’ve never understood myself as religious or even believing in God, or even believing faith or having even spirituality. It’s been really recent. “Oh, that’s just that’s like, you know, higher… That’s something I don’t know.” I just always felt like it’s something outside myself. And then I’m like “No! How can we do we do it ourselves?” Spiritualities, the non-hierarchical ways we are taking these rituals and making them queer, or bringing out the queerness in them or bringing our politics to them and making them anarchist.
Just a couple weeks ago, I was sitting under a beautiful stars with a bunch of queer anarchists in a backyard and we sang for like two or three hours: these beautiful songs about healing and solidarity and resistance and anti cops and under the moon. That’s been Shabbat. We’re waving to the sky change. And then it’s just like “what are we doing?” We’re having an anarchist hang out in the backyard! But we did the Shabbat. Which was lighting candles and every Friday (you’re supposed to for 24 hours, slow down, stop, be with each other, be in community) you know? And again, politically, you’re also with your buddies who are anarchist, and you’re talking about other things. In fact, three days later, we’re making banners to go to the Palestinian solidarity demo.
And because you see each other regularly and you build relationships, and you’re like when things happen, okay, we need to be there. Right? So I don’t know. There is an interrelationship with them. But I think there’s something especially profound this moment where so much of what we’re experiencing is loss and death. And that’s what our resistance is responding to: loss of beautiful forests that we love, loss of human beings to pandemics, loss of, you know, fentanyl, or whatever. We can go on and on about the horrors of what’s happening. And as queer as queers, and as Jews and as anarchists… When you bring all those three identities together, that are all about having to make our own families, or on practices own on communities, each has its own lens, but I think you bring them together and you end up having this like “greater than the sum of their parts” way of understanding how do we create.
I was not able to be integrate my Judaism and my anarchism as much. Both my biological parents, I helped them die. What could have been horrible death and beautiful death. But I inadvertently sat Shiva with in both cases. Because they were both in hospice II type situations, a lot of other people were around. I just hung out there for a week and it was beautiful. But I went, I had to leave the anarchist world because I know the anarchists understood. They’re like, come back when you’re done. I’m like, I don’t understand that I’m gonna be done with grief. And then when I came back I was like “Okay, this isn’t enough.”
As an anarchist, it’s not going to be enough to keep me. I had such a lack of faith in anarchism at that moment. And I think that’s what led me to think “faith is a promise”. It’s not a belief in a god, it’s a faith that you will be there for me when someone’s dying. It’s a faith that we will be there for each other when a pandemic is really hard. We did sort of okay during this pandemic, we also did woefully inadequate as anarchists. As Jews, I think we did better. I think Jewish space that got created was what helped. This has been a horrendous year.
And the spaces that a lot of queer, radical, and anarchist Jews…. there’s a space called Pink Peacock and in Glasgow – this Trans and Queer Yiddish thing. Yiddish anarchist, Jewish anarchist, and they’ve been doing on online Havdalah. It’s very intimate and small. And we have these lovely conversations. I started doing that in a moment when I was unbelievably depressed and didn’t even know if I wanted to live. Just waking up every morning and going “why am I still on this earth” and was at one of the lowest points. And I started going, and the first time I got on the phone, they said “it’s okay to be wherever you’re at,” and I just almost started crying on the phone. And no one, you know… it was in held in a ritual Havdalah, which is another Shabbat and I’ve been going to that for months. I’m like, “okay, they created that space, the ritual to grieve and to find joy again, and to process what was going on”. And anarchists have not been as good at doing that.
Muslim anarchists that I talked to have also profound rituals, and Black anarchists and indigenous anarchists. And I guess I want to ramble on about lots of topics. Part of the pandemic is I like “how do we keep our minds on… I feel so scattered!” What about the pandemic side effects? There’s also a resurgence of Black anarchism and indigenous anarchism. And what I like to think of all in a way is all diasporic anarchism might be a next Anthology. Anarchists that have been people that have been displaced repeatedly and disenfranchised, seen as disposable, are understanding that their own… they’re reclaiming. They’re saying, “Hey, we’re not going to let you take away things from us. And in fact, we’re going to bring those things back in and use them as our power and as our resilience and our as our playbooks and as our way of being this for life.” But it’s making anarchism so much more beautifully complex and sustainable.
I’m more an anarchist each passing year the older. I’m like “Why are anarchists always in their early 20s?” The vast majority of them! Where do all the other anarchist go? It is hard, because there are not the things that keep you in it. But when you’re a Black anarchist, or an indigenous anarchist, or Jewish or Black Jewish anarchist, all the overlapping [identities] where you can go and you can say “Hey, we have traditions! We have rituals!” More and more people bringing those into the spaces of resistance. And we’re bringing our multiple prayers into those spaces of resistance, or multiple grieving rituals.
I’ve been at things where people want to do several of those from different traditions. They all are so similar in a certain way. I’ve used this example before, a lot of diasporic peoples have used different things to make noise because you have to gather people. Jews use Shofar – a ram’s horn. Things you can find in the ecosystems where people were. In Mexico or that part of the world, I just learned, people use big snail shells to call people together. There’s the conch shell! A friend of mine yesterday said… I think it’s in the Gulf region, some indigenous folks and other peoples. Black and indigenous communities use drums…. Indigenous peoples, we’re all in different places. We’re all experienced our own displacements and pains, but we have these rituals and we have these things we do. And when we get together, we’re like, “Oh, that’s cool! We all have these different ways of gathering each other!” We can return to those things together.
But especially I think the sense of what’s sacred at this time on earth is so imperiled. In a way, I think that’s why, weirdly, I think it isn’t just me coming back to the sense of spiritual. Not in a hierarchical way. But a sense of if we don’t understand the beauty and the mystery of the earth and that we’re part of it, and that we actually can’t even explain that. It’s just beautiful. Why do we have to explain it? You know, you’re sitting in a forest with some friends and you’re like “why do you have to explain why this feels powerful?” I’ve done some Jewish anarchist grief rituals in the woods and it’s absurdly beautiful and moving and healing. Why? Because I feel so connected to the ground and we’ve done things, the burning, and rocks, and blah, blah. We need that right now because humanity is destroying the earth and we have to remember our connections. And part of that is remembering this mystery.
The little anecdote about that Shabbat I was telling when we were under the stars? It was almost transcendent where you start singing… If you have ever done that? Just acapella. Your voices start… It’s like so anarchistic… you all kind of know what song you’re gonna do next and which words. Your voices rise and fall, when to start and when to stop. Like how is this organization without hierarchy? Whoo! Your bodies are just feeling really good! All of a sudden I was looking at the stars and was just in this beautiful “I just feel so good! And I haven’t so much of the time!” And then I see this line of lights across the sky and they’re moving and I almost scream and broke the beautiful space we created. Everyone looked up and someone’s like, “Elon Musk, that’s Elon Musk’s satellites!” We all stood for five minutes watching him destroy the sky. I thought, “Oh my god. Jewish ritual asks you to look for three stars at the end of Shabbat to end the sacred 24 hours of a non capitalist time” Time and community time, and here’s Elon Musk that’s taking away the sky.
It’s good to do rituals to remember that we have things to fight for. Things that are beyond us to even understand that we shouldn’t be doing that to, right? Rituals have meaning. They’re not just like woo woo looking at stars, they’re like those are ours to destroy and they aren’t Elon Musk’s to desecrate in capitalism in the name of money and all this other shitty stuff. It makes you want to be radical and resist even more and not have it be that. So they’re interconnected, not an instrumental way.
TFSR: I love how you’re talking about that. One way I think about anarchism… or like, the way I want to talk to people about it who maybe aren’t anarchists yet is to think about all the ways in our lives that the state doesn’t touch us and doesn’t reach us. And really what the history of the state and the capital is like, kind of tearing people away from their life ways from the land and making them dependent on the state (or seemingly dependent on it). But really, there’s all these moments that we don’t have the state in our lives. The way that you’re describing the rituals for all the kinds of cultures, not just Jewish culture is creating a different time in space that isn’t the state that isn’t capitalism. It changes that and that, and the more we do that, we would be making our lives more outside of the state. Doing something else than what we’re expected to do or asked to do. So I think that’s a really powerful way that you describe that.
CM: I watched someone during the “Chinese New Year” this year, they did this really beautiful series of posts about how this is actually not the Chinese New Year. It’s the Lunar New Year. It’s actually not one day, it’s… I don’t remember… I’m going to not say how many days it is because I don’t remember, but it’s multiple days. They said each day has a very specific thing and it’s not, you know… you think about New Year’s. New Year’s has become this ridiculous go get fucking drunk and just have a horrible time. But you’re supposed to pretend you’re happy! That’s not a ritual. That’s like an unthinking, commodified… like Christmas or whatever, all these things!!!
But these rituals that you make your own. The Jewish New Year is also extends over multiple days, and you’re supposed to spend a lot of time reflecting on harm you’ve done to others and harm. You’re supposed to actually gather with the community, if you’re part of one. Jewish anarchists could stand to do this, and other anarchists, once a year, to get together and think about harms that have happened in the community and whether it’s possible… how we dealt with them, how better could we have dealt with them? Should some things be forgiven or not be forgiven? There’s all these moments that are structured into ritual to help us do things that we want to be doing in our anarchist world. What does an abolitionist future look like? Well, we practice it through rituals. We’re going to get better at doing that! Cleaning our space.
These there’s all these rituals that people do there outside of the hegemonic ones. Christmas makes me so agitated and angry, because, you know, what? It’s three months long and it’s nothing but buying things. It’s so dominant. Everybody assumes everyone’s Christian. There’s so many reasons, but it’s even beyond that. It’s like this deadening. It’s not even a holiday or ritual. And when you come back to all these other traditions you realize people did them around harvest times to celebrate the harvest. Around moments to celebrate! There’s a day, the highest day of sorrow, where Jews spend the day thinking about mourning, and then there’s highest days of joy.
A few years ago, before the pandemic, I spent a lot of time in Montreal and some friends and I went to the day when you’re supposed to unroll the Torah scrolls and start again, and I’d never done that before! You take them and dance with them. People were dancing it was really fun. And then when someone said “Oh, let’s go outside and dance!” And my queer Jewish anarchists friends and I were like “Hey! Let’s dance in the street!” Because not everyone was a radical. And then people were all moving in the street and then we’re kind of creating a little blockade. But we were also just dancing, right? It was really fun, you know? And so you were kind of teaching people “Hey, you could actually take over streets.” We weren’t intentionally doing that. It wasn’t like a lesson, but it was just like… “Hey, we’re anarchists, we’re gonna we’re gonna go in the streets.”
There’s a joy in remembering these moments. We can do this on this day. I think this year has been really hard for a lot of us because our little teeny rituals… I realize how beautiful and precious they are and how flimsy they are, you know? Anarchist bookfairs are our sort of like dancing together. I don’t know, we’ve lost those. And I think we need to come back into this time and think more about it. I really want to encourage Muslim anarchist, Jewish anarchists and other Black anarchists, indigenous, brown, all the anarchists that are coming to try to say, “No, I want to be the whole of who I am with this!” And not have to keep those in separate spaces.
Of course, there’s some beautiful about just being with indigenous anarchists to do your thing, or just be with Jewish anarchists. I get the value the power of that too. But if we can all start saying, “Hey!” If we all start reclaiming all the beautiful rituals and holidays and practices and playbooks and trading them, I just think it’s gonna look so different. It’s gonna make our resistance better and our anarchism better too. Our anarchism needs probably more refreshing. It’s actually a much younger tradition than most of those other things I’m pointing to, which have actually had to go through…. much, much longer they have had to be rebellious and exist outside the states. Yeah, much, much longer.
TFSR: Yeah, we’ve been talking for a while. But one question. My questions is in a light hearted spirit, but maybe I don’t know where we’ll go with the answer. One thing that struck me reading this book talking to my people – my queer trans Jewish anarchists, the way that all those things being queer, being Jewish are being anarchists individually often we are like “am I queer enough? I’m not queer enough, I’m not Jewish enough, I don’t know enough about Torah. Am I anarchist enough? Am I committed enough to the struggle? And I just wondered if you hadn’t any thoughts about how these three things? I mean, the book gives us a different image of that for sure. But why do we internalize… or how do we internalize these like… this impossible measurement of like what we should be to really be that?
CM: Yeah, it was funny when you said that. I was like “That’s so true!” Like, almost. I don’t know, almost everybody, especially Jews. There’s something about Jews always going around, “I’m not a good enough Jew!” I don’t know, I feel it. Maybe all of them. Maybe less so with anarchism. I think there’s something nice about that. I don’t know. It’s like, to flip it around. There’s something nice about being humble. We have to always be striving to be good enough to be these things. You know? It’s an honor to be all of them to me. Will I ever be a good enough anarchist? Probably not. But I should aspire to be a better and better one all the time. Especially all three of those, in their own way, have really profoundly beautiful (this is not a universal, because some people say “they are not always welcoming”).
But I think in general, they’re very generous and welcoming and mutualistic and reciprocal. You know, if you say you’re interested in anarchism, people start handing you zines or whatever it is. People really do want to share and borrow. Maybe to flip it around, maybe it’s comes out of humility. It also maybe comes out of… it is really hard to feel enough. Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just gonna flip it around. Because I think it’s nice think about humility, which I think maybe we need, and just be like “let’s aspire to be better and better at all of them” you know, maybe more… the “not good enough” comes from: it’s hard enough to be all these things in a world that says those things aren’t. Especially like radical versions of Judaism, and anarchism, queerness, that they’re all seen as is not enough. They’re outside of the… so it’s too bad that we have to take on that sort of self doubt about ourselves.
It does become hard to sustain them sometimes. I really hope with this Anthology, and almost everything I do to really emphasize, like, all we really have is each other in the solidarity more than anything to me is… if we don’t stick by each other, we don’t have anything else with each other. Maybe we’ll feel more of enough if we try harder to be there for each other in ways in the fullness of who we are. I don’t know. For me, I want to hear other people point out antisemitism, so it isn’t just Jews. I want to hear people that are not queer. I want everyone to not have to be their own advocate, as it were. So maybe that’s another way we don’t feel enough because we all just feel sort of invisibilized by each other, which I think is sad, you know?
If we were more acknowledged, like, celebratory of each other. But I think it’s really going in that direction. I really do. I feel like the last few years there’s been so much collective trauma, so quickly, targeting so many people. Like every day now almost. The past few years if you think how many white supremacist murders, assaults on people. They pretty much have killed now every category of humanity except themselves.. I think we’re all starting to go into spaces, each time, unfortunately. I don’t want that to happen, for us to see that. Then I start realizing we’re like, “Oh, we are enough because we start seeing each other. We are enough because we’re there for each other.” So, yeah, maybe we’ll start getting past that. When we all try to be more of ourselves to each other too.
TFSR: Well, I’m grateful for you giving me your time to talk for the Final Straw and also it was really exciting to be in an actual space with you, physically together. But also for putting this book together because it did, for me, made me see that I’m not alone and that there’s other people struggling with the same questions and having answers that I would never have thought of. That confirm things that I feel. So the book creates this community too. I think is really important work, so I’m really grateful to you for that. I really like the idea: may we be queerer and more Jewish and more anarchist!
CM: I know! I want to be! May we be more. We have to be more of all of them. Again, what I said I wanted this anthology to be liberatory. Queer liberation. Jewish liberation sounds weird. But I do want like a liberatory-ness within our Judaism and our Jewishness as radicals and anarchists and queers, you know? I wanted it to be bold and beautiful, and assertive in a way of beauty. But not just for Jews, I really, I hope. I’ve been really happy. Because one thing I was trying to do with this was to not just have this be something for Jews, to have the anthology really show interconnections of struggles and identities. Jews are all colors, all languages, all places, there are no borders within Judaism. If we don’t see that enough, we push ourselves harder. I’m not saying that it’s perfect at all. But there is no homogeneous Jew. And that points to this beauty of “we are all things across all borders.” And including beyond just Judaism. So I hope… I feel like it touches people on this other level outside of being a Jewish anarchist.
But I’m also really, really appreciative. I feel the same way. I really want to acknowledge and thank all the 40 or more people that contributed to it. I’ve been really touched by how many people are reading it and saying “Oh wow. I feel. I feel seen for what I’ve been struggling with as a queer, feminist, non binary Jewish anarchists.” Who is trying to be part of this resurgent, beautiful, bold new thing that’s been coming out and creating this of anarchism with other anarchists that are coming to their senses of who they are together. And it’s just really touching to see people. That’s what I want. I want us all to see ourselves. The fullness of ourselves more. That’s the title. *There’s Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart.* We’re all so brokenhearted by this world because we should be. But I want us to be whole in that too. So I’m loving that you and other people are responding to it that way.
Eric Laursen on Anarchist Conceptions of The State
One thing that sets anarchism aside from other radical, egalitarian critiques of Power developed in the modern West is the conception of the State as an enemy. But what is the State, how does it work, why and how do we as anti-authoritarians and anarchists oppose it? These questions and more are the focus of the recent book, The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State (AK Press, 2021). This week, we air Scott‘s conversation with Eric on the book, theorizing the State as computer operating system, the necessity of social revolution prior to a political revolution and other heady topics.
TFSR:So today I’m talking to Eric Laursen, who is the author of the new book The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State. And I want to welcome you to the Final Straw.
Eric Laursen: I go by he/him/his pronouns. I am, I guess, a longtime journalist-activist. And I’ve made a study of the state, partly as a result of not only my activism and my involvement in the anarchist movement but also just some of the work I’ve done as a journalist over the years on finance capital, corporate structure, aspects of the economy. So it all comes together in this book, which I call An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State. But I think of it also as an introduction to that. I want it to be a conversation starter for people, especially in the anarchist movement itself to think a little more systematically about what is this thing that we’re so opposed to? What is the state? We know what capital is, we think we know what the state is, but do we really, do we really understand the connection between the two as part of anarchist theory? And where does that get us? What I’m trying to do in the book is to throw out a new way of looking at the state or thinking about it, and then get more people involved in a discussion around that. It’s something that I think should appeal to non-anarchists as well, simply because, like most of us, people in the general public think of the state and they think, “Well, yeah, I understand what that is, that’s government or whatever.” But really, it’s more than that. And I think that anybody who wants to understand better what kind of a society we have needs to think about the subject very seriously.
TFSR: The book, I also think it comes at a really opportune time because we have this post-election where Biden’s coming in and it’s possible that people who are driven to organizing or movement work, because of Trump, might start pulling off from that when there’s apparent low of the really egregious harm that we can see so clearly with Trump’s administration. You say that, in more recent anarchist analysis, there’s been a loss of the focus on the state, in favor of analyzing power more generally, or in the forms of race, gender, and sexuality, but tracing anarchism back to its beginning, in the 19th century, it was distinguished by its anti-state stance. Why do you think it’s important to refocus an anti-state argument in our liberatory politics? And why is it not enough just to focus on capitalism? One more part of this question is how does the analysis of state help us understand better these other aspects of oppression like race, gender, sexuality, citizen status, etc.?
EL: Well, yeah, that’s a good question. I do want to say just at the outset that I’m not complaining about the direction that anarchist analysis and thought have taken over the last 30-40 years. I don’t think you can really have up-to-date anarchism unless you address all of the subjects that you just mentioned in a specific way. There has to be an anarchist angle on racism, class, obviously, on colonialism, imperialism, and so forth. All of those things. What I think is that the answer to your question is that the state is the organizing principle for these oppressions. You can look at it this way: Can you understand racism unless you understand how it helps promote and bolster the state? How can you understand sexism or gender inequality? Unless you look at them in the context of how do they serve the state? There’s a lot of analysis among Marxists about how capitalism benefits from these sorts of oppressions, but not a lot about how the state specifically does. And we have a tendency, the way we were brought up to think of the state as the solution to these problems, that through the courts, through the legal system, through legislation, and so forth, that those are ways to tackle gender inequality. What I’m suggesting is that ultimately, that is not the case, that the state has a stake in maintaining gender equality, maintaining racism, maintaining other forms of prejudice and inequality. And that we have to bring it back into those discussions before we can really deal with those problems.
TFSR: Right. So I guess before we go too far, if you can share what your definition of the state is. You said it is a sort of organizing principle, but is there more that you would like to expand on how we can understand what the is?
EL: Yeah, definitely. One of those rhetorical things I do in the book is I think of the state in two ways. There’s the state with a small ‘s’, which could be the United States, or Egypt, or Russia, or Mauritania, or any number of states that we have in the world. But then I also refer to the State with a capital ‘S’. And the state with a capital ‘S’ is a system that all of these individual states have adopted in one manner or another. The State, I argue, originated in Europe, and it’s been exported all over the world. It’s probably the most successful export of all time, on a certain level, at least in the intellectual sense.
So what does all that mean? State with a capital ‘S’ is what we’re really talking about in this book. And that is a system or a way of organizing reality, or the perception of reality. I compare it – and this is where the title of the book comes from – to a computer operating system, like iOS or Windows or something like that. And what that means is that the state is an attempt to create a framework with which we can organize reality and manage our lives within that reality. It struck me in researching computer operating systems that really, they attempt to be all-encompassing. Microsoft wants you to use Windows, so that everything you can do, more and more of what you do can be done within that operating system. You pay your bills, you get entertainment, you write, you create, you design art, you do all of these things. You manage your relationships with people in every part of your life.
And that there’s a continual effort to make these operating systems encompass more of what you do day to day. The state, the modern state, which is about 500 years old or a little bit more, is an attempt to do the same. It creates a framework that every aspect of our lives operates within. It’s how we govern ourselves, how we organize our economic life, the economic life of the country. It’s how we educate ourselves. It’s what creates everything from educational standards to weights and measures. The fact that we use inches rather than meters is something that the state came up with. It’s something that was decided upon by this institution. Capitalism is part of the state in the sense that capital is needed to promote economic growth, which is needed to help the state expand, strengthen itself, expand outward, expand deeper into the population. There are various aspects of this. But the basic statement I’m making is that the state is not just government, it’s an entire system that has been set up to essentially satisfy all our needs and it’s a framework in which all of our day-to-day planning takes place, all of our aspirations can be theoretically achieved within this framework of the state. It’s something that’s, I guess you would call it a totalizing thing. It’s continually to try to absorb more of the things we do that are new. Suddenly, we decide we need to travel internationally, which is something that people really for the most part didn’t do until a few hundred, couple hundred years ago. The state needs to regulate that. Everything we do, the state finds a way to fit into their framework, otherwise, it suppresses it. The question is, after 500 years, do we still want our lives to be regulated and directed in this way? That’s the challenge. But I hope that gives you some idea of the basic conception here.
TFSR: Yeah, the last thing you said reminded me of another point that you make is that the state intercedes, interjects itself in every relationship that we have, so that we have to go through the state to do anything, basically, more and more things. One line that you have in the book that really struck me is, and you talk about it in various ways, but I’m gonna quote you: “the state has trained us to think of it as a substitute, or perhaps, a shorthand for the collective, or the community.” And in a way, this calls to mind for me Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, and also the totalizing aspect that you talk about reminds me a bit of different analyses of fascism and totalitarianism. But I wonder if you have any thoughts on the way that your operating system analogy helps us to think about that totalizing aspect that the replacement, the image, imitation of life, and maybe how technology fits in that? Because you’re specifically outlining or elaborating on the technological aspects of that.
EL: Yeah, I like the fact that you use the phrase “imitation of life.” What I meant by a substitute is that the state provides us with something that, without the state, we might think about providing for ourselves through small-scale organizing, direct democracy, communal cooperative forms of economic production, and so forth. The state is a substitute for that. You don’t have to do this, we will provide you with the superstructure you need to do these things, we’ll make it easy for you. There’s a sense in which the state is a product that’s been sold to us. Because, yes, we understand that as human beings, you need to cooperate and work together in order to produce food, to reproduce, to tame the environment, or get what you need out of the environment. But we’re going to provide a framework that makes it easy for you, you can do it all through us. It is an attempt to relieve us of taking responsibility for ourselves on a certain level. It’s the same as if you buy a house with an alarm system, rather than actually having to get to know your neighbors and forming a community with them, we will sell you an alarm system so that you can sit in your house and not have to worry or think about the other people out there. That underscores a little bit the connection between capitalism and the state, that capitalism is one of the tools that the state uses to fulfill these needs and to make itself into this substitute that you’re talking about.
TFSR: I really like the way that your book includes an analysis of capitalism, but as necessarily linked to the state. Because sometimes we might focus so much on capitalism as this worldwide system, that we don’t think about how it operates through the state. But one thing that really comes into relief in your analysis to me is the fact that both the state and capital get the benefit of the doubt, as being permanent, inevitable, perpetual. And I was wondering why you think that is. You have said a couple of times maybe that it proposes itself as the solution to our problems, even though, as you’re pointing out in this book, they’re both also the cause of our problems. So why is it so ingrained in our mind, and why do we accept it?
EL: This is where we get to the cultural part in a way. The state has been one of the things very adept at creating an emotional link between itself and the population, in other words, us. In the early days, in the 15th-16th century, Renaissance period, when modern states really first appeared in Europe, there was the monarch, there was the king, or the Emperor, or what have you, who had a personal connection. There was an attempt made to make people feel a personal connection with these sovereigns, that there’s a sort of a godlike quality to them. Really, what they were at that point was dictators or warlords, if you look more closely, but the attempt was to say, “Alright, let’s form a tight emotional bond between Elizabeth I of England or Louie XIV and the people.” So they felt like there was almost a family that you were part of with these people. The next thing you had was the nation-state or the national state, where the state was the embodiment of a larger community that you were part of. And so, there was the family of French people or English people, etc, that you belong to. So that’s another form of an emotional tie. Fascism, you could say, is sort of the end result of that. That’s the ultimate in the nation-state connection. Although it’s really built much more on pushing other people, excluding certain other groups, rather than including the group that you’re a part of.
Then you have what I guess is known as the social-democratic or welfare state, which is something that we had in the mid-20th century before neoliberalism came in, and the idea of that was that the state is something that can really substitute for socialism, or for anarchism, or these other revolutionary ideologies that grew up. Yes, we can have racial equality, we can have reform, we can have a social safety net, the state will provide it. You don’t have to think about it anymore. Or you can give us your suggestions, send your representatives to Congress. The emotional bond there is this sort of bond over welfare, over safety and the ability to feel secure in yourself. Nowadays, we have what I call the neoliberal state, which has abandoned a lot of that. The neoliberal state is all built on the idea that “we give you the opportunity.” We don’t give you welfare, but we give you an opportunity to do wonderful creative money-making things and that’s the key thing. So each stage along the development of the state over the last 500 years has been a different rationale and a different way of building a connection between people and the state that the state relies on to legitimize itself. So that’s the cultural aspect of the whole thing.
