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:
The conference was titled Fitting In and Sticking Out – Queer [In]Visibilities and the Perils of Inclusion. From the panel’s description for the conference:
This panel brings together 4 local (Asheville, NC) and regional groups working at different intersections of queer community support. We will learn about the work these groups do, the particular issues that affect southern queers, the changes in visibility and inclusion for queer community, and the building of larger coalitions of liberation. Representatives from four organizations will be part of the panel:
Youth OUTright (YO) is the only nonprofit whose mission is to support LGBTQIA+ youth from ages 11-20 in western North Carolina. Learn more about their work on their website, and support them financially here.
Southerners on New Ground (SONG) is a nonprofit aimed at working towards LGBTQ liberation in the south. Find out more about their work on their website, and support them financially here.
Tranzmission Prison Project (TPP) is a prison abolition grassroots organization that provides literature and resources to incarcerated members of the LGBTQ community. Learn more about their work on their website and donate here.
Pansy Collective is a decentralized, DIY, queer, music and arts collective that created Pansy Fest, an annual queer music festival showcasing LGBTQ musicians from the south and rural areas, prioritizing reparations for QTBIPOC artists and community members, and community education and organizing around the principles of autonomy, mutual aid, antifascism, love, and liberation for all. Learn more about their work on their website, or donate here.
Phone Zap for Florida Prisoners in Mandatory Toxic Evacuation Site
Over 2,000 prisoners in Florida are trapped inside an evacuation zone less than a mile from a retention pond that is in imminent danger of failing, sending 800 million gallons of acidic radioactive waste water flooding over the local area. According to Deputies, the local jail has no plans or intentions to evacuate prisoners.
Please CALL AND SHARE NOW demanding the safe evacuation of all prisoners at the Manatee County Jail.
Scott: Okay, so welcome everyone. This is our the final event of the first day of the 2021 Queer Studies conference. So happy to see you all here, we made it through the day. This is a really special panel because we’ve invited representatives of local organizations and groups that do work in the community in the region to help queer community – and we’ll hear more about the work that they do specifically – but this is in the spirit of the conference, which is going back to its founding, conceived as a way of like having academics and organizers and activists meet to talk about queer issues. So this is special to highlight the work that queer folks are doing on the ground. So I’m gonna be moderating, my name is Scott. And I’m going to now turn it over to each of our panelists to introduce themselves, the group that they represent, and give a brief overview of the work that the group does in the community and beyond, and then we’ll get into more involved discussion from there. I can name y’all, or if someone just wants to go, go ahead. If the spirit is calling you…
Leroy: Alright, I will jump in here so that then I can sit back and listen to all the rest of you. Hello, I’m glad y’all are all here. My name is Leroy Kite, I use they/them pronouns. I’m here with Tranzmission Prison Project, we are a queer and trans powered abolitionist books -to-prisoners group that serves the entire country…with a few exceptions of states that have banned us. And we are a sister organization, a sibling organization with Asheville Prison Books, which just serves general population prisoners in North Carolina and South Carolina. For those of you that are Asheville specific, we are located out of the back of Downtown Books and News, you can drop by and see us.
And, yeah, we’ve been around for like a little over 20 years somehow? So a very long time. It’s kind of a mystery to me, how that has really sustained this long. I’ve been involved for about seven years, and there is some historical memory losses, there’s just been a lot of turnover over those two decades. Basically, we are still in the process of reconnecting with the origins of how this group began and trying to call up those long lost elders of this project so that we can kind of seam some of the pieces together of what has changed from then and now.
But that pretty much gets up to date. The arc of our work is we receive requests from prisoners around the country, across the LGBTQIA and two spirit spectrum, and mail them back books that they are asking for whether that is romance, thriller, sci-fi, erotica. You know, we try to highlight getting people materials that a lot of other organizations are either unwilling or under-equipped to send to those populations, particularly when it comes to things that regard people’s sexual and gender autonomy. That’s a area that it can be very, very hard to find free resources from organizations that are willing to send that to people. So that’s kind of one gap that we see ourselves filling that’s kind of unique. And with that, I’ll pass it off to whoever wants it. Thanks.
Adrian: I can pop in. So my name is Adrian, I use they/she and he pronouns. I’m the executive director of Youth OUTright WNC. We are a support and advocacy organization for LGBTQIA young folks between the ages of 11 and 20, which kind of led up to 24 during COVID. Thanks for dropping our link, Shawn. So our programs focus in on racial justice, gender justice, and sex and relationship education. So right now we’re running programs Tuesday through Thursday, we have chat rooms on Tuesday and Thursdays that are held on Discord. And we have a video call on Wednesdays that run 6 to 8pm. And that’s those programs are run by Brian Thompson, our youth programs manager, and they’ve been doing a great job there.
We also do some work supporting the GSA clubs across the state of North Carolina. If you’re not familiar with GSA’s, those are “Gender and Sexuality Alliances”, formerly known as “Gay Straight Alliances”, and those clubs really vary between social support and activist groups. But we support them wherever they’re at and with whatever they have self determined to be their goals, right? So if they’re focused on building community with each other, that’s awesome, we’ll talk to them about that if they’re looking at changing policy at their school, also awesome. And we’ll talk about that we try to meet them with wherever they’re at and with what their goals are.
Self determination is really important to our work. Over the past few years, we’ve been really incorporating youth leadership, all the way up through the board level. And so that’s been really important to us as we progress. We like to create professional opportunities for young people as well. We had some part time staff positions last year as educators and facilitators, there’ll be more opportunities for that later this year. And we’ve provided stipends for peer education around sex ed, or mental health, different things like that. In 2019, we held a GSA summit, we hope to do that again. We were a little shaken by the by the pandemic, as most folks were, so we’ve had to postpone that but we’re looking at a virtual version soon. Keep an eye out for that.
And beyond the direct Youth Services, the GSA work, we also do advocacy around policy. So we’ve been working with Campaign for Southern Equality around the Department of Public Instruction’s name policy within the virtual learning system. We were seeing last year that a lot of trans young people were being outed just by the virtual learning system, and so we now do have a preferred name field that will be integrated into Buncombe County and implementation is happening now.
We work with Equality North Carolina on things like non-discrimination ordinances here in Asheville and surrounding counties. And we’re also working right now to put together a storytelling campaign around the anti-trans sports bill that just hit earlier this week. So we’re working with some trans athletes at a couple different high schools to uplift their stories, and really raise awareness to that.
One last little plug I’ll make is for our racial justice and gender justice panels, which happened once a month on our Instagram Live, and that Space A Digital Place to Talk About Race, and TYME (Trans Youth Movement and Education). Those panels are led by young college and high school trans folks digging in deeper to racial and gender justice. And I’ll stop taking up space.
Monse: I’m happy to go next. Hi, everyone, my name is Monse, I use they or she pronouns, and I’m here at repping SONG, or Southerners On New Ground. We are a 28 year old LGBTQ base-building membership organization. We are definitely unapologetically abolitionists, Black and Brown, and all things queer and magic. So we have chapters all across the Southeast. We have chapters in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, in Louisiana. We currently don’t have an Asheville chapter but we have lots of Asheville members who, in the past couple of years, have been engaged in our bailout action that we have done for Mother’s Day where we have raised money to pay the bails of Black mothers and caregivers who are in jail due to bail. And this was definitely to bring awareness to the issue of money bail used as a racist, classist practice in not only Buncombe County, but all across the south, where folks are held pretrial. So before their conviction, and if they don’t have the money to pay to get out, they have to stay in jail and await their court date when people who do have access to wealth or money can wait for their court date from the comfort of their own home. So further criminalizing folks who are already targets of the state.
So SONG was founded in 1993 by three Black lesbians and three white lesbians, and was definitely founded as a way to kind of infiltrate into the queer and gay movement in the moment, and really saying that money bail, that criminalization, that all these things are people facing oppression, like, is the gay issue. So we definitely wanted to make space for folks who are Black and Brown, who are facing oppression and criminalization every day, to be able to be in these spaces and organize and bring their full selves and not having to be closeted.
So SONG is an LGBTQ feminist organization, with core Black leadership. And we believe that until all of us are free, none of us are free. So that’s why we’re really wanting to move this work. Currently, we have campaigns to end money bail, so really connecting to our direct action to bail Black mamas and caregivers out of jail, and bring more awareness to the issue to end money bail and pretrial detention.
We also have been doing research around campaigns to end the collaboration with local law enforcement and ICE – so Immigration and Customs Enforcement – because we know that police and ICE are the same beast under the prison industrial complex. But we do a lot of training, a lot of just skilling-up and building community across the South because we know that the South is where all the shit goes down, and where all our people are. Where we have roots, where we have community, and we want to be able to grow and build and organize in the South. So that’s a little bit about SONG. And hopefully, you’ll get to hear more about the work that we do. But thank you all so much for having us.
Beck: Thanks Monse. I’m Beck, I used they/them pronouns and I’m here as the representative of Pansy Collective. And so Pansy Collective is a DIY decentralized queer LGBTQIA arts and music collective. Our biggest thing that we do is Pansy Fest, and it kind of started out as like, a queer visibility type of thing. Like the punk scene in the South and in neighboring regions around Asheville has been pretty bro heavy, pretty homophobic, racist, and we’re trying to make space that was an anti-racist, anti-homophobic space in the punk community. And then from that, it kind of started to build into more like Southern and rural coalition building and then specifically around moving from like, visibility to BIPOC reparations. So the first fest we actually worked with SONG’s Black Mama Bailout, and that was like the first beneficiary we had, and TPP was another one! But it’s like, it’s so cool that we’re all here right now.
But yeah, it was kind of a way to engage like queer folks into to put a public space that wasn’t some liberal kind of, I don’t know, upitty Asheville…you know? [laughs] People who are living here, you know. But yeah, so it was it was cool to like, create a space where we felt okay around each other, where we can have hard conversations. And also like, where we could bring some of the anarchist principles and things like that, in kind of a more tangible way into the punk scene. It’s like, “Okay, we’ve got all these lyrics that are like, ‘fuck this, like, hate cops’”, follow that. But also, do you know about prison books? Do you want to sign up? You know about Black Mama Bailout? So you know, having people tabeling there at all of our shows and events was really big. Making sure we have Narcan, you know, bringing in harm reduction into the scene…just kind of trying to, like, the spaces that we have idealistically in our head as like “a queer scene”, just trying to make it happen to the best of our ability.
And so we’ve been around since 2016? 2017! And it was such a bummer last year: we were like getting ready for a really cool event with HOT BITS. It was going to be like a really cool coalition building, with sex workers rights, and having a really cool, I don’t know, sex positive space, which was like something new for Pansy. And it kind of went all down because of COVID, of course. But we’re still meeting together! We’re still organizing, we, you know, try to coalition build where we can. It’s not looking like events around music and art right now. It’s more like, “Okay, let’s do a noise demo at the jail with Charlotte Uprising.” How can we be outside and distance and really do the work that we believe in, which is like mutual aid, it’s love, it’s like anti-prison, you know, it’s not queer assimilationist, right? So it hasn’t been so much “festy”, like punk stuff going on, but we’re still here doing it. And yeah, super stoked to be here. Thanks for having us.
Scott: Thanks, everyone, for introducing yourselves and the groups and giving an overview. It’s really interesting too, to see where these local regional groups have intersected and work together. My first question beyond the introduction is specifically linking to Asheville, Western North Carolina, a larger region, the South, what do you think Southern queers need? And how does your work try to meet those needs? And you can, you know, get as specific to our town as you want, or think more regionally.
Beck: I’ll go ahead. I think one of the things pre-pandemic, when events were happening, was just having a queer focused event that you didn’t have to pay for. That it was like, sliding scale and all of the money, it wasn’t, you know, going to this model of building up, it was just going to go into the hands of folks who need it. The fact that you didn’t have to show up and pay. I feel like everything else in this area in those spaces, too, it’s like “pay to play” situation. And it’s not really inviting, you know, from a class perspective, but also just like…those spaces aren’t necessarily where, like, I want to be anyways, right? Like I want to be in a space where it doesn’t matter how I’m dressed, how I look, if I can afford it. So just creating those spaces, I think.
And something that I just think of, like, resources and education and coalition building is something…there’s like, there’s a lot going on in the South, trying to make it happen, but it’s much more of an uphill battle, I think, compared to West Coast, East Coast, right? And so, you know, tabling events and stuff like that, but also like teachings, where we learn how to do jail support, or, you know, like fun stuff too! Like, do you wanna learn how to screenprint? Just having this open space, you don’t have to pay to get in. And you don’t have to know everybody, you can just come in, and people are gonna be like, “Hey, what’s up? Welcome to the teach-in.” And you’re like, already welcome at the door. And a place where people can share ideas, and it’s not coming from this hierarchical like, “I’m going to educate everybody in this space.” It’s “everybody has something they can bring to it.” So I think that’s one part that Pansy Collective comes from, for sure.
Scott: Adrian, that made me think, like, what Beck was saying about kind of the educational aspect and like, maybe that fits in the mission of Youth OUTright, connecting to young people?
Adrian: Yeah, a couple of things were coming up for me when Beck was sharing. The first thing that came up for me around education and teach-ins’s is: I feel like young people really need us adults to step up and educate ourselves. Frankly. You know, I think that our young people are often in the position either at school or with their families, where they have to educate adults around them about sex and gender, or racial justice, or any number of social movements that are happening in our intersectional community, right? And so something that breaks my heart, but also makes me really proud is watching these young people really articulately say what they need to say, to these adults, right? It’s impressive, it’s great. And also, come on adults, what are we doing? And so you know, where that brings in Youth OUTright is we’re in the process of developing relationships with Buncombe County schools to provide training to all of their counselors and social workers, right? From the adults, providing them training about how to support young people, and we may compensate young people to record their experiences or, you know, provide some amount of input in there. But we don’t want them to have to expend that emotional labor and potentially re-traumatize themselves in entering a space where they have to teach their teacher, right?
And so I think that there’s a big need for adult allies to step up into this place of peer educator for, you know, the people in their community and having these conversations. Of the folks who do want to engage in those conversations, we’re hosting every third Monday, a space called Continuum, which is an intergenerational conversation for supporting specifically gender and sexual minority young people. And so that’s a space where people can engage in conversation with the community there. But you know, we obviously have a little bit more of a focus on young people, right?
So part of our work last summer, we did a direct action training at Carrier Park. And so we brought together a small cohort of young people. And we were socially distanced and talked about what power mapping looks like, talked about some of the changes they want to see in the community, and they identified the Trans Panic Defense, right? They said “the Trans Panic Defense is something that we think is abhorrent and needs to go away”. And that’s super valid. They also picked a hard one. But you know, I think that having spaces like that, centering the young people’s vision, is really what they’re asking for. And again, I’ll go back to self determination, right? And I think that when we allow young people to set the waypoint, we realize that a lot more as possible, right? As adults, I think we get a little bit salty, we get a little bit jaded and cynical, “we’ll never get there”, right? So I think young people need us to tap into that imagination, and tap into that vision and support that, right? As well as stepping up to educate ourselves and understand that like, I’m still learning new pronouns, y’all! Like I’m still…there’s a lot going on, and culture is always changing. So I think they need humility from us, right? They need us to recognize that, to disrupt that adultism in ourselves, right? There’s always this dominant cultural belief that adults know what’s best for young people. They might know what’s best for us! Let’s look at our planet and what the young environmental activists are saying, right? There’s so many ways to look at this and where young people really have the answers. So I think we need to take a seat and listen, and then start making some moves from there.
Scott: Thinking of like, you know, identify problems that they want to attack made me think also about the kind of particular terrain that we have in the South. Given the kind of like, Republican legislative power and the way that they can kind of steamroll anti-trans, anti-gay policies, and I don’t know if maybe that’s something that Monse, you could talk about, in terms of the work that SONG is doing? Because it’s like SONG is as a Southern thing and there’s like, simultaneously kind of invisiblization of queerness in the South, but also this huge social war being waged by the state against queer people in the South. So yeah, that was a way to start to throw it to you. If you have some ideas.
Monse: For sure, I can definitely speak on that a little bit. Yeah, and I would say, like, the South is a region of both great despair and historical trauma, but also great organized resistance and resilience and magic. Like, we really organized in this region because we want to build up. And because we are a part of a long legacy of organizers and cultural workers, freedom fighters who have been committed to the South, and this is a place where folks live, where folks build their lives, where they love, where they organize, and continue to build their families, regardless of all the things and history that has. And I really would want to highlight that resistance piece, because there has been so much resistance that has happened in the South. And I think that’s the beauty of it. I think that folks, we’re naming, like, we organize in the South, and we have that kind of like a southern hospitality where we can find our people, where we can create the potlucks and invite folks in and like, making sure that our neighbors have what they need, that our community is good. And we are doing mutual aid, and we are doing those things. And there’s also like all those things against us, too.
But I think that organizing in the South, to me, is about kind of like that resilience that you’re like, “I’m not leaving this place, because this is where my legacy is, my history is.” And a lot of the times that negative and racist rhetoric is highlighted in the South, but I think, like, right alongside with it is where we grow, like where we are making everything out of nothing. And we are doing that pushback, and we are seeing some wins. And I think we have been able to see some wins, like even specifically throughout this year. Like folks organizing and doing the uprisings. Like we saw so many wins from that, like, where folks, like we are literally, everyone was talking about “what does it mean to defund the police? Like, what does it mean to believe in a world where we don’t have policing, where we don’t have jails and prisons?” And I think that that is because of years and years worth of organizing. It didn’t happen just out of nothing, and like folks rioted and stood up for what they believed in, just like, overnight. I think it has been years of oppression and resilience that ignited folks to continue that conversation. I think that the work is not by any means done yet. But definitely we’re making, we’re seeing the fruits of those commitments and those sacrifices happen. I think it’s up to us here in the South to continue to say like, “Fuck that” – [smiles] I’m gunna cuss on here – but like, “Fuck that, like, we’re gonna keep fighting and we’re gonna keep doing what our ancestors wanted us to do and what rightfully we have to do”.
So yeah, and I think in Asheville there are so many nonprofits, and like so many folks already organizing, and there is a great need for folks to organize. And we definitely saw that even locally in Asheville, when, like, we need to hold local and county government accountable. Like we saw that in the summer, we saw demands of Black and Brown organizers being ignored. We saw that there is a big need, like, we can’t, in Asheville at least, we can’t hide behind liberal organizing and expect things to to move. I think that we have to continue to push and continue to make space for Black and Brown organizers and for demands to to move, so that we can organize and build the world we want to live in, even here, on a local level. And I think that what SONG has to offer, at least here in Asheville, is like training, skill-up opportunities. Like, this 28 year old legacy of folks who have been fighting and organizing in the South because the South is their home, and definitely connection to those folks all across the south, and years of like trans and queer abolitionist organizing. So that’s what I have to say,
Scott: Thanks. And then, you know, building on that idea of like, how the queer communities in the South can get invisiblized in the racist and bigoted ideas of the South, I was gonna use that to sort of transition to the work that you’re doing Leroy with Tranzmission Prison Project, because also a community that gets invisiblized, is the people who are incarcerated, and specifically people like trans and queer people who are incarcerated. And I don’t know if you have something to say about that in terms of like, the way that you’re working with them to get their voices out or get their needs met. Because that’s also a site of like, tremendous resistance, building off what Monse was saying.
Leroy: Yeah, I think that there’s both so much potential here, and in full transparency, so much room for TPP to continue growing in ways that move beyond where the reality of, you know, most of our work to date has, even as an abolitionist group, typically shown up as service provision. Where we’re not as involved on the policy end of things, or able to keep up with all of the specifics of what is happening in this state in the South that specifically targeting these queer and trans prisoners. We, you know, have occasionally popped in to, like, offer a statement here or there about things that have happened on the federal level. Like in 2018 there was this change to the Transgender Offender Manual from the Bureau of Prisons, that really fucked over, altered, the safety of trans folks in prison across the country.
But as far as specific to the South, I personally don’t feel like I am informed enough to be able to say where, you know, we have as a project not yet had the capacity to orient towards how can we show up more and do more coalition building and outreach beyond our little silo of what this project has been maintaining over the years. But I think that that’s the real growth edge for us right now. And where the conversation has really been building over the last several years as we’ve gone from, basically like myself, and like one other person, when I first joined this organization, we sort of went through a period of so much burnout, and turnover seven years ago that the last seven years have been really just building back up our own base and trying to just keep up with the mail. We have, like, 100 to 150 pieces of mail on average that we get a month.
And so we’ve sort of been stretching to make space to have conversations within our group that are more than just “how do we sustain our own morale in this work?” And how do we actually network with some of these bigger, juicy or more challenging questions of “what does it mean to be abolitionists doing books to prisoners work”, and I think that networking with other folks in the south like SONG, like Pansy Collective, like Youth OUTright, is really where the work is headed for us. So that we can kind of use the best of what everyone else is already tapped into, on sometimes more of the policy end of things, sometimes more the grassroots end of things, but just where people have their ear to the ground in places that we don’t always.
I will say, as I kind of alluded to, I think in my first answer – and maybe this is foreshadowing for like another question that I don’t know, it still coming up – about like challenges of working in the South. But I think that the irony is that for longer than I have been involved with this project, North Carolina specifically has been one of the states that has banned us, Tranzmission Prison Project specifically, from sending mail in. And we have – for the cop who may be sitting in this room right now, this is the time where I’m gonna say “Fuck you, and you can leave this call” – but, you know, we we have done what we’ve needed to do to get folks books that they’ve requested. Like, we still get requests all the time from prisoners in North Carolina, and we’ve basically just found some ways to fly a little lower on the radar when mailing those books back to people. But things like we can’t use our letterhead, we don’t use our mailing address when we return those. And so there’s room for us to potentially challenge that.
I mean, in the last seven years, again, as a group we have not had the capacity to necessarily even investigate, like, is this really still a thing? Like, could we run a campaign to get this overturned? And so that’s where having a real upsurge of interest in prison abolition in the last year has been starting to put some more wheels under what feels possible for us, in terms of maybe doing some bigger work, then has really just been on the table for us. Just trying to like keep up with the need that has been there, you know, not not to fall into like, capitalist supply demand lingo, but I mean the reality is like, the prison system is a part of capitalism and we are often in our own constraints that are placed upon us by it by the nature of the prison industrial complex.
So there’s this real tension between like, “how do we ensure that our baseline commitment to just getting people the books that they are asking for is being met”, while also being like “is that in and of itself, abolitionist”. We really situate what we’re doing as centering people’s humanity, and really just restoring that sense of dignity and autonomy to people, that having information is something that we believe everyone should have. Having access to pleasure is something that everyone should have a way to expand their own minds beyond, you know, what’s often a cell smaller than a lot of people’s bathrooms. How do we, again, just connect the dots of the bigger constellation of “how do we keep these prisons from becoming kinder and friendlier to trans people” – whether that’s in the South or around the whole rest of the country – towards “how do we really shrink the system into nonexistence”?
Scott: Yeah, so jumping off of the obstacle point, that was a question that I had prepared. And I’m thinking also of just specifying a little bit because it’s come up – and this is the place we’re in, like, you know, post or not post pandemic, but in the middle of the pandemic – the pandemic hit, right, and like changed the terrain for organizing for everyone. So that, obviously, is an obstacle. I’d be interested to hear how a little more about how have you dealt with that. And also, potentially, on the plus side, the way the uprisings, rebellions last year affected the kind of energy and work that you’re doing, because that’s also something you’ve all been mentioning, in terms of the hearing more about abolition. So obstacles and but also like the recent sort of things that have occurred that have changed the nature of organizing.
