Category Archives: activism

Mutual Aid Under Attack: a conversation with the AVL Park Defendants

Mutual Aid Under Attack: a conversation with the AVL Park Defendants

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This week on TFSR, we are presenting a conversation with three defendants who are in an ongoing legal battle with the city of Asheville. This group is collectively known as the Asheville Park defendants and is made up of 15 people, three of whom are speaking today. They are all facing felony littering charges in connection with a demonstration in December of 2021 against a targeted camp sweep in a local park adjacent to the downtown district. For this interview, we will talk about their case, the issue of the mistreatment of houseless people generally, camp sweeps and what they mean specifically, how the charge of felony littering is often deployed by the courts, the nationwide crackdown on mutual aid, their own activisms, and how to keep in touch with this situation and support the 15 defendants.

You can read all about their case and keep up with this ongoing situation at avlsolidarity.noblogs.org.

Mutual Aid Under Attack: a conversation with the AVL Park Defendants

Follow this link for an FCC compliant version of this show!

To donate to these folks you can venmo @AVLdefendantfund. The defendants would also like to plug the venmos of another AVL based mutual aid group Asheville Survival Program (link shows an interview with participants of ASP with The Final Straw radio show in October 2021), which is @AVLsurvival, the local Anarchist Black Cross chapter Blue Ridge ABC and their venmo is @BlueRidgeABC, and Asheville for Justice (@ashevilleforjustice on Venmo) which is a mutual aid organization dedicated to combating systemic oppression by offering direct community support.

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Music for this episode is an edited version of:

  • Eyeliner by American Hairlines off of the Free Music

Archive on archive.org, editing by Amar.

Prisoner Solidarity, COVID, and Carcerality with IWOC

Prisoner Solidarity, COVID, and Carcerality with IWOC

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This week we are pleased to present an interview that Bursts did with two members of IWOC (the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee), Caroline works with Millions for Prisoners New Mexico (@iwocnm and @millionsforprisonersnm on the Fedbook), Incarceratedworkers.org and Xeno is with IWOC Sacramento (@sacramento_iwoc on Instagram).

For the little-over-an-hour they speak on what it’s like to be working with incarcerated folks during the coronavirus pandemic, how prisons and the carceral mentality impacts everyone to varying degrees, the varying conditions in the prisons they are most tangential to, ways to connect with and support IWOC and many other topics!

Announcements

Eric King Call-In Continues

Anarchist, antifascist and vegan prisoner Eric King who you heard from in our April 3rd, 2022 episode has been sitting at the federal prison in Atlanta since his transfer from Grady County Jail. Our comrade shouldn’t be behind bars, especially after all he’s faced at the hands of federal prison staff, but he’s stable for the time being but the fear remains that the Bureau of Prisons is trying to wait out Eric’s supporters so we’ll drop vigilance and he can be quietly shipped off to the high security facility, USP Lee where he could be isolated in a Secure Housing Unit and be in danger of further attacks. Eric’s support team suggests that folks check out the latest post at SupportEricKing.Org to find contacts for people and continue to press officials to not move Eric to a facility above his medium security classification.

Transcripts & Zines

This is just a quick reminder that you can find a printable zine of that chat and many, many more at tfsr.wtf/zines, alongside transcripts and unimposed pdfs for easy printing of all of our interviews dating back to at least January 2021. If you write a prisoner or run a zine distro or literature to prisoners project, check out the collection for new material. And if you can read and write in another language and want to translate any of the texts, you are welcome to with no permission needed, but please send us a copy and we’ll promote it as well. If you care to support our transcription process you can make a one-time or recurring donation or merchandise purchase, more information at tfsr.wtf/support

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Featured Track:

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Transcription

TFSR: So could you please introduce yourself to the audience with any names, preferred gender pronouns, or affiliations that you’d like to share?

Courtney: Yeah, my name is Courtney. I use she/her pronouns, and I am with Millions For Prisoners New Mexico, as well as the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.

Xeno: Hey, I am Xeno, I use he/him pronouns and I am similarly with the Incarcerated Organizing Committee here in Sacramento.

TFSR: Well, Courtney, could you talk a little bit about Millions For Prisoners? Could you talk about that organizations, like what that group does?

C: Yeah, for sure. So, Millions For Prisoners in New Mexico/New Mexico Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee is… we’re all impacted by incarceration in some way, shape, or form from folks who are family members of people who were formerly incarcerated or are currently incarcerated. We have jailhouse lawyers on our crew. Of course, myself who has formerly incarcerated family members, as well as I worked in a State Penitentiary at the penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe as the head librarian back in about 2014 to 2015. I have some experience in terms of seeing the way the prison was run, and a lot of the human rights abuses that took place there. And yeah, we’re an abolitionist formation of folks who have been dealing with the impacts of state violence in one way or another through our entire lives, whether it be by police coming into our communities and terrorizing our community members, to folks dealing with incarceration, to folks experiencing different states of poverty including being un-sheltered. So, yeah, our people are all impacted by the system in some way. So it helps to drive us to continue to do what we do and stand grounded in our values. That’s who we are.

TFSR: Cool, and Xeno? Did you want to say anything about the work that you all do?

X: Yeah, I’ll say that, like, we’re Sacramento IWOC on social media. But we actually have members across California that are not just on the inside, but also on the outside. We help facilitate the existence of the Union for prisoners in every state prison in California. At some point we’d like to expand beyond that to additional facilities in California and help people do that across the country and the world, as well. I will say that we are a very wide ranging group of more than 20 people just dedicated to IWOC, not including more worker organizing focused stuff. The way in which we are least diverse is age in that were almost all under 30, but not entirely. I can also add that I have experienced a form of like mental health incarceration in my life, that was brief but truly terrifying.

TFSR: Yeah, who would one of y’all want to speak a little bit about what IWOC is and it’s relationship with the IWW? I know that it sprang out of the Industrial Workers of the World, which historically it’s a syndicalist labor union. Well, you can tell more about it than I could for sure, being affiliated with it.

But yeah, if you could speak a little bit about the history of IWOC and its relationship to the IWW. I seem to recall that during the Trump administration era there was tension between national leadership and other formations such as GDC, or General Defense Committee and IWOC.

C: Yeah, what I wanted to say about the matter is that we are definitely part of the IWW. We do have an active relationship with the IWW. They not only fund our work through a built-in dues model which is aligned with anti capitalist values, but we also continue to make gains with people who aren’t necessarily impacted by systems of oppression and violence, the way marginalized folks who have constant ordeals with the prison system or with police are. The working class solidarity in being in solidarity with folks who are behind the walls, who often may not have the choice to not work, which is often the case throughout the United States from coast to coast, that is leading to people in the IWW very much being in community with us and wanting to contribute labor administratively to what we need to have done for people on the inside since they can’t really do the same kinds of things that we can in terms of administrative work with computers.

TFSR: Courtney, how did you end up becoming employed as the head librarian at a prison? Did you just get your MLS and that was one of the options that was open to you? Or did they even require that? Can you talk a little bit about that experience of working in that facility?

C: Of course. Yeah. So, I actually got a bachelor’s in biology and worked in libraries. I worked in one in the community college for a number of years, I worked at one at the university out here for a number of years. And I was just putting my application out to everywhere, kind of broadcasting all over the place to get a job. I came across the State office and applied, I saw librarian positions and I kind of applied for those. But I didn’t really realize that I had applied for a prison until I got a phone call from who became my boss who was in the Department of Recidivism Reduction Division. I went in, because I was just interested because I was told you’re going to be giving books to people who are in solitary confinement.

What I had expected was about maybe 2, 3, 4 prison cells would be solitary confinement and it would be a punishment, or whatever the case may be. Although I did have very close family members who were locked up, I didn’t really know a whole lot about the experiences that they had, truly, until I actually went into the facility. But to my surprise, the facility was the supermax prison with about 600 people in various stages of solitary confinement. Of course, 300 being in the supermax facility. It’s all one great big compound is what it is.

The people in the supermax were at the time on 23 hour lockdown with one hour that they’d get in a cage with a two man escort that would take them out to the cage to have their exercise for an hour a day. Then at the level 5, which was on the other side of the facility complex, I’ll call it, it was a little less restrictive but still kind of the same content context. They have got to have what was called ‘tier time,’ where they would be in a certain pod and get to kind of be among each other, but were classified in different states and placed in different pods depending on whatever the case may be. If they were Seurity Threat Group classified or whatever. Then of course, there was a level two unit which was in the front. People could move and have access to the library and so forth.

When I went in to interview for the position. I wanted to see what the facility looked like because I had actually watched a documentary and a subsequent really disgusting thing that they did, which was a haunted house that they had at the Old Main. The facility I worked with was the site of what is called “the worst prison riot in US history” at the Penitentiary of New Mexico Old Main Building, where there were conditions of overcrowding, and physical and psychological abuse and terror that were employed on people that were incarcerated there. It basically blew up into a prison riot in 1980, where 33 people were killed and the National Guard was called in. As a result New Mexico had made that facility into a supermax where they put everyone there in solitary confinement with the exception of the level 2 that’s in the front that I was mentioning.

But I went in I found this little library that was in a chapel at the level six and it was this completely sterile environment. No wildlife, no trees, you’d see a bird on the barbed wire once in a while. It was almost like a religious experience seeing life in something positive and beautiful in such the horrible conditions. The human rights abuses, the torture, seeing people hurting themselves. Every moment being on your feet, it changed my life completely. It breaks my heart that I’m not there anymore, because through books and this is the thing about literature in prisons, books were the only escape that people had.

It was heartbreaking because a lot of that was taken away. Especially in the wake of the pandemic, people were allowed to have three books. We had to carry them out in an ATV to the different parts of the facilities, handing people their three books a week. People would get punished and their books will get thrown away. I would just buy more books to supplement. Right when I walked in, I just felt like I needed to be there. The connections that I made with prisoners…

Of course, the administration pummeled me into probably what could have been the worst experience of my life. As a woman, just the sexual objectification of me by corrections officers, and just the afterwards terror that I had resulted in me literally being afraid for my life, questioning whether I should move out of the state and change my name, and everything. I mean, it was the worst thing that I’ve ever really experienced in a workplace. I didn’t know who to tell who to talk to. But I had just randomly and with a lot of fear in my heart gone to, I was forced into resignation by the way, but I had gone to a Million’s For Prisoners park event that was commemorating Black August. I went to this big event and I heard a person who had just released from prison, but had a large sentence, I believe, an 18 year sentence on his head, named Justin Allen, who does a lot of incredible legislative advocacy work across the board with Right To Vote and stuff like that among so many other things. He was speaking about his experience in prison at this event. The courage that he had and that other people had, who were speaking that day in the park, helped me to go to another event and another event.

Then eventually I was approached, and I told my story to who became more than comrades, my family, with Millions For Prisoners New Mexico/IWOC and helped me to ground myself and have courage to even speak at all about anything. I just didn’t feel like there would be anyone that would believe anything beyond that a person who is in prison deserves what they get. That concept of vengeance on every level. People don’t really know what that looks like until they step into that situation and see the way humans are treated. You see people pacing back and forth, you see people harming themselves, you see blood, you see fights, the things that people confide in you. It’s heartbreaking whenever I think about it because I do want to be there to support people. I felt like when I was there I was providing a good heart in this ultimate darkness. People that rely on violence, when violence is how you operate as your baseline, it changes a person. Everyone that is involved in oppressing people as a career, police and prison CEOs, or whatever the case may be, they adopt that. That becomes the every day and they become addicted to that.

So just to answer your question, it was a fluke. I ended up just wanting to see what it was about, because I had heard about all that stuff that happened during the riot. They actually, the prison itself had a haunted house at the time where they were having people come on tours. They were paying like 30 bucks or more to go on tour so that you can experience someone talking about everything that happened during the prison riot. I don’t think they’ve resumed that as of now. I thought it was really disgusting that they were doing that when I first heard about it. A friend of the family son had died during the riot as well. So I was just curious and it led me into a rabbit hole and here I am today. Someone I never would have thought I would have become. I’m very introverted. I have really blossomed with the help of people who are behind the walls and people who are organizing who have experienced State violence. They’ve helped me to blossom into somebody that I feel like maybe I was meant to become as weird and kooky as that sounds.

TFSR: Courtney, can you talk about how access to literature has changed since COVID?

C: Yeah, for sure. Since COVID, one thing that’s happened is the distribution of literature. It used to be mandated by the ACA, or American Corrections Association, that people will be delivered books at least once a week and the limit was three books per person that they could have in their cell. Regular deliveries of three books per week if people request them. That of course, due to the pandemic, due to the excuse of staffing shortages, but really was, “we don’t want to do this labor because it’s hard labor to physically take books and physically sort books and get them out to people.” But under the guise of, “it’s the pandemic,” people haven’t been getting access to books.

Another thing that we’ve seen that is just outrageous in New Mexico is that the mailing system had changed. Of course, we were sending literature into our folks in New Mexico and really all over the Southwest, This is kind of a hub for the Southwest here in New Mexico. Just as of recently, New Mexico is sending mail to a third party that scans it and then sends it back depending on if it’s considered to be appropriate. That not only impacts the ability to send newsletters or literature from orgs or friends or family, but it also impacts folks who want to get drawings from their children, cards from their children, things from their family. It takes the personalization of a handwritten letter from one human being to another and it’s just another form of dehumanization and oppression.

They want to find any way that they can stamp the human being into ultimate hopelessness. The reality is that we’re going to continue to keep fighting against these forms of oppression by the state and these forms of hate. It’s just that they have so much hate pent up at every level. You can’t meet someone that works within these systems that’s going to be wanting to help people. That’s not what it’s about. It’s sick. There’s there’s nothing about it that is helpful in any way.

TFSR: Xeno, you mentioned that a lot of the work that Sacramento IWOC does is helping to distribute literature and getting it on the inside. But I wonder if you could talk about that and talk a little bit more about the Wobblies and about the idea of organizing. It has not the first time it’s happened in the US, we played a recording of Lorenzo Komb’oa Ervin talking about in the 1970s organizing union of prisoners in North Carolina when he was being incarcerated there, but I wonder if you could speak a bit about the idea of addressing incarcerated folks as workers? I think that Courtney mentioned that people oftentimes don’t have a choice to not work and that varies state by state.

X: Yeah. So it definitely varies a lot in California. For starters, only a select few people get to work in California. Even if your work is firefighting for like pennies an hour, that’s considered a very enviable position to be in as a prisoner. As an incarcerated human being people want to be out of their cells doing something. And if that thing is almost completely uncompensated and life threatening, at least it’s an adrenaline rush. It’s better than just like sitting around doing nothing and talking to the same group of people day after day after day for decades.

I think that as far as revolutionary unionism, I don’t generally prefer the vernacular of syndicalism, snd officially the IWW doesn’t either. We are revolutionary unionist. Do I think that a labor strike in prison is going to cripple the state of California? Fuck no dude, they have so much money and one of their main taxes is just on capital gains. So that means that whenever the stock market’s going up, they’re flush. And whenever it’s not going up, they’re not, basically. We know that that’s not what we’re expecting to happen in California. Like, “oh, yeah. Let’s just talk to the union rep of the yard.” That’s not what we’re doing. We’re not trying to be like SEIU for prisoners. We are revolutionary unionists.

I think some people might enter union spaces not really understanding the key differences between a revolutionary union versus not. And that’s something that the IWW consistently struggles with. But aside from that, basically we don’t hire staff, we don’t hire lawyers. This is something that sometimes people inside are not happy to hear either. That we’re not here to do like their criminal case or their civil case for them. But we’re here to organize, which is about collective power. Whereas the legal system is about atomization and addressing individual problems, or “addressing them.”

So we seek to facilitate collective power in lots of different ways around the nexus of incarceration and that means doing lots of different things. We have a formal structure. I think this is what makes us different from an “informal group” or whatever. We recognize that the power dynamics inherent in our existing society are going to splash up on the shores of our group whether we like it or not and that the best way to actually ensure non hierarchical dynamics prevail is to have structure. I encourage folks to think differently from that, that having less structure and also means less hierarchy. I have deeply considered that point of view and come away thinking otherwise. I would just refer folks to the 1970 essay by Jo Freeman, The Tyranny of Structurelessness. Jo Freeman, awesome person, clearly knew what she was talking about. She’s still around. Shout out to Jo Freeman if she’s listening… I liked your essay.

We have structure, we have people who are in charge of specific things. What we do to combat the horrendous system that I’ve been describing is that we keep people sane and by talking to them, writing them, building relationships inside and out. We do that however, in a systemic way where we also already know people on essentially, almost every yard in the California State Prison system. Yards are kind of separate facilities, really. So people don’t tend to necessarily see people on other yards in the same facility. but like I said, we have people on almost every yard. And we try coordinate putting those people in touch with each other. And then also coordinate whatever people on the inside are interested in that we’re about and that is not budget busting, we work with them to do.

So, we’re working to do a program where instead of hiring lawyers, which we can’t do, we help jailhouse lawyers build a structure to oversee and advise other jailhouse lawyer to help people build institutional knowledge and less time learning to do prison legal work, and make sure that we’re not duplicating efforts across different facilities, and so forth. Then also, when there’s a struggle that breaks out that’s collective, we would help amplify whatever kind of public message that the people involved with that want to put forth. As we’re building relationships with folks on the inside, we try and like help them get in touch with one another and decide what kind of group activities they want to do. Which sometimes revolves around either political education or more legal work, or it might be something different from that. But those are the kinds of things that we got going on. We’re looking to do like more on different things all the time.

But fundamentally, we’re happy to be a part of the IWW and we see this very much as a part of the historical tradition and historical mission of IWW, including the literature aspect. Back in the day with the IWW there were always people who were writing about what they were doing whether it’s Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, writing the first half of her autobiography, and then writing about going to prison, she wrote a whole book about going to prison. And then other people doing these struggles and also writing about them. Writing is a key essential part of real serious working class struggle, because everyone’s constantly reinventing the wheel. In the modern circumstance, people are also getting fucked up and fucked over by these business unions. If we’re not learning what we’re doing as a revolutionary union, and we don’t have an intergenerational knowledge base. We’re no match for SEIU. I’m picking on SEIU a lot but it all applies to all the major unions essentially.

Also I’m not speaking as the IWW when I talk shit on other unions. But if they were that real they’d be unionizing prisoners, not us. Not meaning to start any fights with other unions, but I think that what they do is pretty real on the ground, but maybe their president’s salaries shouldn’t be exactly what they are and maybe they shouldn’t be so subservient to the Democratic Party, frankly. I think that’s kind of known to be the IWW position. So I won’t go off a whole lot beyond that. But we know that just a strike isn’t going to stop the machine of incarceration, at least in California. It maybe a different story and someplace like Louisiana or Alabama, I don’t know, I’m not from there. I could be wrong. But we seek to facilitate making prisoners collectively powerful in all the ways that we can, and literature is completely 100% central to that. It’s not just like a pastime. Although a lot of people have different tastes. People like to read stuff to feel a sense of escape, or live vicariously in a cell, but there’s also political books and political zines and stuff like that, including the one of your guys’s interviews that we like to send all the time and also including stuff from other past movements, whether it’s Emma Goldman’s essay about prison, or whether it like stuff written by the Black Panthers, or Lorenzo Ervin’s writings or other stuff like that.

All of that stuff is really essential to the movement that we’re building. This isn’t all that we do. One of the things that we do, is we help guys in prison. I mean, we help everyone with this, but we kind of have a focus on radical feminism and radical feminism has like a specific meaning for some people. I don’t mean that specific meaning.

TFSR: Not the TERFy stuff.

X: Yeah, no, definitely not that. I just mean men being in touch with their emotions. Bell Hooks and stuff like that. You know, the reality is that people put in prison are there for all kinds of different reasons and some of them are like, “whatever, I didn’t do anything wrong.” The whole society is telling you you did something wrong, most of them end up feeling that they did do something wrong, even if maybe some of it really wasn’t. And a lot of it frankly, is stuff that is regrettable, and it’s stuff that people genuinely really regret and would even if they weren’t in prison. Moments of their lives that they really, truly wish they could take back. But a lot of times, it’s because people acted in anger. I think teaching guys on the inside and outside to be more in touch with their emotions and less quick to anger is really, really essential and revolutionary work, even if it’s not as fetishized by the very macho impulses that it seeks to undermine.

TFSR: Yeah, that’s really well said. I’m super stoked personally that if you listen to our episodes, every episode I’m just like, “hey, hey, hey, we do zines. Send them into prisons. Please, please, please!” I’m really glad to hear that y’all have found good use of those.

X: Yes, we most certainly have. Keep it up.

TFSR: Hell yeah, I will do my best.

Initially, I thought Courtney and I were just going to be talking. So I’m really glad that you’re here, Xeno. Maybe the two of you can compare and contrast in this next question. I feel like there are a lot of through lines between prison systems from state to state in the US. The political, historical, and economic flavor of a specific state is often reflected in the Department of Corrections in that state, and how the prisons look. For instance, states in the former US South have lots of chain gangs, guards tend to be on unionized often on horseback with shotguns and have low pay, creating more wild and baldly corrupt places where the majority Black prisoner population have been able to organize and use some of that corruption to an advantage of accessing forbidden tech like cell phones for the organizing process. That’s clear with things like the Free Mississippi Movement, the Free Alabama Movement with prison organizing in Georgia, with folks affiliated with Jails House Lawyers Speak, and voices coming out of South Carolina at times, like it’s all super amazing.

In California, as I understand, having spoken with some folks inside there, which is one of the largest economies in the world, prison guards have a very strong union, the facilities seem to be more updated and more locked down. The struggle against long term solidarity and arbitrary gang designations of shaped a lot of notable struggles inside of the prison over the last couple of decades. I was wondering Courtney and Xeno, but in particular, because I don’t know very much of prisons in New Mexico, that was really enlightening to hear about the prison riot in 1980. But can you talk about the prison systems that you most interact with and some of the characteristics?

C: Yeah, yeah, for sure. So New Mexico employs a system of human warehousing. So prisons are scattered about the landscape in remote areas that are often really difficult to access for folk’s loved ones. In fact, one of my comrades and mentors, Solinda Guerrero, before I had ever joined Millions For Prisoners used to have a transport van to have families access to these facilities by driving them out to go see their loved ones, because a lot of them are out in places that are hard to get to. That’s kind of what we’re looking at as a system of human warehousing, a lot like what I was mentioning with the penitentiary of New Mexico being a warehouse for human beings who are in confinement conditions.

Now, in terms of refusing labor, on that front I did find a handbook from corrections industries, which is also called Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility, but it’s run by a private corporation. They can actually issue disciplinary action for folks failing to report for their assigned work. We also see in interstate run prisons that people are punished by being removed from Gen Pop [general population] and then moved into restrictive housing units, aka ‘solitary confinement.’ We also see that from coast to coast prisoners reporting being punished if they refuse to work.

Now, also from a person that I was speaking to about this issue before coming on, my friend Justin, who also spent 17 years incarcerated and also did some firefighting work, etc. He was mentioning that you can get written up, lose good time, go to seg if you refuse to work. Now in the facility that I was at jobs, well, they were kind of considered as a ‘privilege’ by the administration. So they were often taken away. Like if someone had a work duty, let’s say, one of the porters in library, for example, at the level 2, they could get punished by having their work assignment taken away. They kind of do it a little bit differently in places that have group labor, like farms and so forth. I guess they also had something where people were raising cattle, but yeah, for that kind of thing you will get punished if you don’t report to it. But then they can also turn around and take the job away if it’s something that’s considered to be a privilege.

But yeah, we we had a porter at the level 6 facility, the supermax facility, whose job it was to clean blood that had spilled from people fighting or getting stabbed or hurting themselves, or whatever the case may be. In New Mexico workers make about anywhere from 10 cents to $1 an hour. So it kind of varies from place to place. But people that are in prison are also not considered as employees of the penitentiary for purpose of filing Occupational Health and Safety complaints with the Environmental Improvement Division. I took that from a corrections industries handbook. So we also see that in other states where people aren’t considered as employees who are working for the prison. It’s a very mucky situation, when your workplace is also serving as the place that you live and the place that you get your food from, and the place that you get your punishment from. When it’s all kind of merged into this soup of punishment, people don’t have the same inherent rights that workers do. Not to say that workers across the US are having that great of a time, of course, which is why that solidarity between the working class and people who are literally under the exception clause of 13th Amendment considered to be slaves [is important].

X: Yeah. So this is just like, what I think from having done this for a few years now. So when I’m talking to prisoners, the most effective thing that they remember happening against the prison system was the 2011 and 2013 hunger strike. Which are kind of known as hunger strikes, but also included labor strikes. That also is heavily intertwined with the power of shot callers of various groups on various yards. And the state uses certain terms that I think people can probably guess for these groups, but I just want to say they’re all different. They ranged from literal Nazis to people I’m proud to call comrade. But I would say that the dominant formations that are like that in California prison are…

First of all women’s prisons completely different and separate, nothing I say right now applies to that. For the men’s prison, which is 98% of the prisoners, right? Something like that. There are these groups where there are shock collars. If anyone makes trouble, their life could be in danger. Making trouble could be something as simple as filing a grievance when the shot caller has said, “Hey, you’re filing these grievances frivolously don’t do that.” So basically, the way things work is shit rolls downhill. So the administration will have a DL but everyone knows what’s happening kind of relationship with the shot callers on the yard. And they’ll be like, “if anything happens on this yard that we really don’t like, it’s your fucking fault and we’re gonna punish you like it’s your fault.” So then that person enforces the State’s discipline through extra-state means.

People who “investigate gangs” for the State of California inside prison, which is basically the state’s little FBI, but just for its prison system, or you can say they’re kind of like Stasi almost, if we’re gonna think of prison as like a police state society within Republic. These people are like the Stasi of that little micro society. There they have a lucid understanding that they are not actually out to suppress these groups outright. They are here to facilitate their usefulness to the state. They don’t say that out loud, obviously, but they do actually say it perhaps in setting with prisoners, they will let onto that. I’ve talked to people who are aware of all of this and have served long sentences for our survey.

So we have a pretty lucid understanding that the people at the top of most of these larger para-State criminal organizations. They are not the friend of the State and they’re not really the lapdogs of the state. But they nonetheless operate a little bit like the leaders of a business union might operate. They want things to improve for themselves, and for their folks inside, but they do not want revolution. Even if they sometimes strategically embrace revolutionary rhetoric, to further their end, those ends are to exploit people to make money, except that when a corporation does that, they’re supposed to abide by certain rules, which of course, sometimes they break anyway. But these people have absolutely no rule. For these organizations that are more or less explicitly about patriarchy first of all, and second of all, making money, there’s very little that they won’t do to you if they decide that you’re in the way of their goals.

They’re not a unified whatever. They’re not obviously as centralized as like the State is. But we’ve had people who are doing stuff as simple as trying to get people clean needles who are using on the yard and that has been deemed a sufficiently non business friendly activity to get that person rolled up on and stabbed by multiple people on the yard and nearly killed. That was a real thing that happened. Because someone was doing something that the shot callers didn’t want.

Then you also have this other system of yards in California called the ‘SNY.’

TFSR: Is it SNY?

X: yeah, it stands for Special Needs Yard, like GP is ‘general population.’ Sorry if that was unclear.

TFSR: Oh, no, no, that’s good clarification, though.

X: In SNY there are people who are not able to get along with the rest of the prisoners, but that has become larger and larger and larger over time and is now essentially 50% of the system at least. If you ask a person in general pop, “what is SNY?” They will say to you, “Oh, yes. The snitches and child molesters yard.” That category ‘snitch’ can include a lot of shit. If you roll up onto a yard but say you’re a white antifascist. Well, guess what? The white group that you’re going to inherently be scrunched into in a men’s prison in California is the Aryan fucking Brotherhood. If you’re Anti-Fascist you can do that, but you better do it really quietly and not in a way that’s actually practicing those values on the yard or they will kill you. If you’re lucky, what they’ll do is they’ll kind of just like push you towards the guard at yard time and say “this guy’s no good.” Then that means you go to SYN.

It’s different for different groups. Like I said, that’s just the dominant group for white men on GP yards. But the other groups are varying degrees of more cool than that. I’ll also add that unlike the other group, the Aryan Brotherhood is officially suppressed by the State of California and they do very much at least make a convincing show of trying to outright suppress that organization, and yet are unable to do so. But they don’t really do that with other groups. Except for Black Guerrilla Fam, which is like not a real group. That’s just something they accuse random Black radical people as being affiliated with. So that’s kind of an exceptional thing.

TFSR: What do you mean that it’s not a real group? Just that it’s a thing that gets hung on people, but most of them aren’t affiliated.

X: It’s something that George Jackson called for in his writing, but as far as I could… and I don’t know. I don’t have a complete unbroken history of what’s always happened on every yard of every prison in California. But I do not know of any yard where Black Guerrilla Fam, I’ve never heard of that. But there are there are radical Black groups, but they don’t call themselves that.

TFSR: This is a little bit off topic, but kind of not. But there’s a book that I read last year that I really want to get ahold of the author of. I should just reach out. It’s called ‘Chronicles of a Prison Dirty War: California Prison Politics.’ It was published last year, but it was a lot of experiences from like the 70’s 80’s and 90’s about the creation of some of the racial dynamics and organizations in the California system.

X: Yeah, I really, really want to read that, by the way. I’m gonna get around to it.

TFSR: So IWOC New Mexico is is a group that I became aware of from some of the writings of Julio A. Zuniga AKA, ‘Comrade Z,’ who’s being held by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice at the Memorial Unit, formerly known as ‘Dirty Darrington.’ We featured an interview a few years ago with Z. But I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the circumstances currently at the Memorial Unit. There’s a cool interview that Z conducted with another person behind bars, that’s up on Mongoose Distro’s website, and talk about the work that incarcerated workers there such as Z are doing to organize

C: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I wanted to start, since you did mention Mongoose Distro that please check out MongooseDistro.com There is so much awesome material from Comrade Z, other comrades behind the walls, as well as zines that you can print out. Definitely a good resource for information and really awesome folks there.

So, right now it looks like the conditions in Darrington have continued to get worse, with folks not having access to air conditioning, which is a big issue in Texas, there’s water quality issues, workers have been getting sick with H. pylori infections and being forced to work regardless of being sick. Folks are suffering from retaliation with bogus write ups being written up on them. Also, there was a death of a member under suspicious circumstances which were labeled as a suicide. Currently working on trying to talk to folks to try to get more information about that specifically.

Now, currently IWOC members in Texas have filed a civil lawsuit with the United States District Court Galveston division and it has close to 20 IWOC members on it. I was also going to share some words that Comrade Z had provided to us. It’s on Mongoose Distro and he also sent me a letter. So yeah, folks dealing with retaliation, bogus write ups, mail room items being tampered with issues with getting folks on to the prison phone list to talk to folks.

So yeah, I was going to share a few words from Comrade Z in a letter that is posted as I mentioned on MongooseDistro.com he states:

“I have to suggest as a militant anarchist, for the brothers and sisters listening to us, the real problem is the policy makers. All comrades and jailhouse lawyers need to file U.S. §1983 on every single TBCJ member, as I have already begun to do. Bobby Lumpkin, Bryan Collier, Guistina Persich, Tammy Shelby are on my lawsuit, including the chairman of TBCJ Patrick O’Daniel. I am filing a motion for leave to supplement defendants and add the remaining eight members of the TBCJ into our class action suit. If you are with IWOC-Texas, file your lawsuit in the same fashion. We have been distracted by their psychological games far too long, and the culprits have been sitting pretty playing God for far too long. The Wizard of Oz has been discovered in Texas. Corruption is being exposed by me, X386969, and it is going to take the solidarity of all of your resources in the free world to help us bring the changes we all need, by any means necessary.

The more lawsuits filed on the policy makers will not only bring us into the political arena as activists for an overdue overhaul of the Texas government and it’s institutions. I do not believe in authority, nor do I believe in prisons. However, this cannot be said about everyone I come in contact with, therefore I am rolling with what I have, because progress is made by stepping forward, not back.”

So yeah, just you know, an example of using different strategies to fight against the oppressor and Comrade Z and the continuously growing group of members in the Texas branch are filing a civil lawsuit, class action lawsuit right now. Just due to the conditions that they’ve been undergoing.

Comrade Z has been reaching out to me and I’ve been in communication with Z for at least the past year to year and a half. Definitely I know that, as we were mentioning earlier, in the discussion about getting transcripts of y’all’s radio program, I know that Comrade Z was mentioning not on our last phone call about appreciating getting transcripts from y’all’s radio interviews, and hopefully he will also hear this one or be able to read this one rather.

TFSR: Yeah, that’s awesome.

I was wondering also Courtney, in terms of you had mentioned that New Mexico IWOC and Millions For Prisoners kind of acts as a hub for a lot in the Southwest. There have been ABC chapters, I know in various parts of Texas, at least, and I also know it is an absolutely huge place. But I guess in the Southwest, I want to ask about specifically how it looks like in Albuquerque and in New Mexico, the inside outside part of it. But is there much of an inside outside organizing framework in other parts of the Southwest? Or is it kind of just a few spots where people have coalesced?

C: Yeah, that’s kind of a good question. It is kind of a few spots where folks have coalesced. I’ve noticed a lot of activity. Specifically with Arizona, we have still a budding relationship with folks in Arizona. It started with some comrades who were building relationships with the people behind the walls with the Anarchist Black Cross. During the pandemic, a lot of dynamics have changed. But yeah, right now as it stands, we are a hub for folks in the Southwest, in Texas, I have some folks in Nevada. In Nevada, I don’t really know of a lot of outside orgs who are supporting, but I do know that in Texas, we collaborate a lot with folks in Fight Toxic Prisons, as well as people with Anarchist Black Cross. There is actually an IWW chapter in Texas that is working on kind of building relationships with Comrade Z and other comrades. And we have other folks that are popping up along the way.

It’s kind of interesting, too, because the pandemic led to a lot of people working remotely in terms of organizing. So that’s kind of what happened when there were just a lot of correspondence from people in the southwest. There weren’t IWOC chapters per se that were as active or maybe not active at all that New Mexico started adopting on more regional requests from people that are experiencing issues and trying to figure out how similar are the systems that people are facing. We also organize with folks in Louisiana and have a partnership with folks that are in the Save the Kids From Incarceration and the 10 to 2 Unanimous Jury Campaign. I haven’t heard from those folks in a little bit. But definitely have some relationships with folks in the South who are experiencing the conditions that they’re experiencing.

So yeah, we get reached out to from people from other places too. I just kind of get letters in the mail and folks have heard about us. A lot of stuff is spread through word of mouth. So as you notice with Comrade Z, he passed along my information through word of mouth, and that’s kind of how things operate. I think it’s a successful way to kind of work the administration by doing it that way.

TFSR: Yeah, that’s awesome. On the topic of ‘Inside Outside,’ I’ve noticed that on the Facebook account for New Mexico Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, there’s mentions of being involved in not only supporting people on the inside, but also in relation to supporting people on the outside resisting police brutality. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how that link is right there. People hate the pigs, and a lot of people on the outside when they make that connection that it’s the same repressive institution on the inside the outside. It may look different and the level of boot on the throat is different between living in an overly-policed neighborhood or what have you. But yeah, I’m wondering if you can talk about how you’ve seen those two things tied together?

C: Oh, yeah, yeah. And we absolutely amplify and are always anti-police in every fiber of our being in all the work we do because it it all goes together. In the neighborhood that I grew up in, for example, a lot of people were swept up by the police and put into prisons. Structurally, it all has to do with structural racism, and oppression, pulling entire segments of our society and of our culture and of our people out of our communities and putting them into prisons. Also, we were a part of some federal sting operations, including Operation Legend that was enacted by Bill Barr back in the Trump administration, where so much funding and so many federal police officers were put into the streets of New Mexico. Basically, we had police on horseback in our International District where our communities are struggling. In the place where I live, in the South Valley, we were doing block by block events where we were going to different neighborhoods as part of our strategy and just building was community who have been impacted by police.

When you go into any community that’s heavily impacted by a heavy police presence, with tanks in the streets, doing stop and frisks, harassing community members, harassing our youth, detaining people, you’re going to see that solidarity and you’re going to see a lot of people that have experienced the system, who have family members who are in prison. It’s all connected. We go out into our communities and we all understand the violence that we face every day, whether it be out on our streets or in the prison system.

In the prison system. It’s very much this extreme concentration of violence. But yeah, on the streets, it’s it’s very much the same. We have so many police killings that are happening here in New Mexico. It’s part of who we are. We’re always going to be fighting against the police and the prisons, because it’s all one and the same system. It’s all based on patriarchy, systemic racism, violence, and it’s rooted in slavery. These are all issues that we have to face when we’re living in our communities every day. Some of us more than others, of course. Yeah, we’re just gonna keep up the fight.

TFSR: Xeno, do you have anything to add?

X: Yeah. So the way that these kinds of shot caller led groups, which again, I’m not trying to make any universal statements here. Not every person who might call shots is that bad necessarily. It’s hard to kind of speak in universal terms about this kind of stuff, because it’s, it’s always moving around and always changing. There’s very few formal rules. But basically, the way that some of these structures tend to operate in times of struggle in a similar way to a business union. It’s that it’s very common during a really militant strike. I heard someone talk about this. About the Teachers Association in Arizona, where after a week of teachers being on strike in Arizona, some staff from this, not even a union, actually… it’s an organization that associations are allowed to have that’s not a union. They went to the press, and were like, “yeah, the strike is going to be over on Monday, everyone’s going back to work.” They did not consult the teachers in that at all. There was no vote or anything because they’re not a union. So they can’t do that.

I just want to say that first of all, not every non IWW union is definitively a business union. IWW itself isn’t immune to that temptation of like business unionism, either. But that being said, a lot of these like hierarchical organizations in prisons will make strong attempts to shut down struggle, at the point that it gets too hot to handle, even if they also play a role in initiating it on the front end. That in the makes them very reminiscent of a businessman, which will channel workers righteous outrage and then cut it off at the knees when it gets too radical or revolutionary, or threatening for the system. Unions are a lot more bureaucratic about the way that they do that. But these other structures do a very similar thing, in my view.

About the SNY, if you are a person that the State determines is male enough to go to a male prison in California, I’m sorry that that happened to you. Second of all, they will put you on GP normally by default, unless you say otherwise, I suppose. If you get to GP, and you’re just not cool with some stuff that you see going on. Or you see, “Oh, this group is clearly deeply invested in making profit off people’s heroin addiction, and I’m not cool with that. And I’m not cool with them. And I don’t want to be part of this group that I ‘have to be a part of’ because of my race.” And you don’t want to peacefully coexist with people involved with that. You need to go to SNY. You can make that explicit and tap a guard on the shoulder and say, “I want to go to SNY.”

I’m not saying that SNY is that great. It’s legit where they put sex offenders. So you’re going to hang out with them. SNY is where people would have to go if they’re not going to get along with the group that they’re shunted into when they get onto a men GP yard in California prison. Any interaction that you have with a guard without another prisoner present could be considered snitching, full stop. So whether that’s seeing a counselor that’s part of the staff that could be considered snitching. And so if you are ‘not good’ before, you’re definitely ‘no good’ now.

So with that category, those two shunted together categories, snitches and child molesters. Those two things are not the same at all. It’s very easy to be considered a snitch. The state is very much involved in like pitting SNY and GP against each other. If you read the agreements and hostilities, it’s explicitly like solidarity between GP prisoners only, and it talks all this shit about SNY prisoners. Because the state will send people from SNY undercover into GP, and try and spy on people they want to spy on and do all kinds of shenanigans like that. There’s a lot of distrust between GP and SNY.

Now the state’s trying to reformulate those designations, and create a new structure within the prison system that involves mixing people from GP and people from SNY who’s agreed to get along. But that doesn’t always work. Then sometimes you end up with groups of people defending each other who are just kind of like SNY solidarity in response to GP solidarity aggression. So it’s all very messy, and very different from other places. I was talking to some folks who are saying that in the Chicago-land area, any person of any race can be a member of any group on the street or in prison. That’s certainly not the case in California prisons.

TFSR: I know that in the strikes in 2011 and 2013, one of the main demands was an end to requiring debriefing for people who were stuck in solitary. I don’t know if that sort of is a continued issue with this issue that you’re bringing up with it. I don’t know if that relates to what you’re talking about, exactly. Or if it’s like another iteration of it or if it’s a different issue.

X: It is a related issue. Briefing… If you know anything, if you were legitimately part of one of these groups in a participatory sense, and you are now going to SNY they will absolutely try and get you to debrief. Ie, spill your guts about everything you know about that group. Like I said, a lot of people don’t think that the State is really out to dismantle a lot of these groups. They’re out to make sure that these groups are malleable to the State’s intentions, and goals. They’re very successful in that, in my opinion.

Briefing, is the thing that they probably try and have people do all all sorts of times. The State, when it decides it’s going to do something, never really gives up on it. So unless there’s like some kind of world historical disruption to cause that to happen. I’m sure they’re still trying to brief people coming out of solitary. I know for a fact that they brief people as they move from GP to SNY particularly people who they know would know stuff.

I didn’t talk a lot about what it’s like on SNY. So I will say that it’s absolutely hellish there, too. Like I said, you’re hanging out with all the people that people are afraid that they’re going to have to hang out with and they go to prison. And on top of that, some of those yards, if they determine that you have ‘mental health problems,’ or whatever that means. In our society, I think everyone has mental health problems, pretty much. It’s kind of interesting to just go on a side note, the people who created the DSM-5… I think one of them was very vocally regretting that and said, “oh, everyone’s in the DSM-5 and I’ve created a monster.” I don’t know a lot about it, I’ve heard of it.