TFSR: Yeah, that analysis, in your book, I found really helpful because it points to the way that we exist now in the hangover of the post World War II era where there was this welfare state, and also the concessions that were made to various civil rights-oriented movements, and even among like anarchists and other anti-authoritarians, you can see people who have an anti-state analysis will still have this knee-jerk reaction that the state would provide us some solution or is there for us in some way.
EL:And that it will again again if we push it hard enough, and we try hard enough to reform it.
TFSR: Right, which in a way explains a lot of the repetition of protest movements, because we end up repeating these old forms that no longer really working. To bring that to the present moment, what was one another aspect of your book that’s so helpful is that you wrote this in the wake of the pandemic, and also the uprisings after George Floyd’s murder, and we’re talking today after another black man was murdered in outside of Minneapolis, while the police officer Derek Chauvin is being held on trial. So there’s still this rebellion going on. But you incorporate this analysis of the virus and the pandemic and the very literal, invisible state violence into your analysis of the state. So it’s very up-to-date. And as the pandemic started, I started having some hope that the contradictions would be so stark to everyone, that we’re expected to pay rent and bills and we have no health care and the horrors of this all would become clear to everyone, but in ways, I’m seeing that go away. And I wonder if you have any thoughts about what events in the crisis like a pandemic provide us an opportunity for resistance and how we can avoid it being co-opted?
EL: That’s a really challenging question. And I think that ultimately it’s something that has to happen independently of any particular choices. But you’re absolutely right that when something like the pandemic happens, it makes starkly clear how incapable the state is and the system we have are coping with this problem that at a certain level it created. It’s the same thing with the death of George Floyd, for example, or this most recent atrocity we had, that it makes starkly clear that this is a pattern, it’s not a freak event, this is something that somehow must be in the interest of the state to allow, that the system is not broken down here. This is how this is supposed to behave. So yeah, these crises do make a lot of things very crystal clear to us that worked before.
The problem is that the State does have ways to recoup when these things happen, the state can throw money at developing vaccines. It can prosecute someone like Derek Chauvin and use that as a demonstration that “yes, we can do the job that we’re supposed to do in terms of making sure that everybody is treated fairly and equally.” Those are not permanent solutions. They don’t address the fundamental issue. In the case of the pandemic, the problem is that globalization has created a situation in which and the advance of industrial societies into wilderness areas, wildlife areas has made it almost certain that we’re going to have more pandemics going forward. And yet the state has not developed the ability to cope with them. It treats them all as emergencies rather than improving public health systems and so forth that would help us to be prepared for this thing, it has not done that.
In terms of the issues that are raised by the movement for Black Lives, essentially, no real reform or real fundamental change is made in the system of policing. It stays in place, it is never really reformed except in cosmetic ways. And things just go on as before. What I argue in the book is that we have to think of revolution as a two-part process. And that contrary to the way we’ve tended to think of it in the past, the social revolution has to come first. We have to start thinking about organizing in and beyond and outside of the state so that we have some conception of what we would put in its place, rather than simply… If a revolution happens tomorrow, and the United States government is swept away, we can put something in its place that’s better, that we’ve already conceived and we’ve already begun to implement, rather than essentially having to rebuild the state in an emergency, which is what has tended to happen with revolutions in the last 200-odd years. So that’s a big order. But I think that we have an opportunity in a weird way because the state has withdrawn from certain parts of our lives.
Under neoliberalism, the state has decided that the social safety net is not something that needs to provide or something it can provide only in a very limited way. That gives us some space to recreate something like that along more cooperative or collective lines. We can start to create a more humane community ourselves outside of the state because the state isn’t competing with us so much in that area. The interesting thing about the Biden administration, for example, is that there’s some understanding of this and some understanding that they have to do something to make it look to us as though the state is actually able to be effective in our lives and helping to improve our lives. It’s not going to last, it’s not going to work. The opposition to it is huge, and it’s not going to go far enough. What we’re going to find at the end of the day is that we do have to start implementing something new ourselves. This is something that goes back to the early, classical thinkers of anarchism, Bakunin and Kropotkin talked a lot about this, they didn’t use the word “prefiguration”, but the need to start the revolution now among ourselves, so that we have something to put in place this genuinely different. So that’s the challenge that I see.
TFSR: You talk about how the revolutions that some leftists will hold up as successful always end up reproducing the state in various ways. Because, I guess you’re arguing, that because that social revolution hasn’t happened, or the ingrained Statist thinking doesn’t get critiqued enough to say that we can’t actually use the state to achieve freedom. And something I really appreciate your book is that you use the State to talk about… you don’t make these distinctions among the states, because essentially, this larger system of States functions in a similar way, even if various tweaks happen from one state to the next. And they rely on the system to stay together. I wonder if you have any more thoughts on that failure of revolution, or the way that State thinking gets replicated? Or leftists get caught in the feedback loop of Statism?
EL: Yeah, it’s really powerful when you take a close look at it, because if you look at the Russian Revolution, the big one of the last 100 odd years, the first thing the new Soviet state started to do after it came into power was to essentially reassemble the Russian Empire that had disintegrated just before the October Revolution happened. The process of suppressing ethnic minorities or Russifying them continued, geographic areas that had succeeded were pulled back in, an immense military establishment was built up once again, an immense prison establishment was built up once again. Really, the pattern was put right back in place that had existed before the Soviet Union, maybe it was a little more efficient this time, but essentially, the ambition of that state was the same.
You can look at it similarly, if you look at sort of post-colonial states. You can look at India, which is a country that never existed really in that form until the British imperialists put it together. They created literally an Indian Empire. When Britain pulled out, it essentially turned that whole structure lock, stock, and barrel over to the indigenous people. And specifically to people who were English-trained, who were trained to think about the state as something fundamental, to think of economic development as something that powers the state. And who essentially ran that Empire along, in a lot of ways, remarkably similar lines. This is why I say that the state has been something that’s a European export because it’s essentially sold to at least a small stratum of people in each of the places that it comes in contact with. And they’d set up something that’s ultimately along the same lines, where there are territorial boundaries, there are certain kinds of institutions that are common, there’s a nationalist thinking in each of these places. And that’s essentially what we get. It doesn’t always work. We have failed states all over the place. But that’s the aspiration. And the remarkable thing, of course, is that if you look back even 100 years ago, there were vast parts of the world that had no state, where the State really only existed in name. Today, it’s very, very different. Almost everything is encompassed by the State now, and the parts of the world that that still resist or lie outside of it, such as, for example, people in Amazonia, there’s tremendous pressure upon them as well. So, the reality is that the State has almost become supercharged in the last 100 years. And anything that’s resisted it or stood in this way is being undermined increasingly rapidly and quite violently, in a lot of cases.
TFSR: Thinking about the way that the state has come to settle itself all over the globe is helpful too to think about it as that colonial export, especially since Settler State comes into more focus in a lot of critiques now within indigenous-led movements. But I wonder if also there’s a way that the State is used to try and consolidate power after a revolution. But there’s this other problem. And maybe this pertains to the system of states that you’re talking about, where if there was a revolutionary movement or freedom movement that was isolated, how does it exist as a non-State structure, while the system of states at large exists and would continuously exert that pressure for it to conform in some way? Do you have any thoughts on that?
EL: Yeah, that’s a problem. The answer to that, ultimately, is resistance. And in the book, I talked a little bit about the idea of insurgency, rather than revolution. And this has been an interesting topic lately, amongst other writers as well, is that insurgency is something long-term. It involves creating a prefigurative or an alternative community within the present State while we are resisting it. Insurgency is something that could include anything from the Zapatista movement in Mexico to the Landless Movement in Brazil, even in some respects to the agriculturalFarmers’ Movement in India, where people are forced to organize outside of the State because there’s literally no way that the State can address their demands, however reasonable those demands are. And so you start to develop something that is outside the state, and that can eventually create institutions that can replace it.
Now, I don’t say this in the book, but I’ve thought this for a long time, is that ultimately, if the State is going to be brought down, most likely the process is going to start in the developing world, where state structures and power are more tenuous. They’re not exercised as uniformly literally in the geographic space. And where there’s room for people to develop alternative institutions. Most likely what we’re going to see is developments like this growing and really metastasizing in the developing world, and then perhaps extending to places like the United States, Western Europe, and so forth. Because I think also there are, in those places, more of the remnants of traditional ways of life that alternative structures can be built around, and this is something that goes back to the beginnings of anarchist thinking. In the 19th century, Russian anarchists looked to traditional peasant communities, as offering models to develop some an alternative system around, rather than this European state that’s been grafted on to the place. And I think that that’s going to continue to be something that we see.
Just getting back to the point we were talking about a second ago, one of the things that the Soviet Union did once it got into power was it essentially completed the job of destroying those traditional communities in Russia, which has begun under the Czarist regime. The Soviet Union essentially completed that task. So that’s the thing we see in empires or restored empires, even when they have leftist governments. I think that the answer is to start at home and to start locally, and to consciously, really consciously create structures where the intention is not to let them be co-opted by the State.
TFSR: You make the argument in the book that all the so-called good things that the state has provided, particularly in the last 100 or 150 years, maybe extending to that long have been co-opted: from community-based solutions and versions of mutual aid. Do you want to elaborate on the history of how those things have come to be seen as state-based programs that really came from communities?
EL: Sure. The example I use a lot because I wrote a book about the subject is social security. The social security and medicare systems in this country are something that really was born out of cooperatives from mutual aid associations that workers formed in the 19th century. You have people pouring into large industrial cities from the countryside, there was no social safety net, there was a need for people to provide these things for themselves. And so they did. Welfare systems or social insurance systems like Social Security and Medicare, in this country, were created as a way to nationalize that. In the early 20th century in the United States, when universal health care systems were starting to be discussed, there were people in the American labor movement, who literally said, “We don’t want to do this, we don’t want to back this because we feel that the state is going to at some point snatch back, it’s not going to be forever. They say it will be but it’s not, we have to organize this ourselves.” And that thinking died out.
But I think that these days, there’s a real need to revisit it and to look at institutions like Social Security, for example, or unemployment insurance, or these social safety net systems, and think about whether this is something we can essentially denationalized and turn into something that’s run on a cooperative basis. Because, again, what we have seen is the state makes a commitment to these kinds of programs over the last 100 years, let’s say, and then withdraw out of that commitment, they said, “Well, maybe this was a bad idea, maybe we need a lot less of this.” Well, no, we don’t need a lot less of this, but the state thinks we do. There’s a need to revisit that element of the social contract that the state imposed on us.
TFSR: To pivot our discussion more to revolutionary aspects. One thing you say is the state exists because we choose to let it, and that feels really empowering to think about as a way to, not choose to let it. But to me, it also calls to mind some of that social contract idea that keeps us within the circle of the state that we’re all here by some form of consent. Right? So I was wondering, what are your thoughts on and how do we choose not to let the state exist? What does that look like?
EL: I can give you a little bit of a visual. It looks a bit like the Capitol Hill occupation that happened in Seattle a few months ago. It looks like people rejecting the police, rejecting the presence of the police in their communities. It looks like people essentially forming in small clusters to self-govern themselves and then reaching out to other groups that are doing something similar. It can seem very small scale, it can seem minuscule compared to the power of the state itself. That’s the challenge. But I think that the answer to that is what used to be known as internationalism. In other words, smaller communities, right from the get-go need to link up and network with smaller communities in other places that are doing something different. We need to have a network that is as widespread and as diverse as the community that the state itself governs. We have to create a new, larger federal structure that is consensual, cooperative. We need to figure out how to do this.
An interesting model, actually, if you want to think about it, is, although there are problems with this model on a certain level, the committees of correspondence that existed in the colonies before the American Revolution, which is essentially people who were interested in independence, interested in freedom, who essentially formed a letter-writing collective among themselves. There wasn’t a lot of transportation or travel between the states or the colonies at that point. So you use the mail to essentially create a community that wasn’t there before. It’s a prefiguration of the internet and of social media, and what can be done with that. But the point is to find commonalities with people in other places and to share tools and methods of organizing that can work in more than one place. So there’s essentially getting creative thinking about how to organize going completely outside the state, but also outside of state boundaries, outside of specific state boundaries.
TFSR: That seems important. One of the things we’re talking about here, and you talked about in the book, too, is the State’s so good at scaling up, and I hear this often within anarchist organizing groups, that’s a problem that we have. We have our mutual aid network with our town, and maybe some neighboring towns, but how do we scale that to the region? Scaling, in a way, sounds like it could end up reproducing that state form. How do we think about doing that across the state lines and not within a state idea of bigness and totality?
EL: Well, the first thing is to keep in mind people’s specificity. Not everybody’s struggle is exactly the same everywhere. And so to be sensitive to that, I should back up a second. You said the magic word, which is “scale”. That’s the ultimate argument for the state: we have the resources, we have the reach, we have the depth, we have the technology and the expertise to do beneficial things on a large scale, you don’t. Okay, so that’s the primary argument for the State’s existence today. What we need to do is rather than thinking about scaling, to begin with, we need to think about addressing local needs and local desires. The federative part comes later. And if you structure an organization that’s built around fulfilling the needs of people in a local community, and doing it in a directly democratic way, there’s less likelihood of putting together a federated structure on top of that, that subordinates everybody to some big idea. That’s ultimately what you don’t want to do. But it has to originate at that local level. And they have to be focused that way.
You’re going to be a little surprised to hear this, but I would direct people to look at some of the things that Ho Chi Minh wrote during the Vietnam War, in terms of when he was talking about what’s needed to win this war. He stressed over and over again, there’s a need to go to the people and find out what they want. Don’t tell them what they want, but to find out what they want, and to give them the power to get those things for themselves. That was a big part of why the National Liberation Front was accepted in so many parts of the country because there was this constant emphasis on putting the question back to the people themselves and helping them to organize. And maybe it was a little bit phony, maybe people were induced to think this. The North Vietnamese system was fairly monolithic. But I think that he was right in terms of what the emphasis has to be for any liberatory movement. It’s got to constantly go back to that local level.
TFSR: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And yet, in your book, you also keep an eye on the fact that there are these huge problems that affect everyone, like the climate catastrophe that is happening and worsening constantly, it is inescapable for everyone to some extent, and then you also talk a lot about the forced migration and displacement of people that are being caused by climate, by state violence, by economic and trade agreements. I want to get to the strategy that you articulate at the very end of the book. You talk about making a reasonable demand that is impossible for the state to fulfill. Can you explain that strategy and how that relates to these very big problems that we’re facing?
EL: Yeah, with climate change, it’s easy, in a way. There’s nothing easy about climate change, but it’s easy to address that point with it, in that if you look at the measures that are contemplated through the Paris Accords to deal with climate change, they are inadequate. A reasonable request of the state in a time of climate change is to do what needs to be done so that we don’t all die, so that the planet doesn’t become uninhabitable for us. Nothing that has been proposed, including the proposal the Biden administration has made over the last few weeks or started to formulate, will do it. Well, it is a reasonable request that we be able to continue to live a healthy life on this planet, the state system has proved pathetically unable to meet that. It’s for a very simple reason, which is that the State is built on this model of rapid economic growth at all times, it cannot reconcile itself to a world in which that is directly antithetical to survival, it can’t do it. And so, essentially, we asked theSstate to address this problem of climate change in a realistic way. It falls back on things like carbon trading, or efforts to sort of shoehorn this back into the private enterprise system in some way or other, clunky innovations, desalinization and removal of carbon from the air and so forth. Innovation is going to solve the whole thing. Don’t worry about the inequality part. Once we start to ask for reasonable things, that the state can’t deliver, we start to expose the workings of the State, its MO, the way it operates, and how the way it’s operates is antithetical to the lives that we want to have. So it’s a matter of exposing what’s hidden there, essentially.
TFSR: Going back to a discussion of the pandemic and the response to demanding an end to state violence is more state violence. Those moments heighten the hypocrisy of us relying on the state to solve these problems.
EL: …more of the same and getting the same results. Sorry.
TFSR: Right, exactly. I was interested in your use of the term of making a reasonable demand that’s impossible for the state to fulfill. I see people and using the impossibility theoretically within anarchist or anarchist-influenced or adjacent ideas, and I wonder what your thoughts are on that category of impossibility as part of our thinking through, shaking off the State, as you said?
EL: Right, that’s where we have to have a dialogue with other people on the Left, essentially, we agree about the demands with other people on the Left, who are not necessarily identifying as anarchists, also want a healthy planet, they want an end to racial injustice, and so forth. But they think that it can be done through the State. And what we need to get across is that that’s not possible anymore, that these are problems that cannot be met by the State because of the State’s own interests clash with any attempt to really address these problems seriously. That’s where that discussion has to go. I hope that people will go on upon reading this book.
TFSR: Putting all this critique of the State into an accessible and easily digestible form… These are things that I’m aware of, and yet putting them all at once and seeing how glaring the failures of the State are, when listed off in this way and analyzed in this way…. I don’t know, I think it really makes it even more imperative. And then, as you emphasize, the anarchist aspect of it, anarchism always gets dismissed by even Leftists as impossible. When you put the word impossible on the state as the solution, we see that anarchism doesn’t look so impossible anymore, because it’s actually perhaps one of the few hopes that we have to actually get at something like surviving.
EL: Yeah, in a way it’s the attempt to continue to use the state to achieve something that it’s not interested in achieving. That is unrealistic, that is impossible. And we can continue to beat our heads against that wall, or we can try something else. I’m really sensitive to the fact that in this book, in terms of dealing with the problems that the state creates, I don’t suggest any magic bullets or any quick fixes, or here’s how we organize… here’s the step by step, this is how we organize in order to overthrow this thing and to do what we need to do. These are not easy things. There are no easy solutions. But the beginning of it continues to be organizing locally, understanding our needs as a community, being our communities, and working from there, that’s a step that we can’t skip. There’s no way to finesse that.
TFSR: It might be suspicious even to have a clear blueprint, but one of the things that I see your book really insisting that we do as anarchists and people who are getting opened up to these ways of thinking is to see to what extent we still contain these vestiges of the state in our attempts to solve the problems of the state, or we get caught up in the traps the state sets for us as a means of redress or something. Your analysis helps us keep trying to de-link from the state in various ways.
EL: Right. That’s what we need to push for constantly, is that capitalism, the state are enormously adept at co-opting. That’s what they do. That’s one of the ways they evolve is by co-opting things that are done on a community level by individuals outside of the system. It is honestly hard to avoid. But, as I say, in terms of the social safety net, is that it is possible to find gaps, to find places where there’s a vacuum, places that the state has not entered into yet, or the state has withdrawn from, in fact, because it doesn’t think it needs to address these things anymore. Like having a social safety net. That’s been the hallmark of this sort of the neoliberal era is just eroding the social safety net. And like I say, that gives us some opportunities to fill those gaps with something different. We still have to guard against being co-opted, because the State might come running back in and say, “Hey, looks like we better do something about this.” But we can at least be sensitive, and we can be aware and we can keep pushing into those areas.
TFSR: Another tactical question for me is do you see a flaw in the totalizing desires of the state? And furthermore, where would you locate right now the biggest threat to the state on the side of freedom, not on the side of further fascism or something like that?
EL: When you say flaw, you mean something that is a weakness in the State, a chink in its armor?
TFSR: Yeah, exactly.
EL: Okay, something that makes it vulnerable?
Well, a lot of it is actually very physical right now, and I’m talking from a high level here, the way relentless economic development has destroyed parts of the world itself. You have places like the Sahel in Africa that are basically being desertified, that used to be farming areas, you have the Amazon that’s being destroyed. Global warming is one piece of this, but you have devastation of the physical landscape going on all over the world in one way or another. And ultimately, that’s going to make it less likely for the state to be able to continue its path of all-devouring economic development. I bring this up a little bit in the book and the more fanciful thinking that people in the economic and political elite have about spaceships and space stations and colonizing other planets.
You see the talk about that among people like Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos, you can see that talk multiplying as it becomes clear that we’ve already devastated huge parts of this world. Well, let’s just go somewhere else and do the same song and dance there. The problem is that leaves the vast majority of us stuck with a basically alluded world. And so that’s the thing that I think is going to create a crisis. Again, global warming is part of that, but there are multiple facets to it, that we can take advantage of, where we can point out, this is what essentially the plan that these people have for us is, we have to do something about it. So we need to point out where they’re essentially creating a world we don’t want to live in, they don’t want to live in.
TFSR: Yeah, because they’re preparing the rockets. We’ve been talking for a while, and maybe I’ll ask a question about anarchism. Anarchism, specifically, was developed in a particular context, historical context and geographical context in Europe as a response to a specific stage of state development and capital development. It also calls to these stateless societies that have existed and do exist and existed before the state and capitalism. I wonder how you feel anarchism, given that historical origin, serves us today in this context, and why it still is so helpful for thinking about the path towards liberation?
EL: In two ways, anarchism is more relevant today, or more clearly relevant today. Number one, I hope my book is reflecting a certain amount of thinking on the part of other people who already said it, is that we’re not dealing with a situation where all we have to do is end Capitalism or tame Capitalism in order to get out from the dilemmas that we face now. It’s a more complicated project than just using the State to tame this thing. That doesn’t work. And I think this is becoming more obvious to us over the last few decades.
The second thing is that anarchism doesn’t just look forward, it encourages us to look backward and to look around us for other systems, or elements of other systems that might work. So, anarchism is an invitation to think creatively about how we organize society. There’s nothing determinist about it the way there is a lot of times about Marxism, like we must go through this stage of historical development before we can do this. No, we can look at the way people are organizing things in indigenous communities, we can look at the way people were organizing things in fourteenth-century Europe, we all have these things, our ideas and tools and notions that we can put to use. So that’s the exciting part of anarchism is that it tells us that we’re not bound by some historically determinist process. We can change the process. These tools are here, if we want to use them, we don’t have to go through a hundred more years of capitalism in order to think we’re ready for it. So there’s an exciting creative element to this. That’s not something I talk about a lot in my book, because I’m talking about some fairly depressing things in my book, but that’s the part that has a lot of promise, where there’s something really optimistic we can grab onto.
TFSR: Yeah, that’s like a really helpful way of putting it because something that struck me in reading your book and other things I’ve been thinking about is that we get caught in the status way of thinking, even when from this a lot of leftist traditions, by agreeing to the inevitability of the state and inevitability of capital. And anarchism allows for a way of viewing history as more contingent, unless evenly developed on this road of progress or whatever, that allows for the creativity that you speak of. I could ask you so many different questions. And a lot of things came up in my mind that I hadn’t even prepared for while we were talking, but to wind it down, are there any like things that you want to bring to our listeners’ attention that we didn’t cover, or that you’d like to expand on as a way to close it out?
EL: Yeah, I’d like to suggest something actually. We touched on this a little bit earlier. There’s an anxiety people have when they think about life without the State. Well, there are so many things that we have acquired that we like in the last 500 years. We have fine art, we have computers, we have music, we have access to all kinds of culture that we didn’t use to have, people have much more of an opportunity to rise out of their social class, all these various things, and there’s an automatic fear that if we didn’t have the state, we wouldn’t have a framework where we could get all these things. And what I want to suggest is that that’s something we have to get over. It’s not true.
The example I like to give is, if we hadn’t had the state for the last 500 years, we would probably have computers now, we would have software systems, they’d be different. They’d maybe be less hierarchical, they’d be organized differently, but we would have got there. Would we have not had an Einstein, if there hadn’t been institutions of higher education to nurture people like that? Well, we probably would. They’d just be less hierarchical, and they wouldn’t be designed to reproduce an elite the way they are now. So the framework the state creates, it creates the mentality, a lack of confidence in the world outside of that framework. And that’s something we have to try very consciously to overcome. It’s not just that there won’t be chaos, it is that we can have all the same things that we really, really value now, that we value for good reasons, for honest reasons. And we don’t need this framework in order to get them. I think that’s an important lesson for people. And it’s something that is very hard for people to get over this sort of fear factor, or this feeling that we have to stay in the sort of womb of the state or else we’re going to lose everything. That’s the ultimate big scare we have to get over.
TFSR: Yeah, that seems like the other side of that contingency or that it’s not inevitable that the things that we have, the so-called fruits of the state could have come in other forms, and aren’t worth the pain and violence that we have to experience to have them. That’s a really helpful and important point. Well, thank you so much for talking to me, explaining some of the ideas, and refocusing our analysis on the state. I’m really excited about this book and I loved our conversation. So thank you for your time.
EL: I got to say your questions were great. And you pressed me on some points that are really good to press me on. So I appreciate that actually. Because, as I say, I want the book to start a conversation, not to end it.
TFSR: Exactly. I think it will, it’s making a really important contribution, and I hope it will help inject this focus on the state into the regional mutual aid networks and projects that are going on right now in such a dire time.
Making Links: June 11th, Long-term Prisoners, Anti-Repression Work
June 11th is the international day of solidarity with Marius Mason and all long-term anarchist prisoners. This year we want to explore the connections between long-term prisoner support and anti-repression efforts around recent uprisings, a sharp reminder to us that the difference between a status of imprisoned or not is often tenuous and temporary. With thousands of arrests for protesting, rioting, and property destruction from last summer’s George Floyd uprising, we must be preparing for the possibility that more of our friends and other rebels may end up in prison. We’re also seeking to find ways to facilitate interactions between our long-term prisoners and uprisings in the streets. We were happy to share the production of this episode with the lovely folks at June11.Org. To this end, we speak with:
Cameron and Veera, who are part of a group that have been supporting prisoners from the Ferguson uprising for the last 7 years;
They share with us their experiences with state repression, what motivates them, and some thoughts on what we can be doing to make us, our communities, and our liberatory movements more resilient. The speakers responded to questions in the same order throughout the conversation but didn’t identify themselves much, so remember that the order and the projects they’re involved in can be found in our show notes.
You can learn more about Marius Mason and how to support him at SupportMariusMason.org. You can see past podcasts by June 11th, prisoner statements, artwork, info about the prisoners supported by the effort, a mix-tape they curated last year and events listed for various cities you can join at June11.org. We’re releasing this audio before June 11th to entice folks to consider a potluck, an action, a letter writing event, a banner drop, a postering rampage or something to share the day with folks behind walls. Hear our past June 11 episodes here.
You can also hear the June 11th statement for this year alongside other info on prisoner support from comrades at A-Radio Vienna in the May 2021 BadNews podcast!
BRABC Letter Writing Today
If you’re in Asheville, join Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross today, June 6th for a letter writing from 5-7pm at West Asheville Park on Vermont Ave. BRABC meets every first Sunday at that time, provides info on prisoners with upcoming birthdays or facing repression, stationary, postage and company. Never written a letter? Don’t know how to start? Swing by and share some space!
Comrade David Easley, A306400 at the Toledo Correctional Institution, who has in previous months been viciously assaulted by prison staff at the direction of the ToCI Warden Harold May, as well as number of other inmates also who have been isolated for torture and other oppressive, covert, and overt retaliatory actions at that facility, denied adequate medical care for speaking out against the cruel, inhumane treatment at that Ohio facility. More and more comrades are reporting occurring throughout the ODRC, and across this country for any who dare stand up and speak up for themselves, and the voiceless within the steel and concrete walls.