Monse: I’m happy to kick it off. I think that yeah, definitely, what has been shared is definitely what we’ve been experiencing too, within SONG. I think even the election was a huge obstacle. I think that that brought up so, so many conversations, but also like, we were able to run a Free the Vote program within SONG in particular parts of the South, where we were doing voter registration and in the jails, for folks who are incarcerated, trying to get absentee ballots. And then we also face that same like, trying to mail stuff in trying to get to talk to people, it was those same things. So I definitely resonate with that, like trying to navigate and even just reach our people who are inside, making sure that they know that we’re out here and just trying to communicate with them has been a barrier put up by the state. And I think it’s very intentional, you know, they don’t want us to talk to them, they don’t want them to talk to us. So I would say I definitely resonated with that.
And I think even, yeah COVID in itself changed so many of the conditions which our folks were living in, and organizing in too. And we as SONG were definitely trying to figure out like, “is this the moment like to free them all? Like, are we trying to push for that, like, get everyone out of jail?” Like, of course they’re not following the CDC guidelines. Of course, they don’t care about the people who are in there. And really trying to see like, what ways that we could turn up on the state, and also keep our people safe from from COVID. We definitely started to do car caravan actions, like honk-ins at the jails all across the South, making sure like, hey, like we haven’t forgotten about y’all out here. And trying to do that. Folks in Atlanta and the Atlanta chapter were definitely turning up and putting pressure so folks could be released. Like, if they didn’t have to be there – of course, nobody has to be there – but like, if they were their pretrial, that they should be free.
So definitely trying to push on the campaign’s that we were already moving, in relationships to like, we need everyone out of that jail because it’s just COVID in there. So yeah, I think that even our tactics of organizing changed so much, and finding our people, and being able to do direct actions…we were thinking, a lot of like, “what does it mean to continue to turn up on the state and keep our people safe from getting sick?” Because we know that historically, our people don’t have access to health care, like our people don’t trust the health care systems, at all, and in fact, have been victims of violence by the healthcare system. So all the things, all the things. And I think, even just locally, some obstacles that have been coming up is also the fast-paced gentrification here in Asheville. Black and Brown folks, especially queer trans folks, are being pushed out of Asheville, so, so quickly, so so rapidly. And I think that that’s also something that my brain goes to is like, how are we like turning up against all these developers who are trying to take our towns, trying to take our people’s homes? And how are we creating space for folks to continue to live here, and work here and organize here in Asheville? It’s something that I would love to get into with any of y’all. But yeah, some of the obstacles.
Adrian: Thanks for sharing all of that Monse, a lot of that really resonates. And I think that, you know, with what’s coming up for me and the young folks that I work with, is I think that we’ve really shifted into more of a survival mode, right? You know, sex ed, and sexual violence prevention work was really integral to our programs before the pandemic, like every single meeting we’d talk about consent. Once we hit quarantine the kids were like, “We just need to hang out with each other, like, we need a little bit less educational stuff.” And we stepped back a little bit because they didn’t have the capacity to keep learning and keep learning. And they were also doing virtual school, right? I think the capacity for everybody, not just young people, just really got lowered.
And, you know, I have been fielding a lot more crisis calls over the past year. We have young people who are stuck at home in transphobic families, right, abusive families. And so, you know, we move from potentially thinking about targeting a trans inclusive policy at school to, oh, I might get kicked out of my home, right? And so I think that’s one of the challenges for us, is that while we try to build power within the youth community, so many of our young folks are just dealing with a different level of marginalization, by the pandemic, right?
One thing I’d point to is our GSA clubs, right? Like we before the pandemic, there were upwards of 35 clubs across North Carolina. Now we’re under 25. And a lot of those 25 are folks who have registered, but like, their club isn’t really meeting right now, or maybe they don’t have the tools to meet digitally, or, you know, they’re running their meeting but they’re only getting 5 of the 20 and 30 people that used to be coming to their meeting, right? So there’s this really big challenge in reconnecting with all of our young folks that have been a part of this network, and making sure they’re alright.
We launched a mutual aid fund over the past year, to support young folks 24 and under who were economically impacted by the pandemic, and we’ve distributed about $14,000 now, mostly to young folks who are housing insecure, and a good number of them are already homeless. And so, you know, in my conversations with the McKinney Vento liaisons who work within the Buncombe County school district and support the homeless youth there, they told me that they expected to see the homeless youth population balloon, maybe even double, over the course of the pandemic due to just the economic impacts, right. And the family impacts again, putting, you know, trans people back at home in spaces that aren’t safe for them.
So, all of those things are hard, but I do want to add a silver lining that has come out of some of these pivots. You know, we moved to digital programming pretty much within a week, right? It was pretty quick. But what was really awesome about it was a lot of our young people took a lot of initiative, right? They’re like, “Oh, discord, yeah, I can make a server, I can make you a robot. I can make you all these things.” And It was incredible and inspiring to see these young people step up to the plate…wow, a sports metaphor, how butch? Okay, that was weird. That doesn’t happen a lot. So, you know, these young people really stepped up to support each other and advocate for themselves, right? That’s been really incredible. And the other thing that comes from that, in the beginning of the pandemic our groups were smaller, but they were rural people, they were POC folks, and so we were actually getting to these young people who really need our services a little bit more. Not to say that young folks don’t need our services – we’re here for them as well – but there tend to be more GSAs within Buncombe County, there tend to be more supportive adults within Buncombe County. And so to see young people from Candler, Lake Lure, Cherokee, these other places, checking into our call, that’s a huge impact for me and for I think the folks in the community.
I think that moving out of the pandemic, as we slowly start to, we’re going to be keeping a lot of these digital organizing strategies that we’ve developed, and need to find this balance between, “okay, we’ve created access to our world programs, and there’s this thing that’s lacking from our in person programs that we need to bring back”. But I tell you, I’m not going to remove all the digital programs, because I’m like having those rural kids around.
Leroy: I can jump back in. Yeah, I’m really feeling the themes of COVID challenges plus, like weird COVID boons that no one necessarily saw coming. Yeah, at the very start of the pandemic, we definitely went into rapid response mode in a way that like, isn’t very typical for us. And again, wasn’t necessarily sustainable for us, but I think, as Monse already touched on – everyone’s familiar with this, I think, on the global level, but for those of us, especially with our finger on the pulse of what life inside of prisons is like, it was just like watching the storm rolling in times 1000 – it was just like the contagion of this is going to kill so many people so rapidly. And there was also this potential, like no one had really ever seen before, for these mass releases.
And so again, even though that’s not something that we, as a group, necessarily had a lot of power to help push for – I mean, I think individuals within our group are kind of like tapped into other campaigns outside of the work of TPP – but what we did do was reformatted a pamphlet that was a collaboration between Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross and Asheville Prison Books, which was basically just an informational two to four pager about what is COVID, and how can you keep yourself safe? And obviously, there were ways we were like ”We don’t know if people are going to be able to apply this.” I mean, obviously, there’s no PPE, there certainly was no PPE inside of prisons at the beginning of the pandemic, we were worried if people were even going to have soap. Hand sanitizer was like, not allowed for a lot of folks because of alcohol. But we were like, “We don’t even know what people are being told at this point, so it seems like the least we could do to just share what we were hearing, as we were hearing it on the outside, with those that we love on the inside,” to just say like, “this is what we know so far about this virus. And this is what we are hearing about what you can do to keep yourself safe as much as possible. And we realized that a lot of this may not be possible for y’all.”
The flip side of what those pamphlets offered was a sliver of hope, for those that were able to receive them, about some of what was happening in terms of folks being released in the South, actually, as well as around the country. And while that did not happen, I think as much as a lot of us in the abolition movement hoped that it could have gone further, there were also some prison breaks. And they were also just stories of people freeing themselves from the cages that they were in. And so there were some little blurbs about that. We also had some of those pamphlets bounce back, and we assumed that that was for that reason. There was like one or two that came back to us that something on the return to sender said something along the lines of like “this is a threat to our security and that’s why this wasn’t let in.” And so you know, it’s not really surprising because we know that knowledge is a threat and prisons don’t want prisoners to even think about the fact that they might one day have the power to liberate themselves, let alone be granted clemency. So, you know, the vast majority of them we think reached the folks that we intended them to get.
But we also weren’t sure for a while when we were going to have access to our office because as the original shutdowns were going on – like I said, we’re out of the back of Downtown Books and News – we lost access to our space for the first like, three, four months that things were going on. So part of those pamphlets, too, was this very kind of frightening disclosure that we were like, “Hey, we don’t know when we are going to be able to send you books, because there’s just a freeze on our ability to maintain this right now, but we want you to know that you are in our hearts and we are thinking of you.” And even just being able to send that little bit of personal love to folks, that in and of itself, I think, was where we were able to put our hearts forward at the start of this pandemic and let people know, like Monse, you were saying, again, like, “you are not forgotten even in this, and we’ll be back with you as soon as we can be”. And so yeah, it took some time for everybody to kind of get their feet back under them again, but by the summer last year we were starting to socially distance gather ourselves in the park to just like, reorganize our core group.
And then as we started to launch our packaging parties back up, which is how we kind of make room for more community engagement than just our regular core folks who come and pick out the books – in the pre-pandemic times used to do this out of Firestorm Books and Coffee, where we would take the books that were ready to be wrapped up and we would just do like a big almost holiday style wrapping where we just brown paper bag everything and address stuff and tape it up, and then it’s ready to go to the post office – we started to do that outside, also in Carrier Park, so that we could continue to do the work. And really, I think this is where this work gets really intersectional. I think that with everything that happened, with the uprisings of the summer and abolition starting to be talked about more and more, we started to see more people show up at those outdoor packaging parties than we had ever seen before. And we have been continuing to get new interests through our Instagram, through our email inbox. And yeah, I think that that’s where the last year has presented some really unusual, but exciting opportunities for where we’re now positioned, just with more folks plugging in all the time than we previously had. So that’s the upside of things. Beck, you want to get in on this?
Beck: Sure. Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty quick and easy. COVID really threw a wrench in like everything we do. [starts laughing] We created physical spaces for queer community to come together and learn in sheer joy and you know, art, music. So, yeah, we really were at a loss for how to adapt, and none of us were in a place where we were like, willing to switch to digital. So we’re like, “Okay, what can we do right now”, we had applied for a mini grant from the Trans Justice Project. And we got it! And we’re like,” oh, dope, but there’s not a fest going on. So what are we going to do?” And so we decided to do a kind of like reparations drive project, community reach, outreach type thing, where we used all those funds from that grant, to BIPOC artists who are now like, without work. So focusing on Black and Indigenous queer and trans artists, and making sure they’re getting their needs, uplifting the work that they’re doing, you know, from a distance, and also just like, literally just fundraising for them and having our own reparations pool every month. So that kind of shifted that way.
I think a lot of it though, like Pansy Collective as individuals, was just like showing up in the summer, showing up in the street, showing up for aftercare type stuff, showing up where we could, as individuals, for our friends in our community. And so yeah, I think, you know, as things start kind of shifting and maybe outdoor meetups and stuff is possible, it’ll kind of start to go back to what Pansy is used to doing. But really, it’s just been, I mean, as a collective, just kind of being there for each other, and for the folks in town, showing up just as people has been the work, just giving love in a really isolated time.
Scott: Thanks everyone for going into that. I want to ask maybe a final question that would have two parts and then leave room for anyone here who wants to directly ask you individually or collectively questions, but so I’m going to put a couple of things together and hopefully this will work. So on the one hand we see queerness kind of getting more visibility and inclusion and representation, and I’m wondering – because all the work that y’all are doing is still on the terrain that is disruptive for, you know, systems of power, state control – so I’m sort of just interested in what you think queerness still holds that’s disruptive or liberatory, and then kind of putting that into like, what sort of coalitional projects you envision your groups doing in the future?
Adrian: Right now the one sentence that’s coming to my head is like “pink capitalism sucks” right? And I don’t have a whole lot more beyond that right now, in this moment. No, I think that, you know, the sort of acceptability politics that’s happening in like the big LGB sometimes T circles is rather sex negative. So I think there’s growth we could do there together in coalition building. You know, I think that this is probably because of the particular lens that I approach this work, but I see a lot of ageism and adultism generationally, right? I see a lot of skepticism from my elders on the vision that my young folks have, and sometimes I look to my elders to say, like, “Look, I don’t quite see how all the dots connect, but can you help me connect the dots for these young people?” And I need that support from our trancestors. And so I think that’s part of the coalition building that can happen. You know, I think that also we see a lot of white LGBTQ representation, right? So I think there’s a lot of work that we can do around, you know, centering BIPOC experience and what they need, right? So I would really love to see more inter-generational coalition’s between the different LGBT and racial justice serving organizations, I think that could be really, really fruitful. And I’m just kind of curious what other folks are thinking to?
Monse: Yeah, I think you hit it spot on for me Adrian. And yeah, I think that there are a lot of visible spaces and like, spaces made for queer and trans folks here in Asheville at least, but they’re mostly white spaces. And I think that just making spaces for Black and Brown folks to lead the work, for Black and Brown folks to just even come together and organize is necessary. And I would love to collaborate with folks, and just like creating those spaces, like finding the folks that are looking for the spaces and being able to support and find joy to bring our beautiful queer selves and organize together. So I think that that’s where we have a lot of room to grow, where I could see SONG collaborating with folks.
And I think even just like, also language, I’m very passionate about language justice, and that we need to be organizing not only in English because queer and trans folks aren’t only white, don’t only speak English. And I think that these identities can be very intersectional and like, folks are trying to do all the things. And yeah, so I think creating more spaces that are language accessible, that are culturally accessible, and that folks want to come to, because I think that there are so many white, queer, trans spaces in Asheville that a lot of times my folks don’t want to be in, that I don’t want to be in. And I think that there’s a lot of room to grow and a lot of space for collaboration, where we can make these spaces together.
Beck: I’ll go ahead. Yeah, thank you Monse, Adrian. I think all of y’alls responses…what I’m thinking of, how Asheville in particular, and a lot of liberal Southern cities, loves to show it’s pride in like, “we just hired a lesbian cop! Look at this girl boss who just joined the local government!”. When we look at our roots, when we look at queer oppression as a timeline, we have all of the same evils, all of the same oppressive entities are still the same, and no matter how pink or queer, whatever we make them appear, they’re still creating the same evils and the same oppressions.
There was a TikTok of a local lesbian police officer that got really big, and I was just like, “I know her. I’ve seen you arrest some queer folks before. And your TikTok famous, cute.” So yeah, just when we really look at all of these intersections, we can’t be pro gay cops, while gay cops are arresting Black queer people, Brown queer people, are incarcerating and deporting Brown queer people, Black people, Indigenous queer people, all of these evils are still there. If we put queer in front of it, it does not change that. And that’s the same for pink capitalism, like you talked about Adrian. Like, sure, I can go to Target in July and expect to find some rainbow t-shirts, right? But they’re still made in fucking sweatshops. Just because we put a coat of pink on it doesn’t change the system of oppression and the same status quo that we’re really trying to fight against.
And when we think of like, STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolution, and like that awesome organizing that was happening, it was focusing on people who were incarcerated, was focusing on trans Black and Brown people, it was led by trans Black and Brown people, like that is what, to me, that is where revolution is heading and has always been from. It’s not going to be from the lesbian white cop on TikTok who Asheville loves and had a meet and greet with a rainbow flag behind her, you know? Like, no, that’s not going to be it.
And thinking of, yeah, like Monse, you talked about earlier, there’s a gentrification that’s rapidly pushing Black and Brown folks out of Asheville. Like, that’s another thread that I don’t see a lot of queer organizing, like, really looking at, is that class piece, that racism and class piece, right? Yeah, like there’s a Save Charlotte Street going on in town – which is like important, right? This is a whole community – but it’s white folks that are affluent. And there’s a lot of build up and organizing around that, and like, what about all the Brown folks that were pushed out? What about all the Black folks that were pushed out during the 90’s?
So starting to bring all of that in together and look at that same root that is there, instead of just trying to, like, paint it pink and call it cute. Yeah, that’s the direction I would love for us to be heading in.
Leroy: [sighs exasperatedly] Yeah, “paint it pink and call it cute”, there is slogan to be dissected. Yeah, I feel like that was kind of where my brain was going as far as “where’s the liberatory potential of queerness still?” Is that actually still a thing, or is social capital and social hierarchy kind of just subverting this work into something really superficial? And where I see popularity as the potential thing that’s like drawing people into this, and social cred, more than what this work is actually about? I think that’s something that has been a really disturbing trend to try and assess.
Where it’s like, we have a very trendy logo, some might say, that was designed for us in the last few years, and to see our social media suddenly popping off has been really exciting. And it’s like, at the same time that we want people to come towards us and enter into this work, in the time that I have been involved with TPP, this has been primarily white led organization, and it has primarily been white folks involved. We have not had a lot of people of color come to us and say that they want to be involved in our work. And that isn’t to say, none, but I think that there are uncomfortable questions that I’m okay with being uncomfortable about that, for me, when I think about these things, I’m like, I just continue to sit with more questions than I have answers for. What does it mean for us to just continue to listen to other folks in the community, to continue to show up for other POC and Black led organizations in Asheville, so that we’re not just perpetuating part of the problem?
I’ve sat with this question of “if at some point this work needed to completely dissolve in order for something new to take form that was not the folks who have been leading this project for the time that I’ve been here to occur”…I think that’s part of what change is. It’s like death and rebirth and not being so attached to what we have carved out, what we have created, that we can’t still be humble and know that we, again, don’t have all the answers. So I’m excited for where we continue to get to connect, as you know, these four groups that are in this panel.
I’ll say as far as networking goes, TPP actually just got an email from Georgia chapter of SONG like last night about them wanting to start some books to prisoners work for LGBTQ folks in Georgia. And so we basically just send them like everything that we know about how to do this work, cause that was what they were asking us. And we are really like, “Yes, please. There need to be more groups that are specifically serving LGBTQIA folks that are incarcerated”. Because, again, whether it’s in the South or anywhere in the country that remains one of the most marginalized groups in prison, and we know that so many of those folks are Black and Brown and Indigenous.
And yeah, I think that more and more youth are starting to come to us. We have our first ever high school intern right now and she’s getting ready to plug us to the Racial Justice Coalition at her high school. So I feel like a lot of what’s being names as far as intersectionality in this conversation is really like coming to the surface. And it’s an exciting time for, you know what’s possible right now.
But there is a lot of cooptation at the same time. And so yeah, I really hesitate to say with great confidence like…yeah, there is some, I don’t know…the language might have to change. And I think that that’s actually the place where I want to insert this quote that I pulled from – for the old heads who still know who Critical Resistance is – this anthology Abolition Now from 2008, which at the time was the 10 year anniversary of Critical Resistance, a national abolitionist organizing group. I mean, at this point, it’s been more than 10 years since this book came out, but this is a quote from Alexander Lee, the founder and director of the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project, or TGI Justice Project, of California. Alexander Lee says:
“As we go forward, we should expect to be forced to discard language that limits this movements to prison and the prison industrial complex, in favor of descriptors that foster prickly coalitions with others who don’t see themselves as anti-prison, but who do believe in the sacred nature of human dignity, however imperfectly expressed in practice. The prison abolition movement must expand its arms to envelop the same people who fight for housing but demonized prisoners, who protest war but love to watch CSI, people who marched for civil rights but yell trans slur at trans women, and queers who demand the death penalty when yet another one of us is murdered. We should move into these other sectors and act as the lodestar, pulling everyone towards the ultimate goal of building a world where liberation is the status quo. When we achieve these goals, the abolition of prisons will just be the icing on the cake.”
Scott: Thanks for sharing that. Powerful words. And yeah, I guess maybe if we can just transition. I mean, I’m really grateful for all of you kind of speaking out of your experience and knowledge of doing this movement work. That’s so important. All right well thank you everyone.
This week on the show, I spoke with Comrade Chux, a member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak. JLS is an autonomous network of incarcerated activists from across the so-called US. They have been engaged in organizing and calling for the 2016 & 2018 Nationwide Prison Strike activities. Chux and I chat about the call for this year for folks on the outside to engage for Abolition on August 21 and September 9th, we talk about Abolition, Black August and other topics.
You can learn more by following JLS on Twitter and Instagram or checking out their website, Jailhouse Lawyer Speak, lawyer is singular in this, dot wordpress dot com. You can also find out there about their fundraising, the JLS Mothers Day fundraising effort through Blackstone Career Institute to sponsor paralegal courses for people in Women’s Prisons, prisoners they’re supporting and more.
Comrade Chux also mentions Amend The 13th. From JLS’s website: “Amend the 13th: Abolish ‘Legal’ Slavery in Amerika Movement” is an all-inclusive, coalition-based national campaign and community-based organizing effort which is determined to remove the “legal” and social basis for the dehumanization of those subject to the judicial machinery of the United States – and finally abolish slavery in Amerika once and for all. “ More can be found at AmendThe13th.org.
1 Million Families for Parole, April 3rd, 2021
Another prisoner initiatives similar to JLS that have been mentioned and supported by the group that are worth checking out include the National Freedom Movement, which is calling for an April 3rd “1 Million Families for Parole” rally across the country to extend the following demands:
We demand that federal parole be immediately reinstated.
We demand the creation of a mandatory parole criteria and curriculum based on the specific educational, rehabilitative and re-entry needs of every parole-eligible person.
Sean speaks about supporting Dimitris Koufantinas, prisoner from the 17 November group in Greece who just ended a hunger strike. You can read a translation of his statement ending his hunger strike at EnoughIsEnough14.org. To hear an insightful interview by a comrade in Greece and another in the diasporic Greek community about the situation with Koufantinas and the aftermath of his hunger strike, check out episode #254 of Dissident Island Radio.
Love Zap for Comrade Z
There’s a weekly call-in to support incarcerated anarchist,
Julio “Comrade Z” Zuniga at Darrington Unit in Texas. Supporters are invited to call the Prison Show on KPFT radio in Houston at 713 526 5738 Mondays after 9:30pm CST to give a shoutout to E-Line and B-Line Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee members standing in solidarity with Comrade Z and all of the incarcerated folks at Darrington. There’s an image in our show notes for social media, suggesting to keep the message short and sweet, under 15 seconds.
There is a currently a petition circulating to press the governor of New Jersey, Phil Murhpy, to grant release for elder Black Liberation political prisoner Sundiata Acoli who is 84 years old and has contracted Covid-19. At his advanced age, Sundiata has developed dementia and has ailing health and is not a threat to anyone. He should be allowed to live out his days outside of prison walls with family and community. More info at the petition linked in our show notes.
Bring Mumia Home
Actions and information is going and available at FreeMumia.Com to release aging and infirm journalist, Black Panther, author and revolutionary Mumia Abu-Jamal. Keep an eye on his support site for ways to plug in and join the growing calls to release this great man! 40 years on a sham trial is too much!
BAD News, March 2021
We’d like to announce the release of the 43rd edition of B(A)D news: angry voices from around the world a commonly produced monthly show of the anarchist and anti-authoritarian radio network, on this occasion composed by free social radio 1431AM, a radio station in Thessaloniki, Greece. This month covers 5 topics over almost an hour. Check it out!
RoboCop(feat. Tuesday Tuenasty, Squeazy & Lil Stank)
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TFSR: First up, can you please introduce yourself for the audience with whatever name, affiliation, preferred gender pronouns, location, or other information that you think is useful for the audience?
Comrade Chux: For sure. My name is comrade Chux, the pronouns you can use is they/them. I’m a Member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS). I guess I just want to say I’m in the carceral. state.
TFSR: For those who don’t know, who is JLS? What are its goals and what are its inspirations and aspirations?