So basically, if the State determines you have mental health problems, which assuredly if they say you do, they will make sure to find evidence that you do. They will place you on one of those types of yards. This is largely in the SNY. They might also just involuntarily give you drugs. One of our members describes how they can give you drugs involuntarily, that will ‘separate your soul from your body.’ He doesn’t mean killing you. It means just completely spacing you out so much that you’re not yourself. You’re basically like a person with dementia, but at any age. That’s like a level of control. I don’t know a lot about health in general, to be honest, but that’s how it was described to me.

That’s just a level of control that’s unimaginable anywhere but prison or like a dystopian future TV show or novel. It’s really terrifying that the State submits people to that, and then also has the gall to be like, “we’re helping them and this is all for their own good.” Everything is always framed in terms of progressivism in California politics in general. That also applies to the prison system. I also would say that beyond that, a lot of people in prison who are in touch with us also very much want us to be involved in the political process and stuff like that, and pushing for various different reforms.

I think that just within that atmosphere there’s reforms that would really help a lot of people. Then there’s the ‘reforms’ that the state and the bourgeoisie want. The reforms would probably help with that kind of people in California, for example, would be retro actively abolishing Three Strikes. I know someone who is a Black woman who picked up a $20 bill off the ground and was convicted of robbery, and it was her third strike. She’s a grandmother. So those are the kinds of things that are bureaucratic so called democracy facilitated, and makes it almost impossible to fix. There are some interesting attempts that radical reform coming from the legislature but the CDCR is just a monster that the legislature doesn’t truly control. So when they pass well intentioned laws, the entire bureaucracy goes into overtime trying to twist the intentions, and keep milking the system for themselves.

Part of what’s going on with that also has to do with SEIU, which represents non-militarized prison staff, and how they don’t want prisons closed, basically. Those people who are a large constituency for SEIU elected this dude Richard Lewis Brown is basically the Donald Trump of SEIU 1000, which is the State Workers Union. He had a huge series of scandals, and was in court to determine if he got righteously kicked off of being President of SEIU 1000 or not. Basically, his huge base of support is the civilian workers from CDCR facilities. That’s the California version of the DOC. The R stands for ‘rehabilitation.’ A lot of times you might see people just call it CDC and disregard the R.

TFSR: But that’s the Center for Disease Control.

X: Yeah, yeah. Well, California Department of Corrections would also be the thing that people might call CDCR or CDC. The difference is that it implicates the fact that they’re not really rehabilitating people. Then they might also say CDC and capital letters and then a lowercase ‘r’ to indicate that same thing.

TFSR: Could you all, tell us a bit about where we can find out more about the work that you’re doing and the organizing that you’re involved in?

C: You could check us out on IncarceratedWorkers.org or check out our Instagram @incarceratedworkers for more about Millions For Prisoners New Mexico, you can visit @IWOCNM and @millionsforprisonersNM on Facebook. Also, please check out Mongoose Distro at MongooseDistro.com

X: For Sacramento IWOC, which again is not really just Sacramento, but it was when we started the page, you can check out our Instagram @Sacramento_IWOC. For the website, we’re part of the national organization. So the national website is also ours.

TFSR: Awesome. It was really a pleasure to meet you both Courtney and Xeno, and thanks a lot for taking the time to have this chat. I really appreciate it.

C: Thank you so much.

X: Yeah, thanks for doing this

Strategies For Ecological Revolution From Below with Peter Gelderloos

Strategies For Ecological Revolution From Below with Peter Gelderloos

"The Solutions are Already Here Strategies of Ecological Revolution from Below" book cover featuring a green shovel
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This week on The Final Straw, we’re featuring a recent conversation with anarchist author and activist, Peter Gelderloos about his latest book, “The Solutions Are Already Here: Strategies For Ecological Revolution From Below”, published by Pluto Press in 2022. For the hour we speak about critiques of science and Western Civilization that Peter levels, as well as the centrality of struggling on the ground we stand on, creating autonomous infrastructure, resisting colonial extractivism and the need for imagination and care as we tear down this ecocidal system.

Peter has prior authored such books as “Anarchy Works”, “How Non-Violence Protects The State”, and “Worshiping Power”, and you can find a number of his essays up on TheAnarchistLibrary.Org. You can also hear your interviews with Peter here: https://thefinalstrawradio.noblogs.org/post/category/peter-gelderloos/

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Announcements

Call In For Eric King continues

Anarchist and antifascist political prisoner, Eric King, has been transferred from Grady County Jail (where we spoke to him from for our April 3rd episode) to USP Lee in southwestern Virginia where he and his loved ones are afraid he will be put into solitary and attacked where there will be no witnesses. This comes directly after he won a trial against the federal Bureau of Prisons showing that he had been set up and punished for false reasons, subjected to obvious acts of petty and not so petty vengeance by the corrections officers, and in spite of the fact that his security level should have him at a medium security facility rather than a high security like Lee. There is a continued call-in campaign that his supporters are asking y’all to participate in. You can find more information in the show notes or at SupperEricKing.org as well as on the twitter, facebook and instagram pages for the under the name @SupportEricKing.

May Day

May Day is coming up real quick, y’all. The first of May has been known as a festival of spring bounty from pagan times in Europe, and has been celebrated by anarchists, socialists, communists and labor activists to commemorate the 1886 struggle for the power of workers against the capitalists and state and the remember the Haymarket Martyrs. We have a couple of episodes featuring content about May Day that we’ll link here, but this is just a quick note to find other comrades and fellow travelers this May Day, there may be something going on in your area. And if there isn’t, maybe you can organize an event with you friends!

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Featured Track

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Transcription

TFSR: So I’m very happy to be speaking with anarchist author Peter Gelderloos. Peter’s latest book, The Solutions are Already Here: Strategies for Ecological Revolution from Below is just out from Pluto Press, I just got my copy in the mail. Super stoked to get it. But welcome back to the show, Peter.

Peter Gelderloos: Thanks for inviting me, again.

TFSR: Facing the challenges of increasing climate chaos and its impact on life on Earth, feels really, really fucking daunting. Without thinking through the idea of like some centralized grand and technocratic response – which is kind of how I feel like I’ve been trained to think about big problems as big solutions – and not that that seems likely when countries at the industrial core aren’t even able to hold themselves to, you know, self imposed limits of cutting back on producing greenhouse gases, or even coordinating and distributing free vaccines to stop a pandemic.

So I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s head is kind of spinning when I try to think about the looming and existent climate disaster. How does this book kind of help to challenge that framework and mindset of expecting big centralized solutions to the problems that we face?

PG: Well, when you look at the history of how states have been dealing with ecological crisis, first of all, they’re very reductionist. They reduce a complex, multifaceted ecological crisis, which ties into so many problems – social and environmental – they tend to reduce it to emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, only to climate change. And they do that in large part not only because they don’t want to recognize many of these other problems, but also because technocrats need to simplify problems in order to reduce it to data that can be plugged into their machine, right?

So even though they’re they’re reducing it just to climate and they’ve been aware of the danger of climate change – like the US government recognized it as a national security problem already back in the 1960’s – their responses have been militarizing borders and increasing the deployment of militaries for, you know, so called disasters, natural disasters, and things of that nature. And then also making big agreements that have done exactly nothing to slow down greenhouse gas emissions.

So even within their reductionism, they don’t do a good job of dealing with the one part of the problem. And the other part of the problem that they recognize is actually bad for us: increasing militaries, militarizing borders and all that. So they are viewing the problem with interests that are diametrically opposed to the interests of living beings like ourselves. The larger part of it they have to ignore, and then of the part that they look at, half of it they don’t get right, and the other half they deal with in a way that that actively harms us.

We’ve also seen in a lot of these so called “natural disasters”, that the most effective responses for saving lives are responses that happen on the ground. It’s not the militaries, its neighbors, its regular people organizing themselves spontaneously with the logic of mutual aid. That’s what saves the most lives, we’ve seen that time and time and time again.

And absolutely, we are totally conditioned to rely on on the government to solve things for us, or, you know, major corporations, techno wizards like Elon Musk, or whatever. And that’s in large part because we’re forced into a situation of dependency and passivity and immobilization. Which is a very depressing position to be in normally, and it’s an even more depressing position to be in when we see the world dying around us. And so it’s completely coherent and consistent with that forced dependency and forced immobility to just either look the other way, or cross your fingers and hope and pray that, you know, some big godlike figure will come along and solve it for us. But it’s this big godlike figure that caused the problem and that is continuing to aggravate the problem.

So, actually, you get more intelligent solutions to problems from people who have on the ground knowledge, from people who are familiar with their territory, know that the resources they have. And it’s equally global, it’s just coming from the territory, it’s coming from below, rather than coming from either you know, boardrooms or situation rooms, where they’re not looking at the territory, they’re looking at maps. And they’re above all looking at their own interests of maintaining control. Because their ability to do anything in response to the problem is, in fact, predicated on our immobility, on our dependence, and our enforced passivity.

TFSR: So there’s almost like a sort of Stockholm syndrome that a lot of us – through the socialization from the state – have where we identify the the methods and the impulses of government in scary situations as being somehow salvatory, as opposed to sort of counterinsurgency constantly being operated for the continued extraction of resources.

PG: Absolutely. And I’m glad that you brought up counterinsurgency because that is one of the most important theoretical lenses to use to understand both ecological crisis and government, corporate and NGO responses to that crisis.

TFSR: A thing that kind of refreshing about this book is the radical critique of Western civilization as the vehicle for many of the woes that we experienced today. I appreciate that you attempted to undercut the misconception, right off the bat, that human nature is the cause for the destruction that we’re experiencing around us, or that there are too many of us or too many of certain kinds of us on the planet. Can you talk about the ideas of the Anthropocene or arguments around overpopulation, and why they present kind of a misdirection when seeking causes of anthropogenic climate change and resolutions of finding balance with the world?

PG: Yeah. Human beings have been around for a really long time, depending on you know, when exactly you identify the beginning of anatomically-modern human beings, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of years. Hominids with similar capabilities for longer. And the problems of destroying the ecological basis for life on this planet, for a great many species is a recent problem. And even the problem of causing ecological collapse in just one bio region is, in the broader timeline, a recent problem with maybe like four thousand years old, some of the earliest examples. And, again, some people – because we’re taught to view human history in this way that ends up being very white supremacist but focusing on the history of States – some people take that to mean “Oh, well, for the last four thousand years human beings have been destroying the environment. So you know, that’s what’s relevant.” No, for the last four thousand years humans have not been destroying the environment. A very small number of human beings have been doing that in a very small part of our overall territory until much more recently. And all across the world people fought against getting forcibly included in this new western model of being human. We do have examples of non-western cultures also destroying their soil or destroying their forests, destroying their ecosystem, but they weren’t nearly as good at it as Western civilization is, and that’s the dominant model, that’s the most relevant one to talk about.

So you know, that other question is relevant for the theoretical exercise of like, “okay, what exactly are the more destructive, or the healthier, forms of social organization?” but in the current media environment most people will bring up this kind of somewhat trivial fact at this point that maybe two thousand years ago, or one thousand years ago on another continent, a completely non-western society also caused major erosion. And that’s just an instance of deflection away from the fact that the problem that’s currently killing us is Western civilization.

So, you know, there are works that, for example: Fredy Perlman’s Against Leviathan that try to define what the problem is more broadly, but in the situation where we’re in right now, where species are going extinct at an accelerating rate, where millions of of humans are already dying every year because of the effects of this ecological crisis, and so many people are losing their homes, losing their land, losing their access to healthy food. The problem is the civilization, the modern state, the capitalist system that arose – centered in Europe – but also simultaneous to this process of mass enslavement in Africa and mass invasion, colonization and genocide in the Americas, in Africa and in Asia and Australia. That’s the problem.

If you take any criteria beyond just greenhouse gas emissions, it becomes very clear what’s the social model that is putting us all at danger. And even if you reduce it just to greenhouse gas emissions, you kind of avoid looking at the historical roots of the social machine that’s causing so much death and destruction. But it’s still very clear that Western civilization and the economic model that it forcibly imposed on the rest of the globe is the problem.

TFSR: So, one thing in the book you also say is that it’s necessary for us to critique science because it’s so shaped by those institutions who wield it, fund it and command it. Can you talk about this and how it differs from an anti-rational rejections of science for the sake of faith structures, or antimodernist frames of some anti-civ perspectives? And maybe speak about how you’ve observed our movements, or movements that you find inspiring in this framework, how they’ve been making and imagining their own science?

PG: Yeah, I mean, first off, maybe this is more semantical but like, I do think a critique of rationalism as a worldview is important. But then again, different people would mean very different things with that.

So just to focus on your question: in practice, in the real world, the scientific method cannot be divorced from the scientific institutions that currently control or manage the vast majority of knowledge production via the scientific method in this world that we inhabit. You know, I love science fiction, we can imagine other worlds but that’s the case in the one that we inhabit.

One thing that I think is important to recognize is that the scientific method is a very valid method for knowledge production, for falsifiable objective data. I think it’s also important to recognize that that’s not the only kind of knowledge. That there are many other kinds of knowledge that cannot be produced by the scientific method and that we run into… First of all there’s been no social system in the history of the world that I’m aware of that has ever relied only on that kind of knowledge. And our current “rationalist” society – speaking about rationalism as a sort of mythical worldview – uses a great deal of like non-falsifiable and subjective information, but they pretend that they don’t as part of this mythology. Which is very, very important to certain people, academics and whatnot.

So it’s important recognize, I think, that that’s not the only form of knowledge. And like, so a brief example of this: we can even see this when we get beyond the importance of, for example, emotional knowledge. How to deal with people, with other people in groups, how to take care of people, you know, this is something that’s actually incredibly important. And it’s amazing how easily it can be dropped by the wayside because it’s not reduced to numbers.

But for example we can look at health care. So there are forms of healthcare that are much easier to evaluate using the scientific method. And there are forms of healthcare that are much harder to evaluate using the scientific method. Finding out what happens when you dump some drug in a human body is much easier to evaluate, because the person who’s administering the drug doesn’t need to know anything about it. And they don’t need to know anything, or barely anything, about the person that they’re administering it’s to. And that’s sort of like the point of that whole methodology of treatment. Whereas other forms of treatment require much more subjective approach, a much more modeled approach, to the specifics of the person who’s being treated and they require a much more developed skill set to be able to deliver the therapy in an effective way.

So that’s not the fault of the therapy, that it can’t be evaluated as well by the scientific method. That’s a limitation or fault in scientific method. But we live in a society that’s so mechanized and that loves to be able to have – it’s in fact built up on – knowledge forums that can be plugged into the machine, and spit out the numbers. So it’s a society very much based on mechanical reproduction. That kind of society is going to favor the treatments that can be evaluated by the scientific method, and it’s going to disfavor or discourage or hide the treatments that can’t. And a year does not go by without us finding out about how damaging some form of medication was, or how damaging this blindness towards certain forms of therapy and care were.

And that doesn’t that doesn’t invalidate scientific knowledge production, but it does certainly speak to the question of social machinery. That it goes beyond just the question of, like, “Can we test this? Is it valid or not?” It’s that in fact, in practice, we can’t separate it from the question of social machinery.

What does that have to do with the ecological crisis? I already mentioned the reductionism of a multifaceted, very broad, very complex ecological crisis to climate change. That’s symptomatic of what I’m talking about. Climate change is something that’s more easy to quantify. We can measure it in temperature, we can measure it in parts per million carbon dioxide, we can measure it in emissions. Whereas things like what I know about the place where I live, what I know about the health of the soil in the place where I’ve lived for the past seven or eight years, is not something that I can quantify. But I know it, I think much better than someone who might come by and take a sample from a laboratory and test it but then not have any further relationship with the land. Someone who’s not out there taking care of these olive trees or planting a garden, year after year, and wondering when the rain is going to come and feeling it in their bones how this territory is desiccating. And how we actually need to start doing things now and fast as this climate becomes more of a desert. Because there are dead deserts, and they’re living deserts. And this land right here, where I live is going to become one or the other depending on what we do.

And the people in the laboratories are way behind the game and they have a lot less to offer. They do have things to offer, like there are certainly moments in which my gardening and other people’s gardening can be complemented by having access to that chemical test from the laboratory. And you know, that would be great to have that kind of complementarity, to have even solidarity at that level. But usually you don’t have that because our systems of knowledge are gaslit, we’re excluded from the resources that we would need to be able to access that and the people in laboratories generally have no idea what they’re talking about and think that they have access to some absolute, an all encompassing truth. And that’s problematic.

So yeah, there’s absolutely a possibility – I mean there should be a great deal of dialogue between different kinds of knowledge, including knowledge that’s produced through the scientific method – but we don’t have a lot of that now. And when you we look at how history has actually unfolding, the data produced by powerful scientific institutions regarding climate change has not been wrong, per se – the broad strokes of it have been correct, like for a while now they’ve been predicting what’s going to be happening, and it’s been happening – but it’s been quite conservative. Time and time again they’ve been way too optimistic in their predictions, and the kind of red lines or warning marks or benchmarks or whatever that they set are getting exceeded, they’re getting past years and decades in advance of their particular predictions.

So in terms of the precision of their predictions, they have high precision predictions. Like, me looking at the soil and the rain clouds or you know, someone who’s actually lived there their whole life and has access a lot more ancestral knowledge that I don’t have access to, they’re not going to be able to come up with like a high precise prediction of like “Okay in 20 years this is going to happen” but I think they will get a much more accurate prediction. Whereas the scientific institutions have had high precision and low accuracy. So they’ve actually been wrong in a dangerous way again and again and again. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence, given their proximity to and affinity with the institutions that are most directly responsible for the destruction of the current global ecosystem.

TFSR: So yeah, I guess that’s a good clarification is like systems of knowledge rather than sciences. And as you say that seems like the need from the Western civilization, or the organizations that are working within it, to have crunch-able numbers and quantities that they can put into their figures. Seems like it would also not only would it limit the output information but it probably blinds the people that are making the measurements, even if they’re trying to make the right measurements to see the actual outcomes.

The approach of looking systemically and trying to say that, in fact, all of these systems and how they correlate to each other can fall under one umbrella that we call “Civilization” and its colonial impulse, or “Western Civilization” and its colonial impulse, when people see a critique that is that large, oftentimes people will say, “Ah, but there are things that we have gotten from this system”, they will say that. They will say that capitalism has driven innovation and the creation of certain kinds of knowledge or certain kinds of technology that have benefited human life in a lot of ways. For instance one thing that they can point to is around medical science. And as you said, there are some treatments that have proven to be not so much treatments as poisons. It’s not a like an assured thing that medical science will resolve issues, but there are a lot of technologies that have been developed and applied over the centuries that are positive. And I could see someone saying, “well do I choose between the current structure and like small reforms within it, or supporting a sort of revolutionary alteration in the productive models, the distribution of resources and capacity to produce these technologies that are saving my life, or making it so that I can be mobile, or extending life” for folks that have very serious medical issues for instance?

There has been critique, for instance, of criticisms of modern civilization that came out of Earth First at its beginnings, or other pro-ecological movements that look at not human beings as the problem necessarily, but technological development as being – and the sciences and the knowledges that come out of that, not to say that they’re just produced from that, but that are applied there. Saying “if the government fails, for instance, or if the economy scales back, I’m not going to be able to get my medication and I may die”. Can you talk a little bit about the sort of reticence that someone would have of trying to approach a degrowth of the economy and the government, because they’re afraid that what safety nets exist for them currently would no longer be there, and they wouldn’t survive it?

PG: Yeah, that’s definitely a very legitimate way to address questions of social change. And I think it’s actually super important when we inhabit our own bodies, our own experiences and needs when we’re talking about proposals of widespread social transformation, and struggle, generally.

I think it helps to primarily consider two different things. One is that if we break out of an individual’s framework – which, like I said, that concern that you’re posing is very important, there’s also an iteration of that concern which is very dangerous. Because if we make a critique of Western Civilization on the basis of how many people it’s killing, how many millions of people are starving to death because of this model, all of the forests and ecosystems that are getting destroyed, it can be dangerous. You definitely don’t want to go into a framework of “it’s us or them, someone has to die in this situation”.

So first off, I think we need to break out of any kind of individualist or competitive conception of this problem. And if we look more systemically, or if we look at health as a collective good, the healthiest possibilities for human society are ones in which people have a healthy reciprocal relationship with their environment. They have access to the commons, they have access to a very diverse and healthy diet that is locally adapted. And that is, in fact, based on brilliant technologies that were thousands of years in the making, that existed in every territory before colonialism, which is a technology without whirring gadgets and lights and bells and whistles but it’s the technology of how we build up our survival mutually with the other organisms around us, with the other living beings around us. Many of those technologies still exist. And so without colonialism, with access to that commons, with access to that kind of rooted, territorial, popular and ecological technology, that is the best hope that a human community has for health. For the healthiest lives possible for all their members. So that’s one thing that I think is really necessary to acknowledge. That we live in a system that produces a disease, that produces death and that’s a huge problem that we can’t sweep under the carpet.

The other good thing is that when we destroy governments and capitalism, everything that they own, everything that they think is theirs, everything that they blackmail us with – because they control access to it and we have to spend our lives working to try to get a small piece of it – it’ll be ours. And so once all the rich people are gone, and once all the cops and all the politicians are gone, all of that will be ours. And we can decide to get rid of it, we can decide to keep it, we can decide to make it ourselves in under much better circumstances. So things like medicine we’ll obviously keep making and we’ll find ways to make it that are healthier, we’ll find productive processes that are less damaging for the environment. And we’ll also be changing our living conditions so as few people as possible need access to those technologies, but those who do need that access will get it.

And then we’re also forced to deal with other other technologies, like nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs that the state has saddled us sadly with the necessity to mediate those in the best way possible, because they’re not going away for, you know, forever. Some of those radioactive substances will be around for billions of years, so “thank you, government!” But we will do a better job of handling that than they do. Because we care about us. And because we’re actually good at organization when we get the chance. In the US every single nuclear waste storage facility has leaked at one time or another. So they’re crap at it and they’re also to blame for it. On my worst days, I definitely fantasize about, you know, locking them all in the nuclear storage facility, there’d be certain poetic justice to that.

But thinking about it more realistically, and in the question of our needs, all of it will belong to us for better and for worse, and we’ll figure out how to take care of us. And we’ll do a much better. Even though lately in our movements, it’s pretty depressing, because we’re I think learning a bit too much from the system we live in, and we’re doing, frankly, often a pretty terrible job of taking care of us. But we can do much better than the state or capitalism ever could.

TFSR: Yeah, and they’ve had the opportunity to prove that already. And there’s tons of people that, you know, in as far as distribution of treatment methods for things, or COVID vaccines, or whatever, like, they have proven that it is not in their interest, it is actually in their interest to deny large swaths of the population any number of these things so that they can mark up the price and make more money off of less.

PG: Yes.

TFSR: So some of the most inspiring parts of the book, for me, were the examples of resistance to mega projects, to the expansion of colonial extractivism as well as to some of the alternative movement experiments and infrastructures that you highlight and that you get voices from, which is great. Were there any that you wanted to include but you just didn’t have time to fit that you might share with the audience?

PG: Um, there are definitely some. There are some cases where I was looking for interviews and I wasn’t able to get in touch with the comrades who would be able to speak from personal experience about those struggles, or I was able to get in touch but they were in the end too busy to do interviews, because things are pretty difficult. And so I can name some of those, maybe for people to look at the more, but I won’t go into them precisely because I wasn’t able to learn enough about them.

So, for example, in the movement in Kurdistan, an ecological focus is a large part of the analysis. And it’s a territory that’s been very damaged by war, by desertification, by forced impoverishment coming from the various countries, the various states, that control Kurdistan. And so I know, in fact yeah some friends helped put out a book about some of the experiences in trying to helped make that desert bloom. But yeah, the comrades, it’s been, of course, a rough time over there so the comrades weren’t able to give an interview about that. So that didn’t make it into the book.

Let’s see… There are many, many very interesting struggles in India. I mentioned some of them on the basis of already published research, but I wasn’t able to arrange any interviews with comrades there. India’s interesting because there are very, very different experiences of reforestation, that demonstrates, again, just how we can’t really trust the media, how we can’t trust governments when they talk about this. Because reforestation means completely different things depending on on who’s saying it, and a lot of forms of reforestation are very, very bad for the environment. They’re basically things that, say, like a government like Chile will do to be able to get counted as like a negative carbon emission country, so then they can make money with carbon trading. When, like, in Chile the reforestation is very much an industrial activity which is which is bad for the environment, very bad for the soil, bad for the water table. And it’s very much a colonial activity, because it’s taking place on the lands of Indigenous peoples who are in the process of trying to recover their lands. And a huge part of that process is trying to win back their food autonomy.

So forests are important. And forests can also be edible forests. These pine plantations, these mono-crop pine and eucalyptus plantations that are being planted by the official institutions, are definitely not food forests. No one can feed themselves off of them. But also agricultural fields are important for a lot of people’s to feed them selves. And the official reforestation happening in Chile is often used as a weapon against Indigenous struggle, against the struggle, for example, of the Mapuche for food autonomy, for getting their land back and being able to feed themselves off of their land using traditional technologies and whatever modern or Western technologies that they feel like adapting. That’s up to them. And to the extent that they can do that, to the extent that they have food autonomy, they have a vastly increased ability to fight back against the colonizing state because they’re no longer dependent on global capitalism. And they’re no longer dependent on the state that they colonizes them.

And so in India there’s some really great examples that really contrast how ineffective and also how damaging state-led efforts for mass reforestation are, how they just respond to this technocratic impulse to produce numbers on paper – when on the ground it’s a completely different story – versus communities, many of them Indigenous communities, that have been undergoing very, very effective, large scale forms of reforestation that improve soil health, that increase the possibilities for food autonomy, the increased quality of living, and that, you know, helped create more robust ecosystems with habitat for other species and in addition to just humans. So I would love to one day meet comrades who are participating in that because there’s some really powerful struggles happening there.

TFSR: Well, you do put the invite in the book for a longer extended, like, sequel if folks had more stuff inspired along those lines. So if any listeners are out there and want to write that book, I would love to read it.

Over the years, we conducted a couple of interviews with Anne Peterman from a group called “No GE Trees”, who was talking about that struggle in Wallmapu and – because they were similarly trying to build solidarity with resistance to that sort of mono crop forestation that damages the soil, that depletes the water tables, that denudes the landscape of the vitality and the variation that’s required for native species to exist in it throughout actually the US South – so people were protesting in the Asheville area in solidarity with not only resisting GE Tree plantations in the southeast, but also in Chile.

And a lot of those trees, they’re not good for a lot of things, they’re not good for making lumber out of, especially eucalyptus. Growing up on the West Coast…they’re not good for windbreaks, they got planted for windbreaks, they’re not good for railroad ties, that’s what they got planted for at one point, but they get chopped up after a couple of years of growing, so not even creating a mature forest, and processed down into wood pellets, and then sent to Europe so that European governments can claim that they’re using a renewable source of energy production. It’s just this game of shells with carbon and basically pollution and degradation. It’s a continuation of the extractivism of neocolonialism.

PG: Absolutely.

TFSR: We’ve already seen a measurable connection between climate change, the disruption of food production, exacerbating conflicts, and being used as a weapon against Indigenous communities as you’ve noted, and resulting in increased refugee movements and displacement. As a result, right wing tendencies have welcomed an escalation of conflict and inequality, the building and buttressing of physical and metaphorical walls, and the acceleration of fossil fuel extraction to suck out every drop of profit that can be withdrawn before it’s too late. And to be fair, I say, “right wing”, this also goes for centrist neoliberal regimes as well but the rhetoric looks more actively genocidal oftentimes, and facilitates extraparliamentary violence when it comes from the far right, usually.

Would you talk a bit about the importance of the increasingly, in some ways, difficult project of fostering internationalism and inner communalism against this, nationalist tendency as the climate heats up?

PG: Yeah, obviously the far right, and neoliberal centrist more so, have a lot of advantages because they have access to resources, they get a lot more attention. They’re taken seriously. So even a lot of centrist media that pay attention to the far right in a disapproving way still help them out more than the way that they treat like truly radical transformative revolutionary movements by just ignoring them. Because we’re kept in this in this permanent place of either not existing or being infantilized and we have, as you pointed out, we have a lot of work to do on this front.

And we can also talk about forms of internationalism that are very damaging. This is a kind of internationalism, which is completely under the thumb of, you know, colonial or neocolonial institutions. It’s this worldwide recruitment that takes place, largely through universities of – sometimes in a limited fashion it’s been analyzed as a Brain Drain, but I think it goes beyond that. Basically training and recruiting people from all over the world to participate in this system – whether it’s under the auspices of the United Nations, or under the auspices of some prestigious university in the Global North – to create an internationalism which is a completely monistic, technocratic, simplified worldview that builds consensus about what the world looks like, what the problems look like, and what the solutions are, within elite institutions that are completely cut off from all of the various territories of the world, even as those institutions increase their recruitment to a global scale. So that they have representatives or spokespeople from all the different continents from all over the world but they’re brought together in a sort of epistemological, technocratic space, which is completely a reproduction of colonialism, and makes it flexible but furthers the dominance of Western civilization, of white supremacist civilization.

And so that’s the kind of internationalism, which is very, very present, and it has access to a great deal of resources. And on the other hand, in the Global North, we’re not doing a nearly good enough job to create a very, very different and subversive kind of internationalism. And the comrades who are doing the best job of that tends to be migrant comrades, comrades who have who have migrated, who have crossed borders. I think a lot of folks who grow up with the privilege of citizenship in the Global North, if they do travel, if they do try to get like a more global perspective, it’s often still done in this individualist way that has a lot more to do with tourist vacations than with the needs of revolutionary struggle. And so we don’t have – I mean we don’t really have communities in the Global North, because the triumph of capitalism is so complete – but we don’t have radical groups that are attempting to be communities that pool resources in order to intentionally create global relationships of solidarity with communities and with struggles in the Global South that they could actually be supporting, and that they could actually be creating dialogue with to develop the rich, detailed, global perspectives that we actually need, as well as the possibility for global solidarity.

So, yeah, in the book, towards the end, I do this exercise of imagining what if we’re actually able to do what I’m talking about. Or what I’m trying to argue in the book is like a real model for a revolutionary transformative response to the ecological crisis. And so since I’m talking about the need to root ourselves in our territory, I imagine “Okay, here we are in Catalunya, what does this look like over the next few decades?” And one of the first things is in Barcelona and Tarragona we have these big ports with these big old ships that are currently moving merchandise all around the world. And that’s something that on the one hand it needs to stop because of how much that’s based on fossil fuels and on unnecessary consumption and all the rest. And the later timeline, in that chapter of the book is, you know, maybe much more beautiful and romantic, imagining there’s no more borders and people can traverse the world in sailboats, which are sailboats that have been expropriated from from the wealthy, who of course no longer exist. And and I think that’s a beautiful thing to imagine.

It’s really nice to think about a world that we’re actually allowed to live in, and that people all over the world can travel and go where they want. But right now we have the ugliness to deal with. And so in those ports, there are fuel reserves that have already been dredged up from the earth and there are these big ocean-going cargo ships. So there’s a part that talks about expropriating those cargo ships, getting in touch with revolutionary comrades in the Global South that we already have a relationship with and finding out what they need.

There’s the example of early on in the pandemic, both in Catalunya and another territories, workers taking the initiative to re-purpose their factories to make parts for respirators in a way that was faster and more agile than the capitalist were able to do. So kind of taking a cue from that I imagine this process of, okay, instead of sending merchandise, which is just furthering a relationship of dependency – I was speaking with this one comrade from Venezuela, other comrades from from Brazil, like a major thing is their economies and their material environments have been intentionally structured in a way so they don’t have a lot of very basic things that they need, that in Europe or North America would be easier to find. So for example, like basic machine parts for the machines that would be needed to process food. Not even talking about some hyper industrial and unnecessary endeavor, but basic things like harvesting, threshing, and milling grains, for example. So instead of, you know, a relationship of dependence, where this really fertile territory, like Venezuela, gets grain imports of European grains that Indigenous and Afro Indigenous populations have not been traditionally consuming and that are certainly less healthy – so, basically supermarket food. Instead of importing supermarket food, this short term process of exporting those cargo ships, re-purposing factories from the automotive industry to make some of these simple machine parts, and then using the existing fuel reserves to send off these cargo expropriated cargo ships, so that in these other territories that are colonized, neocolonized territories, that we have a relationship and solidarity with, they can create their own material autonomy and break that dependence once and for all. And then we’re also not just navel gazing and thinking “how are we going to survive the climate apocalypse and making sure that our bunkers are well stocked?” But we’re actually thinking about collective survival in a way that is solidaristic, in a way that is realistic, in a way that is global, and in a way that recognizes our responsibilities, given the past and present of colonialism and white supremacy.

TFSR: Yeah and I would say that the one group that I’m familiar with that really has continued doing a good job on the subject of building or continuing solidarity across the borders is Zapatista structures. In the US there is still, despite the fact that the Zapatista revolution happened 30 years ago, and there are still active, six declaration Otra Compaña groups or whatever that are around all sorts of parts of Anglo dominated North America, Turtle Island. Like, it’s just astounding, and I wish – but people did it really well during that period of time. And I think that that’s something that’s been lost is these clear lines of communication, and the building of inspiration, the sharing of knowledge, of experience across that border to the south of the nation state that I live within the borders of. There’s so many overlaps, and labor struggles that happen. There’s so much cross border transit of goods and I have so much more in common with people across that border than I do who fucking run those corporations here.

PG: Yup.

TFSR: Another point that I really liked in the book – and you approach this in a number of different ways, or I read this in a number of different places – talking about the importance of territorialization. And maybe that’s the wrong term, but being rooted in the land base that you’re in, listening to it, trying to understand what it teaches and how to live with it. Recognize how other people have done that, and like rooting your struggle in a sense of place. And this is one of the reasons that some of these anticolonial and anticapitalist resistance movements in different places around the world look so different is because they’re rooted in different legacies and practices, religions, languages, and experiences of colonization. And I really appreciate the fact that you point this out and you say, “Look, don’t expect everyone around the world to circle their A’s, or to use the term ‘autonomy’ necessarily for what they’re doing. But just recognize similar traits among people that you can have solidarity with in the struggle against global capitalism and colonization”. Can you talk a little bit about some of these similar traits, how you kind of identify these like versatile strategies?

PG: Yeah. So yeah, I think I do use the word “territorialization” or “territorialized” and that’s largely coming from Catalan and Spanish. In English “territorial” tends to be an ugly word because it’s associated with possessiveness, with drawing borders. I find it a very useful concept that’s used here so I just started using it in English. I would just encourage people to look at the roots of that word, “terra” or “tierra”, like the earth. A relationship with the earth not as like this big, abstract blue planet floating in the void but the earth under our feet.

So it’s interesting because you’re asking about similarities – oh god this is gonna sound like some cliched bumper sticker or something like that – but my first response is to say that the similarity is in the difference. Because in an act of war against this world of supermarkets and Amazon and smartphone screens which impose this secretly white supremacist homogeneity, when you territorialize you are becoming part of a long historical tradition that is so so so specific to the exact place where you live and nowhere else. So that means eating different food, cooking it in a different way, pruning different trees, it means speaking a different dialect of a different language. It means things that at first glance are maybe more defined or marked by their difference, but when you when you see like gatherings of peasants from different countries around the world, or gatherings of gardeners, gatherings of revolutionaries who very much believe in being territorial in this sense that I’m trying to talk about it, who believe in having their roots in the ground beneath their feet, and fighting from that relationship and understanding themselves within that relationship…

One thing that strikes me is how much pleasure there is in sharing “This is how you do it? This is how we do it. Oh, this is what you eat? This is what we eat.” And so even on the face of it, the color of that, the texture of that seems to be bringing out differences but I think that really what’s the conversation that happens there – and it feels this way to me like insofar as I’m this alienated exsuburbanite who is engaging in relatively later in my life, to a limited extent has felt this way – that like, beneath the words, there’s the sort of language of love which is completely an exercise in sameness. Not the sameness of homogeneity, but the sameness of “We’re living beings in this earth and we love the Earth, it gives us our lives, we love the other living beings around us.” And so really people all across the world who are living in autonomy and calling it different things and using very, very different technologies and eating very different foods, and all the rest, are on a deeper level doing the same thing, and I think can often recognize ourselves in one another.

TFSR: I guess jumping back to a reference that you made a little bit ago, I was very moved by your chapter, A Very Different Future, where you were describing – this isn’t the primary part of it, the first part of it at least you were describing – an alternative view of where we might be if we go down this path and sort of a best case scenario of how reframing and healing the world could look. I feel like though there is a lot, lot of doing needed to change the course that we as a species are on – or that we who live under the civilization, are forced to live another civilization live in… One of the primary challenges that we face is one of imagination. Because imagination feeds the soul, it’s a playful creativity, it’s a necessary part of, I think, what it is to be alive. Can you speak about this, and sort of point to any projects or movements or people that you think listeners might appreciate in terms of having a radical imagination, and being brave enough to share that out with other people?

PG: Huh. Yeah, I’d start off underscoring how important I think imagination is, like you said. I think it’s, I don’t know, maybe I think it’s more important than hope. Sometimes it’s just really not possible to access hope. But it’s nice, even in those moments, to be able to look out your window or look at the street and see a completely different world filling up that space, even if you don’t think you’ll ever live to see it. So that I think is extremely important. And I don’t think that we can, I mean, obviously the world that we create is going to surprise us. It’ll be born and dialogue with us and it will also insist on certain things and impose itself in certain ways. But at the same time, I don’t think we can create a society that we’re unable to imagine. Even though the caveat that I was trying to trying to communicate is that it will still be different from how we imagine in, but the imagining it is a hugely important part of creating it.

And I think it’s extremely, extremely important to make a very, very clear analytical and strategic distinction between imaginings and blueprints. Creating blueprints is just a furtherance of the war against the planet. It is an extremely colonial act to impose a blueprint on the world. And actually, this reticence towards imagination is probably the biggest criticism I’ve ever had of insurrectionary anarchism. Like this general refusal to imagine. Which isn’t even really well supported by the theoretical bases of insurrectionary anarchism. I think it’s just more often manifests as a fear, like an insistence of focusing on the present, which has some important strategic elements to that insistence. Like we’re gonna focus on the present. But then there’s also I think this fear of actually going beyond that.

Who is doing a good job of sharing these imaginings, these imaginations? So okay, there’s this one group that I interviewed in the US for the book. I keep their location anonymous, but basically they get funds and divert theirs, or they take advantage of some financing that’s intended for other purposes. Basically it’s intended to help large scale industrial farmers buy trees for windbreaks and whatnot. And this is a radical anticapitalist group that buys massive amounts of trees, like tens of thousands of trees in order to help neighborhoods move towards food autonomy. And I haven’t seen them do anything that’s explicitly propagandistic works of imagination. Like “we can imagine this area that we live in being an abundant orchard, where you can grow our own healthly food and not rely on wage labor to get low quality food”. But I think on the material level, there’s a great deal of imagination in what they do.

And I think also a lot of it refers back to peasant and Indigenous imagination from Latin America, because a lot of the neighborhoods where what they do is most effective are neighborhoods with with a large number of Central American migrants who have a lot of experience with growing their own food and with combining residential and agricultural spaces in a way that is generally not done in the Global North. And so if not on the level of like written propaganda, at the very least on the material level, there is a thriving imaginary in that project of neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, working class neighborhoods that increase their quality of life by growing healthy food. And this is one small group that’s doing this, if this were done across the US, then you’d be creating like an atmospherically significant amount of carbon reduction, of carbon being brought down from the air by reforestation. It’s done in a complex healthy way and not in like a mono cropping, genetically engineered way, and it also gives working class neighborhoods access to healthy food.

Also, most of the trees that they’re planning are autochthonous, how do you say that in English? They’re native, they’re native species, most of which have been neglected by industrial agriculture because industrial agriculture imposes a lot of needs, that are divorced from the needs of human and environmental health. Like transportability: apples are great because they can be they can be hard, they can be harvested early, and then they can be shipped around the world. Pawpaws, for example, are a very, very important native tree food from North America they’re kind of too mushy, they don’t work so well being transported so they don’t work so well as a supermarket food. And so it’s a very healthy food, which is a part of Indigenous cultures, Indigenous histories, Indigenous technology, which is just removed from the equation by how it’s done. And so it’s it’s really awesome to see a group that’s bringing back a lot of those native species and increasing biodiversity and increasing human health in working class neighborhoods.

Aside from more material projects, there’s something very, very important that anarchists have actually been doing for a long time, and that is experiencing a very, very exciting rebirth, which is anarchists speculative fiction. Whether science fiction or fantasy, there is increasing attention being being paid to some of the greats from the recent past, like Octavia Butler who’s a radical, not an anarchist but someone I’ve learned a lot from, someone that, it doesn’t matter that she’s not an anarchist, she’s a really great writer and really great thinker. So yeah, Octavia Butler, Ursula K Le Guin, over here [in Spain and Catalunya], for example, they’ve even been republishing and reprinting some of the anarchists who are engaging in some speculative fiction from out of the workers movement in the late 19th century. And then you also have a lot of current writers who are putting out anarchist speculative fiction, and that’s something that we really need to support and we need to try to spread beyond just the movement. Get it into our libraries, get it into our local bookstores, because that’s generally more effective in spreading anarchist ideas and anarchist imaginaries then, you know, then a lot of our nonfiction writing.