This is a CALL TO ACTION to zap the phone at the U.S. District Court in Toledo, Ohio and demand that Comrade David Easley be granted a phone conference with Judge James R. Knepp II, and the Attorney General because Comrade Easley’s lawyer of record has decided to go rogue by not filing a Memorandum Contra Motion as his client requested and now the State has presented a Motion to Dismiss his case to that court.
Plaintiff: David Easley, A306400
Case No: 3:18-CV-02050
Presiding Judge: James R. Knepp II
Courtroom Clerk: Jennifer Smith
Phone No: (419) 213-5571
Also, reach out to Comrade Easley using the contact info he like many of our would appreciate the concerns, and love from us on the outside to stay the course, and not get discouraged in his Daily Struggle.
David Easley #A306400
PO Box 80033
Toledo, OH 43608
Anarchist Bank Robber and Prisoner, Giannis Dimitrakis Healing from Attack
the following was received from comrades at 1431 AM in Thessaloniki, Greece, a fellow member of the A-Radio Network. We had hoped to feature an interview they would facilitate with Giannis Dimitrakis for June 11th, however you’ll see why this hasn’t been possible. We hope he heals up quickly and would love to air that interview for the Week of Solidarity with Anarchist Prisoners in August:
On 24/5, our comrade, a political prisoner, the anarchist Giannis Dimitrakis was transported to the hospital of Lamia, seriously injured after the murderous attack he suffered in Domokou prison. G. Dimitrakis barely survived the the attack, and the blows he received caused multiple hematomas in the head, affecting basic functions of his brain. A necessary condition for the full recovery of the partner is the complete and continuous monitoring of him in a specialized rehabilitation center by specialist doctors and therapists.
In this crucial condition, the murderous bastards of the New Democracy government, M. Chrysochoidis, Sofia Nikolaou and their subordinates decide on Thursday June 3rd to transfer Giannis back to Domokos prison and even to a solitary confinement cell, supposedly for his health. Transferring our comrade there, with his brain functions in immediate danger, is for us a second attempt to kill him. Domokos prison does not meet in the slightest the conditions for the treatment and recovery of a prisoner in such a serious condition.
Αs a solidarity movement in general, we are again determined not to leave our comrade’s armor in their blood-stained hands. Nothing should be left unanswered, none of the people in charge of the ever-intensifying death policy that they unleash should be left out of our sights.
Immediate transfer of our partner to a specialized rehabilitation center
Hands down from political prisoners
Solidarity and strength to the anarchist fighter G. Dimitrakis
This is an invitation to engage June 11 in solidarity with Giannis Dimitrakis. On June 9th there will be a solidarity demo in Exarchia, Athens at 7pm!
Host 1: Would you please introduce yourselves and maybe who you are, what projects you’re working on and what experience you have with anti repression prisoner support work.
Cameron: My name is Cameron. I live in St. Louis. I’ve been doing prisoner support stuff for to varying degrees for the last 10 or so years. Having letter writing nights, fundraising for commissary stuff, sending in newsletters to jails and prisons.
Veera: I’m Veera. This is the biggest anti-repression prisoner support project that I’m a part of, or the longest running one. But similar to Cameron, I’ve been doing some support work for prisoners for probably the last 9 or 10 years, and have just maintained pen pals with several different prisoners across the states. And currently in southern Ontario, there are prisons, like across the region, that are on hunger strike, for different reasons, especially in regards to the pandemic and how they’ve been treated. And so I’ve been plugging into some of the hunger strike support work here. But yeah, also still getting acquainted with how projects are done here in this new place that I live.
Earthworm: Okay, my name is Earthworm from Atlanta, and I work with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund and the protester jail support team, and Cop Watch of East Atlanta. And we’ve got a lot of protester support experience because our friends have been getting arrested for years at different protests. So we turned it into something that has scaled way, way up, of course, particularly in the last year with the George Floyd uprisings.
Jeremy Hammond: Well, you know me, my name is Jeremy Hammond. I was recently released from federal prison several months ago. And I’ve been involved for most of my adult life. And since my release, I’ve just kind of been slowly getting my feet wet and seeing what my involvement would be most appropriate. And I’m also here with my brother-
Jason Hammond: Jason Hammond, that’s my voice right here. I’m his brother. And yeah, I’m a longtime supporter of Jeremy. But I’m also of course involved in on the ground protests related movements. One group that I’m a volunteer for is the Chicago Community Bond Fund. It’s a bond fund that has been involved in prison abolition struggles, most notably the George Floyd, Black Lives Matter uprising last year. We did a lot of work for political prisoners during these uprisings too.
Host 2: Can you tell us more about the role of your projects in uprising anti-repression, and some of the prisoners you’re supporting, or talk about examples of political coordination and action with other prisoners that might give the audience a sense of the agency of folks behind bars?
C: Well, I mean, in 2014, a group of us started supporting folks who got locked up during the Ferguson uprising, and it kind of came out of desire to not ignore, but actually just like, actively promote the reality that the folks that were participating were engaged in risky and creative and destructive actions, like looting, or shooting guns and arson. And we kept seeing a lot of people fall through the cracks in 2014, like in terms of getting support from like the, “movement”. So we just really wanted to make sure that folks got some kind of support. And so a lot of the people that were participating weren’t really like a part of a movement per se, like they weren’t like in an activist organization, or they weren’t organizers, they were kind of articulating themselves outside of that. And so we just felt like that was really important to see and acknowledge because, yeah, there were people that have gone away for, are now in prison for like five plus years, some people because of what they did.
And like there’s all sorts of narratives by nonprofits and activists, that the people who are like doing the heavier stuff were hurting the movement or kind of a part of a conspiracy of outsiders or criminals. And it felt like that kind of narrative was just reproducing the same that caused this moment, this uprising. This sort of demonization of people, this sort of keeping people in their place, ignoring the fact that people have agency and ability to like refuse to be victimized by systems that want to kill them or hurt them. And I’ve personally just felt like I was very frustrated to not see that narrative promoted or like accepted. That was kind of the big reason why I got involved in supporting folks.
To go back to like nonprofit stuff, like a lot of those folks weren’t really seeing what was happening right in front of them. This was an uprising that was extremely combative against not just the police, but also private property and with the authority of a lot of people who want to keep things the way they are. And people from all walks of life just coming to this situation, and like getting wrapped up in it, and like getting arrested, and like doing things that were dangerous, and not really talked about, and like a legible, easily palatable story. That was just a very hard thing to watch. Having gone through my own legal issues, through going through courts for years, and being arrested a bunch of times, and just like knowing how shitty that is to experience and how like grueling it is to go from one continuance to another. And I knew I had people who had my back, and people who would come to my court dates, and I just wanted to return that as well to other people.
V: Yeah, I can maybe just talk a little bit more about the specifics of the project that Cameron and I are a part of, as far as like the prisoners that we are supporting. They are just from a compilation of a list that we compiled from just mailing letters to people who got arrested during the Ferguson uprising. People from all walks of life and in that neighborhood, and not necessarily people that we could say that we were like politically aligned with, because it might even be safe to say that all of the people that we are supporting when we started supporting them wouldn’t necessarily have aligned themselves with any sort of politics.
Yeah, we sent letters and just said, basically, if they were willing to, we would put them on this public list — which is the list on AntistateSTL — put their images out there and their mailing addresses, and thereby making it easier for people across the country to support them. And so that list we’ve maintained, or someone has maintained, over the years. We had, I think 11 people at one point, and now it’s down to, oh gosh, like 5 or 6 maybe? Because people have gotten out just specifically from that list of folks, there’s two people that I spend a lot of time in communication with them and their families and have visited and everything. And one of them actually, Cameron was alluding to this, but you know, people would get arrested in Ferguson for doing a lot of what a lot of people were doing, which was looting and destruction of property and everything, and one of the guys that I support was arrested for those things and then because of priors, whenever he was sentenced, he actually got a sentence of 60 years. So he’s gonna be in for the rest of his life. So that’s like a very long term. In some ways that to me is like very mind blowing and it’s a very good example of the people that were acting in the streets weren’t always people that we were familiar with their lifestyle, or familiar with the risks that they were taking.
E: So we ran jail support for anybody that was arrested and were doing prisoner support for anybody who is stuck in jail, because they were denied bail or because they’re unfortunately, sent to prison. So we’ve provided all sorts of support for arrested folks.
Jeremy: All right, well, certainly my experience in prison, you have a wide variety of individuals who are locked up, many of which have become politicized in prison. And so they see someone who is locked up on a case such as mine with support from political movements on the outside people know that I’m an anarchist, and a prison abolition is right? And a lot of people are very curious about this. Right? Because of all the experiences in their own lives having been repressed by the criminal justice system.
As far as examples of coordination there’s unfortunately, like, prison they want to bury you, right? They want to prevent you from communicating to the outside world, to receive information of what’s going on in the outside world. And so the work that’s being done on the outside, such as everything from books to prisoners, to the support at people’s court dates and stuff, to having noise demonstrations outside the jail, really gets people who are curious about what’s going on. And so for an example, like I would regularly receive zines and newsletters from ABC and other organizations, right, which are very useful in discussing things that we would otherwise only have access to, like – say for example, something on the news, we would only receive information about what’s going on with the George Floyd uprising, the Michael Brown uprising, based on what was in the news, right? But now we have additional materials to share and discuss as a focus of discussions. For example newsletters from actual movement stuff itself.
And so when people see like the jail demonstrations outside the jail, when people see that there’s people attending each one of your court rooms, that they know that there’s kind of a camaraderie, a sense of loyalty and commitment to something. It kind of brings like prisoners together that we’re not just alone, that we’re, there’s a continuum of resistance, and each of our stories plays a part in that.
Jason: So this is Jason speaking right now, I can talk about my experiences with the Chicago Community bond fund. Just a little back history: this is a bond fund that was organized in response to the uprisings in Chicago against the Chicago police scandal, the murder of Laquan McDonald. There were a large movement, which included a number of arrests to protest the cover up of the murder. And so people had raised a good amount of money to bond out the resistors, the protesters, and in the wake of that it basically coalesced into a movement of an organization that tried to address you know, the problems of the prison system, the Cook County Jail, the mass incarceration project. It was an abolitionist project so we started just working with the community, bonding out people’s family, loved ones, friends, and all that, basically as much as we could try to empty the jail out. This was, I think, around like 2016.
Fast forward to the George Floyd uprising, the organization had been long a supporter of the BLM movement, and when this had happened the organization had definitely stepped up to do everything they possibly could within the organization, to not just bond out the protesters, and the activists but of course the larger community that was involved in, let’s say, property distribution, looting, breaking property, destruction. They stated clearly on that stance, which, in fact, BLM Chicago as well had made a stance to support people involved in the looting.
So we, every day, we’d be out bonding people from Cook County Jail. Sometimes, I personally would go up with a list of like 10 people in the jail, just bonding as many people as we possibly could, as well as trying to amplify and elevate the struggles of other organizations working to change the system. Yeah, this is one thing that’s Chicago Bond Fund had been doing in 2020. And we’re still doing it, you know. We also had a campaign to change the, basically end money bail type law in Illinois. It’s said it’s an “end money bail” but of course felonies and a little bit less palatable type charges, like violent charges or domestic charges, are not bailable, but these are details in the bond bill. But it’s still a pretty good bill the Pretrial Fairness Act, passed in Illinois because of our grassroots shit.
However, there’s still plenty of other challenges beyond the fact, about money for example, the campaign was “end money bail”, right? However, there’s all kinds of other, like compounding details that would allow a person to get what they call a “no bond”. For example, if they have two charges, they can be bond out for the first one, but for the second one in light of the fact that they were already on bond, they could have just be given what they call a “no bond” so that they’re still in there, no matter how expensive their bond is or depending on what kind of charges. So for that reason, there’s still tons of people currently in Cook County Jail and you know, we are expecting the numbers to go down as the the law rolls out, expecting to kind of be fully implemented in two years, but we are we are going to still see a number of people still in the Cook County jail system, even though they are pre trial, just because of all kinds of other laws that would prevent someone from leaving, you know. A large part of this country do not want to see the changes that we were fighting for be implemented. And you know, I mean, all you have to do is just kind of look at the rhetoric and what their actions are, they’re pushing back in the legal sense as well.
Yeah, there’s a major political battle basically between the far right, the John Catanzara FOP CPD camp, as well as the state’s attorney Kim Fox, Lori Lightfoot. Kim Fox has been actually a pretty vocal support of the end money bail project. So like there’s there’s a political battle, of course, as well.
TFRS: Have you seen your support work change over time? For instance the progression from supporting someone through their initial arrest and bonding out, to serving a prison sentence or doing other follow up work with them if that’s not the case. Or if you were in prison, how did your needs change over time from the initial court support and folks showing up and fundraising for lawyers during the initial phase to like, maybe follow up?
C: Well, I mean, initially, we found all these people’s names from like media articles, like there’s a website in Missouri where you can just like find all the court records of cases and so we just kind of like comb through all those and sent letters to them and stuff. And as folks started getting sentenced, some were incarcerated in prisons, other people were given time served because they’d been in jail the whole time and weren’t bailed out. So then the focus shifted from doing like court support, to like, just letter writing and some amount of fundraising when we could. So like just trying to fundraise for putting money on their books, or like maybe some of us have steady work or whatever, so we give $10-$20 a month to one person each at this point, if that’s where it’s at for the folks, at least for me, for the folks that are still locked up. And a few folks have been released in the last couple years. We kind of always tried to check in with them when they’re about to get released, like if they need anything, like, “here’s what we can offer”. It’s a pretty small group, we don’t, we’re not like an actual, like, organization, we just kind of run on our own capacity, but we try to help people when they get released a little bit. And I’ve maintained communication with at least one person pretty steadily who’s been released and we’re actually friends.
But yeah, basically, it’s been so long, I mean, 2014 is so long ago, and people who, a lot of these people like maybe they were in prison, and they got out…there was never an effort to convert somebody to like some political sway, or like political ideology. It was always just sort of like, you were a participant, and we would want the same if we were locked up. So because of that, like, a lot of times, there’s still a connection, but also people have their own lives. And they can move on or they like, have their struggles. I guess I bring that up, because yeah, just to sort of talk about the capacity that we have, as individuals, trying to do this and how we’re not a charity, we’re not a nonprofit or social workers. So we’re kind of trying to meet people where they’re at and have a more down to earth relationship. And if it leads to more of a friendship, then great, if it doesn’t, that’s not the point of it, or whatever.
V: I would, I would echo a lot of that. Honestly, like that progression, I guess, of what our support work looked like at times, I would even say was a bit awkward and clunky. Without this baseline of “we are anarchists” or “we are radicals and therefore we act it during this uprising”, I think it was a bit unclear for both the folks that were locked up and their support networks as to who we were, you know. We’re not social workers, we’re not like an activist organization with a bunch of money coming in, you know. We have a little website on noblogs.org. And we’re kind of you know, as far as this group is made up of now, I think there’s like two people left in St. Louis, who are still there and still active in it and the rest of us are, are all over.
So it’s rather like a disjointed and kind of a funny, awkward conversation to have at times where I’m talking to one of the guys that I support, his name is Alex and I had to have like several conversations with Alex’s mom to kind of like, get her to understand who I was, and that I wasn’t like someone who was going to help place her son in a job once he got out. I was just someone who was going to make sure that her son was looked after and not forgotten about and if something needed to happen where he needed his caseworker to be bothered about some piece of mail, or if he wasn’t getting shoes or something, then I was the person that was going to call and do that. And those sorts of things. I think that we had to be willing to kind of have those awkward conversations with people. And I think that for the most part, that’s been fine. You know, at worst, it’s awkward but we have been able to raise money and get people, when they get released, we’ve been able to give them phones and clothing and help them feel cared for in small ways. And I think that that’s a really important piece of what we do.
Host2: Earthworm, can you tell us about Atlanta?
E: I guess when we started doing jail support work, it was more on the fly in response to arrests happening. It was just kind of catch as catch can, you know. Somebody would be in jail and they’d need $4,000 to go to a bail bondsman to cover their $40,000 bail and we would need to come up with just by calling all our friends. Scrambling to put somebodys rent money up and hope that somebody could pay him back by the time rents due. And we realized in doing that, we needed a more organized, and we needed a bail fund. So in 2016, we started collecting money for that. And sometimes when people get arrested, it makes a lot of news and a bunch of donations roll in. And sometimes you’re able to even set some aside and have that for the next set of arrests. And of course, sometimes more expensive than the amount you bring in.
So we sort of struggled along through a whole series of different protests. And then in the George Floyd uprising, we were fortunate enough that we already were established. And we had that we had a website, and we had this long history of being able to bail out protesters, so we were sort of already a trusted group. And we were able to be really central in that effort and got way more donations than we were used to. But of course, also way more arrests than we’re used to. But with the donations, we were able to cover a lot more of the protesters’ needs. So whereas before, the money had just been very strictly for bail and hiring lawyers we’ve been able to do things like pay everybody’s fines and fees, and pay for medical costs and pay for other incidental things like a babysitter, if you need to go to court. Other things we would never have been able to afford before.
And the other thing that is very blessed that changed is we no longer have a cap to the amount of bail that we’re able to post, because before we had money, we didn’t want to blow it on one protesters. So if you were in there, on $40,000 bail or bond, we could only cover a portion of that, and then we would have to scramble to fundraise the rest of it.
So in the early stages, even before arrests happened when we hear about a protest getting set up. So that arrest might happen, we get the jail support team together and start scheduling who’s going to be available for the 36 hours after the protests if arrests go down. So we’ve got our phones people who have a physical cell phone, because that’s all you can call from jail, and they take turns carrying that and one phone person will bring it to the next person when their turn is over. We scheduled people to do arrestee tracking, which is finding out who’s been arrested, finding them in the jail system and keeping track of them to figure out when they are able to be bailed out, and then getting them bailed out and getting people to meet them they’re at the jail when they’re out. And then once they’re out, that is when court support takes over. And that’s everything from keeping track of when their court dates are and sending them reminders to finding lawyers and helping getting people there to their court dates, and whatever sort of support they need while their court cases going on. And then once their court case is over, there’s follow up hopefully they don’t go to prison or anything but there may be support to do as far as helping them if there’s going to be a civil lawsuit, helping them find lawyers for that, or helping them with whatever kind of evidence gathering or whatever support they need with that. Of course, they may have fines and fees to pay or like ankle monitor fees and that’s all stuff that fortunately now we’re able to afford.
Or unfortunately sometimes people go to prison. And then it’s time for prisoner support, which we do also to the people who are denied bail and they’re sitting in jail waiting for their trial to happen, of which we’ve got about eight in Atlanta. So that means writing the letters. And they also have the phone number so the same phone people who are doing the intake calls the night that people get arrested are also hearing from the long term prisoners, and just figuring out what support they need. Ideally, everybody who’s sitting in jail has their whole support crew of friends and family and whatever supporters, and those support crews can coordinate with each other and with the solidarity funds to make sure everybody’s getting what they need. Failing that, the jail support team just needs to act as a support crew for each prisoner. Meaning that the only number they’re calling is the jail support phone and the jail support phone people are communicating with the prisoner support people at large, who aren’t like the prisoner support for a particular individual and just saying you know, “so and so wants this kind of books can anybody volunteer to send them that” or “so and so is not receiving medical attention, and we need to get everybody we know to call the jail and pressure them to let him see a doctor”, and, and so on like that.
Host 2: Oh my gosh, it sounds like y’all really got that figured out *laughs sweetly*
E: *laughing* Well, I think it’s a process of figuring it out on an ongoing basis. I appreciate you saying that. But I definitely don’t think anybody feels like we haven’t figured.
Jeremy: This is Jeremy. So certainly the arrest and pretrial support work is very crucial. It’s very different than say post conviction, post sentencing. First, I think we just need to listen to the particular circumstances and needs of each person and their charge. But also recognize that since we’re talking about groups and waves of repression, all the circumstances are also linked. In particular, somebody who’s facing charges often can’t openly talk in detail about like, what they’re particularly being charged with. So I think it kind of does rely on support communities to kind of — it’s a political battle, because they want to, like build support for the individual, but also like, build support for the particular so called “crimes” that they’ve been accused of, if it’s like a direct action that they’re currently in prison for. So the way the public narrative goes the way of, in support of what the prosecution’s characterization of the crimes are, right. Like if say, some of the actions over the past couple years, and the uprisings involve various arsons, and property destruction. Well, I think it’s important these groups are doing support work, not just support the individual and whatever the particular legal strategy is, like, say they’re innocent, or whatever, but also support the actual crimes themselves. We had to legitimize the act itself to the public.
And then of course, post-conviction hopefully. I think it makes a difference the amount of time in the in the whole negotiation process, the charges, like the prosecutors are willing to offer up does make a difference if they believe that the person being prosecuted is in isolation, versus if they’re part of a movement, and the prosecutor strategy is also different, and then be more willing to make like better deals or make concessions, that would be a better outcome for the individual.
And then, of course, post-conviction & post-sentencing, you want to give a voice to someone who’s now freely able to speak. The other thing is, as the person’s time draws to a conclusion, and they’re about to be released, the needs also change. That you want to make sure that somebody has every opportunity to make it upon the release, especially long term prisoners, like their ease of adapting. And fortunately I can say that, like they’ve taken care of me throughout my entire bid. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the various groups that came out and supported me. And because of that, I had a pretty easy transition when I was released people came and picked me up from the jail, people were bringing me stuff at the halfway house. You know, my brother and friends made sure that I had a place to stay, you know.
So these types of things help ease the transition I mean, because otherwise, the state will just kick you out and basically hope that you fail again. And so it’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Host 1: Yeah, and that, but on that point, it especially when a person’s been inside for decades — like a decade is a long fucking time — but if someone’s been in for 30 years, like the amount of change that’s occurred during that period of time, the amount of loss of loved ones…
Jeremy: Yeah, yeah, it’s truly shocking. Especially the cultural changes, the changes in the city. You know, people might not…everything is technology, people definitely have difficulty adapting to how people apply for jobs and people secure housing and stuff like that is all different now.
J11: So there have been 1000’s of people arrested during the George Floyd uprising last year, over 300 federal cases and innumerable state felony cases. So given your experience, what can we be doing now to prevent and prepare for those uprising defendants, some of them serving time in prison, Cameron and Veera?
C: To me? It feels kind of inevitable. Part of it feels hard to prevent people from acting – or not…that’s not the question, but like, prevent, repression feels hard because uprisings are often just sort of like, they’re super spontaneous and people like who don’t necessarily consider surveillance or security culture like maybe some of us do. Or anarchists or radicals do are going to get get caught up in like the repression and I guess ideally it would be a matter of trying to like, really push for people to like, be aware of, if like a surveillance camera can see you or be aware of like, the risk that you’re taking, but also like, in some ways, having that kind of, sort of awareness can actually kind of placate you. So it’s sort of a hard balance to figure out how to kind of prevent avoidable repression. Because yeah, people are going to do what they’re gonna do. And like, I think, at least having that baseline of that’s what’s gonna happen is like, where I start from.
V: I think it’s very hard to know how to talk about what prevention looks like. We have our experience, and especially having gone through Ferguson, and especially like the repression support work, post Ferguson, we can look at that and say, “okay, we know how bad this can get, so let’s keep this from happening”. But then how do you do that? Like, how do you like, make those connections in the moment.
I can remember a moment last summer, during one of the demos, the George Floyd demos that happened, and I was… So I was hyper aware of everyone that wouldn’t have their faces covered. And so I’m running around and I’m a white woman, who’s in my 30s, running around telling people to cover their faces, and they feel invincible in the moment they feel like, “nothing’s gonna stop me, nothing, no one’s stopping me right now. Like, what do I care?” And here I am running around, telling them all to cover their faces, and they’re looking at me, like, “no, get away from me, this isn’t your moment!” You know? And, and then like, some ways, it’s like yeah, that’s true. And, like, what am I gonna do? Am I gonna stop you and say, “Look, I know how this goes I know how this ends and start telling them…” the answer is no, I’m not gonna do that. But I think that is part of what we can do show up to these things with just bandanas to hand out, you know.
And as far as preparation, I don’t know, I thought about that. But I think that the model of what this support group is doing, find a small group of people — and we are, we’re a small group of people that are just willing to say, “Okay, these 11 people, we’re gonna make sure they’re taken care of.” And I think if you can form groups like that, and just kind of trust each other to do the bottom line for some of these people that are getting locked up, I think that that can be a really good start.
E: Number one thing, I think we need to be educating everybody that we can about not talking to police, and doing other security culture measures to keep ourselves from going to jail in the first place. You know, as far as educating people about wearing masks and security cameras, and just taking precautions, about things that could get somebody in trouble, not talking about illegal things that somebody could get in trouble for, not posting sketchy stuff on social media. Not talking to the cops, or anybody who might talk to the cops.
And when I say “not talking to the cops”, like not saying anything to the cops, other than “I’m going to remain silent, I want to see a lawyer, or am I being detained? Am I free to go?”, or “I don’t consent to a search”. And that is it, as far as what anybody should say to police. So I think holding trainings and holding them for as many people as we can, particularly because we’re getting lots of brand new people who aren’t used to being protesters is going to save a ton of money, countless hours, and misery in terms of people going to jail, and potentially prison later on. Because it’s so heartbreaking when you hear about somebody didn’t know that they shouldn’t talk to the cops, or they didn’t know that they had the right to not talk to cops, and they’ve just threw away what power they had to protect themselves.
Or I guess you could say, conversely, when we hear about people who did get that training, and did know to keep their mouth shut, and were able to tell their friends to keep their mouth shut, that prevents them from going to jail. And that is a huge relief. You know, when we hear from people, and they’re like, “Oh, no, I didn’t say anything to the cops! You think I’m crazy?”. That’s just like a choir of angels singing.
Jeremy: So first off, as with everything, it’s important that you think through your actions before you carry them out. And I think it’s also important to look at the history of cases and to see how people got caught and the mistakes people have made. So the way we don’t repeat the same mistakes so that way, we don’t keep this ongoing cycle of arrests and incarceration. We obviously want to reduce the numbers of people captured by the state.
Jason: This is Jason now. Yeah so obviously, “don’t get caught” is the ongoing lesson that we’re trying to learn. Secondly, we can’t forget, we have to keep the momentum up for people who are facing charges, we have to demand their charges be dropped in whatever form we can we can be writing letters, we could do petitions, we could be doing protests, we could be doing rallies, we could be doing letter writing parties, we could organize our own letter writing chapters, we could organize our own prisoner support chapters. So there’s all kinds of things that we could be doing and are doing to kind of keep the momentum up.
This is a pretty unique moment where you’re still in the wake of where the largest uprisings of many people’s lives, and there is a lot of energy ready to be harvested to kind of push the abolition our work forward, as well as change the system. So the people who are arrested trying to fight the power, to change the system, they really need to be supported if we agree with their goals. So let’s, let’s do everything we can to keep the momentum going on. And you know, people are exploring new ways of doing this.