Chux: So, JLS is an autonomous, anonymous group of prisoners that are also organizers and jailhouse lawyers, actually. You know, a little bit of the history is JLS started as jail house lawyers. And then one thing led to another and through these network connections, we actually started create this inside Federation almost, right? So JLS has become the movement. You know, it’s not just you know now when people hear JLS, it’s tied to so many things like the 2016 inside nationwide protests, followed by the 2018 protests, followed by now the special rapporteur that’s going on in the UN. And there’s a lot of other initiatives like the Ammend The 13th initiative that JLS signed on and is supporting to get released to all political prisoners. The idea of JLS is also these 10 demands. The 10 demands that you can find on any JLS platform, whether it’s Instagram, or Twitter, or Facebook. And these are what JLS stands for. Every state is also autonomous and has their own needs of that state. However, here, in the broad scale of northern Turtle Island, this is what we demand, this is what we stand for and this is why we protest. So JLS has always gotten inspirations from the comrade George Jackson, from Fred Hampton from even nowadays, different autonomous groups, these autonomous organizations. Every person, every revolutionary, every organizer that has resisted, and moves for decolonization in moving to amplify the prisoner’s voice is who inspire us. So this is something we are constantly growing, it’s constantly moving and it is a constant struggle from the inside having to fight, having to be this voice. Because we now have a platform, we have a voice. And you can hear it.
TFSR: One thing that I think is really awesome that I’ve been hearing more and more in the last few years that I’ve been paying attention to. Prisoners organizing has been, like even folks who are not in immigration facilities, who are in state or federal facilities who are in county jails, making sure to vocally include ICE facilities and the people that are being detained in ICE facilities as comrades and as people similarly suffering under the carceral state. And I think you’re references to like decolonization and like naming that some people call this land Turtle Island is an interesting, like, expansion on the idea of abolition, the recognition that this is stolen land, and that the borders are bullshit. So I just wanted to name that right there.
Chux: I think it’s super important. I think that’s extremely important to talk about the idea of what abolition is. Like the idea that abolition is more than just the state or federal facility. Right? When we think abolition for a long time, we’ve always thought about just the prisons, but we have to begin to think outside of that. Right now. The prisons are ground zero. This is where to start. This is what became of the plantation. But we have to remember there are so many different stripe and so many different types of institutionalization that also has to be included in the fight. We talked about these ICE detention centers, and these black sites almost right. That’s what these ICE detention centers remind me of: black sites. That they just snatch people up, and body snatch them and throw them inside. But another thing that is important that I think folks have to remember, and that is not included enough in the idea of abolition, or even the carceral state is the so called mental institution. These mental institutions have to be included in abolition, because it was the colonizers, and it was the powers that be that just choose how people’s minds work. And so the idea of able-ism is such an important thing that that we have to include when it comes to fighting in the fight and then abolition. Because there’s so many arbitrary laws and rules that can take somebody out of society and cancel them and throw them instantly either into the carceral state or start building an environment where they will eventually end up in one of these institutions, whether it’s an ICE institution, whether it’s mental institution, or whether it’s actually prison.
TFSR: I’d like to explore the idea of abolition a little more. But first, I was wondering if you could talk about the Jailhouse Lawyers Speak statement that was released on the nationwide prison strike for this year. Can you tell us about it and what y’all are calling for and hoping for and who from?
Chux: This initiative is “Shut Them Down.” So you can find it on the JLS WordPress site, as well as on Twitter and on Instagram to find the link. What’s going on is it’s time to reignite the flame with abolition. Right now, we are making a call to any outside organizers and outside abolitionists to show solidarity with the inside comrades. And just inside folks in general, the idea that it’s time to shut them down needs to be an inside/outside work. Abolition doesn’t just work one-way it doesn’t just work from outside-in, nor does it work from the inside-out. This is something that we have to work together on and build community ties with each other. The idea of community is so important right now, especially because of how our community, how our terms, how our abolition has been co-opted by this liberal democrat idea or movement that’s going on these both lose no matter what movement has co-opted all these ideas that means abolition. So I think that this call right now is to reignite the fire abolition, we need to remember what abolition is we need to not fall into the liberal traps that are going on that are taking our terms like “defund” “decarcerate” “divest.” Right?! because those terms are starting to mean nothing. Defund has never just meant to take money a little bit from the police, it’s always meant to shut down the fascist police system. Divest has always meant to take all of your money out of the prison industrial slave complex. Decarcerate means that to decarcerate not just nonviolent folks, not just some people, but ALL people, everyone that is inside. And to get the idea, you take this prison industrial slave complex and dismantle it. And so what we’re calling for we’re calling for an action an outside action on August 21 and September 9.
This action can really just be however you want it to be, you abolitionists want it to be that show that jails or prisons and the protests. You could throw up tables.. zine tables in our neighborhoods to create spaces to talk about abolition, because I’m sure there’s so many people in the hood that are abolitionists that don’t even know because they don’t even know the term. So these are things that we have to create, to create the spaces to have the conversation. So throwing up zines, throwing up spaces, throwing up tables to panels, panels at institutions, panels at colleges, panels at small city colleges or big universities, I think are important. And if you can get any prisoners on I’m sure that would be able to happen through JLS through these different people that are inside. I think having prisoners on these panels are very important. I think that we need to make noise, make the noise we used to make. Right? COVID has separated us. COVID has pulled us apart. But COVID has also showed us that so much of these ideas of the so called American dream or this American experiment is fake, it’s false. I really think that right now, as everyone is getting vaccines, and everyone is feeling a little better about moving around about finding their communities again, I think right now is the time to do this. I think these two days, everyone that’s on Twitter that has been talking about abolition can finally meet each other. And we can start building and working toward this community to shut down this prison industrial slave complex to free all of the political prisoners. To rise from the ashes of the carceral fucking state. And I think it’s important, it is important to have just anything you can do. Anything to do, drop banner do a banner drop. Now banner drops are beautiful, right? But also for folks that don’t want to or don’t feel they’re ready enough to go outside, creating virtual spaces that we now know that are possible grab you and 20 of your comrades or 20 of your friends and do some little writing, do some letter writing to some political prisoners and some letter writing to prisoners that are in your neighborhoods or communities, hold each other accountable, hold each other accountable to create the spaces to fight and to shut them down. To build this community. One thing that is very important is to build this network from the inside and outside. And I think that’s what we need to do. That’s what we’re calling for. We’re calling for the abolitionists to be abolitionists and to step back away from the idea of voting or the idea of reform-y type of attitude that the liberal media and the liberal democrats have. So i think just showing up is important, showing up and doing whatever you can. And there’s so many ideas what I just said was just a small thing. Though the a small things are very important. You look in your areas for the different IWOC the Incarcerated Workers Committees. You can look up the different ABC’s the different RAM’s. If you are out west the Oakland Abolitionist Solidarity crew is amazing in New York you know IWOC in Philly… and these days are so important these days are so important it’s a day that we need to relight this match of abolition.
TFSR: Yeah I feel like there was there was so much energy this summer when everything felt like it was literally on fire around us and we lit some of those fires. But it feels like it’s a recurring theme that i’ve noticed throughout my life is that people on the left were left to center or even just centrists or whatever get so…. can get so aggravated when it’s a republican in office and that’s why the democrats get away with so much more once they get into office they push through. Maybe something that’s not so brazenly and outspokenly racist, carceral, whatever but you know the machinery that gets operated no matter which party happens to be in power in the US. It’s the same machinery, it’s the same bureaucrats, it’s the same three letter institutions. And all of that energy from this last summer I don’t know if it’s just the pandemic tiring everyone out or everyone just sort of let out their breath after January 6 or what.. But I know that there’s a lot of folks out there who know that just because brunch can start up again and just because people are getting their vaccines and there’s not some orange idiot in the White House that everything’s not okay that there’s still growing numbers of… I mean it’s not in a vacuum but there’s like still growing numbers of children that are being put into cages on the border as more people come towards the border to seek safety from situations in Central America but yeah I really appreciate you pointing that out I think it’s really important that people don’t forget who is in office and while they may be more acceptable to some of our palates you got a top cop and you got one of the constructors of mass incarceration in the United States right?
Chux: Yeah I think that’s super important to point out. Right? It’s easy to point out the orange devil. It’s easy to say who the orange devil is, right? Because he wears the color red or because he’s a republican or because of the crazy nonsense and racist statements and hate that he spews. However that’s easy to do. The difficult thing is when you have somebody that is taking these dangerous ideas like most happened in this liberal left or with this liberal democrat idea… they have this way to take these dangerous ideas that we are trying to cultivate and make them less dangerous and when they do that when they co-opt these things then it’s very, very… i don’t know… but it might be more dangerous than going against a threatening enemy. Right? So I think it’s important to remember who these people are.
Who is Joe Biden?! Man, who is he? Man.. he is the writer he is the architect of mass incarceration of this 1994 crime bill. Right? He was the one that started this 85% that started these three strikes that started black and brown… like the war on the black and brown. Right okay yeah, the war on drugs and one thing, but this guy is who made it blatant. “Super predators” who was he talking about? he wasn’t talking about “Amy” or “Landon” right? Nah man.. he was talking about the black and brown kids man that’s what they were talking about. Kids. When they started bringing up the idea of these “super predators” and then we have Kamala Harris, right? Like you said a blatant cop. She’s a cop. She was a district attorney. She was somebody that sent children to prison. She was somebody that sent people to prison constantly, constantly, constantly. So, yeah this is who we accepted. This is who (not me) we wanted. You wanted the devil in the mask instead of the devil that’s just blatant.
TFSR: The phrase abolition obviously has a deep historical weight. And it signifies a lot, as do the dates that were chosen and have been repeated through these last few years of nationwide strikes and protests around incarceration. Would you remind us about the significance of the dates of JLS has chosen to propose and the meaning of Black August to revolutionaries behind bars.
Chux: Sure. I think it’s very important, because I want to mention that most revolutionaries, I want to say all revolutionaries, but I don’t want to just put that blanket out there and be wrong. But most revolutionaries, do not celebrate Black History Month or heritage month. Nah, we celebrate Black August. Black August was one of the most volatile months that has happened in the revolution or in the spirit of the revolution. And on this month, during the daytime we fast, during the daytime we study, during the daytime we feel to each other, and we try to create and grab on to the extent of our ancestors, fallen revolutionaries. And one of the probably the greatest JLS inspirations and they’re pretty revolutionary inspiration is George Jackson. Comrade George Jackson, who was assassinated on August 21. And I guess, I mean, I can talk for hours about George Jackson and Soledad Brother and Blood In My Eye. But anyone that does not know the history or who George Jackson was… I urge you to pick up his book. I urge you to find everything you can about the comrade, because for most of us, he started it all. So then skipping forward to the second day which is just as important to so many of us as September 9. September 9 is a memory that most of us still remember, most of us still recognize as a day of mourning for us. But that was the day that the prisoners in Attica in upstate New York took over. And one thing I want to say about this, and one thing I want you to remember is when this happened, it was because of the volatile and the extreme circumstances that were happening in New York at that time. It wasn’t a planned thing. Right? This was not something that was planned. This is something that organically.. that the revolutionaries that was there because there was revolutionaries there, with Black Panthers there, there was Young Lords there, there were Weather Underground there, there was Black Liberation Army there, there was comrades that were there that feed this organic autonomous movement, and they needed to take hold of it. Because if not, they would have never had those three days, they wouldn’t have had a voice, they would have died instantly. And there’s a brilliant book, called Blood In My Eye, that everyone needs to get that is about September 9. And what happened after September 9. The three days of the takeover of the uprising, followed by the years and years and years of covering. The state covering and the state of New York covering everything that happened that day.
TFSR: I think it’s worth noting also that this is the 50th anniversary of both of those events. The massacres, Governor Rockefeller, massacres of prisoners and guards and staff that were being held hostage inside of Attica, as well as the assassination of George Jackson. So that that significance definitely, definitely is there and it weighs heavy. So the the protests called for this year also explicitly mentioned political prisoners, and the need for them to be free. Over the years, it feels like there’s been distinctions drawn in a lot of prison movements around social versus politicized versus political prisoners. Can you talk about the demand to free our aging political prisoners, in particular, like amidst this pandemic, and so many of them being in their 70s and 80s.
Chux: There’s so many comrades that are inside that have been buried alive in here that we need to fight for their strategic release. I urge people to follow amend 13. Amend 13 has a vast list of the prisoners inside of the political prisoners inside. And I really want to remind people, these ideas of politicized prisoners or political prisoners or prisoners of war, once we all come inside, we’re all prisoners of war. Once they declared a war on the street, once they declared a war on the drug, the war on black and brown, the war on poor people. We all became prisoners of war. Once these Jim Crow laws started locking up black and brown people, and started creating the policies to lock up poor folks. That’s when we all became political prisoners.
Now yes, there are some prisoners that are actually inside because of their work on the outside. And those prisoners, Mumia. Maroon. and I can keep naming them all, but these prisoners are our inspiration as well. These are who we look up to. But not only them, there are so many prisoners like.. I’ll talk about George Jackson. George Jackson was not a political prisoner when he came in first day, when it comes to the terms “political prisoners” but no one would ever deny that he was a political prisoner today. And I need people to remember that.. Man, that just because there are certain ideas or politics on who should be released, who shouldn’t be released. Nah, everyone should be released, and especially the political prisoners and people that are suffering from repression constantly because of their ideas, because of their views, because of who they are. Because their skin color, because of the politics, these comrades are taking it next level. Taking the pain next level. There’s not any days that Mumia has that is an OK day in here. There’s not any days that Maroon is chilling. Right? So I need people to remember that these comrades. These political prisoners are the ones that are and have been extremely repressed and extremely tortured by the system.
I mean, look, with they have done to Mumia. Look. They have given them hepatitis C. They’re giving Maroon and him COVID! Dude! I mean, he’s not around anybody, you know, he’s in the SHU. How is he getting COVID? Like, how is this stuff happening to him? If it’s not the prison, it is not the prison crisis is not the system killing him? You know, so I think this is very important, I think it’s so important to push for the release of the people that should never have been inside. The people that if anything, should have went for some type of Geneva Convention, because that’s the war that will always be tore upon them. So there are so many people in here, so many people we have to remember. And I want people to see who Joy Powell is. Right? There’s one thing that is forgotten a lot here too, is the radical black feminists that are inside, the queer folks that are inside, that get forgotten about. Because of, you know, the numbers, the numbers. There’s not that many women prisons. So the women revolutionaries get lost. However, I know a few, that are suffering just as bad or even worse than the male comrades. So I just want people to go and look up, the radical black feminists that are inside and support them as well. Hear the voices we don’t hear a lot. Joy Powell is who we are hearing from a lot lately. However, we need more.
TFSR: So this last year has been really hard, especially for folks who are being denied the ability to move denied the access to safety, people in cages. It’s also notable that there have been an incredible number of uprisings, escapes, and other resistances because people have the fight in them, basically. Can you talk about what you’ve heard from other comrades about the pandemic, and how folks are making it through?
Chux: Sure. I think it’s important to point out that right now, prisoners have been in prison 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 years that have been experiencing the state violence, this colonial violence, this ghetto violence, constantly. I think that it’s important to note that one of the common threads is right now this last year has been one of the most deadly years for so many of us. It’s easy for us to see our enemy when he has a knife in his hand, or when he has a spray can or when he has hand cuffs. But when we are now fighting against an enemy that we can’t see… COVID… that we know is coming in from the outside. It’s scary. And there’s so many more people that are talking about needing to create these safe spaces and needing to get the fuck out of here because they don’t want to die in here. So they’ll have to wait and fight to appeal and all that stuff. But now it’s so much more urgent. And everybody is just worried. Everybody’s worried that somebody they know is going to die in here that might lead to them. So this enemy, this biochemical enemy that is being reeked upon us. It’s scary. They’re not doing things to save us in here. They are making environments more volatile, more dangerous, more scary! So that’s why you’re seeing more stuff this year. That’s why stuff is popping off. That’s what people are hitting the fences. That’s why you’re seeing, you’re seeing prisons on fire. You’re seeing the Midwest on fire, you’re seeing St. Louis on fire, you’re seeing Georgia on fire, you’re seeing people, 15 prisoners rushing the gate at one time in South Carolina, you’re seeing these things because people want to live! These uprisings are us wanting to live and nothing more.
TFSR: You’ve already listed a bunch of ways that people can engage in their communities: Get together, talk about abolition, make some noise & educate folks. And I guess points where that can especially be noted are these invisiblized spaces of terror that are in all of our communities. ICE detention facilities, jails, prisons, juvenile facilities, mental health facilities, as you said. There’s also a reference to higher education in terms of I guess, like, universities or colleges that work with prisoners, I reckon. Is that is that right? Why? Why JLS has pointed out higher education facilities?
Chux: Well, there’s so many prisons, I mean, there’s so many institutions, there’s so many colleges that actually invest still in the prison industrial slave complex, why there’s so many of them that create these things that the small things that prison need. And I’m not talking about, you know, one that comes to educate the prisoners. Now, there’s some places like different universities that will create great stuff for the state to help the state run the prison. And even if it’s little things, and that’s why it’s important to have these areas, right. One thing about the institution, these ivory towers, is that we have to remember that it is part of and at the end of the day, you know, and it’s blatant! When you see these radical professors like the comrade Garrett Ferber getting kicked out of Ole Miss because of his political views. He was one of the most brilliant historians of the recent times. And all the stuff that the comrades would do for…. I mean, this professor actually had classes on the JLS 10 demands, right? So it’s like the anything that pushes the idea of abolition in the institutions in the “higher education” facilities are not actually trying to further these dangerous ideas or these ideas to shut down the state. Because the state still perpetuate, and still grows inside of the higher education facilities. Right? Inside of these institutions. Inside of these colleges and prisons, right? I mean, there’s only so much of a radical education that someone can get in there. And then it starts turning into a liberal education. I use the word liberal as this big Democrat, watered down idea of what it means to be radical.
TFSR: The demands for 2018 which I think besides a modification of adding the focus on on political prisoners.
Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women
An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor
The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights
The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole
An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states
An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans
No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offend
State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services
Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories
The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.
Chux: So the only thing that’s been changed is number 9. 9 has been revised to “Free all political prisoners.” Because you know for some, and for a lot of people the pell grants were reinstated. I’m not so clear on the rules a number i read at the beginning that it was under a certain amount of time that people can apply for pell grants and maybe it’s extended… I don’t know, but the revision has been to number nine that explicitly called to free all political prisoners. I think what’s important, I think what’s very important is to remember that everything right there is what abolition is. Every single thing that we quoted and you know some people like to argue and say well some of these ideas or are kind of reformist, right? Some of these ideas are… the idea to create a humane living environment. Some people say that investing in the prison industrial slave complex… and you know the argument is that it might be. It might be for the moment. However, we know this fight for abolition is going to be a long fight. We need to be able to live in here. We need to be able to grow in here. We need to be able to educate ourselves. We need to be able to get the opportunity to build and to create. One thing i’d like to point out is purely what abolition is: it is the goal. No matter what road it takes to get there, abolition is the dismantling of the prison industrial slave complex. Shutting down every single prison, shutting down the carceral state that’s what abolition is.
TFSR: Abolition, like the demands towards abolition and understanding these things… there is no one who knows better what is needed to ameliorate the situations than the people who are in those situations. So like while there’s some of those demands that if I was writing a list with my experience and whatever else, I might not prioritize. I’m not going to question that that people that are on the inside and living it day to day feel that these are important things for people on the outside to stand in solidarity as accomplices and to push for.
Chux: Always. That’s for sure and that’s what we look for that’s what we appreciate. We appreciate things like Final Straw we appreciate the comrades out there that understand that our voices are important our voices are out there. It’s not like we don’t have a voice. We do have a voice and just because some people have contraband phones or some people are able to have more of a voice does not mean the voices that are not actually heard are not important either. That’s why I think letter writing and writing to political prisoners and creating networks inside/outside networks are so very important we need more words of prisoners out there. Even if it just comes like this on a collect phone. This is what we need.
TFSR: So there is…. I guess similarly, and this is not a JLS call out.. but so listeners know there’s a very good Millennials Are Killing Capitalism interview with some other organizers from JLS and the host brought this up I think or maybe one of the guests… but the National Freedom Movement is calling for 1 Million Families for Parole Rally on April 3. This is for places all around the country. Participation from wherever you can as I understand because parole is a national issue that affiliates of the National Freedom Movement all around the country are are experiencing a lack of access to it and in particular like worsened by the state’s response to the pandemic by shutting things down by pulling back on access to educational opportunities that would allow people to score the points basically so that they can actually earn their freedom through the system. It’s fucked up, but it’s the existing system that the prisons have set up.
Chux: The strategic release ideas and parole is so very important but for all those people that say “I heard you want to abolish parole” and okay yeah in the end when we abolish the system we’ll be abolishing parole too, but man we need parole right now we need the opportunity to release any prisoner any way we can! So I think that we need people to make these calls we need people to go to these state we need people to learn on how arbitrary that their parole systems are because every state is different, every state that even has them are different. So I think that this is important to fight for those that are parole eligible. I think it’s important for those that have family on the inside or just have any type of idea or want to be part of this abolition movement to find out about these parole systems and trying to find out any way to release as many prisoners as we can.
TFSR: Besides how people can continue following and supporting the work of you and other comrades with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, do you have any other topics that I didn’t ask about that you specifically want people in the audience (whether they’re behind bars or in the “free world” or whatever) that you want to share with them?
Chux: Well I just want everyone to know that the fight is coming and it’s constant. It is a long fight. It’s something that is not pretty, but it’s something you have to work towards. Every single one of us have to work towards this because the carceral state affects our community. These pipeline’s that are sending black and brown folks inside is something that has only increased. Yeah, sometimes you hear the liberal media talking about that “it’s changing or getting better” but from the inside we’re telling you it’s not. It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse as they’re creating more of these types of lockdown institutions and lockdown programs and they’re trying to find the comrades on the inside with these contraband phones. So I think that it’s super important to find your local abolitionist network and build with them. Because we can’t do this alone. Abolition is a communal thing. This idea of inter-communalism is abolition and we need to stick together we need to build with each other we need to find our organizations. We need to find both those communities that are close to us. Then if there’s none that are close to you just contact and call the Fight Toxic Prisons called the Oakland **** call just the comrades everywhere to find out how to create these autonomous networks these federations, these groups in your own area. If there is none contact the IWOC. Contact everything you can to be part of this movement because this is a community thing and we need to build with each other.
TFSR: Comrade Chux, so much respect to you and the work that you do and thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation. Yeah, solidarity.
Steve Martinez Still Resists Grand Jury Related To Dakota Access Pipeline Struggle
It’s been nearly half a decade since thousands of indigenous water and land defenders and their accomplices and allies weathered a difficult winter and attacks by law enforcement and private security attempting to push through the Dakota Access Pipeline through so-called North Dakota. The DAPL was eventually built and has already, unsurprisingly damaged the lands, waters and sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux and other people native to the area. Resistance has also continued to this and other extractions and pipeline projects across Turtle Island and the defense against DAPL surely inspired and fed many other points of opposition in defense of the earth and native sovereignty.
On one night in November, 2016, as government goons leveled fire hoses and “less-lethal” armaments at water defenders in freezing temperatures, Sophia Wilansky suffered an injury from an explosion that nearly took her arm. An Indigenous and Chicano former employee of another pipeline project named Steve Martinez volunteered to drive Sophia to the hospital in Bismark. For this, he was subpoenaed to a Federal Grand Jury, which he refused to participate in. Now, almost 4 and a half years later, Steve is being imprisoned for resisting another FGJ in Bismark. For the hour, we hear from Chava Shapiro with the Tucson Anti-Repression Committee and James Clark, a lawyer who works with the National Lawyers Guild, talk about Steve’s case, the dangers of Grand Juries, and why it’s imperative for movements to support their incarcerated comrades.