TFSR: Yeah, plus, it’s fun.

PG: Oh, yeah.

TFSR: [giggles] I’ve seen warnings on social media and in some recently published books such as Climate Leviathan – which honestly, I have not finished yet, just haven’t had time – but of ideas of eco-Leninism, or eco-Maoism, an ostensibly leftist authoritarian state response to climate destabilization, then I’ve got a feeling that it’s not just about Derek Jensen anymore. Can you talk a little bit about this tendency, and if you see this as an actual threat with actual adherence, like an actual threat to liberty?

PG: Yeah. Probably most significantly Andreas Malm took it into a new territory, well beyond, for example, like Derek Jensen, with that group. And so this is something that is getting us lot of attention in anticapitalist academic circles. I’ve never seen anywhere where it has any implantation on the ground, like directly in real struggles or in social movements. So from that perspective, it would seem just like a very out of touch, elite, making kind of wild arguments that are fairly ridiculous and irrelevant. Except I think we’ve seen dynamics before, where when the official centrist practices and ideologies flounder, and are unable to produce solutions that the system needs in order to correct and survive – and that’s definitely, we are entering that that period of history right now- where authoritarian elements in social movements that seem to be very, very tiny and not very relevant, all of a sudden go really big, really fast.

That happened in a huge way in the Spanish Civil War, where the authoritarian Communists were completely irrelevant and tiny, and the anarchists had so much influence in the revolutionary movement. And then in less than a year, because of outside funding and because of elite power structures making alliances of convenience, all of a sudden authoritarian revolution – supposedly revolutionary methodology because in fact the Stalinist were quite explicit in saying that they weren’t trying to fight the revolution in Spain – where those authoritarian currents gain ground really, really, really rapidly. And so we need to learn from history, we need to prepare ourselves for that eventuality or inevitability, and we need to be making the arguments now about how these authoritarian ways of looking at the problem are completely detached from people’s needs and the needs of actual ecosystems, and how they are completely unrealistic given the nature of the problem.

That also means being more vociferous about talking about our methodologies, our solutions, and the victories or partial victories that we have. In the case of Andreas Malm, he made it a little bit easier to beginning with some pretty obviously racist, anti-Indigenous statements that he made. I mean he’s very much… he has trouble seeing past the needs of the reproduction of Global North white supremacist society. But I think later iterations of that kind of authoritarian, Eco-Leninist thinking are going to be more sophisticated and they’re going to do a better job at hiding their colonial and white supremacist dynamics. And so I think we need to, yeah, we need to be conscious of that danger while it’s still small.

TFSR: Does it seems strange to you that AK Press just published a book by him last year? How to Blow up a Pipeline.

PG: Um I mean, yeah. There are anarchists publishers that take the approach of only publishing books that they feel affinity with, and I think some really, really important literature that is not commercially viable has gotten circulated that way and that’s really important. And then there are other other radical publishers, like AK that take the approach of being a very broad platform. And there’s some things that AK publishes that I wouldn’t have found out about or gotten access to that both have a broader appeal or like a less radical appeal, and that are also exactly the things that anarchist, especially in North America, need to be thinking about that address things that we historically ignore and do a terrible job of. And then there are things that AK or similar publishers have published that I wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole, or that I would touch to burn maybe?

TFSR: [chuckles] Yeah, and I’m not meaning to put AK Press on the spot specifically, but like, that book, and then like, Nick Estes-

PG: The same thing applies, like PM, like all these larger platform publishers. I think I as a person would tend more – just because of I don’t know, my personality, or whatever – would tend more to the sort of small affinity kind of oriented model. But I’m also able to recognize that the way a broader publisher does things has advantages, and it puts us in contact with texts and ideas that we really need to be in dialogue with, and that if we’re just focusing on affinity we’ll never get out of our little echo chamber.

So, yeah, and then some of the Marxists who I respect who are closer to anarchism, say that Andreas Malm’s earlier, big seminal book was important and useful. Like about climate capitalism, about looking at the intersections between climate change and capitalisms earlier development. So, you know, evidently he’s put out things that are theoretically useful, but I think he’s kind of a clown when it comes to direct action. Like he’s coming from this highly privileged, Scandinavian social democratic vantage point where he can talk about his flirtation with direct action from a few years ago without the risk of going into prison, which is [laughing] another planet for the rest of us. And then he, with How to Blow Up a Pipeline, it just seems so like vapid and fatuous. Like this highly privileged academic talking really tough about “yeah, we’re gonna take this thing down” when he really has no idea what he’s talking about and he tends to talk about it in very irresponsible and unrealistic ways.

TFSR: Available at a bookstore near you…

PG: [laughs]

TFSR: [laughing] So, one of my favorite answers to the question of “How can listeners offer solidarity from where they’re at?” that I’ve asked guests in the past, one of the best answers that I’ve gotten consistently from people that are doing anti-megaproject work, or blocking pipelines – megaproject I guess – anticolonial struggles, is to do that work where we’re at, against the oppressive dynamics here to destabilize the capitalist core, so that autonomy can flourish here, as well as at the peripheries. And I feel like that was really echoed in the conclusion of your book. What would you tell people a good next step is after reading the book? [laughs] Leading question?

PG: I mean, in tandem with developing a global perspective, that’s real, that’s based in actual relationships of solidarity with the people and with struggles in other parts of the world, I would say that taking steps, at least baby steps towards food autonomy, is something that can be done anywhere, needs to be done anywhere. And that it’s also an interesting exercise or an interesting line of attack, because it can kind of give us new perspectives on what are the structures that get in the way of our survival? You know, what are the structures that really need to be identified as enemies? And sharing food is is a really powerful activity on every level. And so moving beyond more superficial practices of affinity, towards practices of solidarity with people who are, you know, don’t think the same way as us, as a step towards actually creating like a community worthy of the name, food is extremely important. Being able to share food, being able to decrease dependence on capitalism, that aspect. If I had to give a shorter answer I would highlight that for special attention.

TFSR: So start a garden. You heard it here first.

[both crack up together]

PG: Housing! Housing is really important.

TFSR: Totally.

PG: Taking over housing, anyways, yeah. To answer properly you’d have to talk about so many different things.

TFSR: I guess intervene where you can and have some imagination. I really liked the fact that a couple times in the book that you challenged the the readership to “no, really, stop reading. Please take a moment, close your eyes or look out the window and just do some thinking”. Yeah, that’s good.

Peter, are you working on anything else right now or just kind of like, taking care of business between between books?

PG: Uhhhhh, right now just trying to stay alive and yeah. I think we’re doing a very bad job generally in our movements of taking care of ourselves and taking care of each other. And so I’m trying to look at that more. Yeah, trying to get off my ass to actually plant my garden once it’s spring. And yeah, we’re still working on the infrastructures gatherings, anarchists infrastructures gatherings here in Catalunya. Whenever I find the motivation to start working on the next book, the next one will probably be a critique of democracy, both representative and direct. And then I’d also love to get to this research project about the invention of whiteness in the Spanish colonial experience, since it’s been mostly studied in the English experience of the invention of whiteness through through colonialism.

TFSR: Cool. Well, thanks for this lovely book. I really enjoyed the read and thank you for taking the time to talk.

PG: Thank you. Thank you for taking the time to talk and thanks for, thanks for reading, thanks for the conversation and, yeah. Thanks for being in touch.

TFSR: Of course.

The Interregnum: Roundtable with Vicky Osterweil

The Interregnum: Roundtable with Vicky Osterweil

Download Episode Here

This week we are pleased to present something a little bit new for TFS listeners. This is a kind of informal round table discussion that co host Scott and I had alongside Vicky Osterweil, who has been on the show before to speak on her book In Defense of Looting; A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. We all sat down to talk about a short and thought provoking article which was published in January of 2022 called “The Interregnum: The George Floyd Uprising, the coronavirus pandemic, and the emerging social revolution” which was published on the Haters Cafe and we will link to it in the show notes for anyone interested in reading it.

An interregnum is defined as being a period of discontinuity in a government, organization, or social order, and it typically points to time frames at which there isn’t a clear monarch or reigning body in a given place. This article points to the many ways the George Floyd uprising, the covid 19 pandemic, the rise of anti-work, and what the article calls the Great Refusal (a pivot from the ‘Great Resignation’ nomenclature of some mass media) have all created the conditions for a possible broadscale social revolution. Also stay tuned to the end of this episode where we chat briefly about what books we’re reading right now. We hope you enjoy this chat!

((note to listeners, I’m now using the name I use in real life for this radio project, which is Amar. It’s become more and more important to me to be as fully acknowledging of my culture and ethnicity as possible, and this is one way I’m choosing to do that))

A note on the audio, I messed up recording on my side – my bad – but Scott saved the audio by doing their own back up recording!

In Defense of Looting interview with TFSR!

Announcements:

Disrupt Stone Mountain

In the south eastern US state of Georgia, there is a call-out for anti-racists and anti-fascists to show up and counter and stop the yearly demonstration organized by the buffoonish Sons of Confederate Veterans at Stone Mountain Park for April 30th, 2022. Stone Mountain was intended by “lost cause” supporters as a confederate Mount Rushmore, including a large bas-relief carving and was maybe the site of the birth of the second KKK in 1915. More info on the twitter for Atlanta Justice Alliance and some background can be found in a prior TFSR interview

Eric King

A call-in campaign continues until we hear otherwise for Eric King, the anarchist prisoner who recently won a court case against his jailers at the federal Bureau of Prisons. After that case, they decided to transfer him to a higher security facility across the country. The BOP has a history of setting Eric up to get jumped by white supremacist prisoners at other facilities and the worry is that not only is this move an obvious act of vengeance by the BOP but that he’ll be isolated and targeted at USP Lee or whatever facility they stick him in. You can find notes about the call in at SupportEricKing.org, in our chat with Eric on our April 3rd, 2022 episode and in the recent IGD This Is America interview on the subject.

Libre Flot

Libre Flot, a French anarchist and former volunteer alongside the YPG in Rojava, has ended his hunger strike after a judge released him for medical reasons but he’ll be electronically monitored by the state pending a future court case, as reported by Abolition Media. Likely future updates and ways to support Libre Flot can be found at SolidarityToDecember8.WordPress.Com.

Mountain Valley Pipeline Resistor Needs Support

Max is facing a bunch of legal fees for locking down to block the delivery of pipeline to the MVP construction project and is looking for support in covering costs. More info can be found at https://tinyurl.com/MadMaxFines

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Featured Track

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Transcription

Amar: Three of us are sitting down, me and Scott and Vicky Osterweil, who has been on the show before and who has written a bunch of really amazing stuff. In Defense of Looting; A Riotous History of Uncivil Action, primarily, we had her on the show to talk about that book. We are all here to talk about this article on Haters Cafe, which is a blog run by primarily black and brown proletarian folks. This article is called the The Interregnum: The George Floyd Uprising, the Coronavirus Pandemic, and The Emerging Social Revolution.

And we’re just all here to talk about it a little bit. It’s not an interview, it’s sort of a departure from the you know, format The Final Straw has gone in so far and I’m excited to talk with y’all about this really thought provoking piece.

Scott: Yeah, this is Scott and I thought I’d start by giving a quick little summary overview of the piece. The pieces written in points, but I’m going to kind of bring them all together. I thought this piece was really helpful and interesting because it ties together a bunch of different important phenomena, especially like recent ones. Not just the pandemic, the George Floyd uprisings and the great resignation, which this piece says we should rename the great refusal, but also the longer arc of rebellion over the last 10 years. Basically, there’s this claim in the piece that the insurrection that we saw from George Floyd uprisings has been translated into daily life. So the struggle has left the realm of the political and now is possibly moving towards a social revolution. I think that’s good to kind of set us up for a conversation.

Vicky: Yeah, totally. First of all, thank you so much. It’s so nice to be back here with y’all, on one of my favorite shows. It’s such a pleasure just to chat, especially under these circumstances. When we scheduled this… things have changed globally. So it’s exciting to sit and think, reground ourselves in thinking through our local contexts and what that looks like. It’s really valuable. So I appreciate you and appreciate the audience, too.

I think one of the things about this piece that I found really sort of activating I guess is the way in which it talks about the great resignation, which has been this wave of quitting. Mass wave of quitting jobs that has gone on now, basically, since the beginning of the pandemic, but it accelerated really dramatically in 2021. I haven’t seen January numbers, but I know that even through December, it continued to accelerate, people are quitting their jobs more and more. Some of that is almost certainly due to the pandemic and the conditions of work that that produces. Some people have, when I’ve talked to comrades about this piece some of them have sort of said, “oh, well, you know, I think the quitting is just about the conditions getting worse or people having to care for each other.” That might be true, but that’s also still a recognition that it’s not possible to do work under those circumstances.

I think it’s really interesting because I think we have gotten into this habit over the last 10 years that this piece talks about, sort of these movement waves where this big movement blows up in the streets. In 2009 there’s Oscar Grant and you have the student strikes, but it was really occupy in 2011 that really sort of starts the cycle. Those sort of would be defined by tactical innovation: the squares, or the riot in the case of Ferguson in Baltimore, holding a space with with rioting. Once that tactic was outflanked or defeated by a combination of the left/liberals and the police then we would sort of go back into a moment of waiting.

I think what’s been really interesting about the last year and a half that this piece sort of points out, really sharpened for me, is that in fact 2020 was so big and so consequential, the George Floyd rebellion, that we have this explosion of basically autonomous but not fully disorganized job-leaving. We’ve seen memes about it, people sharing those signs of a Burger King, “we’re all closed, sorry, everyone quit” but also the explosion of the Reddit r/antiwork which became such a thing that they ended up on Fox News and Reddit shut them down. They splintered into all these more reformist subreddits. But it was the fastest growing subreddit in years. There were 1000s of people posting about how much they hated work.

I spent a lot of time watching it as well. It had a very anti-recuperative tendency that was really strong. People tried to bring it into democratic politics or party politics and they would get shot down. It was really like, “No, no, no, the focus is on how our jobs suck and how our labor conditions suck and we have to destroy work.” That was really interesting that that space sort of developed spontaneously in this way that’s very similar to what the movement looks like, which is just people quitting their jobs and then millions. This piece brings that as like an attack, as opposed to a sort of tactical defense, which all those other sort of moments where, as opposed to like a political moment.

These are all interesting questions. This distinction between the political and the social and the attack versus the reactive or defensive movement I think is the stuff that’s really interesting for me.

Scott: Those are the two really important overarching points that I think I would love to dive into. “What does it mean to enter a social revolution or to move our sights beyond the political?” And then that question that always comes up because often a lot of anarchist organizing or anarchist action comes in spontaneous waves in reaction to things and then we’re always left scratching our heads, “how do we move ahead of the things that get thrown at us?” But yeah, Amar, I’ll pass to you.

Amar: Oh, Amar is fine. The whole Reddit /antiwork phenomenon is really interesting. I heard a little bit about it, because like I’m not a redditor. I know of it sort of nominally. But I gather that it was started by two anarchists. I gather that those two anarchists are also trans people. I don’t know if either of those folks are still involved in it. But for me and as an older millennial, the role of the internet and all of this is just fascinating. It’s just fascinating to see how this sort of not truly global because it’s still not yet accessible in all corners of the world, but this more global platform than I’ve actually seen in my lifetime has really furthered the anti-work sentiment, the great refusal sentiments, and it’s just super fascinating to see that.

Vicky: Yeah, exactly. And the other thing that happened last year, I mean, obviously most of the news attention went to the far right or right wing anti-Vax protests and obviously the more recent up in so-called Canada, the caravan. They were doing occupy again, like 10 years later. We couldn’t do occupy if we wanted. We would need 10,000 people rioting to hold a square. We needed that in 2020 to hold the square for a few days, but they needed like 100 people in trucks and they go to do occupy again. Whatever. It’s still scary, obviously, but the State is giving them a lot of tactical latitude. Anyway, that’s been where all the attention has been. That has been the “politics of resistance” during this period after the rebellion.

But there were also those moments of spontaneous looting, and the student walkouts. I think one of the things that the piece tries to pull towards is that a lot of these things that have been happening have been less visible. I write about this in my book about how during the Great Depression, there was this mass wave of looting that store owners wouldn’t even report it to the police for fear of it entering the news and people getting ideas. So we have no idea historically how much it was, except that it was widespread enough that we know that many people didn’t want to talk about it. That’s all we know about it and that’s from contemporaneous reports.

The collapse of like school grading… I know a bunch of teachers, both at the university and primary and high school level. School discipline has completely collapsed. Work discipline has largely collapsed. One of the things about all these people quitting their jobs is that the bad jobs… nominal wages, and again wages are very hard to determine, there’s debate about this, but nominal wages have gone up year over year in 2021. Faster than they had anytime since the 70’s. It led to this immediate wage increase. I think that that stuff is really interesting in this period when there’s a lot of demand from the left that we focus on organizing the workplace. Like, “Oh, you gotta organize the workplace.” Actually, we’re seeing all this workers struggle, but it’s not really being seen as that because it’s not taking this visible political form.

Amar: Do you think that… because I’ve seen that too. I used to drive to work every day and there was a McDonald’s on my drive and one week it was “now hiring $15 and up” and then it just went up and up every single week. Like 16, 17, 18 and now it’s a $21 an hour, which is just incredible. I wonder too, with the public perception of the refusal or anti-work generally, is that you see a lot of it coalescing in lower wage or fast food or jobs that are seen as unskilled or disposable. Do y’all think that that’s affecting how folks are thinking about it a little bit? Because I’ve definitely seen that. It’s not really seen as a general strike. It’s not really seen as workers organizing each other and I wonder if there’s some endemic classism in there?

Scott: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean when the pandemic first hit the hierarchy of jobs, I feel, became so apparent based on who was able to work from home and then who was an essential worker, which was unless you are a nurse or doctor, a devalued worker, right? Typically in the service industry or in the supermarket or something like that. So I think that stuff became kind of pretty clear right away. And listening to what you were just saying, I was thinking about how the people forced to work in service industry during the pandemic were also being forced to risk their health in ways that other people were removed from if they had these other options. That continues even now with the people in service industry being put into these positions that they can’t really say no to.

I think that one of the things that’s interesting about thinking about the wages going up is that this happened without workers making demands, and this piece really talks about how there’s a nostalgia on the Left for the traditional workers movement, for like labor organizing. Which is this kind of organized way to go in this particular workplace typically, not in a general way, and make specific demands within that instance. This is spreading in a very different way, not through the typical ways of organizing. I think that is another interesting phenomenon of social media and internet.

I think it’s interesting how this piece ties that together, also with the way that the discourse around police abolition and prison abolition sort of spread all of a sudden through the George Floyd uprisings. It shows us something like that we can’t go and lecture people to believe these things and hope that they’ll just take them on. There’s something else that is causing this spread. It’s not the Vanguard party going and doing political lessons for people.

Vicky: Totally. I think one of the things that’s really valuable for me, to sort of historicize this moment and think about it, is that there are these other incredibly successful general strikes in American history that are never seen that way. Increasingly, as people read Dubois’ Black Reconstruction, they’re starting to see the general strike of the enslaved as a real thing, as a thing that happened as he as he describes it. But every year, even before the Civil War, 50,000 enslaved people, obviously, most of them illiterate, in many ways, facing incredibly difficult modes of communication between separate plantations, even within plantations, although, as more and more scholars are demonstrating, they were very good at communicating and there was a very dense communication network that famously Harriet Tubman used to spy on Confederate soldiers.

In any case there was also in response to Jim Crow in the fascist regime in the South, the post-slavery fascist regime in the South or post reconstruction, you have the great migrations. Which I think don’t get talked about as labor action in the same way. Even though people like Ida B. Wells at the time understood them as such. The nostalgia for the classical workers movement isn’t just a Marxist, although it is often sort of worshipping of a particular industrial proletariat, which again lots of Marxist don’t do, but a lot of them do as well. It’s not just that. It’s also a refusal to recognize Black and indigenous forms of resistance historically in the country.

So I think it’s not surprising that in the wake of a Black uprising that spreads so widely to all of society that then we would be seeing these tactics that have a more historical echo with practices of maroonage, migration, mass networked action that aren’t necessarily organized into the “solidarity fist” of the union in exactly the same way. I don’t want to get all talking about Deleuze or whatever the hell… But I think there’s a real opportunity here. And the reason that I want to have this conversation, and I think we all did is because we are actually in a moment when things really feel like they’re at stake. Obviously, the war, and the murder, and all the events of the last few weeks have have increased that feeling that there’s high stakes. I also think what the piece says and I agree with is the proletariat, the class is on the attack. It’s on the offensive right now. I hate we have to formulation shit like that.

But it is a valuable opportunity to rethink how we think about struggle, because I think it was so vital over the last 10 years that we have all of these political struggles. It was so important and the piece sort of argues that without those struggles there was no way that the George Floyd rebellion could have emerged. But now, there’s this temptation to see things and patterns or as repetitions, to fail to recognize when things have changed especially under the conditions that we understand them of what politics looks like. Which is like unions, demands, parties, or even anarchists. Even uprisings, insurrections, I think we really need to move past that as well.

We, those of us who think of ourselves as insurrectionary types, or whatever. I think that all of these questions are really up in the air right now and if they were to merge with a street movement, it would provide a really serious opportunity for total, significant transformation. I think that’s the first time in my life I feel really comfortable saying that on the radio and feeling like that’s real. You know what I mean?

Amar: Absolutely. This is the first time in my life that I’ve seen a lot of these things happen. It’s incredible, not to parrot myself a little bit, but it’s incredible to see the things that are happening right now. And thank you also for bringing a historical context to the point of the general strike and all of that stuff. Because I think that that’s history that people are speaking of, but is a parallel that, I think is very well drawn, and needs to be drawn now.

Scott: I think, and there’s something in the piece and then the history that you just brought up, Vicky, too, there’s something about what gets seen and understood and what doesn’t get seen or comprehended in various ways. There’s a particular racialized and colonial history to that, that we know when we talk about US history in particular, there’s a uniform narrative that’s given that tries to fit things into progress, or sort of like a immiseration of particular groups of people as part of our collective history that leaves out all of these multifarious ways that people have resisted. If we don’t tell those stories we can’t learn that that happened. First of all, which is inspiring for today, but also learn that there’s flexible ways to do it.

So the most visible things that are also whitened, right? Or like the the labor strikes. I think for us as anarchists recently, it’s a certain kind of uprising. Those things are interesting because I think maybe one of the reasons that they get so much play and are so compelling is because they do play, like the piece says, into the spectacle, the image of politics. They also tend to have an end. I think sometimes in my anarchist thinking, I really get into this idea of the eruption of moments of liberation that we formed that are temporary and then they dissolve. But there’s something else in this piece that’s gesturing towards, “how do we not just wait for those untimely moments to come and echo across the years or whatever,” but like, “how do we sustain things in the meantime.” There’s these threads of sustained resistance throughout history that fly under the radar.

One of the things that the piece talks about, which I would love to hear what you all think, to what extent do we want things to be like clandestine and not talked about so that they can keep happening in a way that allows for spaces of freedom? And not either recuperation or violence from the State? And to what extent is that just a failure from the analyst or whatever to see that there’s really strong resistance going on?

Vicky: So for that final question, I think one of the things I’ve heard, a close comrade, a friend of mine when I was tweeting about this piece who has slightly different politics from me was sort of saying, “Oh, well, I think this movement of quitting will lead to mass repression.” I think that’s sort of the question you’re saying, when we make a struggle like this legible do we risk damaging it? First of all, yes, of course. I think that’s really important and that’s true. Also, though, particularly the great resignation is and anti-work is a trend that the right and the capitalists have noticed. They brought it to many of our attention, because this is happening at a scale that none of us can necessarily really see beyond sort of a meme of an image or whatever. But when millions of people are quitting the capitalists are scared, and that’s how we know it’s happening because they’re talking about it in Business Insider and the Economist or whatever.

So like on that level, the question I think is right. I think it’s right to think about, “do we try to wrench these things into politics?” When we do so we do so at great grave danger to their potential. But also, we do want to be able to speak to each other, and to have a context in which we can sort of organize and start to answer some of these questions. To speak to the first half of your point, though, if that’s okay. Unless you have something you want to sort of jump on on that?

Amar: No, no, go ahead.

Vicky: This is to veer away from the piece of it and get a little personal, but I’ve now been organizing in various capacities and writing and fighting for like 12, 13 years now. Maybe since 2009. What time is it? 2008? So yeah, for ages now, right? It’s been a long time. One of the things that has happened is that I have grown really dissatisfied with the waiting for the change to come and happen spontaneously. At the same time that I recognize that over the last decade none of us have really been able to predict how this stuff was going to break down and it hasn’t really been driven by political radicals either. I don’t think that’s going to suddenly start happening either. But we have these one lives. These one precious, increasingly threatened life.

I’ve always loved the anarchists tendency to say we have to try and build that world in the present in our own worlds to the extent that we can. I think we can apply that to bigger scales without it being dangerous to our goals. Do you know what I mean by that? There’s this really hard line to thread and we haven’t come up with the answers. I certainly and anyone who tells you they have is full of shit. Myself, even, I don’t have the answer I’m also full of shit.

But I think there is this tension right now with this real desire to have enough power, for lack of a better word, to act in a really in a way that increases those possibilities and opportunities, while recognizing what’s going on right now. Which is that on a sort of spontaneous, which isn’t a great concept, but on a class wide scale some of these attacks are happening now. They’re happening and can we intervene? Because I think there’s also a desire and the piece does talk to this. Sorry, I’m just rambling now. I guess that’s the point, right? We’re having a conversation.

But the piece speaks to the leftist desire to get out and be the leaders to be the vanguard. We saw that in the uprising where revolutionary organizations, I heard about this in every city with there were big things, would get to the front of a march and lead it in a circle, or lead it directly into trap. Or all these terrible things, all the swooping and stuff. So I think without wanting to be a vanguard and being satisfied to be participants in events, and nothing more than participants in events, how can we be the most effective participants in events possible? In a way that both makes our lives better and increases the chances for other people to reach for those things. That’s such a hard question because it’s about power and organization, but our terms for those are so limited.

Amar: Yeah, yeah, I think about this, too. And we saw, I think anybody who had two eyes and was paying attention saw the orgs get out in front of stuff in the George Floyd uprisings. I think that it was just such a typical tactic on the part of the orgs as a part of power accumulation and optics and all of these things. How do we not do that? And how do we participate as anarchists in a way that is anti-authoritarian, or anti-vanguardist, or anti-optics or whatever, if we can say that. I think that’s such an important question. I think that to answer that would maybe be to do something of a disservice to the scope of the question itself. Because it’s so important and it’s less of a question and more of a provocation for me. Just challenging folks to be like, “this is a moment, this is happening.” I remember back in the day people were really invested in this idea of a revolution and I’m just like, “Y’all, it’s here and what do we do with it?”

Scott: That’s like the thing that I really loved about this piece, because I’ve been reading other interesting pieces that are pessimistic or nihilistic. This one is saying we’re in the midst of at least a proto-revolution, if not a revolution. In thinking about this question about how we can be participants within it without trying to get out in front, which is so important. Thinking about the last decade and the anarchists involvement in all these uprisings, not to credit it to anarchists, and I don’t even mean a particular person who says they’re an anarchist, but tactics learned from anarchist uprisings or uprisings that have elements of anarchism within it. They’ve been accumulating over over this time. I think the anarchism, more than in my lifetime, you can talk about it and people are like, “oh, yeah, I have some ideas about this.” It’s less unheard of. It gets mentioned even in mainstream aspects.

I feel like, again, some of this spreading of knowledge or information, some of the ways that anarchists have shown up in the streets or organized mutual aid is becoming more baseline knowledge for people about how to defend yourself in this situation. I think that that might be a way to think about it. Again, this is to say that anarchists aren’t leading things, anarchists are showing up and doing things and those things are getting innovated over and over again throughout all these events.

Vicky: Yeah, I think that’s that’s exactly right. I mean, as someone who has been doing police in prison abolition stuff for almost a decade now, I remember having a conversation with a friend and we were talking about how for years it just felt like bashing your head against a brick wall. Then suddenly in 2020 you were just nodding and everyone was nodding along with you like, “yeah, abolish the police, abolish prisons!” I think there’s probably a tendency among people who identify as anarchists, especially who sort of form online to want sectarian identification as anarchist to be really present and stuff. There’s this counter tendency that I think, Scott, you just really well summed up, which is that, in fact, the tactics and the ideas are spreading.

I think that that’s also valuable in terms of attempting to the best of our ability to decolonize and abolish the whiteness of the ways and the Europeanness of the ways that we think about this stuff. Maybe the movement has gotten anarchist enough that we no longer need anarchists. I don’t know. I’m in a weird place now. But I guess what the piece has me asking myself and questioning and what the last 10 years have as well is this great refusal moment, in some ways, the George Floyd rebellion was a summation, and intensifying, and generalizing of all of the struggles that had come before. We saw all those tactics repeated. It was incredible and beautiful, and really, really important. And now something has shifted and we have to move away from our dogmas in a real way that is scary.

Part of the reason I feel is partially scared, and I mean not just the state of the world, but because I don’t see my comrades, all of whom I love dearly in my local area, I don’t see any of us moving in a way that makes me feel like it’s the answer. Even during the uprising my comrades, who I really love and who I was in the street with and who I would do a lot in the street for, I didn’t see us moving in a way that I was like, “Okay, wow.” Myself included. I was among this we, right? We were participating, and that’s cool. But I want to think about, because it matters so much, I want to think about what we can do and how we can we distinguish sectarian tactical, ideological things that we rely on from things that are really important actually and it’s really good that they become core.

I think there can be a tendency that I think is actually kind of creepy and proto-right wing to be like, “we must reject all of our previous knowledge.” Absolutely not. We have learned so much. We have to stay queer liberationists, trans liberationists, anti racist, these are all so crucial. But yeah, I don’t know. It’s a question. We’re in a moment where we can really start cutting back some of the stuff that isn’t serving us. As the piece says, in the spirit of the great refusal, you should think about how to leave those formations, whether they’re tactical or ideological, or just groups or whatever, that aren’t serving us right now in this moment.

Amar: I love that part of the article so much. The whole, “let’s think about how to translate a, not anti-work as sort of a hardline definition, but a refusal on to our anarchist politics and praxis.” I thought that that was such a cool provocation. And Scott, I wonder if you have anything to say about that. I was just super sparked by it. I don’t really have a lot to say about it. I mean, seeing folk and seeing how folk were moving in the streets, or like moving in the midst of the uprising, I didn’t see a whole hell of a lot of it, but I definitely was just like, “Hmm, we did that,” or like, “that happened.” There’s a question there, too.

Scott: Yeah, I’m thinking in current anarchists discourse that I’m finding most interesting right now is the stuff that Amar: C, Anderson’s Nation on no Map, where he’s been elaborating a Black anarchism that isn’t about self identification as an anarchist. He looks at the history of Black people in the US and sees anarchist, or anarchistic, or whatever, aspects of community self defense and mutual aid and says that there’s conditions that create this. and that there’s histories and knowledge of these ways of being and doing that sort of exceed the limited definition of anarchism that can be tied back to a particular European historical context.

That kind of stuff, alongside a lot of care work, accountability transformative justice, and disability justice work that I read that’s in an abolitionist vein tends to me to do this kind of loosening up of anarchism into something that’s not like who you are, but it’s the things that you do and the way that you do them. It can be in all these moments. I think when we take this into struggle, we get so caught up in being a thing and showing up to do thing as a kind of person all the time. I think protest is often, because it’s captured by the political, this is where I want to get right? Back to the idea of moving out of the political into the social. When it remains in the realm of the politics and we’re just announcing we’re anarchists and we’re here to fuck shit up or whatever.

One of the things reading this, it made me think. I had been translating Guy Hocquenghem and his writings on gay liberation after ’68 people. And the May ‘68 people were saying a similar thing about the social, they were calling a cultural revolution, because they were still a little bit enthralled by Mao. But they were like, “the revolution has to touch every part of life.” It’s not just the realm of politics. It’s not the labor movement. This is where you get the beginnings of gay liberation in France too. I think that’s really an interesting thing. In that moment, in the 60’s, late 60’s and early 70’s, that dovetailed with the hippies and a counterculture that wasn’t really politicized. I think the material conditions for a lot of the people who were involved in that were such that they could do a kind of subversive thing and still kind of be part of the system. So it didn’t translate into this social revolution that they were calling for.

But I think we’re in a totally different scenario. We don’t have the opportunities and all the kinds of props that were holding up the state and the market at that time have been thrown away at this point. The pandemic has just made it even starker. So to me, that explains a little bit why a political thing can translate more generally and pervasively through all the strands of life the way that this piece is arguing that it is or is starting to or can continue to do.

Just one more thought… So when the pandemic hit, this was my thinking, and this is almost accelerationist or something, I guess, but I was like, “oh my god, everyone is gonna just suddenly become a revolutionary because we’re just faced with the contradictions of you can’t work but you need to pay for rent and you need to pay for food, but you can’t get any of these things.” I was trying to do organizing just being like, “look like we have to do something! We can’t… this is ridiculous.” I got caught up in my organizing with people who are really stuck on old models for me. A lot of going back to, “we need to be clandestine, and we can’t say anything to anyone because then we will be known.” But I was like, at some point we just need to act right and do something. But in the immediate lockdown, those conditions did not create the kind of uprising that I had hoped for, at least, and didn’t really expect.

This piece says something really interesting that I would like to parse out about this. It says “the novel Coronavirus pandemic was a necessary but insufficient condition for the George Floyd rebellion and the great refusal.” So I was like this is going to do it. This piece is saying that this set some things up but then something else happened. Then the next line is “Anti-Blackness, ableism, and xenophobia were also necessary, but they are not novel, though the pandemic’s deepening of these societal codes.” In that kind of weird Interplay that something new happen that we weren’t expecting. I think that’s really interesting. Because again, it scrambles our ability and even our desire to predict things which is I think, where we fall into traps, often.

Vicky: Yeah. God, there’s so much there. There’s so many different things. I’m all over the place.

Scott: Sorry I rambled.

Vicky: No, no, it’s literally my favorite feeling. Too much to respond to is the best. But yeah, I think there’s this question of the Coronavirus and the pandemic. One of the things that actually I think is so scary, not to shift too much about the Ukraine situation is that, the Democrats seem malicious and out of touch enough to me to want to go to war to distract from the virus, right? The handling of the virus has been so bad internationally that I do think a lot of state leaders see, and it’s working as far as I can tell, in a public opinion way. There’s not a sort of 2001 Old Glory flags everywhere fascism coming back, exactly, but people have stopped talking about the pandemic, largely. This is the thing that is on people’s minds. I think the failure of the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic, should be understood in terms of the Great Refusal and the Great Resignation.

One thing that happened was that Trump gave us a bunch of money, and clearly the $600 for unemployment a week was like the Arrested Development meme: “It’s one banana, Michael, how much could it cost? $10?” Clearly a bunch of rich people were like, “how much do poor people make a week? $600?” And everyone got this crazy raise. We didn’t have to work, got on this huge raise, and an eviction moratorium. So there’s all this cash on hand and what people did with that extra space as well as the extra anger, alienation, the mass death, it’s not a silver lining. There’s no silver lining to the pandemic. These are just the conditions, and we can’t describe it that way. This is a this is an absolute utter catastrophe of a global scale that will never be forgotten, at least not for generations. It’s an utter disaster. But it produced both negative and positive conditions that gave people space to rise up, right? And people were like, “Okay, I don’t have to go to work. I can’t go party, I don’t have to pay my rent, I’ve got nothing to do. Fuck it, let’s get rid of these pigs!” That was this spontaneous feeling and tactic and desire that emerged.

I think part of what the Democrats have been doing is like, “Oh God, we can’t reproduce those conditions.” We can’t reproduce the conditions where people aren’t struggling enough that they can fight us. They also, I think, to some extent think that the uprising was all about Trump. What they classically failed to do is to recognize that the uprising happened. So many of us participated and we all remember. We all remember what it felt like and we were all changed by it. You can’t put that back into a bag with punishment, although they are trying.

I don’t know if that’s happening in y’all’s cities, but here in Philly rents have gone up way faster than housing costs. They’ve started instituting credit checks to even get a rental, which I’ve never seen anywhere. Not even in New York when I lived there. It’s wild. And that seems to me an at least slightly coordinated punishment of the working class. Not just for the uprising, but also for the Great Resignation. There’s all this repression happening and now the war is a piece of that as well.

But to be a sort of classic, “whatever,” as I am, all of this repression is in response to real movement that’s happening on the ground now and real fight that we’re giving. We’re on the offensive. I don’t know, I keep just circling back to that. Because Scott, as you pointed out, in the 60’s, even in the 30’s, the insurrectionary movement got kind of bought off by the New Deal. Then the depression got funneled into war production. It’s not clear how anyone can do that. In fact, the financial collapse still hasn’t quite happened. We’ve never recovered from 2009, the stock market has fully divested itself from our daily lives. It doesn’t feel like they have carrot to give us and it doesn’t feel like they can wield the stick well enough. So it feels like we’re chomping at the bit to overextend the metaphor. We have some capacity right now to move.

Scott: There’s another part of this piece to build off of that, that I find interesting. Thinking about how the Democrats have failed to play their historical role of siphoning off the energy of movements and recuperating them in electoral politics. You’re kind of talking about that. But it seems like such a an opportunity for the Democratic Party to take stuff. They keep having things thrown at them that they can totally wrapped up into their shtick and use it. But they’re not doing it. I mean, maybe it’s like you’re saying that they’re scared of the threat that they’ve seen and therefore grasping at straws. But I wonder if either of you had thoughts about why are they so doggedly going in this other direction than what they’ve typically done, which is to try to water down our movements with tokenism and naming policies that don’t do anything?

Amar: And recuperation.

Vicky: Do you want to join take a swing at it?

Amar: I’m uniquely ill-equipped to talk about party politics.

Scott: That’s a good trait.

Vicky: Alas, alas, I have some ideas. Bernie Sanders was was a slam dunk for them. Medicare For All. I mean, if they weren’t good historians they would know that in 1945 in the UK when the Labour Party, the NHS, ran the government for 30 years. The Dems could do it. They’ve got a bunch of slam dunks that are pretty easy. The ball is in the air. Why am I choosing all these bad metaphors? They have these opportunities. I think part of it is that they just are genuinely an imperial court. DC is truly divided from reality on the ground. The pandemic has somehow made that worse. They don’t even get in cabs anymore to talk to cabbies or whatever they do in their op eds.

So I think it’s that and also they are increasingly happy to be the left wing to the extent that they are the left to the Republicans, not as the recuperators of social movement. So I think that now that the Republicans are like, “you know what? We should be fascist because otherwise we’ll never win an election again.” The Democrats can just be like, “yeah, we’re just like utterly greedy, right wing capitalists, like, that’s all we are.” So I don’t know. I think it’s some combination of those things and fear of the uprising. I think in their heart of hearts, Democrats, liberals in general, not just Democrats, if you ask them “which is scarier a fascist uprising or an anarchistic/communist one?”, they think it’s scarier from the left. Because the fascists, maybe they kill them or their friends but probably they get to keep all their property and their nation. Whereas the anarchists, they lose their whole worldview. Like, that’s a lot scarier.

Amar: Yeah, indeed. I really likes this part in the article, and it’s skipping to the end a little bit. The article is written somewhat chronologically, but there’s a lot to sort of unpack in it. And it talks about sort of the right and the coup. This is bullet point 24:

“The lesson they seem to have learned from the coup is that increased calls for secession and the independence notwithstanding, their best chance for power is the 2024 election of Donald Trump. There is therefore something of a three way race between the proletarian movement, the 2024 election cycle, and Donald Trump’s physical death. The death or incapacitation of Donald Trump would represent a blow to the American fascist movement as currently constituted that would require at least another election cycle for them to recover from.”

I really liked this bullet point. I think that it relates somewhat to perceptions and fear and the anxieties of the Democrat institution. I wonder if you’ll have thoughts on this point.

Scott: So, I’m actively frightened by the far right and everything they’re doing. And maybe we can talk a little bit about all the kinds of State policies that are being proposed and passed that are incredibly frightening. But while there is a street movement and January 6 was a thing. It was a debacle. It’s kind of confusing and hard to really, totally understand. This point is saying that in the end, the far right is still attached to an election of a particular person. So, in a way that that gives me a little bit of a feeling of optimism that it’s so narrowly focused on this one thing that just seemed to limit it in a way or help contain it from me. Because in my mind all the time I’m surrounded constantly by Nazis, basically. Like walking down the street in my neighborhood, you know? And so thinking about how they’re still grasping at the old orders of power, and obviously that power still kills and hurts and degrades us all. But something about that was interesting to me.

Amar: Yeah. I mean, there’s been just an immense amount of things that have at least hit the newsstands. I had a text from a person that I hadn’t heard from in a while, and the text was just like, “I’m thinking of you. I hope you’re okay.” And I like genuinely didn’t know what they were referring to because there’s been so many things that have happened. It turns out that they were referencing the anti-trans stuff that was happening in the news with parents of trans kids now being liable for child abuse or some horrifying shit in Texas.

But yeah, there was a point on our notes that we were talking about fear and talking about anxiety and being like, “Am I coming out of left field being fearful right now?” I don’t think that anybody is. I think that there are a lot of oppression fantasies that are spinning themselves out. I’m thinking specifically of like QAnon, and COVID-denialism, and stuff that’s on the far right, that I like obviously have no sympathy for. I do name it as like an oppression or colonization fantasy, basically, that people are like, “Oh, I’m being genocided. I’m being colonized.” It’s just like, guys, I don’t know. It bears no spinning out here. There’s no reason we need to debunk that shit.