Host 1: So one of the big things with long term prisoner support that June 11th is trying to address is not letting these people be forgotten. As interest in detention from last summer is already greatly decreased. what can we do to ensure energy and support lasts as long as the effects of the repression will.
C: For me it’s important to be like unapologetic about what people do, or for people to be like, “yes, people engaged in collective and individual actions that were incredibly threatening to the State and Capital and then they get caught”. So it’s like, it is being unapologetic about it is sort of giving people a sense of agency in their actions, as opposed to kind of seeing folks as they became, I mean, obviously, people became victims of state repression, but like, they were resisting, being repressed in day to day life, or oppressed in day to day life. And I guess just like putting it that way can help me kind of see the reality of it, and for lack of a better word, like humanize people.
For instance I think last summer, people were actually coming out in support of looting. Like, that wasn’t happening in 2014. That was a very hard position to hold. And I think it still is in a lot of circles today, but it was very exciting to me because it helps people see the people that are doing that, and create this sort of contagious effect of “Oh, people who are doing that are doing that for a variety of reasons and they deserve to be supported if they get arrested”, that deserves to be spread, and not just throw it under the rug. Because I think if you do that, then you lose the essence throwing the fact that there’s looting, throwing the fact that there’s lots of burning going on, the fact that there’s a fair amount of combative gunfire in the air, just all sorts of creative stuff going on sort of gives a lot of dimension to these uprisings. And I think people can see themselves better in that than they can see themselves in like a more civil disobedience sort of narrative that often just completely erases that. Just talking about it in that way and just like, again, just being unapologetic.
We want to build a different world or live in a different world and the way we get to that is dangerous, but also can be very empowering and exciting and incredibly worthwhile. And the more people who are unapologetic about it, who are like “I support all these combative actions”, the more to me it’s on people’s minds, and the less likely it can be swept under the rug.
V: Yeah, I think that’s the move that we see, or like this boundary pushing of an acceptable narrative. I think that we can participate in that as anarchists and as actors in these rebellious moments. I don’t always know how to push those narratives of the boundary shifting. You know, social media has never been my strong suit, but I think that there are ways to take it to social media and push those things. You know, as the nonviolent protesters and the police were the big bad and “we weren’t doing anything wrong” sort of thing, that’s when we saw some of the people that we supported sort of get forgotten, you know? And I think that that’s changed. That was different last summer, and that the repression support is going to look different because of that.
I think that’s great. I think that there’s still more work to do. And I think that we can be a part of that work. Again, I don’t always know how, I think having those conversations. Just from my personal example, I know that every one of my family was very confused about my participation and Ferguson stuff. Last summer, half of my family was in the streets after dark. And I think in part because of the conversations that we were having, and the ways that things started to be more acceptable, and more people were willing to confront this discomfort.
E: Wow, that is a tough one. I think that’s something that long term prisoners experienced widely, you know? You get a lot of support in the first couple years and then once you’re in there for a few years, the world keeps going and kind of starts to pass you by, and it’s just heartbreaking to think about people in there, wondering if anybody still cares about them. And you know, getting those letters that are just such a precious lifeline when you’re in there, and getting them less and less often. That’s got to be a desperate feeling. I think anybody who hasn’t experienced that, we probably don’t understand just how much of a lifeline that support from the outside is.
So I think trying to communicate that to people, and talk about prisoner support as a core antirepression effort. I think it often gets overlooked as sort of one of the unsexy grunt work things. And it’s kind of hard to write letters, there’s some social anxiety there, people don’t know what to say. But just getting that to be more of a core part of all of our efforts. It’s a mutual aid effort, because you and I, one day, are very likely to end up doing some time. You know, if we’re effective at what we’re trying to do and I hope we are, it’s extremely likely that they’re going to come after us. So setting up these efforts and promoting them as “this is an important part of the antirepression work that we do”, supporting prisoners could directly benefit us one day, and will definitely benefit our community.
So, and I think that there are a lot more opportunities to do prisoner support but it’s kind of overlooked as an activity. Because I frequently run into people who say “I don’t have a lot of consistent time but I’m able to do something here and there, what kind of work do you recommend?”, and I’m like “write a prisoner. You can do that on your own, you can do it kind of at work, or whenever you get a few minutes, it’s totally independent”. And it is such a lifeline for that person. And it’s a way to directly help, you know? Cuz there’s so much that we do that is kind of planting seeds for the future, or just hoping that one day it’ll bring about revolutionary change — which this, I think, again, is a big important piece of doing the prisoner support — but it also directly means so much to a specific individual, that you can see the difference that it makes.
So, talking to people who need guidance about how they can contribute, and who maybe want to work independently, maybe can’t leave the house, don’t have good transportation aren’t able to come to meetings, this is something that you can do from home, that you can do entirely by yourself. If you’re not able to risk arrest, or if you’re not able to physically keep up with a march, you can keep in touch with a prisoner, you can write them. If you hate writing letters you can get a JPay account and send emails, that’s a lot easier. You can put money on your phone account and let them call you. Or you can, some jails and prisons have the like video visits thing, you can do any of that. Once again, I don’t think we can even really understand how important it is for them to know that there’s somebody out there that they can count on, that they can reach out to if they’re in a desperate situation.
I think another big barrier to people’s willingness to begin writing a prisoner is uncertainty about how much time they can commit to it and not wanting to start off strong and then kind of leave the prisoner hanging, which is an important concern. But I would say you know, if you can only do one letter every six months, be upfront about that. But if you can only do one letter as a one time thing, just be truthful about that, and set the expectations realistic. And whatever you can do is incredibly meaningful.
Host 2: And for you, Jeremy?
Jeremy: Well, certainly the work that people have done with June 11th have brought attention to like anarchist and Earth Liberation prisoners who have experienced long amounts of time behind bars and they have not been forgotten and their stories aren’t over either. As far as the cycle of oppression and arrests and incarceration and how do we avoid burnout, and how do we ensure energy and stuff like that: I think one of the big things is we need to realize that we have the capability of winning. That this isn’t just an ongoing cycle that’s going to repeat forever. We believe that we will win, we believe that there is going to be a moment that we could overturn the system. Abolition is mainstream discourse now so we just need to keep the pressure up and keep it going and keep chipping away at the armor of the system.
Of course avoid arrests I mean as much as possible, and bring attention to the people who have unfortunately fell into the dragnet. But I think one of the other things I liked about the work that people have done around June 11th is that it kept people who are behind bars involved, to the extent possible. And really as someone who’s been behind bars and who has been following the June 11th stuff…we want to see people continue the work that we’ve been doing. Even though we might not have all the details, we don’t need to know all the details.
Jason: Yeah. So, I mean, there were 1000’s of arrests last year. It’s summertime now, they say that somewhat the interest has waned in protesting, people wanting to go back to normal, whatever, but I don’t see it that way. I see plenty of people still willing to take the fight. And so let’s get creative, let’s see what new kinds of things we could do. Let’s keep the struggle up, keep amplifying. Like my brother said we do believe we could win, and we do believe that we have made a lot of changes just within the last year. Let’s see how far we can take it.
Host 2: What could it look like to have more connection between long term political or politicized prisoners, and activity and resistance in the streets and elsewhere?
C: Part of my impetus for being involved in the Ferguson prisoner support group, or whatever, is just kind of trying to encourage a culture of solidarity. Especially in a way that tries to cross all sorts of cultural and subcultural divides, whether that be like racial or gender, or class, whatever. Just trying to see how we can fortunately, and unfortunately, have this moment where — especially during an uprising — we’re not following an easy script. Because day to day life is extremely segregated, it’s extremely…it can feel pretty isolating going through day to day life, going to work, going to school, raising your family, whatever. And being just in that baseline, and then whenever that kind of gets shook up a little bit, it’s an opportunity if you have a certain perspective to try to bridge, or break out of, that sort of stalemate.
I think with the prisoner support stuff, it’s always felt important to me to try to meet people where they’re at to have a variety of folks from all sorts of disparate or common situations and just have more perspective. And I love trying to foster situations or moments or being in moments where that is a little more uninhibited, or more relaxed. So like, how do you do that outside of these ideal — and they’re not even really ideal, there’s all sorts of terrible things that happen in uprisings as well, I don’t want to romanticize that if I can — but it is a thing where, yeah, it feels a little looser and easier. So like, how do you do that when it’s over? How do you foster a culture of solidarity of mutual aid that continues to break down like separations? I think we’re always between a rock and a hard place with this, but I think, especially in this case, writing folks, after the uprising ends, ideally, it can help create a sense that “Oh, if this happens to a friend, maybe I would do the same thing”.
Maybe they would have always done the same thing. Because obviously people have their own support networks. But like, maybe us doing that kind of helps spark an idea that like, “oh, if somebody is in trouble, or if somebody is having a hard time because of state repression or because of work, or all sorts of struggles, I can do something too. Or I can call these people who helped me in the past, and we can do something about it”.
So that’s the ideal that I have of doing this project, and even on a practical level, having more support inside and outside of prison walls and jails is helpful. Like if one of us happens to go to prison or jail, we might know somebody in there, somebody you connected with who’s like out, who is released who might be like, “Oh, yeah, I got a buddy in this jail or this prison that you’re going to and it might help you out”. Kind of not the most empowering thing, but it’s like, again, it’s like you’re between a rock and a hard place and these situations…or ultimately I want to like break out of having to think about that, but I think it’s a great place to start.
V: Yeah, it’s I feel similar to Cameron. There’s parts of this that just feel tough to answer, especially regarding the prisoner support work that we’re doing with people who I don’t know that they would identify as political prisoners. But maybe something that I have learned from this and from them is I was kind of talking about the awkwardness of making the connection at first, and then sort of allowing that to just be what it was. Like, “I’m here, and I know you because of this thing, because we were acting at the same time in the same place for a lot of the same reasons” and then sort of seeing where that takes us. And because these guys are not political prisoners, or “political prisoners“, it’s taken me and our relationship in all sorts of places. And I think that that’s been a beautiful way to connect. It’s opened up like my eyes to a lot of the different day to day oppression that some of these people have been living through, and that they’re sort of like allowing me to see into their life me as someone who they wouldn’t have allowed that, before all of this.
And I think that that’s been a really beautiful piece that’s come out of this, because we sort of open it up for connection to happen in all sorts of ways that don’t really hinge on “let’s read this radical text together and have a book club about it”, but it looks different. And then suddenly George Floyd uprising happened, and I’m getting emails and phone calls from them, where they’re just talking to me about how this is inspiring them from the inside and how they’re talking to people, their other inmates inside about why they acted in the way that they did and suddenly you see this fire again, and then you get to be inspired by that with them. And I think that a lot of that is because we allowed for a more open connection, and then we’re allowed to go down this path with them. I think our connection with these guys is a bit different but it’s still one that I continue to feel inspired by.
J11: How about you, Earthworm?
E: Again, I think staying in touch with people is the very ground level of that. Writing to those folks and for their advice and their input. Atlanta ABC runs a newsletter that we send out to probably about 250 prisoners, mostly in Georgia, but throughout the Southeast, that’s mostly written by them: they’ll receive the newsletter and we put a ask for contributions in it, and then they’ll mail us and we type it up and get it in the next newsletter. And staying in touch that way at least they’re connected in with what’s going on, they’re getting news about whatever the revolutionary struggles are, and they’re able to give their input. They’re able to lend support to people who are facing charges, who might go to prison, because they obviously have the clearest idea of how to handle that, and how to keep that in perspective, you know? If you’re facing a little bit of time, being in touch with someone who’s doing a lot of time can be very helpful.
We also publish prisoners writings on the Anarchist Black Cross website. And when they are engaging with something that’s going on in the moment, we’ll publish that more widely kind of spread that to other news sources to keep them engaged that way. I think the other part of that is to hear from them about what struggles are going on inside the prisons, and connect the people who are working on the outside to lend support to those things. So, if people are being brutalized in there, or there’s some horrible racist guard who’s harassing particular inmates, or behaving badly in general, we on the outside are able to bring pressure on that as a result of maintaining this connection with the long term prisoner. There are eyes and ears on the outside.
Jeremy: Certainly like the world we’re building is a world without prisons and we want everybody to be freed unconditionally, regardless of their particular circumstance. We support political prisoners and prisoners of war, but we also support politicized prisoners, we also support prisoners of everything, you know? So, often though, like the state will target political cases as like a canary in the coal mine type situations, where they use new legal techniques to go after political prisoners that, if successful, they’ll generalize. But the same works both ways too. They’ll also use tactics to target segments of the population that they think nobody will rush to defend either for that matter. And so it’s important that we’re fighting for all different types of cases and not letting the state get away with anything.
As far as encountering each other we need to keep up sending physical newsletters into the prisons, sending books to people in prison, doing radio shows on radio networks that have reach within prison, the jail demos and stuff like that. You would be very surprised at the long term reach that some of these actions happen. Like, for example, like when I was being transferred around a couple years ago with the grand jury Virginia thing, right? I ran into somebody at the Oklahoma Transfer Center, right? And I thought he looked familiar, right? Then he came over, said something like “I remember you and Jerry were at New York, they were always having demonstrations outside the jail for you all”. And I was like, “Wow, that was like eight years ago”. But you never know, like, something like that can stick in people’s minds. And I think that has an effect on the mentality of people that “you are not alone, you’re not fighting this alone”, and that June 11th specifically, like, if you are questioning whether you want to be involved in something – first off you should always think your actions through — but know that if you do get in trouble the movement will have your back, will see you through this whole thing, that you’re not alone.
Host 1: Are there any last things that y’all want to add, any ways that people can follow your work or get into contact with the folks that you support?
C: People can go to antistatestl.noblogs.org there’s a tab on the website that says “Ferguson Related Prisoners” and that list is up to date as to who’s still locked up and who still wants some kind of support. There’s also a PayPal link for commissary donations, or release fund donations. People are also welcome just to directly send it to the folks inside themselves if they prefer that.
E: So the Atlanta jail support efforts is not just Atlanta people, lots of work is remote. So if you want to help out with our jail support efforts, we’ve got a mountain of work that needs to be done and we’d be delighted to plug you in and get you trained up to do that. Of course, there’s probably a similar effort in your area that you can get involved in with probably a little bit of googling. If you want to write to any of our long term prisoners, atljailsupport.org has an email that you can reach out to us on and we will plug you in and get you connected to one of them. Also atlblackcross.org is for not specifically protest related prisoners, but all prisoners who are now protesting the conditions of their confinement or protesting the system in general. And if you visit that site there are ways to write to them as well.
Jeremy: Alright, first, I want to pay my respects to the comrades behind bars who are still enduring this repression, the folks who are facing charges now who might have a journey in front of them still. I want to say: we got your back, we support what you’re doing, stay strong.
As far as the work me and my brother are doing, you all know that we do a podcast called Twin Trouble, you could check us out at twintrouble.net. As you all might know, I have several conditions of supervised release, which involves stuff about association with civil disobedience and a few of the things that make my involvement and stuff post a release is going to be difficult to navigate these conditions. Nevertheless, the spirit of resistance is there. I’m currently finding ways to become involved in a way that’s meaningful and safe for both myself and others. But so yeah, check us out on the podcast twintrouble.net we got a few other projects in the works, but I just want to show my appreciation to everybody who has had both me and my brothers back up until this point and the future is unwritten. So who knows what might come next.
IDOC Watch, Leon Benson and Abolitionist Organizing in Indiana
First, you’ll hear from Koby Bluitt talking about her father, Leon Benson and his struggle for release after 23 years in prison, 10 of which was in solitary confinement, for a murder charge in 1998 that he has consistently claimed to have not committed. More on Leon at freeleonbenson.org or leonbenson-freeleonbenson on facebook. The Mass Release & Clemency for Leon rally in Indianapolis is July 25th at Tarkington Park. [00:04:44]
Then, you’ll hear from Landis Reyonolds, a founder of IDOC Watch currently held in Westville Correctional Institution and who’s been in since he was a juvenile, and Ray, an outside organizer with the South Bend, Indiana chapter of IDOC Watch. They talk about their work to start study groups in prison, promote Prison Lives Matter, support jailhouse lawyers and recruit outside lawyers through the Prison Legal Support Network alongside the NLG and more. More info at IDOCWatch.Org or find them on twitter, instagram or fakebook. You can support them via their patreon as well! [00:38:08]
Join abolitionists on June 5th, 2021 at Chimborazo Park from 2-6pm for an Aboliton Assembly & BBQ, hosted by the VA Prison Abolition Collective and Prison Lives Matter. You can find that and more events across Turtle Island at ItsGoingDown’s Upcoming Events page.
Drop The Charges in PDX
The Portland Anti-Repression Defense League, or PADL, is launching a campaign to demand all charges from the 2020 BLM protests get dropped. You can find a link to the press release in the One Year Rebellion post of the IGD column, In Contempt. And you can contact the organizers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
International Solidarity with Palestinians
Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement and the Muslim-Jewish Anti-Fascist Front have called for weeks of actions in support of the people of Palestine under the title “International Solidarity Is The Weapon of the People.” We’d like to remind you that while occupied Palestine is no longer in the news as Hamas and Israel signed a ceasefire:
the everyday brutality of the blockade on Gaza has been going since 2007
Israeli courts, cops, military and settlers continue to displace and ethnically cleanse Palestinian Muslims, Jews, Christians, Atheists and others from the occupied territories as they have since the Nakba began
the US government ok’d more weapons sales to Israel during this recent assault that left dozens of Palestinian adults and children dead, destroyed water treatment, housing, media, medical and other infrastructure
Eric King & CLDC Are Suing BOP
The Civil Liberties Defense Center, on behalf of incarcerated antifascist, vegan and anarchist prisoner Eric King has filed a lawsuit about the ongoing cruelty and torture Eric has faced since he was incarcerated in 2014 for an act of sabotage in solidarity with the then-Uprising in Fergusson, MO, after the brutal murder of Mike Brown, Jr, by police. Eric cannot be abandoned or forgotten, notably since he’s in the crosshairs of the state and white supremacists for his anti-racist and anarchist views. You can find an announcement of the lawsuit at the CLDC website, you can find a great writeup on the situation by Natasha Leonard on The Intercept, and you can hear our interview with Eric and his partner from 2019 at our website.
Skelly of CLE4 In A Halfway House
Joshua “Skelly” Stafford, a part of the Cleveland 4, 4 young anarchist men recruited out of Occupy Cleveland and entrapped by a paid FBI informant into a conspiracy, was released to a halfway house recently. We are excited to see Skelly on his way to full release. Keep an ear out for more details and possible ways to support Skelly post-release.
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Printmatic (Instrumental) by Soul Position from 8 Million Stories
Innocent by Leon Benson / EL BENTLY 448 · MeachThaGod
Stoned Is The Way Of The Walk (instrumental) by Cypress Hill from Cypress Hill
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Koby: Bluitt:My name is Koby: . I’m from Indianapolis, Indiana. I am one of two children of innocent political prisoner Leon Benson. His other child is Leon Bluitt. So that is my younger brother. And I’m here speaking on his behalf and my experience, just want to thank you so much for having me here.
TFSR:Would you tell us about Leon Benson?
Koby: : He has been incarcerated in the state of Indiana for 23 years. So, to rewind, in 1999 he was sentenced to 60 years of which he has maintained his absolute innocence, despite the Indiana justice system’s refusal to grant him justice in its appellate courts. To touch on these different things that we’re trying to get through the appeal courts, they basically were able to convict him of mis-identification by the state sole witness, she changed her statement from the original statement that she had, they had him in custody, they wouldn’t even line him up when they wanted to do an actual lineup for her to be able to identify the person that she claimed that she had seen when she was there. Also, there was a new witness that was actually on the scene, and the testimony was never heard in court. And also, they have been not even accepting his appeals to even reconsider the case, even to reconsider any of the evidence because there’s not even DNA evidence, the sole eyewitness seen, she described him as a dark-skinned male, and he had on a certain amount of clothing. If you guys have ever seen my pops online, or ever checked out his website platforms, like my pops is nowhere near darker complexion. He is a very light, very light brown young man. And also the clothes did not match, the clothes that the actual police had locked him up in, when he was locked up on that night, he didn’t even have the match of the description of the clothing at all.
There was a gentleman who they had got a tip from that actually had a disagreement with my pops. Prior to this crime happening that night, they were able to take his testimony, so-called, and this young gentleman I’m speaking of was someone who was known for using drugs in the area. And this guy basically gave the police a tip, because he was there out of spite to whatever he had going on with my pops. And I guess, of course, they wanted to get my pops anyway due to selling drugs or not that, so… And like I said if you guys heard my pops’ song called Innocent, he talked about how he sold dope. He talked about how he was on the streets trying to make a way for his family, my mom and helping her and everything, and not saying that that’s right. But that’s what he did. And then my pops had a witness who was actually with him that night that never got to speak in the trial, and they wouldn’t even allow him to speak in none of the trials, although he’s ready, willing, open to do it. And there are also other witnesses that did not get to speak on my pops’ behalf. They literally just used this young woman and this other gentleman who was known for using drugs, and he was already on parole, too. It was definitely some mess going on. Maybe a reduced sentence for this young man who actually claimed that he’d seen my pops do it.
Basically, where we are now is my pops has been really trying to get into the appellate courts, and they have refused. He has filed a petition of clemency. This happened back in October of 2020. They finally logged into the system about December of 2020. Within four months in the state of Indiana, they’re supposed to give you a decision on if they’re going to grant it or not. And it’s clearly been more than four months. Despite that, Leon Benson, my pops has demonstrated his humanity, growth, and rehabilitation. For the past seven years, he hasn’t had any misconduct, any write-ups, anything. And he has completed over 50 vocational, therapeutic, spiritual and educational programs, over 50. So he has used his time to really what they think in this criminal justice, incarceration system is supposed to work, people are supposed to get rehabilitated. He really took advantage of all the things that they offer. He is now an asset to society. This is a clear case of rehabilitation versus punishment. Are we going to continue to punish people, even after they have sought redemption from within, they have utilized all the services that are offered within this so-called prison system.
Just a fun fact for those who are listening. Indiana has only granted three clemency petitions since the 70s. Okay, and we are in 2021. And I’m sure there are other people who have sent in applications, and he is not the only one in Indiana who has been wrongly convicted. This is not a unique case. This is tragic when it’s known that it’s prolonged incarceration. And it’s not really to rehabilitate prisoners, we all know incarceration hinders mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. With hopefulness, we are going to basically where his case is now to keep things simple as that he filed for clemency, we’re waiting to hear back. But we also have another kind of good news going on. I don’t know if you guys have heard the Marion County prosecutor’s office, they have a conviction integrity unit. And basically, my pops has sent in an application for him to get his case reviewed. They review all cases suspected of wrongful conviction. They did send back an email to my aunt Valerie and said that they have received the application. So they said within 30 days, we should be hearing back a response. Having the conviction integrity unit review, my pops’ case is a blessing. And it is ideal, because it is the Marion County prosecution office and they have the unique power to exonerate, they have all the evidence, they have all of that to make a very sound decision. And they do have access to all the evidence that was withheld from the 1998 prosecution office when this all began.
TFSR:Another thing that I’ve seen, talking to folks who are behind bars, who’ve been fighting for a change in the sentence, if nothing else, is that during that period of time, because of all of the “tough on crime” culture war stuff that was going on to the US from the Democrats and the Republicans.
TFSR: There were people getting super long convictions. And since then, there have been reforms of the sentencing structures in a lot of states, where people like old-law people like Jason Goudlock, for instance, is one incarcerated activist in Ohio that I’ve spoken to. He’s talked about how the difference between the old-law prisoners, the ones who had the mandatory minimums, who had the 20 to life sentences, or parole as opposed to required release after a certain period of time that younger prisoners have. Not only is that an unfair situation, but that’s also totally political, where someone who is accused of a crime at a certain point… If your pops is innocent, he should be released anyway. I’m not in favor of carcerality and prisons like they exist in our society. But then again, it seems like it’s obviously a sign of the times of when he was convicted, and it wasn’t about him as much as it was about filling a cell, like you said, if people that are being convicted now of crimes that are similar to that are getting less time. It’s okay if you don’t have an answer to this, but is there a discrepancy between convictions currently versus the time when he went in in 1998? Is that any sort of leverage that you can make in the case?
Koby: Yeah, during that time, I don’t know if the listeners are aware of the prison industrial complex. Really seeing what that time looked like, and what it looks like now, and like you said, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, they were really pushing this “tough on crime” kind of thing. And this “tough on crime” attitude within legislatures and just within the drugs, right? A lot of drugs were going on and they were using that as a way of really getting these people who were black and brown and just even lower to middle-class people out of here. During that time, it was definitely more than just the person and the actual so-called crime, it was more of a culture, it was more of a push like “We’re gonna get all these people out of here, they’re a menace to society and they need to go. We’re not even open to hearing innocence. We’re just going to get them out of here”. And it’s a lot I can touch on. Absolutely.
That relates to… as you said, they have minimum sentencing back in the day, it was different things that they had in place. They still have that, right? Even to connect to why… he’s having clemency, we’re pushing for him to have a clemency hearing. And the thing is we may not even be able to participate in this clemency hearing because they’re supposed to let us know at least two weeks in advance, but with it being over four months, he filed in October 2020, and they logged it in their system in December 2020. And it is May 28 of 2021. This is an opportunity where he could have people come in and speak. And that’s something else I’m gathering, I’m gathering organizations here within Indiana that are involved in knowing that prisoners, their lives matter, they need to be present, they need to be here, focusing on rehabilitation versus punishment and all of that, but the thing is I think the system is just sets you up. We may not even be able to be in court to speak on my pops’ behalf, to let the judge know that he has support, to let the judge know he’s not just somebody, that you’re not just letting out a person who could be a menace to society. I don’t even agree with prisons in general, but like, nonetheless, we won’t even have an opportunity, possibly, because it’s so late in the game, they might just literally tell my pops a couple of days before that he’s gonna go to court, and we won’t even have enough time to get together, to be present for him. And they may not even let him know in enough time to let us know. So I definitely think the times that back in the day in the 90s, the 80s, and the 70s. Like there’s an amazing Netflix documentary The 13th just about why people should care if they don’t even have people incarcerated or know someone.
TFSR: Would you share a bit about Leon’s activism inside, his creativity, and the gift that he and others like him continue to share despite the dungeons that they’re kept in?