The Final Straw Radio: Would you please introduce yourselves to the audience with any names, preferred pronouns, affiliations or other information that pertain to this chat?
Chava: My name is Chava I work with Tuscon Anti-Repression Committee in Tohono O’odham territories, also known as Tucson. And I have done anti-repression and movement defense work for around 13 years, and grand jury support work for the last four or five years. And I use they/them pronouns.
James: My name is James, I use he/him pronouns. I’m a lawyer with the National Lawyers Guild based out of Austin, Texas. And I’ve also been doing anti-repression and activists legal support for about 13 years now, including a number of grand jury support situations.
TFSR: So would you please tell us who’s Steve Martinez and how did he come to be called before a federal grand jury after a brutal night in November of 2016. And what happened with that grand jury back then?
C: Steve started out coming to Standing Rock, really thinking that he was just going to drop off water. And he actually had been working in the oil fields, the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota prior to that, heard about what was happening at Standing Rock, and was really inspired by what he had seen and heard about happening, even though he was also working for the oil fields and the oil company.
He’s Indigenous from Pueblo community in northern New Mexico and also Chicano and grew up in southern Colorado, and just inspired by the Indigenous land resistance and movement happening. And so he loaded up his vehicle with water to come and take it to the camps, and then he never left. And he became really involved in what was going on there. From the point of the summer, all the way up to that night that you mentioned in November. Which a lot of people remember that there were fire hoses used – and, you know, sub freezing temperatures – by law enforcement on water protectors that night in a conflict that lasted, you know, 12 to 14 hours on the bridge in those cold temperatures. And a young woman named Sophia Wilansky was really gravely injured that night, presumably due to law enforcement’s use of so called “less lethal munitions”. She nearly lost her arm.
When she was injured, getting emergency services was almost impossible for emergency vehicles and services to get to that point on this highway that had been blockaded by law enforcement at that point for around a month or more. And in order for her to get to emergency services, she would have to be driven by someone who was on the other side of that blockade. And that person who volunteered to do that was Steve, who was acting as a Good Samaritan doing the right thing in that moment. And then just really, a handful of days later was subpoenaed before a grand jury. And his presence was requested to provide information – they said they were asking for information – related to Sofia Wilansky’s injuries. So any testimony he could provide, or any images he might have taken on a cell phone or anything like that.
Steve didn’t know what that subpoena was when he received it. And so he reached out to a relative that stayed in the same camp that I did at the time – I had gone up there to do legal support for people – and his relative then came to me and said “Hey, can you speak with my uncle? He’s received some kind of subpoena we don’t really know what it is.” And at that time, just pulled his uncle into a tent and that uncle turned out to be Steve, and immediately from that moment that he received that paperwork, he asked for support, and then happened to have one of the best, most knowledgeable movement attorneys on grand juries in camp that day, which is Lauren Regan from the Civil Liberties Defense Center.
You know, maybe it’s just pure luck. Maybe it’s, you know, serendipitous, or that Lauren happened to be there that day. But we were able to immediately get Steve talking with an attorney who could explain to him the process. And then also from that exact day, moving forward, it also began a massive outreach with the thousands of people who were staying in camp at that point, about grand jury occurring subpoenas going out, at least one known subpoena at that point. And then also initiated the nationwide education campaign, because many tens of thousands of people had come and gone from the camps. And so that is where Steve was four years ago. But almost exactly four years later, he was subpoenaed to this new grand jury. And he, again, has refused to comply, because he’s acting in immense solidarity with a movement that he believes in, which is a movement for Indigenous sovereignty over lands and waters, and to protect those things, and a deep love and care for his comrades. And so that’s where we are now. And how we got there.
TFSR: Do people feel like they have an understanding of what this grand jury is specifically about? And does that matter?
J: We’re quite confident that it’s about the situation regarding Sofia Wilansky. One sort of important development between Steve’s grand jury subpoena in 2016, and when he got subpoenaed again in 2020, was that Miss Wilansky has sued Morton County over their use of, you know, these “less lethal munitions” that caused her injury. And in, I can’t remember if it was October or November of 2020, the judge in that Civil Lawsuit made a ruling that she could seek to compel the government to disclose evidence, specifically the fragments that were taken from her arm during surgery. And it was just a matter of days after that court’s ruling in the civil lawsuit that Steve was, again, subpoena to this grand jury. So it’s kind of you know, the timing is is convenient, as they say.
C: Yeah, I think you spoke well, to that, James, the timing is is suspect. And I think it’s also interesting to note that throughout the whole course of legal battles related to Standing Rock – both criminal and civil legal battles – there has been some signs of real collusion between civil court and criminal court. There’s been a number of attempts at SLAPP suits and civil suits by ETP (Energy Transfer Partners) that continue even now. And this timing of, you know, this win in Sofia’s case with that judge to compel the government to turn over this evidence – which I’ll just note there were FBI agents lurking outside of her surgery room outside of the OR, waiting to confiscate those items, while her family is like crying in a hallway. I just think it’s important to remember the cruelty of the state in the course of this entire situation. Because I don’t think that’s most people’s experience when they’re in a really scary, dangerous situation that involves possibly losing a limb or use of that limb.
And so the way that it looks like, the government has been able to make sure Sophie’s attorneys cannot get that evidence back from the federal government is by saying it’s part of an ongoing investigation. And so if there’s a new grand jury looking into these facts from, who knows, what, four years ago? Then they can’t turn that evidence over to the civil court, because there’s this ongoing criminal investigation. So it seems pretty well timed and convenient on their part, and really just a continued leverage of cruelty against Sofia, and against other water protectors who were injured and harmed at the hands of law enforcement. And also unbelievable amount of cruelty leveraged against Steve, who, all he did on that night was the right thing. And now, four years later, he’s dragged back before a grand jury in what seems like just using him as if he’s upon, but he’s a real person with a family and a life. And now he’s separated from them while he’s incarcerated.
J: I think the other key portion of this story, and the cruelty the Chava is talking about, is how Morton County has tried to basically twist the narrative, while all the evidence that we know about points to Morton County law enforcement being responsible for Sofia’s injuries and for the use of these “less lethal munitions”, they’ve always tried to either directly say or insinuate that this was actually caused by other water protectors, or potentially even by Sofia herself. And so the sort of victim blaming narrative that they’ve tried to use to tar the movement, kind of like what, you know, what the government did with environmentalist Judi Bari, you know, when her car got bombed, and they tried to blame her for that. And so it’s kind of a continuation of that, bad actors will inflict horrible violence on activists and then try and twist the narrative to blame the activist for that violence that they’re inflicted.
TFSR: So this is a beginning of a long conversation, but can you tell us a little bit about grand juries? They’re a pretty complicated legal tool that is shrouded in mystery. And yeah, just kind of remind us about what they are, how they operate, and sort of their range and uses, from the mundane to political repression?
J: Yeah, absolutely. Most of the uses of grand jury are pretty mundane, you know, speaking here, specifically about federal grand juries, because it can vary a lot from state to state, whether there are grand juries or how they work. But in the federal system, pretty much every felony case goes before a grand jury. And the purpose of the grand jury is to decide whether or not the government has enough evidence to even bring charges against somebody. It’s supposed to be a sort of screening or gate-keeping kind of function, to make sure that people aren’t brought to trial on serious charges without, you know, at least some amount of evidence. That’s sort of the ideological idea behind fair use.
In practicality, it tends to be much more of a rubber stamp. But there’s a famous quote from a judge in New York that “a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich if that’s what a prosecutor wanted”, because the prosecutor controls the entire process. And so, in most grand jury proceedings, what happens is that a federal law enforcement, federal agent of some type, will go to the grand jury, maybe summarize a police report, give some facts, some details, and the grand jurors will decide if that’s enough evidence to constitute probable cause to bring charges against somebody. And it, you know, typically, pretty quick proceeding, you know, the cop says, “Oh, we did this raid, and we found these drugs, and these people were there and we know that this was their apartment.” And so in that way, a lot of the grand jury uses are kind of unexceptional, even if it is a still problematic in regards to how much power and control it gives to the prosecutors in this system.
In a more political context, what we see though, is actually using the grand jury as an investigative tool. As a way to compel witnesses to appear and give testimony, or compel people to turn over evidence of some type. And this is where we see, you know, analogies to grand juries is like a fishing expedition or a witch hunt, or something. Where people are sort of dragged before these legal proceedings and forced to, you know, name names or give evidence, or something of that sort.
And so, the way the grand jury works is that there’s typically, I believe, 24 jurors – so it’s twice as big as what you think of as a typical jury in a trial. There’s 24 jurors, and the only people in the grand jury room at the time are the grand jurors themselves, the United States Attorney, the prosecutor, the court reporter, maybe some clerical staff and the witness who’s giving evidence. There’s no defense attorneys, there’s no judges, there’s no audience. It all happens very much in secrecy.
And the other aspect is that, you know, sometimes we think about how in a jury trial you have the lone holdout juror that prevents somebody from getting convicted. In a grand jury proceeding they only have to decide by a simple majority. So you can’t have a single lone holdout grand juror, because as long as 13 people still vote to charge somebody or to indict somebody, the other 11 people, their votes don’t really matter.
Grand jurors, again, in opposition to what we normally think of in terms of a jury, grand jurors are not screened for bias. There were situations during grand juries that were investigating alleged acts of Animal Liberation, Earth Liberation groups, where people that basically worked in the industries that were being targeted by these Animal Liberation groups, other people in those industries, were actually sitting on the grand juries that were reviewing the cases that were, you know, allegedly targeting those industries. So there’s no screening for bias. It’s, you know, supposed to be a cross section of the community, but it’s kind of random. And there is a long history of discrimination in who gets selected to sit on a grand jury, who gets selected as the foreperson of the grand jury.
And so, you know, what turns into is this, you know, secret of proceeding with almost no oversight or accountability, where the prosecutor has total control over what evidence they present, they don’t have to present contradictory evidence, they don’t have to present exculpatory evidence, they don’t have to present anything that would be unfavorable to the outcome that they seek. They can present the evidence in whatever light they want. And they can also present evidence that, you know, is illegally gathered, or that wouldn’t be admissible in a normal trial. So things like hearsay, rumor, gossip, evidence that was collected as from illegal search or seizure, statements that were maybe coerced or compelled in a way that wasn’t constitutional, all this all this evidence can be presented to the grand jury, in furtherance of what the prosecutor wants to see happen.
Considering the scope of this, another thing that we see in some of these political cases, is, you know, people getting called to grand juries, to testify about things that are sort of far afield of what they directly experienced. There’s one case where somebody was being asked to testify about something that he allegedly overheard two other people saying, at a bar or coffee shop. Not something that he was directly involved in or directly participating in, but sort of this third or fourth hand rumor that he had overhear.
TFSR: As you mentioned, James, the witness that’s being called before the grand jury, is seated before grand jurors, the prosecutors, stenographers, the, you know, court officials, doesn’t have a lawyer present, right? And a lawyer could hypothetically, if they had a role there, challenge some of those things that might be inadmissible normal court setting. But they also can’t really warn someone about safe approaches towards answering the questions or not answering the questions. Are there safe approaches?
J: So, I mean, this is getting into, you know, sort of the difference between political advice and legal advice. I’m obviously not here to give anybody legal advice, and if anybody’s ever called before grand jury, they really need to have a good lawyer that shares their values and their goals to represent them and inform them of all the nuances and implications here. Politically, I would argue that there is no safe way to answer questions at a grand jury. And this is for a variety of reasons. I think one reason is that you don’t know what they’re looking for. People have an idea that like, “I didn’t do anything wrong”, or “I don’t have anything to hide” and I think that’s generally mistaken. I think part of it is the broad expanse of federal law that things that you wouldn’t even imagine are illegal and felonious under federal law, so you don’t know what’s going to incriminate you or incriminate somebody else. You also don’t know what somebody else might be exposed to. Maybe you have a reasonably good idea of what actions you’ve taken and what things might put you at risk, but you don’t know what your best friend or your family member, your comrade, or your neighbor, your fellow organizer, what they might be subject to. Things that might seem supposedly innocuous or harmless can easily cause significant problems for people.
The other thing that we see is, you know, we have this idea of like, back in the Red Scare McCarthyism, people getting dragged before hearings and being forced to name names, and then everybody that they name then also gets dragged before the hearing in kind of this dragnet approach to investigations. And that’s entirely possible with grand juries too, that the mere fact of you identifying somebody else, even if it’s not in a way that criminally incriminates them, could be grounds for them to get dragged in front of this grand jury also. And then they’re faced with this sort of impossible situation where they have to either decide to testify or face imprisonment for contempt.
And I think, you know, again, speaking politically, I think the idea of solidarity and building trust and cohesion and our movements is really fractured when somebody that’s involved in those movements goes before a secret grand jury and gives testimony that there’s no accountability or transparency for. It’s often hard for people to trust one another in that situation. So that’s how grand juries can serve to sort of, sow this distrust and paranoia and discord within movements and really fracture the solidarity that’s necessary for effective organizing.
C: Bursts, you said in the beginning of your question “Is there any safe way to answer questions before the grand jury?” And, James, you spoke really well about all of the reasons they’re not. That question you asked Bursts is sort of a gateway into strategy that we’ve seen be effective in recent years for resisting a grand jury.
There’s essentially four ways somebody can resist a grand jury: you can avoid being subpoenaed, which means you need to know that there’s a grand jury happening, and that’s actually a lot harder to avoid a subpoena than it sounds. But a subpoena for a grand jury does have to be served to you in person by a federal agent, by a federal law enforcement agent. Doesn’t have to be an FBI agent, it could be an ATF agent, or a CIA officer or whatever. But you’d have to avoid that person. And know that they were coming for you.
You could also receive a subpoena and you could just disappear. Some people have used that strategy to varied success, but it’s very difficult. Because it means you have to basically go on the run, you’re avoiding complying with that subpoena. And it means that you would have to leave the place where you normally live, stop talking to people you normally speak to. And that’s a really difficult way for somebody to exist.
The other thing is that you could receive a subpoena and you can publicly refuse to enter the courtroom. And some people have done that very successfully. Because even entering the courtroom, like James said, we don’t know for sure what’s happened in there, right? So all of your comrades, and the larger movement on the outside of this secretive process, we don’t know what’s going on in there. So you run a risk when you enter the courtroom that potentially could leave some room for mistrust amongst the movement.
But we have also seen this last option where you receive the subpoena, you publicly refused to cooperate, but you enter the courtroom and then you invoke your constitutional rights that apply in the situation and your refusal to testify. Which is the tactic that Steve has used and other recent grand jury resistors have used successfully, is that it sets up a great legal precedent for getting you out of the legal consequence that occurs when you refuse to comply with the grand jury. Which is if you refuse to comply, you could be held in civil contempt for up to the length of the grand jury, and that could be 18 months. And that’s a long time, but we’ve seen the use of this legal maneuver, called a “grumbles motion”, which basically appeals to the judge who’s holding you in a civil contempt of court for your refusal to testify and says, “this person has stated publicly that they’re never going to comply, they’re never going to testify, they have continued to not comply or testify. And you holding them in jail or prison, during this grand jury for their refusal to testify, has gone from this civil form of contempt, to something that’s now illegal, because you’re actually holding them in jail knowing that that’s not going to be the coercive tool that you hope it will be, to get them to comply, and to testify before the grand jury.” And it’s not legal to hold someone in prison in that way, because they’ve never committed a crime, and then the state, the government, has crossed the line, right? They’ve crossed their own legal line.
That’s a strategy that’s worked well, but it does require that somebody sets up the infrastructure along with their comrades in the larger movement to support them. And that means being very, very public from the beginning of your situation, which is what happened with Steve the first time that he was subpoenaed to grand jury and what has happened with him the second time that he’s been subpoenaed.
TFSR: So just to belabor the point, because nobody actually said thisI don’t think. You both have mentioned going into the grand jury, and then refusing to speak and getting held in contempt. What happens if somebody invokes their fifth amendment? And why does that make this sort of proceeding so scary?
C: So when somebody goes in, and they’re asked a question by the prosecutor, the prosecutor is going to say something like, “Hey, what’s your name, state it for the record?” So I would say “My name is Chava so-and-so.” And then the prosecutor would ask me, “okay, tell me about what James had for lunch yesterday” and I would say, “you know, what, I’m gonna actually invoke my first, my fourth, my fifth, and any other applicable Amendment rights that I might have?” A prosecutor is gonna be like, “Oh, great. Okay, well, what did James have for lunch day before yesterday?”, I’d say “I’m going to invoke my first, my fourth, my fifth, and any other applicable Amendment rights”, and then eventually, the prosecutor is going to be very clear that that’s my entire plan, while I’m present in their grand jury room, and then they’re going to take me before judge, because they’re going to ask for me to be held in contempt. And then they’re likely to request from a judge that I be given immunity. And that immunity means that anything I say can’t necessarily be used against me. And that’s what the Fifth Amendment provides to us, is like protection from testifying things that would incriminate ourselves.
But what we don’t know is how our words then can be used against someone else, or how someone else’s words could be used against us. So it doesn’t protect us entirely, it just protects us in this very narrow way. And the court and the government call it being “granted” immunity, like there’s some fucking fairy godmother that’s coming and waving a wand and giving us this great gift. But it’s not a great gift. They’re actually imposing and forcing something on us, that strips us of our rights in that courtroom – are very limited rights – and takes them away from us. Because that’s the like beauty of the rights that the state has given us, right? They can give them they can take, and that’s all at their discretion.
So they impose immunity on you and you no longer – when you were taken in before the grand jury – can refuse to answer questions based off of your fifth amendment rights, right? And so then at that point, when you continue to refuse, you’d be taken back before a judge, who then would likely decide, “okay, well, we’re going to put you into coercive incarceration. So we’re going to try and compel this testimony out of you by incarcerating you”, and then things move from there. And that’s where we are right now with Steve, is at that point: immunity has been imposed upon him, he’s being held in contempt, and his contempt will be reviewed on a monthly basis by the judge in North Dakota.
TFSR: So you’ll have mentioned that Steve went before the grand jury in 2016. Steve was again called this year, I believe, before a grand jury and then released, is that correct? Like, where does Steve stand at the moment?
J: Right, so when Steve was subpoenaed in 2016 – his appearance date was actually in early 2017 – and he went and refused to testify. And the prosecutor never pursued contempt proceedings against him, they ended up withdrawing the subpoena, before he had to be found in contempt or be incarcerated or anything. When he appeared, when he first appeared in February, just about a month and a half ago, he again refused to cooperate and very quickly was taken before a federal magistrate judge, found in contempt and ordered into coercive custody for contempt. His legal team filed some motions and objections on the grounds that the magistrate judge actually did not have legal authority to find him in contempt or order him into custody. There’s some, you know, complicated and nuanced laws around that. Basically, he was ordered into jail by a judge that didn’t have authority to order him into jail.
And so his legal team filed some motions and objections and they were granted, and he was released from jail after 19 days of being unlawfully incarcerated. But before they released him from jail, they subpoenaed him again, to the same grand jury to appear on March 3. And when he appeared on March 3, and again refuse to cooperate, this time they brought in front of a federal district judge who did have authority to conduct contempt proceedings. And so at that point, he was again, found in contempt and ordered back into custody.
So I think this is a pretty salient example of just how ripe for abuse Grand Jury proceedings can be. That they can illegally incarcerate you for, you know, almost three weeks, and then the remedy for that is that you get released, but then you just get re-subpoenaed and taken back, and the whole thing starts again. And so, you know, the prosecution really gets…in some ways they get unlimited bites at the apple. I think we mentioned earlier that he can be incarcerated up to the length that this grand jury is impaneled, which is, you know, typically 18 months, but can be longer in some circumstances. But if that grand jury expires, there’s nothing that prevents the prosecutor from subpoena him to a subsequent grand jury. In this way, you know, we’ve seen, throughout history, that grand juries, there’s not a whole lot of check on this. And so they can really be used to harass and incapacitate activists and, you know, entire movement communities.
TFSR: So, how about earlier you had brought up the idea of SLAPP suits. Could you define that for the audience? And also, maybe, I don’t want to take this too far off a focus on Steve, but I’d like to recontextualize this, again, to be within not only supporting someone who has proven himself to be brave and an amazing supporter of other people involved in movement, but besides Morton County law enforcement trying to avoid or state officials trying to avoid possible lawsuits for the damages that they’ve caused to people. How does it relate to the timing right now the operation of DAPL
J: Well to speak to SLAPP suits and what they are, “SLAPP” is an acronym for “strategic lawsuit against public participation”. And it basically refers to lawsuits that…typically it’s large entities like corporations, sometimes governments, you know, powerful people filing against activists or journalists or sort of the little guy, for the purpose of basically retaliating against or silencing their damaging statement. So a lot of times this takes the form of defamation lawsuits, libel or slander. And so maybe a corporation sues this small activist group, and says these statements about us clubbing baby seals are defamatory, and they have to stop saying it and pay us damages. And, you know, a lot of the purpose of these lawsuits isn’t necessarily to win the lawsuit. Because of the power disparity, it’s often intended just to tie up the organization of the people in litigation. That if you’re a big corporation with, you know, billions and revenue and expenditures every year, it’s no big deal for you to spend a million dollars on, you know, a lawsuit. But if you’re a small, scrappy activist group, or citizen journalist or a whistleblower or something, you know, defending this humongous lawsuit can be can be totally debilitating.
And so there are statutes and a number of states that allow procedures to quickly dismiss these types of lawsuits. And that’s, I mean, kind of a whole other conversation. But I would, you know, if people are interested in this topic, the Civil Liberties Defense Center website has a number of resources about SLAPP suits, and defending against SLAPP suits, and things of that nature.
I can’t speak to the situation with DAPL, specifically, maybe Chava can, but I will say that we’re kind of in this moment where a lot of pipeline resistance efforts have seen some success. Recently, there was the pipeline that was supposed to run through Appalachia, they got cancelled. Resistance against line 3, in Minnesota has really been taking off. And so I think there is this sort of moment where, you know, people that are invested in these pipeline projects are seeing the success that resistance movements are having, and are looking for new ways to subvert those movements, undermine those movements and push back against those movements. And so I think, you know, it’s impossible to say like, if there’s a direct correlation between that and what’s going on with Steve’s case, but I do think it is sort of a reminder of what tools the state has against some of these movements, and how those movements should sort of think about making anti-repression and legal support and movement defense an integral part of their organizing throughout their campaigns.
C: I think one of the strategies that Energy Transfer Partners – which is like the larger company that was pursuing the Dakota Access Pipeline, along with many other pipeline related projects across North America – but Energy Transfer Partners goal with SLAPP suits, is not even necessarily to win. It’s a way of industry leveraging the law – in particular laws around RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), which a lot of people are have heard at least that term related to, like, “organized crime” type cases – but leveraging those laws as a way for industry to have a chilling effect on movements that are successful against them. And so Energy Transfer Partners kind of famously filed this outrageous SLAPP suit, including Greenpeace as one of the named parties that they were suing, and asking for, like, almost a billion dollars, I think in damages. Which, they knew they were never going to win that award of money in civil court. That wasn’t the point. The point was to make movements and NGOs, or nonprofit organizations that were supporting social movements against ETPs various pipeline projects, to make them have to scramble and exhaust their resources, both financially and as far as people power, real like human labor, to exhaust them to a point where you’re so focused on fighting the SLAPP suit, that you can’t be focused anymore on fighting the people who are suing you.