But I do think that we’re seeing sort of a creep into various things. I mean, we saw it in fucking September 11, back back back in the day. Maybe some listeners were not alive in 2001. But we saw that precipitated the formations of two extremely fascist institutions and those were the Department of Homeland Security and ICE. Ever since then, in my consciousness, it’s been an ever encroaching upon fascist creep or whatever. We’re seeing that really explicitly, and I think to react to that with fear and anxiety is really normal. And to react to it in a way that’s just like, “oh, I need to not have fear about this,” is to react in a way that’s maybe a bit rooted in survival. That is something we should honor, or one could honor. But I think its really healthy to acknowledge that kind of thing.

Vicky: Yeah, I really appreciate that point from both of y’all. I think two years into this pandemic when all of our forms of comfortable social reproduction and making ourselves feel better and hanging out… all of them have been disrupted for years now and we have watched as world governments have utterly refused to try and fix that. The thing they claim to be good for is something like a pandemic or whatever, right? And they just have literally no interest in helping us at all. Some countries are more brazen in that than others and that has to do with their internal political and domestic stuff.

But in any case, I think even without that 2015 to 2020 the rise of street fascism was traumatic. I don’t know if y’all had this experience, but there was a lot of movement, but also everyone was hyper-vigilant all the time. Everyone was in a fight or flight constantly. That was utterly unsustainable and we didn’t get to rest from that because the pandemic dovetailed with that perfectly. I think we have not had an opportunity to grieve. One of the things that I think about a lot with regard to what you were saying a while ago, Scott, about this classical Workers Movement is that I actually think that there has been a real repression of grief among revolutionaries for the 20th century in general, the experience of that in general.

I hate “Don’t Mourn, Organize!”, which was a thing Joe Hill said about his own death, it was not a slogan. When someone asked him what they should do to honor him. He said, “Don’t mourn, organize.” That is an individual’s request and the fact that’s been turned into a slogan, I think, is disgusting. Don’t organize, mourn, y’all know those really weird squishy stress toys? They have the bulgy eyes if you squeeze them. They all squeeze out or whatever. The way I, and I’ve had to experience a lot of it unfortunately, grief and rage… If we just tried to repress it, like those toys, it just pops out from in between your fingers. It comes out in other ways and if we just like try to organize through it, or fight through it, the grief is going to shape and the pain is going to shape the stuff that we do, or the fear is going to shape the stuff that we do. It’s such a crucial gift from the queer movement and the feminist movement to be like, “no, stop, take care of yourself, take it seriously.” Everyone rolls their eyes at the idea of self-care. Okay, fine, whatever. That term is probably useless now, but like we need to take care of each other.

I do think that like the mutual aid in its less formal ways that it has appeared, which I think has been cool, but have looked a lot like charity or social services to me. The spreading of the concept of mutual aid among everyone as an organizing principle for people’s lives has seemed really powerful to me. We’re all at such low capacity. We tend to think everyone’s going through it, “Well, that’s just life, buddy.” If you have a very specific tragedy, “oh, that’s really sad” but if everyone’s going through it, “Buck up!” No! When everyone’s going through it, it’s so much harder because no one has capacity to help each other. That stuff’s all really, really important and serious. As we talked about tactics and what can we do to move forward we also do need to be able to hold each other in this horrible, horrible time. It’s been seven years of this. There have been these glimpses of hope that have been beautiful, but for the most part it’s just been awful.

Scott: I love that you brought that up, in terms of feeling the feelings. In the last two years during the pandemic, it’s been really hard to know, because of so much isolation, you don’t have the same kind of benchmarks to know how off you’re feeling in relation to any kind of normalcy. So it’s just like, “oh, there’s something wrong with me, but I don’t quite understand it.” Just like losing your kind of orientation has been hard. I’m also thinking, and maybe this is like my psychoanalytic… or just the fact that I’ve read Hamlet so many times, but thinking about how mourning is also a refusal, right? If you let yourself mourn, you’re refusing to do the things of a productive life, right? You’re like, “I’m not going to play the role. I’m like so immersed in my grief that I refuse to work.” I think it would be interesting to kind of think about some of those emotions and affects and feelings that we have, and how they could relate to this social revolution of how they withdraw us, or allow us to refuse the wages that we are bribed with.

Amar: Which are just paltry. Not even scraping the bottom edge of inadequate for maintaining any kind of life.

For me, in relation to the government and in relation to sort of political power systems at large, what the COVID pandemic really showed me was how little those structures think of the populace. They hold us in such deep, abiding disdain and that to me, is one of the reasons why people are like, “No, fuck this, anti-work, I’m gonna walk out of my job.” It’s amazing to me, too, that a lot of folks who are entrenched, to call back to the Arrested Development meme and those fuckers who think that a banana cost $10, they still think that people are quitting their jobs because of the pandemic money. Which is incredible. Because that was not all that much money really, right? I mean, prices have gone up. Every single time I go to the grocery store, I’m like, Oh, this should be $25 and comes out to like, $55 or $70. That’s maybe a whole other conversation but perhaps related. I don’t know, I kind of lost my thread.

Vicky: But I think you didn’t lose the thread. I think the thread is right there. This is in the piece too. The pandemic demonstrated this total disregard for us, even at a basic “we are necessary for the economy to function” it’s better if we’re healthy. Even at that level, even just using us as workers, they’re not even willing to do. They’re like, “well, maybe we could force you back to work and some of you will die, whatever.” There’s just the total disdain and hatred. And the way that that reflects on the future of ecological catastrophe, obviously, and war…

I don’t know about you two, but I have found it absolutely horrifying to see the world governments, and media, and politicians, and leadership, and Economy act as one so decisively against Russia. Not because I want to defend Russia, but because they had this power all along. They could have been doing this to the pandemic, they had operated so fast and so thoroughly against Russia, and whatever, Russia is literally engaging in an imperialist war of aggression, fuck them. But they could have done this two years ago against Coronavirus and they’ve shown us all that. And they’ve shown us that what they’ve done for us instead is told us to get COVID and die. And that is horrible, but it also is really ‘mask off’ no pun intended. I think things are really clear right now and the clarity is gained at to great expense, and it’s not worth it, but I think we might be able to make use of that clarity.

Scott: You know, it’s interesting, because I teach young people, mostly late teens and early 20’s, and this maybe connects back also to the grief but I have found over the last two years of teaching that students are just in crisis after crisis after crisis of their own health, they’re caring for a family member, they’re losing their housing or losing their job, they’re working too much. All the time, I’m just making space for them to just have the crisis and not worry about repercussions from me. But I’m just thinking about how that generalized panic and scramble and care work and grief that is happening, how that’s going to affect a mass population moving forward.

To me that is what I was expecting to happen when the pandemic hit, which is the contradictions become clear and everyone refuses. But we’re being put through it in this horrible, torturous way. I think that’s going to change people’s outlooks. Obviously, when I come and talk to these students I’m saying a lot of these kinds of things. This is happening to you and you don’t deserve it. But just thinking about that, I don’t know what we’re coming out of this or what that would even look like at this point. But people are carrying along with them this experience of unprecedented struggle in their “personal lives” is going to have a strange ripple effect, I think. Hopefully one that allows more people that keep unplugging from this system.

Vicky: Yeah. And I think, not to be too pessimistic, but one of the things that gave me a little bit of strength and historical analysis under the Trump regime was thinking about how the historical fascist regimes and indeed the regime in India right now and in Turkey to a large extent, they drew on a huge body of traumatized war veterans for whom life had become cheap and meaningless right, in the trenches. There was no commensurate experience in the United States until the pandemic. So we have this now, this population that I think is going to be capable of accepting very radical answers, and I don’t necessarily think that those are going to be good. Because trauma, as anyone who knows, doesn’t make you a better person. It’s about how you respond to it. Which is part of why it’s so vital right now that we respond to that trauma seriously, and that grief seriously. It’s so funny that we’ve ended up here from starting in this conversation about like the social revolution. It feels telling also, you know?

Amar: I think that’s such an important point, Vicky. Traumatized populaces are more readily accepting of increasingly radical or fringey or whatever solutions to stuff. I think that that’s something I’m gonna be sitting with for a while.

Scott: I’m thinking about more news recently about how much worse than expected climate catastrophe is going to be, and how much quicker. We get something like that every year, I guess, or more frequently. That’s the stuff that we’re facing in the next decade. We get inundated with the narratives of ‘lone wolf’ survivalist competition over resources stuff to steal us for this horrible catastrophe that we’re facing and you put that with the kind of trauma… It almost stacks the deck for just a horrific response. I’m hoping that somewhere in there, the caring for each other that people are doing will create some other possibilities.

The caring, not just like intimately or in kinship and family and whatever… I do agree that mutual aid stuff has been not necessarily as radical or politicized or however you want to call it as it could be, but the knowledge of that that’s something that you do that you’re that you have resources and spread them rather than hoard them and save up for the future that’s not going to happen, or whatever. I hope that that is something that will hopefully stave off a really violent trauma response.

Vicky: Yeah. And one thing that’s been weirdly giving me a lot of hope lately, I’ve been reading David Graeber, rest in peace, and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything. Which is a book about prehistory. It’s a book about an anthropological overview of prehistory. Just the extent to which so few societies have ever been organized on these bases of exclusion and then private property and hierarchy, like exclusively on those things. Those things have all existed, but they’ve rarely been coalesced in authority like in the way that this current social system has, is sort of what that book is about. So I think that, well, I obviously brought up the specter of mass fascist movement. It’s already happening, it’s already here. Obviously, it’s not at the specter anymore. Alas.

I also do think that the reason I bring it up is because that’s a possible future. But I do also think that that’s precisely why it’s so important to think about how to care for each other now, and how to start moving in these other directions, because we can see this other thing that is perhaps further in our history for many of us, for all of us, in fact, who have been forced to live under this white supremacist, settler, colonialist, European regime for as long as we have.

There are deep, deep roots to the extent in our history, and I want to call it our history, not our nature, or whatever, in our history that are very different. I think as things start to break down, or continue to break down, rather, as this stuff all breaks down, we can make gestures and movements together to take care of one another, that push against that, and that can radiate out, in much the same way that the sort of political tactics of struggle were imitated and radiated out over our movements over the last 10 years.

Amar: One great thing about the mutual aid sphere that’s been being fostered through institutions at this point, like Food Not Bombs, and Prison Books and related stuff, I think it has provided a really, not gentle, but easily accessible entry point for people who are just getting radicalized. There are just a lot of people who are getting radicalized in all sorts of different directions right now. I’ve seen the mutual aid be really… anarchism historically not the greatest or most accessible thing to come to.

I can remember being a baby anarchist and being like, “can I hang out with you guys?” People were just like, “actually, no. Keep coming to prison books for about a year and then maybe we’ll invite you to the potluck as well.” In a way that was really nice to hear, because I love rules, I love parameters. So there’s a parameter here, “okay, I’ll come to the prison books for a year.” But it’s been nice to see that people can go do the mutual aid and then have society through that and have like anarchist community through that and it’s just wonderful. That’s giving me a lot of hope right now.

Scott: One thing that’s been in the back of my mind during this conversation, so a lot of people will say, “why did the anarchists or the left or whatever allow the fascist and right wing people to come out in front in this anti state demonstration against mandates, when we could have like articulated a different version of that that wasn’t about business and people dying?” I’m talking about anti-vaccine and anti-mask stuff. For a while I was hitting my head against that this was an opportunity and what is the anarchists response. Maybe that’s the wrong question and picking apart this piece is kind of helping me think that a very visible left/anarchists movement around State control and surveillance through the pandemic, I don’t think would have been the right direction anyway.

What we see with the right wing demonstrations and the fascist demonstrations around this, we see them making their own beds in a way and we don’t need to participate in and then the anarchist stuff that’s happening is more clandestine, right? It’s like these relationships that are being formed through mutual aid, it’s the relationships that are being formed in the streets that I think do a lot more. If you really need to be convinced that wearing a mask is not a big deal and that it helps people, that just doesn’t seem to be the place that we should be putting our effort and time into.

This was just helping me think about that, because it’s something I’ve been wondering about for a while. Why did that space go to the right when it’s typically an anti-state stance?

Amar: This is reminding me of… did y’all read that piece Against the Liberal Creep?

Scott: I did.

Vicky: I flipped through it. I didn’t read the whole thing.

Amar: I couldn’t really tell like how much of it was a shitpost. Like, really couldn’t tell, but I feel like, Scott, it was really going in that direction of being like, “the right got this anti-state mandate thing and we should have jumped on that and pivoted the narrative.” Among many other things I’m not doing really doing this piece justice. I’m like honestly not sure if I would recommend it. But it’s interesting as a thought exercise. I guess.

Scott: I actually read this piece and and the Interregnum piece around the same time, and I really didn’t like Against the Liberal Creep and what it was trying to say and then and then I think I went to Interregnum and I was like, “oh, okay, here’s a more helpful analysis” for me at least, than the Against the Liberal Creep one.

Vicky: Yeah. One of the things that happens, and that really infuriates me, as someone who tends to think historically is how much people are happy to forget our very, very immediate recent history. In 2016, 2017, 2018, a lot of people said, “we got to try and pull out from the right, we got to try and organize, we got to get in front of their talking points, or whatever.” Most of those people have gone to the right. Most of those people are now on the right. They didn’t pull anyone to the left, they’re on the right now. I think people will have their own particular example of who I’m talking about because there were a lot of them. They were mostly grifters.

I think there’s this idea that we have to convince people, [that] it’s our job as revolutionaries who are enlightened to convince people and obviously I’m here on a radio show. I think education and discussion and ideas are really important. I write not quite for a living, but I get paid to write sometimes. I do not make a living doing it. So I think that stuff is important. But also, it’s the wrong idea of the relationship to it. The thing that Marxists have often gotten right historically is the conditions of people’s exploitation and lives is sufficient to educate them about what’s wrong. Anarchists are good at that too, often. People know, and yes, there will be edge cases where someone gets radicalized the wrong way. Maybe you encounter them in your life and it’s worth arguing with them and trying to flip them. Definitely.

But as an organizing principle, I think what this moment is really showing us is that since 2020, since the George Floyd uprising is that a lot more people spontaneously are on our side, just numbers wise. There’s just a lot more people under these conditions. And that really matters, because liberals will do everything they can, as we’ve seen both in the rises with both Mussolini, and Hitler, and Trump frankly. Liberals will do everything they can to hand power to the fascists to keep it out of the hands of the left or the revolutionaries or whatever you want to call it. But we don’t have to convert those liberals because they are enemies. People get confused between people who are just spontaneously humanitarian liberal because they haven’t really thought about it, versus people who are Atlantic subscribers or whatever. They’re 15 or however many there are left.

Scott: Yeah, I think there’s a difference between them. People want answers often and there’s a liberal position that seems to offer answers through electoralism and slight reforms on the status quo. It’s the same thing, though, with authoritarian communists. They seem to have the answer. I think they draw in certain kinds of people who aren’t okay with the unknown, with embracing the unknown. I think also, we want to know the right way to act and I think that’s commendable, really. So I don’t know about convincing people of other things, but maybe just like opening the door for more complexities and unknowns.

Actually, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how much people are motivated by being afraid of showing that they don’t know something, and how much damage that causes in every kind of situation that you could think of. Just leaving more room for that. That is another thing about this piece that I think it is calling on people who want to contribute to a revolution to do, is to not know it, not get in front of it, be part of it, open up for it, be honest about what’s happening. Not try to frame it or theorize it or whatever. Just be like this is happening, this is really happening right now.

Vicky: Yeah, it’s really happening and it doesn’t fit any of our theories very deeply. That doesn’t mean that we therefore have to jettison every previous theory, but it means we have to think and act differently in some ways. That means being unknowing. I always get into trouble with that literally with my friends and relationships. I’m always getting into trouble pretending to know shit. Then people are like, “you’re bullshitting.” You are right. It’s a real problem. It’s such a problem for everyone. It’s really hard to embrace unknowing. It’s really, really hard. But as your expert guest here on this podcast I would like to give my expertise to say, “I don’t know shit, and you don’t either and that’s kind of a beautiful place to start.”

Amar: Yeah, I love that. And I think the popular narrative is very slowly skewing toward that. So that’s also really nice to see.

Scott: I feel like this could be a place to wrap it up. I keep thinking about going into the horrible policy stuff that’s going on. But I’m like, “No, let’s not bring that back in.”

Vicky: Yeah, I mean, I’m really loving talking to you both. So it’s tempting to just keep going. But I think probably. Yeah.

Amar: This is so lovely. It’s really lovely to get to talk to y’all two.

Scott: I love doing this. It’s really helpful to me as a person who who likes to think in dialogue in real time. Dialogue is really nice.

Vicky: That’s a really nice thing in the Graber book, actually, they talk about that as a critique of Descartes.

Scott: I have it. I haven’t cracked yet.

Vicky: Sorry. I’m literally reading it to my partner because they just never think spontaneously to read books by men. So whenever there’s one that I think is going to be interesting, I’m like, “Okay, I’m gonna read this one to you.” Otherwise, it’s never gonna happen.

Scott: I love that. It seems appropriate.

Amar: Having distance for books by man is really reasonable.

Vicky: It’s not even conscious. I don’t think they’re even aware of it.

Amar: That’s even better.

Vicky: It’s incredibly charming. I’m obsessed. Honestly.

Scott: I’m actually reading a book by man and I’m regretting it, so.

Vicky: Often the case.

Amar: I’m now I’m reading a book by a man, but it’s about it’s about the Amazon strikes, and it’s mostly interviews. At least I think this person’s a man. I’m actually not sure. We’ll see how it goes. It’s good so far. What are you reading Scott?

Scott: I just started reading the most recent Jeff VanderMeer science fiction novel for reading at night and I don’t like it. I might not finish it, I don’t know. I was just reading a bunch of really awesome queer and trans stuff. Then Jeff VanderMeer. Like why did I do that?

Vicky: I had that experiences in 2021. I think it’s literally the first year in my entire life since I’ve been able to read. I didn’t finish a single book. It was so intense, like, I could not read. N.K. Jemisin cured that for me this year. I just read her trilogy in the weekend. But it’s been wild. I found the pandemic so antithetical to that kind of sustained, quiet, focused dialogue with with a voice that’s not my own. But that’s also alone.

Amar: I can relate to that Vicky. I also was having trouble finishing anything. Finishing movies or TV shows or just not having this sort of sustained focus. That’s so interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard folk talk about that much.

Vicky: That’s so funny because I bring it up and then I hear very similar. I hear something like, “oh, yeah, actually I couldn’t do that either and I haven’t really thought about that.” I think it was a collective condition.

Scott: Yeah. I’m in this queer book club and people have said that in the book club. That last year they didn’t read books at all. It’s that was exceptional for them.

Vicky: What a time we’ve been living through.

Scott: Yeah, it’s fucked.

Vicky: Jeez! I mean, personally, I think 2016 year six is the worst one yet. The worst 2016 yet.

Scott: Yeah, I feel that. I’m sorry that you’ve been bearing all that in. But thank you for also talking with us now.

Vicky: Oh, my God. Literally I have to keep marking that for myself. But it’s been such a pleasure. I wasn’t sure. I had this long day. But this has been so delightful and given me so much life and I feel so held and among friends and comrades and it’s beautiful. Thank you both so much for organizing this and having it happen.

Scott: Yeah, thanks for being willing.

Amar: Thanks for being willing. This was definitely medicinal for me as well. It just feels like it’s getting to talk to y’all. Sometimes I think that anarchists fall into this trap where we don’t really talk about politics, as weird as that might sound, delving down into sort of nitty gritty and I really love that that happened here.

Vicky: You just made me realize when saying that how often my interlocutors on that call themselves communists. Like when I want to talk about politics with someone it’s mostly with people who call themselves communists. I mean like anti-State, Left-Communists or whatever, but it’s interesting how few anarchists comrades I have who I get into that broad strategic political questions because that has so often been associated with such bad left politics, obviously. So it was a real delight.

Scott: Sometimes I feel like I want so bad to be around people that I just assume we know and share something. So with anarchists, there’s a version of that. Same with queer/trans people or punks or whatever. Yeah, we know something. We don’t have to say it. But then, I want my anarchist friends to like, I want to hear what they have to say and think about something because they have really good ways of thinking about stuff. I need to parse it out with them. That piece was a nugget in my head and so talking it through is really helpful and bringing things together and I appreciate it.

Merced Prisoner Hunger Strikes | Eric King Trial Ends

Merced Prisoner Hunger Strikes | Eric King Trial Ends

This week’s episode has two audio segments…

Download Episode Here!

Merced County Prisoner Hunger Strikes

This week, you’ll hear a chat with California-based activist Victoria from Merced Under Construction, who talks to us about the prisoner hunger strikes at Merced County Jail and John Latorraca Center. Over 40 prisoners engaged in hunger strike for 17 days, fighting for issues like protesting black mold, little food, lack of visitation and other issues. The hunger strike ended Saturday, March 28th, despite the disrespect of the jail administration. You can learn more about how to support and keep up on https://linktr.ee/mercedunderconstruction or MIRA’s facebook page

You can find coverage of the 2016 Merced Jail protests, check out ItsGoingDown.Org

Eric King Trial Ends

Then, you’ll hear from Josh from the Certain Days Calendar and Mookie from the Civil Liberties Defense Center do an update on a roundup of the recent trial of Eric King. Eric was found innocent on charges of assaulting a Federal Bureau of Prisons Lieutenant, a charge that would have added another 20 years to his time in prison, thankfully. More on his case at SupportEricKing.Org, more on Certain Days at CertainDays.Org and the CLDC at CLDC.org

Eric King links:

CLDC links:

Certain Days interviews:

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Featured Tracks:

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Transcription (Merced County Hunger Strike)

Victoria Espinoza: Alright, great. My name is Victoria Espinoza, and identify as a Child of God. I’m born and raised in Merced, California, and I’m the founder of Merced Under Construction.

TFSR: And could you tell us a bit about where Merced County is? What listeners should know about the county? The economy, who lives there, what it looks like, that sort of stuff?

VS: Well, Merced, man, not a lot of people know where Merced is. When they hear Central Valley. They’re like, “what is that?” They think of like Bay Area, LA, when you think of California. But we are literally the central of the state of California, like the Central Valley area in between Fresno and Modesto, or Stanislaus and Fresno County. Our city slogan is “we are the gateway to Yosemite.” And, you know, we boast about it, or the city does at least. But nearly 25% of our population is living in poverty. So it’s predominantly white, Latino, like Hispanic, Mexican, indigenous folks living here with some other races mixed in. We have like, less than 4% Black folks, we do have a very strong Hmong community here and a lot of other different nationalities, race that are here.

TFSR: And for like, as far as, you mentioned, 25% of the population living in poverty, what are the sort of industries that people are involved in? Is it agriculture? Since we’re gonna be talking about prisons, I’m sure that prisons, and police and military are like big employers for parts of the population.

VS: Yeah, so we are a very large agriculture community. So we do have a lot of farm workers. We have a lot in many of our cities and our outskirts as well and unincorporated areas. So that is one thing that we do have strong here in Merced is the ag. We have some industry, industrial stuff, but mainly we’re known for agriculture, honestly. We do have UC Merced, last university that’s been built in. They’re building on that. UC Merced is growing, obviously. So we are seeing some of that, some things that are happening in our community, with rent controls not happening, people are getting pushed out and it’s not the Merced that it used to be 10 years ago, definitely.

TFSR: I guess I do want to ask some questions about Merced Under Construction later and imagine that that’s, like, gentrification and issues like that are being engaged with that group. Is that right?

VS: Yes.

TFSR: Jumping off into the main topic, though. So we’re speaking because there’s been hunger strikes among incarcerated folks at the jails in the county. Can you talk a bit about the conditions at Merced County Jail, and also at the John Latorraca excuse me…

VS: John Latorraca, you said it right. It has a nickname called Sandy Mush? I don’t even know that nickname comes from, but it’s its nickname.

TFSR: Yeah, what’s been up with the hunger strike? Can you talk a little bit about what sparked it? And how many folks are participating and sort of like the basic stuff on that?

VS: Yeah, so the last count that we had, it was about 44, initially, but since then, we’ve had people probably come out and people probably go in. So I haven’t got an accurate count as to how many that could be from the initial start of the strike. Yesterday marked day 17. I haven’t heard from anybody since noontime yesterday, so I’m hoping privileges were not taken. But they were dealing with a ton. A ton of stuff going on, black mold in the housing units and that’s impacting health, not being given hot meals, even hot water, just simple basic human asks, just necessities to live on.

The grievances for these things that there were issues in administration, they were being ignored, or they’re getting vague responses, that whole system had failed. Losing mail, incoming and outgoing was already a problem before the pandemic. And since the pandemic had started it became even worse. Since they had their visitations taken for over two years with the excuse of the pandemic, and weren’t offered any other means, the mail and the phones became a vital lifeline. Those were basically stolen from them.

That has impacted them in negative ways. I mean, their mental health, inability to make appropriate decisions. So many people that were in the facility the past two plus years were taking deals just to get out of the jails here so they could go to a prison that offers visitation, and that is crazy. That’s like people at there last, at their wit’s end, like “I’m gonna take a deal just so I could get out of here because this is like living hell.” That was a serious thing.

Being discriminated against based on their housing status, the jail uniforms that impacts them when they’re before a judge or the district attorney. A lot of these same asks were things that we saw from the 2016 prison strikes that Merced county jails were also a part of, and it’s nearly six years later, and not much has changed. It’s just kind of kind of crazy. They were on day 17 as of yesterday, and they were in negotiation. So the agreement was actually yesterday for them to end their strike. They were supposed to end it with the hot breakfast, have their hot water.

But then the morning came, and we ran into issues with the staff. They began to be hostile towards them. And when meals came around, they didn’t bring them anything, they didn’t even bring them cold food, they didn’t bring them anything that did not bring them hot water. They were just being cold. When I think about it, it was just evil towards them. So they basically went through all these negotiations for what purpose? They were with the Sheriff’s corrections, they had agreed to this on day 17, that it would break in the morning on these conditions. Those two basic conditions weren’t even met.

So they weren’t accepting any meals from the admin. They weren’t doing any movements at all. So that means their yard time and they’re getting maybe two or three hours a week, if that. Anyway, they weren’t accepting court movements. They weren’t even seeing their attorneys for meetings. They basically weren’t doing anything, any medical, anything like that, they were basically saying, “I’m not moving, I’m not eating until you guys change some stuff.” And the negotiations after noon time yesterday, they said that they had pulled some folks out. We were doing some phones zaps for them on their behalf yesterday to all the jail facilities and the Board of Supervisors. They did pull some of them out to have more talks. But after that, it’s been radio silence. So I’m hoping everything’s going okay.

TFSR: That sounds like a terrible flex, kind of authoritarian flex, that places like jails and the kind of people that staff them would make. When you’re mentioning people taking deals just so they can go to prison, are a lot of the people that are there and who are participating in this in pretrial conditions right now just sort of awaiting their day in court? And also people who’ve gotten county charges who are being held there, too?

VS: Yeah, we do have some people that serve sentences here locally. I think if it’s under two years, one year. It’s at the discretion of our county facility if they want to house somebody for their time, or if they’re going to send them to state prison. They have that ability. But most of the folks that are here are pretrial detainees, so they haven’t yet been convicted of a crime. Some of these are not sight-and-release offenses with the whole bail reform law. Some of these people are sitting in there on bale-able offenses, but yet they don’t have the funds to make that happen.

TFSR: It’s so so inhumane that you expect someone to be able to put their life on hold and also not be able to necessarily access the means to build a defense for themselves because they’re worrying about how their family is doing on the outside. They’re just kind of waiting until the courts have enough time to see them.

You’d mentioned the uniforms too. And I know that in the demands, there was a statement about how the uniforms that were being assigned to people weren’t necessarily respective to like security threat group status that people were in. I know that even the STG [Security Threat Group] type thing, saying that someone’s in a gang or whatever isn’t always applied according to someone’s actual participation in a criminal organization. But can you say a little bit about people’s experience of the of the issue of the uniforms and what that means for access to programs or to things like ability to research in the library? Not that there probably is a library, but you know what I mean?

VS: Yeah, I think a lot of it… the people that are more impacted by this whole uniform thing, are predominantly brown, Latino, hispanic, Mexican, indigenous individuals, because they separate them by the two gang classifications, Norteños and Sureños. Pretty much everybody else gets housed as general population when it comes to the maximum security facility of the Merced County Jail. But mainly these folks are the southern, northern, or the red and the blue, however the classification deems it. They separate them, and since Merced County unfortunately operates on LA County’s informal gang injunction model, a lot of people come into our jails are impacted and being labeled gang members based on familial association, based on where they live. They might live next to somebody that’s a documented or validated gang member. So they get housed, and they say it’s for their safety to house them this way, but then we have people that are not from any of these origins, being classified like this.

So when they go to court, and you see the northern, Norteño, classifications, they’re in green and white stripes, the southern are in a blue and white stripe. And so that takes a big toll on them, when they’re going through the whole process, how the district attorney is looking at them, how the judges are looking at them, and the bias that comes with that. This has been going on for a long time with this facility. We know that other jails, like in Stanislaus County, have a different system. Basically, people are housed as general population, just like they do in prisons, everybody’s pretty much housed together, and they know how to separate folks.

So that’s what the sheriff’s corrections here in Merced, were talking about introducing a bracelet system. But they’ve talked about this before back in 2016 and no changes have been made. So that’s a problem for a lot of people, especially when they’re going through this whole unfortunate situation, with being incarcerated, being labeled as a “gang member” even if they’ve never even been a part of that lifestyle. It’s pretty disgusting that that’s been going on for so many decades. This has been happening for a long time in this community.

TFSR: Do you have a sense of if they are just gonna keep going as long as they can go with it?

VS: So right now, so what they were doing, they were refusing all admin meals, and basically attempting to survive minimally off what they could get on commissary. Commissary is trash. It’s a lot of things that are not even acceptable for the human body. And these are things that people are forced to buy because they’re not getting proper nutrition from the food that they’re getting from the facility itself. The food, they were protesting, part of the strike was protesting the inadequate conditions of the food and improper nutrition. I mean, people’s health being impacted. They’ve been in there for a few months and we got folks losing teeth. I mean, that that’s how bad it is.

So that was pretty much what they were doing, refusing all admin meals. Because they weren’t even getting hot meals like they should have been. At least two hot meals a day. It’s the minimum. They weren’t getting that for so long. And that’s pretty much what they were refusing. It was affecting a lot of them. I mean, yesterday was day 17. They were in the negotiations ready to say, “All right, we will accept if we get a hot meal. Like it’s been a long time since we’ve had a hot meal.” I can’t imagine going 17 days without a hot meal or even hot water. That’s just like the basic things that you need. Right? That was the other thing, is the hot water, being able to have hot water.

TFSR: So there’s the cruelty of not offering these things. You mentioned that administration had made the agreement that after 17 days, they would offer them a warm meal and hot water and they refused that. How have they been expressing themselves and their reasoning for continuing to treat people in this manner in the media? Because I’m sure that they’ve been making statements, the media has been reproducing right?

VS: Yeah, well, initially, the Merced Sun Star had wrote an article, again, without interviewing any detainees or inmates, and without reaching out and speaking to any of the loved ones, or anybody that was involved in the organizing around the strike out here. They interviewed the Sheriff’s Department. Basically, they were just talking about how they’re supposedly meeting and in negotiations with these asks of the detainees and the inmates. Which was not true at that point. So we had sent out a media advisory, challenging, to show us to tell us exactly what’s being done, because the public has a right to know. Public state funds or whatever is being used to fund that facility and all the things that are happening in there.

So I mean, they’re going to paint their own narrative. That’s basically what they’re going to do and they’re going to do that time and time again, I don’t think that’s going to change. But when they were in negotiations and they had clearly stated, “Okay, we will break our strike on day 17 when we get our hot breakfast and our hot water.” At about five, six o’clock, when they’re usually taking out the trays, they came around, nothing came. Not even cold food. Then when they were trying to communicate with the correctional staff, they were being treated hostilely. They were basically taunting, saying, “Yeah, your hot water is out here. But we’re not going to bring it to you.” Well how are they going to go and get it? How are they going to go and get that water? It’s out there. But we’re not bringing it to you. I mean, that type of behavior, it’s just unnecessary.

So yeah, you’re right, it was just kind of like that flex, “we can pretty much continue to do what we want,” kind of thing. They were reaching out to us. So we started, we had put out posts and numbers for phone zaps to try to get something. Then after a couple of hours, they pulled some folks out, to have more communications with them. But that was around noon time yesterday. And again, like I said, we haven’t heard anything from inside as of now.

TFSR: So yeah, as far as the public needing to know about this and you mentioned the taxpayer money and such. But also all the people that are in there, almost everyone is going to have people on the outside who care about them. I’m sure a lot of the people, not just people who have an idea that this is a wrong circumstance, but they have a personal care for loved ones that are stuck behind these bars. How is the outside engagement, then, as far as you could tell, in terms of organizing, communicating, offering support to loved ones, participating in the phone zaps, or showing up in person?

VS: Oh, yeah, I mean, for instance the rally that we had on the 21st, the turnout was low. We had less than 12, like 12 people total. A lot of that right now has to do with the inmates and the loved ones, they’re concerned with the possibility of retaliation, and also the risk of even advocating for somebody, out here, that’s in there, people that are labeled as “gang members,” you run the risk of being labeled a gang member yourself. I mean, and that’s a consequence, that many folks that are impacted face. I might even be labeled as a gang member, because according to a loved one that I had, that was inside the facility, just recently, the end of last year, they were taken out by classifications and asked questions about myself about “we know she’s a gang member, who does she run with?” and these type of things.

I know that this facility has blocked my phone number so that folks in there can no longer reach out to me. That’s unfortunate, because I didn’t know about the hunger strike, actually, until day 10. Somebody from the family members in there had to find me, and search for me, in order to make the connection because I didn’t know my number had been blocked from the facility itself. So I mean, that’s another thing. Folks trying to organize in there trying to reach out for help and they’re literally blocking their means of a lifeline from within the Merced County Jails, for whatever reason. I don’t know why.

That’s pretty much what we’re seeing. There are people in there that don’t have anyone. So we have people in there reaching out, because they need funds, they don’t have any funds for personal care, or to get anything from the commissary line. And it becomes a community within the facility when you have people like that that are indigent, and they should be able to utilize the welfare funds. And when they utilize the welfare funds, when they do get commissary on their book, then all of a sudden, the staff comes and takes that for anytime they went to the doctor, anytime they got a mail package for the one month, what are those four or five dollars if they’ve been in there for a year. Then somebody puts $50, $100 on their books, and all of a sudden administration comes and says, “Oh, you owe us this money,” and then they snatch it. So that’s kind of a problem as well, for those people that are impacted in that way. They don’t have loved ones out here at all.

TFSR: So, if the administration takes the tack of separating people, according to ostensible gang certifications, or whatever, putting them in these different uniforms, have people been able to, despite that, organize across these lines with each other for the hunger strike and the common understanding that we’re all suffering under this?

VS: Yeah, I have seen that this time around as well, that people were joining in solidarity within the facility itself. But yet, it’s just very hard to try to make those connections inside the facility. The Merced County Jail is the maximum security facility. So it’s heavily segregated. But people were still in solidarity with that, trying to say, “hey, we’re having the same issues, let’s join together, let’s band together.” So that was one thing that they were doing in there to try to show them “hey, we don’t have to be segregated, we don’t have to be labeled like this, and we don’t have to work different uniforms. We could be housed together, we can even organize together inside of the facility for change.”

TFSR: Is anyone on the outside raising the alarm, obviously, black mold is a health issue that that is on the books that black mold can cause mental issues, it can cause lung issues, quite obviously. And, not getting your caloric value or your intake of calories every day can also cause mental anguish, as well as starvation basically. Have there been anyone successfully being able to raise concerns about the demands of the folks inside of these two jail from a legal standpoint saying, “this doesn’t follow the California requirements for how a county jail operates?” Has that been a direction that’s been helpful at all?

VS: We haven’t had any support in that area. And I’ve reached out and it just seems like they’re not. I’ve reached out to ACLU, I’ve reached out to other firms for prisoners rights, and a lot of these places, they’re not based near our area and so they just say, “we don’t have anybody that can cover” or, “we’re at our capacity.” So we haven’t seen any relief in that way. But I’m gonna hopefully be getting together with some folks in the next week to draft something up, because we want to have an external review and investigation because I don’t think our Merced County Grand Jury is doing a good enough job, because they’ve seen these conditions for a number of years and they haven’t enforced any type of action to make them correct it on a permanent status. So we’re gonna have to look to like OGI or OIG, whatever the that external government entity that’s over our prisons and our jails is going to have to come and put eyes on this.

TFSR: I See. So could you talk a little bit about MIRA and about Merced Under Construction, who’s getting involved, and what the groups are about, and talk about the difficulties or any difficulties or wins that you’ve seen with those groups?

VS: Oh, awesome. So MIRA, was actually Merced Inmates Rights Association and it is the page that’s ran by the loved ones of the current detainees and inmates of the Merced county jails and the John Latorraca Jail. It’s pretty awesome, and they’re new to all of this stuff. But they’re so passionate and driven to bring awareness. And that’s kind of where I fit in. I’ve been a directly impacted person, right? It’s kind of how Mercer Under Construction all came together.

Right now, we’re just looking for support. Merced Under Construction isn’t officially an org or anything like that. I’m actually, we’re opposed to the whole nonprofit industrial complex. So we’re really looking to folks, to keep it really grassroots and centered around real people, and being able to find funding for the work and whatnot. Hopefully, we can start doing that here pretty soon. But that’s basically what we’re doing. We’re just centered around incarceration, and the impacts of that on people in their families, a lot of work around police accountability, and creating opportunities for formerly incarcerated folks and their families. One of the pillars is to definitely to reach out to the children that are impacted by it as well.

TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about the name Merced Under Construction? Does it concern that the community is not completed? It’s not done? We’re still building it as we go? Or is it more of a like, “there’s money coming in for development projects, we need to make sure that those developments are actually supporting the people that already live here as opposed to larger entities?”

VS: It’s a little bit of both and the fact that we’re just never done. There’s so much work to be done. When we have developers, and we have businesses looking at Merced to build, and we have more and more funding going into suppression and first-responding in our community. Yet, we still have youth that are being impacted, joblessness, homelessness, houslessness, and people that are struggling trying to stretch a food stamp, people that are just falling through the cracks. I just feel like it’s always gonna be undone until we can finally bring that awareness and bring folks together, have this accountability, and figure out where the money is going. Because some of these funds that they’re they’re getting, like the COVID-19 funding, and all the extra grants and stuff that they get for every arrest that they can deem a gang related arrest, or an incarceration they can deem gang related, they’re getting federal and state fund grants on top of that. So is that a reason? Merced is just always under construction.

TFSR: Kind of like a side note, I did Cop Watch when I was living in Sonoma County. This is like the mid 2000s, and we were seeing that the local Gang Task Force, which was made up to some degree, it did have California Highway Patrol participation, but also it’s mostly the county that was coordinating with local police departments. They would all kind of joined together under the auspices of gang issues, would set up checkpoints. They would also get Driving Under the Influence, like federal anti DUI funding, to set up checkpoints in immigrant neighborhoods where people maybe didn’t have the papers for the car that they were driving because they were sharing it among multiple families, or maybe they didn’t have a license because they weren’t legally allowed to because they were undocumented. Just getting the money to go and set up there under the auspices of gangs, or DUIs nowhere near a bar, and taking people’s vehicles who were absolutely being marginalized by capitalism and white supremacy, and selling those and funding their own department out of that. That sounds kind of like it’s par for the course for California’s policing systems.

VS: Yeah. There’s so many. There’s the minor decoy program grants that they get. There’s just so many little things and it’s all fruit of the poisonous tree, in my opinion. It doesn’t really impact anything like what you’re talking about, the DUIs, and the minor decoy. These little grants get a ton of money. but yet, in my community, violent crime is up, murder is up, rapes are up, child murder… We just had a little girl that was killed in our community, her body was found. Nine years old, Sophia Mason, a beautiful black child. These types of crimes are happening. But they’re putting money into checkpoints. They’re putting money into seeing if anybody’s gonna buy a minor alcohol or cigarettes. But we have some dark, unnecessary crime rising here. My mind is blown. Home invasions are up, it’s just crazy. We’re a very small community compared on the scale of the state of California, Merced County is tiny. We’re very small. So again, it just doesn’t make any sense to me at all whatsoever.

TFSR: Well, how can listeners find out more about the strike and support it from where they’re at? Maybe not locally? Or if or locally? If you have some suggestions?

VS: Oh, definitely awesome. So we will continue posting on the MIRA page, the Merced Inmate Rights Association page, and the Merced Under Construction Instagram and Facebook page. But like I said, we’re unofficial org, so we’re asking folks to support. Right now we have a link tree link up. If folks have it in their heart or their conscience to support us, we’ll be accepting donations through ‘buy me a coffee,’ through that outlet. But we’re putting funds together for detainees and inmates directly. So we want to be able to put, fund several people’s, at least a month commissary account, whether that’s $25, whether that’s $50, we want to be able to put money for them to use themselves, for the phone, for food, for personal care, etc. We’re also going to be having some letter writing days, where we’ll be sending them out handwritten letters, cards, and communication with folks that are inside of the facilities themselves. So we have a direct line. There’s a lot of people like I had said before, they don’t have anybody out on the outside, they don’t come from much. We want to be able to support them, and let them know that they are loved. That they’re cared about and that there are people out here that say that they matter.