Koby: Yeah, for what it’s worth, my pops has not spent this time in prison and let it go to waste. He really got into books, he really got into unlearning to relearn about the world around him and culture and religion, and cultivated a new him, he had a lot of time to spare, clearly. I think a lot of people who are incarcerated, not even my pops, they come out with such an amazing, broader perspective on how do you take the pain and turn it into a passion of some sort, how do you take the pain and possibly be able to create a platform for your children to be able to begin, to create some revenue through learning about turning all that they’ve been through and learning how to get creative with it. And what I mean by that is, although, my pops’ body was locked up, although there are other men and women who are incarcerated, and their bodies are physically behind bars, their mind, my pops’ mind was free to roam, as he dedicated himself to writing powerful poetry and music and helping to create motivational and educational programs to benefit his other fellow comrades from the inside. He has also worked closely with community activists to push for statewide prison reform, to build a system that truly treats every citizen equally.
My pops has been a key part of forming and running several programs in prison meant to create a better system for others. So I want to mention that he was chosen to be a mentor for the staff that created the band of brothers. And this band of brothers basically taught realistic views of masculinity and help individuals to become better members of their families and communities. My pops has really gotten to the healing point that they so-called push for in prisons, he really got into that, but he created that with other individuals that he was locked up with, and they created that community with each other. And, he is a mentor to other men who are in there for different reasons. And he was tasked with facilitating this group and other group discussions and using his unique perspective to make sure that everyone got the most out of the program.
My pops has been not only a father, he was a brother, he was a friend of his community. My pops is from Flint, Michigan. And he came to Indiana in 1995 and was sentenced to 60 years to life by 1999. He wasn’t even here this long, he’s not even from here, he came down here to help his uncle with his painting business, and to help them do home renovations. But nonetheless, my pops has really taken all his pain and turned it into a passion. Through his music, you hear his pain, but you hear his liberation, you hear his never dying, ending faith, that his music and his art and his poetry really speaks for itself. Some other things he’s been involved in is that he was chosen to be council praise team member and sermon group leader for the congregation of Yahweh, and basically a Hebrew spiritual, cultural community.
My pops is very spiritual, he is not religious, and he speaks about spirituality. That’s what we need to be going towards because we all know religion is a social creative construct. My pops spent 10 years in solitary confinement, where people are known to kill themselves, I don’t think there are any windows in there, it’s literally the size of a bathroom or even smaller, and 10 years in there. I mean, the man has amazing strength. And this is why when you hear his song Innocence, when you hear his songTND Truth Never Dies as long as we discover it, he created most of his art being in the shoe, being in solitary confinement. And so, Leon’s commitment to spiritual betterment has won him praise and respect from his peers.
And even from the people inside, and also, Leon became a demand educator, developing a course called The Streets Don’t Love You Back, where he educated hundreds of participants about the perils of street life, and how to escape and find your higher purpose. We know a lot of our men end up going to the streets, not because they “Oh, yeah, sign me up, I want to go, I want to get into things that could possibly get me killed or sent to prison for life”. No, they get into these things because within their environments, there are little to no options, especially coming from a single-parent home. My pops never met his father. And this is something unique for me. I didn’t know my biological father. I didn’t meet him until I was 16 years old. The reason why I’m here today is that my pops stepped up with my mom and said that he would help raise me. And he said he would be my father. Because he never had his father. My pops had character before he went in. Yes, my pops sold drugs, but he did it because that was one of the very few options that he had to actually provide for his family outside of the option that he came down to Indiana to do when that wasn’t working.
As I said, he taught an education course in prison called The Streets Don’t Love You Back and he educated other men who are in prison because of these things. He became a very gifted public speaker delivering over 300 speeches that could be inspirational, comical, tragic, or uplifting, all at the same time. My pops is very artistically inclined. While in prison, it allowed my pops to raise his creativity to new heights. He studied theater, Shakespeare in particular. He took part in several productions. He developed another program called Poetic Justice, in which he helped his fellow inmates to express themselves in words while learning about poem structures, style, and performance. Really turning all the BS and all the things that they put him through, he was able to make it because he was able to find meaning within all of this and is still finding it.
He’s also published several poems, and also several books that have even been stolen. What I mean by stolen is that there are books that he actually had produced and came out with, but they were stolen by different people who actually published them and actually did the legal work behind them. He doesn’t even own that material anymore. It’s just really crazy, but that’s never stopped him. He’s still going on, still creating, he actually has an album coming out called Innocent Born Guilty. And that will be towards either late July or August. He’s done a lot on the inside and has been a part of what prison is supposed to do, to so-called rehabilitate. But once you rehabilitate, then what? Do you still gotta pay? That’s where we are now. It’s been seven years that my pops has had any write-ups and any violations and as anyone knows, prison is a jungle. It may not be you involved in some mess, it might be somebody else, your cellmate, the guards are corrupt. There’s just so much that could happen but for him to be solid that long especially he’s in there wrongly convicted, so he could have really lost his mind and really snapped and crackled and popped. But he’s been really strong. His strength is so admiring for these past 23 years.
TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about the Mass Release campaign? And how does it relate to the efforts to gain clemency for your pops?
Koby: I am actually working with IDOCWatch, an amazing organization. They have a chapter here in Indianapolis, Indiana. And basically, they have four things that they are working on within this Mass Release campaign, they’re working on actually holding the Indiana Department of Corrections accountable. We need to release some people, we need to release them all because people are not getting rehabilitated through this kind of system. And even when they’re rehabilitated, so-called, they shouldn’t have to sit and die in these prisons without their family and those other things. So there are four topics that are connected to the Mass Release campaign. One is compassionate release, and this is the release of the aging people campaign. The second is clemency. And my pops is representing this portion of the four topics that they are going to touch on within the Mass Release campaign, and also being able to get Direct Relief. That’s the second one. And the third point that they’re connecting with the Mass Release campaign is that when their so-called discipline and written up, people are getting their good time taken away. You can get time added to your sentence, really crazy things. And then the fourth one is that some people are getting sent back for technical violations. And literally, they have added like five to ten years on to their sentence. Even though they have good time, even though they’ve been solid for the last couple of years, if they have one violation or one behavior misconduct, they will add time. It’s designed to keep people in, it’s not designed for rehabilitation. With this mass release we must release them all and let’s rehabilitate them, release them all, and let’s actually create programs. As you guys know, if you don’t even have a member of your family incarcerated, our tax money, our tax dollars are going to build these prisons, we can put this money back into reconstructing some rehabilitations, get some social works out there, get some psychologists out there, therapy, we need it. But they’re focused on keeping people in. So with this Mass Release campaign and my pops, really calling on all those to stand in solidarity and for the state of Indiana to begin to reevaluate the mass utilization of the Indiana Department of Corrections. Even across the country, not even Indiana, but just other departments of corrections. They need to reevaluate this mass incarceration.
TFSR: What might you say to folks on the outside who don’t know that they know anyone in the carceral system, or don’t think that they have this vested interest in abolition about your dad’s case and about the mass release campaign?
Koby: We are all witnessing what is going on. People are getting screwed from different ends, to be very transparent, to be very frank, even just outside of mass incarceration, that is happening – our healthcare. There are just different things that are being screwed that if we all come together and stand in solidarity with one another, and it doesn’t have to be because you directly are affected, it is because that you are a part of this Earth and you have to walk the streets of a person who is affected, who is involved. And you have to make sure that that doesn’t mess up what you have going on, that is not deconstruct anything that your children-to-be are going to grow up. We got to think about what kind of world we want to be a part of, what is the change that we want to see. And it’s going to take more than the people who are actually affected by mass incarceration. And maybe you don’t have a father like me who’s been incarcerated. Maybe you have a brother, maybe you have a friend, maybe a friend or a mother who is a single mother because her boyfriend or the father of her children is incarcerated. And now she’s out here having to make ends meet. Now she’s out here making decisions that she wouldn’t have made if she had assistance from the actual father of her child. Now her children are put in spaces with different scenarios that could go left or right because now she has to make it by herself with little to no support. You’re seeing children that are ended up having mental and emotional issues within the school system, that may be sitting next to your child and class. And they may be having behaviors that are they’re acting out in school, or in high school, or maybe they’re in sports, and they’re a little aggressive on the field, and there may be some things that are going on, that you may not even know about, that have to do with their parents being gone incarcerated, that have to do with their parents having health issues, mental health issues, and have to do with their family, be in situations where they did not… the children don’t even have a say, so they don’t even they’re not even cared about. And it’s just that we have to be a part of a world that we want to see.
It’s gonna take all of us, it’s gonna take everybody. You are going to have to choose a side. You got to ask yourself every day: are you doing what you would want the world to look like in the future? Are you a part of the change that you want to see? Or are you remaining silent and being compliant? Because remaining silent and not saying anything and not being involved does not make you better or not. That’s actually a worse offense. Because if you see something, say nothing, then that lets you know that you are in compliance, that you are just as at fault as the people who are doing these things, the systems that are a part of oppression for different people.
And there are different ways. You don’t even have to be standing on the ground, standing in solidarity. Where’s your money going? Where are you donating your money to? Is your money going towards these efforts to get these things off the ground? IDOCWatch, have a Patreon and they have things that people can send in money because they’re actually working with prisoners. Also, they’re connected with Green Star Families, actually helping families be able to… Certain children are not able to connect with their parents. And because they can’t even afford a phone call, they can’t even afford to put money on the books of these incarcerated loved ones, right? We just have to remember: it takes a village to demand change. And we all have to do our part. You don’t have to be on the ground standing in solidarity. You can be redirecting your money. You could be writing letters, you can be reposting this campaign that you’re hearing today. There are ways to be involved. But I would say being silent is definitely not the answer. Your silence lets you and the world around you know where you stand. And if it was you or your loved one, you wouldn’t be silent. We just have to really think about that.
TFSR: So how can people support the efforts to get clemency for Leon Benson? And is there a way that they can follow the campaign?
We’re going to actually have the demonstration on July 25 in Indianapolis, Indiana at Tarkington Park in connection with the Mass Release campaign. This mass demonstration will have guest speakers, it will have poetry, we’re going to have vegan food and ways that you can connect with like-minded individuals and network, and whatever else you want to do with being a part of a mass demonstration, being a part of something.
Also if you guys already are connected with IDOCWatch or you need to, get on them on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/IDOCWATCH/ and also check out his music, google Leon Benson. It’s a lot of information out there, he’s on a lot of different platforms, and see the story for yourself. You don’t have to just take it from my word, you can look up the facts and public information that is on this case, and you can see it for yourself. I encourage you guys to do that. I encourage you guys to support this clemency by seeing what’s next and actually being present for the actual demonstration. But if you’re not able to be present, you can definitely support the fundraiser we’re going to have, we’re going to have a T-shirt and different items that people can purchase. Be on the lookout for that. As I said, the proceeds are going to go to Green Star Families and IDOCWatch, and then half is to Leon Benson and continue the movement that he and I are doing which is Truth Never Dies. TND, that’s the movement that I am constructing for my pops myself and Valerie, which is his sister.
TFSR: Awesome, Koby, thank you so much for this conversation and for all the work that you’re doing, and good luck. I really hope to see your father free soon.
Koby: Yeah, and thank you so much for this opportunity, thank you guys, the listeners for listening and I hope to see you guys soon. I hope you guys you know really start to stand for something and you gonna fall for anything.
Landis: : My name is Landis Reynolds, I’m currently incarcerated in Westville Correctional Facility. I was convicted at age 17 and sentenced to 50 years in prison. I’m now on year 17. While incarcerated, my advocacy and activism began with juvenile justice reform, trying to get them to change some of the laws that they use, with respect to waiving minors to adult court and sentence them to adult time for offenses committed as juveniles. And as I began to study some of the background there and witness some of the horrors that take place in the penal setting. I just started to expand my activism a little bit, study more of the systematic causes and abuses that are perpetrated by the prison industrial complex.
Ray: And I’m Ray, I use they/them pronouns. I’m the PSLN outside facilitator and a member of IDOCWatch in South Bend.
TFSR: So for the listening audience, could you all maybe talk a bit about the IDOCWatch, what it is, how it developed? What motivates it, who it supports and why?
Landis: Okay, so IDOCWatch began rather informally. There were some incarcerated individuals in long-term segregation and in various prisons that reached out to individuals on the outside and began to form friendships and relationships with those individuals. And as those friendships and relationships blossomed, the individuals on the outside were able to see the daily struggle that incarcerated individuals go through in the Indiana Department of Corrections, they were able to see some of the systematic abuses and the violations that go on, and over time, as those friendships and relationships began to blossom. It morphed into what can we do to fix this situation? So, IDOCWatch is essentially a collective to provide assistance for those that are incarcerated, to fight back for their rights and assert themselves. IDOCWatch believes in a prisoner-led abolition. Basically, as we strive and struggle for abolition, we believe that it starts with the individuals that are incarcerated. We have to educate ourselves, we have to take those first steps in the fight towards abolition and asserting our rights. And IDOCWatch has grown exponentially and towardsfurthering those goals.
I’m curious about… with the organizing that y’all have been doing on the inside, how has the Indiana Department of Corrections reacted to prisoner self-advocacy, sharing education, sharing experiences, and building this community, as you say, and friendships?
Landis: They’ve responded in some overt obstruction, some of the obstruction is subversive. Anything that appears to be offenders or prisoners uniting is extremely frowned upon, any type of assistance or attempts to uplift each other is frowned upon. One of the things that we’ve begun to do is form study groups where we can help educate each other politically, assist each other with education, whether it be pursuing a GED, different stuff like that. One thing that we’ve seen at the location where we’re at is anytime a study group is formed, and we began making progress, that there’s a mass movement and the individuals that are taking part in the study group are scattered throughout the facility. You see administrative rules that are enacted where you can receive a conduct violation for studying in a group. Internal advocates, or what’s also known as jailhouse lawyers, can receive a conduct violation for helping to assist other individuals in legal matters. So there’s absolutely a constructive attempt to stop that type of solidarity and prisoner to prisoner assistance.
TFSR: It sounds like a lot of what you’re describing are rules infraction board-type assaults on individuals inside. Have they done anything that would resemble gang-jacketing participation or solidarity or study groups?
Landis: Oh, absolutely. Anything that same as in support of abolition or in support of solidarity, they actually refer to it as a security threat group activity. So when members get together in a study group to help uplift each other, they see that type of unity, even though it’s in furtherance of reformation and rehabilitation, they see that type of unity as a threat to the safety and security of the facility. And they actually can act pretty harshly against it.
TFSR: Ray mentioned the Prison Legal Solidarity Network. I’m wondering if y’all could tell the listening audience a little bit about how that developed and your partnership with the National Lawyers Guild and what the vision is for that?
Landis: Okay, so with PLSN, one of the things we’ve seen historically, is when it comes to any type of movement when individuals are asserting their civil rights, protesting, and things of that nature alone, without more, it is difficult to accomplish the goal. So various members of IDOCWatch, we put our heads together. And we see that in the correctional setting, many constitutional violations go unchallenged, because either there’s an ignorance amongst the prisoner population on how to challenge those constitutional violations, or what we’ve seen in recent years, is a meaningful or willful attempt on behalf of IDOC to keep offenders out of law libraries or make it difficult for them to assert their legal rights. So, with the PLSN we’ve seen an opportunity to not only build a network that provided the necessary resources for offenders to attack their criminal convictions or file lawsuits against systematic abuses within the correctional setting, but we’ve seen it as an opportunity to educate. One of the main pillars and objectives is empowerment. In that, we seize the opportunity to educate the incarcerated on the true motives of the prison industrial complex and the history behind the prison system as apparatus of class warfare and subjugation. We see it as providing the necessary resources to weaponize the very system, they weaponize against our communities, against the prison industrial complex. And it provides an opportunity for us to network and to build those friendships and meaningful relationships to continuously grow and progress towards the ultimate goal.
TFSR: Yeah, that kind of strikes a chord that I’ve been hearing a lot of quotes of, in the last few years, from prisoner organizers, which is I think a mixture of a quote from… I’m not… amazingly versed in George Jackson, but between George Jackson and also Ho Chi Minh, talking about turning the prisons into schools of liberation. When reading up on the Prison Legal Solidarity Network, I also came across the Prison Lives Matter which I’ve also heard referenced by incarcerated activists that I have spoken to. Can you talk a little bit about PLM and how the Prison Legal Solidarity Network engages with it and what that initiative is?
Landis: PLM is an amazing organization that was created in part by one of our members, one of our inside coordinators Shaka Shakur. And basically, it is to shine a light on the fact that just because the person was convicted of a crime doesn’t mean that their life doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a legitimate shot at reformation. The public a lot of times doesn’t understand the factors that condition individuals and set them up to be incarcerated, number one. And number two, a lot of people think that incarceration is conducive to reformation. They believe that when you come to prison, you have the ability to take advantage of programs to reform yourself and to become a productive member of society. But that’s absolutely not the truth. They don’t understand that prisons are absolutely saturated with narcotics. They don’t understand that prisons are ridiculously violent. And that most administrations enforce policies and a culture that reinforces the cycle of addiction and the cycle of violence. And when an individual spends years at a time in these environments, without the opportunity for a meaningful reformation, that the system is essentially manufacturing monsters that they’re returning to these working-class and minority communities. And it creates that cycle of violence and failure and addiction and re-incarceration. And they don’t understand that that was the true meaning of that system.
If you look at the Indiana Department of Corrections, their model isn’t reformation, it isn’t rehabilitation. If you look at their emblem, it says, Employees Efficiency Effectiveness. So they’re utilizing employees to efficiently and effectively incarcerate individuals. It has nothing to do with the reformation, nothing to do with rehabilitation. So Prison Lives Matter was a formation to shine a light on what really goes on behind these walls and to start to put the mechanisms in place, to start to form the relationships and the networks to actually be able to create an environment that’s conducive to rehabilitation and supports what we’re striving for.
TFSR: And while the work that y’all are doing to co-educate and to engage other people that are behind the bars, it seems super important, especially since people are coming in and going and going back in, people have families and communities on the outside. And one of these major dehumanizing methods of the prison system in the United States is to attempt to, despite what it says, break up those connections. It seems like Prison Lives Matters gives an opportunity for people to gain more tools to be able to talk about what they’ve experienced to their loved ones on the outside and re-contextualize the reason that they’re in that place and engage the people on the outside to fight along their side too.
Landis: Absolutely, and what’s disturbing is when you’re incarcerated, those relationships and friendships with your family are already strained because of the distance and the difficulties that come with incarceration. But we’ve seen an effort on the part of the Indiana Department of Corrections to make that even more difficult. So one of the things that they’ve done is they’ve made it harder for offenders to receive snail mail. And one of the reasons for that is they issue began issuing tablets where we can send electronic mail to our families and everything, one more way that they can make money. So what they began to do is, instead of allowing us to receive actual letters, they began copying our letters and making it difficult and limiting the type of mail that your family can send you, they can’t send you actual pictures anymore, to force us to start to use these tablets. Now what we’re seeing, since COVID, is an attack on the contact visitation. One of the most dehumanizing things about incarceration is you don’t have the ability to receive that reassuring touch. And contact visitation, when you’re able to see your family and actually hug another human being, hold their hand, kiss your child, that reminds you of your humanity, that’s a motivation for you to continue to put one foot in front of the other. And here recently, we’ve seen an attack on that.
We believe that, and I’ve heard from a senior official that they’re actually trying to eliminate contact visits in the Indiana prison system and force us to have to utilize the video visitation to see our family. And that’s wrong on so many levels. Number one, not all families have the financial resources to do that. Number two, the Wi-Fi system is ridiculously unreliable. Frequently, one of your family members has scheduled a visit, and they can’t even get through because the Wi-Fi is not up. So as you were saying, maintaining these human connections is really important. And that’s another thing that we’re seeing constructive efforts to obstruct our ability to maintain that contact with those loved ones, our ability to maintain the network with individuals like yourself who support us and support our well-being.
TFSR: It’s a strategy that Departments of Corrections seem to be applying across the country, including at the federal level. It also increases the possibility of surveillance, right? If you’ve got emails shooting back and forth, and you’re paying 50 cents for an E stamp or whatever, through JPay, then suddenly, it’s way easier to run an algorithm to just search for certain key phrases or monitor your relationship with people on the outside.
Landis: Absolutely! One thing that’s particularly scary is for activists, without contact visits, without the ability to utilize snail mail at any time, people that are shining a light on the systematic abuses and oppression, they can cut you off electronically, stop you from being able to send electronic messages, they can stop your video visits. Because the way that it was set up before is they could restrict your visit, they could put you on non-contact visits, but at any time an individual could come up there and make sure that you were okay. But the things that they’re trying to impose now, where they’re making everything electronic, somebody who’s a thorn in the side of a particular administration, they would have no problem whatsoever cutting off all of your contacts with the outside world, and you would literally be at the mercy of that particular administration. So it creates a huge possibility for abuse.
TFSR: And so I guess while you all are working towards PLM as a project to garner more attention and get more support, more understanding on the outside, the Prison Legal Solidarity Network is a tool towards multiplying the number of people that are going to be able to advocate for each other and also build solidarity with each other, to advocate on each other’s behalf, help them through filing these lawsuits, challenging the imposition of this for-profit filtering of people’s real lives and ability to survive.
Landis: So, one thing that we have seen in analyzing history is movements such as this, like I said earlier, require more than simple protesting. In order for us to achieve the things that we want to achieve, we have to start to put the support systems in place to sustain an ongoing movement. One way to proactively counter PRC aggression, and to fulfill certain objectives, such as legal education, political education, the empowerment that we need collectively, was to put this support system in place. We also believe that we have to begin to put other support systems in place to continue to counter some of these moves to further the objectives of the prison industrial complex.
We see, especially at locations like this, where they only provide the minimum amount of education required. Here, under IDOC policy, they’re only allowed to teach English in the classroom. So one thing that I’ve seen is we have a large number of Hispanic immigrants here that can’t speak English. So those individuals aren’t provided books in Spanish, they aren’t provided a translator or individuals that can teach them English, and they’re still expected to be able to get their GED. And what’s even more unfair about the situation is in order to go on to a vocational school or programs like PLUS or other reformative programs, they require GED. So basically, individuals who are immigrants or don’t speak English have to do 100% of their sentence simply based off of a policy. And you see that if you study the policies, the policies aren’t geared towards reformation or reintegrating individuals in society, they’re geared towards keeping individuals here longer.
TFSR: Like handling a surplus population.
Landis: Absolutely. So, that’s two things that the PLSN is looking at right now is we’re looking at how they are deprived of good-time credit. And we’re also looking at the parole system in Indiana, and how they have absolute authority to re-incarcerate individuals at their whim, which is scary. Once an individual does their required sentence and they’re released on parole. If I forgot to report, a change of address, they can send me back to prison for the rest of my sentence.
TFSR: I’d also like to hear a little bit about – I know it’s off topic of the Prison Legal Solidarity Network – but if you could speak a little bit about what your experience with COVID has been in the facilities that you’ve been in, and what vaccination, if any, is happening among the guards, how prisoners feel about vaccines, because I know there’s a lot of hesitancy or distrust in certain facilities around the country.
Landis: Well, at the location I’m at with respect to the vaccine, there’s a huge distrust. We know that historically, prisons have been the place where they’ve done medical experiments, tested experimental medications. So amongst the offender population, there’s distrust for for-profit medical companies like Wexford, who could care less about our physical well-being, their main concern is their bottom line or profits. So very few of the offenders that I know have actually taken advantage of the opportunity to receive the vaccine, and most of them think we all had COVID. So what’s the point in getting vaccinated against COVID, if every person that you know has already had it?
The public has no clue what went on behind these walls during this pandemic. It was terrifying. So when we begin to see news reports about the severity of COVID, how serious it was, there was no meaningful response from the administration whatsoever. And the scary thing is this facility holds more prisoners than any other facility in the state. I just arrived here when the pandemic hit. We have a unit here called ANO where when you’re first transferred from another prison or you come from the reception diagnostic center, you go to that unit first, they assess you, and then they send you to your respective part of the prison you are assigned to. So, the first case was on that unit. And what they did is they tried to keep it hush-hush. They didn’t respond in any meaningful way. Then when we started to hear that they had positive tests in that unit, from what the correctional staff was saying that they instructed officers to stop, if you weren’t assigned to that unit, you weren’t supposed to go to that unit. But we were seeing officers go up to that unit, where they had positive cases, visit with other staff, and then go to other units within the facility. And within a few days, maybe a week, we start seeing individuals start to exhibit the symptoms of COVID. Once itfinished sweeping through the prison like wildfire, then they step in, and they basically quarantine each dorm to their dorm. But they knew that the virus was already within each dorm. So, we weren’t issued masks. When staff was walking around wearing masks if an offender has made his own mask out of whatever materials that he could get, he received a conduct report for it. And then once they finally started to issue masks, at first, I believe those maybe one or two days, medical staff would report to each unit and check to see if guys had symptoms. But after that we didn’t see medical staff for months, there were instances where an offender would be so sick that we would have to threaten to riot to get that offender medical attention. It was a very, very terrifying experience.
TFSR: Sure. Although it sounds like you were describing an instance where maybe someone was transferred in and brought it into the facility as an inmate or as a prisoner, I don’t know if there were any concerns, if you would be aware if the guards had any quarantining going on among them, because they’re coming in and out of the facility, they’re not regulated in the rest of their life, where they’re spending their time, who they’re around, and if they’re masking up outside.
Landis: Exactly. None whatsoever, the guards were pretty much allowed to do what they wanted to do. The only thing that they changed, and this was after there was a ridiculous amount of positive tests, was they started taking the guards’ temperatures coming in. That’s it. And it’s crazy because we read a newspaper article, where the Indiana Department of Correction reported that there were 233 COVID cases, department-wide in every prison in the state of Indiana, they only had 233 people test positive, which is laughable. Because every dorm on the complex that I was in, pretty much everybody had it. There were periods of time where you wouldn’t see an individual for two weeks, and then they would pop back up. And you didn’t know that that person had been in their bed sick that entire time. They tested the dorm underneath the ANO unit. And I believe they had 93 people test positive out of 96. And they stopped testing after that. They wouldn’t test anybody else anymore after that.
TFSR: Yeah, I guess if they reported those numbers, that’s like opening themselves up to a federal injunction or something. They don’t believe in actually being held accountable for anything, let alone for prisoners’ health.
Landis: I’m going to be honest, I believe, because I read some articles on herd immunity. And basically, herd immunity means you let the majority of the population become infected. And basically, that slows… there’s immunity that’s built up on the antibodies. And that basically takes the place of a vaccine, and that’s what I’ve seen take place here. What they did, is they restricted the movement, and they just let the vaccine run its course to the detriment of the people that were incarcerated here.
TFSR: If we don’t know the long-term effects of what the vaccines will do, and there have been like small examples of the negative impacts on a few, a 100th of a percent of the population that’s been vaccinated. But definitely, we’re already seeing the long-term impacts on the cheaper version of herd immunity, which is just let everyone get infected.
Landis, you talked about how you’ve been in for 17 years, you came in as a juvenile, correct?
Landis: Yes, sir.
TFSR: And you’ve been an advocate around shifts and changes in juvenile incarceration in Indiana. If you could talk a little bit about what some of that work looks like and what maybe people on the outside don’t realize why there need to be major shifts in the way that people consider criminality, incarceration, and juvenile health.