And that was dismissed in court because it was outrageous, right? But it doesn’t mean that it didn’t have some of its intended impact, which was to distract people’s energies towards this other thing. And ETP continues to do this. But we also know that pipelines are failing as financial projects. And it was known that the Dakota Access Pipeline was only ever going to be financially beneficial in the short term. It’s basically like a big scam to make a bunch of money at the at the beginning, and that it was going to be a financial failure in the long run. But their goal isn’t to make better energy for anybody if they were they would be pursuing other things. Their goal is to make money and at any cost possible, including the costs of human lives and the earth.
TFSR: So bringing it back to support for Steve, how can listeners support him? What are some good places that they can find out more information about his case? Does he need people to write to him? Are there any campaigns on going besides informing people about the resistance to the grand jury that people could join in on?
J: Absolutely. There’s a website supportstevemartinez.com, there’s an Instagram account @SupportSteveMartinez, and there’s a Twitter account SupportSteveNow. All of these are excellent ways to stay informed about what’s going on with Steve’s case, find out more information about grand juries about you know, anti-repression strategies, and to, you know, connect with what’s going on. Another really vital way to support Steve is to write to him. He really appreciates getting letters. And we know that regardless of what the government says about the nature of incarceration, we know that incarceration is always punitive. It’s always extremely damaging, and difficult, and writing letters and staying in contact with people in prison is an incredibly important and incredibly effective way of keeping them connected to their community, connected to their movement, keeping their time and their spirits occupied and lifted while they’re incarcerated. And so yeah, we definitely encourage people to write to Steve. You can find information – the address and sort of guidelines about what what kind of materials you can send – at his website, or on any of the social media accounts.
And also donations. Donations are being used to put in his commissary so that he can get snacks and food and, you know, hygiene items and things like that while he’s in jail. Also to be used for phone calls, so he can stay in contact with his partner, and other family. We know that calls from jail can be extraordinarily expensive. And then also supporting his partner and his family while he’s incarcerated. You know, they’ve lost Steve’s income since he’s now incarcerated. Bills don’t stop, expenses don’t stop, things like that. And so money to support the people around Steve while he’s standing up for his principles, and standing up for the movement, is incredibly important. Because, you know, grand jury resistance is a community effort, and it takes all of us to support the resistor and the resistor’s supporting all of us. And, yeah, it really takes a community in that way.
C: Yeah, I can’t really stress enough how vital people’s community support is. I think there are a lot of people who listen to this podcast that came and went from the camps at Standing Rock and the occupation there. And tens of thousands of people from all over the world did. And Steve is in prison to protect all of those people, at the end of the day. That’s the reality of the choice that he’s making. And so he’s showing some real solidarity to all of us who were present there and who fought against that pipeline, and for Indigenous sovereignty over the land and the water. But it’s our role to support him so that he can support us. And you know, James did mention that his partner is bearing a lot of the brunt. And that’s the reality of what’s happening, you know, anytime anyone is incarcerated: they are separated from their family and removed from their communities and are unable to fulfill the many obligations that they have to people that they love and they care about. There’s a GoFundMe page that’s gofundme.com/SupportSteveMartinez and that GoFundMe is going directly to support Steve, like James was saying, but also really to support his partner. They have a grandson, who is pretty little and I know that it’s really hard on Steve to be separated from his grandson. And that is something that brings a lot of joy to him, to even be able to talk to him on the phone and on a video chat. And so by people donating to that, it also enables Steve to video chat with his grandson and with his wife. And that’s a real lifeline for him right now.
The other thing that I would just say that people can do to support is be really public about your support. Even your banner drop that says, like, you know, “FREE STEVE MARTINEZ”, and “FUCK A GRAND JURY”, or like whatever you want to put on a banner, that’s actually proof, it’s evidence that can go into a motion to compel the court to release Steve. That there is a wide network of humans across the world, of comrades who support him and are enabling him to continue to stand against this grand jury. So if we show that he has that support, that’s also something that can be utilized in like a legal maneuver to get him released from court to compel the judge to do that. So even if you think your banner jobs are silly and they don’t matter, they do matter! And it shows the federal government that that we have Steve’s back, and he is going to be able to continue to maintain his silence.
TFSR: I’d like to ask you all, if you have anything else that I didn’t ask about, that you want to mention while we’re on the phone?
J: I’ll just add that, you know, we’ve sort of tried to emphasize this again and again, but movement support means all of us. It takes all of us to take action, but it also takes all of us to support each other, and care for each other when things get difficult. And so, again, putting that at the forefront of our minds: when we’re organizing it’s not just about the day of action and the days leading up to it. It’s about the days and weeks and years after that, that we have to continue to support each other, continue to help people navigate these legal processes that drag on and on. And the more that we can anticipate that and prepare for that and account for that in our organizing, the more resilient we are when these things occur. And I know Chava and I are both extremely indebted to all of our elders and all the people who have come before us that have helped teach us these lessons and teach us this information and allowed us to share it with other people. And so everybody that’s that’s sort of tread this path before us we’re extremely grateful for.
C: Yeah, I think if people want to learn more about grand jury resistance there’s a lot of great resources online, but I would really encourage people to check out the Freedom Archives, and anything in there related to Puerto Rican independentista resistance to grand juries. Those movement elders really built the model that we see used today successfully against grand juries. And we really just wouldn’t be where we are now, in our ability to resist this particularly nefarious and fucked up tool of the state, if it hadn’t been for many movement elders from a lot of different communities, particularly in the 1970’s and into the early 80’s and their resistance in national liberation struggles.
And I think the last thing I want to say is just that people went up to Standing Rock to, well people went up there for a lot of different reasons, right? But at the heart of it was to protect land and water and to engage in either, like, your own Indigenous resistance or to support those who are Indigenous and their resistance. But ultimately it was about a movement for liberation, which is what social movements are about. And at the heart of those movements for liberation is a lot of like deep care and love for each other. And having lived in those camps for months and lived in a field in the middle of the winter in so-called North Dakota, I can tell you the only thing that keeps you up at night really is like the deep blue loving care of your comrades. And Steve is really continuing to exemplify that deep love and care for his comrades, and for the reasons that he he stayed at camp after he thought he was just dropping something off.
TFSR: James and Chava thank you so much for this conversation and for all the work that you do. We really appreciate it.
The last year has been a trying time for everyone. Among the hardest hit have been prisoners who have seen increasing infections of the covid-19 virus brought in by guards who live off site or other prisoners transferred in from other institutions, prisoners who don’t have the luxury of free movement during the incessant lockdowns their wardens employed as a band-aid measure to limit transmission, prisoners who don’t have effective healthcare in non-pandemic times and who across the board have had limited to no access to personal protective equipment. In many cases, incarcerated people have had their lives put on hold, the hard-fought programs they rely on to earn earlier releases paused during this emergency situation, access to the outdoor for exercise and socializing with others in their institutions unavailable because of under-staffing or concerns of spread. This sort of situation, hearing about the spread and deaths on the outside and being unable to defend yourself or loved ones, undoubtedly has a lasting impact on our psyches.
For this hour, Bursts spoke with a member of the Perilous Chronicle about their report “First 90 Days of Prisoner Resistance to COVID-19” concerning the spike in measured prisoner resistance in the forms of work and hunger strikes, fights with guards, riots and escapes from facilities ranging from county jails, state prisons, ICE detention facilities and federal prisons across the so-called US and so-called Canada. The report begins coverage of events on March 17, 2020, when protests occurred at facilities on either coast naming concerns of the approaching pandemic as impetus. Our guest speaks about the data they’ve been able to gather, their approach and specific incidents. The report, published November 12, 2020, will soon be followed with more information concerning the trend as it spread, including overlaps with the Rebellion for Black Lives of the summer of 2020.
Soon after this conversation was recorded, on February 6th 2021, prisoners at the St. Louis so-called Justice Center, aka The Workhouse, engaged in an uprising, taking over the fourth floor of the facility, flooding toilets, setting items on fire, busting out windows of the facility and waving banners. This was the 4th and 5th protest at The Workhouse since December and had escalated after mismanagement, lack of proper PPE, covid-19 screenings, warm clothing, access to recreation, price gouging, people awaiting trial in the postponed court hearings for months because they lacked money to pay the bail, filling meals and the lack of medical care of prisoners known to currently have the novel corona virus among other reasons that echo a lot of what our guest today talked about. You can find a good summary, including prisoner statements, in an article entitled “This Is Genocide”: St. Louis Inmate Issues Statement on Horrific Conditions Behind Revolt on It’sGoingDown.org
In case you missed it, the A-Radio Network broadcast it’s 6th Transnational Live Broadcast of Anti-Authoritarian and Anarchist Radios and Podcasts, this year from studios around the world cooperating via the internet (thanks to the magic of audio comrades in Thessaloniki and others). You can now hear members of the A-Radio Network (producers of the BAD News: Angry Voices from Around The World) discussing various topics with international perspectives from Slovenia, Greece, Germany, Russia, Belarus, the UK, Turtle Island (specifically us at The Final Straw), and occupied Walmapu (aka Chile) speaking on various topics around the pandemic and repression, mutual aid organizing, prison and resistance and a Spanish-language section specifically with updates from Abya Yala, in so-called Chile, broken down into topics of 1-2 hours of audio for ease of listening. More at the A-Radio Website.
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If you like the work that we do here at TFSR and want to support us, you can find ways to donate or purchase our merch by visiting TFSR.WTF/Support. Funds from our patreon go to support our transcription efforts to get conversations like this one you just heard more easily into the hands of prisoners and folks with hearing difficulties as well as making the chats more translatable and legible to search engines. You can find printable pamphlets and more of those chats we’ve transcribed by clicking our zine tab or visiting TFSR.WTF/zines. Supporting us can also look like telling folks about us on social media and rating us on streaming platforms like iTunes, Audable or Googlepodcasts. You can find links to us on those platforms and more by visiting TFSR.WTF/Social. Another great, free way to support us is to contact a local, community or college radio station in your area and tell them you want to hear us broadcasting on their airwaves. More info at TFSR.WTF/Radio . Thanks so much to folks who have been contacting us with ideas and supporting us in these and a myriad other ways. It really helps us out and we really appreciate it!
All We Got Iz Us (instrumental) by Onyx from Last Dayz
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TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself to the listening audience with any name, you want to share preferred pronouns, and any affiliations that makes sense for the purpose of this conversation?
Perilous: I’m a researcher at Perilous Chronicle, and through Perilous I’ve been studying, kind of researching and reporting on prisoner resistance riots, protests and other forms of unrest for the past few years.
TFSR: Cool. And is that the maingist of what perilous does? And why do you think that sort of work is important?
P: The project was formed out of conversations that wanted to try to document and basically build a timeline of prisoner protest movements since 2010. Maybe we hesitate to call it like a singular movement, but like, basically all these different acts that are just basically too diverse almost to think about it as a single movement that have been occurring inside the US and the Canadian prison system since 2010. We limit that just for our own capacity, we can’t study the whole world at this point, at least. But we basically are interested in looking at prisoners who have organized hunger strikes or even have you know, organized prison breaks, different riots, hostage taking…everything from huge rebellions in which guardsfire live roundsand there’s tactical riot teams that come in, to prisonersattacking guards and setting a trashcan on fire. We’re interested in all of these different sort of acts that are happening inside the prison system.
Yeah, so it started from there. And then we quickly realized: while that is stillkind of at the core of the foundation of the project, we’ve really honed in more recently on two aspects that we think are…there’s a relationship withthe sort of the audience,like, what are we positioned to do well, and what do peoplewant from us? And what do people like that we put out? We’re really focusing now on sort of more investigative journalism, a little bit of breaking-news kind ofreporting, but often kind of more in depth reporting.
For instance, one of the Perilous journalists wrote this really amazing piece on the Lauren Reed case, down in the southwest, the self identified email anarchist, who is picked up by the feds. There’s already reporting on that, but sort of like in–depthreports on different stuff related to the prison system, and also kind of like data–driven research. And what that means — I know, data is sometimes a scary word to people — but this means doing really clear fact–based research. Specifically this came out andonce COVID hit the prison systems in the US and Canada, we wanted to really carefully document like, how many events? How many of these in each facility? How many facility types? I think that’s kind of, in part, what we’re going to be focusing on today in this interview.l I’ve done the journalist stuff, too, but now I’ve been mostly focused on the sort of data report data tracking side of things.
TFSR: Any media project has an audience — and as you say, you’re trying to figure out what your audience likes to engage with, and would look to you all for what you do well — but there’s also a purpose, whether spoken or unspoken, to why a project focuses on a specific issue. And I think that there are other projects like the Marshall project, for instance, or The Intercept, that will talk about prisons, but specifically, putting the focus on the agency of people behind bars to engage in numbers more–than–just–one is an interesting choice. I wonder if you have anything to say about why your project is explicitly focusing on collaborative actions against the prison system against, you know, not even justfights between prisoners?
P:Well I think that’s very perceptive. I think, in part, it was just looking at the landscape of research projects focused on prisons. That’s very general, but that would include stuff like The Intercept, to the Marshall project. Where I live, one of the big driving forces trying to shrink the prison system is the libertarian right, because of budget balancing things. So they’ll put out really important and interesting reports on shit.
But looking at this entire landscape, there isn’t a project like ours. And that’s not tosay we’re the best thing out there. I don’t think that’s true, either. But to just actually be honest, as far as we know, this iswhy the project started. There’s been efforts in the past, different efforts to document, especially around the 2016 prisoner strike. And I’m also not an elder, I’m sure stuff like this has been done in the past. But the short answer to the question isall these projects just don’t do what we do. And we think it’s, at the bare minimum, we think it’s an important part or should be an important part of the discourse. And in a broader sense we see our project as basically a big intervention in this discourse, andreally centering what prisoners say, and more importantly, what prisoners do.
Oftentimes, we don’t know what they say about what they do. And we try to reach out somehow, and maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. And we’re not corrective in the sense that we just only focus on what prisoners say and do and like, they’re the truth tellers of all. I mean, also part of our reporting often includes reaching out department corrections for press releases, reaching out to family members, guard unions, etc. We want to tell the full story of these events, because we think these events are significant. But they’re significant because prisoners did them. So that’s at the core of the project.
And I think, in a way, your question…like we don’t have to come out and be like “we think prisoners are important” you know? I mean, yes, yes, we do, we think that. We think the prison systems are in crisisin a general way. And we think that the waves of resistance and protests over the past decade aresignificant to what happens next. But like, we don’t want to say thatevery article, you know? We justtry to tell the story and highlight the actions that the prisons are taking.
Which for me, this is why I do any of this at all. Basically being moved by prisoners back in 2016, who have really put themselves —in the September 9th of that year, and the National prisoners strike, the 40th anniversary of the Attica Rebellion — you know, you have to be really brave and courageous to do what these prisoners did. And at the very least, for me personally, I mean, this isn’t my mission statement of the project, but that’s important. One of the things we can do on the outsideis help tell those stories, and tell the stories in a way that humanizes them too and isn’tjust like “freedom fighters bravely set this trashcan on fire” or something. We want to tell the story with the good and the bad parts. Because we think that’s what the prisoners deserve, to have their story told, to have their voices out there.
So that’san even deeper core of the project in a way. We use these other ones you’re referencing, like we use The Intercept, we have a relationship with an Intercept journalist, for instance, not Glenn Greenwald-
TFSR:formerly of Intercept.
P: Yeah, right *laughs*. And we have stuff like the Prison Policy Initiative, and…these groups aremuch different. Probablythey probably they get paid, for instance. They do. But I mean, these groups are all super important, we use them too. But we have something that they don’t have. So I would like to get to the point where it’s like, Perilous is almost like part of that ecosystem, not because we have the same politics necessarily, but because all our research complements each other.
TFSR: So in November, y’all released a much lauded study on the first 90 days of the COVID 19 pandemic and prisoner resistance in the so called US and Canada. How was the report received? And can you talk about the methodology that y’all followed?
P:Yeah, this was an exciting moment, I think, for me, and for the project. We were trying to figure stuff out for a while. I mean, the project’s been around for, I don’t know, four years? Almost? I think we’re coming up on the two year anniversary of our public launch, but I think we were probably meeting for a year and a half before that. And this sort of data tracking — which is not what we call that — we been trying to do for a while. To be able not only to research past events, but research events as they’re happening. Andthe collective really rose to the challenge earlier this year, in part because of similar dynamicsI just was referencing. Like, man, shit was so bad. And what people were doing inside seemed so important. I mean, because itseemed like this death sentence and in fact was a death sentence for too many, and continues to be so.
So I think, in part, being inspired by the actions people were taking inside, and in part because we had a little bit of preparation; the way the virus spread geographically, we started seeing these news reports of other places. I remember specifically Italy, rebellions and prisons happening in Italy as COVID hit there. I know right before [you and I started recording this interview] you referenced the mass release of prisoners in Iran, I think you said 50,000? That sounds right. I remember reading about that too. And the collective of Perilous, we were like, it’s quite likely this will happen here. And we were kind of positioned in a way to be the ones that focused and do the initial reporting on that.
And I’ll temper that extremely, becauseI really can’t emphasize: I feel like so much this work relies on the work of so many other researchers and journalists. Part of the report we were able to put out was only possible because of all these journalists from all sorts of media organizations focusing — in March, April, May, June — on prisoners. And that’s great, because otherwise we couldn’t have done what we do. I meanwe’re really at the end of the day, a small, humble organization. That also applies to sort of prisoner support organizations and other media organizations of all sorts of stripes. So family members, too. You see what I’m saying? We’re not doing all the reporting ourselves. We’re often relying on other people’s reporting, but basically putting it all together and seeing if it talks to each other through the medium of data.
It took us a long time to get the report actually out, it was mostly done — I don’t know, if people didn’t burn down the third precinct in Minneapolis — it probably would have came out in June. But that changed a lot of our priorities for a little bit. Interestingly the report we released goes through the middle of June, so you do get to see the sort of overlap of the George Floyd rebellion, mostly in the streets, some prisoners would reference it still talking about COVID though. Basically, everything that happens inside people are talking about COVID, which makes sense.
So, it came out in November, it came out through this relationship with this journalist, Ella Fassler, who was great. Ella reached out to the Perilous and it was like “your project’s cool, can we work together?” We’re like “yeah, we have this report we’ve been sitting on will like send you a draft right now if you want to start writing and pitching it to places.” So basically, we released the report the day that Ella’s article in Truthout came out. It’s a great article, called Report Finds Over 100 Rebellions in Jails and Prisons Over COVID Conditions. I mean, truly big shout out to Ella. It could have been likely that the report came out on our website and no one saw it, but because it came out Truthout. I mean, also, because there was, in fact, over 100 rebellions in jails and prisons in the US, we counted 119 in the first 90 days in the US and Canada, maybe one or two of those are non events, but there’s probably numerous, countless other events that we just don’t know about.
So anyway, it came out in November, and got reposted on Slate, and got picked up a lot of places. Which washonestly just really exciting for us. Because like, prisoners had been taking action, and then we’d been reporting on it, and it seemed like we weren’t doing it in the best way to communicate it to the larger public. Which is kind of what the project is about. And this feels like we succeeded in this goal, and that feels really good. Democracy Now, for instance, picked up this Truthout article and put it in their headline section. Noname, you know, this communist rapper, posted on Instagram. All these little things, they matter to us because it’s also a confirmation of people wanting this research and reporting done that’s focused on prisoners and what actions they’re taking.
We talkabout conditions, we talk about budgets, we talk about COVID spread in that reporting, but…I don’t want to take any of the sales out of this excellent show, but I also don’t want to get too bogged down in the details of the methodology. The base of it all is: prisoners act, and then we try to report on it. The collective talks about the methodology on this long episode of our podcast on our website, o if you are interested in that…I just don’t want to get too bogged down in the nerdy shit.
Basically, we count a single event as when two or more prisoners take action. And, not that it doesn’t happen, we just exclude events that are just groups of prisoners fighting each other. That’s not tominimize the significance and violence of that in the dynamic in prisons, butwe just have to limit ourselves. So we’re focusing on stuff that’s not that, even though it’s often the same conditions that lead to both. Prisons are just these violent, terrible places and that violence is gonna find outlets in many different directions.
We started on March 17and ended on June 15th. March 17 is not arbitrary — 90 days at the end of the day is an arbitrary length — but we kind of wanted to end in the transition to the George Floyd rebellion period. It seems like there was a change that happened in the way the rebellions were playing out. But March 17 is chosen because this is, as far as we know, the first actions occurred in the US in which the prisoners articulated COVID as the reason they were protesting. There was an action in New Jersey, and also one in California.
TFSR: And those are two different kinds of facilities, right? One was an ICE facility and one was a county jail?
P: Yep. And following the one in New Jersey, there was a string of similar actions. Basically this ICE detainee hunger strike, about COVID, and then outside supporters were doing car caravans. Which I don’t know if people could remember back in March, feeling like we had no idea what this meant, what the pandemic meant, what the virus meant. I think that’s a general truth for everyone. Some people immediately dismissed it, but we all around were like, paralyzed in a way, of what was happening. And these car caravans, I remember seeing that and being like “oh, okay, but we can still do stuffthat’s not just in your house or on your computer”. And again, the first thing is the prisoners act, these ICE detainees went on hunger strike, and then Never Again Action, a network of Jewish activist, starting this car caravans. And then a few months later wewere like “oh, we can actually do other actions besides cargo vans.” I want emphasize…I know personally, for me, it was so beautiful to see that because it wasin this moment of fear and paranoia and uncertainty, it was like “oh, people can still protest or something that seems important.”
The methodology is:we count an event, like I just said, and we have a pretty basic system — which we’re improving on now — of data extraction, kind of data entry thing, oftentimes from other reporting, sometimes original reporting, and that’s the relationship between the Perilous journalist side of things and the data side of things. And so we look at the different event types, a hunger strike is different than a food strike, protest is different than an uprising, maybe they would be both, an event can absolutely have like multiple event types based on our schema. But same with facilities, there’s many ways of doing it. Oftentimes a county jail will have a contract with ICE, and so it’s like both of these things, even though the populations will be segregated, we just mark it as both. Then we mark state prisons are different than federal prisons are different than ICE detention centers. We track of which prisons are private, if there are private prisons, and what company runs it. We also track if the guards attacked the protests, what weapons did they use. We track a number of different things that just comes from looking at other articles, looking at independent research that the Perilous Chronicle has done, and then trying to put it all together and just pulling some numbers out of it.
And there’s a second step to all this data stuff, though, we don’t really want to do in a way. Like we kind of want to put this report out and be like “these are some initial thoughts on it, there was almost 10 escapes in the first month of this stuff.” And it’s like, what do people make of that? Like, why did that happen? Well, COVID, you know…this is a second level of interpretation that we almost want people to use in lots of different ways. We want journalists and other researchers and academics to use it. Unfortunately, I’m sure like some law enforcement someplace, download our data set. I mean, they’ll be reading it through a totally different lens. But, you know, we put it out, and we want it to circulate. Because for us, the most important thing is to emphasize how widespread the actions were: the diversity of the actions, the diversity of the facilities, the geographic spread of it, across the US and Canada, the number of participants which we count as best we can. And that’s really, at the end of the day, what the report does, like here are the numbers, and some other details, do what you will with it. Which is scary, but that’s that’s how it works, I think.