A lot of other work we’re doing that we need support with, it’s police accountability part of our work. And man, sometimes we have bits of a drive, we have to drive got to take reports, do our own investigations. We also have to request records from whatever government agency that the officer involved works with. So we have to pay for flex or dash cam or other records. And again, we don’t want to be a part of the nonprofit industrial complex, so we’re trying to just keep it grassroots and just real people funding real work that’s really happening in Merced. We’ve never done this before. It’s only always been on our own time on our own dime. And now we’re like really needing assistance because it’s growing. So that’s basically it. Just check us out on Facebook, Instagram, and hopefully we can get our website up here in like the next month or so.

TFSR: Victoria, thank you so much for having this conversation for the work that you’re doing. Yeah, I guess keep in touch. And we’ll keep trying to cover this when we can.

VS: I appreciate you Bursts. Thank you so much.

[ Editors note: The hunger strike ended Saturday, March 28th, despite the disrespect of the jail administration. ]

Transcription (Eric King Trial)

Josh: My name is Josh, I’m based out of Baltimore. And I do a lot of political prisoner support work and abolition work. I’m a member of the Certain Days Calendar Collective, and the children’s art project with political prisoner Oso Blanco. I’m currently also editing a book with Eric King, where we interview political prisoners about their lives inside. I work in communications with the Zinn education project. And I guess I first started writing Eric in 2017 or so and we’ve been corresponding ever since.

Mookie:My name is Mookie Moss, and my pronouns are he and him. I’ve been on the CLDC board of directors for gosh, maybe six or seven years, my day job has been a farmer for the last 25 or 26 years. But I’ve worked in and around a lot of radical organizations, both in the United States and in South America. A lot of the work that I’ve done has been around indigenous farmers down south, and anti-capitalist movements in South America, and here in the United States, environmental activist, that kind of stuff. So that’s who I am.

TFSR: So for listeners who don’t know, Eric, can you say some words about who he is and what he was convicted of?

Mookie: To be totally frank and honest, I have come to Eric Kings’ case pretty late in the game. But I did jump in with both feet based on this opportunity to work with the organization that I work with, which is the Civil Liberties Defense Center. My learning of Eric’s life and his story was kind of a crash course. But just based on my past experience being there for his trial, he came across to me as an incredibly emotionally sensitive guy, and also a really intelligent guy. He spoke really, really well. Obviously, because he’s a political prisoner, my view is that he really looks at his experience, both in jail and the world around him through a very, very strong political lens. So I would just add that.

TFSR: Oh, yeah. And with, with the usage of the term political prisoner in there, that says a lot, not only for what he was convicted for. Right? For that politically motivated property destruction, but also for the way that he’s conducted himself, and also how he’s been treated by administration’s since he’s been inside.

Can you all talk a bit about as sort of background for this case, what has Eric’s treatment been like in prison? How is he related to other prisoners as an antifascist, and as an anti-authoritarian, and also how the staff has related to him for these reasons?

Josh: Sure. So Eric, currently has been in solitary confinement for over 1,000 days, for over three years. He’s been in federal prisons all over the country, in private prisons as well. And he’s been brutalized and attacked wherever he’s been sent, either by guards or by Nazi-type prisoners. He’s defended himself every step of the way. He’s tried to help other prisoners, whenever he’s been given the chance, to to help voice their concerns.

I think it’s also important to point out that it’s not just Eric being targeted, that this happens to political prisoners and prisoners in general, throughout history. It’s currently happening not only with Eric King, but as you know with Sean Swain having his finger chopped recently by guards, there’s several indigenous prisoners being abused now, for the religious reasons, having their sweat lodge destroyed in a federal prison in California. I mean, it goes back all the way, the Attica brothers, Herman Bell being abused years ago before he got out. You know, it goes back throughout American history of guard abuse. It’s it’s pretty endless.

Mookie: I would also add, just to what Josh eloquently put, is that witnessing what Eric actually just went through as an extenuation of that type of torture, and bullshit, and experience that he has dealt with all along the way. Watching how the Bureau of Prisons handled him even just during this court case, where there was obviously a spotlight put upon him and put upon his conditions and experience was mind boggling to watch and to bear witness to. I have been interested in political prisoners and the struggle for a very, very long time. It’s not like I came into this with a blind eye like people are being treated well in prison, but the amount of punitive and destructive behavior from the Bureau of Prisons towards Eric, just during this case, there was something coming up. I can talk about that. Josh and I can talk about that. But it was just it was a microcosm of a much larger experience of let’s turn the screws against the people that are standing up for themselves and for their their belief system. It was really something else.

TFSR: He was speaking of “screws”, would y’all mind talking a little bit about what this trial was about? And what what sort of outcomes Eric was facing during it, and how long it’s lasted? Because it seems like it’s lasted a very long time to get to the phase of actually going before a judge and jury.

Mookie: Yeah, that’s right. So if I’m getting my dates right, the original incident which caused this recent trial, took place August 17, 2018. It was a situation where an assault had happened in the institution that Eric was spending time in and Eric wrote a[n] email to his wife to sort of blow off some steam and describe the situation that had happened in the institution he was spending time in. Basically, he said… I don’t have the email in front of me. So I’m not going to read it word for word, but basically, he was describing and feeling some excitement over the fact that a prisoner had struck a correctional officer. And beyond that, he went on to describe the feeling of wishing that he could be there to witness it, wishing he could have seen it, he said something along the lines of even watching it in virtual reality.

He was pulled out of his pulled out of his cell, because that email, obviously was read by the correctional authorities and the guards. So he got pulled out of his cell under the guise that they were going to do an investigation. He walked himself from his cell down to a place called the lieutenant’s office. And the lieutenant’s office, which really was a long hallway that had four rooms that came off of that hallway. A couple of them were lieutenants offices, one was a property room, I believe it was described as, and then the last room in that hallway was a broom closet. A broom closet full of mop buckets, rakes, tools, all these different things.

What happened next changes a lot depending on which correctional authority you heard the story from but Eric’s story never really changed a bit. What Eric’s story was as he was led into this broom closet. There were two correctional guards, two lieutenants, Lieutenant Wilcox and a Lieutenant Kammrad. Lieutenant Wilcox got in his face, Eric said, “I don’t want to fight.There’s two of you,” essentially, Wilcox kicked out his subordinate, Kammrad. Wilcox started a fight with Eric and he called him a ‘bitch’ he called him a ‘punk’ in this broom closet and he attacked Eric. Eric, decided that he didn’t think that being attacked a broom closet was going to be good for his life or good for his situation and so he fought back and he struck Lieutenant Wilcox in the face three times very in very quick succession. Lieutenant Wilcox was a really big guy, and Eric is not a big guy.

So it was pretty clear that Eric was more skilled in that expression, and he broke Wilcox’s nose. And after he broke Wilcox’s nose the other guards the other lieutenants ran in and you know, Eric had assumed a neutral position after he put wilt Wilcox down on the ground, and then from there, a whole series of things unfolded. Essentially the case was a “he said, he said” case, you know, where Wilcox said one thing and Eric said the truth. Fortunately for this court case, the guards that all had a story to share, the story was so convoluted and and frankly bullshit that that really came out in the trial.

So this turned out to be a self defense case. And it’s pretty remarkable, the legal team for the CLDC Lauren Regan, Sarah Alvarez, and Sandra Freeman, they did an incredible job of not only showing the inconsistencies and discrepancies in the Bureau of Prisons story, but also did a really good job giving Eric an opportunity to speak his truth up on the stand. And we’re lucky enough to be in one of those very rare situations where justice prevailed.

TFSR: Okay, there’s a few things that are heard throughout the course of the last, I guess, three and a half years, including that Wilcox had said, “Oh, you’re in Antifa, huh?” Something about his daughter running into anti-fascists and having a problem with that. He just sort of threw out a bunch of weird, disconnected shit, it sounded like. But it seemed like it must have been some sort of prefigured situation for them to take him into a room that the only room that didn’t have any cameras, which was a bit suspect, and then afterwards to hold him down in restraint for a number of hours, like 14 hours or something like that. Can you talk a little bit about some of that?

Josh: Sure. Yeah. He was held in four point restraint for hours after the incident occurred, after he was beaten. Yeah, there’s parts of it on video. There’s parts of it that were missing on video. I think it’s also worth mentioning, I listen to the trial from afar, but at one point I think they tried to make the case that a black eye that Eric suffered, was actually his Antifa tattoo on his face, which is just another way of showing that it’s his politics that they’re attacking, which I think does go to show what you were saying that it’s intentional and it is planned out. Anything to add, Mookie?

Mookie: You know, Josh is correct. They did at one point try to pin that black eye on the fact that he had a tattoo there. At another point, they were sort of edging towards this reasoning and this was very skillfully shut down by Eric’s defense team, but potentially that Eric either got the black eye when he was brought down on his face by the rest of the guards who rushed into save their buddy Wilcox. It was sort of hinted at one time that maybe potentially he could have given himself that black eye, which is of course ridiculous. Because after this incident, there wasn’t a moment that Eric was off camera.

Luckily, there was a nurse at the facility that Eric was sent to after this attack took place. This was the only Bureau of Prisons nurse that actually checked Eric out in any sort of realistic way and made notes that he had showed up with a pretty significant shiner. If you look at the video of the medical assessment that they did after this whole incident took place. This should shock absolutely no one who has any sort of understanding about how the Bureau of Prisons works, but the nurse who did the initial medical assessment spent about three minutes. Eric complained of a high level of pain in this temple, he had pain in some other places, but really was like, “hey, yeah, I’m hurt, and I’m hurting right now.” And there was never a second look given to him.

It was really something else. She inquired about a potential new tattoo, which he was like, “No, this tattoos not new.” But you could tell that there was a very purposeful, obfuscation of the truth that started immediately following the incident, because my perception was, is that they knew that they were going to have a difficult storyline to defend. And so at every turn where modicum, a little chunk of truth could come out, instead of asking questions and risking documented truth on Eric’s behalf coming out, they just slid right past it.

So the medical assessment, even though Eric, the State, or the government in this case, showed a picture repeatedly of Eric immediately following the incident, but we’re talking minutes after the incident. They’re like, “look, he’s got no black eye. This isn’t true. This didn’t happen.” Because their whole case hinged on the fact that Wilcox never took a swing at Eric, never assaulted him. That Eric sucker punched Wilcox, which is just blatantly not true. But so yeah, so they showed this picture of Eric right after the incident. And he didn’t have a shiner, because as anybody knows, it takes a good chunk of time after you get hit the eyeball to to get a big black eye. So it was really, really, really something.

TFSR: Eric has had a history of negative interactions with authorities and with guards in the past. And if I recall, a lot of those instances were in relation to private communication with his partner, or poetry that he’s written, or drawings that he’s made, and them being eschewed as threats by administration. So for that he’s gotten time in solitary, he’s had his rights to mail taken away, he’s had his ability to receive books taken away, or magazines. Just sort of exacerbating, and just amplifying the academic isolation as well as personal isolation of prison that he’s had to go through over these years.

Usually, he would just face ,as most prisoners… This this kind of crap is not abnormal in the US Prison System, whether it be in a State system, in a county, where someone’s in jail, or in the BOP, retaliation for petty things by petty guards, and all being adjudicated before some sort of internal rules board or some sort of internal court. Luckily, Eric did not have to defend himself before a kangaroo court inside without press and without legal defense from other parties. How is it that this case, why is it that this case, that could have tacked another 20 years onto his sentence, why did this become a public case? And how did the CLDC get involved, as far as you all know?

Mookie: My understanding, Bursts, is this case was brought to Lauren Regan initially by Daniel McGowan. Correct?

Josh: Yeah, believe so.

Mookie: So Daniel, you know, has a long standing relationship with the CLDC, because they did defense for him back in the day when when he was going through his trial, that he had been in contact with Eric for some time and reached out to Lauren Regan, who’s Eric’s lead defense attorney, and was the founder of the CDC, and said, “Hey, there’s this guy who’s serving time, he’s got a really compelling story. He was assaulted. He’s a really good guy and I really believe in him and believe in trying to seek some sort of justice in this case.” Lauren has a very close friendship with Daniel, and they’ve got really good history together.

So I think that really, Bursts, the reason why this happened is because there was a lot of trust. There’s a lot of historic trusts. And I think that’s a really important piece of this case is that. Lauren, and I were talking about this after the trial wrapped up just that. It’s really incredible when you see real true solidarity pay dividends like it does. Daniel felt solidarity with Eric, and because he had solidarity with Lauren, they came together and Lauren was like, “Daniel, if you believe in this person, I believe in you so much that, let’s go.” And that’s how it went forward. The CLDC, this is one of the things that they specialize in is shining lights in the dark corners of the key parts of our judicial system. So, I think that that’s that’s originally how Lauren got the case.

TFSR: What are the next steps in legal process for Eric? Is the outcome of the not guilty finding by that jury, does that does that mean he’s going to get any sort of reduction in his sentence? Or are there grounds for, because they were able to prove in a public court that the claims from the administration were false and that he had been subjected to harm, are there grounds for other lawsuits to sort of go back and point to the other portions of time when he’s been stuck in solitary? Been put in courtyards with giant Nazis? Gotten diesel therapy? Not had the ability anymore to get visits from his spouse in his family, is there anything brewing in terms of that? Or is he just scheduled for release in December 2023 and we’re just hoping to get him out.

Josh: Yeah, I think a lot of that is still to be determined. Like you said, he’s scheduled to be released in a year and a half, in December 2023. But I think it’s also important to keep in mind that he’s still locked up in there. As of right now, the end of March, he’s still on a mail ban, he can still only receive mail from his family. Last I heard he’s still in solitary confinement, even though he won the case. I think that there’s a likelihood that he’ll probably be transferred, who knows where that might be. Probably a lot of diesel therapy, a lot more diesel therapy.

But I think it’s also again, important to keep in mind that in the face of all this violence, in the face of all this state repression that he’s met it face on with a sense of humor, and he’s been able to build strong relationships, not only with people, those of us on the outside, but with those imprisoned right alongside of him, even when he’s in the worst possible conditions. He’s organizing them. He’s educating and is sharing as much as he can with those around him.

Mookie: I would also just add, Bursts, to echo what Josh said. I mean, Josh is right on there. And also I do know that the CLDC has a civil case filed on Eric’s behalf. I think that ideally, when somebody is wronged to such a grievous level, as Eric was wronged in prison, that there would be some sort of… I don’t even know if I should say like financial or time served retribution, but my understanding is that based on the law, it would be almost impossible for Eric to benefit in any monetary way from this civil case. I believe that there’s a Prison Act that says that you can’t benefit, even if you’re wronged from something that occurs if you [are in] prison if you’re there. I wish I knew and could speak a little bit more articulately.

But I think what’s really important about this, the civil case is that what I really think that the CLDC, and what Eric’s defense team, and what I would imagine Eric is hoping for is that by bringing the civil case, it’s going to effectively shine a spotlight on his treatment and will be a cautionary tale to any of the psychopaths in the bureau of prisons that decide to make his remaining time the hardest time in the world. That’s not to say that it’s not going to happen. I am just always shocked at the level of depravity that the Bureau of Prisons will go to make people are uncomfortable on the inside.

But having said that, every single night of this case, as it went on through the week, Eric was subjected to some new bizarre turn by the Bureau of Prisons, whether all of a sudden he was getting yanked out of his the cell that he’d been in and got transferred to a whole new facility next door. That happened one night. Another day, his cell flooded and coffee was spilled on his documents, another day, his documents and all of his personal property were removed. That made it almost impossible for him to prep for trial. I mean, it was so bizarre that that even the Bureau of Prisons… I’m sorry, there is nothing funny about this. It’s just unreal.

The Bureau of Prisons story when a cup of coffee was spilled on his documents and made them impossible to read, the BOP story was that a bird flew into his cell and knocked this cup of coffee over on his documents. The courtroom, when this was said, was just like… jaws dropped. And the judge who presided over this case, Judge Martinez, he even at that point leaned back in his chair and shook his head and said, I’m not going to be able to quote him verbatim, but basically the gist of what he said was, “I cannot believe that what’s happening to Mr. King is happening to Mr. King and the Bureau of Prisons better watch itself, because they’re setting themselves up for a civil suit.” I don’t know if he knew that was already in action, but all of those actions are going to be added to the suit. So hopefully, that gives them just the tiniest bit of cover from more torture and abuse. But it’s hard to say.

TFSR: Yeah, I remember seeing tweets about the stupidity of that moment. Unicorn Riot had a nice image for their posting of their coverage.

Were there any other highlights that stood out from the case? Either testimony from Eric or… because he was actually able to speak on his own behalf and had to answer like cross examination, I would imagine, but can you talk about any other elements of how the the case itself went?

Mookie: Sure. Let’s see highlights or lowlights. I guess in a case like this, they are kind of one and the same. It was very interesting to see Lieutenant Wilcox walk into the courtroom for his testimony. I think that was on day one. You know, all the photographs that I’d seen of Lieutenant Wilcox. He’s a fairly large, imposing, hulking figure and that was not the guy who walked into the courtroom. The guy who walked into the courtroom had a cane was bent over. Evidently in his off time, he has now since retired from the Bureau of Prisons, probably related to this incident… But he’s got a ranch and I’m not sure exactly if he was supposedly or actually injured on his ranch. I’m really not sure. But he walked into the courtroom and sort of shuffled down the center like an old man. I was like, “wow, the theatrics just don’t stop” and I’m not I’m not saying that he wasn’t actually injured, but whatever was happening, they did their very best to make sure that he didn’t come in as an imposing hulking prison guard type.

He got up on the stand and I would say what was most interesting to me, and I guess this was written and you could have seen it coming from a mile away, but the government’s case was so incredibly weak that anytime he was asked a question by the CLDC, or by Eric’s defense team, in any way that could impeach a previous story, or a previous statement he had made, it was just one, “I can’t remember, I can’t remember, I can’t remember” after another. Then when the government would come and ask him a similar questions, it was remarkable how quickly his memory sharpened up. So that was really, really interesting.

The other Lieutenant that that got on the stand, Lieutenant Kammrad, his his testimony was really weak. And I think the take home, the important take home of that piece was that the government was really trying to flip it 180 degrees, they are trying to say, “Look how authentic our guys are. It’s been three years since this incident and you can tell that our guys are telling the truth, because there’s variation in the story.” Well, the fact of the matter is, is that the variation of the story was was wildly varied. And it was backed up with video evidence that the defense team had brought that just punched so many different holes in the way that this moment in the broom closet unfolded that it just was absolutely unbelievable. Then the inverse of that is when Eric went up on the stand, he told such an incredibly lucid and cohesive story that matched up to every single one of his previous statements. So that was, I thought that was pretty interesting. How about you, Josh, what am I forgetting? Give me a second to think about those highlights.

Josh: No, no, I think you captured them all. My partner and I were kind of glued to the phone all week, working and listening to this in the background. I think you’ve captured all the major highlights. Eric did a great job while he was on the stand, of course.

Mookie: Yeah. Eric did a great job. I guess I would also just say, Bursts, that I had heard lots of things about Judge Martinez going into this case and I definitely had some concern. I’ve got concern anytime in the same realm as a federal judge, of course, but I have to say that… And of course, my experience as somebody in the gallery watching or Josh’s experience listening and I know a lot of people have listened, we don’t have the same experience that the attorneys do, because we’re not privy to all the sidebars. And I will say that there were more sidebars in this case than I’ve definitely ever heard of. I think even judge Martinez said, “there are more sidebars and objections in this case than he’s ever seen in his career.”

So, it was very clear to everybody in the courtroom that this was not only a very contentious case, like any political case can be, but it was really important to find a passage through this story in a way that didn’t bias the jury either way, and because this case was political in nature, and because Eric chose to do a politically motivated act of property destruction, it was very tenuous in in how they would go after Eric. You could tell that the government, the US Attorney’s, were doing everything that they could open up lines of questioning that we’re going to shock and dismay jurors who might not have the same or even a political analysis as Eric’s. I think that Eric’s defense team did a really skillful job guiding the jury through the story in a way where it didn’t open those doors necessarily.

There’s just lots of different feelings on what the term “violence” means and whether a politically motivated act of property destruction is violent. I have very strong feelings that it’s not, but I think that there was some concern that the jury could grab on to certain terminology that would then bias them and they would lose their ability to see this case for what it really was: One side is speaking the truth and one side is making up stories as they go along.

So I have to say that not having access to what has happened in those sidebars, I feel like there was 100 sidebars, I’m sure I’m exaggerating, but there was so many that I felt like judge Martinez did a pretty darn good job running a clean courtroom. I didn’t see bias in him, what I saw was a judge that actually just really wanted to follow the letter of the law. Luckily, you know, in this case, the letter of the law is on Eric side, he was defending himself and that’s a right that every single person has to do in this country, even if you’re locked up. So I thought the judge did a pretty good job walking that middle path. I have to say that I think that he was impressed with Eric’s defense team. I think that because of the nature of this trial would have been very possible to have lawyers that weren’t necessarily prepared to handle something at this high level. I think they hit it out of the park.

TFSR: I can see how like bringing up the fact that there are political views that are held by Eric, and the nature of his conviction, and pointing to that as being potentially counter to the political views of the guards, and thus, motivating them to act in juvenile and petty manners… Differentiating that from like, “he burned down a politician’s office, and someone could have been hurt!” That seems like a very thin line to walk and it sounds like folks did that very, very well. Do you all have any updates on how Eric’s health is these days? And how are his spirits?

Josh: Due to the mail ban, not many people have heard from him. I’ve heard through the grapevine that he is extremely happy about the outcome of the trial, happy to be getting the few visits that he does, that he is able to get. He’s looking forward to getting everyone’s letters and everyone’s love. Everyone keeps sending solidarity from around the world. He’s looking forward to reading everyone’s letters, responding to everyone’s letters. You can follow him on social media. His support site is SupportEricKing.org. You can send a books now, which is great. If you follow him on social media, or check out his website, you’ll find out when the mail ban is lifted, and you can write to him. But in the meantime, just know that he does appreciate all the support. I think he’s vocalized that as much as possible to those he has been able to speak to.

TFSR: So it’s been mentioned that Eric’s a pretty prolific poet, you can find a bunch of his poems up on his support website. I don’t know if y’all want to share any poetry by Eric that you feel especially moved by? If not, that’s totally okay. But I just wanted to put that out there.

Josh: Well, yeah, I’ll share one, actually, if you haven’t picked up the 2022 Certain Days Calendar, Eric wrote a poem for the month of May. So you’re still in time to get one you can go to BurningBooks.com. They are only five bucks at this point and all the proceeds benefit political prisoners. But in May, Eric wrote a poem, he actually wrote it to me one time before this calendar came out when we were just thinking of the theme. It’s called “Mutual Aid is Friendship.” Yeah, it’s a great piece. It’s very short. And it’s one of the last ones he was able to send out before one of the many mail bans he’s faced.

TFSR: Well, that’s about it for the questions that I had. Are there any other topics that you want to talk about? Otherwise if you could remind folks about how they can support the CLDC, the defense work that they do, and the research and we’ve had guests from CLDC on the show a few times to talk about digital security. We’ve had Lauren Reagan on before to talk about political repression more generally. I’d love to hear more about where to find more about that. Also, Josh has prior been on the show to talk about Certain Days, it’d be good to hear about that, too. But were there any other topics other than shouting out projects that I didn’t ask about that y’all want to touch on?

Mookie: I guess I would just like to throw this in the ring a little bit that I know that supporting political prisoners in this country and around the world is something that I think a very narrow band of people who are politically active do. I just would like to say publicly to anybody who’s listening to this podcast, that it’s very easy to find resources to support political prisoners in this country. You can go online and literally Google that. There’s going to be a ton of different places that sends you to, and I just want to encourage people to take 15 or 20 minutes out of their week and find a different prisoner to write to. I think it can’t be overstated how potent this act is. Not only does it have the potential to change somebody’s time on the inside, but I also think that it creates bonds that can last a lifetime, but it’s also an incredible way to build our movement. So I just want to give a “Rah! Rah!” for that. I think that’s something that’s really worth people’s time.

And just since I have the I have the air right now, if people are interested in supporting the CLDC, which I think is a really great to do. The CLDC, one of the things that I love about working with this organization is the breadth of their work in movement building, and resistance, and support for activists. It’s staggering, really the CLDC goes to where the work is, whether it be in pipeline work, or prisoner support, or environmental, or animal rights work. It’s just a really remarkable organization and anybody can find how to support that at CLDC.org.

Josh: Absolutely. Yeah. I’ll just mirror pretty much everything Mookie said. CLDC is great. Actually, in two days now I guess it’ll be in the past when people are listening to this, but the CLDC is hosting a political prisoner talk with Daniel McGowan, with Linda Evans, Ray Luc Levasseur, Rattler, a few other people. I’m sure it’ll be amazing like most of the other projects are. But also yes, just write political prisoners every chance you get. Just try to learn about them. Eric has really been amazing with that. Every time he’s sent to a new prison, he finds friends that he advocates other people writing to and building relationships. I think it really can be life changing not only for those inside, but for those of us on the outside, too.

I guess besides getting a Certain Days Calendar if you can, we’re coming up with a theme now for 2023. But if you’re heading over to burning books to get a calendar, you could get some Oso Blanco greeting cards. It’s a project called ‘Children’s Art Project’ that he and I and a few other people helped start where greeting cards are made with artwork from indigenous political prisoners and the funds benefit the Zapatistas in Chiapas. It’s a really cool project. Oso Blanco is a fascinating person to get to know. And a shout out to Sean Swain. I hope he’s doing all right, even though he’s one digit down.

TFSR: One digit down, but he’s still two fists in the air.

Josh: Absolutely.

TFSR: Yeah, that’s awesome. We didn’t end up interviewing folks about Certain Days this year, but there was one that some of y’all participated in on, “Millennials are Killing Capitalism,” I saw.

Josh: Yeah, yeah. That was Daniel and I a few weeks ago. That was a good one.

TFSR: That’s awesome. I’ll link that in the show notes, too. Mookie and Josh, thank you so much for being a part of this conversation and for the work that you do. I really appreciate it

Josh: Thank you Bursts, it was a pleasure.

Mookie: Hey, Bursts, yeah, it was. Thank you so much. And, Josh, thank you so much for your support for me in this case, you were really instrumental in bringing me along and I’m so grateful for the whole team that came to came together to stand with Eric. It was really a group of outstanding people and thanks again Bursts.

Josh: Yes, thank you.

Transcription (Eric King Transfer)

TFSR: Eric, where are you at right now?

Eric King: Right now I’m at a federal transfer facility called Grady County. It’s one of the marshal’s contracts out in Oklahoma City.

TFSR: It seems like a pretty frequently used facility. This is the one that I talked to Jeremy Hammond at a couple of years ago in 2020. What’s the facility like?

EK: It’s usually fucking sweet but right now we’re having a goddamn Ad-Seg thing where we only get out one-two hours a day tops. It went from being super sweet where you get commissary and video visits to goddamn annoying.

TFSR: Did they give you some reason as to why directly after the trial where BOP was found to have abused you that they transferred you across the country from Colorado.

EK: This makes me sick, for real, because everyone at Inglewood [Prison] during the pre-trial shit was telling me, “If you get found innocent, you’re good, you’re gonna go to a medium or the communication unit, things are gonna be better for you. You could just feel the venom in their kindness. So they’re telling me all these lies, and then I go to pack up for transfer and they are “Oh, we’re sending you back to this miserable, horrible dup of a penitentiary out in Virginia.” “Well, that’s not what you motherfuckers just told me.” “Well, it is what it is.” There’s no way for this not to be retaliation, I’m the one that has low security points. I should be coasting with my feet up wearing shower shoes all day, not having to work, wearing boots for the shower.

TFSR: You’re going to USP Lee, as far as I was aware. Is that a max facility? Or what level is that? Have you been there before?

EK: It’s a penitentiary, so it holds high-security people, max-security people. There are big gang leaders there, but then there are also just violent assholes that can’t function in lower securities. Then there’s me and one of the World Trade Center bombers.

TFSR: What are you thinking in terms of what recourse you and your support folks have right now? I know that getting your voice out right now is an important part of it, that people know what’s going on.

EK: The issue is that most likely, they’re going to dump me in the SHU. In the SHU, you have no radio, books, magazines, newspapers, no pictures, no commissary, no food, you don’t even have pens and pencils, they give you rubber pencils. I’m going to be isolated, I’m going to be cut off. People need to know: get a hold of these Virginia centers, get a hold of the Northeastern Atlantic region. I want people contacting those in charge to get a hold of the designation center in Grand Prairie, Texas, the SEC. Call these people, do mass calling. Call 1,000 times and ask them why is a medium or low-security guy being held at this prison again? Why is he back here? Why are you going to take someone’s mail, take someone’s phone calls, say all this communication shit about them, and then put them somewhere where you can’t be in touch with his family and his life in danger. Now, I can’t let anyone know something’s happening to me. We got to have a spotlight on this. We got this big-ass trial victory, people are watching, people are happy. This is the next stage in that fight. I still need support. I still need people. The trial didn’t end the problems. It ended with one big problem. But now we have this other big problem. I still need people to fight for me and let them know that we’re keeping EK safe.

TFSR: This trial ending is pretty enormous. But you do have a year and just under nine months left inside, and since your whole time inside has been a history of provocations, harassment, diesel therapy, violence by the administration…

EK: I said this to my wife. “Not every win is a win.” If we had two months last maybe, but 19 months is more than enough time to get somebody really fucked up. I don’t want any more goddamn problems in the in here. It’s been such a long arduous hassle with these people.

TFSR: You’ve been two years without mail, with mail bans and books bans and stuff like that, right? You just started getting books recently.

EK: Yeah, and they gave me another mail ban. They just put another one on in February. I’m going to land in this new play. I am just getting things back again for one month in January. Then they immediately say “well, we’re taking it again, because you’re circumventing the mail ban.” So I’m going to land at [USP] Lee with five months left on this new mail ban. God damn it.

TFSR: All the way across the country from your family as you said.

EK: Yeah, they took away my phone. I don’t get any phone calls ever. Because of this phoney-public-safety-factor bullshit they made up. I’m just stuck.

TFSR: What do you want to talk about, we have eight more minutes or something. You got to the point already of how fucked up it is and where you’re heading.

EK: Yeah, things aren’t going to be good. That’s really where my mind is, I want people to know my family needs support too. Send them kindness, be kind to my family, my wife is the one that I give all my information to. If I’m scared, if I’m sad, if I’m depressed, I ask her, “Let people know this.” People hear that shit from her. Please, take it seriously. She’s often literally the only one talking to me. Because if I can pay some dude to use his phone, that’s who I’m going to call. If she puts out the word that I’m in trouble, or I’m sad, or I need something, please show me love and listen to that. We did really well at the trial. It wasn’t a flawless victory, we butted heads and there were things I wasn’t happy about, things that they weren’t happy about. But my legal team did fight for me tough. They spent a lot of money and time and they showed up and had me prepared. But it’s not over. I want them to be able to celebrate because they spent a lot of resources to get this win. It is a win, but for me,…

TFSR: …it’s not a win till you’re out. Right?

EK: Right. I don’t get to celebrate yet because they can still put me in there with someone who is getting drugs from SIS to stab me or some shit like that. That stuff is still in the back of my mind because it’s happened so many times that it doesn’t feel– I can’t celebrate, I got to celebrate for a few days after it happened. But right now it’s back to “Alright, we need to focus on the Bureau and focus on keeping me safe.” It’s just such a horrible way to exist. You can’t be super happy and celebrate with your family because you don’t know what the Bureau’s up to.

TFSR: Yeah, that’s real.

EK: It’s on my mouth on this fucking this $8 coffee that we have here. They sell this little bullshit bag. It’s called Maxima. It’s got maybe 20 scoops in it and it is $8.44. That’s other shit my wife’s having to deal with. God!

TFSR: Spaces like Grady really rely on people being in a panic mode and putting too much money in the commissary and too much money on phones, if people have money available because they don’t know how long they’re going to be there. Do you have any sense of how long you’ll be at this middle facility? Or could it just be they’ll swape you out today?

EK: It’s important to acknowledge that this place is a hella exploitative. They know we’re all panicking, all trying to talk to our family as much as we can. The best way to tell this is these phone calls are expensive. That computer that we use over there is expensive as shit. Commissary, I just told you $8 for a bag of coffee and all of us are having coffee withdrawals, needing some coffee. They’re vicious. I have no idea how long I’ll be here. In my mind, I’ll probably leave on Friday, on Friday morning, they’ll probably come and grab us. But if we make it to the weekend, that’s just two more days of spending shit-tons of money. They give you the lowest quality stuff, just bad.

TFSR: Two fewer days of being at Lee at least…

EK: My dream is that enough people contact them for the right, let’s just get this fucking dope bag out of here. Get him moving. That’s what I’m hoping, that they do it in a way that was different than at McCreary. Let’s get this fucking dirtbag out of here. The way to do it is we’re going to set them up to get jumped. Hopefully, at least they do it a different way. They’re just like, “He’s a problem, let’s move him.”

They don’t have goddamn toilet paper, the toilet paper rolls. They don’t give you those, they give you a little folded bundle, and it’s eight squares in a bundle. You get two bundles a week. Think about that. Think about what that means. You learn to make do your 16 squares a week.

TFSR: That’s so fucking cruel and inhumane. Well, if you did have like 20 sheets, maybe you could make a weapon out of it somehow, an explosive or-

EK: [laughs] Those extra sheets could come in handy for violence, for sure. I don’t know if people understand how horrible the SHU’s get. As I mentioned earlier, we don’t have pens or pencils there. They give you a rubber pencil. You have to sharpen it by scraping it on the concrete. Then you can’t file grievances with that. You can’t write legal mail with that. When I try to write to one person I can write, my wife or my cousin Deb, who was at trial, God bless her. They can’t read what I’m writing. It’s just a complete way to cut you off from the– They can do whatever they want. No visibility has no accountability or whatever. That’s what they do. They bury motherfuckers there and once you leave, you can cry about it, but you’re going to say nothing while you’re there. They might take away your 16 sheets.

Automated voice: This call will be terminated in two minutes.

EK: Do they have to word it that way?

TFSR: Terminated. “I’m the Terminator, enjoy this call.”

EK: Please, stress my gratitude, but also my urgency. This isn’t a sit like, “Let’s plan, and let’s see what feels best.” This is I need action. If we make a mistake, we make a mistake. I need people mobilized quickly. I’m okay with a mistake. I need them to know the eyes are on me.

TFSR: Yeah, for real. How is it you said that you haven’t shared space with other people in years and you just got moved to an open dorm, general population? Could you describe how that feels?

EK: I’ve been in it, literally a 6×8 box for two and a half years, and before that different SHUs for another year. Going from such a confined space by myself and now I am literally surrounded by people. It feels like a fucking wave of people. There’s also a microwave next to me. When’s the last time I use a microwave? There’s a TV above me. I haven’t seen anything from the Ukraine-Russia war. I just now saw the Will Smith hitting Chris Rock thing. It’s super, super positive. But also, the SHU really damages you. I didn’t realize it until I got out, like right now for this brief period. It feels like someone’s stepping on my chest this entire time. It’s exhausting.

TFSR: Are you able to like find the corner and breathe by yourself? You don’t have to say anything about this. But you know someone who’s in there, right?

EK: I got a bro in here. There are a few other people from the system that we know the same people. Because it’s a small-ass system. There are people here that have been in the same prisons I have, or we know the same people. It’s all respect, there’s no conflict or tension or anything. It’s all just internal.

TFSR: You’ve been someone who’s done a lot of practice and meditation and yoga and instructed other people on these practices. Are you finding that those are helping you right now? Or are you just having to move through it?

EK: Not right now. The meditation, yes, because I can just focus on breathing and focus on my being. There’s obviously no room to sit in the middle of this goddamn open dorm and start doing yoga. I would look like a complete jackass. Justifiably so. But just being in my own space, being centered definitely helps because in the past, when I did long SHU days– Because I always do these goddamn long SHU bids, I don’t know what’s the deal it, it is just a vindication on resistance, I guess. But in the past, when I got the SHU, it would be so suffocating that I thought I could die. Things have improved drastically.

TFSR: Do you have any more updates, any news about when you think you’re getting transferred out? Have you been able to hear from any lawyers or anything like that while you’re at Grady?

EK: I had my legal call, Lauren did get ahold of me. I told her what I needed. She asked, and I told her, and so I trust that it will help. I’ve heard that they are organizing the calling campaign and doing that which I asked for and have been desperate for. I hope people stick with that and continue to put pressure because these people aren’t going to tell me anything. The people at Grady County are not going to tell me shit because they don’t know anything, they are just the county workers. It is just what I’m hoping on and I’ve read some things and heard some things from different comrades. Everything seems like it’s going in the direction that I need. So often we will need something and maybe the people don’t understand how serious it is, or some people don’t. You just need a few to listen to you and believe you and hear you and they can get this ball rolling. It feels like that’s what’s happening right now. I’m really grateful, that makes me feel safe and seen. What this whole thing is about is just making sure that the Bureau knows that people are watching. They’re not going to get away with any sly shit. People are watching, senators will be checking in or whatever we’re able to do with a little bit of pressure. That makes me feel good. Really good.

TFSR: This is a little bit off-topic. But when Josh was on the show the other day, Josh from Certain Days. He was talking about the book that you all are working on. Can you say a few words about that if it’s interesting?

EK: Josh is the perfect person to talk to, he is just such a clever, beautiful person. I started having this idea after reading some IRA books that talked about not just the bombing and killing, but the trauma of suffering and doing suffering to others and what’s left afterwards? What’s left when the ashes and the smoke clears? It’s not glory. It’s internal. Then I had that time with Jaan in his cell and just hearing him talk, and all these stories that I knew, these aren’t documented, no one will ever hear these stories. These stories could change someone’s life, they changed my life. I, Josh, and all of us really honor our mothers and fathers that were in this struggle before us. What they’ve gone through in prison shouldn’t be negated down to a couple of typed-up quotes for some magazine, or their ideas on the struggle. Their lives inside are equally as valuable in the mundane as they are in the extreme. So I didn’t want just to have their stories about how bad they suffered, I wouldn’t want my story to just be about all the SHU time I did. I’d wanted it to be about my life because I still exist. I want that for those that have been through this.

I had that idea and brought it up to Josh, and Josh is just an astoundingly productive person who just wants to help and work, brought it to life. We typed up a questionnaire and he just got to work. I think he’s interviewed some 7000 people so far. It’s actually just 30 or 40 , but it is still a lot. That’s a lot of work. You got a full-time job. This is just comrade work, which – I don’t want to disrespect movement, but I don’t see that all the time. I haven’t seen that in my entire life. I see it a lot, you do it, a few other people do it, but it’s not the most common thing. No questions asked no, “oh, I don’t know, this might be a bad idea.” It was “Let’s bring this shit to life.” And we have, and some of the things I’ve read have been so touching. Something I didn’t know about people. I didn’t know what Kojo [Bomani Sababu] had been through. I didn’t know that Oso [Blanco] was so aggressive. I didn’t know so much about Ray [Luc Levasseur]. So, to me, it’s a project of honoring our existences, not just our suffering, if that makes sense.

TFSR: Absolutely. Recognizing that people aren’t just these two-dimensional struggle machines that are there for putting on a flyer or sticker whatever. That could be a band name.

EK: Yes. It could be title the cover of the book.

TFSR: We have a minute and a half left, these are 15-minute calls. Is that right?

EK: They’ll tell us the two-minute mark.

TFSR: Are there any other things that are coming to mind right now that you want to express?

Automated voice: The call will be terminated in two minutes.

EK: For me, the most important thing is just asking people to please be there for my family. Mutual aid and community support, she is in prison too. I got two little girls, they’re in prison too. Lend us your voices, keep these eyes on me. I’m not trying to be an attention grabber here, like I’m Mr. Big Deal. But this can get very serious very quickly, it could get very dark. That’s all I can think about right now. Help me fight, help me keep an eye on these people so they can’t bury one of us. Don’t let them put the dirt over me right now after we just got this big-ass plan. Don’t let this win turn into a loss. That’s where my heart and that’s where my head’s at right now. And be nice to my wife.

TFSR: For sure. That’s true.

Automated voice: The call will be terminated in one minute.

EK: Bursts, thank you so much. Please give my regards to both Swains, to Lauren and Sean.

TFSR: I will.

EK: Please give yourself a big hug for me.

TFSR: Thanks, Eric. I appreciate it. Take care of yourself, okay? Make some friends.

EK: How are you doing? It’s been a very selfish call. We only got 20 seconds.

TFSR: I’m good. Just got off of work, and got some pizza and a beer waiting for me. Some local IPAs Chicago area.

EK: Oh, IPA is gross.

TFSR: Right. I’m from the West Coast. It’s what I do.

EK: Oh my gosh, don’t…

Tom Nomad on Conspiracism

Tom Nomad on Conspiracism

Conspiracy cork board in a dark room with title "Conspiarcism with Tom Nomad"
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Tom Nomad is an organizer based in the Rust Belt and the author of The Master’s Tools: Warfare and Insurgent Possibility and Toward an Army of Ghosts. You can find more of Tom’s writings on The Anarchist Library. Tom is @tom_nomad@kolektiva.social on Mastadon, and on their blog

We speak about conspiracy theories and real conspiracies, strategies of tension, the use of extremist actors to set conditions of concentrating power un-democratically and challenging conspiratorial thought patterns. You can find a past interview we did with Tom on “Insurgencies Journal” and “The Master’s Tools”.