Landis: The first thing that people don’t consider is that minors are physiologically incapable of making an adult decision. So anytime a minor is waived to adult court and sentenced to adult time for a decision they made when they were incapable of thinking as an adult, in and of itself, contradicts justice. For me, after I was convicted, I was at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, the most violent prison in the state of Indiana. I was placed in a dorm called K-dorm, it was a program called YIA, youth incarcerated as adults. And basically, it was like Lord of the Flies in there, it was violent. There was a lot of misconduct on the part of staff towards juvenile offenders, we really didn’t have any rehabilitative resources to speak of. And one thing that I’ve always seen is that if there’s any renewable resource, here, within the last 10-20 years, as a society, spoken a lot about renewable resources, if there’s any renewable resource, it is our children. If anybody is capable of reformation and redemption, it’s a child. But we’re the only country in the world where a child can commit a crime. And one thing that really isn’t taken into consideration is the background that this child came from, what motivations caused this child to commit this crime.
Not understanding that background, not understanding the inability to think at the level necessary, and sentencing a child to considerable term in prison goes against what our Constitution is supposed to do. Because here in Indiana, we have Article 1 Section 18 that says the Penal Code shall be founded upon principles of reformation and not vindictive justice. But what’s more vindictive about sending a child to prison where they have a choice between joining a gang and engaging in violent behavior, or being raped, or being robbed, or abused. Basically, when you send a child into this environment, either he has to become a monster to survive, or he has to become a victim. And if reformation is the goal, that makes reformation impossible. So looking towards the initiatives and the things, there is pretty much nothing in place that would allow a child to reform themselves.
TFSR: Thank you for saying that. I really appreciate that. And there’s some audio of you also speaking about your experiences up on the IDOCWatch.org website. Really just spell it out also, and very worth listening to. How can people who were in the listening audience support PLSN and get involved, support PLM, if you can speak to that.
Ray: As far as Prison Lives Matter, you can our focus is incarcerated people and people on the outside. You can reach us at PO Box 9383, Chicago, Illinois 6069. Or you can visit us at supportprisonlives.org. For the Prison Support Legal Network, if you are a jailhouse lawyer or interested in our initiative, you can write to us at PO Box 3322 South Bend, Indiana 46619, or leave us a voicemail at 423-281-5009 with your name, DOC number, and a brief introduction and any legal experience or training that you may have, and we will contact you.
If you are a lawyer in Indiana, a paralegal law student, abolitionist-minded with a little bit of legal expertise, we’d love to have you onboard as well in our external committee, and you can email me directly. That’s Ray at email@example.com.
TFSR: Ray gave us a little bit of information about how outside people can get involved with or find out more about PLSN and PLM. The website for IDOCWatch, or it has a reference to support for the demands of the 2018 national prison strike. About a month ago, I got to speak with someone from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak about the Shut Them Down 2021 initiative. And I’m not sure if you’re aware of this initiative, if either you as a member of IDOCWatch, or you as an individual, have any words for the audience about that call out for people to come together around the theme of abolition and engage with juvenile facilities, ICE facilities, BOP, local DOC, whatever and challenge them and educate each other.
Landis: With respect to this specific initiative, I haven’t really had an opportunity to read up on it or anything like that. But one thing that I can say is, without unity, we’re not going to make it anywhere. Every year, I see our rights eroded, I see the abuses become more blazing and more sadistic. But unless individuals come together and make up their minds that meaningful change is the only thing that they’ll settle for, things are only going to continue to get worse.
TFSR: I didn’t have any more questions that I had scripted out. So is there anything that we didn’t talk about? Or that I didn’t ask about that you want to be asked about or that you want to just riff on?
Landis: I don’t know, Ray might have some stuff. The only thing that I wanted to touch bases on is some of the long-term goals for PLSN. Because as a mechanism of genocide, the prison system is just one component. I think that people don’t really see things like public defender agencies as mechanisms of genocide or tools of the prison industrial complex. And what we’re doing is we’re developing some future goals and objectives and strategies for how we can continue to combat the prison industrial complex, not just in the prison setting, but on the street. So one of the things that we’ve started to develop is what we call the Indiana Criminal Representation branch, where most public defender agencies blame their inability to adequately defend defendants on the number of cases that they have. So, I believe that one of the strategies that we can utilize in fighting against the public defender agencies being able to feed working-class and minority individuals as to this horrible system, is by creating our own mechanisms for criminal defense, things like the PLSN, where we have professionals, we have lawyers and paralegals and jailhouse lawyers come together, and law students, and pooling resources to effectively provide that legal support.
If we start to put these mechanisms into place prior to incarceration, I believe we can really carve them out of individuals that are fed into the system and save a lot of lives. Another initiative that we’re looking at is non-profit bail bonds. In recent years, we’ve seen a movement for bail reform, because we know that the odds of an individual receiving an unfavorable outcome to their criminal case is a lot higher when they fight their case from behind bars. And that’s one of the strategies that they use for working-class minority individuals is they keep you locked up. And a lot of times the lack of these resources and these public defenders that either won’t or can’t perform their job effectively assist in feeding the prison industrial complex. If we could come up with mechanisms to where we can assist minority and working-class people in getting out of jail so they can find their cases on the street and start to implement some community-building with those programs. So for the individuals that take part in the indigent criminal representation, or non-profit bail bonds, where they’re actively doing community service, going to school, taking part in political agitation, assisting in initiatives like the PLSN, where they’re actively helping members of their community understand what the prison industrial complex is perpetrating against our communities. And further our goal of abolition.
TFSR: Ray, did you have anything to add to this conversation? I think this would be a good place probably for us to start wrapping up.
Ray: I think that what Landis said above and beyond covered things that I wanted to talk about, and that are call-outs that I mentioned, our buffer inside and outside, you mentioned that it was heard outside, somebody they’re in contact with that is in Indiana that is interested in being a jailhouse lawyer or being trained, contact us.
TFSR: How can people follow IDOCWatch?
Ray: You can find us on Facebook and Twitter, both with IDOCWatch.
TFSR: Landis, are you cool with people reaching out to you? And is it okay, do you have a preference of JPay male or I guess what remains is snail mail?
Landis: However they’d like to reach out, I’m definitely interested in sharing my story and participating with any organization where I can help further the goals of abolition or assist anybody who’s going through what I’ve been through or is going to go through what I’ve been through. In any way that I can help anybody, I’m willing to. You can reach out to me through GTL by downloading the Connect Network app or through snail mail. My name is Landis Reynolds, DOC number 157028, and I’m located at Westville Correctional Facility in Westville, Indiana.
TFSR: Thank you, all of you for taking the time and helping to make this conversation happen. I really appreciate it.
Colectivo Subversión on Protest in Colombia and Global Battles for Dignity
This week on the show we are pleased to present an interview with María Kamila, who is a teacher and a popular journalist who works with the anarchist Colombian journalism and counter-information collective in Bogotácalled Subversión. We originally reached out to talk about the current wave of protests and riots in Colombia, and this interview covers many topics, ranging from a historical contextualization of the current moment, who are on the front lines of the protests, Indigenous solidarity with anarchist accomplices via the Minga – which is a pre-colonial term for collaboration, meeting or communal action – , and many more topics.
Much thanks to our comrades at Radio Kurruf, doing anarchist media in the Biobío bio-region of so-called Chile in occupied Wallmapu, for putting us into touch with Subversión.
Maria: Thank you, pretty much for this space, I have to really say that it’s pretty important to be here. So well, my name is Maria Camila. I’m a teacher. And I am also a popular journalist that is part of a collective called subversión. Let’s say our main job is trying to communicate from some other points of view.
TFSR: Do you have… Or could you speak a little bit more about your collective Subversión? How did this group begin and what is what is more about the work that you do?
Maria: Yes, of course. Well, first, the group started in 2015 as an organization close to the anarchist student group, or here in Colombia. Let’s say that these books started with the need to confront the state propaganda… Right? Government, media, and all those kind of information they gave us as people. So let’s say that we saw the need to dispute some truths that were broadcast on television and social networks. And we try to speak a little bit about the work of people, right? How were they dynamics, for example, in the neighborhoods? How the student movement was doing in that time? So let’s say now we’re trying to connect and link every single kind of struggles we have been doing. So for example: we link with the communities of Cuaca and CRIC (the Regional Indigenous Council of the Cauca) & Liberacion De La Madre Tierra (Liberation of Mother Earth). We also have anti-prison platforms, we have some art collectives, in terms of graffitis, in terms of music. So let’s say that’s our main purpose.
We also realize maybe that there are very, very few experiences of anarchy or libertarian media and in that minority, we could notice that a large part of them speak or pay more attention on the international work. International work such as Greece, Chile, Mexico, so they beat in focus pretty well in the local reality itself. So we tried to do it. That’s a little summary about it.
TFSR: That’s awesome. I think it’s really cool that it started coming out of the anarchist student movement. That’s really powerful, I think. So just to kind of give a little bit of context about what y’all have been going through this last little while. Could you talk about how the Covid 19 pandemic and maybe more importantly, the government’s response to it affected your ability to organize?
Maria: Okay, well, of course, Covid 19 pandemic lock-downs was pretty shocking for people in general, I’d say. And let’s say that in terms of organization, it’s been quite hard. Because… For example, here in Colombia, we still are facing arbitrary quarantines. And let’s say that the government tries to tell us “Okay, this is for you. This is necessary.” But we already think that it’s not like that, in we could say that these kinds of quarantines are being more pro-exploitation than pro-healthcare maybe. So it’s been really, really hard, obviously, because we have no basic income. There are no relevant money the government has to give us in order to stay home. So basically, you can go out during weekdays. But on weekends, you can’t do it… Because of your health, supposedly. So it’s just having a permission to go out to work. So it’s quite hard and quite difficult, of course.
Let’s say that many spaces that we had, in a presentational way, had to be more into the rituality, we had to transfer those kinds of spaces, some of them got lost, of course. For example: the anti-prison movement, and the anti-prison platforms are not finished, but it stopped. Right, because of the pandemic. I could also say in, I think it should be an advantage. And it’s the resistance from other spaces, for example, social networks, forums, popular schools, because let’s say that education can have these alternative that is mutual. So let’s say that we try to take advantage of it. However, it’s really, really difficult because of time, mostly, most of the companies. I don’t know, they feel like if you’re at home, you have to work every single day. So the schedule you used to have, it’s not the same one, because your boss can call you, I don’t know what 8pm and tell you “Hey, I’m really sorry. But I already know you’re at home. So could you please help me with this?” So let’s say that I don’t know the line we had before going to our job and coming back home… It’s not anymore, because we are working from home. So yeah, I’d say that. That’s a little matter of where we are facing in here.
Also, for example, the control of the spaces, of course, the public and the common places to be, are not anymore places to be. In they are not public anymore. So they are being managed by the government. So they basically decide, and they basically say “Okay, this place, since it is more from the government and for people… Can have tables on the street” But the restaurants… I don’t know, the popular restaurants in the neighborhood… A lot of business that basically are in order to help and are made by popular people, they can’t be opened. So of course, we have these kind of a class issue, right? So it’s been really hard. So yes, that’s a little bit about it.
TFSR: Thank you for talking about that. I think that the COVID 19 pandemic has sort of created a lot of circumstances that the government and the state and the prisons are using to sort of expand their power, like you said, with the bosses calling you at 8pm when you’re supposed to be off at 5 or whatever time to be like, “hey, you’re still at work, because you’re at home.” So you’re always at work. And I think that’s a very dangerous expansion of the state and the prison and the works power, like into our lives, so we never have a break from it.
Maria: Yes. And I think that due to this expansion you were talking about. It’s really, really tough because in some cases… Well, personally I feel in some cases, my bosses are just putting a lot of work… Telling me “Okay, you need to do this and you need to do this” just in order to make you work in that’s it. Like, I don’t know how I could say, but it is like they need to show themselves that you are working. So it’s really difficult mostly, for example, in my case, as a teacher It’s been really hard because you need to create a lot of reports and you need to send them to many people. It’s really, really stressful. So yes, the expansion of power, of course, it’s really tough.
TFSR: Yeah, yeah, I totally agree. I feel like we could talk about that probably for a long time. But we’re here to speak about the ongoing protests in Colombia. But this current situation has been unfolding for some time now. Will you speak about the protests which occurred in 2019 to 2020, in response to police corruption and austerity, among other things?
Maria: Well, I would like to start this answer by saying that during the last 20 years, Colombia has experienced a series of strikes, protests, riots, that have grown through the time, right? So these stages or these riots and these consecutive strikes, has been in response to the criminal policies of the far right government of Uribe, of course, which I don’t know he has had hegemony in the executive branch since 2002. So imagine, and let’s say that the police violence that we have experience in current years or in recent years is a clear example of the doctrine they form the state security forces. In these doctrines about the internal enemy, right, so the people you’re trying to protect, you don’t really have to protect them because they are your enemy. Right? So to this, of course, we need to add the increase in poverty that they have of the population closely to they have rising poverty in leaps in poverty. So they eat once or twice per day if they eat. So of course, there are more than 20 million people who don’t live with dignity under the power of the state.
In regarding 2009, that I consider is the initial stage of the strike that is taking place currently, I would say that the reason for the protest was a dissatisfaction of a large part of the Colombian population with the economic, social, and environmental policies of the government of the President. And as well as the handling that was given to the peace accords, with the FARC with the guerrilla, and of course, these had many consequences, such as murder of social leaders, where you can find peace and indigenous people reinserted ex-guerrillas in of course, the corruption within the Colombian government. I mean, Colombia is one of the most corrupt countries you can find around the world, not only Latin America, but the world. So I think it would also be important, you mentioned in historical key maybe, that the mobilizations or the riots and strikes of 2019 and 2020 have previous situations in the student strike of 2018. In the agrarian strikes of 2015, and 2010, which leads us to talk about the student movement of 2011, called MANE, or Mesa Anti-Nacional Estudiantil.
So, I could say that these information is really important, because we can notice that the government has done nothing for trying to fix what they need to fix. So, strikes that happened previously or that is happening right now. It’s just like a chain. I imagine, since the poverty is a chain since discrimination is a chain and poverty. Well, we also need to react that way. So we also need to say “Hey, this is not good. This is enough!” So we need to do something. So… Yes.
TFSR: It seems like Colombia is experiencing what a lot of places are experiencing, which is a rise in far right, fascist governments and also paralleled with just like increasing austerity. I understand like, the Colombian people are living underneath a really oppressive tax law that maybe we’ll talk about a little bit later. But yeah, thank you for going through the progression of you know, riots and strikes and student movements to sort of set the stage for the things that happened later. So like you mentioned, there have been other protests and riots in response to murders by police since 2019. Would you speak about these kinds of and how they sort of lead into what is currently happening?
Maria: Let’s say, related to this topic, we could talk a little about the historic overview of the deeds done by Policia Nacional and ESMAD (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios/Mobile Anti-Riot Squad) that start with the murder of Nicolas Nadir around 15 or 16 years ago. Nico was a teenager who was killed in the working riots the May 1 manifestations. So we could start from there. We could also mention Oscar Salas, Dilan Cruz, among others. And something to highlight here is that the collective memory has been a result of these events. For example, in related to 2019 2020, the police massacre that occurred on September 4th, 9th, and 10th has in the neighborhoods where these events took place. So the friends and relatives of the victims have organized themselves in several organizations to be able to demand for justice denounce the criminality of the state and the police. And it’s quite sad, because so far, we haven’t known the response even in the command lines of those days. I mean, we have no idea who ordered these kinds of crimes. And related to these, a group of graffiti artists and street artists has also been organized to commemorate every single month by making some murals in the city, denouncing the massacre and making memory of the people who are not with us anymore.
I think it is also important to talk about street action itself. Bringing the confrontation to the neighborhoods, it’s a new paradigm in recent history of the urban level that has no correlation since the 77 Strike hitting Colombia. Of course we need to speak a lot about in a historical way and the history about Colombia, because now the discontent of the jungle people who suffer harassment by the police. And of course, in that sense, although the actions have denoted in specific circumstances, such as the murder of Javier Ordoñez or the rapes and violence based on gender, at the end, we are involved in confrontations of historical roots. Right? That establish in of course, as I told you before, we are aware that the authority is our enemy. Right? No matter how they try to sell us the speech of “peace and dialogue, we’re just here to help you and protect you.” It’s not like that. And we can try to talk about this from the facts that happened and that you mentioned.
Of course, I mean, police abuse in Colombia is something really, really sad and frustrating, because, of course, they are quite like an arm for the government. So it’s, I mean, they are pretty bloody. They don’t care about tasering pregnant women, old people, they don’t care about it. So you already know that when ESMAD arrives in a protest, it’s going to be a riot. Right? So you need to either run or face what you need to face in that time.
TFSR: Yeah, that sounds really terrifying. And, you know, of course police violence is a sort of truth wherever there are police. But you mentioned… And this wasn’t one of the questions that I sent to you. But you did mention the disarmament of the FARC. And I understand that the FARC isn’t…. It has its problems, to be sure, very many of them. But I’m wondering what you think about how the disarmament and persecution of former FARC members has contributed to the current oppression of far left and anarchist organizing currently? If that makes any sense?
Maria: Yeah, yeah. I think the Actually, we have a book, whose name is “Reflexiones Libertarias Sobre El Acuerdo De Paz en Colombia.” And it is something in English like “Libertarian Reflections about Accord Peace or Agreement Peace” let’s say that since we stood into an anarchist position, we could say that democracy has always had a better place to be, right? And of course is related to the power. So we didn’t predict what was going to happen related to the persecution and all those deals. But let’s say that the government has not been clear, has not done anything about these kinds of agreements in terms of… For example, trying to give the peasants back his/her lands, his farms. I could say that this is not new, at least in Colombia. It has happened for twice maybe.
So for example,when we talk about 19th of April Movement, it happened the same. They did a peace agreement, a and they said okay, we’re not going to be armed anymore. We’re going to try to solve this conflict in the dialogue and all those deals. In some of them were murdered. Right? Carlos Pizarro Leongómez, for example, was murdered a few days later. So I’d say it’s something that we expected. Of course, we didn’t want to happen. But it was something that yes, we expected.
TFSR: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, sadly. Would you speak about the current protests and what led to them? We would also love to hear about who is on the front lines or Primera Linea. And what does this say about them and say about the general nature of the protests?
Maria: Yeah, of course. Well, first, as I told you before, the strikes this year are the continuation of the strikes that we experienced at the end of 2009 and in the beginning of 2020, we stopped those strikes because of pandemic and because of covid 19. In first the National Strike Committee, that includes retired organizations, some transport, there’s basins in the public… Colombian teachers have insisted in creating a plan to fight against the reforms that the government of Iván Duque has proposed since the beginning of his government, such as health reform, education reform, and now the tax reform. And obviously this committee doesn’t represent people. This committee is led by maybe the bureaucracy and some political parties that are looking for consolidating their electoral power for next year elections. And fortunately the demands of the committee have been overcome by the people who are confronting the police, and is much in the street. And the population that has been in the streets wants Duque to quit basically, in I would say, we could make it out since two ministers and a police captain have already resigned. This is specifically started with La Reforma Tributaria without him.
However, of course, it was not our main purpose. We could achieve that these reform couldn’t achieve in the congress and the number of votes they needed to do it. But we are also trying to establish the power from the strike, right? Not like the revolution we already know. But it’s really important for example, in related to the committee, the strike committee. There are no young people. All of them are old men and old women who don’t know what we need, what university people need, what a teenagers need, what children need, because they don’t really care. Right? They are looking for a power in the future.
So yes, that’s basically what happened. There was also something that produced the anger of the people. It was something that Alberto Carrasquilla Barrera said. Carrasquilla was the Minister of Finance. The Canasta Familia, I don’t really know how to say that in English. And these months, a journalist asked him how much a basket of eggs was? And he said, “10 dollars and 8 cents.” No, my God! That is like a half dollar maybe. So imagine, of course, the people say “What!? That’s not possible!” So if the person that it’s supposed to be in charge of telling the people how much we should and we can pay for food or services? Well, we need to do something in that. That was the last situation we accept.
So people started to say, “No way, this is not gonna be possible. You can’t do that.” Because you don’t really know how the real situation needs. For example, I couldn’t go out on April 28. But my mom said, okay, we need to support the people who are on the street. So you could walk through the neighborhood, and you could see some ads, maybe or some poster saying, “No to the Reforma Tributaria!” I don’t know, for example in my house, we wrote “We love beans. This family loves eating beans. But without Ivan.” So let’s say that the creativity and the union that this strike has been developing, it’s been amazing because not only are they the same people who are on the streets, there are not only university people. There are also school people, there are also private teachers. There are also people who are in charge of trading, people who have also suffered the pandemic, in that are aware of these crazies we are going to face if we don’t change what they want to do.
And I almost forgot it. Related to the first line… The first line has been made up mostly of young people from the popular neighborhoods in the periphery. And it’s quite shocked, because recently, we have seen the formation of the front lines of mothers who have been suffered political abuse or that they have just lost his or her children in this strike. So it’s like a fresh line being made by mothers. And I would say that, we also believe that the first line has been constituted by indigenous people who is made up of the indigenous guard or Minga. Let’s say that these kind of people, they are an autonomous group of indigenous, they have a lot of processes. And they have been in the cities and they have faced police, and ESMAD in the riots.
And I guess we could talk a little bit about the boom of the first line that has been built here in Colombia. It’s thanks to the Chilean experience, where the creation of these fronts was fundamental to face the state violence in the streets. And regarding the first line, it is worth mentioning the work of Black Flags, which is a first line that is anarchist. They mostly help in Medellín and thanks to the social media, they have helped other cities to share the abuse. And the violence made by my the police and that ESMAD also has committed. So let’s say that this first line has being really really important.
It has a disadvantage that maybe we already knew that was going to happen and it was related to the stereotype. Right? So these kinds of guys are there because they are vandals, they steal the city, they don’t do anything here in Colombia. There is sort of a like a sort of, like a saying really, really common into the right wing people. And it’s thats the people who protest its because we want every single thing for free. So yeah, it’s funny, quieren todo regala. So, yes. Let’s say that the front line has suffered, of course, this stigmatization. But they had faced in a pretty good way in they had, I don’t know, they had showed us that they are really brave in that they are not just fighting for fighting, right? They are fighting because they already know what they are fighting for. So education, basically, for eating three times at least a day, for having a job, for having a life that allows to say to you that they have dignity, right? So yes, it’s been really interesting.
Here in Bogota, the main first line is in Portal de las Americas, that is on the south. And of course, this area of the city is forgotten by the government. So the government that just because of having their TransMilenio, or public transportation, they were going to have a better life. But of course, we know it’s not like that. So yes, it’s been amazing. It’s been really, really nice… That job, and mostly because they also have education spaces, maybe. So they discuss about the situation, they say, “Okay, here in this neighborhood, we need this and this, so we need to make people know why we are here and what we need.” So let’s say it’s a really, really complete and connected struggle that they have done.
TFSR: Thank you for going through that it’s sounds like so dynamic and vibrant. And the international media has been seeing a lot of sort of the violence of the police, in places where the strikes and the riots are most intense and horrifying stuff, terrifying police activity and violence. But I think it’s also really good to keep in mind that, you know, there’s really beautiful things that can happen as well, in situations like this. And that sounds like a really amazing people coming together and, you know, struggling towards something together. I’m also really interested in your suggestion to talk about the Assembleas Barriales, which are neighborhood assemblies, which have been forming during these moments of riot. Will you speak about this, and how’s it been doing anarchist organizing throughout these efforts?
Maria: Let’s say that understanding that this strike has been as organic as it has been necessary, because most of the people didn’t expect to last the days it is lasting in it is really important trying to understand that it’s really organic, because these allow us to assume the need for political and historical formation of the protesters. So with these purpose the neighborhood’s assemblies have arisen in to try to create spaces for discussion, information and it’s a crucial execution of the strike from the neighborhoods. As I told you, it’s not the student movement who is in charge of it, or who is leading this process. It’s people who are mostly young people of the neighborhoods.
So of course, the historical political education, it’s quite important. So that’s what Assembleas Barriales are for. In with this purpose the neighborhood has started to create little groups and they have created some instructions, let’s say so for example: I don’t know there are people who are in charge of collecting food. The other people are going to be in charge of keeping everything safe in all those deals, in artistic days, maybe have been seen I don’t know, there are so many pictures about town cities with anti-Álvaro-Uribe slogans. So that’s a result of the discussions and the debates that are in the neighborhoods. Okay, here we have a political position and we don’t want Uribe here. So they have painted the walls with this, they have painted the highways with this. And, of course, the tributes to the big themes in the in the strike. And there had also had a lot of artistic shows and artistic masterpiece around the city.
And let’s say that due to the police abuse, training about human rights has been mandatory. What to do in case of an arbitrary detention. And of course, we as a collective or as a contra-information collective, the support has been attained in these spaces in trying to commit communicate before, during and after, these assembleas happen. And I also think is really important to mention that the participation of the anarchism as a movement, we already know that is marginal because of its nature. And maybe we could relate the anarchist movement into the efforts of collectives and individuals in terms of education, right? We could also mention the community organization. So they are also based in horizontal structures and they are rotating responsibilities. Of course, they need to have a self management of the spaces. Let’s say that we could relate these kind of practices and these kind of routines from and since the libertarian movement, taking into account the autonomy and the self action we need to have, of course. Because trying to make people realize we don’t need a leader in order to make good things and in order to make things work.
TFSR: Yeah, that all sounds, you know, also really amazing. And I could imagine it being like perhaps a bit chaotic, to be organizing as anarchists and doing any kind of sort of collective process in the middle of like, popular street movement going on, I think we can all sort of relate to that, from personal experience, to varying degrees. So it sounds like people are holding it down, which is really amazing.
Maria: Yeah, totally and these kinds of meetings and these kinds of assembleas has also allowed and acknowledge about the people who were before protest. So of course, we said, “Okay! Right, you’re now facing this. But do you remember in 2019 when you saw or watched on the news, that students have been debating and have been on the streets? Remember?” So it’s been really interesting, because, of course, it’s, I don’t know if respect is a real word, but every single person that attends to this kind of dynamics, has been aware of the social, of the matter and the importance of the social movement.
TFSR: I think we can all sort of understand that the world at least the documented world, in so far as you know, we film and you know, we take pictures and stuff, that kind of documentation is becoming perhaps like a bit more riotous or, you know…. There’s been a lot of global like, struggles around the world against fascism. And many have commented on the connected nature of these fights. Fights against fascism, like I said, the police state and settler colonialism all around the world from these extra judicial acts of violence, and also people coming together to fight those acts in Colombia to the State of Israel bombing refugee camps in occupied Palestine to the government mismanagement of COVID in India to the fights against pipelines and unceded indigenous land and so called Canada, and to the battles for Black lives here and the ongoing battles against gendered violence all over the world. Would you speak about this from your own perspective? And has your collective been sort of speaking about this as it’s been unfolding?