TFSR: Often on the show, we have guests who call in from behind bars, or we’llput together a segment based on an interview through letters. We try to amplify the voices of prisoners as much as possible. And while they can generalize their circumstanceto some degree, they’re limited, obviously, from being in prison to the scope at which they can talk about experiences. Like a few weeks ago, I got to talk to Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun of Free Alabama Movement, and he’s been participating in these wider discussions among incarcerated folks around the country. So that is a bit different of an example, but one thing that I like about the work that y’all put out, and this report, is the opportunity to look at like, okay, numerous facilities in these geographic areas are having this sort of reaction, and how does that relate to the spread of Coronavirus or the prior history of those facilities, or the amount of connection or activity on the outside? So I think that your report — even if you don’t want to do that second level of conclusions, or whatever, that are based on your own experience — this does allow for people to get these takeaways related to policies and repression and resistance. Are there any takeaways from the report in terms of resistance during the pandemic that you’ve observed that you feel comfortable waxing philosophical on?
P:Yeah. The first part of that, which I think is what you’re getting at, we’re able to put all the events together so they talk to each other in a way. That’s something that I would like to think we would offer to prisoners who see themselves as part of the movements, currently incarcerated people — not to reinforce the prison walls, in a way to say that people outside aren’t — but I have access to more research stuff. I know this from talking to people, like my friends on the inside. So a lot of criticisms of the project, though, it’s like we haven’t really…we can’t do everything. We’ve tried some ways of sharing our project with people on the inside, and we haven’t really come up with the best way of doing that, besides maybe describing it over the phone. Or I think people have actually sent inprintouts of the article. But that’s not really facilitated on the website.
I mean, it is a digital project, so we can’t do everything. But I guess if people — whether that’s you or other listeners even — had thoughts on how to do that, in a way that isn’t a whole separate project, that would be interesting to hear about. As far as the conclusions based on the research, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here, that may be totally waxing philosophical, but for me one of the most interesting things, not maybe the biggest part of the wave of rebellion — which it does feel fair to call this first 90 days of resistance to COVID, it’s like something like a wave — it’s like something similar about much of it. Even if there wasn’t some sort of formal coordination, in the same time period responding to similar if not almost exactly the same conditions, a lot of the prison systems dealt with COVID in similarly inadequate ways.
I think the biggest thing is the size of the number of events. But within that, one of the things I was drawn to the most was the emergence of this demand for immediate release. And, I’m willing to be corrected on this, but in the short amount of time I’ve been paying attention to prisons and prisoners stuff, and being in support organizations and doing media work, I just don’t think that’s a demand that people normally say. Like, you’re in prison, and you have a list of demands, and one of them is “let me out of prison”, right? I mean, that happens over and over again, during this period, because prisoners early and accurately described COVID as a death sentence for people who arelocked up. It’s truly tragic. It’s hard to dwell on it in a way. No one, in Michigan where I live, was sentenced to death. Andthey’re just in there, getting sick, and dying, or having permanent symptoms.
So early on, people were like, like even the big national prisoners strikes, the demands were better wages and stuff. These are all like, good things, they wereways to kind of publicize. And I know that those demands made sense in that moment, in lots of ways; I think we could have some other debate about that. But putting that aside, the demand for immediate release, or not even an immediate release of yourself but the immediate release of elderly prisoners-
TFSR: …or people who are reaching the end of their time already, like a few months away.
P:Yeah. Exactly. So there’s policies, there’s like legislative talk off and on in different states about how to strengthen prison population, but this was a new thing. And I think it’s a really amazing thingbecause there’s something common sense and simple, in the best way, about this demand. It’s the single best thing that the systems can do to make prisoners a little bit safer, rather than masks and hand sanitizers and testing guards temperature and stuff. And everyone kind of knows that: the different state governments, the different federal, you know, ICE and stuff, everyone kind of knew this. And then in a way, it’s still tragic, but the way thatthey didn’t act, it’s just like an obvious thing. I feel like prisoners were like “you need to shrink the prison population today or we’re gonna die.” And they were right. And it sucks they were right.
In a study we actually marked that, when prisoners were either released a list of demands, or they talked to the media in some way, we looked at what they said. And every single time they said something about COVID, anytime we have a prisoner quote, they mentioned COVID. Which isabout half the events were like that. And then a good number of those, I don’t have the number right in front of me, but a good number of those, they had something to do with immediate release. So that’s, that’s one of the things I was most struck with.
And the second one related to that — in its own kind of direct–action–oriented way — is the high number of escapes. Okay, there were nine clusters within this 27 day period. So that’s from March 23 to April 19. And we have an attempt to escape in May. But just to focus on these nine, one of them — it was an attempt, they were on their way out and got got — we marked it because it was a big effort, a significant effort. And so just to look at the other eight for one second, some prisoners went on a hunger strike and wrote this letter to the media that was demanding to be released, which is amazing. Because in this moment, it’s like, “oh my God,this is impossible to imagine” and now prisoners are doing this. A few people got released, and I don’t want to minimize that either. But it was obviously, absolutely, in general, totally inadequate.
There’s these nine escapes in this early period, right in that psychological time when we were all unsure and nervous and uncertain. And these people, they just literally jumped the fence, or walked off. And because there’s only nine of them, we got to look at the sort of time between escape and recapture. Which is just like, what do you draw from this? I mean, I’m not really sure. But it just seems significant that this demand comes out of immediate release, and people are immediately releasing themselves also.
I think thatfocusing on prisoners actions are important because they’re one of the players that will decide how this plays out. I mean, they’re like, if shit is terrible, like it is right now they’re going to…my friend Nino says this phrase “the riots will continue until prisons are gone”. So it’s like how will the actions of prisoners affect how that plays out. And I think with that in mind, the emergence of this demand for immediate release, along with the actual, immediate release — only temporarily, of lots of prisoners all across the country — I think is significant to that larger narrative.
TFSR: I think some people are probably, like maybe not regular listeners, or whatever, but are going to hear that demand for release, and think that it’s like using your first three wishes to wish for more wishes. But like it is so fundamentally…it’s the only option. In a situation where, on the quote unquote “best of days”, without a pandemic, when full fundings in effect, when the system is functioning at full capacity, it still cannot provide adequate health care, adequate programming, adequate rec time, you know, religious facilities, visitation. It can’t provide these things that it claims as a correctional system to be there, and organized for the purpose of. So they, better than anyone else, have known from the beginning.
I’ve continued getting letters from prisoners in various parts of the country saying “hey, I need you to talk about this. We’ve been promised here in Texas, here in California, here in North Carolina, here in Illinois, like we’ve been promised PPE and we’ve not gotten it. I can write down the documentation of when the state announced that they were going to be releasing a nonalcohol–based sanitizing fluid that they were going to be giving to prisoners. We haven’t gotten that. We’ve just been on 23 hour lockdown. So even those of us who like could potentially work towards getting a shortened release are being put on hold because we can’t get those hours. We can’t get those programs. The staff are just basically rats carrying the plague in and we’re a confined population that has to live with this.”
The jail system here in Buncombe County — where Asheville is — decided when the pandemic started happening, that they worked with the police department to decrease the amount of arrestable incidences, so they were just, in a lot of ways, ticketing and releasing people. They released 300 people from the jail and have been keeping the population way lower. For the most part, unless there’s like extenuating circumstances that I’m sure they can argue, but like decreasing people being incarcerated forsimple property crimes, or possession of drug crimes, for instance. They are on contract with the federal government and they have 200 beds that are being held for federal prisoners, that hasn’t changed.
But I think that it begs the question, like “Oh, cool. So if the county can decide which of these instances they will put someone behind bars for and charge them a bail, and all these different circumstances that rests most heavily on poor and other marginalized parts of the community, if they can listen to people’s demands of like, ‘Oh, well, I’m going to be released in three months, or this guy is going to be released in three months anyway, can you just let him out now?’ or ‘this elder has chronic health concerns, and a stint in prison could be deadly’”. Rightfully, I think administrators look at that as a threat because they see the erosion of the position that they are the blue line betweenchaos and safety in our society, that their jobs are necessary and that prisons work. And that everyone who’s in there needs to be in there.
P:Yep, you’re touching on a lot of significant dynamics happeningkind of in response to the pandemic, and I think George Floyd and subsequent political crises have all played into it. We’re talking about prisons here, but even in some sense the essential worker framework — which is a messed up, to force some people to work — frames the economy in this totally new light. Like, what do we actually need? Like, that’s the question that framework poses to me anyway. And similarto what you’re saying, on the optimistic side isoh, if you’re able to do this, these things that we want, don’t put people in a cage for property crimes and drug stuff — I mean, at the minimum, right? We want more than that — but like, you can do that right now. Let’s just keep doing that. As the return to normality plays out, depending on how the vaccine goes and stuff, I think people — whether that’s prisoners or people in the outside world — will fight to hold on to some of these gains they got during this period. Everything from tenants fighting for different protections, to unemployment access being made more widely accessible — mildly available to people who have been out of work because of the crisis — to prisoners.
I think of myself as an optimist. And I feel like you just had the optimistic take on this stuff locally, which is great to hear, seriously. But in Michigan? I don’t know if they got anything to hold on to. I mean, maybe they got some righteous sense of anger, but I mean, they’re getting killed, and they’re gettinga free five minute phone call once a day. Because visitation is canceled. Maybe they fight to hold on to that. I mean, that would be I guess good, as long as they get visitation back. But the first thing you said was that the release is like the wish to get three more wishes. That’s really funny. I hadn’t thought of that framework. Of course, that’s the case, but it’s also thatsome people are always gonna think that prisons are working.
I know, you said this thing about the administrators feeling nervous about their power being eroded during this time, and I think that is very legit. I think the director of the Department of Corrections is stressed about that. And I’m thinking mostly anecdotally about Michigan here because these dynamics play out differently everywhere. This is getting a little bit away from Perilous, but I don’t think anyone actually in the prison system thinks they’re working. No, that’s too strong, I’m retracting that. Even guards, they know that there’s innocent people in there. That’s easy to get, there’s literally innocent people who get out, get released and get paid a bunch of money because they were tortured for 30 years for something they didn’t do.
Iget the sense that a lot of people know it’s a fraud. It’s a hollow core to the whole idea that prisons do anything positive in a structural way. The way it’s played out in Michigan, for instance, is like I said, the libertarians want to cut the budget, the left wants to shrink the prison population, the prisoners are fighting, the guards are also fighting. Yeah, they’re the ones literally carrying the virus in and out, but also the guard union right now is fighting so hard for the resignation of the director of the Department of Corrections, Heidi Washington. There’s some of these car caravans around prisons and the guards are so stoked about it, too. It’s sort of like everyone against the government kind of,even though the guards are government workers, I’m not trying to absolve them, my sympathies are clearly with the prisoners. But you had this optimistic “maybe people can hold on to these gains” it seemed like you were almost saying and I like that a lot. But maybe the biggest gain here and other places is that there’s been almost the this ideological sort of shift, and a lot of people knew was kind of a fraud but now it’s like oh the policies that the Department of Corrections is handing out and that the state government is making possible, there’s no more illusions about what things are now in Michigan. Because it’s just been a huge death toll, some of the worst hotspots in the country.
So anyway, I just wanted to add to that and like the context for why maybe I see theimmediate release stuff is so much than some sort of clever workaround. I think it’s like a common sense solution to what people now have to acknowledge. Even townspeople that live in prison towns they’re at risk too, for the decisions made in Lansing, and at the Capitol.
Anyway, just to respond to your rant with a rant man. It’s like I yeah, oftentimes, the immediate release stuff comes with other demands, too, like for personal protective equipment, and all sorts of stuff. That’s often there. But then they know that in a way that things are falling apart. There’s a sense that things are falling apart, things are in crisis, things are in this terminal decline. I probably would have said that before this year, but now I’m more certain of it, because I feel like lots of other people that would not have said it a year ago. And I do in fact think that some of that veneer has been scrubbed away, because of all this shit in the past 12 months.
TFSR: Yeah, I can’t imagine that. Guards — no matter what state they’re in, and if they do have a union, like in Michigan or a few other states — I can’t imagine many people besides truly evil souls wanting to go in and really enjoying their job being prison guards. I’m sure that most people are just, you know, paying for college, kids college and whatever, sloughing through and they know they’re hated, and they know they’re doing a despicable thing. And I’m sure that now…what’s the phraseyou used? What the government’s been calling people that work in grocery stores…
P: essential workers.
TFSR: Yeah, essentially, sacrificial workers, it puts the lie to like, I’m sure that they already realized that before. But they can’tbe happy that, at a certain point, how much money is it worth it foryour position to be perpetually understaffed, you being in danger of getting shivved by someone, everybody hates you where you are, and your boss is literally going to send you in there to be a carrier for plague for all these people like.
P:Yeah, sacrificial is a great framework. That’s great. You have to sacrifice the prisoners and the guards, and the people living around the prison. Because if you don’t sacrifice them then the system falls apart, or something. That’s great, I like that framework of sacrifice, I think it’s really useful. I don’t know, that hits.
TFSR: I mean, the alternative would befundamentally changing the way that the system works. And the people that are at the helm definitely don’t want that to happen. I kind of wonder, so you mentioned before, in these conversations and reports that y’all were working with, there was constantly that discussion of COVID coming up, which makes a lot of sense. But also, because of the overlap with the George Floyd rebellion, that started seeping into at least some of the dialogue, or some of the like reasons, or some of the statements that you were hearing from or about prisoners in uprising. Are there any other insights, any sort of things that you were able to glean out of that that stand out, that show up in the report or not?
P: Yeah, it’s a super good question. It’s a question that we’re interested in. And instead of really diving into the extent of that, we just decided to put the report out, but luckily, tune in soon, to perilouschronicle.com for report number two. Because this one went so well we’re gonna do a follow up one. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be basically 2020 in review, so try to take the full 12 months. And part of that one will be focusing specifically onthe interaction between actions inside and the George Ford rebellion. I do know that period, basically, from May 28 to the end of the report — the middle of June — there’s a handful of these actions in which basically, people reference the rebellions in the streets. And that’s really cool and important.
I just don’t know, at this point, how much more I could say about the interaction. I mean my hypothesis is that the way things played out around the country, after, you know, people responded in Minneapolis to the murder of George Floyd and people know the narrative at this point. I’m sure it changed so much. I would guess it changed the ways prisoners were acting, thinking about their actions and articulating their actions to the media. But at this point, I don’t know a lot more than that. It would be interesting to see ifnew tactics emerged, or if old tactics changed. These are all questions we want to answer with the next report, basically.
That’s a long way of saying: I don’t really have a lot to say about it *laughs*. But we’re really interested in that. Part of this is, when I talk about the collaboration of the central this project, if incarcerated sinners, or anyone, has thoughts on this stuff, we’re not professionals or anything, we’re just a couple people that just like to do this because we think it’s important. Because we’re nerds. So if people have thoughts on these sort of questionsplease reach out. Or if they have events that they think should be coveredthat aren’t on our site currently. I mean, all these things. Do you have thoughts on that?
TFSR: I asked Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun about this and he expressed, “we were hearing about this on the outside, we were hearing lots of things, things that just didn’t really make sense and couldn’t tell who was saying what, what was actually happening.”
I remember seeing Jeremy Hammond using a video call to record a bunch of the other people that were incarcerated with him, making their statements, in various languages, about the Georgia Florida uprising and in solidarity with the people on the inside.
P: Right, right, right. I remember that. Yeah.
TFSR: He was probably still in a federal holding facility. God, I forgot that was in like, April or May. No, that had tohave been in May or June. Now I’m just like, the year was such a long year! But I remember where I was when I was having that conversation. After seeing that videoI got to interview Jeremy for the June 11 episode.I don’t know, I remember seeing stuff passed around, for the most part getting out. But I know that also, when talking to Sean Swain or whoever else that I talked to, and having them talk about what they’re experiencing from the mainstream news. But they’re, they’re getting so many things that are just so filtered. Unless they have loved ones that are like in constant communication with them and keeping them up to date on stuff.
It seems like it was inspiring to a lot of people that run the inside. And this is me speculating, but I would imagine that where they were getting a sense of conversations around the abolitionist demands that were being put forth on the outside around police, that there was some resonance around that, but actually I don’t know. Besides those few instances of anecdotally me talking to people, or seeing that video, I can’t really speak to the experiences of folks on the inside, you know?
P:That’s actually helpful. And also did it play out the other way? I mean, it’s hard because so much of how I think the mainstream understanding of stuff is like: what do people say about what they do, like, what are the demands of the George Floyd protestors. Or, you know, in some sense it’s a totally silly question. To some extent it’s important, also. But I say that to say, I don’t know, if people on the outside, it resonated with what people were doing on the inside. So the reverse. Like the George Floyd rebellion, actually, as a product of this prior wave of rebellion, or rather, maybe just similar conditions. Anyway, all these sorts of dynamics, they’re there. It’s complicated. It’s hard to say conclusively, it’s impossible to do so. Unless you’rean arrogant sociologist at a university.
P: But if you’re more of a participant just trying to know a little bit more, so it can help you make decisions about what’s important. I guess we’ll try to do that in the report, to see what is the other resonances between inside and outside the George Floyd rebellion and the prisoners responding to COVID? Hopefully answer some of these questionsyou and I are just saying right now.
TFSR: The next question that I had written down, it’s kind of already gotten touched on, between these discussions and my rant and your rant. But I wonder if you have — maybe stepping outside of your role as someone speaking on behalf of the collective Perilous — any things that you’ve gleaned out of looking at not only inside action, but also the outside actions that people have taken, or the dialogue around prisoners during this year of Unprecedented Death Sentences by Disease?
P: Yeah. I referenced this earlier, but it’s important to not reproduce in our own heads the prison walls, to imagine them as these insurmountable barriers. Not only because we literally saw videos of people jumping over them this year. Or last, sorry, last year. I mean, did 2020 ever really end though? Are we just in 2020 until-
TFSR: It’s the long 2020.
P: *laughs* Yeah. But like we were saying, also in negative ways the virus goes in and out there, the prison walls are in fact porous. So in some sense, the distinction between inside and outside…*smiling* I’m not coming at you, obviously, it’s something that I do too. It’s something to grapple with, on the ways that that limits us. That being said, there are these concrete differencesbetween the two, easy access to the internet and stuff. The short answer is: I’m inspired byall of these different things, people acting from where they’re at. Like the car caravan and stuff early on…I already said it had this effect on me that was really positive. And it’s like feeling hopeless in a way and then seeing these people like “okay, we have cars, we’re safe in our cars, we won’t spread the virus.We’re safe, you know, safer. And we can show our support for the hunger strikers.” That was really important. And in the same sense the big, huge rebellions arealways inspiring to me, because now I get some sense of the difficulty of organizing in prisons, the social dynamics and the risk involved. But also the prison breaks. You know, there’s sort of some Hollywood–esque moments, like this little video, where is that? In Washington? You referenced it earlier–
TFSR: *laughs* Not yet, but I was going to in what was going to be the final question. But the Yakima Community Detention Center.
P:Oh yeah, right. Well it’s this video of this guy just chillin in his car. I don’t think it was planned at all. And he just pulls up, he’s listened to music, it’s like salsa music or something, I don’t remember. And these people are literally jumping over the fence. And then also one of these escapes, a handful of prisoners escaped from Arkansas Community Corrections on April 12.
TFSR: There’s McCormick in South Carolina too not that long ago. That was like at the end of 2020.
P: Oh yeah. Totally. The one I was thinking of actually, he was captured in Arkansas. But a handful of people just I ran out of Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in Oklahoma and one of them lasted for three months. But they finally found him in, and it was like a car chase, he ditched his car and then tried to swim across the Arkansas River, and there was like police chasing him on boats. And they did finally get him.
Anywayat the same timecar caravans have almost become normalized in a good way. At least here where I live. And just the sense that, you know, we’re getting away from the project, but like, I’m just personally always inspired by people taking action from where they’re at, figuring out what makes sense, and doing stuff, and experimenting. Andthe best parts of the past 12 months have been the result of that.
TFSR: Well, thanks a lot for talking. Where can people follow and get in touch with Perilous and how can they support the project?
P: Yeah, so we’re on twitter.com, I think it’s @perilousprisons. And then perilouschronicle.com is our website. That’s where new research articles come out, the new data report will go up, different sorts of things like that. Lots of resources on there at this point, and we’re constantly figuring out ways to make it more easy for users to access those resources as well. Also let me pull it up real quick, if you want to write uswe would love, we receive some prisoner correspondence. And especially if you have details on events we either haven’t covered or we’ve covered but we’ve missed a detail about it, you can write us at: PO Box 38 Tucson, Arizona. 85702. And we also use email, that’s info@parallels chronicle.com
TFSR: Since we’ve startedtrying to fund a rolling like transcription of episodes, hopefully this will get transcribed in the next couple of weeks and made into a zine and that can be easily sent into prisoners. So that’s part of the goal.
P:That’s awesome. Seriously, that’s super cool. I’ll probably bug you off the recording, just bounce ideas around on how we might do something similar.
TFSR: Hell yeah. Lovely to chat and keep up the great work.
adrienne maree brown is the writer-in-residence at the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute, and author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds and the co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements and How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office. She is the cohost of the How to Survive the End of the World and Octavia’s Parables podcasts. adrienne is rooted in Detroit. More of their work can be found at adriennemareebrown.net
If you like Scott’s interview style, check out their interviews with Kristian Williams on Oscar Wilde and Eli Meyerhoff on higher education and recuperation. Also, to hear an interview with Walidah Imarisha, who co-authored “Octavia’s Brood” with adrienne.
So much heartfelt thanks to the folks continuing to send us donations or pick up our merch. We’re almost at our goal of sustainability, but still not quite there, but the one-time donations have definitely cushioned that need. If you’ve got extra dough, check out our Donate/Merch page.
As an update on the transcription side of things, we’re still rolling forward, comrades have gotten each episode so far this year out and we’ve imported the text into our blog posts and imported links into our podcast after the fact about a week after the audio release! Also kind soul has done the immense work of making zines and downloadable pdf’s of almost all of our already transcribed interviews up until last week! Those posts are updated and linked up to the text and you can find more by checking out the zine category on our site.
The Final Straw Radio: Thank you for coming and talking to us in the Final Straw. Do you mind introducing yourself with a pronoun and relevant information you want to give?
adrienne maree brown: Yeah, so, my name is adrienne maree brown, I use she and they pronoun. I am a writer based in Detroit and I’m the author of Emergent Strategy, Pleasure Activism, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood, and most recently, and I think what we are going to talk about today, the author of a book called We Will Not Cancel Us and Other Dreams of Transformative Justice. I have been a movement facilitator and mediator for over 20 years, close to 25 years now. And most of the writing work that I do is rooted in the experiences and questions that have come from those places. That’s who I am for people who are meeting me here.
TFSR: Thanks! I’m so excited to get to talk to you and I wanted to dive into your most recent published book because it offers a lot of food for thought, especially for people who are engaged in different kinds of community processes and accountability and larger projects of abolition and transformative justice.
amb: Oh, one thing you should know and it may show up for your listeners, too. I have neighbors upstairs and today is the day that they host the preschool pot, so if you hear big thumps and bumps and things like that, just know it’s kids playing and everyone’s all good.