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Transcription

TFSR: We’re joined by anarchist author and activist Tom Nomad. Tom Nomad is an organizer based in the Rust Belt and the author of The Master’s Tools: Warfare and Insurgent Possibility, as well as Toward An Army Of Ghosts. You can find Tom’s writings on the Anarchist Library as well. We’re going to speak a little bit about conspiracy theories and real conspiracies, strategies of tension, and the use of extremist actors to set contradictions of concentrating power undemocratically. Thank you again for agreeing to have this conversation, I am really stoked to have it.

Tom Nomad: Yeah, thanks for having me.

TFSR: Weird world, huh? *laughs*

Tom: *laughs*

TFSR: As a bit of context, I was listening to an episode of The Empire Never Ended podcast, and they mentioned this BBC documentary from 1992 — that’s in three parts, that’s available on YouTube — about Operation Gladio, which is a stay-behind army in Europe put in by NATO and the US meant to disrupt and undermine any communist anarchist organizing or Soviet invasion. This is a subject that I’ve had some awareness of for a while now, but haven’t really dug into, partially because so much of the cloak-and-dagger stuff can be really hard to pull back and to figure out what really happened. It’s like looking into COINTELPRO in the US besides where actual documentation is thorough if redacted. There’s a lot of disinformation around the edges of it. I reached out to you here because there are some important parts of strategy attention, that I know that you’ve written about and thought about, and some theorists that you’ve been studying that deal with this. And I think you’re a smart dude.

Tom: *laughs* Thank you, I’m flattered.

TFSR: I wonder if we could first talk about them— I don’t know if you want to go into — or I could touch on — a few points of the history, at least in the context of Operation Gladio and the stay-behinds after World War II, what that looked like and where the funding was, and what activities people engaged in?

Tom: Yeah, sure. Project Gladio often gets associated with what happened in Italy. And that’s definitely the area of highest concentration for operations. But it was prior to NATO, Western Union, which was the organization that led to NATO, built this program up after World War II. And the idea was that they were going to take non-communist elements of partisan forces. I think we often think of partisans during World War II as communists and anarchists, and most of them were. But in France, for example, the Christian Democratic Union had a militia. The same thing in Italy. So they took these right-wing forces and fused them together into these— they refer to them as paramilitary groups. They were essentially — as you refer to them — stay-behind forces. The stay-behind forces mean a number of different things. And in this case, there’s a wide variety of different things that happened. Most of the time, what it meant was that they were at one point training and funding and organizing a clandestine group of people whose job was to prevent communist infiltration into Western Europe and to be there in case of a Soviet invasion.

Largely, they were trained in things like sabotage operations, intelligence gathering, in the things you would do if you were a resistance fighter behind enemy lines. But a lot of those people were also really well-connected with whatever right-wing political parties existed after World War II, and many of those people rose to positions of power. Very similarly to the way that things operated with the US in Central and South America over the 20th century, where we would sponsor right-wing forces, and oftentimes, those forces would have their own agendas on top of whatever we were pushing them to do. And they would rise to power. And then we would have these allies in power. And this would lead to puppet-state governments. Similar things happened in Gladio, but not in as directive a way. There were definitely alliances that existed between, later, NATO and the offices within NATO that dealt with clandestine warfare. Some of these parties were Christian Democratic parties that existed all the way up through the late 1980s-early 1990s.

TFSR: My understanding is that the Operation Gladio name gets put on often because that was the name of the project specific to Italy, and that a bunch of these different projects in various countries had their own project names and had to some degree — although, it’s hard to document it — funding from the CIA at the time. It seems pretty normal — you’ve got these formerly militarized forces all around, in a lot of cases, forces that maybe were clandestine far-right groups in countries that were either invaded by the Soviet Union or had a socialistic government or were invaded by the Allies or aligned with the Allies that were ostensibly firming themselves up and readying themselves for a communist infiltration or communist invasion. That was their greatest fear. And so for them to just be activated to do this stuff— Or they were fascists, and they were inherently anti-communist, so they were just doing the same. There are stories about Operation Werewolf in Germany. And that meme and that idea are still being pulled up by the far Right— I wonder if you would talk about what activities that we know of, that you’re aware of that those groups ended up getting engaged in. They have affiliation with the policing structures, to some degree, they have a nod. This is the point that you make in some of your writing, in some of your speakings is that anarchists, and the people in general, often think of the state as a unitary structure, that the right hand knows what the left hand is doing in all cases. And I think that Gladio and stuff this is an example where that’s not the case…

Tom: Yeah, Gladio is actually, according to the CIA documents, a disaster for similar reasons that every other attempt to foster right-wing paramilitary forces by the CIA was a failure. William Colby, who ended up becoming the director of the CIA, during the tail-end of the Vietnam War — he was involved in a lot of the setting up of these very specifically clandestine paramilitary forces. And there’s a common pattern here, whether we’re talking central South America, or Southeast Asia or Europe — there’s this pattern. And the pattern is the following. The CIA has very specific goals, and in the case of Gladio, NATO had very specific goals. Those goals are often relatively straightforward, and they’re relatively easy to identify.

For example, in the case of Gladio, or in the case of fostering right-wing forces in Vietnam, or Korea, or trying to do the same with the Contras in Central and South America, the goal was to prevent the expansion of a Soviet sphere of influence. Now, they talked about it as preventing the Domino Effect or preventing the spread of Communism, but really it was grounded in preventing the expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence, and later, the Chinese sphere of influence, which is where a lot of that tension exists now. In all of these cases, the CIA parachutes in — or in the case of Europe was leftover from the OSS — and they start organizing these groups together, fund them, and give them a relatively straightforward mission. They say, “Okay, we need you to use your newspaper (in the case of Italy) to promote this right-wing political party, and we’re going to give you a bunch of money to continue to run your newspaper.” Or “We’re going to give the Christian Democratic Party in Italy,” for example, “all this money, and the CIA was the source of— Depending on the estimate, somewhere between 20 and 80% of all of the funding that they used in the 60s and 70s— We’re going to do this because the communists are getting popular, we need you to win the parliamentary elections.” In a place like France, a lot of that was about maintaining the power structure around de Gaulle and people like that.

Now, in all of these cases, though, these entities that were selected have their own goals. The Contras, for example, in Central and South America, were running drugs, they were aspiring to power, they had connections to all these big corporations and plantations in these countries. So they had these goals, which were economic and political. In Europe, specifically, in Italy, a lot of the people that were worked with were fascists, and they had this series of goals. The fascists in Italy were allied with the church and the business class. They had this series of goals that they could push partially through the Christian Democratic Party, but also they engaged in street actions.

Now, the question always becomes — and this is where it gets really murky — what was done at the behest of the CIA and what was not. We have a number of documents that we can rely on, and they’re not all from the CIA. Some of them are, and there are plenty of records from the CIA, that just point to the more banal, more innocuous parts of these operations. There are documents from the CIA that point to less innocuous parts as well, but most of them are centered around legal political interventions and the boosting of certain political forces. But we also have documents from Italy, we have documents from France, as socialist governments took over in those places, periodically, they would release documents about what happened with the stay-behind forces. What we really get is we get this picture of a failed CIA operation. I mean, it was successful in the sense that right-wing forces were able to keep communist parties out of power. But it was unsuccessful in the sense that the CIA was not able to keep control of the forces that they themselves were promoting. And in a place like Italy, that turned into a lot of political violence. A lot of what happened during the Years of Lead — what in the US we often talk about the Strategy of Tension— Those same forces were the forces that were carrying out attacks at the behest of the State Police. There’s no record, though, that those were being called for by the CIA. And this is where these operations get really murky. And this is where research skills become really important, and this is where understanding how conspiracy theories work becomes really critical. Because we need to be able to speak about these things realistically, and not through inference or hyperbole as they often are.

TFSR: I definitely want to get into ways of thinking about these kinds of activities that avoid those conspiratorial thinking. We should make the point that there’s a difference between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory because people conspire all the time, this is a phrase that Robert Anton Wilson used to say that I really appreciate, that anytime you’ve got a backroom full of bankers, or you’ve got a bunch of government ministers getting together making a decision to do something, anytime you got a bake sale being planned, people are conspiring to do a thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s nefarious, it’s people agreeing to do a thing, which is why gang charges or conspiracy charges that are used against political dissidents oftentimes are like you agreed to be in a place at a time around other people, and ipso facto, you are a part of this criminal conspiracy that we can charge you with. Just blowing up— because you’ve been bringing up Latin America and Southeast Asian examples, as well – the idea that the US goes in and funds certain movements, certain groups… Again, to touch back on what I said that governments aren’t unitary — there are also other ways that intervention happens, and sometimes with the CIA’s affiliation and sometimes not.

Right now, anytime there’s some unrest in a country that has a political position that is somehow in opposition or economic position in opposition to the US government, there’s a lot of people on the far-right, as well, as I would say, tankies, oftentimes, that get drawn into this idea that this is a CIA op, that this is a thing that totally plays into— Cui bono, who does it benefit? This is the approach that people often take is to look at the event and say, “Aha, what part of the international spectrum of power would want this to occur in this way, or to undermine this group?”, and they oftentimes point to the CIA, which takes away the agency of the people that are actually involved in the complex situation. But I’ve seen that pointed to, for instance, with the Otpor movement at the end of Milosevic in former Yugoslavia, this popular movement that got Western “democratic” think-tank money to help them think through their process, and also gave them books on nonviolent theory, movement theory, and also to push them in a certain direction. You got this through a bunch of the color revolutions that happened around Europe and in parts of Asia, and Peter Gelderloos writes about this a bit. You get this today also, where, for instance, there are mass disagreements in the streets, with regimes like Nicaragua under Ortega, or in Cuba, where people are unhappy with what the government’s doing at the time and there’s a mass show of disagreement, and certain sectors of the media and I guess the tankie left say, “Aha, it’s against these administrations, these administrations can’t be doing anything wrong. Therefore, it is a CIA op.”

Tom: This kind of idea, I think, is structured around a number of things, which are important to tease out. Firstly, there’s very obviously confirmation-bias going out here. That’s the simplistic reading. There’s confirmation bias happening. We see this with tankies all the time. You see this with groups the PSL which are entirely comfortable excusing not just people’s motivation, but genocide. To be really clear about this, the PSL excuses genocide, excuses states coming in and say, “Rounding up Uyghurs in China and throwing them into reeducation camps, or they support the North Koreans murdering political dissidents em masse.” Now, of course, they can’t come forward and say “We’re genocide sympathizers,” that’s an unpopular position. So they have to come forward and say, “Oh, none of the genocides are happening. All these videos are doctored by the CIA, blah, blah, blah.”

We see similar things with the right-wing as well. We see things this with QAnon, for example. And the thing that’s fascinating about conspiracy theories now — this is a topic for a different conversation but something I think bears bringing up — is that conspiracy theories now no longer function on this level of there being a body of phenomena and then some narrative that’s constructed retroactively about this phenomenon. What’s happening now is that the narrative gets constructed as things are occurring, which is really different. And what it means is that conspiracy theories have become far more reactionary, even than they were before. That now, it is purely about choose a position, construct a conspiracy that can justify a position in the face of counter-evidence. We see this pretty consistently.

Now, the second part of this that I think is really important, is to recognize that part of the reason that conspiracies can exist in relation to, say, a political uprising in Cuba, or even Venezuela. There were many right-wing forces involved in Venezuela, but it wasn’t everybody. A lot of this falls down into simplistic narratives that are meant to describe things that are by their own nature secretive. Things which we don’t know about. In a situation where we don’t know something, there’s a tendency to want to create an explanation. If we can’t explain, for example, within our own thinking— So, say, we were a member of the PSL and we were watching… for example, there were massive riots in Shenzhen, China this past week, where people were throwing bricks at cops, a lot of them are microworkers. They were protesting COVID restrictions and things like this. Now, of course, to the PSL, that’s impossible. Just like the uprising in Hong Kong was impossible. It wasn’t that there were people that were angry because it’s a socialist utopia, that couldn’t possibly be.

We see similar things in the United States. We saw this during the uprising when Democratic mayors and police chiefs in Democratic cities were saying, “It couldn’t possibly be because of the failure of reformism. Really, this is about professional anarchists and out-of-town agitators.” It’s a very similar narrative. What happens here is that we have this zone of indiscernibility, say, CIA motives, classified information, or something like this. And then we have this phenomenon, which in reality is very complex. We look at, say, the uprising in Kazakhstan, or even the uprisings in Italy in the 70s, which even a lot of anarchists, I think, see in really unitary ways, but they’re really complex things. And so instead of diving into the complexity, instead of sitting there and saying, “Well, the CIA might have this motivation, but people on the ground might have this motivation. And some people might have this motivation. But other people have this motivation.” Instead of really diving into the nuances and complexities, we come to simple conclusions. We say things like “Okay, well, my tankie left-wing party, for whatever reason, supports the Assad regime. Therefore, every single person fighting the Assad regime has to be working for the CIA.”

TFSR: Like the White Helmets.

Tom: Yeah, I’ve even heard tankie say this about the YPG, which fly red-and-black flags and stuff. It’s pretty obvious where their politics are. Then there’s this third element here.

And the third element really has to do a lot with the fact that actually, in a lot of places, the CIA does have precedence, There’s this reality in which, say, we take Otpor, it is an interesting example because I’ve actually been to Serbia and talked to those people. This was more than 15 years ago, at this point. And some of them, interestingly enough, were in government at the time, they were members of the Social Democratic Party. And the thing that they said is, “Yeah, the Democracy Institute came here. And they trained us in things like nonviolent protest organizing and things like that. But we already had to have the motivation to get that going. And we were the ones that had to carry that through.” And so, even if funding was sometimes coming from overseas which it wasn’t always and they said that over time, that was less and less the case, the fact that millions of Serbs are willing to show up in the streets and overthrow the government is the important part. And not all of those people were “CIA stooges”. Most of these people were people who were living through a financial crisis that was spawned by a genocidal war being waged by their government, and they didn’t like living in financial desperation. And they didn’t necessarily agree with the war. We have to remember that in the former Yugoslavia, there was an incredibly cosmopolitan space prior to this rise of nationalism, which played off dynamics that had been present. But many people in the former Yugoslavia weren’t necessarily identifying with the X, Y, or Z ethnic group in the early 90s.

And so their political conditions have led those things to happen. We have these three difficulties. We have these political biases, we have the inherent lack of clarity of things that are secretive, and we have the dynamic in which there is intervention on some level. But I think what’s really important to tease out here, and to understand is where does that intervention stop as being a motivating factor? Where does it begin?

Let’s take, just as an example of something which I think most of us would rightfully reject, that is the narrative of the outside agitator. We know that that narrative was a very powerful narrative in the 1950s and 60s that was used against the Civil Rights Movement. And right-wing politicians and pro-segregationist politicians would say, “Oh, those are outside agitators. That’s communists coming in here and riling everybody up, which of course, asserts that Black activists in the South during the Civil Rights Movement were passive agents that were pushed forward by white communists outside of their own intention, and that these white communists were able to manipulate these people that didn’t really have the intelligence to understand what was happening. It’s a completely racist and absurd narrative. And yet, people on the “left” replicate that narrative all the time, literally all the time, to justify all kinds of things, and to explain away all kinds of things. There’s also the reality that these uprisings when we see them are spectacularly complex. And we often can’t see the complexity. We take something Egypt, the Tahrir Square uprising, there were many political factions on the ground there. I know people that were on the ground there. I know anarchists that were on the ground there. And there were capitalists, there were conservatives. The Muslim Brotherhood was there, anarchists were out in the streets, there are lots of communists, there was no unified political vision, except getting rid of the regime. And that was a common objective. And that’s all that was needed to push forward that uprising.

We can hear the words of the people that participated in these things. We don’t have to explain those words away, we can hear those words. And oftentimes, what those words are, are that regardless of how this thing started, regardless of what motivated its beginning, the second that people hit the streets… And in Egypt, my friends that were over there say, the veil of fear fell away. That’s when things change. And that has nothing to do with outside money, that has everything to do with people’s motivation and intent. When we’re looking at these things, we have to keep these complexities in mind and recognize that the Democracy Institute did trade activists in Egypt prior to the uprising. That’s true, they did it at American University in Cairo, we know this. April 6th Youth Movement talked about this openly.

Often, what happens in these situations is that people are looking for something really secret and hidden, when in reality, almost everything is out in the open if you’re willing to look for it. If you’re willing to dig around social media, if you’re willing to embrace complexity, if you’re willing to suspend your own preconceived conclusions, you can gather the information that you need. We live in this amazing age where I remember, I was writing my doctoral thesis in 2010, the Egyptian uprising was happening, was just getting moving, things were going down in Syria and Libya. And we could follow what was happening minute by minute on Al Jazeera, and it was the first time we could do that, that changed everything. We don’t need to rely on partial reports anymore. We don’t need to rely on what documents we get. We don’t need to rely on biased sources, we can get information straight from the streets.

When we can do that, we can start to see these complexities that exist in ways that I think were really difficult in, say, the 1970s, where a lot of these narratives about the CIA being the secret hand behind everything really built up in the American, specifically authoritarian, left but those built up at a time when there wasn’t necessarily that information. And very specifically, those built up at a time when, as we know now, Soviet disinformation campaigns were a thing. And they were laundering this information through the American left-wing media. And we know this. Actually, a wonderful example of that, if you want to get back to Gladio really quick, is what’s referred to as the Westmoreland Field Manual. The Westmoreland Field Manual is the basis that a lot of people use to connect Project Gladio to the Strategy of Tension. And the term “Strategy of Tension” appears in this document. This document was supposedly a counterinsurgency manual that was signed by General Westmoreland, supposedly, and explained how you carry out false flag attacks and blamed left-wing groups for it. That was published in a Turkish newspaper in 1975. That’s the first time anybody saw it. After the fall of the Soviet Union, we have come to find out that that was a forgery, as were many things that were passed around at that period of time, including documents from the CIA talking about AIDS in Africa. That conspiracy theory started with Soviet disinformation, too. And so when we’re getting into this world in which we’re starting to talk about intelligence agencies, information is key. And hyperbole can be the death of whatever understanding you’re trying to build because you’re starting to move outside of the realm of demonstrability. And losing the patience necessary to dig into that from an information-first perspective.

TFSR: Thank you very much for that and for pointing out the Westmorland document too. There is the confirmation bias thing where when you get information that the CIA was conducting bombings and then blaming it on left-wing groups or claiming to have been left-wing groups or infiltrating left-wing groups, then you see the document, you’re “Aha, see, well, this must be true, because this is embarrassing to the CIA.”

I want to talk a little bit more about some of the other examples of intervention and the complexity that it brings. But also, — maybe this cart before the horse moment — as you said, the information’s there, you can dig into the information, one of the things that I feel is that there is so much information out there. It used to be, I guess, at a certain point, — unless you are a “researcher,” and that doesn’t mean professionally, but what you put your passion and your time into at least — that you would dig into stuff and then interface with other people to “bake out the crumbs” into some picture that makes sense of the world. And that’s the glut of information and the glut of disinformation, that people are pulling from is, that little reference to QAnon. This is what people are trying to do, ostensibly, but they’re missing the mark. And maybe there’s a degree of knowledge for a lot of people that are doing that because it feels like a game because it feels fun because they’re upping the ante with each other. But how do people who are not engaged in that game extricate themselves or recognize when they’re starting to do that and starting to over-complexify issues that maybe Occam’s razor would nix?

Tom: A lot of it comes down to understanding how conspiracy theories are structured. And they’re all structured with a very similar epistemic architecture, if you want to put it that way. Conspiracy theories often start around something that is inexplicable or confusing or difficult to make sense of. Right now, we’re seeing this proliferation of conspiracy theories often because the categories that we used to use to make sense of the world, say, in the 90s, or the early 2000s, don’t really work anymore. Concepts like nation-states, notions like capitalism. Things like this are all getting challenged in ways that make a lot of people really uncomfortable is a very dramatic understatement. They make it really difficult for people to locate themselves in the world. And one of the responses to that is the rise of right-wing nationalism. And one of the responses that arise to conspiracy theories and that’s part of the reason why they’re deeply, deeply tied together.

The question becomes, “Okay, how do we then start to locate ourselves?” One of the things that have happened in the world is that it’s become really obvious that our understandings of the world in the past were tragically simplistic, not just on the level of categorical understanding, but on the level of how we understand how things function, how we understand communities work, how we understand that social dynamics function, or institution success. All of these things have changed as a result of the post-structuralist turn that happened in the 1970s. There’s this open field right now, in which this change of normativity, this collapse of former norms, and the process in which we’re reestablishing notions of sense tend to lead to what is often not a bad thing, but it tends to lead to this notion of self-empowerment. People are now tasked with coming up with their own understanding of the world. And they do this. Now the question becomes how and what is the epistemic structure of what that looks like.

Let’s just jump back quickly to QAnon. If you really pay attention to QAnon people, they don’t consider themselves uninformed. In fact, they consider themselves profoundly well-informed. They do what they call research, which means that they go around on a bunch of blogs that get linked to from Facebook, and they find a bunch of articles that confirm things they already think. And then they cite them. And we look at that, and we go, “That’s ridiculous and absurd and silly.” But then you can read academic papers and academics do a very similar thing a lot of the time. They find sources that agree with what they already want to conclude, and they cite them.

In conspiracy theories, this leads to something really interesting, which is what I refer to as a logical leap of conspiracy theory. Which means that you start off in a realm of observability. We can even take, say, the 2020 election conspiracy theory, just as an example. The observable fact here is Trump lost the election. That’s the observable fact, if you looked at the numbers on the television, Donald Trump lost. Then a lot of those people are combining that with a second observable fact that they’ve talked about this openly on the internet, which is that they didn’t know anybody that didn’t vote for Donald Trump. How could he have lost? Which I’m sure is the way a lot of people in cities felt about 2016. Everyone knew that voted for Clinton, or didn’t vote at all, and I literally don’t know a single Trump supporter, where I live, not a single one. And so, this is that idea that Donald Trump is deeply unpopular, and people feel that the things that he’s doing are potentially going to lead to the downfall of everything that they know and potentially their death, feels really out there for people that live in areas surrounded by Trump supporters.

Now, this observable reality leads to a huge question. And this is always the second step. We can see this with UFO conspiracy theories. People see something they can’t explain that leads to this big question of “what is that?” And then you start to try and answer the question. But when we try to answer the question, we run into what I would argue is a very simple epistemic problem. And this is an epistemic problem that goes back to the very concept that we can know something that we call “truth.” To do that, to engage in that enterprise, where we try and find something that’s true in all possible moments, not only do we have to assume a perspective, which can encompass all of these possible variables, for total information in all possible ways, in all possible moments, but we already have to assume that the universe is logical and explainable and unitary, and that therefore, there already is something true before we know what it is. Now we run into the problem of, once we’ve made that assumption, we don’t know how to find the thing that’s true. Because if we already knew how to find it, we already know what it is. We have this cloudy space. This space of thought, where there is this profoundly important question that you want to answer for yourself, and absolutely no way to begin to do so. And it deepens the sense of being lost.

Now what happens here, and you can see this with people like Alex Jones all the time, they then make the logical leap. In lieu of information, they start to fill in details between a point A and something they posit as a point B. In the election conspiracy theory, point A would be “every single person that this person knows voted for Donald Trump,” and point B is “Donald Trump lost.” What happened in the middle there?

This is where it gets really interesting. And this is where misinformation can insert itself into this discussion. This is where a lot of people’s Boomer parents on Facebook have decided that coronavirus was caused by Italian space satellites or something that. This is the realm in which people like Alex Jones and before him Bill Cooper used to operate in, and it’s this space in which you can concoct relatively elaborate narratives to explain things that then start to build on each other and start to fuse together.

Let’s take global financial cabal theories, for example, the observable fact is that you don’t have any money. And you’re really desperate, and so is everyone around you. And the conclusion is those people have a lot of money and seem to have a lot of power as a result. How do we get there? And in lieu of trying to understand what the International Monetary Fund does or trying to understand what the World Bank does, or trying to understand even what an organization like the Bilderberg Group, which is a real thing, does. People start to make these assumptions: “This is where all the rich people go, rich people have a lot of power. Therefore, they’re making these decisions that are directly controlling, not impacting, but controlling my life.” There’s no discussion about the nuances of this.

And so we see this emerge all the time. We see this with things like Gladio, we see this with even something like the JFK assassination. Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, the period of time that we’re really talking about, and with Gladio into the 70’s and 80’s, we’re really talking about a period of time in which many records that existed are lost, in which many things aren’t digitized, in which stuff that’s not even classified isn’t able to really be found, because it’s shoved in some file box in some government warehouse somewhere. And it creates this lack of information and this big open space for fiction, for stories, to fill in. Now the stories can start to connect to each other. And this is really where it gets dangerous.

This is really where the all-powerful hand of the CIA conspiracy theory really emerges. We see all these things happening in the world. And depending on your politics, you read those in different ways. In my case, I’m reading these all as various acts of the expansion of the US zone of influence, largely for economic gain, sometimes military intervention as a part of the stabilization of financial circumstances, etc. For tankies, they see this as a CIA plot to suppress the truth of Marxism-Leninism or something that. And so from there, if you don’t have information, you can start to really fill these things in and you can say, “Oh, well, there’s this uprising in Hong Kong. And there’s also this thing that’s going on in Russia, and there’s this uprising in Kazakhstan, and there’s this thing happening in Syria, and they all must be connected because the CIA controls everything.” When we hit that point, we’ve left the realm of the actual narrative. We’ve started to jump and apart from a point of assertion and hyperbole. And this is really the operative point of inflection that I want people who pay attention to conspiracy theories to start to identify for themselves. Where’s that point of inflection? Where’s the point in which we leave something that’s observable and start to enter something which is hyperbolic?

Generally, whenever someone says, “There’s a secret government program, but I know about it” and it does this, you already know, you’ve entered the realm of hyperbole for a very basic philosophical reason. If it’s a secret program, how does some random person know about it? And so when we can start to break things down epistemically like this and ask very basic questions, we can start to see where these logical leaps start to get made. And that’s the point in which we all need to step back and we need to leave Chomsky books and start to actually gather as much information from as many places as we can. Because it’s there. If you don’t have the time to do that, well, there are plenty of people that do and those people often write. It does mean at times overcoming something which I think people on the “left” suffer from just as much as the right-wing does at this point, which is an almost allergic reaction to sources that come from good information. Those sources are often what is referred to as mainstream media sources, or academic institutions.

Now, the arguments — and this falls into the realm of conspiracy theory — the reality is, obviously, every journalist has a perspective, they’re humans, they’ve lived experiences, they understand certain things from the mean words, there’s no such thing as neutral journalism as a result. And so everybody is putting forward a perspective. There’s also a reality that the vast majority of those perspectives are relatively what I would consider to be perspectives that fall within the realm of capitalist liberal democracy, not conservative or liberal, but they all reinforce a capitalist line. This is the world that we live in, this is the world we are going to continue to reform and therefore assume the legitimacy of that world. That’s all easily observable. Where it becomes a conspiracy theory is when people say “All the journalists work together, and they’re not covering XYZ story, or they’re covering XYZ story in this very specific way because they’re trying to achieve XYZ thing.” Now with some media outlets like The Post Millennial, which I would barely call media, that is true, The Gateway Pundit, which is just a conspiracy theory rag at this point, that is also very true. But for something like The New York Times, that’s not necessarily the case.

We need to really start to do a couple of things. The first is, we have to actually find information from people that have access to information. Now, sometimes that’s us, and increasingly, what’s happening is that normal users of the internet are far better at putting information out there than traditional media or academic institutions. And so you can rely on sources on the ground, but generally, resisting the attempt to always have an answer or an explanation is really critical here. Things are confusing. The world is a complicated, confusing place, we’re not always going to know what’s happening. And that is okay to say. I think we have this obsession in American political discourse of always being able to know the answer. But that isn’t necessarily, in most cases, the case. And we always have these very partial understandings. Really, it’s this question of patience and time and trust and being able to trust information. Now, sometimes when you can’t trust information from certain sources, the response is to get it from a variety of sources. These are research skills that I think many of us know, but at times are willing to suspend, especially when it starts to lead to a conclusion that we don’t like. And that’s something we have to be incredibly cautious about.

TFSR: I totally agree, I think that we need to be able to say, “I don’t know, I need to think about this or look more into it.” There’s some crossover there with toxic masculinity, which is culture-wide of just “I need to have an answer, I need to control the situation.”

A little bit of a sidebar here. When I was going to college, I was a part of Project Censored at Sonoma State University. I was never in the class, but I participated in some of the judging ceremonies. I got some funding for them to travel. I was at the beginning stages of the radio project, which got shelved for a while, but they sent us to the DNC in LA to cover it. Yeah, it’s fun, that was my first podcast.

One thing that was interesting and that broke me from Project Censored as a project was that— For listeners that aren’t aware they published a book in 1972, we would get a class in the sociology department of Sonoma State University together and they would have the students read through a bunch of different stories and just constantly be reading newspapers and magazines, print media, “legacy media,” as they call it, to pick out stories that that they’re not finding in the mainstream sources, but they were finding in the smaller sources, do some research on them, find out about the authors of them, find out about what moneyed interests are involved in that specific thing that might be critically covered, and then look at connections to mainstream publishing outlets, and those moneyed interests because— As working off of Chomsky’s idea of Manufacturing Consent, and that there’s a concentration of media ownership, and also David Barsamian and other media theorists talking about how, as media is concentrating, as there’s less voices out there, and the voices are also being influenced by the investors that own the newspapers, or whatever publishing house magazine. So, if you are getting funding from General Electric, you’re going to put pressure on your editorial boards maybe to not report stuff about arm sales, or Westinghouse, or any of these companies, since they’re so intertwined. Mapping the corporate networks and saying, “If one of our subsidiary newspapers reports on this thing, that is a giant arms sale to Turkey, or whatever, and Turkey is getting these weapons from Boeing, and Boeing is owned by this company, which also owns our newspaper, maybe have the editors suppress that story, or have it written in a way that’s not going to piss off their funding source.” I think that was an approach towards the idea that journalists may have a bias or there may be bias in the way that a journalist published, which I think makes some sense.

However, as a sidebar to the sidebar, also, the editor when I was working with a Project Censored did his doctoral thesis on Bohemian Grove, which is based in Sonoma County. Then after 9/11 happened, when I was in college and working with the project, they started going Left-Truther. And I was like “Well, maybe I don’t know.” I started reading responses by other people who were a little better-grounded in conspiracy thinking and thinking, “Actually, what you all are doing is a lot of promoting disinformation, you need to stop doing it.” That’s when I started moving away from Project Censored. I don’t know where they’re at right now. But that’s when looking at the biases in the publishing patterns, not necessarily the editorial patterns, not necessarily in the journalist patterns, jumps the shark. But I think that there is some worth in looking at what is the nature of the institution that’s publishing a thing and what biases— As you said, when I read something in The New York Times, I’m not expecting to hear — and I am sometimes surprised — an article about an anti-capitalist alternative to the poverty or a banking crisis that’s occurred in this one place that people are promoting. But it happens,

Tom: Yeah, rather than on a Chomskian level, we have to think about it more of a Foucaultian level. Manufacturing Consent is one of those books — and I feel this way about a lot of Chomsky’s work — that gets so close to heading in the right direction, and then veers into this world that’s very informed by late 60’s, early 70’s radicalism. In reality, we’re looking at structuring of what counts as knowledge, rather than the nuanced management of the individual things that are said.

Again, let’s think about this. And I want to bring forward a mathematical formula, I forget exactly what it is. But someone in the 70’s concocted this, I think, but essentially, what they said is that every single time you multiply the number of people involved in a conspiracy, you exponentially increase the chance that it gets revealed. The example I always use when talking about this is this example that a lot of former FBI people that have been interviewed for 9/11 documentaries I have talked about, but apparently it was 2002, the US government got their hands on the satellite phone number for Osama Bin Laden, meaning they could track his movements, which for the US military is probably a relatively important thing in 2002. And that information was held by an incredibly small group of people. Under a hundred people knew that information. It might be the single most important piece of intelligence data they had at the time. It took less than a day for the media to find out a report on it, less than a day for potentially the single most important intelligence secret that the US had at that point. If we were talking really about a world, which I think a lot of people on the left imagine, where there’s some evil guy in a suit stroking a cat on a black leather chair, calling up journalist going, “You should report this way. Go report this way. Don’t report this.” It’s not just people on the left, people on the right-wing feel this way about the media, too. Not only is that spectacularly work-intensive to the point of being impractical, especially with online media. But it also is one of these structures, which, with almost absolute certainty, people would be talking about on some level or another, especially now on the internet, just mathematically, that would be true.

So what we’re looking at is something a bit more insidious in this case. It’s not even that individual messages are being controlled, or stories are being censored or something that. It is more about the social construction of what counts is important and what counts is valid. Oftentimes — and this has changed in the last 3-4 years, I would say, and around where I’m at, it’s been a little bit longer than that — but in the past, journalists used to say things like “Well, if you don’t give me your name, then I can’t consider this a legitimate source.” Well, why? And I’ve asked journalists why and they’re like “Well, if you’re not willing to put your name to it, then I’m just going to assume that you’re lying,” which is a really silly understanding. But it is really tied to this notion of individuality in a capitalist liberal democratic sense and the exchange of information. And that normativity got carried over into that journalistic norm. We see this with any number of things as far as what’s considered to be “realistic”. How many times have journalists said, “A profound change in society is probably really important, but it’s not realistic. So let’s focus on reform.” That’s not because some editors sitting there going “Well, we’re gonna focus on reformism”. It is that the editor hired reformists because reformists are considered legitimate. These kinds of things, we can read through these that what’s happening here is we’re getting a portrayal of information in a specific way.

And we are able to reinterpret information, we do it all the time. In fact, I would say everyone does it constantly. But as radicals, very obviously we have chosen to do this as something that we do. We have chosen to reinterpret the things we were taught as children, we have chosen to look at the world really critically. And with that, comes a healthy dose of skepticism. And there should always be a healthy dose of skepticism. But there’s a difference between that and what I would argue is the Chomskian Claim and this Chomskian Claim carries through into other forms of inherent mistrust, in which, for example, on January 6, this happened consistently. Now, I’m sitting there watching what’s going on on January 6, and I’m saying, “Okay, well, very obviously, they underestimated how serious people were. Because it’s not they didn’t see the threats online, they were all over the place.” Anyone that was paying attention to literally any anti-fascist Twitter account at any point leading up to January 6, was seeing screenshots from Parlor of people saying things like “They are gonna storm the Capitol.” I’d been talking to people about it for weeks before that, it was really obvious it was happening. There was very clearly a sense in which that risk, that threat was underestimated, that definitely impact coverage patterns in the Capitol complex that day. But then, when it became really clear, that the police were about to get overwhelmed, they fell back and retreated back into what, as someone who’s who studied DC police tactics a lot, is a really normal pattern, which was fall back and cover points of interest, evacuate important people, and then amasse force and move decisively, which is what they did. And they did that at about 5:45 pm. 15 minutes for the curfew went to place. All of that is explainable. You can sit there and you can say, “Okay, we can see data that explains this thing, see data that explains this thing.” And you can follow the data points all the way through that explanation.

Now, what is the narrative that we got from a lot of people? “The police intentionally let people into the Capitol, because someone saw a couple of pictures of some cop shaking people’s hands. So of course, every single cop just gave up and let all these people into the Capitol. That this was part of a conspiracy by the DC police. That it was intentional, that it happened that way. And that the justification for that is that they dealt with protests really differently in the summertime.” Ok, so we can look at all the data that we have from January 6. And we can see individually when decisions were made, how they were made, what the factors were. All of that’s been documented, all that’s been released. People have talked about that. All of the different explanations corroborate each other. There’s one single outlier, which is the Pentagon report from that day. All the other sources corroborate each other. None of those sources talk about how the DC police intentionally tried to help a coup attempt. All of those sources talk about exactly the narrative that I’m talking about from that day. We can see similar things from the J20 protests. During the J20 protests during Trump’s inauguration, I kept hearing from my parents, friends who were reading on Facebook that every single person that got arrested during Trump’s inauguration was a secret white supremacist or an FBI agent trying to make the #Resistance look bad.

TFSR: Fact.

Tom: Fact, absolute fact. Alex Jones was running around the G20 in Pittsburgh yelling about how we were all feds as we were getting tear-gassed by the National Guard. Basically observable things.

We can follow narratives point by point from different data points and concoct an understanding. Where we start to fall off the realm of believability is often when we start to try and impart motives to other people. And this is a really common failure in human discourse, where we sit there and we go, “Okay, this happened. Therefore, the secret motivation of this person that I don’t know, is this other thing.” That is almost always where we run into trouble. That is where we leave observability. We can see these things play out in things like Gladio, we can see these things on the right-wing: January 6 is an FBI op, or it was done by us, or something. For some reason, we all dressed up Trumps supporters or something. Not really quite sure how that theory tracks. But all of this, all of these conspiracy theories start to add up to one thing.

And this is really the important part. They all wrap back around to the conclusion that we started with, and this is the ultimate point to really guard yourselves from, for everyone to be aware of. As the narrative progresses, we’ll see the logical leap occur. And if you’re really attentive, you’ll start to see where that happens. You take UFO conspiracy theories and the difference between early UFO conspiracy theorists and Bill Cooper. For people that don’t know, Bill Cooper wrote a book called Behold a Pale Horse. It’s probably the Penn ultimate contemporary conspiracy book. It’s the reason we have Alex Jones. Bill Cooper is the precursor to that. And he was the first person to start to say, it wasn’t just about the government hiding the fact that UFOs exist. It’s not just that they took the UFO from Roswell and they’re hiding it at area 51. It is that in reality, there’s a secret global cabal that is working with the aliens, and they’re taking this technology, and in exchange for that, they’re giving them human children to experiment with. And he concocts this whole narrative about it. Now, of course, as time goes on, “leakers” start to show up, which corroborate parts of that, retroactively. When they don’t corroborate parts of it, he changes his narrative. And so one of the things that are really unique about conspiracy theories, as opposed to other types of narratives, is the way that they will shift and change sometimes in contradictory ways to maintain their narrative arc.

I was trained in philosophy formally. And one of the things that you learn in that process is that if you have to engage in mental gymnastics, to maintain your conclusion, it’s probably because your conclusion is wrong. If you have to start to concoct alternate explanations, you have to start to leave the realm of observability or believability, if you have to start to posit things as articles of faith, you’ve already drifted away from anything that could be considered to be properly an argument for a conclusion, you’ve started to drift into fantasy.

TFSR: It makes sense at this point to just throw in the term ‘syncretism’. Just see what reaction that gets. That’s what the use of holding multiple contradictory ideas within your head at one time, within your belief structure and being able to still move forward and make a story that unites these things is considered one of the prime elements of fascism, according to certain definitions. This is not to say that everything that’s bad is fascism or that fascism is everything that’s bad or whatever.

Tom: Yeah, I think the thing that becomes really important about conspiracy theories, though, is why? I touched on this a bit, but the “why” is actually really critical for us as radicals to start to understand. Because the “why” indicates something really critical for us. Conspiracy theories arise from situations of uncertainty, necessarily. We saw huge explosions of conspiracy theories around the advent of the printing press, for example. A lot of the wars between Protestants and Catholics happened during that period of tim were being driven by conspiracy theories, were being driven by this idea that “XYZ faction was going to come steal your children and forcibly convert them and blah, blah, blah.” The stories that were told, that carried down in written text in that period of time, sound eerily very similar. They start with these vast changes and these kinds of uncertainties, and then they piggyback off of a sense of threat or disempowerment. It’s not that we have conspiracy theories right now, because everyone in America feels super politically empowered and stuff that. No, it’s that conspiracy theories arise in situations in which people can no longer explain why they feel like their lives are out of control.

We can take a really common example of a really absurd contradiction that arises in the situation. If we talk about white nationalists or white supremacists in general. White supremacy is based on this notion that there is a singular thing called the White Race, which is for some reason superior to everybody. Yet, at the same time, they’re horribly oppressed by everybody else, even though they’re the strongest, most powerful people. It makes no sense. It is an entirely illogical narrative. Yet, it carries forward. We have this notion of confusion, we have this notion of dispossession, which exists. I’m not saying that dispossession is always justified, that feeling of dispossession, but that is part of this, it is a feeling of dispossession. And the lack of information. When we combine those three things together, we get conditions that are absolutely perfect, for lack of a better term for charlatanism. For people who can “fill the gaps in”.

I know a lot of anarchists, most of us don’t do religion for a lot of reasons. And for a lot of us, it has to do with the authoritarianism of the entire concept of religion and the certain notion of this interface of the divine and how that distorts concepts of knowledge. But what is happening here, except that as well? If we take tankies, for example, it no longer is a question of what information they’re getting and repeating. It is purely a question of the source of the information at that point. If the source of the information is Sputnik, then it’s good. If the source of the information is some anarchist blog that disagrees with them, then it’s bad. For Trump supporters, if the source is CNN, then it’s bad. If the source is Fox, it might be okay. If the source is OAN, then you know it is right. What that does, though, is at the tail end of the conspiracy narrative, we go from confusion to threat. The threat really constructs this notion that there is an easy-to-identify singular adversary that’s trying to destroy you, as part of this bigger group. And that then leads to this attachment. Sometimes that attachment is a to the concept of the nation. Sometimes that attachment is to a concept of race. Sometimes it’s to a group of people, like in cults, for example. Or the religious right in the United States, for example. It’s held together entirely by the idea that every single person that is not an evangelical Christian, is some horrible heathen satanist who’s trying to destroy the world. It’s not just that those people disagree with you. It’s that they are conspiring to destroy you.