Maria: Well, let’s say that we could talk here about the indigenous struggle, the Minga of 2008 their plan for life and struggle, such as the recovery of lives and the historical memory of these people, right? During these days, some of the monuments that are in the cities have suffered an indigenous trial made by the indigenous themselves, causing the demolition, for example of the statues of Sebastián de Belalcázar, of Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada. I could say that it hasn’t happened before and I could say it’s an achievement that indigenous people have had. Mostly because people who live in the city don’t care or don’t know or don’t want to know about this kind of struggle. Because they feel and they think indigenous people are really, really far. Right? So bringing the Minga to the cities, having these kind of spaces with them has allowed us to recognize the real roots we have, right? So of course, a lot of people say, “you know? How are we gonna do that? It was Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, he did this… He bla bla bla.”
I love of these kind of movements and indigenous people because they are also in the mood of teaching. So for example, if you go to them and you tell them “okay! I don’t agree with you.” He or she is going to tell you “okay! Let me explain you.” So they are also in the mood in the teacher mood and this is really necessary nowadays. So I could say that this struggle…. It’s been so hard in so far in terms of time, thanks to them, because they have been with us on the streets, on the committees, in every single way we could discuss and talk about and face this strike. And I definitely have to say that the struggles are connected, because at the end, they express nuance and differences of context, the deep contradictions of capital, the colonies, patriarchy and ecological destruction, for example. And it is not a coincidence, not only in the temporality, but also in the similarities on the demands, repositories of a struggle, the dispute for the lands of the peasants the working rights, maybe citizens are trying to look forward. And this allows us to observe or realize or notice that the peoples are also twins in this common conditions of oppression.
It is a system that operates on a planetary scales, and we need to say that it is sustained by the people that are lead to exploitation of the mass of people for the benefits of opulent and rich minorities. And I also feel really necessary regarding the tranversalities of the struggles that we are talking. We need, of course, to speak of the gender struggles that have been growing, and they have been stronger in the same way. It’s also pretty important to understand that police repression and police oppression is marked by the perception of women’s bodies as the spoils of war.
And in consequence, there is an instrumentalisation of these bodies that we have had. For example, in here during these days, we have had 87 reports of gender violence, including rape, including a girl who committed suicide because she was abused by ESMAD. Abuse and sexual aggression as well as threats and harassment. So of course, these struggles have to be connected. It’s really important. I would say that it’s an advance. If we look a little bit to the past, it is not something that people in the past could achieve. And I think that this strike has a lot to connect and link all struggles we have had through time. So students, workers, indigenous people peasants, teachers, of course public teachers, private teacher, every single person in a same place. And that place, of course, is a struggle place.
TFSR: I think that’s such a good point that you made just now, how police repression is marked by the perception of women’s bodies, and how there are the similarities and demands of striking and rioting people all over the world. Like we can see this in India, we can see this in Palestine. We can see this here in the so called United States. So I think that’s such a good point that you just made. And I’m going to be thinking about that for a while.
Maria: And it’s been pretty cool, because…. Well, cool in terms of political way, in really interesting…. For example, in some protest people riot. I don’t know, fight like Colombia, resist like Palestine, and vote like Chile. So it’s quite interesting how this journey of strikes, has made aware to the people that this is not just in Colombia, this is around the world. And this is around the world in terms of land, in terms of gender abuses, gender violence. It’s also about, of course, exploitation problems and issues. It’s also something related to the Black movement, right? Because every single person, I say, has suffered in some way, maybe a lot of people are not aware of it. But one of the achievements and goals that we have already did, was making people aware of the difficult situation, and the matter that if we don’t change this, it is going to be worse. With taxes, with violence, with insecurity, with a lot of deals here.
TFSR: Yes, I think that is very true. So what can listeners do to help support you?
Maria: First of all, be aware of alternative media, such as Subversión, of course… And try to spread all information among people who are fighting to change the world. Try not to believe too much… For example: our national information media channels, because they don’t say the truth, maybe they try to change a lot. I also think joined the act of denunciation and protests in front of the of the embassies and consulates of Colombia. That has helped a lot in terms of international points of view, because they world know what is going on in here. So of course, let’s say that currently, several campaigns are being organized from different organizations to make these actions. So for example, we know that the I.W.W, which is affiliated to the International Confederation of Workers, established a statement in solidarity with the struggle of the people here in Colombia, and they are planning actions of denunciation.
So if you can do it, wonderful. If no, you can share, for example, you can post, you can use the hashtag in all those deals. In terms of money we’re having a collect. Mostly for these first nine made by moms that I already told you. And we’re trying to support the art. So the art collectives are being supported by us. And yet, I would say the most important view should be and could be to spread the information and spread all information that you think it’s useful to other people now.
TFSR: Absolutely. Where can people donate to the collection for Primera Linea and the art collectives?
Maria: We have a PayPal account, which is…. I don’t know how I could send it to you.
TFSR: If you if you want to send it to me, I will publish it in the show notes.
Maria: Okay, perfect. So I’m gonna leave it to you in today’s chat. So that sounds great. Yes, through PayPal, you can donate through there. I guess it’s the easiest way.
TFSR: Maria Camila, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me and talk to me about what’s been going on and for doing… It should be mentioned too, that you did a lot of work to consolidate voices from the collective that you’re a part of to so that they could have a voice in this interview as well. And that takes a lot of work. It’s been really wonderful getting to talk to you and sit down a little bit. Is there anything that we missed in this interview that you want to sort of give voice to in closing, or sort of any last words that you would leave listeners with?
Maria: I really appreciate this space and meeting with you because I think it’s the better way to spread the information and try to make people realize our current situation. So thank you very much. And I think, I don’t know, it was really enough, maybe the interview. I would like to highlight that it’s quite important to the education, maybe? Through this topic. And let’s say that one of the flags maybe they strike has now is make you realize the art has to be political, in that sense. And in that way. It’s like an invitation to listen to, for example: are these support the strike? Listen to some group music that talk about the situation in Colombia? Follow for example, the collectives of the people who are in charge of the murals, of course, follow us! In terms of having you informed about the situation in Colombia, because we are a communicative collective. So yes, I could say that in order to conclude and of course, thank you pretty much.
TFSR: It was amazing. Please see our show notes for further topics that our guests discussed for any reading or research he would like to do based on this interview, including more about the MINA and the Guarda de Cauca and ongoing struggle for indigenous autonomy from the Colombian government and corporations. We will also link to subversión PayPal, through which they are fundraising for much needed medical supplies for people on the front lines of the protests. You can also look forward to a complete written transcript of this episode for reading along, translation purposes, or for sending to a friend at thefinalstrawradio.noblogs.org follow subversión on Instagram @subversión_CC and on Twitter @ccsubversión_
Palestine and Challenging Settler Colonial Imaginaries
This week on the show, we’re airing a portion of our 2018 interview with filmmaker and activist Yousef Natsha about his film about his hometown, Hebron, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. We invite you to check out our full interview with him from March 25, 2018, linked in our show notes and we’re choosing to air this right now because of the flare up in violent evictions, home destruction and the assassination of around 100 Palestinian residents of Gaza by the “Israeli Defense Forces”. [00:10:24]
Then, we’ll be sharing a panel from the 2021 UNC Queer Studies Conference called “No Blank Slates: A Discussion of Utopia, Queer Identity, and Settler Colonialism” featuring occasional Final Straw host, Scott Bransen alongside E. Ornelas and Kai Rajala. This audio first aired on Queercorps, on CKUT radio in Montreal. If you’d like to engage in this project, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org [00:24:05]
No Blank Slates: A Discussion of Utopia, Queer Identity, and Settler Colonialism
Scott Branson, E Ornelas, Kai Rajala
Under the neoliberal regime of multiculturalism, the settler colonial project has relied on the assimilation of certain subaltern communities into its project for the effective dispossession and control of indigenous lands. This discussion will present ideas from a book project we are collaborating on in order to invite conversation around the intersection and tension around ideas of liberation and forms of appropriation and oppression. Our main challenge for radical queers is to rethink the kinds of futures we try to include ourselves in, and how our liberatory work can subtly replay exclusion and erasure. How do neoliberal utopian gay politics perpetuate settler colonial erasure and genocide? How do politics that seek inclusion and representation–in other words assimilation–disavow the work by indigenous self-determination movements, which are also poised on the frontlines of planetary self-defense? The workshop will be divided up into short presentations by each writer, followed by a structured discussion facilitated by the presenters.
The utopian project that underwrote the Canadian/American settler colonial states that still exist today was eventually transmuted into a neoliberal utopian sense of identity. The entire concept of space and self that we inherit is imbued with utopian longing for a time and place that we can fully be ourselves. This kind of rhetoric is largely at play in mainstream identity-based movements, like gay rights. But this longing often works in favor of the regime of violence and dominance perpetrated by the modern nation state. We can see how the attempt at inclusive representation of queer cultures leads to assimilation and appropriation. What gets included in regimes of representation ends up mimicking the norms of straight/cisgender heteronormativity, in terms of class aspirations, behaviors, and family structures. This therefore contributes to systematic erasure of Black and Brown queer folks, who are still the most targeted “identities” for state violence and its civilian deputies. With images of diversity that appeal to bourgeois urban gays, businesses and governments can pinkwash their violence.
A radical queer politics that relies on unquestioned utopian and dystopian visions risks aligning itself with a settler colonial imaginary of terra nullius or “blank slate” space. On the one hand, dystopian and apocalyptic visions perpetuate the unquestioned assumption that a societal collapse is impending, as if the continual degradation of human and more-than-human communities has not already arrived. Particularly dangerous in this assumption is the kind of crisis rhetoric that fosters opportunities for settler colonial sentiments of insecurity and, in the face of this insecurity, assertions of belonging and sovereignty in land and lifeways. Furthermore, visions of radical utopias as-yet-to-be-realized (or, as-yet-to-be-colonized) discount the ongoing presence of Indigenous alternatives to the current settler colonial dystopian reality, and instead preserves a view of geographic and social space as blank and ready to be “improved” with a “new” model.
Here we have a problem of erasure of the oppressions and resistances that have been ongoing in different iterations, in favor of the blank space of the utopian frontier. We argue against these linear progression narratives of societal and environmental collapse which promise to bring about a future idealized world of rainbow-diverse identities. Instead, we propose ways for radical politics, particularly those espoused by non-Indigenous people, to disavow such settler colonial mindsets. There are a few ways to offer a glimpse into the lived realities—what we might still call utopian moments—that make up the non-alienated, revolutionary life: queer and indigenous histories of resistance, rituals and moment of community care and mutual aid, and science fiction revisions of the world. We argue that this other world does in fact exist—has existed and has not stopped existing—if only in the interstices or true moments of communing and inhabiting the land alongside friends and family.
This is not an argument in favor of utopia, but one that seeks to bypass the utopian/dystopian divide. The world we inhabit is clearly dystopian for most, and utopian for some, and in many estimations, constantly on the verge of ending. The disaster scenarios, repeating the puritanical eschatology that helped settle the colonies in America, perpetuates the history of erasure of ways of life that aren’t in fact gunning for that disaster. We still argue that the purpose of dreaming, of envisioning alternatives, is to make action possible today, through recognition of the power we do already hold. Our discussion will interrogate the settler-utopian impulses that get hidden within apparently liberatory movements, such as radical queers and strands of environmentalism, as well as the way these identities and politics are represented in narratives of liberation that rely on the same logic they claim to oppose.
E Ornelas (no pronouns or they/them) is a Feminist Studies PhD candidate in the Department of Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies. As the descendant of a survivor of the Sherman Institute, a Native boarding school in Riverside, California—and therefore robbed of cultural, linguistic, and tribal identity—E’s research interests focus on the continued survivance and futurity of BIPOC communities, particularly through the use of literature. E’s dissertation illuminates community-based, abolitionist-informed, alternative models of redress for gendered, racialized, and colonial violence by analyzing Black and Indigenous speculative fiction. When not on campus, E can be found reading feminist sci-fi, making music, baking vegan sweets, and walking their dog. [00:45:06]
Kai Rajala (pronounced RYE-ah-la) is a queer, nonbinary, white-settler of Finnish and mixed European descent. They are a writer, and an anarchist anti-academic working and living on the unceded territories of the Kanien’kehá:ka peoples on the island colonially referred to as Montréal, and known otherwise as Tiohtià:ke. They are currently pursuing studies as an independent researcher and are interested in sites outside of the university where knowledge production occurs. You can find Kai on twitter at @anarcho_thembo or on instagram at @they4pay. [00:57:28]
Scott Branson is queer trans Jewish anarchist who teaches, writes, translates, and does other things in Western so-called North Carolina. Their translation of Jacques Lesage De la Haye’s The Abolition of Prison is coming out with AK Press this summer. Their translation of Guy Hocquenghem’s second book, Gay Liberation After May 68, is due out next year with Duke University Press. They edited a volume of abolitionist queer writings based on two iterations of the UNC Asheville queer studies conference, due out with PM Press next year. They are currently working on a book on daily anarchism for Pluto Press and researching a book on the institutionalization of queerness in the academy. They also make books of poems and artwork. You can find Scott on Instagram @scottbransonblurredwords or check out sjbranson.com for more of their work or on twitter at @sjbranson1. [00:30:41]
Yousef Natsha: My name is Yousef Natsha, I am from Palestine from a city called Hebron. And Hebron is part of West Bank that’s under that Israeli military occupation. I did start my professional work mainly with human rights organizations on the field and start documenting what my community is facing from the Israeli government. Since that till now I’m doing this awareness for the other communities to know what’s going on in my community. I have been working on it for no less than two years, it is a long process of footaging these terrifying moments.
The documentary mainly focused on human rights violation that’s the Palestinian community is facing from the Israeli military, they are occupying West Bank and Gaza Strip for sure. And when I started the process of making the documentary, I start saying, “should I go to the, you know, the the history part of what has happened and how this is ended up being existed till this moment”, the issue that I ended up going back to the time to like 1917, when like things actually did start, and how the colonization system did begin on Palestine and ended up bleeding into what we’re having right now. So I ended up actually, after a lot of thinking, I ended up just doing it about human rights abuses. And I saw that my community, my family, my friends are not treated as humans. And from there, I ended up just taking my community voice into this documentary to explain the suffering. It took me a while to understand what is actually going on, “Is this normal to face? Should I just live my normal life in terms of just going to the college and finish that and then find, you know, a job to be occupied with all the time, having a family building a house”, and so on.
So it has been a long process for me after the age of 18, specifically, of what I actually have to do, which path I should take. And after a year or so spending it on studying accounting in one of the colleges and Hebron, I just said, “This is not my place, I can’t see myself eight hours sitting behind the desk.” That’s the moment that I ended up pushing that college door with my foot and saying, “I am going down on the ground.” I started filming with my phone. And I didn’t know that these footages would not go anywhere, but at least I felt that I’m doing something for my community. Afterwards, I ended up having a media scholarship. And after that I became more familiar with filming and photography and so on, and I worked with different local radio stations, and international filmmakers, and at the same time journalists. And on the age of 20, I ended up knowing this human rights organization based in Chicago called the Christians Peacemaker team that I did start working with them on the field. And I can say that gives me in some extent, the ability of moving around under the protection of an international organization in some extent, a lot of people had the question of how I was able to take these footages, how I was able to move around soldiers. Some people do have an idea how much it is difficult to be around Israeli military, specifically on the field and documenting these abuses.
I can say that one of the things that did help me first is English. I used English to talk with the soldiers when they come to try to turn me back to not allow me to film I use English because if the Israeli military somehow if I spoke to them in Arabic, which I can say that they can tell from my face, obviously, but at the same time using English that in some extent, let them think of, you know, it seems like he is not Palestinian at least. Does not mean that I have not been facing harassment from the Israeli military. I have been pushed away, being arrested, being interrogated within the work that I have been doing on the ground.
So I can say that the process has been super difficult but at the same time, I did succeed in making my community comfortable and me being around in terms of, you know, if they are facing harassment from the Israeli military, they will say “okay, well let’s call Yousef”. So with the years I ended up having my phone number with my community members and they will give me a call when the Israeli military is making a, you know, house search or a body search for one of the community members in the old city of Hebron, specifically.
So I can say that the footages has been taking during the process of two years or two yearsish but it does not mean that the footage is that I have to it is not repeating itself and happening now. That’s one of the things that people have to take in consideration that “Oh, with this kind of an old footage, why we need to see it?” Well, actually, it is not, it is happening daily. It shows that struggle that the Palestinians are facing in other places. As a Palestinian and a person that grew up in an environment that does not believe in government — for sure, I don’t — seeing the impact of power on my community, for sure, I don’t believe in that. And I am seeing it first as a way of using the suffering for collecting money. And that’s why I feel like I for sure will not believe in any kind of government power that’s mainly using the struggle of my community for funding, for resources and saying that “we’re going to use it for building houses”, and that’s for sure it’s not happening. And a lot of money that has been directed for the Palestinian authority that Palestinians don’t see it. The only thing that we do see is armed Palestinian police, that they don’t have authority on anything, the Israeli government controlling even the Palestinian authority.
In terms of the history about Palestine and what has been sent abroad for the international media about my community struggle. It became super tricky about how we’re going to name this struggle, how we can finish it, how we can focus on a something, you know, a anything, to try to solve this issue. And my community did resist this occupation, we have used different way of resistance to try to take this occupation down. And unfortunately, the international media did play a big role of sending the wrong image, to the extent that the Palestinians being called “terrorists” for whatever we are doing. Us naturally as human beings, we have to resist against a racist armed power to control us. That natural resistance became titled as violent, it became titled as a terrorist act. That’s one of the reasons why I actually focused about human rights and the documentary because unfortunately, that’s the only language that’s being accepted in the international community to talk about the Palestinian suffering and the Palestinian struggle.
And I can say, through the screenings that I had, so far, I have been seeing a lot of people being engaged with the conversation and saying that “yeah, it is completely terrible that Palestinians are not treated as humans”, which to be honest with you I didn’t see that reaction when I just spoke to the people about the struggle itself without showing them a documentary or the language that’s internationally being used. The history is repeating itself, some people will say they are from Saudi Arabia, or from Jordan or from Syria or whatever, I can say that they are Indigenous community.
Other thing that people don’t recognize, sometime when we say Palestinian, they will think that we are just only Muslims, and that’s wrong. The Indigenous Palestinian community are Palestinian Muslims, Palestinians Jews, PalestinianChristians. There is different ways to make a direct action to go marching down the streets, you know, for people to recognize that there is a community, an Indigenous community, that they are suffering from an armed military occupation, and their struggle needs to be ended before the time being too late, as the history have told us about other Indigenous community around the world. About how they have been suffered from their voices not being heared, their resources being taken, their history being being colonized, it is completely a colonization system, an apartheid system, and it needs to be stopped and my dream, really my dream is to see people marching all over the world about this struggle. One of the things that I do keep repeat all the time: first, our fight is not with a religion. Our fight is simply connected with an armed power coming to our houses, to our lands and saying that “it is not yours anymore”. Palestinians refugees, most of them still have keys for their houses. They are still having it. They are still hoping one day they will go back and having the right of being returned.
Scott Branson:I’m Scott Branson, they/them. I live in western North Carolina, and I’ve been part of organizing this conference for this session, this one and the last one, which is where I met my co–presenters, collaborators, E and Kai, and we started working on this project together. I’m a teacher, writer, translator, etc. Just as my background.
E Ornellas: My name is E Ornellas, I prefer E, so no pronouns is great, but they it’s also fine. Yeah, I also met Scott and Kai at the last Queer Studies conference that was in person, and so I’m happy to be back with y’all, but in a digital space. And yeah, I don’t really know what to say about myself. I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota and I currently reside on Ojibwe and Dakota land, although that’s kind of…there’s a really long, complicated history of that, those claims to land. And, you know, it’s now called Duluth, Minnesota. And I have a lot of feelings about land acknowledgments, but I feel like it’s important to at least name — as someone who is not Indigenous to this land, my ancestors were Indigenous to what is now central Mexico, as well as Canada, settlers from Southern Europe — I feel like it’s important, at least to say, you know, as a visitor to this space, whose land I’m on. Yeah, and I think I’ll pause for now and pass to Kai, just in the interest of time, and we can get into more stuff about land acknowledgments and who we are and all that hopefully soon. Pass.
Kai Rajala:All right, thank you E. I’m Kai, they pronouns. I am joining you from Kanienʼkehá꞉kaland, colloquially known as Montreal, also referred to by many as the island of Osheaga. I am originally from unceded Coast Salish territory, in what is commonly known as Vancouver, British Columbia. I met E and Scott at a conference in Asheville a few years ago and I’m happy to still be collaborating with them on this project. I’m a bit of the anti–academic, though I did do a BA in French language and studied with Glen Coulthard at the University of British Columbia in the Indigenous Studies Department. So a lot of my work is very referential to Glen’s work. Yeah, and we’ll talk more about the project.
E: I like that name drop, very jealous of that connection.
K: *laughs* I mean, it’s there, right? So name it.
SB: So we started working together, cuz we had overlapping interests in terms of working on like utopian vision within radical — particularly anarchist,social movement organizing — and the way that utopian ideas are entangled with colonial and settler colonial visions. So we had all done our own sort of work and were trying to figure out how we could collaborate on a larger potential book project, and this, so today is going to be one sort of installation of that ongoing project that we’re building. And we’ve each prepared like a little bit of where we’re coming from, to read. We also talked a little bit, before we open the session, we’re talking about land acknowledgments and I just wanted to also add that like, we’re in a university setting, and part of the stuff that we’re talking about is how the implications of settler colonialism get invisiblized and many of the institutions that we are working within are, you know, have profited off the theft of land grant institutions. We were talking about that a little bit, rightbefore, and land acknowledgments have been used even by these institutions as a way to kind of show some kind of like, performative solidarity that has nothing to do with, like, any material follow up, right? So like, it’s a thing that gets used but it’s also we thought worth acknowledging, you know, that we are not Indigenous to the land that we’re speaking from.
K: So I think what’s interesting to note is our project and actually start out as anything really queer related, we’re all queer, and for the purpose of this conference we decided to shape what we’re working on to fit kind of the lens of Queer Studies and, you know, queer experience. It actually started with a few things. I ran into E and Scott in Atlanta at an anarchist conference two years ago and then that’s kind of where this conversation really began, the ball started rolling. But one of the things that started with was a critique of sustainability politics and the kind of sustainability movement, which I think is like this liberal, kind of like nonviolent politic, which refuses to surrender settler agency or control over territories, and insteadit’s kind of focusing on preserving settlement and attempting to reduce the ecological imprint that the settler State has on the planet. And so you know, it’s kind of naively asking like, “how can we delicately tap the earth of its resources? How can we like politely remove indigenous people from their land? And you know, if the current practice of capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession are destroying the waters? Like, how can we make the colony sustainable?” It started with that. And we’re also looking at ways in which as Scott was mentioning, in the beginning, more radical parts of our settler movements are actually reinforcing the settler state and the colony, and queerness.
EO: My starting point is usually from fiction. You know, I sort of blend maybe some of the more science and climate change stuff that Kai was just talking about, but with like, you know, a science fiction lens, and how like apocalypse, and climate change, and dystopia and utopia show up in speculative. And so that’s sort of my general subject area or interest. But yeah, I will explain shortly, I definitely made it queer for this. But I think generally, kind of radical politics, the whole, and how it takes up a lot of these narratives is what I’m concerned with.
So I’m definitely excited to work on this project. And I am excited to hear also people’s responses or questions as we’re sort of shaping this larger project we’re working on, we would like to make it some sort of tangible thing, a book or whatever out in the world. So feedback is very much encouraged throughout this, so that we can sort of be in conversation and not just like talking or writing at people. I really, very much want to welcome like, yeah, conversation.
SB: Yeah, even maybe inviting, like, collaborators too. Because like, another thing that we’re trying to do is envision projects that aren’t like single author ownership based. So but I guess let’s go into the reading of our prepared statements, and then go into the discussion so we have more time to unpack those things. So I’m going to start out with grounding in in the kind of like, questions about queer movements. I’m going to start reading.
Today’s radical queers are stuck in terms of figuring out how to inherit the legacy of gay liberation over against the more recent legacy of gay rights or assimilation. And I think that this dialectic between liberation and assimilation is a little bit misleading. And from like, retrospect, we can see the cooptation is like the goal. I mean, that’s a kind of pessimistic narrative, but it’s the thing that keeps happening. Often, this stuckness produces a nostaligia for the time of general militancy and rebellion across different groups experiencing domination, a time that ultimately splintered through hierarchy, liberal identitarianism, counterinsurgency, murder, incarceration and incorporation into the dying liberal bourgeois state.
And yet, today we see a proliferation what at least previously were deviant genders and sexualities, especially among younger people, while acknowledging an easier terrain for older people to come out and a culture that replays images of queer criminality, liberationist slogans, and apparent subscription to the radical claims of those movements. And when I said like a “dying bourgeois state”, I don’t mean that in like a good way, because something worse might be coming, right? Um, some kind of neofeudalism or whatever.
Theoretically, a major issue in inheriting this legacy of queer liberation or gay liberation has been how to deal with a liberationist ideology that sees queerness, or more precisely, homosexuality, or even more precisely sex between men, as somehow inherently revolutionary, spelling the eventual doom of cis-hetero patriarchy and racial capitalism. Like if men fuck each other than the world will fall apart. If only for the reason that that efflorescence of public queerness via the movements didn’t actually produce this liberation right — that didn’t happen — but instead various backlashes on public sex and cross class contact over against recognitions of certain rites, we might discard the idea that queerness is radical. Of course, we still would have to contend with the way that HIV AIDS forced gay movements to combat the state and scientific communities for the very lives of those who are dying. But I think we can also get to the understanding of the limits of gay liberation theoretically, simply in the idea of the homosexual.
One version of this is the transgressive or even criminal, that category tends to rely upon the normative for its power. So it can always be absorbed. And this has been talked about by like, lots of people like Bataille or Judith Butler. For us, this absorption has already taken place, because gay now means a specific consumer niche.
Another version of this like paradox inherent in gayness is articulated in the early days of so called queer theory by Eve Sedgwick in her reading of Billy Budd, as what she called “the crucial question of a potentially utopian politics”. And this is what she asks, “Is men’s desire for other men the great preservative of the masculinist hierarchies of Western culture, or is it among the most potent threats against them?” I’ve been, like, sitting with this question for a really long time. For Sedgwick, this ambivalence is tied up with a “definitional incoherence” — that’s what she calls it — that plagues modern attempts to classify homosexuality. Is it a minority group, an identifiable class of person, or is it a universalizing tendency that represents a possibility across classes and types and also, like, nations?