TFSR: That’s a good [chuckle]. I also have a sleeping cat that may awake and attempt to hang out on the computer.
amb: Real life continues happening even during Zoom calls, so…
TFSR: I kind of wanted to just jump in into the stuff thinking about listeners have a basic concept for abolition and transformative justice. The first thing I started thinking about when preparing to talk to you was that way that cancel culture which you, you know, you reverting in the title, it’s become a kind of meme at this point. And there is plenty of critiques from the radical liberatory side which is the one that you are offering, but also right-wing conservative perspectives, like I’m thinking of Trump getting kicked out of Twitter, or the J.K. Rowling transphobic stuff that prompted this all of these rich and powerful people to talk about cancel culture, so I was wondering what you think… How do we differentiate those critiques from the liberatory side vs. the powerful side?
amb: Yeah, I feel like I’ve had to explore this a lot more since the book came out than I ever did before. I’m really not following what right-wing conservative people are up to or saying or doing. It’s literally not a part of my world, my conversation. So when I wrote the initial piece and people were like “Trump uses this language”, I felt like “What?” I don’t follow him, so for me, it was interesting. I can totally see the right-wing using the critique of cancel culture to dodge accountability and to me, the major distinction is what is the impetus of the critique. For me, it is a love-based, abolition-based impetus. I do believe that as people who are fighting for abolition, there are conversations we need to have, questions we need to be asking and practices we need to get good at that are related to how we practice being in deeper accountability with each other and starting to develop an expectation that accountability is possible when harm happens. Because I believe that those twin expectations are what lay the foundation for a truly post-prison, post-policing coexistence. So that to me feels like the primary thing is that when someone like J.K. Rowling is being like “No, cancel culture is being no good”, what she is fundamentally fighting for is like “I want to protect my right to be oppressive, to basically cancel or deny the existence of other people”. And what I think we are fighting for is the right to protect as many people as we can from being harmed, denied, erased. So there is a call, you know, to me, the difference is also people talk about call-out vs. call-in and this kind of things, I think a lot of what we are doing is that we want to actually pull ourselves into more interdependence, relationality, accountability. And that feels like a huge distinction.
TFSR: That’s a good point, cause the words can become slippery, especially as they get co-opted by people who don’t have those horizons that we have.
amb: When I was trying to figure out which words were are going to fight for, and how we do that fighting for. It’s hard, but I do think it’s worthwhile in some places. Abolition is actually still ours, transformative justice is still ours. I don’t think cancel culture necessarily is the one that is ours. For me, We Will Not Cancel Us is about the activity, like we are not going to cancel people we need to be accountable for. How do we do that?
TFSR: Yeah, this is a very important distinction, because cancel culture is already a mainstream critique of this thing, probably they see it as a youth phenomenon on social media. And canceling is a thing that people do, but it’s not a whole culture necessarily.
amb: It’s not, and what I think is interesting is that there is a culture of disposability, and there is a culture of conflict avoidance, but I think the cancelation… So much of it is rooted in social media culture, so social media culture is a shallow engagement, clickbait headlines, very surface-level arguments, and then canceling people. It all goes together: trolls-gone-wild, then we are trying to build a movement and how do we navigate and organize around social media as a part of building movement, and how do we harness it as a tool? I think what’s been happening is that it’s been harnessing us. We’ve got drown into the way social media works as if that’s how a community works and changes.
TFSR: There are two different levels that we can use social media as a tool for things that we’ve done historically to protect ourselves, but then there is this other level where it takes on another meaning. One thing I was thinking about reading your book is that probably also the most notable mainstream version of this that gets discussed is the #metoo. It’s called a movement, but from what you discuss in your book I don’t see it as a movement, cause it’s an isolated ax of naming something. It’s not necessarily a struggle in the streets. And I’m not saying this as a judgment, I’m reserving judgment of like it’s effective or should people do this, but I’m interested in thinking about that, not having a basis in a tangible community.
amb: It’s interesting, I think it depends on where and when you enter the MeToo conversation. If people enter the conversation as like this happened related to Harry Weinstein, a year and a half ago now, then I think that’s the case. But if you take it all the way back to the work that Tarana Burke has been doing for years, that was very tangible and the work that she has continued to do is very much tangible, happening in real-time, in real space, in real relationships and calling for changes that happened in the offline world, and using social media to help push that along, to spread that. But I just did an event with them recently and I was blown away by how much they are inviting people into offline practices. And I think ‘movement’ is a kind of slippery and tricky term. I see people telling like “We are starting a movement”, I don’t think that is how movement works, how things take off or people get called into something and like what is actually moving. And I look at, like, is policy moving? Is our sense of identity moving, is our sense of capacity moving? And in that sense, I would say that to me MeToo is absolutely a movement because it has moved and transformed how people negotiate the intimate relationship, intimate harm, how people negotiate being public or non-public about the harm that happened to them. So I would see it that way.
TFSR: I like that idea. I was thinking, bell hooks distinguishes between political representation and pop culture that doesn’t get grounded in grassroots. But the way you mention it makes sense, and the thing I admire about the call-outs that happen, cause though we could read from a lens of canceling or even carceral sort of minds, but it also is demanding accountability and giving voices to people.
amb: Absolutely, and that’s what I think is interesting is who do we listen to, so if we listen to Cherana and Nikita and so many people who are now working in that space, one of the things they talk about all the time is… this is actually not about destruction, it’s not about trying to bring people down and destroy them. We are trying to heal trauma, to end cycles of harm, and end trauma that has come from that harm. And I think this is one of the most interesting pieces about the distinction between what I had actually an issue writing about and the larger culture of cancellation and call-out, cause call-outs are rooted in the communities I come from – brown, queer, trans communities. And the reason why we initially needed the strategy was because the power differentials between us and the folks who were causing harm were so vast that we couldn’t be heard as equal parts of the story-telling, we couldn’t be heard in our survival. That’s still the case in so many scenarios where “Oh, these workers need to call someone out, or call out an institution, a corporate entity because the power dynamics are so vast. And with Harvey Weinstein, with R. Kelly, with some of these big public cases, I hundred percent support those, I’ve tweeted that, those make sense to me because the power differentials are so big that the only way to potentially stop this harm is by making this huge call. I think the difference is then how do we handle it when the harm is much more horizontal, within a community, where there might be slightly more positional power, slightly more social media cachet or something, but no one is wealthy, no one actually owns anything, no one has long-standing security in any kind of way, and a lot of time we are talking about survivors, where everyone is in a situation of survival or something.
And that to me, as I’ve stressed, has got much more complex, and again, that still doesn’t mean that we take it off the table. It might still need to be. I’ve witnessed, I’ve held, I’ve supported the situations where we have tried a million other things to get this person to stop causing harm and this is not the move. And I think that is the case… A lot of the push-back I got from people when I published the original essay, they were like “Hold on, in a lot of these cases, we have tried everything”. Don’t take the power out of the move that we do need the capacity to make. And that was not my intention in writing and it’s not my intention now is to say “How do we make sure that we are using the tactic precisely when it needs to be used and how do we make sure we have other options when we need other options, right? This is not the first thing people jump to.
TFSR: I guess that’s the thing with social media, and we have so many examples of it, especially because being harmed is a really isolating experience and being able to voice it really scary…
amb: It’s so hard.
TFSR: We see the representation of that on social media that can give you the ability to do something even if you wouldn’t reach out to your pod or whatever. That’s a distinction that, I don’t know, I don’t know…
amb: Well, just briefly on that point, that’s also part of what I’m fighting for. As someone who is a survivor myself and who really has to battle like “Would taking this public be healing for me? Who would I share this with that it would be healing for me? How would I actually be able to heal the pattern that happened here? What do I want for the person – multiple people in my life – who have caused harm?” And it’s a very intimate reckoning. I can’t outsource like “Here is what I landed on, and that’s what everyone got to do too”. Because it’s very intimate. What I do know is that I want the result to be satisfying. If people are taking this huge risk to tell these stories, I want them to be satisfied that they are not able to get justice, but they are able to get healing. I think it is often what happens with the way the call-outs play out right now. A lot of what happens is people take this huge risk, tell a story and now they are associated with that story. It’s now they become a public face of the worst thing that ever happened to them, and sometimes there is some accountability, but often there is not, sometimes the person who caused them harm just disappears and goes somewhere else and keeps causing harm. For me, I’m just like “Hold on, let’s examine this strategy and figure out how do we actually make sure survivors are having a satisfying experience or healing and being held, and getting room to process and not having to be responsible for managing anything to do with the person who caused them harm.
My vision is where we live inside of communities, that have the capacity and the skill to be like “That harm happened to you – we are flanking you, we’ve got you, you are being held, we are attending to your healing. And that there is also enough community to go to the person who caused the harm and hold them in a process of accountability and also healing”. Because fundamentally, we know something’s wrong if someone is causing that kind of harm, if someone commits sexual assault, if someone commits rape, steals resources, abusing power. We know that actually some healing is also needed there. Not that the survivor needs to guide the healing, but the community does need to be responsible for it. I think we are a long way from that. Where we need to be heading if we call ourselves abolitionists is we have to develop a capacity to hold all of that in the community, so that we are not outsourcing it to a prison, to the police.
TFSR: Yeah, it’s interesting in this transitional period, we are not there, it that vision just discussed, we are trying to reach that. There is that experience that so many people have and you’ve probably seen and had it yourself where accountability processes go wrong or a call-out isolates someone and the person who caused harm gets scrutinized and their process doesn’t happen or even I feel like processes can be used to wheel power within subcultural communities, whether that is anarchist or queer, and exclude people. So there is a high level of burnout or disillusionment with these processes, and I just wonder what you think about how we counteract that. That’s another form of healing that is needed.
amb: Yeah. I keep pointing people to these two resources, they just came out last year, which to me says so much about how early we are in the transformative justice experiment. And to place ourselves in a context of time, helps me to drop my shoulders. Be like “Of course we don’t know what the fuck we doing, these processes are fucking hard and everything” because we are so early and we have been… Mariame Kaba talks about this, that we had 250 years of the carceral experiment, of well-funded policing and prison systems rooted in enslavement practices, had a long time of those being well-funded and we have never had a period of experimentation in what we are talking about – transformative justice and abolition practices – have been well-funded. Of course, we don’t have the resources to do it.
So one book is Beyond Survival by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha which gives a history of transformative justice, which talks about the people who were doing it before they knew that they were doing it, maybe they didn’t call it that, but just different kind of case studies and models and experiments so people can see that we have been innovating and adapting and trying to figure this out. That feels like one resource for people to say “Go look, we are not the first people to fuck up”. We still don’t know how to hold this, we are learning. The other resource is Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan put out this workbook called Fumbling Towards Repair, and I’m in love with this workbook because it’s very tangible as a resource. Here is how you can do a community accountability process in your community when something happens. It’s rooted in the idea that Mariame talks about which is it’s not going to be a one-to-one shift from the carceral state to a perfect transformative justice system that someone else still holds outside of us. It’s going to be a system where we want to defund the police and the state and redistribute resources into a million different options in our community including that many of muscle up our capacity to do community accountability processes. And if we are doing one for the first time – I remember the first time I did one – I went in with a big dream of healing and I came out mid-level satisfying, like I said my piece, and this person agreed not to do whatever.
So I just think it’s important to be humble on a grand scale about the fact that we are still learning these things and there is a lot of people in our community who actually are developing some expertise around this, but you are developing an expertise in something that is very often a private process, so it’s not something you are writing out like “Honey, let me tell what I just did with this horrific person”, a lot of it is very private and quiet, and I think that also skews the sense of this moment because a lot of times the initial call-outs, initial accountability moves are much more public, and social media takes them very far, but then we don’t see what happens behind the scenes, we don’t see what was happening behind the scenes to lead up to that moment, all the things that are behind. So if we were able to be like “Ha! We don’t know how to do this yet, we have to learn how to do this. And learning happens mostly through failure. We learn by trying something, it doesn’t quite work, then we make the adjustment. We have so much to learn. We have to learn what roles work best for different people, who are the mediators, who are the people who can hold these processes, who are the people who are like “I’m a healer, I can hold a role in a community”. Do you have to experience these accountability processes yourself, can you just read about it and hold it? There is so much to figure out, and to me, it’s actually exciting. We are in an exciting place potentially for transformative justice and abolition. But not if we stay committed to outsourcing those we deem as bad or the processes themselves. It’s more like how do we turn to be like “Yeah, we don’t know how to do this, let’s learn”.
TFSR: Right. I actually had an opportunity to teach a queer and transformative justice class, it was very well-funded, it was right when those books came out, I was so excited, look at all these new books on this. Teaching this stuff to young people seems important, but also familiarizing them with the fact that it’s not a one-to-one replacement or solution. I use a lot Walidah Imarisha’s Angels with Dirty Faces because she talks about it not being a resolution we are used to within a Capitalist society…
amb: Exactly, and looking at those three stories, cause I think that’s the stuff, looking at these different real-life scenarios and being with the complexity of each of these human beings, I think it is such a great book. I also point people a lot to Mia Mingus’s work, particularly the work around apology, because so much of it is, you know, you are trying to get water out of the stone, it feels like “When I really need is an acknowledgment of the harm you did and an apology for that. Few people know how to give a good apology. There is a myriad of resources that we’re building and generating and slowly bringing into a relationship with each other. I think in ten years, it’s going to look very different.
TFSR: There is something interesting I was starting to think about. You talked about the privacy of the intimacy of situations that need this kind of handling. If we start having people specializing in training and that stuff that go around doing the work, we can run the risk of professionalizing it.
amb: I hope this is not the… To me, that’s why the workbook model is so exciting. And I say this is someone who has worked as a facilitator for the last 20 years. I recognize what happened for me was I had the skill, those I used in my community, and then it became a professionalized skill. Suddenly people started “We’ll fly you to all different places to do this”. For a while, it worked for me and allowed me to work with very exciting movements, but it also has the impact in the long run of making people think that they have to fly me in rather than looking around and see who in their community has this capacity and strength. I wrote Emergent Strategy to help with spreading those tools and I have a book coming out this spring called Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy. Facilitation and Mediation. And for me, the idea is similar, the workbook is like “Pick this up, integrate the skill-set, find the facilitators, the people who are like this in your community and do mediation, who are drawn to it, and let’s start to have more capacity for local reliance in these different systems and needs. I think the professionalization and the sense of bringing someone from afar to do this – we can do this, it’s possible on the level of the community.
TFSR: I know since you post so much from Octavia Butler that maybe you are kind of seeding the communities, then figure it out themselves.
TFSR: And thinking about Emergent Strategy and the new book you’ve just mentioned, OK, in We Will Not Cancel Us, you talk about the sort of supremacy within us and connect it to the diagnosis that the Oankali make in Octavia Butler’s book about the problem with humans is like…
amb: Hierarchy and intelligence…
TFSR: Yeah. I see that work that you do, the writing that you do as part of the process, the internal process that we need to do to unlearn supremacy, the hierarchy within us… And that would work on so many different levels – power, masculinity, and all these things.
TFSR: Do you see this as a sort of thing that takes place in culture, is it internal… It seems like you’re initiating a new genre to have an “anti-authoritarian help book” or something.
amb: [laughs] Thank you. The other day I was interviewed and they said that my new genre was “facila-writing”, writing stuff that facilitates people through a process, so I’ll accept this too, “anti-authoritarian help books” I do think that is something that happens at both ends and I say this like one of my great teachers, mentors, was Grace Lee Boggs who is an Asian-American freedom fighter based here in Detroit, part of the Black Power movement. And she said we must transform ourselves to transform the world. And when I first heard it, I was like “No, we have to go out and transform all the fucked-up people who are doing bad things, we are good”. It took me such a long time to understand what she meant, which is any of the systems that we are swimming in have also rooted inside of us, and as we un-root them, uproot them, we unlearn things inside of us, then we become both models for what it looks like to be post-capitalist, post-nationalist, post-patriarchal, post-white supremacy, we become models of that, we become practitioners and scholars. We actually understand what it takes to do that unlearning. That feels like such a crucial part of this.
In We Will Not Cancel Us, I reference my friend Prentis Hemphill’s essay Letting Go of Innocence because that feels connected to this. First, we have to recognize we are not above the people who have caused harm. They may have had different circumstances, they have let us to moving our harm in different ways or processing our traumas in different ways. I think it’s such a blessing, you know I have a life of trauma, but early in my life I was given tools around therapy and healers, I had a loving household, a loving jumping off board from which to process the trauma of being alive in this time, which I think everyone actually is experiencing at some level. I interact with people and they didn’t come across the idea of therapy or they thought that’s not an option or a healer – that’s private, that’s something you don’t do. And that energy is going to move somewhere. So I don’t look at myself as above anyone who ends up in the prison system or anyone who ends up canceled. I just had different circumstances and they allowed me to process the trauma in a different way. That’s internal work that allows me to be present with the fact that capitalism is in me, petty jealous behavior is in me, judgmental behavior is in me, and that I have to examine what is white supremacy, what is patriarchy, what are those things that live in me. I keep uprooting that.
At the same time, I do believe it is cultural work and that is why I write books instead of just having these thoughts in my head or only doing the work with a small group of friends, as I am interested in dropping seeds into the culture to see if other things can bloom. And my experiment with that, with Emergent Strategy, was so exciting to me because I released the book, didn’t really promote it, I was just like “Look, if there are other people hungry for these ideas, this will spread, if they are not, I will know that I’m alone in Detroit looking at ends and that’s fucked. I felt kind of OK either way cause the Earth is still offering its amazing lessons regardless of people see it through my book or not, but now I know that that strategy can really work. And We Will Not Cancel Us similarly, we did a couple of events that just felt like important conversations to have with Charlene Carruthers, with Cindy Weisner, with Shira Hassan, and with Malkia Devich-Cyril who wrote the Afterword. But mostly it was like the book is out and people are either reading that or not. And I have a lot of people who were like “I’m reading this”. I got a lot of messages from people who are like “I’m really surprised based on the first essay to what happened in the book, I’m surprised. I see what you did, I see the growth”. That’s still not the perfect book, it was a quick process, but to me, it feels important that people are reading it in their own groups and talking about their own local culture. Because social media is not the whole world, and so much is happening in our local movement circles, and how at a local level we are integrating these questions of “Well, how do we handle harm? How do we handle conflict when it arises? What are our case studies? Are there people who we have canceled or tried to dispose of? What happened with them? Where are they now? Did they stop causing harm? Did that work? If not, what else could work? Are we putting people in the line of the state, in the eyes of the state?” Just having it as a local conversation.
The thing I’m interested in is a culture of discernment, a culture of mature, generative conflict, and I think that’s so important on this journey towards an abolitionist future is it’s not just a policy change that will make that possible, it has to be an entire cultural shift, and culture shifts because lots of individuals shift.
TFSR: That’s a good way of thinking, cause the internal work, we are sort of taught to think of the internal work as of the work you do for yourself, your goals and your profession, but actually the internal work and this stuff, it turns you into a potential facilitator. I’m not perfect obviously, but I’ve done a lot of work, and the work that I do allows me to enter the situations from a different place, that I can help facilitate them. It’s not because I’m better or to be above them or avoid them completely, cause that’s impossible.
amb: Yes, and I think right now the culture that is being produced is one where people have a lot of fear around making mistakes which limits how honest people are, because if we are being honest, we are making mistakes all the time, and we have fucked-up thoughts all the time. One thing that I appreciate about my best friendships is that I can say something that is wild and my friend will go like “That’s wild, girl, you can’t say that, and let’s examine where that thought came from”. I grew up in a military household, in a capitalist family. I have to know that that shaped me that by the time – I went to an Ivy League University – all those things shaped me. And so as I’m unlearning this, a lot unpack there, and if I’m above that unpacking or I’m hiding from ever making a mistake, then I can’t do that learning. We want to move from a culture where people are terrified to show up to a culture where people are excited to be able to be like “Here is all of me and I know I have work to do”. And if it’s a culture of belonging, where even if you are fucked up, which you definitely are, you still belong to your species and you still belong to your community. And belonging means you are in a constant state of growth.
I’m rereading bell hooks’ It’s All About Love, and she uses this definition of love which is that you have the willful extension of yourself towards the nurturance of another’s growth or your growth. I want love-based communities, to me, that’s what it looks like when you see that someone has fucked up or failed, you are like “I’m going to willfully extend myself towards your growth” so that there is room to come back. That doesn’t mean people are ready for that. I held space for people who were like “I am a flamethrower, I’m in a flamethrower phase of mine, I’m just going to throw flames and everything, and then I was like “OK, this community just needs to set some clear boundaries, so that you know it’s not OK for you to be burning down everybody’s everything.
And that’s a particular move that says “You have a space here when you are ready to come back, and until you are ready to come back, we have to set this boundary. And again, there is no public shaming needed for that, there is no public humiliation, we don’t get pleasure from boundary setting, it’s just a boundary that needs to be set. So that is a kind of cultural shift that to me feels important.
TFSR: That’s an interesting way of putting it, to try and talk about it without shaming. In a relationship, I try to say “If I fuck up, tell me, cause that’s a learning experience for me, it’s an opportunity for me to hear your thoughts and know something else and also not do that again if I can avoid it.” It’s surprising that so many people don’t expect that, you have to normalize that.
amb: Right, because people don’t even realize that this concept of perfectionism is one of the ways capitalism plays out within us and within our community. That there can be some perfect and we can buy our way there or fake our way there or botox-or-plastic-surgery our way there or something. But actually, no one is perfect, people are making mistakes all the time, and I love how you said that, Scott, that a mistake is a place where an aliveness becomes possible, and learning becomes possible. There is also something really important. Just that piece around boundaries. I want boundaries from other people around me. I want to know what the boundaries are that I need to uphold and honor, even if it hurts. I think about it, in my most intimate relationship, when someone’s like “No, adrienne, you can’t cross this line”. And I’m like “Me? For real?” and them “Oh yeah, let me integrate that”. Because it actually isn’t personal, that’s that don Miguel Ruiz shit. Don’t take it personally, when you stop taking it personally, you recognize that people’s boundaries are about them, taking care of themselves, and you can love them by upholding those boundaries. Even that is part of learning.
I know a few people who have been through big call-outs and now they are sitting outside of a boundary, outside of a community that they once felt so at home in, and it fucking sucks. And I’m holding the boundary and I’m learning what I need to learn out here in order to be able to make my return. Even if I think there are other ways to do it, fundamentally, what we are trying to do is to develop a culture where we can set boundaries, the boundaries actually create growth and space for actual authentic love to be possible.
TFSR: It’s so funny, I always thought about the thing I liked about hanging out with anarchists is that I can leave any situation and people don’t need an explanation for it. I’m just like “I’m done”, with that ability to… there is not the same kind of expectation to participate beyond your limits.
amb: Because there is a practice of non-attachment, a practice of really being free around other free people, which is very uncomfortable for people who are… Ursula Le Guin wrote about it in The Dispossessed, that’s I really still identify as an anarchist, is that what it really means to be free is so at odds with how our culture is currently structured. We don’t realize all the ways we are weaving ourselves into a self-policed, self-controlled state, and we are making all kinds of agreements – control me, control me, police me, correct me, control me. I’ve just noticed that in the past year my visibility has gone up to a whole different level, which means that a lot more people think they should have control over me, and really staying free within that context is like “Oh, I’m glad I have developed the muscles before this visibility, that I am free and I deserve to fuck up and make mistakes and I can handle being in public, and someone is like “Yeah, I fuck up”. I am a human being, visibility doesn’t make me less human, but it is a muscle that I wish more people were thinking about even developing, much less practicing.
TFSR: Yeah, you have your podcast, but also your book model is a process. We Will Not Cancel Us is presented not as a finished…
amb: Yeah, it’s a process and I made uncomfortable decisions in it. It would be much easier for me on some level to just pull down the original piece and be like “That’s embarrassing. I made mistakes and people can see that”. But again, if I step outside of it, if I don’t think about it so personally, then I can imagine some young organizer being able to read a book and go back and see the piece and make a connection and be like “Oh, this was what you learned and improved, you still have room to grow, this could be better, sharper, clearer”. And I’m like “Great, you write the next book”. Keep this process going.