And this is where conspiracy theories stop being just epistemically damaging and start becoming genocidal. It is when we start to enter this phase in which the threats and the solidarity that threat produces ends up constructing this conflict, in which the only possibility is eliminationism. That’s what we’re seeing with the American right-wing right now. We’re seeing that narrative rising. That’s what we saw in a place like Rwanda, or in a place like Bosnia, it was a similar narrative arising. In Nazi Germany, you had a narrative this arise, in Italy, it was slightly different. But there were still a number of conspiracies that were constructed in order to justify this uniting of a mythological Italian nation, that was the core epicenter of Mussolini’s politics, the building of Italy as a unitary object. And so we run into these situations in which we take something like Gladio. Conspiracy theories about something like Gladio really distort our ability to analyze intelligence operations for what they are. To use a really practical example of that damage, we can take the Snowden leaks. The Snowden leaks were complicated for people that aren’t technical. They were very complicated for people that were technical. I can tell you that for a fact, as a technical person that does computer stuff — the Snowden leaks are complicated. The things that were happening, the things that were talked about, were complicated, but the documents were right there. What we get from those documents is a picture of the National Security Agency, which is trying to build “total information awareness” — being the term that they use, to use the term that General Michael Hayden used to use — and that they were being completely overwhelmed by the amount of data that they were picking up. That there was no way for them to analyze the amount of data that they have. In reality, what they were doing is they were writing all these filtering algorithms to filter the information based on known variables, making it impossible for them to identify unknown variables or to look at patterns that might indicate an anomaly. Because they could only filter based on known things. That’s what we really get from the Snowden leaks. We actually get a picture of the NSA as an institution that aspires to be powerful, but it’s actually really overwhelmed. But that’s not the story we got from Snowden.

TFSR: Literally biting off more than it could chew.

Tom: Right! The story we get though is the NSA is inside your phone, stealing all your contacts and your bank details. And none of us should use technology. The amount of people I know that just cut themselves off from politics as a result of the Snowden leaks is almost immeasurable. People got really freaked out. And a lot of that getting freaked out was the result of not really understanding fully what was happening, being really scared of it, justifiably, and then going online and finding sources that confirmed that fear. As opposed to gathering information, listening to cryptographers that were writing articles at the time, listening to information security people that were writing articles at the time, that were talking about how this wasn’t the sky-is-falling situation, and really, this information is good. Instead of being able to use all of that to build better operational security, what happened for a lot of people is that it became a source of paranoia, as opposed to a source of justifiable and productive fear.

We see this a lot in the 1970’s in left-wing politics, where political positions that people took became really reductionist and simplistic and able to be boiled down into slogans. And as a result of that simplicity, we’re watching the fallout from that today. If we look at organizations that started in the 70’s, that were meant to be these radical groups and have instead become reactionary nonprofits. Or where I live, there’s a neighborhood where all the SDS people move, and they moved there to start the new world in the early 70’s and instead, it’s the most gentrified neighborhood in the city. All of that was a result of the fact that they didn’t develop an analysis, which was complex. Instead, they were willing to fall into and fall back on really simplistic understandings, such as “everything the US government does in foreign policy is the CIA plot,” or “every single thing that the Soviet Union or China or Cuba, depending on what faction you were a part of, did was inherently justifiable and all bad information about that was a CIA plot.” Those narratives still absolutely infest a lot of what we do and have led to a period of time in the last 10 or 15 years where we have really had to build an understanding of what is happening in the world.

Then, when we just leave that realm of imprecision, of course, the other side effect becomes this sense of always engaging with things in a position of extreme vulnerability. Those conspiracy theories are all grouped around an idea that in reality, we’re very powerless in our lives, that when we’re engaging in something when we’re engaging in politics, we’re almost doing that from a point of futility. That this all-powerful group of people, depending on the conspiracy theory, really are the people that are running the show. And they’re able to really control the minds and actions of millions. And so really, any resistance you put forward is this futile effort that you’re only doing to bring forward the truth.

You hear this from Alex Jones people all the time. But you also hear this on left all the time. The anti-war movement was full of people like that who were coming to marches going, “Yeah, I don’t know if anything’s gonna change, but I’m going to sacrifice myself for the Truth.” And they’d have these T-shirts about how whatever thing they thought was right was some absurd thing from some weird right-wing blog that they picked up that was pretending to be anti-war. These understandings can be combated, though. And that is actually a really important task for us, not just when we’re talking about the right-wing. We have to combat that thinking in our own circles as well. And it’s really important to check people on stuff like this because it can do a lot of damage.

TFSR: There’s a fundamental difficulty with the mindset that says if I speak truth to power, I will change power. That misunderstands power and our relationship to it. As someone who participated in the anti-war movement in the 2000’s, I remember hitting that wall of “Okay, cool, there are millions of us in the streets. Oh, it’s happening around the world. Oh, this is great. They can’t possibly— Oh my gosh, they’re bombing. Okay.” They didn’t care. I wonder why.

Tom: Literally four days after the biggest marches ever happened?

TFSR: Yeah. Because literally, when we were in the streets on the day when the bombing was scheduled to start, it just continued. I think that there’s one thing that people— And this is a way that the education that we’ve gotten — not just by the institution that has incorporated and swallowed up movements of resistance into itself and made it a part of its own narrative, but also the way that the remnants of those movements have explained how they succeed and how they want and how they “stopped the war in Vietnam” and whatever else — there is a concession from power based on the righteousness of the cause, as opposed to “No, it’s because they are actually afraid that you are going to hurt them or take them out of power.” The reason that you march and are a crew of people that show up in a place is not because you have righteousness’s numbers, it’s because you can do more damage in those numbers.

I want to touch on a couple of things really quickly. I brought up Gladio and we’ve talked about US intervention internationally to support the far-right, usually and almost always in these instances to stabilize the economy for the extraction or to support some other proxy force that’ll be a bulwark against the spread of Bolshevism, whatever around the world. As you said, there is truth to that thing, but it’s more complex than that. And oftentimes saying that it’s all is CIA takes away the agency of the people that were involved in the complicated reasons for their involvement. But also, I mentioned COINTELPRO earlier, and the US does have a series of examples of domestic intervention by law enforcement and federal intelligence into social movements, in some cases to infiltrate & undermine leftist and social justice organizing, anti-racist organizing, labor organizing, and also in a lot of cases, there has been a lot of infiltration of the far-right that’s occurred in the US, there have been strings of Nazis or militia that have been taken down oftentimes because they were plotting something and it could be provable. Maybe sometimes it was an instance where the government threw the idea out to them and to Cleveland 4 or the NATO 3 case instance, where, in those two instances, anarchists were talked into and propelled. Or the Eric McDavid case where folks were propelled into this position where they say a thing and then it gets used against them. That was used against tons of Muslims in the US, during the whole war-on-terror era. But it’s also been notably used against the far-right in some instances.

And the far-right has also been instrumentalized, such as the second and third KKK might argue the first KKK because it was attached to the southern power structure, which eventually, the federal government ceded back to the white power structure in the South after the Reconstruction failed. But the second and third Clans had FBI involvement and also infiltration and were allowed, in certain instances, to do the things that were wanted to be done. More recently, just on a police level, police in Kenosha dealing friendly with the militia that had come there to counter Black Lives Matter protests, or the Greensboro Massacre, there were cops that knew what was happening and allowed for that motorcade to go and kill all those communist organizers. Or more recently, the Proud Boys leadership, Enrique Tarrio being known to be an FBI informant and somehow getting himself arrested right before J6. On the right, there’s been this claim that Patriot Friont, for instance, is a government op, which I think-

Tom: I really want to encourage people on the right-wing to think that. Please do.

TFSR: I think it is important to note that they are often the dupes of power. Also, for some people, that’s interesting who do— Not seeing that necessarily, they’ll say “Okay, well, how are these people with Blue Lives Matter flags stabbing their flag poles at cops on January 6, or how does Siege or James Mason talk about the system and attacking police and government agents when there’s this shamanistic up-swell for law enforcement, for military, for this masculinist position of force of white supremacy that is the US?” Can you talk just briefly about how those two things can exist simultaneously? And are they existing simultaneously in the same person? Or is it more nuanced?

Tom: Yeah, I think there’s really a number of factors and a number of different factions end up resulting from this that makes sense to break down.

First, there is a distinction to be drawn between a group like the Proud Boys and a group like the Atomwaffen Division. They come from the same roots, if we draw it back to the history of American colonialism, but in a more contemporary sense, they derived from slightly different roots. A group like the Atomwaffen Division does view itself as a revolutionary organization. They’re not necessarily pro-America, they view the American state as degenerate. The precursors to groups that are people James Mason, but also groups the Order, the Aryan Nation falls into this category, the National Alliance. People like Tom Metzker, White Aryan Resistance, those kinds of groups, a lot of the skinhead movement in the 80s and 90s was in this realm, and they didn’t view themselves as good Americans, they viewed themselves as fighters for the White Race. These are the people that showed up at Ruby Ridge, these are white separatists. White separatism is a distinct tendency within the broader White Power movement, where their goal is to start a separate nation, it is not necessarily to exalt or affirm America, it is to leave America. And in the case of William Pearce, to destroy America. The Oklahoma City bombing is a wonderful example of that mentality, where Timothy McVeigh goes and blows up a federal building in the service of the White Race or whatever he was considered himself doing.

Then you have groups the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys come from slightly different roots. And those roots are very similar to the Minutemen who were an anti-communist pro-America militia in the 1960s, their roots come from things like the mass resistance campaigns organized by Southern governors against desegregation, their roots come from groups like the KKK, as opposed to where a lot of their actual cultural norms come from — from the skinhead movement. But their political norms come from this hyperpatriotic tendency within American politics, which views the American states and America as different things. You see some manifestation of that in really extreme versions of Sovereign Citizen Movements, where they have this whole narrative about how in the 1870s, America became a corporation, and no longer was a republic, and there’s only been 12 presidents or something. And they have to return back to the Republic because the Republic was the real America.

There are all of these narratives that exist about a real America. They derive from a common root, which actually is American Founding Documents, and the philosophical foundation for American political thought, which was Aristotelian, largely it’s Greek and Roman, classicalist, neo-classicalist thought. They were proclaiming in the Declaration of Independence, that they have identified these inherent parts of human existence, they call them inalienable rights, and that these are the things which literally typify the totality of what it means to be human and exist in the world, and that America is this utopian manifestation of those ideas. I think that sounds ridiculous to think about today. Especially probably most of the people listening to this show, most of the people that probably have read anything I’ve ever written, probably don’t see America as a shining and glowing utopia city on the hill, and see it as a collapsing wasteland. But that’s not how the people who wrote the Founding Documents thought about things. They thought about this as a very utopian project and there was a certain thread of utopianism that ran through the American Revolution.

It constructs this political ideal, which is not considered— In the Soviet Union, there was this political ideal, but it was something in the future, that in Leninism, they were going to reconstruct humanity, they called it the new man, and use state repression to do that as a way to prepare people for this coming End of History. Or with the Jacobins. There was this idea that they understood virtue. And what they have to do is slowly but surely destroy the unvirtuous in order to enter a virtuous world. Those are projects that had progression. Those are projects that were unfulfilled.The American political project is a project that is thought of as a fulfilled political project. There is no more development to happen. We saw this narrative arise after the Cold War. This is the end of history. We see this narrative pop up in presidential States of the Union, where they talk about America as a “shining city on the hill.” All of those are callbacks to these utopian ideas.

When we see a group of people beating cops with Blue Lives Matter flags in front of the Capitol while chanting “USA” and wearing Trump stuff, what’s happening there is actually a very uniquely American thing. And this is really the power of Trumpism. For Trump supporters, that distinction between the American States and the real America closed completely when Donald Trump was president. I know that that sounds ridiculous. It sounds completely absurd. But that is how Trump supporters talk about it — that for the first time in their eyes, the real America was able to manifest it. Once we start to see that, a lot of other things about what happened in 2020 and early 2021 can fall into place. For example, the Justice Department was calling militias out into the streets. Literally. They were giving this tacit approval for vigilantes to intervene in the uprising. And we’re willing to provide rhetorical cover for that, to the point where Trump was openly advocating for it from the White House. We would think that that would be ridiculous. And on a strategic level, on a level of military strategy, it is ridiculous, it created a lot of problems when these people started showing up. It created a lot more problems than it contained. And in a lot of places in the US, there were cops shaking hands with these guys, a lot of them were also being “Yo, get out of the way.” Because they were creating disruption. But that wasn’t what was at issue. What was at issue was that all of these vigilantes had built up this idea that they were going to go out and defend the real America in the streets from the communists, and then the state called them forward to do so. That moment in which that’s happening becomes really fascinating on the level of statecraft.

To get back to the Carl Schmitt definition of the state, the state is nothing but an entity that can impose sovereignty, or the way he puts it, can make decisions. When he says make decisions, that doesn’t mean a bunch of people sitting in a room going, “Oh, I decided on something”, that means a bunch of people sitting in a room saying they decided on something, but then having the force of arms to force that decision as a condition of possibility of everyday life for others. It inherently constructs this political unity through militaristic police occupation. And that is fundamentally the state. You would say, “Well, if that’s the case, then telling vigilantes to go out into the streets is ridiculous.” Liberals would say, calling the police to go out into the streets is authoritarian. But once we start to understand the state is nothing but logistics to impose sovereignty, those things stop mattering. On the one hand, we have this liberal argument that this is anti-democratic. Well, yeah, it is. And that’s always inherently true. Then when we see these vigilantes coming out into the streets, they see themselves as defending the Real America, and that Real America is this structure of sovereignty.

We have this weird idea in the US, in which political autonomy and law are the same thing. It’s a really strange concept. It’s entirely unique to American political thought, really weird. But people really do attach this notion of the American state, in some form or another, to their idea of freedom. And so they don’t see themselves as vigilantes necessarily, they see themselves as auxiliary police more or less. Their job is to defend the real America from the communists. And sometimes that means attacking the government because the government is acting against the Real America. You saw this narrative under Bill Clinton, you saw it under Obama, you definitely saw it around Joe Biden. Joe Biden’s not an aging, crusty old man, Joe Biden is a secret representative of Chinese communism, in their minds. They’re going out to defend this Real America.

From the perspective of the states, generally, normally, in most circumstances, the state would say, “Hey, you probably shouldn’t do that.” And in most circumstances, has really on some level or another at least created buffer zones between Oath Keeper groups and people trying to show up to oppose Nazis or something that. This happened in Pikeville and a number of other places where they were cops were keeping the Oath Keepers contained. But when the ability of the state to contain crisis breaks down, as we saw in 2020, all of a sudden, all of the political norms that typify that state fall away. And this is a really important part. This is why liberals misunderstand what the state is. Liberals assume that all of these political norms we have in the United States, in which the state limits its own power, somehow function. They never function. But there’s this idea that they somehow do. The Trump administration was a wonderful exercise in watching people come to terms with the fact that just because people had always done something some way doesn’t mean that people have to continue doing things that way. And whenever Trump didn’t have some political norm, he just wouldn’t do it. And it made a lot of them fall apart. But during the uprising, the rest of them also fell apart. And it revealed the State really, for what it was — that they were willing to call vigilantes out to the degree that those vigilantes saw themselves, as in that moment defending the state. Because, again, they saw the State and the Real America as a singular entity at that point. They were defending the State. This was a mentality that really built up after September 11, when people were called forward to “if you see something, say something,” and literally, the government deputized everybody as an intelligence agent, which really constructed this military culture of the civilian defender, the civilian soldier. That’s the idea that we really saw entering into the streets.

If you notice, on January 6, there were not a lot of say, Atomwaffen Division people arrested, you didn’t see a lot of people from The Base get arrested. But you did see a lot of Proud Boys, you did see a lot of Oath Keepers get arrested. And that’s where we can really see where some of those distinctions exist. I don’t say that there weren’t any Atomwaffen people or any people from the Base there, any people from any of the accelerationist groups. They absolutely were, but they definitely were not as numerous as other organizations compared to their size. And you definitely did not see a lot of old, Aryan Nation, Hammerskin types, National Alliance types of January 6, either. Because what was happening on January 6, for a whole faction of the people that were there, was that they were going in to defend America from its enemies that are internal, and that they were getting called forward from a State which had suspended political norms in order to preserve its sovereignty, as all states will do. When the state provides a limitation to itself, it is merely just a facade, it’s a veneer, it can go away at a point in which the further existence of the state is at risk. Those norms can go away. And they did in the United States.

We lived in a post-democratic moment for the entire fall of 2020 into the beginning of 2021. That was not a normal situation in America. And so when vigilantes are getting called out, they’re getting called out as civilian soldiers. When they were attacking the police on January 6, we can hear it in the audio. If you actually watch the bodycam footage that’s been released, you can hear in the audio, people telling cops, “Obey your oath, let us in, drop your batons, join us.” They were very convinced that what the police were doing was against their constitutional duties, and that what they were doing by storming into the Capitol was in support of this Real America, which was embodied in Donald Trump. That really seeds the ground for conspiracy theories to become really damaging. And we’re seeing this now, on the right-wing, they’re starting to talk about secessionism. There’s definitely more of a push into this discussion of military dictatorship, which was something that really started in QAnon, but has generalized outside of that. There are many conservatives in the United States that are perfectly comfortable with authoritarianism at this point. And all of that is the result of this grand conspiracy. And the grand conspiracy is something that was not constructed by Trump, but it was actually constructed by Newt Gingrich, of all people, during the Clinton administration.

We watched a number of things. First, a very clear definition of the real America according to conservatives. We saw this in the form of Ronald Reagan first, but also the religious right, and there was this idea that they were ordained by God to have America function as a Christian nation, we’ve all heard this language, and that everybody else was agents of Satan trying to destroy them. Now we move up through September 11th, when it was all about the secret internal enemy, which at the time was defined through an Islamophobic lens, but it was a secret internal enemy that could be anywhere. Not only was there this enemy that was trying to existentially destroy you, but now they were hidden and secret and everywhere, and it was people’s job to identify who that enemy was, and to tell the government who that enemy was. As time went on, we enter into the anti-war movement, that idea of the internal enemy expanded. Now it wasn’t just Muslims, but there are also anti-war activists who are trying to stop America from fighting terrorism. You move forward into the Obama administration, and that takes on this very specifically racialized component. You start to move up through the Tea Party, you start to move into the beginning of the Trump administration. And you can start to see how this idea of who the enemy is to these vigilante forces changes. It now encompasses every single person that is outside of their very specific social sphere, which is something that is fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

And so now we’re in a situation in which these people who now view themselves as defending the Real America, view everybody else as a deep existential threat. And the only solution to that is to use the power of the state or to use the power of the militia to eliminate those people. During the National Conservatism Conference past year, there was open talk. Josh Hawley specifically gave a speech. Josh Hawley is a senator from Missouri, for people that aren’t aware of who he is. He gave a speech at the National Conservatism Conference where he was saying, “All of these people outside of conservativism are trying to destroy America. And so we need to take power.” And then as he put it, “not be hesitant to use the power of the state to destroy our opponents.” That is open fascism. All of that is built off of this idea of this conspiracy against the real America. And it was that same notion that led many of the people into the Capitol on January 6, including people from QAnon, because QAnon is also entirely grounded in this idea that there’s a real America, and then a satanic cabal of pedophiles that run the world that’s destroying the real America. And that Michael Flynn taking power in a military dictatorship is supposed to fix that or something. That’s really the whole mythology here. We can start to see how a lot of these ideas of existential threat, these notions of social and political reductionism, and these logical leaps can really create these situations, which, like January 6, feel like they’re the result of political distortions, but in reality, are the product of a completely parallel political reality that is built up within this world, in this stew of conspiracy theory that’s been slowly building on the right-wing ever since the end of the Second World War.

TFSR: Well, on that very depressing note… *laughs*

Tom: Always end on a high note! *laughs*

TFSR: I think this is very succinctly put in and then if you throw in the narrative, I didn’t hear the Minutemen and the anti-immigrant push nationwide, thoroughly in 2005-2006. But that brings us to where we are today and the Great Replacement that’s going on.

Tom, thank you so much for breaking down these ideas and having this discussion. Were there any last things you want to touch on?

Tom: Yeah, I think the other thing that conspiracy mindsets breed is internal mistrust and paranoia. As you brought up, and I’ve lived through this plenty of times, but it’s not there haven’t been infiltrators, there absolutely have been, there’s been many of them. Most of them aren’t very good, but they’re there. And so it really leads to this problem that we face internally a lot. Which is, I would say twofold.

The first is, obviously there’s this tendency to be really suspicious of people and convinced that people are Feds often for reasons of social or political disagreement. That very obviously, if they don’t take your position, they must definitely be a Fed. I’ve seen this happen a bunch of times, that’s one side of it.

But the second side of it, it prevents us from actually identifying the behavior we have to care about. It reduces this whole idea of our accountability to each other down to whether or not someone is actually an agent of the state. We have seen a number of times in the last five years — I’m not going to call specific crews out for this — crews of newer people acting in ways which are really reckless: posting pictures of guns on Facebook, talking about other trips down to the recent anti-fascist protests, live-streaming themselves, just really silly, basic OPSEC failures. And stuff that really creates this sense of risk and danger that isn’t really necessary and exposes things that don’t need to be exposed. In situations that, I have often been in conversations with people who are like, “Yeah, but I don’t think they’re Feds” and I always answer that the same way, which is “It doesn’t matter.” The reality is that when people do things that compromise our safety and our ability to trust each other, and our ability to act and put us in danger, those are behaviors that have to be dealt with. It doesn’t matter whether that person’s a fed or not. And so what happens in this discourse where we become obsessed with federal infiltration, is we stop focusing on the stuff we should care about.

Every fed that I’ve ever been in proximity to that’s been infiltrating something acts recklessly, all of them do. It’s the way that they wrap people up in the things that can attract them for. They act recklessly, they often go, “Oh, I’m willing to do this, and everyone that’s not willing to do this is just not as militant as me, and blah, blah, blah.” But guess what? People that aren’t feds do that, too. And it’s just as much of a problem when people that aren’t feds do that, too. And so really, the thing that we have to care about is the behavior. Whether or not that person’s a fed is a secondary question. But we need to be focused on behavior, on acting with people that we trust, and actually being able to know what trust means, which is not “I’ve met this person on Facebook.” Trust means “I know this person, I know things about this person, I would do things with this person, I have done things with this person.” That’s what trust is. We need to really get back down to basics, when it comes to things like this. We need to focus on trust, on behavior, we need to get away from the paranoia.

When we’re researching things that are going on around the world, we need to be focused on information, gathering information, being comfortable in saying that we just don’t know, we’re not always going to know. But what we can’t do is engage in this incredibly anxious type of discourse, where we’re rushing to answers or suspicion all the time. And we’re trying to have these really serious definitive answers to everything constantly. It’s not the way that information works. It’s not the way that our perspective on thinking can work. And it’s not productive for us either in intervening in what’s going on in the world, or being able to build the communities that allow us to do that.

Conspiracy theories are incredibly damaging, even if conspiracies do happen. And this is where the distinction that I always put between fear and paranoia exists. Fear is a good thing. We should be afraid. I do information security, trust me, people should be afraid, there are a lot of things to be worried about. Now, all of those things can be located, they can be identified, there can be discussions about how to mitigate those risks, those things can be undertaken in relatively simple, usually, really straightforward, pretty logical ways. And that is a really productive thing to do. We should be afraid of infiltration, we should be aware that that’s possible, we should be really looking for people acting recklessly. But what we can’t do is we can’t assume that every single thing is either good or bad, right or wrong, trustworthy or not just based on its source. We can’t sit there and say “I read this blog, and I like this blog, therefore the thing they say is right.” We can’t sit there and allow confirmation bias to overcome our analysis. And we can’t sit there and allow paranoia to overcome our sense of care. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve watched suspicion and conspiracies destroy whole communities. And we can’t let that happen. So patience and care and detail and focus are really critical, especially right now when the world is complicated and confusing and full of misinformation.

TFSR: Yeah, I think it’s really well put. And just to tack on to— If there is someone that you have a relationship with that is acting recklessly, it’s good to recognize that activity and to say, “Hey, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Hey, y’all, maybe don’t do with that person saying.” Also, chances are this person is not fed. And that’s a good opportunity to have a conversation, especially if you’re older and you’ve been doing things for a while and you’ve seen people, some of the mistakes that people have made or the mistakes that you’ve made, take this as an opportunity to take someone aside, doesn’t have to be a call out, but, “Here’s why I think that what you’re saying is a bad idea. Here’s why I think that the approach of bullying people and saying ‘if you are not willing to do it this way, then you are there for a sellout or something that or not revolutionary enough or whatever.’” I think that it’s a good opportunity for those conversations to happen. And it also models good behavior in our communities where if we trust someone and if we’re invested in someone enough, they can be talked to and challenged on their ideas. That’s a road towards building trust. And it challenges us to step up and be able to communicate our ideas and back them up, too.

Tom: Yeah, this is hard stuff. If this was easy stuff, you would solve all these problems already. And nobody knows the answers right now. And so we have to treat what we’re doing not as a religion with an answer, which, unfortunately, I think, too many anarchists approach what we’re doing in that way. But instead, we need to approach what we’re doing as a journey, as something that we’re trying to discover, as a world that exists, but that we’re trying to really understand and manifest the possibilities of. If we knew the answers to all these things, if there were answers to all these things, those possibilities, that world of autonomy wouldn’t exist, everything would just be dictated by those simplistic truths.

And so not only is that not a narrative that’s productive, but it’s not a narrative we should even hope for. We should really be focused on this idea that what we are doing is fighting and creating space for new things to emerge and really explore what those new things are, while we’re exploring the world that we find ourselves in. Because to be perfectly honest— This is a Neil deGrasse Tyson thing of all people, I forget the way he puts it, but I think he says it along the lines that “the only thing that we know is that we don’t know anything.” And we don’t know anything, we have no actual knowledge of anything. Everything that we’re thinking is just our best speculation. And so the speculations have to be collaborative, we have to learn from each other. We have to get past this idea that we can know everything. And so that level of care and patience is really critical. And I really just want to encourage people out there to read, to not jump to conclusions, to really have good reasons as to why they think about things, and to not obsess about having to have a position on everything.

For example, it doesn’t particularly matter what a number of people here feel about US military intervention in Myanmar. We can be completely against it, but that doesn’t mean they won’t do it anyways. And so if we don’t really understand what’s happening in a place, it is okay to not have a well-formed opinion about it, because we couldn’t possibly at this point.

We need to really reduce the scale of what we assume we’re capable of as people. We can do really amazing things, but only within what we can touch and see. We’re not transcendent beings who can see everything and so we should stop trying to pretend we are.

TFSR: I think that Neil deGrasse Tyson maybe got that from Operation Ivy. “All I know is that I don’t know nothing…”

Tom: Absolutely.

TFSR: Tom, is there a place that people can find any work that you’re working on right now any writings, anything that, or just the links that I am going to provide in the show notes based on what I said earlier, your prior books and such?

Tom: Just links in the show notes? I mean, I’m on kolektiva.social on Mastodon, if people want to find me, I maintain a blog every once in a great while called Into the Abyss, which you can find a link to on my Mastodon page. I just write and post places. So, if you come across stuff and you think it’s interesting, then, by all means, have at it.

TFSR: Cool. Well, thanks a lot for the conversation and all the work that you do. I appreciate you.

Tom: Yeah, appreciate you, too. Thanks for having me!

The Battle for Abortion and Reproductive Autonomy with Bay Ostrach

The Battle for Abortion and Reproductive Autonomy with Bay Ostrach

A pregnant person in blue with a red womb, held up by red tinted small people, red tinted flowers growing behid them (by Marne Grahlman)
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This week on the show, we sat down with Bayla Ostrach, an activist, anarchist, longtime defender, provider of and researcher around issues of reproductive healthcare. We speak about experiences researching and working on the issue in Catalunya, the battle for abortion and reproductive autonomy in the so-called US, the challenges faced by independent clinics against the business model of clinic chains like Planned Parenthood, legal and material pressure and attacks by anti-abortion extremists as well as the cultural and political struggle to defend and expand the ability for people to get safe, affordable, full spectrum and stigma-free abortion and reproductive care more broadly.

Illustration by Marne Grahlman

** Content warning, because we are discussing a stigmatized series of medical procedures adjacent to sexual, social and political violence, listeners should be advised and we’ll put warnings in a few places during the episode. If you are hearing the radio version and want to hear a longer version of this show, and to listen at your own pace, check out our full podcast at our website, to be followed in about a week by a transcript for easy reading & a zine for printing. **

A list of people, works, and resources mentioned by our guest:

Good sites:

Citations for two shared documents co/authored by Bay:

Another document we can’t easily share:

  • Singer, E., (Elyse Ona), and Bayla Ostrach. “The End of Feminist Abortion Counseling? Examining Threats to Women’s Health.” In Transcending Borders, 255–70. Palgrave-MacMillan (Springer imprint), 2017. http://link.springer.com/.

Announcements

Anti-Abortion & Fascist Over in DC

Fascism must be opposed, Reproductive Autonomy must be defeneded and there are many ways to do this. As the interview mentions, the neo-fascist masculinist dance troupe known as Patriot Front (or the Blue & Khaki Man Group) joined the anti-abortion “March For Life” in Chicago on January 8th and were heckled from within the march and surrounding Chicagoans. According to leaked audio, they may appear in Washington DC at the “March For Life” on January 22nd. A little info is available at PatriotFrontMarchForLife.NoBlogs.Org or by checking out sites for local anti-racist, anti-fascist & pro-choice and feminist groups in the DC area.

Sean Swain Support

So far as we know, Sean still isn’t out of the woods on an inter-state transfer despite the hearing board recommending him not be transferred out of state. 2 years ago he was transferred to Virginia with no hearing or warning and lots a bunch of his property in the shuffle. Now he’s back in Ohio and wants to stay near his spouse, his lawyer and many supporters. You can contact Interstate Compact Coordinator Earlena Shepherd at earlena.shepherd@odrc.state.oh.us or

Earlena Shepherd
Interstate Compact Coordinator
ODRC
4545 Fisher Road, Suite D
Columbus, OH 43228

More contacts at SeanSwain.Org

Supporting TFSR

If you appreciate the work that we do at the final straw, there’re a few ways to support us. The following links are all https…:

You can rate, review & subscribe to us on your favorite streaming source like spotify, youtube, google, audbile, stitcher, apple or our podcast feed. You can follow us and share our content on social media. You can also reach out to us with feedback or interview ideas. More at https://TFSR.WTF/links

We’re now over a year into transcribing each weekly episode, which you can find alongside select older shows at https://TFSR.WTF/zines for easier reading if that’s your spead. You can print out zines and mail them to prisoners you support or distro or share them where you are. If you translate an interview, let us know and we’ll promote it.

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thanks!

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Featured Tracks:

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Transcription

William – TFSR: To begin, would you just say your name, if desired, your pronouns and any affiliations you have, either politically or socially?

Bayla Ostrach: Sure. Thank you so much for having me. The name that I write under and do research under is Bayla Ostrach. In activist spaces, most people know me as Bay and my pronouns are they/them. And affiliations… I was thinking about this when I saw your email. These days, my affiliations are pretty hyper local. So I think for the purposes of the show, I’ll just leave it at that.

William – TFSR: Cool, so we’re here to talk about the overarching topic of abortion and abortion access. And I know you’ve written a bunch about this. How did you come to be doing the work you’re doing around this topic?

Bayla: Right. I had written up some notes about the work that I have done in abortion care and abortion research. But the way you framed that… I had to think back of how I actually ended up working in my first clinic, and I was trying to remember. I started working in abortion care in 1999. I think it was because a friend that I had grown up with was working at the clinic, it was a feminist clinic. Way back then there was a whole network of what were explicitly called “feminist women’s health centers.” It did unfortunately have the name women in it at the time, we weren’t as aware of language around gender in those days, but it had been founded by something called the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers. And there were a bunch of these clinics. There’s only one left, it’s in Atlanta. But this was in Eugene, Oregon, and a friend was working there and they needed somebody bilingual. And she called me up and she said “Hey, do you want to come work at this clinic with me? We need somebody bilingual.” I think I didn’t think very much about what the work would be, I just was in a job that I didn’t love and I thought, sure that sounds great. And I went to the interview, and they asked me a lot of questions about what I thought about abortion. To be honest, I hadn’t thought very much about it. I was a feminist, I considered myself pro-choice and I just hadn’t thought that much about it. And I started working in an abortion clinic. Then the rest is history.

I’ve worked directly in abortion care starting in 1999. And since then, I’ve worked in – I was doing this math – I’ve worked in seven clinics in two states in two countries. That first clinic that I worked at very abruptly closed in 2002. Pretty much we were not even told that it was going to close. We just came to work one day and the clinic was shut down. And so those of us who worked at the clinic started a fund and hotline, and that still exists. It’s now called the Northwest Access Fund. And then I went on to work at another clinic and nine years into working in abortion care and funding advocacy, I was recruited to start doing research as an applied medical anthropologist. And so since then, I’ve been doing that research., mostly about how migrant and low income pregnant people access abortion through state funded systems in the US and in Catalunya. And I was doing that as my primary research focus until I moved to North Carolina in 2017. I’m still analyzing some of the data that I’d already collected in Catalunya. And I’m also developing a book based on interviews that I did with people that worked at feminist and independent clinics from the 80s, up until 2012, about experiences that they’ve had with anti abortion violence.

Bursts – TFSR: Cool. We totally would like to ask a little bit more about some of those experiences and definitions of terms like “independent and feminist clinics”. I had sort of a big overarching question to begin with, though. So the US white supremacist settler colonial state has a history of on the one hand denying people of marginalized communities reproductive autonomy through forced sterilization, lack of access to resources, forced separation of families and youth. And, on the other hand, by being able to use the state to withhold access to birth control. To the degree your experience allows, can you talk about abortion and birth control access currently, how it’s weaponized either rhetorically or materially around marginalization in this context?

Bayla: Yeah, this is a really important question. I’m glad you asked it. And I will speak to how I think about this. I can’t talk about it very much in terms of my own work other than specific pieces that have touched on it, but I want to lift up the work of other people who do this work and are thinking and talking about it in ways that should guide all of our work on it. And specifically, what I want to mention is what you’re talking about and how we should all think about it, which is Reproductive Justice. The framework that was founded by Loretta Ross and is being championed by Loretta Ross and a lot of other women of color. An organization that I hope people are aware of it’s based in the south and it continually works on this topic: Sister Song. They do this work and they challenge other social justice movements to expand their work to include Reproductive Justice.

I imagine that y’all have talked about it and I think your listeners probably have heard of this. But I think these days, a lot of other important terms, “Reproductive Justice” and “Intersectionality” kind of get thrown in without people necessarily having thought through all the things that it means. So if you’ll indulge me, I wanted to give a definition of Reproductive Justice, because I think that starts to answer a lot of different pieces of what you brought up.

So there’s the general definition from Loretta Ross and from Sister Song. But I found a kind of a longer explanation from the Illinois Caucus of Adolescent Health website that I can share with you all to post up in the show notes. But I really liked how they spelled more of it out, and I think it speaks to what you’re asking. And so Reproductive Justice broadly, is a framework to address how race, gender, class, ability, nationality, and sexuality intersect. But this website also defines it as “a movement guided by the belief that real choice and control over ourselves in our bodies is achieved when we have the power and resources to make our own decisions. RJ seeks to build space in which individuals have access to the rights and resources they need to create the families they want. Furthermore, recognizes that the fight for reproductive freedom is linked to the struggles for immigrant, worker, and queer rights, economic and environmental justice, an end to violence against women and girls, and access to health care and education that affirms our identities and our bodies.” And the three basic tenets include: the right to have children, and to decide how many and under what conditions you could birth”; ”The right to not have children”; “And the right to parent one’s own children in safe and healthy environments.” And again, that was from the Illinois Caucus of Adolescent Health.

I think that’s directly linked to abortion access and access to safe and effective contraception. Because for any of us that are physically biologically capable of getting pregnant, until we’re assured of universal housing, universal health care, universal basic income, freedom from state surveillance, etc, I could go on and on… there are always going to be people that because of structurally produced poverty, because of state sanctioned disproportionately racist violence, then it’s enacted by agencies like Department of Social Services, Child Protective Services, there are always going to be people that would like to parent but know that they’re at increased risk of having their children taken away. And just generally not being able to parent the way that they wish to. So as long as there are people that would like to parent now, or at some point in the future, but know that there are all of these forms of state violence, that are going to make it so they can’t parent the way that they want to or can’t parent safely, there has to be the option of safe, effective and accessible contraception, and the option of safe high quality abortion, whether it’s legal or not. And I would add to that, not just safe high quality abortion, but safe high quality abortion especially beyond the first trimester, that has to exist. AND for anyone that just doesn’t want to parent. So it can be that you don’t want to parent now it can be that you don’t want to parent at all, and that’s fundamental to Reproductive Justice.

I was thinking about this, it and it reminded me of a thing that has come up over and over in my research in Catalunya has been pregnant people that will say the same thing over and over. And this is the context of the global recession. I was doing my research there initially, after what’s being called the global recession there people kept calling it “la crisis” – the crisis – the economic crisis. And people would say to me, while they were seeking a publicly funded abortion, often people already had one child would almost verbatim over and over many different people would say, “I’d rather have one child and care for it well then have two that suffer.” And I was hearing that through five years of data collection, in a setting that has one of the better social safety nets that we could even imagine. Theses are folks that have universal health care, right? There’s national health care. There’s a national health care system, that’s part of what I was studying. This is a place where free public education starts at age three. So people aren’t having to pay for preschool, they’re not having to pay for kindergarten, there’s much more subsidies for childcare, there’s much more subsidies for housing. It’s a much better situation, arguably, in which to parent and yet people were still saying that they didn’t feel that they could economically afford to have another child.

I mentioned that it’s a different situation than the US but I think I was hearing so much from people about economic reasons why they didn’t feel that they could parent or parent another child. And so whether it’s abortion, whether it’s contraception, whatever it might be, if people are in a situation where because of the circumstances of the state, it is not safe or appropriate, or you just don’t want to parent there has to be a way to avoid doing that. Either before you’re pregnant or once you’re pregnant.

William – TFSR: Thank you so much for that answer to that question. I think that there’s so much there. And obviously this has been a topic of discussion for a long time in anarchist and Reproductive Justice communities.

One thing that comes up immediately to mind, at least for a lot of folks when thinking about abortion access is the issue of clinics. But sometimes I find for lots of folks, the thinking begins and ends with Planned Parenthood and clinic protests. Would you talk about why clinics are important as a public space of encounter and symbolic presentation of the audacious sharing of reproductive autonomy?

Bayla: Thank you for asking that. Absolutely. And I put together some stats on independent clinics. Because you’re right, so often for liberals, and for antis, right? Planned Parenthood, it’s like Kleenex, right? It’s the name brand. An important corollary to that, I will say, one of the clinics that I worked at the longest, one of my favorite clinics that I ever worked at, we referred to Planned Parenthood as Walmart. It’s the Walmart of reproductive health care. Most people that I work with in the United States that do abortion work, that’s how we talk about Planned Parenthood. It’s everywhere. It’s the thing that people know. You can go there. You can get reproductive health care there. It is going to be low quality. You’re not going to get good care. It’s a business, it’s a corporate chain. That’s what Planned Parenthood is. It’s the corporate chain of reproductive health care.

Similar to Walmart workers are not necessarily treated well. They’re not necessarily trained well, you’re not going to get the highest quality product. And much like Walmart, it tends to put the local small business independent clinics out of business. And so this is kind of like a two part answer. This is tricky, right? Because abortion clinics are absolutely important, because without abortion clinics we don’t have access to safe high quality abortion, especially beyond the first trimester. But not all clinics are created equal. Not all clinics are the same. They need to be protected, they need to be defended. Because if we don’t have clinics, we don’t have abortion, it’s that simple. If all we have is Planned Parenthood, we don’t have access to safe, high quality abortion beyond the first trimester, because that’s not what Planned Parenthood is.

And clinics, I think people aren’t aware of them. They don’t know that they’re there, so they don’t know to protect them. Because there’s been so much anti abortion violence. There’s been so such a threat against clinics. That it’s sort of the M.O. of clinics to fly under the radar. We don’t tend to have big banners outside that say “get your abortion here.” That’s not super safe. And so from the perspective of protecting clinic, staff, providers, and patients, an independent clinic is likely to be pretty nondescript. It’s not likely to have really obvious signage. Whereas a more corporate clinic might have more obvious branding and more obvious signage. And so the clinics that have a bigger budget, the corporate chain clinics, the clinics that have a bigger overhead and admin, they can afford to be a little bit more visible. Then that’s what people are going to know and be aware of.

So people are less likely to be aware of the feminist clinics, which is probably why they’re not around anymore. They’re less likely to be aware of an independent clinic. They’re not as many of them anymore, they’ve been closing down. But any opportunity I can take to make people aware of independent clinics… 60% of clinics in the United States that offer care beyond the first trimester are independent clinics. Independent clinics provide care to three out of five patients who have an abortion in the United States. To 79% of all clinics that provide care at or after 22 weeks of gestation are independents. And 100% of clinics that provide care after 26 weeks are independents. That being said 113 independent clinics closed between 2016 and 2021. And 34 independents were forced to close just in the past two years. 74% of those provided care after the first trimester.