The modern gay rights movement has strategically employed the minoritarian response in a bid for recognition and incorporation, and therebyhas left behind some of the more destructive and dangerous impulses of gay liberation — like the movement — which often call for general homosexual realization of culture, or transgendering everyone, so that society, like a capitalist society, and all its norms of oppression would be destroyed.
Sedgwick certainly looked fondly on the liberationist tendencies, but overallshe operated within the typically academic Foucaultian framework that came to displace ideas of liberation, especially in Anglo queer theory. This framework sees the invention of homosexuality as a modern phenomenon occurring through the biopolitical intersection of criminal, medical and even literary discourse. The theoretical approach that is dominant, then, sticks to incoherence in homosexuality and this paradox without deciding to resolve it towards liberation, right, like it doesn’t take an ethical stance often.
Now I’ve been really, like, this new recently released book by Christopher Chitty, Sexual Hegemony — it was a posthumously edited volume by a friend Max Fox —has really been reframing some of the ways I think I’m thinking about this. Chitty supplies Foucault’s discursive production of homosexuality with a class analysis of various nodal points of capitalist development. Ultimately, Chitty shows another picture of the ambivalence of same sex practices and communities with the practice could signal both the potential of proletarian unrest, and also the punishment that enforce social norms across classes on top of the oppressive economic and material conditions, creating the condition for the possibility for these sexual cultures to blossom in the first place.
The biggest threat overall tended to be seen in public sex, which reinterpreted urban space outside of bourgeois hegemony, and created cross class connections which threaten the state. In this way, the policing of sodomy, according to Chitty, gets looped in with criminalizing vagrancy and sex work. So these categories all kind of go together. Chitty’s work reinscribes the political ambivalence of queerness for it’s no longer that homosexuality is simply a threat to hegemony but actually plays a role in statecraft and state consolidation, and historicall. Chitty offers a different definition of queer, and I’m quoting now, “as a social category queer would then describe the morbid cultural forms by which the normative logics of gender and sexuality become irreparably damaged, desperately reasserted and perversely renaturalized within a generalized social crisis, rather than marketing some utopian release from these logics in the pursuit of self transformative play”. So this kind of, again, is a way of getting rid of the utopian possibilities inherent and queerness. What remains of the liberationist drive was ultimately tied into a liberal bourgeois idea of identity subject to it in progress. The modern queer identity that we have today is just as much a product of bourgeois ideology, despite its intermittent threat to social order, or its intermittent use as a targeted police force, which then creates a community under siege and looking for reprieve.
Not only is it a product of capitalism, but also colonialism, as colonial outposts historically did and still do provide areas of sexual license for bourgeois European American men. And similarly, the experience of settlers in the US on the frontier were propitious for same sex encounters and love between men, but that was inextricably bound with a project of removal, replacement, genocide, and settler colonialism.
One of the things that Chitty brings up that I think is worth further developing, that doesn’t get developed in the book, is that we could boil down all the contradictions of homosexuality as well as heterosexuality to questions of consent and the deployment of power. Along with the extraction, displacement and erasure of different life ways and colonized lands, the European proletarian cultures of sex and even sexual identity were eventually displaced by a bourgeois homosexual identity that’s still overdetermines our understanding of sexuality today. And the theory and science that this gay identity produced also created an industry of history and knowledge that tried to trace the universal aspects of same sex love and gender deviation across times and cultures. These gay myths and origin stories could mine colonized and genocided cultures for proof of the biological minoritarian naturalness of gayness or transness, while not analyzing the power dynamics that produce this Eurocentric gaze on other ways of doing sex and gender outside of bourgeois sexual hegemony.
And so, like, you know, in the 19th century anthropological discourse there is this like fascination with the berdache as, like, a third gender and that idea that some people claim for a kind of naturalness of trans identity that we see in our modern, like, settler colonial state is, like, coopting, appropriating and also misunderstanding something, and it is all part of the process of the kind of binary gendering of colonization.
If we follow the association of homosexuality with nodes of capital development and crisis, then we can’t collapse these other cultural life forms into something that we know in the same way, except as appropriation, extraction, colonization, erasure. In the end, it turns out that the good part — I’m arguing — that the good parts of gay liberation, I mean, besides the pleasure of cruising, of public sex and creating possibilities of contact, were in fact versions of militant anticapitalism, antiracism, and decolonialism. The gay identity that ultimately won recognition and military inclusion and marriage rights reworks the utopian lines of liberatory thought into a utopia of identity, which is ultimately a white utopia purchasable by certain norms. And this function also largely minimizes and forgets the ongoing HIV AIDS crisis worldwide.
For example, we have queer conferences at universities and support for queer students and perhaps visibly queer professors, but that hasn’t changed the institution itself, which trades in an empty promise of upward mobility for life of debt peonage, not to mention its entanglement in the legacy of chattel slavery and the ongoing project of settler colonialism. The joke is that this respectability politics came at the same time with a deeper crisis in capitalism and so arguably queerness itself is an artifact that we might want to discard. For it’s perhaps nothing but a scrap of meat thrown to another marginalized group to get them to consent to being ruled. So one thing that, again, going back toChitty, he deflates the utopian impulses and gay liberation and rights using Benedict Anderson’s concept of an imagined community to describe this universalizing attempt at, like, global solidarity. Not to resist state violence but to gain recognition. But this queer imagined communities only imaginable through coordinates of a bourgeois him to hegemony of interiority, subjectivity and identity. If gayness is an identity is already colonized, and colonizing, whitewashed and recoupable.
Early gay liberation thinkers like Guy Hocquenghem, someone I work on, were committed to a decolonial, feminist, anti racist, anti capitalist division of liberation. And they said this even at the beginning of the gay liberation movement Hocquenghem pronounce the end of gay liberation within a year or two of the opening of the of the movement and his involvement in the Frente Homosexual de Acción Revolucionaire, not just because the gay liberation movement was splintering along lines of misogyny and moralism. Hocquenghem demanded that as soon as homosexuality was one it has to be given up or else you just serve the purpose of being a token fag or professional revolutionary. In this spirit, I want to point to a different way of thinking of the possibilities of radical queerness liberation and utopia that don’t work through erasure of settlement, terra nullius, or liberal forms of identity and sameness.
I’m influenced by theories developed from study of anarchism, abolition, Indigenous knowledge and Black radical tradition, and ideas like fugitivity flight, the undercommons and marronage. But as a settler, as a white person, my position has to be taken up critically, dispossessed settlers, as well as arrivants on the American continents have long sought ways to escape the dominant forms of colonial identity, the demands and allegiances that became codified as race, gender and sexuality. In fact, these notifications often happen from on high in order to root out cross class, cross race, same sex affiliations that could never fully be controlled by criminalization. And yet the legacies of these laws have become written on our bodies, and the discipline runs the gamut from parental pressure to police murder, or perpetual incarceration.
I’m gonna skip over this, but I was talking about like the ways that sort of racial codes came through controlling sex and reproduction. And also through these complex alliances between people who were keen to be defined as Black and white settlers against Indigenous populations. All these things are densely complex, and they have different relationships with eventual strategies of state formation, through parceling up of identities and accumulation, extraction and dispossession. But another side that we could think of through queer history of like escape, and maroons is thinking about how these histories are modeled counter hegemonic, counter institutional, counter powers and the fissures of capitalism’s ever constant crises. These histories that don’t often get told or those of communities who lived in uninhabitable places which, by which I mean like undeveloped, or undevelopable, often across racial lines. And these histories aren’t utopian, they can’t serve as a salvific function of escape for white queers. Instead, they point to the alternative and living organizations that still happen today outside of the nation state across identity markers that could be continued in explicitly decolonial struggle. To join that struggle white queers would have to put their own status on the line, no longer to help to clear the land but to give possession up, along with queerness too and identityas we understand it. The whole reason queer liberation has ceased to be a problem is that is no longer generally a threat to the bourgeois status to be gay.
Or on the flip side, the relative sexual freedom that has become hegemonic is coincident with a crisis in capitalism and the dissolution of the bourgeoisie as a moral enforcer, may be on the way to this new neofeudalism. And yet here we all are, every one of us imperiled in our attempts to survive in the system that exists. And that identity is packaged as race, gender, sexuality and class marks certain populations out for easy disposability.
So just to kind of sum up, settlers have to give up queerness along with whiteness to reenvision the relation to the land, we have to give up utopia both in our identities and in our methods, since it is a concept steeped in the processes of racialization, settler colonialism, the production of the human through genocide and enslavement. Our relation to the land can’t romanticize past life ways and must promote self determination and some sort of coexistence outside of the hegemony of European knowledge production. So my question to like, go into the discussion, and I’ll reiterate it when we do that is whether there’s a need for queer liberation movement right now? And if so, why would it be called that and not something else?
EO: Thanks so much, Scott. I’m going to pick up some of what Scott brings up at the end there and expand on it in my remarks. And yeah, I also have some questions and things I’d love to discuss. But again, I’d love to hear other folks thoughts. So I’m going to give some, like, definitions just to start us off in a place, so we’re all kind of on the same page, starting with settler colonialism. So Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice defines settler colonialism as quote “distinguished from the more traditional ideas of colonialism, wherein invaders claim resourcesbut then return home. By emphasizing the settler population to creation of a new social order, that depends in part on the ongoing oppression and displacement of Indigenous peoples” end quote. So this is what Patrick Wolfe also calls the elimination of the native.
This oppression, displacement, and elimination is always ongoing. It’s not just a one time thing, it’s continually happening even now, and it’s always gendered and sexualized. So that is to say, settlers, demonize, punish and violate Indigenous peoples along the lines of gender and sexuality, and simultaneously, settlers seek to replace diverse native views, practices, identities, lifeways, with a homogenous, Western, cis-hetero patriarchal system that ensures the future of a white settler population. So my main challenge, our main challenge here, and this is for radical queers to rethink the kinds of futures we try to include ourselves in, and how our liberatory work can suddenly replay exclusion and erasure. So specifically, I’m going to grapple with the questions: how does utopianism show up in radical queer and feminist discourse? How does this perpetuate the settler colonial imperative of terra nullius, erasure, genocide, etc, through utopian ideals? And how do radical queer politics romanticize Indigenous knowledge and modes of living to motivate utopia? And then I’m going to end with a question sort of everybody, what other forms of futurity and speculation resist the settler colonial imperatives of a terra nullius utopia?
So one of the obvious examples of utopian thinking is the sort of assimilative drive within mainstream liberal LGBT movements and cultural productions, sort of this desire for acceptance, the promise of protection and homo normative procreative future that is the ability to keep living, but within the dictate of the US nation state. So borrowing from Jasbir Puar’s term “homonationalism”, which indicates that certain queer bodies — often read as white and white passing — are reconstituted as worthy of recognition and protection. Scott Lauria Morgenson says that “settler homonationalism is the product of the sexual colonization of Indigenous peoples insofar as queer subject hood and queer pride becomes tied to a sense of modernity, rather than a “primitive” quote unquote “Indigeneity” and indebtedness to a supposedly progressive nation. With this normative gay pride perhaps best visualized by “love is love” yard signs rainbow striped us flags, and Rue Pall singing “I am an American just like you too”, is easily dismissed by more radical queer activists. Or is it?
With the recent rise of media such as the Brown sisters podcast “How to Survive the End of the World” as well as Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff’s edited collection The Feminist Utopid Project: 57 Visions a Wildly Better Future, there’s been a noticeable uptake and interest on the left in the construction of a wildly better future, in spite of a supposedly impending end of the world. I’d like to challenge the radical queer feminist urges to create these utopian visions of a society based on the apocalyptic crumbling of the present. A radical queer politics that relies on unquestioned utopian and dystopian visions, risks aligning itself with a settler colonial imaginary of terra nullius, or blank slate space.
So on the one hand, dystopian and apocalyptic visions perpetuate the unquestioned assumption that a societal collapse is impending, right? As if the continual degradation of human and more than human communities has not already arrived. So in an article on science, and science fiction narratives of Indigeneity and climate change, Pottawatomie scholar Kyle White reminds us that quote, “the hardships many non-Indigenous people dread most of the climate crisis are ones that Indigenous peoples have already endured, due to different forms of colonialism. Such as ecosystem collapse, species loss, economic crash, drastic relocation and cultural disintegration” end quote. This critique could certainly be extended beyond the climate crisis to other hardships that Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, also known as North America, have endured, such as the continued murder or disappearance, dispossession, removal, forced assimilation under resourcing, and what elsewhere I have called “phenomenological ignorance”.
So when I hear fellow radical queer activists and scholars lamenting the current social, political and meteorological conditions were weathering, who balk that this is anything new, let alone impending. To accept that it is, I think, would be to erase the experiences of my and many others Indigenous ancestors. Particularly dangerous in this assumption is the kind of crisis rhetoric that fosters opportunities for settler colonial sentiments of insecurity, and in the face of this insecurity, assertions of belonging and sovereignty in land and lifeways. So I think Emily Potter succinctly summarizes this, quote, “the non-Indigenous fear of dispossession or exile manifests in the need to defend their jurisdiction over land” end quote. So this implicitly creeps into radical queer discourse when settler queers faced with very real contemporary issues, such as anti-Black legal and extra legal violence, neofascism, militarized policing, etc, attempt to construct autonomous or occupied zones, buy up land, houses and property, some kind of, you know, maybe manifestation of radical prepping, or in other ways individualize and privatized their survival. So Additionally, painting disruptive phenomenon as “apocalypses” belies the human made, in fact, settler made, emergence of these crises.
April Ansan, shows how quote “settler apocalypticism” end quote, obscures colonialism, and its attendant, disaster capitalism, as the true culprit of quote “racial and environmental contraction.” end quote. Therefore, if settler queers insist on using the language of dystopia and apocalypse, they also work to veil their own complicity in these processes. So one apparent amelioration to this could be found in the call for radical queers to quote, “learn from Indigenous peoples”. But this could also easily fall into a trap of what Jean O’Brian calls lasting, or the idea that Indigenous peoples are the last of a nearly decimated group, whose wisdom belongs to bygone eras, yet can still help settlers avoid their own potential extinction. This assumes that to return to Kyle White, quote, “Indigenous peoples are communities who primarily reside in the Holocene, and over time have been gradually deteriorating to the point that the plight of the modern era threatened to kill them off permanently” end quote.
So instead, right, so I would ask radical queer, non-Indigenous accomplices to see Indigenous peoples as of this time, and not monolithic, right? And not to covet these knowledges. And then in thinking about our utopias, rather than dystopias, I do worry that that sort of notion of the future as this mysterious open space and having this sort of as yet to be realized, or as yet to be colonizedquality, creates then another terra nullius space.
To be forever looking towards this horizon, as the space of resistance as a space of resistance like finally realized, and safety finally secured for queer and trans people, I think, one: makes it seem like we can’t create this in the present and that many Indigenous and other queer, trans, two-spirit folks aren’t already creating this in the present. And two: I think this reinscribes yet another, “other”, quote unquote, space that is not yet “ours”, and also ours is in quotes. But it will be one day, right? We can colonize it, we can be there one day, we can claim that one day. Hence mirroring the settler colonial imperative of elimination replacement and what E. Tuck and K. Wayne Yang tell us is the intention of making a new home on the land, homemaking, insists on settler sovereignty over all things in their new domain. This would be the domain of the future utopia. So this discounts the ongoing presence of Indigenous alternatives to the current settler colonial dystopian reality, and instead preserves a view of geographic and social space as blank and ready to be improved with a new model. Again, here we have a problem of erasure, of the oppressions and resistances that have been ongoing in different durations in favor of the blank space of the utopian frontier.
In other words, radical queer politics romanticizes Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies to create a future utopia for themselves, and potentially “altruistically” quote, unquote, for others. I therefore argue against any linear progression of societal environmental collapse, which then promises to bring about this future idealized world of rainbow diverse identities. Instead, I propose — I think we propose together — ways for radical politics, particularly those espoused by non-Indigenous people, to disavow such settler colonial mindsets. And then again, to end, I’ll reiterate this later, I opened with the question to everyone “what other forms of futurity and speculation might be imagined that resists the settler colonial imperatives of terra nullius”?
KR:Thanks E, I guess it’s me. Okay, so I’m going to begin by positioning today’s discussion within the larger body of my work, thinking and research. I’m currently interested as a mixed European white settler predominantly of Finnish descent in the ways in which Finnish immigrants have contributed to the expansion of the Canadian project of settler colonial occupation. Finns traditionally settled in Thunder Bay, Ontario in Canada, elsewhere around the Great Lakes in the United States and the Midwest, including Minnesota and Michigan, and are revered amongst leftist historians as being important to the labor movement in Canada. This contribution was not only through the overt methods of settling and primitive accumulation, which included work as loggers clearing land for settlement, and as pioneer homesteaders, but also his workers involved in union organizing.
Written above the Finnish labor temple in Thunder Bay, Ontario is the Latin phrase “Labor Omnia Vincit”, which translates to “hard work conquers all”. This can be read many ways, namely, that if one works hard upon arriving in these lands, one will be promised the bounty of the Canadian dream, property ownership and middle class prosperity. But the word “conquer” is perhaps the most important part, and interpreted through a lens that challenges settler colonialism, really hones in on the role of the Finnish worker in the nation building, as being the soldier of conquest able to tame the wild Canadian frontier. Finns and also Russians would attempt to establish utopian colonies on the west coast of Canada, which included Finnish Slough in Richmond BC and Sointula Village on Malcolm Island.
So, right, there’s this anti-Indigenous idea of terra nullius, which the three of us are bringing up, that this land is somehow empty and it is not already utopic or to European standards, it is empty and needs to be transformed. This research — namely how ethno cultural utopian and socialist settler movements were important in the construction of the settler political imaginary and essential to the structure of the Canadian settler state — will represent the bulk of my contribution to our ongoing collaboration, which we hope to turn into a book project titled No Blank Slates.
In the realm of queerness, and settler colonialism much of my research and writing for the past few years has been on the history of the so called gay liberation movement in Canada. The ways in which it has differed from that of the United States and how gay and lesbian settlers and their pursuit of rights throughout the later half of the 20th century helped to strengthen both the image and the political power of Canada as a supposedly inclusive, multicultural and progressive nation state. In the 1960s, there was a pivot in both the direction of settler governance and the modes of control over Indigenous nations. Canada’s natural governing parties, the Liberals, under the leadership of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who many of you will recognize as Justin Trudeau’s father, was promoting the idea of a just society, which sought to incorporate those once outside the Canadian body politic. And here I quote “the just society will be one in which the rights of minorities will be safe from the whims of intolerant majorities. The just society will be one in which our Indian and Innuit populations will be encouraged to assume the full rights of citizenship through policies, which will give them both greater responsibility for their own future, and more meaningful equality of opportunity.”
Aspects of this strategy were to be achieved through the criminal law Amendment Act Bill C 150, which drew inspiration from the criminal lawcode reforms going on at the same time in England, as well as the proposed 1969 white paper. During their transformative era of the 1960s Canadian government actors were retiring the overtly genocidal tactics of segregation, starvation and eradication that their predecessors had employed against Indigenous peoples, opting instead for more covert ways of dealing with sovereignty claims, by way of legislation, which would effectively attempt to trade title to land for Canadian citizenship. The white paper introduced by Pierre Trudeau government and then Minister of Indian Affairs John Chrétien sought to eliminate Aboriginal title and treaty to lands by abolishing the Indian act as it stood, and to assimilate Indigenous people into Canadian society, but was ultimately rejected through the organizing of Indigenous leaders and activists.
Settler colonialism is not only a social and psychological project, however, it operates primarily in a material way relying on access to land and resources in order to continue the process of capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession. Indigenous nations stood in the way of Canada’s access to land. The growing Red Power movement was not one of identity, but instead centered on self determination, and was a result of Indigenous peoples refusal of the insulting tactics of Trudeau government and the Canadian state.
At the same time, the Canadian gay liberation movement emerged as a response to 1969s Criminal Law Amendment Act, which effectively decriminalized aspects of homosexual sex between consenting adults in private. Queers demanded increased rights and accommodation from the state, encouraged by the Stonewall riots in the United States, and by the olive branch Canada had extended with its progressive reforms. At this historical moment, there was certainly room for radical potential of settlers and Indigenous people uniting against the assimilatory actions that Pierre Trudeau’s government attempted to enact towards each group, but no coalition materialized.
For upwardly mobile gays and lesbian settlers, those that desired recognition from the state and representation amongst the high ranks of its governance structure, the Canadian state becomes a utopic vision. The incorporation of productive white homosexual men into the folds of nationhood — which began with reforms to the criminal law code — was a decision that ensured the Canadian state could expand the viability of its capitalist economy, and maintain its assumed authority and legitimacy in the minds of those it subjugates. It is also something that of course necessitates private property. As Jasbir Puar reminds us settler colonialism has a long history of articulating its violence through the protection of serviceable figures, such as women and children and now the homosexual. In this historical process, so called gay liberation, presumably from hetero patriarchal norms, transmutes into gay assimilation into the nation’s body politic. White homosexual men were, in fact, so eager to penetrate into Canada’s body politic, that they named the first Canadian gay periodical, The Body Politic after it.
What was lost in this moment of assimilation was the radical potential of a combined movement — between those organizing around gay liberation and gay rights — with the burgeoning Red Power movement at the time. While the gay movement in Canada throughout the later half of the 20th century shifted their focus to the pursuit of rights and recognition from the settler state, Indigenous people, for the most part, continue to refuse Canada’s attempts at assimilation, and instead to reaffirm their rights and titles to land which had not yet been seated. The 21st century saw a new marriage of sorts between queers and the Canadian colonial project. For queer settlers the promise of recognition in the eyes of the progressive state did not end with the passing of the Civil Marriage Act in 2005.
In the US that followed Justin Trudeau’s election assimilationist gays, lesbians and transgender settlers, who already desired upward mobility within the capitalist order were offered even more fruits from the state. In his role as Prime Minister, Trudeau marched with his family at the head of a slew of pride celebrations, from 2016 to 2019, emphasizing the importance of family values. In response to the violent repression that queers had endured at the hands of Canadian policing, Trudeau performed a very public and very emotional apology. In March of 2019, when President Donald Trump moved to ban transgender troops from the US military, the Canadian Armed Forces, the CAF, overhauled its existing policy to extend an arm and welcome Canadians of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Like the US military under Barack Obama’s presidency, the revised policy incentivize transgender Canadians to enlist in the army, offering support services for those who wish to medically transition as well as insisting that the CAF would create an environment where transgender members were free from harassment and discrimination. This served to only widen the Gulf that existed between those fighting for self determination in Canada and gay, lesbian and transgender settlers.
And again, though we can only speculate on the radical potential the combined forces of gay liberation and the Red Power movement as they emerge simultaneously in the 1960s and 70s Canada, a queer anticolonialism exists today amongst the queer, trans and two-spirit youth on the frontlines of resistance against the Canadian state. The current generation is leading the Shutdown Canada and Land Back movements, as well as the efforts to abolish the Canadian colonial police force the Royal Canadian Mountain Police, RCMP, and defund municipal police bodies in major Canadian cities. A radical political analysis rooted in a necessity for Indigenous sovereignty has been growing momentum as radical, queer and anarchist organizers continue to learn alongside and build relationships of solidarity with Indigenous peoples and nations. As Canada moves to secure land for resource extraction amidst a global pandemic, and pacify conversations around repatriation and abolishing the police, all settlers, but especially queers, must commit to pushing back against their own government structure, which will continue to erase voices of resistance and mount its own narrative of the benevolence.
In his book Red Skin White Mask, Glen Coultard applies the theoretical concept of the politics of recognition to post 1969 Canadian society. Expanding upon Franz Fanon ideas surrounding the shift from the overt violence of colonial control, over colonized subjects, towards recognition and accommodation as a form of state management. Coulthard concludes that because rights and permissions are distributed by the state, the cycle of colonization continues and the rights must be rejected. He extends the strategy of rejecting state management to “other subaltern groups, not just the colonized” and which is a quote, which would include the working class, people of color and gender and sexual minorities. Because the Canadian state privileges the treatment of respectable and middle class gay, lesbian and transgender settlers at the expense of Indigenous people, it makes sense for queers to turn this recognition and accommodation provided by Canada on its head.
Theoretically speaking, this extension of Coulthards call to reject recognition and the gifts of the settler stateby marginalized groups other than Indigenous people has not yet been taken up. The project of queer refusal of the settler colonial project is not an ideological attainment or position, but instead an ongoing commitment to the disruption of settlement and the economies which sustain it. Radical queer settlers who choose to align ourselves with Indigenous peoples and nations whose land we continue to occupy, and whose stolen wealth we continue to benefit from must start by refusing the recognition and the gifts that the nation state offers us, as well as actively disrupting the ways in which our identities are used to advance Canada’s myth of progress. Armed with the lessons of the past, we must help to enact decolonization in its fullest, most literal sense, moving beyond the perfunctory gestures of acknowledgement, and towards outcomes that are material.
This project is one that destabilizes queer utopian ideals and settler agency in imagining alternatives to capitalism and colonial governance, and instead centers the repatriation of lands and the reclamation of laws, Indigenous governance structures, and Indigenous economies that have been suppressed. It is a commitment to action and relationship building, to solidarity and learning.
A few weeks ago in a talk given at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, Susan Stryker signaled that in a post–Trump era, Biden certainly embraced liberal inclusive model of recognizing trans rights. She continued and emphasized that — and I’m paraphrasing here — the laws are not going to save us, the institutional power is not going to save us. We have to become a new body politic moving beyond the state. With the return to liberal inclusion politics in the US, I want to signal a potential area for collaborative prefiguration between radicals living in both nation states to challenge the ways in which both of these settler states weaponize queerness and building off of the proposal of Coulthard and in response to the remarks put forward by Stryker. I would also like to suggest the imperative task of taking up the project of queer refusal in a serious manner, and then instead of a new body politic, a disembodied politic of sorts that rejects the narrative of queer progress, and challenges the very nature of queer identity formation be pursued instead. The greatest threat to the settler state, then, should not be seen as the radical queers lifestyle or rejection of heterosexist society, and social and sexual reproductive norms, but the rejection of state power and capitalist accumulation.
So to end, the question that I had for the discussion is, where do we go from here? How do queer movements engage with the state? How do they build relationships with Indigenous movements? And one thing that I wanted to add is that some of these sites of refusal have already begun. In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Criminal Law code Reforms, Canada announced it would issue a commemorative dollar coin, quite literally a token of gay capitalism. Beyond mere pinkwashing, Trudeau was in more ways than one continuing this project of assimilation, the fabled construction of the “justice society” that his father had begun in the late 60s. And amongst several disruptions, myself and other queer activists and academics, gathered in Ottawa in March of 2019, for the Anti 69 conference — and that’s anti 1969 as in the Criminal Law Code Reforms, not anti 69 is in the sexual act *laughs* — to trouble the mythology of the Omnibus criminal code reform bill and to shed light on the Canadian states ongoing crimes on Indigenous people within Canada and abroad.