I recently got to be in a conversation with Angela Davis which is wild, she is someone who I really look up to, but I also love how I see her handle critique in her life. People come to her and are like “Why are you like this, whatever?” And she’s like ” Yes, exactly. Those questions are real questions that I’m in”. That she keeps herself a living, breathing, growing being who is learning and changing all the time. And she’s like “I’m not the same person I was when I was being pursued by the government when I was arrested and all that, when you campaigned to Free Angela Davis, now I’m this Angela Davis and I will continue to grow”. And I’m like “That feels like a great model for those of us who hope to be elder organizers, elder activists, elder radicals. Grace continued to be curious and grow, Angela continues to be curious and grow, and I want to be that. If I have the blessing of being old, I want to be that kind of an elder.
TFSR: I got what you mean, to have a continuation and the inter-generational connection for a diversity of people coming in now, stuff that is happening and just sharing our knowledge and experience and also getting theirs, cause they have a different perspective.
TFSR: I’ve seen this tactic used when there is a serial abuser in a community, someone who the community doesn’t believe can be accountable, they do a general call, flyering, posters whatever. There is also in science fiction like Woman on the Edge of Time, there’s this idea that eventually, if you keep harming, you get killed, right?
amb: In Woman on the Edge of Time, you get one chance. You mess up one time, they give you the tattoo, if you mess up again, they say “We are not doing prisons”.
TFSR: I have an organizer friend who says that part of abolition is maybe the community decides that that’s it for you, that’s the vision of it. I’m not saying that everyone everyone needs to adopt that, but there is also revenge and stuff like that, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on this.
amb: I think it’s complicated because I will admit that I have one response – here is my theoretical, philosophical higher-self response, which is that we have to keep building our capacity to hold even the most harmful people, somehow we have to figure it out. But then a part of me is in communities regularly and has had to hold and set those boundaries and has seen that person, I’m like “You literally don’t care, you must work for the Feds, you are just… when they are passing out fives of happiness and joy, you miss the entire bucket, you don’t know what happened”. I’ve seen this side and I’ve definitely been in a place where it felt like there was no other option. What I mean inside of this is I am not actually judging what communities have to do to survive and I don’t think that any of us can do that for other communities. At least I’m not trying to judge, I’m not trying to be like “You all are weak, cause you need to do whatever”. My thing is, there is something around how we feel inside of it. Any of those times when I finally had to be like “Look, they are not willing to stop causing harm, we have to set this boundary”, for me, it’s been a move of grief and relief. Like we just have to make this call and prayer, cause I know us holding this does not mean that the harm is going to stop and they are going to find someone else to hurt. And at an individual level, this is always a thing, someone has been abusive to you, do you call the person they start dating next and say “Look, this person is going to fuck you up” or you just like “Well, I hope it goes better for them”? People make different calls about that. The things that helped me through this: one is I do believe that people change. They may not change at the pace that we want them to. I do believe that sometimes a hard boundary is the only way to get people to change. I’ve seen it happen before, I’ve seen it happen to people who had that positional power, that they were abusing and abusing, and finally were like “You don’t have it anymore”. And that’s where they actually were able to turn inward.
So I do believe that hard boundaries sometimes can be the most powerful thing. I do think it’s difficult with the flyers and revenge. I’ve said it before – that person just needs to get their ass kicked. That what needs to happen. I struggle inside of the same complexities. I think it’s the important piece here. What I want us to get good at as a community is feeling like we have as many options as we do actually have and practicing all the options. A lot of what my writing is in this time is let’s not just above all the options that help keep this person in our community or help this person to heal from the harm that clearly has happened to them, or help this scenario play out differently. Let’s not leap over all of that to have the very first thing we do is, say, plaster this person’s face and name and the intimate stories of the worst moments of their lives all over the internet and then anyone can see. For me, that’s the move that I’m trying to keep us from. To be like “First, let’s understand the history of that person. What do we know? How do we protect the survivor from any further harm? Is the person actually open to mediation or any other process? If they are, who are the right people to hold that, we need multiple people to hold that?” And so on and so forth.
Now, I think we need a boundaries school. If I were creating a school that everyone in the movement had to go through for the next year, it’s the pandemic, and we are like “OK, you can’t be on the streets, let’s all go to boundary school, let’s all go to abolition visioning school and figure out when we say ‘Defund the police’, what responsibility are we taking on in that scenario?” I would have us be in some real serious schools. I think Prentice Hemphill could run a boundary school. I have visions on this step. And Sendolo Diaminah could run the school on abolitionist visions and on practicing it at the local level. Andrea Ritchie could do that, Mia Mingus, Mariame Kaba, there are so many people. There is a lot of learning and political education and practice education that we could do because there is pleasure in revenge, there is pleasure in being able to finally say “This asshole is an asshole”, there is pleasure in all those things. But I think it’s a temporary pleasure that doesn’t actually change the conditions that will lead to more harm happening. I want us to get the pleasure mostly from healing and knowing that we have a chance from the conditions that the harm will not happen anymore.
TFSR: That’s a really good way of putting it. I was thinking about glorifying Fanon sort of violence that cleanses things. Going back to Butler, she explores violence in terms of community, but she holds it in complexity. She doesn’t endorse it, she shows detriments to it.
amb: Yeah, and there is something fascinating. In one of my favorite explorations that she has, which is The Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind, those are two books inside the Patternist series, there is this character Doro, who is a straight-up body snatcher. I remember doing a series of reading groups around this where eventually, a whole huge interconnected network has to take him out because he just cannot stop causing harm. He literally can’t survive if he stops causing harm. But I was sitting in one of the reading groups one time, and someone turned to me and was like “Did she ever try to heal him?” The lead character is one of the most amazing outstanding healers that’s ever existed. And the person said, “Did she ever try to heal him?” I went back and read the book and I couldn’t really see it, cause she tried to argue, she tried to demand, she tried to shame, to run away, she tried a million things to hold him accountable and ask for him to change, but there is not really a moment that she laid her hands on him the way she did with others, and reached into that place where he was a child, his entire family had been killed, and this was the strategy that emerged for him to survive. I always come back to that, it moves me to tears each time, cause if we look at each person causing harm as a child who has been harmed, it changes the conversation, and I think it can change what’s possible. I keep wanting to make this distinction, but that to me is not the work of the person surviving their harm, for me as someone who had been and is being abused, it’s not my job to be like “Oh, I can see the child in you”. But I think in the community, we need to grow that capacity. We have to help, to figure out getting this person to therapy. That might be the mandate. I do feel there are things like that, like if you want to be here, we have to know you are getting support, if you want to be here, we have to see this commitment to your healing. And that would be a sophisticated future if that was happening.
TFSR: That’s a really good point. I was really intrigued in the book about this idea of how we feed intp surveillance and sort of a counter-surveillance. I just wanted to hear more about that idea. Is it airing dirty laundry, is it leaks that get turned against us? Again, it’s like, I’m thinking COINTELPRO and we are bringing all this stuff back to black queer organizers who use call-outs as self-defense. How do you conceive this kind of surveillance?
amb: I think it’s an interesting conversation and it’s part of why I was really excited to have Malkia write the afterword because Malkia grew up as a child of a Black Panther who has really done a lot of scholarship around COINTELPRO and surveillance and who has been fighting around facial recognition and surveillance and all these things. I feel I learned a lot about what Malkia thinks about these things. I wanted to bring this conversation into the larger conversation that we are having which is I don’t think we’ve ever healed from COINTELPRO and I don’t think we’ve ever really figured it out. There are people who are doing really interesting work around how do we relate to living in a completely overwhelming surveillance state, how do we relate to the fact that infiltration is very common and expected. And we can see the patterns of it play out, that is very hard at an interpersonal level to ever know who you can trust and who you can’t trust.
I just saw a screening of Judas and the Black Messiah which talks about the infiltration of Fred Hampton in the Black Panthers in Chicago, and it’s just devastating to know that people show up inside movement spaces with the intention to cause dissent, harm, and to keep us from justice and liberation. But that is definitely happening. And at meetings, I’m like “Hmm, I think that person is here for the wrong reasons. My response to this is mostly like “Let’s be overwhelmingly on point with what it is we are up to and hope that we sway them and they become a turncoat to the government, whatever. But that is very unrealistic. And much more realistic, since we have to be thinking how are we building trust with each other… For me, it’s all of the above, that is airing the dirty laundry piece that harms us mostly in the eyes of our opposition. They are like “Hey, they don’t actually have unity and solidarity, they are everyone at each other’s necks. And even if it’s true, I don’t think it serves us to have that be public and transparent. And I don’t think it feeds to generative conflict, if the move is that we put people on blast rather than sitting down and having a face-to-face conversation, I’m concerned about that. Zoom, face-to-face, whatever it is.
But then I also think there is something around how we isolate people. If we are taking someone and we are like “This person caused harm in our community” and we are putting that on the internet, then that person is now isolated out of the community and if someone who is surveilling and is looking for like “Who could we turn into an infiltrator, who could we reach in those ways, who could we take out, who could we disappear”. To me, it’s saying “Here are our weakest links, here are the weakest points of our movement. Come get us”. And I think right now, because the movement has grown so fast and because social media is such a bizarre space where people think they have a relationship with people they never met, they don’t know anything about, they don’t have any sense of an actual history for, we are in a really endangered species’ zone, when it comes to our movement work right now. That was a big impetus for the writing that I did, cause I was being asked to do these call-outs, and then I would go look who was asking me to do this call-out, it was almost people I didn’t know and there was nothing to show me that this person’s ever done any other community work. I can see that they’ve done other call-outs, but I don’t see anything like “Here is what they’ve built”.
I said this in many places: I’m much more moved by people who are creating, building, growing the movement, rather than people who are like “My job is to destroy this institute or organization, or turn down this activist, whatever”. That’s not organizing work. And we definitely have people in movement right now where I’m like “They may not be on the State’s payroll, but they might as well be based on how they spend their time, how impactful is it growing efforts of actually being able to advance a united front, something that is complex organizing strategy. So I just think we have to be more mindful around it. To me, even if you don’t agree with me, even if you are just like “Fuck that, it’s more important to be able to call these people out”, I’m like “That’s fine”. And at all times, let’s not pretend we didn’t live through COINTELPRO and not pretend that infiltration and subterfuge and undermining and sabotaging our efforts is not a possibility for what’s happening right now. To me, it’s not learning from our history and be able to transform the future, which is what our job is.
TFSR: That’s such an important point. That we can be serving the state in ways that are unintentional and holding up a purity…
amb: If we are already embedded in philanthropy, we already have so many compromises. We can’t also be throwing our people into those hands.
TFSR: Exactly, we need to accept that we are not pure and not expect other people to be pure. That was a really helpful way of way of packaging it, thank you.
amb: Thank you for this conversation. You have really good questions and I hope that it serves us all.
This week, we’re presenting three segments, all related in some way to prison. We hear an essay by an anarchist prisoner in Chile about a prison massacre on it’s 10th anniversary, the voice of David Easley reporting from within a covid outbreak in an Ohio prison, and the voice of someone who’s protest against nuclear weapons was leading her to incarceration.
And Sean Swain. If you want to cast a vote for one of his nicknames, you can send an email to us at TheFinalStrawRadio(at ) riseup( dot) net, with ‘Nickname’ in the subject header until January 10th.
David Easley on Outbreak at Toledo CI
First up, Comrade David Easley at Toledo Correctional Institution in Ohio talks about the covid-19 outbreak there, which he is still recovering from, that has knocked out one in five guards and forced the state to bring in National Guard to act as screws at the prison. The administration hasn’t been proactively testing prisoners and so doesn’t have data on infections besides symptomatic cases. When prisoners have tested positive, the only treatments they get are non-asprin Tylenol and cough drops, unless their health degrades to the point of getting onto a ventilator.
David also talks about his inside/outside abolitionist study group he’s been working with over instagram. Comrade Easley is seeking outside supporters to help run the Abolition Study Group instagram and also his personal social media so he can report to the outside world on the conditions in Toledo CI. He is also seeking lawyers in Ohio that can help sue the ODRC on behalf of prisoners for the negligence and harm that has led to so much sickness and death, inside and outside of the barbed wire. You can reach him via mail at:
Toledo Correctional Institution
2001 East Central Avenue
Toledo, OH 43608
and you can email him by creating an account on jpay.com and reaching out to him by his facility and number, David Easley A306400 at Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.
Martha Hennessy of Kings Bay Plowshares 7
Next up, Tali Moon from the occupied land in the PNW of the so-called US shares with us a conversation of Martha Hennessy of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, 7 white, Catholic anti-militarism activists who just went to prison for trespassing and symbolic damage to Trident nuclear missiles at a military base in Georgia. Hennessy, aged 62, is an anarchist and the grandaughter of the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day. You can find out more about the Martha and others from her case at KingsBayPlowshares7.Org. You can write to Martha at:
Finally, you’ll hear a segment from the December episode of Bad News: Angry Voices from Around The World from the A-Radio Network, magnificently produced this month by Crna Luknja in Ljublana, Slovenia. The Anarchist Assembly of Valparaiso (so-called Chile) presents a text about the 10 year anniversary of the massacre of 81 prisoners at the San Miguel Prison in Santiago de Chile written by anarchist prisoner Mónica Caballero. This was but a small portion of the audio in this months’ episode.
Land Project in Davao, Philippines
Comrades from Feral Crust collective in the province of Davao in the Philippines (aka Maharlika) are requesting monetary support to purchase a minicab or small truck to help transport people and materials to their land project in the forests of Marilog in Davao where they are working on implementing ideas and practices related to permaculture, rewilding and nature restoration/conservation. The project has a fedbook page and you can hear an interview from July of 2015 that we conducted with folks from FC.
Surgeries for Activist Returning from Syria
There is also a fundraiser for surgeries for Autumn, a transgender comrade from the US who volunteered in Syria, and suffered injuries during the civil war while doing solidarity work there. They are trying to raise $10k.
This week on the show I’m speaking with three folks engaged in organizing in the rural Alamance County, North Carolina, and it’s capital of Graham. All three work with the 501c4 political non-profit, DownhomeNC which in Alamance has been working on a range of engagements including running local candidates for office, doing get-out-the-vote work, sparking conversations with rural residents of the county, running a bail fund and working on bail reform, rent relief and operating food distribution. Dreama Caldwell, one of our guests, ran on a platform of bail reform to be the first Black woman elected to the County Commission, though she was not elected, is a mother, and as an Abolitionist has been working to abolish cash bail and change the condition for people of Color and poor folks as relates to the Alamance courts and jail. Sugalema is an organizer, a mom, and the daughter of undocumented parents from Mexico who’s been living in Alamance for the last decade. Gwen is a mother from a white, working class background who has also worked to support Alamance organizers through Downhome on a number of campaigns. You can learn more about the organization at DownhomeNC.org and their various social media pages.
As a side note, the folks who produce The Final Straw do not endorse electoralism as a strategy for lasting change or community power. We are anarchists. There are plenty of places you can go to find anarchist critiques of engaging in electoral politics, sometimes with anarchists or anti-authoritarians advocating limited engagement in elections but usually calling for abstention. Even though DownhomeNC is not an anarchist organization, we do feel like the experiences of Sugalema, Dreama and Gwen are important to share because they talk about the work of changing minds and building relationships in the rural south where an autonomous left or anarchist movement doesn’t exist… like most of the world. They are intelligent and impassioned women doing hard work to grow community resistance and engagement. Abolition also includes the complicated work of decreasing the harm caused by systems of oppression like the police, courts, borders, white supremacy and capitalism while simultaneously building discourse against those institutions that impose harm. We really hope that listeners will get a lot from this conversation.
Eric King updates
Anarchist and antifascist prisoner Eric King caught covid at FCI Englewood, alongside over a hundred other prisoners, thanks to the ineptitude of his captors at the BOP who have been moving staff between Englewood and FCI Florence where an outbreak had been ongoing. His trial for defending himself from an attack by a prison officer has been pushed back to April of 2021. In good news, his mail ban appears temprorarily lifted and his website hosts his book list again. He’s been able to receive letters, magazines and books for the first time in years. Check out the update at SupportEricKing.org and send Eric some love.
To hear our interview with Eric from last year, visit our website.
Xinachtli Parole Support
“Xinachtli,” as. many of you know, means literally in English, “Seed,” or, as Comrade “X” likes to phrase, it from a prisoner’s perspective, “Germinating Seed” and s/n Alvaro Luna Hernandez, is a Chicano/Mexicano-Anarchist Communist and Anti-Imperialist Internationally-recognized Political Prisoner, has suffered long enough from a (50-year) bogus Aggravated Assault conviction rife with racist civil rights abuse and judicial misconduct.
The contrived & trumped-up Aggravated Robbery charge brought by Sheriff McDaniel without the authority of a warrant, was thrown out later at trial, but through prosecutorial chicanery, allowed the assault charge to stick being a paroled felon.
The so-called Aggravated-Assault charge, which should’ve amounted to a ‘misdemeanor,’ occurred with his near-term pregnant wife nearby in their own front yard, as he, showing no demonstrative violent aggressive behavior, correctly disarmed the Sheriff as he drew his service revolver in anger as “Xinachtli” challenged his authority to attempt an arrest in a situation that could’ve proved lethal for all three, mother, baby, and most surely “Xinachtli” himself. The local authorities hated him and his family and his labor organizing in Brewster County, Alpine, Texas.
Many of you already are familiar with this abuse of authority yarn, but, does bear repeating, as he is still held captive for this injustice in ‘STG’ (Security Threat Group) status, studying law and assisting other prisoners with their appeals, while continuously sharing, and germinating his revolutionary thoughts and ideals in cocoon-like solitary confinement, at the repressive TDCJ-CID James V. Allred Unit, ‘Supermax’ Gulag, in Iowa Park, Texas, marooned in the North Texas’ Red River Valley. Texas prisons are now one of the nation’s COVID-19 virus’ ‘hotspots,’ and the courts are refusing to intervene, WHILE PRISONER DEAD BODIES PILE UP IN LOCAL MORGUES. “XINACHTLI” is an elderly person, with his life in danger.
Presently, “Xinachtli” is preparing for his (1st) upcoming ‘Parole Review Hearing,’ on July 18, 2021. We are in need of help with a groundswell of support from the Prison Abolitionists, Human Rights, Indigenous, and Prison Activist Movement communities. TBPP suggests that FEW, clear & concise letters are preferred, to place in his case-file for review; lazy eyes is a disguise with TBPP Parole Panels. So, let’s blast ’em with a barrage of letters to help us ensure that his ‘Review’ is an impartially-heard (Hearing?) by traditionally ‘parole-stingy’ Texas Board of Pardons & Parole Commissioners; and is a successful one.
Try to include in the letter, that”Xinachtli,” though, he has tested ‘COVID-19 – negative,’ and in recent months received a ‘flu shot,’ he has hypertension that’s medicated, and is ostensibly cured of Hep-C, he nonetheless will be 69 years old next May 12th, 2021; so the Corona Virus danger rages on!
Also include, a solid confirmation that there’s a solid support system waiting, available opportunities of employment, residence, and transportation, as well as psychological/coping support and a period of adjustment, are all important – he’s been in a solitary ‘time-capsule, the worldwide ‘spider’ web has exploded on the social scene since his conviction in June of 1997.
Please address all your Letters of Support for “Xinachtli” with his registered name, ALVARO LUNA HERNANDEZ, and prison number, TDCJ-CID#00255735
You can mail the letters to his lawyer:
Allen D. Place
Attorneys at Law
109 S. 7th Street
Gatesville, TX, 76528
To hear Xinachtli telling his story in his own voice, check out our website.
“Hannah was also the creator of the documentary “Shelter: A Squatumentary”. We talk about squatting in the U.S., homesteading, market values, views on squat resistance in other countries from the U.S. and more. The latter half of the show features a musical selection from the metal and gothy end of the spectrum.”
This week we had the opportunity to connect with Delee Nikal, who is a Wet’su’weten community member, about updates from the Gidimt’en Camp that was created to block the TransCanada Coastal GasLink pipeline (or CGL) that Canada is trying to push through their un-ceded territory. In this interview Bursts and Delee speak about ways folks can get involved, both in so called BC and elsewhere, how the covid pandemic is affecting their work, and many other topics.
The Struggle for Likhtsamisyu Liberation Continues, Updates from Delee Nikal
Before the segment from Sean Swain, we would like to draw attention to a fundraiser in order to get Sean proper legal representation. As we all may know by now, there is nothing restorative about the prison system, its only reason for being is punitive and capitalist. Sean Swain has been in prison for the past 25 years, for a so called “crime” of self defense and radicalized to being an anarchist behind bars. He has been targeted by numerous prison officials for his political beliefs, so much so that years were added to his sentence. If you would like to support this fundraiser, you can either visit our show notes or go to gofundme.com and search Restorative Justice for Sean Swain.
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You can write to Sean Swain at his latest address:
Sean Swain #2015638
PO Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936
You can find his writings, past recordings of his audio segments, and updates on his case at seanswain.org, and follow him on Twitter @swainrocks.
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In Solidarity with Italian Anarchists Facing RepressionWe send you our solidarity call with anarchist in Italy and some introductory words, asking you to spread it in the way you prefer. Thanks!
“From 2019 to today the Italian State has carried out many repressive operations and inflicted a series of restrictive measures on anarchist comrades, limiting their freedom of movement and forcing them to remain within the limits of their city or to move away from the city or region where they reside.As recipients of these kind of minor measures, together we want to relaunch our solidarity with the more than 200 comrades involved in the various trials in Italy that are starting this September and that shall continue throughout the autumn.In particular, the appeal trial of the Scripta Manent Operation will resume at the beginning of September: this trial involves 5 comrades who have been in prison for 4 years (two of them for 8 years) and which has resulted in 20+ years of sentence in the first grade.During this trial the prosecutor Sparagna gibbered of an “acceptable” anarchism and of a “criminal” one, statements that contain the punitive strategy that the State wants to carry out, based on dividing the “good” from the “bad” within the anarchist movement and the ruling of exemplary sentences.”---------WHO ASPIRES TO FREEDOM CANNOT BE “MEASURED”We are anarchists subject to restrictive measures following a series of investigations that have crossed the Italian peninsula in the last year and a half.They would like to isolate us, but they cannot. They would like to prevent us from supporting our comrades in prison, but their repression can only strengthen our solidarity.With these various investigations, measures and prison detentions they want to wear us out and divide us, but we remain firm in our ideas and our relations, also thanks to the strong and sincere solidarity that has never failed us and that is increasingly under attack in the courtrooms.They want to divide us between “good” and “bad”, between an anarchism they call "acceptable" and one they call "criminal". We are aware that it is our ideas that have been put on the stand in the latest inquiries, all the more so when these ideas find the way of being translated into action, because as we’ve always believed, thought and action find their meaning only when tied together. And it’s not surprising that a hierarchical system of power such as the State is trying to knock out its enemies by playing dirty and reviewing history, precisely when social anger is growing everywhere.We don’t intend to bow down to their repressive strategies and we reaffirm our full solidarity and complicity with all the anarchists who will be on trial from September: we stand side by side with the comrades under investigation for the Scripta Manent, Panico, Prometeo, Bialystok and Lince Operations, with the anarchist comrades Juan and Davide and with those who will be tried for the Brennero demonstration; we assert our solidarity with Carla, an anarchist comrade arrested in August after living more than a year as a fugitive, following the Scintilla Operation.We know very well who are the enemies that imprison our comrades and against whom we are fighting and every anarchist knows in his/her heart how and where to act to demonstrate what solidarity is.Even if not all of us can be present in the courtrooms alongside our comrades on trial or where solidarity will be manifested, we want to express all our affinity, our love and our anger to them and to all anarchists in prison.Let’s continue to attack this world of cages. Solidarity is a weapon, and an opportunity.-Anarchists “with measures”, exiled and confined