So on the one hand, the majority of care and especially the majority of later care is being provided by independent clinics. But that’s also the clinics that are being forced to close down and that’s what we’re losing. So we are losing access to this incredibly important, independent, high quality care. That is also sort of the only option for care after the first trimester. When people think of Planned Parenthood, they’re thinking of the thing that is sort of most visible, but is actually not where the majority of care and especially where later care is being provided.

What Planned Parenthood primarily does is offer something called medication abortion or what I refer to as “pharmacologic abortion.” So what Planned Parenthood primarily does – 51% of their clinics only offer pharmacologic abortion. What we know, there’s research there’s published research on this, so this is not just anecdotal. There is published research that very often medication abortion is offered without adequate counseling, without adequate informed consent, without people really being told what to expect, without being told that it has higher complication rates. So the promotion of medication abortion in the United States has actually been part and parcel of losing access to later abortion care and losing access to high quality – what gets called “surgical,” but I prefer to call “instrumental” abortion care – which is the aspiration procedure that’s very quick. It’s in clinic. You walk into the clinic pregnant, you walk out of the clinic and you’re not pregnant anymore. Which is not the case with medication abortion. With medication abortion, you take two medications that induces a miscarriage, and that can go on with bleeding and cramping and other side effects, often for several weeks. And so these days, when people think of Planned Parenthood, they’re thinking of something that while visible, is actually not offering the majority of high quality safe abortion care, and especially is not where you’re going to get later care.

William – TFSR: Thank you for that framing. I was really influenced by having talks with you about Planned Parenthood and all of these distinctions between the different kinds of clinics that are out there. And I think that often in the anarchist imaginary, the response to the inaccessibility of clinics and sort of the corporate nature of Planned Parenthood itself is to employ at home or independent treatments. In your opinion, how can folks approach this topic? And how do you approach this topic? And how does it fit into the wider topic of clinic access?

Bayla: So, I want to acknowledge first of all, this is a tricky topic. And so I want to be very clear that as a feminist, as an abortion provider, as an anarchist, I absolutely support anyone listening to do whatever is best for them and their body. And I’m not here to tell anybody what to do. So if there’s somebody out there listening, who has done an at home abortion, has had a medication abortion… whatever you’ve done is great. I am super happy for anybody to do whatever is best for them in their body. And I’m not at all here to tell anybody that their experience wasn’t what it was. I have handed people the medications to do a medication abortion, I’ve been a provider for a medication abortion. I have been present for 1000s of instrumental abortions. I have assisted with all these different kinds of abortions. So what I’m speaking from is research. I’m also speaking from my experience as a provider. And I am speaking from talking with many people who’ve had both kinds of procedures. My focus in what I’m about to say, is about access for everyone. So thinking not just about one individual person making a decision, but about resources available to everyone.

The concern that I have about at home abortion, and in particular, when it gets framed as “self-managed abortion” is that if people begin to see that as a solution, whether it’s a solution to legal restrictions, which I know we’re going to talk about. Whatever it is that we see that as the solution to, in many ways that contributes to the problem that Planned Parenthood has already created, which is pressure on independent, full spectrum clinics that are providing later procedures. The pressure on them to close and the numbers of clinics that are closing. The more that we start to see medication abortion, which is what at home or “self-managed abortion” is the more that we start to see being by yourself taking pills, inducing a miscarriage, letting that pregnancy pass on your own. The more that we start to see that as the only option, then we are not fighting to keep clinics open. And this is the fear that I have.

There are still independent clinics. We still have independent clinics. There are clinics out there that are providing abortion all the way from as soon as you find out you’re pregnant, four weeks from your last mensuration, all the way up to whatever is considered the legal limit, which right now is 24 weeks and beyond. When I was talking before about clinics that provide care after 26 weeks, there are circumstances where you can get an abortion after 24 weeks, depending on different medical situations, depending on fetal death. There are situations where you can get a later procedure and you have to have somewhere to go to do that. And the more that people order pills off the internet, get a friend to get pills across the border somewhere. The more that we have that phenomenon going on and people see that as the answer. That is going to be the answer for some people. There are circumstances where that is a great option.

An example I cited when we talked before in situations of intimate partner violence, if it absolutely has to look like a miscarriage, I think that is one of the situations where I have counseled people and encourage them to consider medication abortion. If it needs to look like a miscarriage. There’s a lot of places in the world where there truly is no legal instrumental abortion available. There’s just not a clinic to go to. And so being able to get those folks pills is going to be a great option. I’ve talked to people who’ve had an instrumental abortion and they’ve had a home birth and they really know what the experience is like of going through a birth or miscarriage at home and they are 100% down to do that. I think there are situations where it’s fine. What I worry about is folks that have never been counseled on what it is actually going to be like, how long it’s going to take, the 5% chance that you’re going to have to have an instrumental abortion again afterward, because you have retained products of conception that you haven’t completely passed, the possibility that you’ll still be pregnant afterward…

I’ve had patients where they did a medication abortion at four or five weeks gestation. And then I see them at the clinic when they’re 17 or 18 weeks pregnant, because it didn’t work, and they didn’t realize it. And then they’re having a second trimester abortion, also. And so in particular, I worry about people who are having a medication abortion, because they have had medical trauma, which is a real thing. I’ve had a lot of people who when they come in for medication abortion, they say that the reason they want a medication abortion is because they want to avoid a pelvic exam, which is 100% real. I totally understand why people would not want to have a pelvic exam. But I really worry about the people that have a medication abortion, because they didn’t want to have a pelvic exam and then if that medication abortion doesn’t work, then they’ve gone through that entire process, and still are going to end up having to go through with an instrumental procedure, because you definitely can’t carry the term after a medication abortion.

So there’s all these things. And I know I’m saying a lot of things here. So let me try to back up and make a more coherent statement: My fear is that if we start to see at home “self managed abortion” as the solution, a couple of things will happen. It’ll be another reason that full spectrum clinics that provide later care won’t be able to stay open, because if a lot of people that otherwise might have gone to an independent clinic and are instead getting pills off the internet, and having an at home miscarriage… it’s a weird thing for me to say as an anarchist, but that’s losing business for clinics that we really, really need. We need independent clinics for the folks that can’t take pills and have a miscarriage at home. For somebody that isn’t just four or five weeks pregnant, for somebody that is beyond the first trimester. And that’s not an option for them.

So a little bit of this is thinking about everybody else and thinking if there’s an independent clinics that you can drive to, there’s an abortion fund available that you can call and they’ll pay for your procedure, they’ll help you get money for gas. If you can get to an independent clinic, and you can go there that is going to keep that clinic open for everyone else, for the person that’s further along, the person that can’t get those pills and take them at home because it’s not going to work.

I also just feel like there’s a lot of people who don’t know what it’s going to be like. I think there’s a little bit of language around it right now where it gets romanticize as this empowering thing that you can have this abortion by yourself on your own. I would love for people to also think about how empowering it can be to be in an independent clinic, where there’s somebody there with you, letting you know that, “this is what’s happening, do you want it to be this way or this way?” And you’re getting to make a lot of decisions about what that looks like. And also, there’s somebody there telling you “hey, that’s completely normal. This is okay, that amount of bleeding is normal. This is what you can expect to happen next.” As opposed to being at home where you may not know what to expect. You may not know how much bleeding is normal, you may not know how to recognize if there’s a complication. And so I think there’s this little bit of, I would say, even sort of neoliberal framing of saying self managed and the idea that Why is it only empowering if it’s something that you do by yourself?

Bursts – TFSR: Yeah, I think that’s really well put and I really appreciate the framing of using the term neoliberalism in there and how just how alienating that can be. And for you giving space to say that people should be able to access this how they want to. but as you say, if the infrastructure isn’t there to access, if somebody does want the counseling, does want the support and the in-person interaction, then we need to support that infrastructure existing.

Because you’ve brought up the terms “feminist clinic” and “independent clinic,” can you talk about the distinction between these, and why it’s an important line to draw? And also, just because I like really complicated questions… What’s the relevance of these models to keeping workers a part of the discourse of their safety in their work environment? How do these shape the clinic’s operations? And can you talk about the importance of leaving space for patients to decide what type of specific procedure or be supported coming out of the clinic environment with the decision to actually not get an abortion if that’s what’s right for them?

Bayla: Absolutely. And I feel incredibly privileged and lucky. I think my timing was just lucky that I happen to have gotten to work in both feminist and independent clinics. I want to be clear, too. Not all Planned Parenthood’s are the same. I think there actually happens to be a really good Planned Parenthood affiliate in Asheville. We’re lucky that way. And I think that’s because there have been now two clinic managers in a row there that have been really committed to having that clinic be different than other Planned Parenthood’s. And they’ve really invested in a lot of time and staff training and thinking a lot about how to run a truly patient-centered clinic. How to not have it be so focused on the business model. So, I also want to say Planned Parenthood as a corporation is what I have a problem with, not necessarily a specific individual, Planned Parenthood clinic or particular staff. And so also, if there’s people out there who’ve had a good experience out of Planned Parenthood, I’m so glad for you. I’m really glad for you. And if you have been to Planned Parenthood, where you feel like the staff treated you well, and you’ve had a good experience, and it was high quality care, let people know. Spread the word! Same thing, if you’ve been to an independent abortion clinic, and it wasn’t good, complain. Contact the management, also let your friends know about that.

So just because there are these kind of generalizations and terms that overall, in my experience as a researcher and working in clinics that broadly, I believe better care is provided at independent clinics and broadly, I believe that Planned Parenthood’s business practices are terrible and that broadly, I believe that Planned Parenthood as a corporation, is reducing the quality of reproductive health care… That doesn’t mean that someone individually hasn’t had a good experience, right? What these terms mean to me…

Feminist clinics: that was a very explicit movement. It was a very specific, intentional movement that started in the late 70s, through something that is sometimes referred to as the self health movement. HEALTH not self help, but self health. And there’s an excellent book about this by Sandra Morgan, it’s called Into Our Own Hands. And again, gendered language, it was called the women’s self help movement. But you know, folks weren’t thinking as much as they should have been about it. I will also say the first place that I ever learned anything about gender-affirming care, or transgender health, or really the first place I ever heard anything about trans anything was in a feminist clinic. Some of the first places I ever heard about, like, queer-affirming health care was at a feminist clinic. The feminist clinic that I worked at in the late 90s, there was something called the lesbian friendly provider list that was literally a Word doc with a list of providers that somebody could call us and be like “hey, I want to go to a provider that’s not going to be super homophobic. Who should I go to?” Then we would pull out this list and say “are you looking for primary care? What kind of care are you looking for?” And we vetted these providers to make sure they weren’t going to be homophobic.

So, feminist clinics came out of this movement in the 70s, where folks got really tired of not being believed about their bodies and not being trusted about their bodies. And having mostly cis men physicians, tell them that they were wrong or that they were crazy. And so a bunch of folks across the United States, there’s a few kind of like, well known names (Carol Downer was one of the founders of this movement) got together, and we’re like “we’re going to start our own clinics.” And they brought in physicians, and they basically treated the physicians as hired techs. So it was mostly women running their own clinics and being lay health workers. They called themselves lay health workers, they didn’t necessarily have any medical certifications, but they kind of learned everything they could about how bodies work. And they decided what were the things they needed physicians for and what were the things they didn’t need physicians for. And when they needed a physician, they told the physician “we’re in charge, you do what we tell you to. You are not the boss.” And they would bring in the the physicians as hired techs, really.

And so to me a major distinction of the feminist clinic is that it’s a different power relationship. It’s a different hierarchy. The physician doesn’t run the show, and the patient is in charge. I mean, I think that’s really what’s very different. And it feels different in a feminist clinic. The patient is always given a lot of options, the patient is told, sometimes, in too much detail, everything that’s going to happen and asked a lot of questions about it. I mean, that is one thing that looking back, what I’ve interviewed a bunch of my former co-workers who worked at feminist clinics in independent clinics, and one of the things that people have said, looking back is “Wow, we took up so much of people’s time. We assumed that everybody wanted to know everything about everything. And maybe one of the choices we could have given people is “do you want to know absolutely everything about everything? Or like how much information do you want.”” Because often would take hours to do just a pretty like basic appointment.

I think one of the tenants of the feminist clinic is that it might be what we now gets referred to as patient-centered, that now is a basic expectation in healthcare, but back then was pretty unusual. There didn’t used to be a lot of explaining of medications or procedures or what was going to happen. And so I think in the 70’s and 80’s, and even into the 90’s, to have a healthcare provider talk to a patient and say “This is what we think is going on. Here are the options for treatments. We could do this, we could do this, we could do this, here are the side effects, what would you prefer?” That was not typical. So that was feminist clinics, and there were many of them across the United States. And there was a whole Federation of them.

And another thing about the the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers, they didn’t just provide care, they also did a lot of advocacy. So they taught things like cervical self-exam. There was a slideshow that used to travel all over the United States showing people pictures of a whole bunch of different cervixes. The biggest diversity of people you can imagine to just kind of normalize different bodies and normalize people seeing their own cervix. I think it’s become very stereotypical thing in a lot of TV shows and movies about cervical self-exam, but that’s where it came from. And it also taught people a lot of alternatives to hormonal contraception. It taught people about kind of learning their own cycles, and alternatives to, especially for people of color that felt like there had been a lot of coercive sterilization, and coercive contraception, and perhaps were very leery of mainstream contraception, what were some alternative contraceptive practices that didn’t rely on hormones. A lot of that came out of feminist clinics. And I think of independent clinics in some ways as being kind of the offshoot of that. When the feminist clinic business model didn’t survive the 90’s, and largely didn’t survive because of the anti abortion violence. Because the costs of securing clinics against bombing and arson and attacks and killings of doctors, when it became so expensive to do everything that needed to be done to keep clinics safe, and feminist clinics kind of couldn’t stay open, many independent clinics were started by doctors who had been trained in feminist clinics.

So, independent clinic just means… it’s what it sounds like, it’s not a chain, or it’s a small number of clinics, maybe owned by the same person. But independent clinics more often tend to be either physician run, or managed by a smaller group of people. But it’s not. It’s not like Planned Parenthood, it’s not corporate. When is it independent and when is it a chain? Like, if you own more than a certain number of clinics are you still independent? But I guess partly I know it when I see it. I don’t know if that’s fair to say.

There’s something called the Abortion Care Network, which is the National Association of Independent Clinics. So I’m sure they have specific criteria by which they define independent, but I tend to think of independent clinics as there’s still a large degree of informed consent, patient decision making. It’s more about the quality of the care and not as much about the revenue that’s generated. It’s much more about the care that’s provided. That it’s full-spectrum, that includes second trimester. Often independent clinics also offer other care. Often independent clinics have gender-affirming care, often have other reproductive health services, some independent clinics also do prenatal care and sometimes they’ll also have like birthing services available.

Bursts – TFSR: Yeah, that’s all super helpful information. And I’m glad that you brought up the term informed-consent. That feels like a total game changer between some of the different models and how healthcare was administered to people, as opposed to the shift that people pushed really hard for the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s, for actually having a say in how medicine was practiced on their bodies.

So the area that we live in is really interesting, interesting is pretty terrible, in some ways. We may have pretty good administration of the local Planned Parenthood at the moment. But also in the 90’s this was an area that had Eric Rudolph, who bombed the Olympics in Atlanta, also had been conducting violence against clinics throughout this part of Appalachia, before finally being caught by authorities. That’s a story that can be told all across America, the violence that occurs by right-wing extremists against clinics, and as you said, against clinic doctors and employees, and just intimidating people on the way in. Not to say that there is not a difference between someone who actually engages the violence versus someone who intimidates but I think that’s a spectrum. Can you talk a little bit about what clinic defense to your understanding looks like right now either around here around the US and how it’s changed its appearance?

Bayla: Yeah. Thank you for that. And I have this very strong memory of…. If people know what a fax machine looks like, the faxes that would come in from the National Abortion Federation that were our security alerts of the clinic. I remember the fax that came through with the picture of Rudolph reminding us probably daily that he hadn’t been caught yet. That picture is very clear in my mind, letting us know that he was still on the loose. So it was very interesting to me when I moved here and realized how close I was to where he had been caught. And just these moments of my life that connected. I remember standing there in the clinic reception area, getting the faxes off the fax machine, looking for somebody’s insurance verification form being like oop… “there’s Rudolph again, he’s still on the loose.” Yeah, if that tells you anything about what it’s like to work in a clinic, you’re just kind of going about your daily patient care, and then also getting these constant reminders that there’s somebody out there that would try to kill you.

And that’s part of what motivated the project that I was speaking about before where I’ve been interviewing people that worked in feminist and independent clinics over a 30 year period about anti-abortion violence. And really the question I’ve been asking people is, “how do we do this? What is it like to go to work every day? How do you make sense of it?” That was really my question. “How did you, how did we make sense of this kind of constant threat of violence and harassment? And how did we keep doing this work? What was it that allowed us to continue doing this work, knowing that there were this constant waves of violence, constant threats, and knowing that there was always this potential for violence directed at us because of this work that we do?” And so that’s what I was really interested in. Because I sort of knew how I was doing it. But I didn’t know if that was the same for my co workers. And so this is a really interesting question. I think. Is it different? Has it changed? Or does it just kind of come in waves and sometimes it dies down sometimes spikes again. I don’t know that a lot does change. I think it’s just sometimes we pay more or less attention to it.

What I tend to think is that we pay less attention to the anti-abortion violence, when there’s more legislative attacks in the news. And then when there’s not as much of a legislative focus, then maybe there’s more energy to pay attention to the anti-abortion violence, I think there’s a lot more attention when there is an actual, you know, act of violence. And then we kind of get lulled into a false sense of security, when there hasn’t been a clinic attack for a little while. But I don’t I don’t know that actually has changed a lot. It’s been a little while since I’ve updated it, but I sort of have this timeline, going back to the 80’s of kind of some of the major attacks, and where, and when, and who. And it feels more like it’s just kind of this ongoing pattern that rises and falls and rises and falls.

One interesting thing, that it makes sense when you think about it, is that anti-abortion violence, the targets clinics, the waves tend to follow Democratic and Republican presidential administrations, so they tend to increase under a Democratic presidential administration in decrease under a Republican administration. The one exception to that is that anti abortion violence didn’t actually decline under Trump, which is not surprising. And so in terms of how we defend clinics, a lot of what happened, as I alluded to before, is that in the 80’s, and 90’fss, clinics had to spend a lot of money responding to these attacks. So you would hear of another clinic that was attacked in a particular way, it would make you realize a gap that you had in your security. So, an example that a lot of people mentioned to me in interviews was, there was a particular attack that made a lot of clinics realize that they didn’t have bulletproof glass around the reception area. And I think this was the attack in Boston where receptionist was killed. So that’s when a bunch of clinics were like “Oh shit, we have to have bulletproof glass on the reception area.” And so it was this very reactive thing. Okay, this thing happens, and someone is hurt in this way. And a bunch of other clinics realize “oh, well, we need to be prepared for that thing that we hadn’t thought about.” And so it was sort of this constant whack-a-mole.

Well, every time you’re having to spend a bunch of money on cameras, or fencing, or bulletproof glass or a buzzer system, or you decide that you need to have one of your staff people specifically checking IDs, that is suddenly resources that are being devoted to that piece of the work, to that kind of addressing staff and patient safety, that is money that you might otherwise have been spending on going out into the community and doing sexual and reproductive health education in a particular community that hadn’t had access to that that might have been money that you’d have been spending on having a fund to subsidize procedures for survivors of assault. It might have been money that you had been providing transportation grants for patients that were coming from further away. It might have been money that you had been paying your employees more or you might have been able to pay your employees more so you might have had less turnover. So you might have had staff that were less burnt out and more resilient. It might have been money that you could offer services other than just abortion, you might have been able to add gender-affirming care, right? So I think it’s kind of this calculus, especially for feminist clinics, where there was a point for some clinics where they’re like “We just can’t do this anymore. Like we’re having to think so much and spend so much money on security, that we’re not able to continue operating in the way that we want to and provide the care that we want to provide.”

And that was something that I heard a lot from people who’d been there kind of towards the end of a lot of feminist clinics was, it just felt unsustainable. Because we never knew what was going to be the next thing that would happen that would either be a direct attack on our clinic, or that would happen to someone else that meant we would have to then think about how we would prevent that happening to us. And we weren’t getting to provide care that we wanted. And I think this is also another way that for independent clinics, they never know where the next attack is going to come from, is it going to be anti-abortion violence? Is it going to be a legislative restriction? Is it going to be Planned Parenthood moving in down the street and starting to offer medication abortion, and then that full spectrum independent clinic can’t stay open. And so kind of never knowing what the next thing is going to be is another form of stress. Then at the same time, you have protesters outside harassing your patients, and so then every patient that walks in the door, you have to spend the first 10 minutes of their appointment deprogramming all the things that the protester just told them is going to happen to them in that appointment.

So what I’m saying altogether, is I don’t think clinic defense is necessarily different. I think every clinic having to figure out what are they dealing with in that exact moment, and it’s a lot of reaction, and that just becomes very exhausting. It can become very expensive, it’s very time consuming. What clinic’s defense might look like, wherever a person is at any given moment, it can vary in the moment, but I think the constant is that it just is incredibly time consuming and exhausting for clinic staff. It’s very hard to plan for. I know part of how we started talking about doing this interview is there has been an undercurrent locally of very, very well intended, radical folks wanting to support the local clinic when there had been an escalation in protest activity. And there was some talk of people wanting to show up and counter protest and I was chiming in saying “please don’t do that. That is actually very stressful for clinic staff. It often escalates things. That is what you don’t want to do”, because then that’s another unknown. That’s another “oh no, now we have to figure out what this is.”

In terms of clinics, events, the things that we know actually are helpful is something that is a very organized, coordinated escorting effort. In places where I’ve seen this work really well, it’s often a group that’s “Medical Students for Choice” in a place where there’s a medical school. It’s like a formal national organization called Medical Students for Choice. And one of the primary things that they do is advocate for medical school training and abortion practices. Then they’ll also go and escort at local clinics. They’ll organize medical students to escort. I’ve seen other places where there’s an organization approach was clergy. I kind of doubt we would get that here, but you never know. If people really are wanting to do something about anti-abortion protesters harassing a local clinic, the first thing to do would be to contact the clinic where you notice protesters and ask clinic leadership what they would like in terms of support, ask them if they are interested in having escorts, ask them if there’s any kind of existing organization that is coordinating that. Think about whether there’s an existing local organization that you could work with, but definitely don’t just show up because then you’re kind of one more unanticipated entity, one more wildcard that the clinic is having to figure out “who are you,” otherwise, it can just kind of escalate things. I can think of plenty of other things that people can do that might be helpful.

One of the hardest things, every clinic I’ve ever worked at as a staff person, is figuring out where to park. You don’t want to park at the clinic, because then the protesters are gonna see your license plates, they’re gonna see you coming and going every day. If they get your license plate, they can get your home address. So we were constantly trying to figure out somewhere nearby that we could park and walk to the clinic that was a short enough distance that we weren’t leaving ourselves vulnerable for a long time walking back and forth, but where our car was kind of out of sight. So honestly, if you live near a clinic that’s getting a lot of protests activity, if you’ve got a spot where clinic workers could park next to your house, in your driveway, somewhere that’s less visible to the protesters but near the clinic, that would be something to offer the clinic. And then beyond that, one simple thing that people can absolutely do, if they’re in an economic situation to do it is to donate to abortion funds. Because you have to assume that any independent clinic near you is having to put a lot of money into security. And that means they aren’t able to discount procedures for people that absolutely need to come for care but can’t afford it. So the more that you can support abortion funds that can offset some of the money that clinics are having to spend on security.

William – TFSR: Thank you so much for going into how people can support or engaged this issue. We did have a question that was a follow up to what you were talking about about clinic defense but I think that you answered that question really well and we’ll post those suggestions in the show notes too.

Is there anything to say about… well maybe not… when you were talking me and Bursts we’re going back and forth in notes to each other about how reproductive issues are being hyper focused on by the burgeoning modern fascist formations. It’s easy to inflate how much influence those formations have, but they do tend to dovetail somewhat with the religious far-right. And also there was that Patriot Front leaked audio that they were going to show up at the anti abortion march in Chicago yesterday and next week in DC. And also there was recently a fire at a clinic in Knoxville that I don’t know if they ruled as arson, but do you have anything to say about how the focus on anti-choice, forced-birthers or whatever, how that is changing right now given current political context? And it’s okay if not.

Bayla: No, I appreciate that. Thank you. Yeah. I’m glad that you mentioned Knoxville, because I’d meant to bring that up. And I forgot that. I think it has been determined that it was. I don’t know if it’s been determined arson, but I think it was determined that it was not accidental. It seems like it was it was a fire that was set. And that is a clinic that’s been a target of a lot of harassment for years. I was trying to think back. I know there was some point in the past few years, around the same time that there had also been a lot of harassment here locally at Firestorm… I’m losing track of years because of COVID. But it feels like it was maybe late 2019, or that summer that there had been a lot of Proud Boys that were showing up in Asheville, and there seemed to be some link between some of the Proud Boys and then some other militia groups. Some specific Christian militia group that had been seen in both Asheville and Knoxville. And there was some thought that that had been part of who had been harassing that same clinic previously.

So, I do think there’s something to this. But there’s also a long history of this, right? Like a very, very, very long history. Like if we want to go way back. Part of the Third Reich was they had awards that were given to Aryan women that had more than a certain number of children. There was a specific emphasis and monetary award for German women who had more than a certain number of children, I forget how many. But this is in the same era, as the very sort of earliest days of the Holocaust was this rewarding the right kind of childbearing. And then if we go back, not as far, some of the largest, most violent anti-abortion organizations in the 90s were things like “the Army of God,” where people were showing up at huge anti abortion protests with all of their children and people with many, many, many children would put all of their very young kids in the very front lines of these anti-abortion protests, and have small children standing in front of law enforcement vehicles and stuff.

Again, we can talk all day long about how we feel about law enforcement being involved in clinic defense, which is a thing I have complicated feelings about. But you know, this is not a new thing for the sort of… I don’t even know what you call them, but the kind of Christian fundamentalist pro birth people to be anti abortion, and to have that kind of link up with the scary, violent militia element. I don’t have a really well articulated analysis of where the ideology lines up, other than it meets in some pretty obvious misogynistic, white supremacist, not wanting to be outnumbered, wanting the right kind of people to have more babies sort of rhetoric.

We can think of things like the Quiverfull movement. There’s a very far right Christian fundamentalists who think that it is a sin to have an opportunity for pregnancy that does not result in pregnancy. So I’m sure there’s something there. I don’t know of it specifically, but it would not surprise me if there’s some links being made.

Bursts – TFSR: Yeah, and I think that group that you were thinking about in the Knoxville area is the Legion of St. Ambrose, which is a Romanian Orthodox influenced far-right group that kind of splintered off of the Traditionalist Workers Party that was based in eastern Tennessee for a bit. And yeah, this is generationally, even from back in the 70’s or 80’s, when David Lane of the white nationalist terrorist group The Order coined those “14 words.” It’s about territory. And it’s about… I’m not gonna repeat them… But it’s about gaining territory, that the sovereignty is in the hands, specifically of white folks, and reproducing, more and more white folks. A thing that’s been getting more traction throughout the global far-right has been this idea of the great replacement. Which is a French New Right idea that’s been influencing all sorts of groups from Atomwaffen and The Base and League of the South. It’s all across there.

Yeah. Anyway, reproductive feature-ism. It’s all freaky, I don’t know…

Bayla: And it fits in really well with all the very anti immigrant stuff, too. I always think about what are the parallels in Catalunya and in Europe, generally. And this is Vox’s whole thing, right? This is another conversation I would love to have another day is how the terms Fascist and Neofascist are very relative, depending on where you are, because people try to refer to Vox as Neofascist, and I’m like “no, they’re just Fascists.” I don’t know why you bother with Neo in front of that. But Vox is this extremely far right party in Spain that’s been gaining in popularity. They’re incredibly anti-immigrant. People that are at Vox rallies will be doing the full on Fascist salute. They’re wandering around in Falangist outfits and have the old Falangist flag. There’s some wild stuff there. They’re very into Franco, and they hang out with the old school pro-Franco folks. And they’re super anti immigrant, and also very anti-abortion. They’ve been trying to get the law that liberalized abortion access overturned. And they’re working closely with the traditional far right party to do that. Nothing ever stays within borders. We often think that these trends are specific only to one country, or to one continent, or whatever, and really should probably be paying more attention to trends globally.

Bursts – TFSR: Thank you for that on-the-spot question.

So, the last 50 years has seen the growing of a strange amalgam of the religious far right, which we’ve been speaking about, in particular in the so-called US formulating of a culture war against a gambit of other issues including: sexuality, bodily autonomy and gender parity. That right wing movement has heaved huge amounts of money and political power to stymie access to reproductive choice through local state and federal law, to reverse Roe v. Wade, or disentangle access to abortion or birth control, even from international humanitarian aid that the US provides. Can you talk about the impact of things like clinics zonings law, heartbeat bills, trigger laws, and the stacking of the Supreme Court. All these like legal issues that feel well beyond the scope of in some ways, a direct action approach towards things? How might an anarchist approach to these issues look?

Bayla: That’s such a hard question. I’m struggling with this. Because when y’all first reached out about this, it was in the midst of some of the Supreme Court stuff that was going on. And I was like “I don’t want to talk about the legal stuff.” Because this is hard for me, right? So much of my work has been about access in places where there aren’t legal restrictions. I’ve been doing research in two settings where there were basically no legal restrictions and where abortion was paid for in a public health system or the equivalent thereof.

I did research in Oregon, where Oregon is one of… I’m not going to get the number right now, but at the time it was one of 36 states where the state Medicaid program covered abortion. And there were no legal restrictions. There was no waiting period, there was no counseling, there’s no nothing. If you could get to a clinic, you could get an abortion. And in Catalunya, the law had just been liberalized. So, it was much more accessible, it was legal under many more circumstances. And it had just been included in the public health system. I was doing research into different settings where it was as easy as it should be, as it could be and yet, I still documented a lot of obstacles and people having to wait long periods of time and make a bunch of different visits to social services offices to get the paperwork that would get that public funding.

And so, it’s very hard for me sometimes. A lot of the conversation around abortion is about legal restrictions. And then I stepped back and I think there’s a lot of times where legal kind of doesn’t matter. Legal doesn’t matter if it’s not accessible. Then also, sometimes access doesn’t matter if it’s going to take a long time, right? Especially if you’re somewhere where the legal restriction is about how far along you are. As an anarchist, it’s funny to me to spend time thinking about legal restrictions, when it’s so much about the practicality and I don’t know what the answer is practically, if it isn’t “self managed at home abortion.” Because what I want to do is say “we’ll just open our own clinics.” Because I know that clinics are what we need. I know that what we need is a place where people can get full spectrum abortion, including in the second trimester. I know we can’t give up clinics, and I don’t know what it looks like to have our own clinics, and to maintain high quality full spectrum abortion outside of a legal framework, and without the state interfering. This is a constant point of confusion for me. So, I don’t have like a clear or good answer.

I do know that everywhere I’ve ever worked with people in an abortion setting. We’ve talked a lot about wanting to open our own clinic. That’s an ongoing conversation that I have with people all the time, “How are we gonna open our own clinic? If Roe falls, how do we open our own clinic? What does that look like?” And I don’t know the answer. I think it is important for people to keep in mind that if the Supreme Court decision goes the way that people are afraid it will and the way it looks like it will there still going to be 24 states that will protect abortion rights, at least for now at the state level. And then it’ll be even more important, then, to protect abortion rights in those states and not let them be further undermined, either legally or practically. Then it’ll be even more important to keep those clinics open in whatever way that looks like. By defending those clinics physically. By not letting them go out of business by having a whole bunch of Planned Parenthood’s offering medication abortion down the street. But I think we’ve lost a lot of ground by focusing just on legal rights for so long. I don’t know what the answer to that is. Because it’s really hard in this country, when most of us have not had an experience of being somewhere that has a different political system to imagine what that would look like. Right?

William – TFSR: Yeah, indeed. I think that’s such an important perspective, though. Hyper focusing on legality… I think you don’t really have to look very far to see legal structures which don’t really serve anyone, because you can’t put them into practice, because it just materially doesn’t work that way often.

I did want to talk about this sort of cultural shift that’s been happening, or that we’ve located within the last little while, and I do want to give a **content warning**, I’m going to be just mentioning the unfortunate realities of rape and incest in this in this question.

Would you speak on the shift, which has occurred from sort of the goal being so called Free and Legal access 100% of the time, to quote, access only after certain processes, such as counseling, or after certain circumstances, such as rape or incest? What is happening here? And what does it mean in the context of access and how we as a culture are thinking about abortion?

Bayla: Thank you. Yeah, that’s super important. What is happening here? I think part of what’s happening here is, again, having lost a lot of ground by focusing on the kind of chipping away at access. It feels like there’s been this very gradual giving up ground by buying into a hope that “well, if we let them get this, then we can keep this.” So the calculus of “well the waiting period is maybe the necessary evil to still be able to have abortion be legal, maybe this counseling thing is the necessary evil” and sort of not seeing the encroachment that is happening over time. I don’t want to second guess, in any given state, in any given legislative fight, in each of these moments, I am sure that people were fighting really hard to not have to let that happen and that at the end of the day in whatever backroom, whatever lobbying was happening, whatever calculating the likely votes, that in that moment, it felt like that was what had to happen and the alternative was that there would be no legal abortion at all. And that’s really hard to say. I wasn’t there. It’s really hard for me to make that call of “Would it be better to have legal abortion with all of these contingencies and all these hoops? Or to have stood ground and been willing to give up legal abortion and then figure out what we do without it being legal and the thing we keep putting off.”

But I think you’re absolutely right, that we’ve now backed ourselves into a corner like there’s so many places where there’s so many hoops to jump through. And there’s so much that has to be done. That it’s effectively as though were not legal because it’s not accessible. And so it kind of doesn’t matter. These things that people have to go through. And I think that that’s done a larger thing, which is to reinforce so much abortion stigma that now people who are getting an abortion, believe that they’re doing something that’s wrong. There’s so much internalized abortion stigma. Abortion stigma has become so culturally normalized. Because the way that it’s talked about in the media, the way that it’s covered in the news, so much of what happens, makes it appear as though you have to be having the right kind of abortion, for one. So there’s this sense that the only persons that are okay, are the ones that meet all these criteria. There’s the idea that you have to tell the right kind of story to get an abortion. And I think in particular, some of what happens is that when people have to go through this mandated counseling, that almost always consists of completely inaccurate, biased information. When people are forced to see an ultrasound, obviously, that is reinforcing all kinds of ideas about “fetal personhood.” What someone then has to go through to get that abortion by the time they’re actually getting that abortion, rather than it reinforcing an idea of autonomy or empowerment, it is many times probably just reinforcing a lot of internalized stigma.

And so I wonder, if we now have a generation or a couple generations of people who were able to get an abortion. Most people in the United States that are able to get pregnant will have at least one abortion in their lifetime. That has been true since at least the 70’s. For as long as we’ve been keeping abortion statistics. Every clinic that performs abortions, has to report abortion statistics every year. And so we know at least since 1973, that everyone in the United States who’s able to get pregnant has at least one abortion in their lifetime. And half of those people have more than one. Those numbers have not changed. Those numbers are really not changing.

What I think probably is changing is how people feel about that experience. I want to be clear, I’m like not quoting research right now. I’m going completely off the cuff. And I don’t want to say that people regret their abortion, there’s very clear research on that. The primary feeling that people feel after an abortion, 99% of the time is relief. The small percentage of people that feel anything other than relief, it’s largely because they were either dealing with a ton of harassment from a partner or family member or protesters. So most the time when people feel something other than relief, it’s because they were not supported in their decision. But I do wonder if the experience of what people have to go through to get the abortion changes what that experience is like. Where we may have had a generation soon after Roe, where it felt more empowering, where it felt like “Oh, I’m able to do this thing. Now it’s legal. Now it’s a choice.” Which is also problematic, I’m saying choice in quotes. If it’s something I can do now, and I have the ability to do it, and I wonder now if you’re somebody that’s having to go to the clinic three different times, you’re having to go through mandatory counseling, you’re having to look at the ultrasound, you’re having to be told all these things that are not true.

I have not worked in a clinic where I’ve had to put someone through that, because I’ve only worked in settings where there aren’t all those restrictions. But I know what it’s like to sit with someone do informed consent for them to have the opportunity to make a lot of decisions for them to tell me what they want certain things to be like, to be able to tell them what’s going to happen. And to see the look on someone’s face when the experience is not as bad as they thought it was going to be. When they assume that it’s going to be awful and then they say to me at the moment they’re leaving “Wow, that was way better than I thought it was going to be. I actually feel pretty good about this.” And then I’m imagining what it would be like to have to put someone through all of these things that happen in a lot of states. And I wouldn’t want to have to put a patient through that. And I can’t imagine that it makes it a very positive experience.

So I do think we’ve given up a lot of ground. And again, like the last question, I don’t know what the answer to that is. And it feels like that’s something that isn’t just coming from the right it feels like some of that is the responsibility of a liberal, left giving up ground and and bear with me because I’m thinking this through out loud. It feels a little bit like gay marriage. It feels a little bit like taking what we can get that’s like the lowest common denominator, instead of actually fighting for what everybody needs and deserves. We still have legal abortion, but for who? And who actually is able to access it? And who benefits from it? People were so excited about gay marriage, but who did it primarily benefit? White gay cis men. There’s a lot of people for whom that doesn’t do as much good. I think there’s some interesting economic parallels of like, who do you have to be to be able to jump through all those hoops and actually benefit from legal abortion in the state that still has a ton of restrictions?

Bursts – TFSR: Yeah, and maybe to unpack just a tiny bit. I know critiques about the push for gay marriage, such as the publishing project Against Equality was making was that a lot of people are making the argument that “look if we have gay marriage, we can have access to visitation rights for people that we care about. We can have easier access to children that we are co parenting that are not maybe our biological own, but our partner’s, or access to a means for citizenship, or better being able to share money and pass on money after we pass, or to make medical decisions about the person we care about.” And yeah, gay marriage doesn’t answer those things or share health care access that somebody has in their job, that the HMOs offer to spouses. Sure that works if you are someone who has a job that gives you access to health care that can be shared with your family members. But for everyone else, that doesn’t help with immigration issues, it doesn’t help with access to health care, and these other things. Is that right, what you’re pointing to?

Bayla: Yeah, and I think actually that helps me draw a clearer conclusion than I even had before, which is great. So gay marriage does that, why can’t everyone have that without gay marriage? That shouldn’t be something that is reliant on marriage. Why can’t everyone have those things? And I think that’s part of what I’m thinking too about abortion is if the only way that someone can get an abortion is by going through all of these hoops. Is that really the kind of abortion that we want to have be legal? And I’m not saying that I would prefer illegal abortion. Let me be very clear. I’m not saying I’d rather that it not be legal so that we have to figure out what to do, because I still don’t have an answer to that. But I think it is really troubling. If we keep giving up more and more ground, and we keep… Again, this is not a perfect parallel, but if the only way that you can decide who visits you in the hospital is by being married, is that what we want? And if the only way someone can get an abortion is by having to jump through all of these hoops of waiting periods, and mandatory counseling, a mandatory ultrasound, I should say mandatory viewing of ultrasound. So that’s another way that that’s twisted as though we don’t do an ultrasound otherwise. But we’re sort of allowing there to be an idea that you can only have something in a certain way rather than demanding that everyone have access to it, no matter what.

Bursts – TFSR: And also, just to add in, I really appreciate the fact when you can say “I don’t have an answer to this.” Because you’re doing so much to enrich my personal knowledge on this, and you’re making really interesting arguments and bringing up really interesting things that I think is super fruitful. So I just want to say on record that not having the answer is a great thing to be able to say. It’s complex.

One thing that we were talking about the impacts that shame has on people and the experience that they have out of getting an abortion and maybe if they have feels about it afterwards and and having to jump through the hoops. There’s a concept, I think it’s called “syndemics” that talks about the actual biological effects in addition to or in connection to the psychological impacts of having to go through stressful situations, such as jumping through a bunch of hoops, being overly scrutinized, having to face people going through the door of a clinic, pelting you with stuff or yelling terrible things at you or whatever. Can you talk a bit about the sort of biological outcome of the social state that people who want to get an abortion, what they’re put through?

Bayla: Yeah, this might take a minute because it is part of a larger theoretical framework that was developed by my doctoral advisor and mentor, and continuing co author and friend, and then I extended upon it with another colleague. So I all kind of want to back up and like define the framework and then talk more about it. And for folks listening, this is also probably going to be the most sort of researchy part of this. So if you’re not into explanations of biological interactions caused by structural conditions you can can fast forward. But what you’re referring to is some work that I shared with y’all on abortion stigma syndemics. So syndemics, broadly, is a theoretical framework developed by Merrill Singer, who’s a critical medical anthropologist. And he’s founded several theoretical frameworks going back to the 80’s that are explicitly Marxist. He was well known for developing theoretical approaches within medical anthropology that explicitly examine power relationships within healthcare, and that affect health through power inequality. So within that, he developed a concept in the late 80’s, or early 90’s, called syndemics, which is it’s a blend of the words “synergy” and “epidemic.” He framed this to give us a way to look at times when multiple diseases or biological conditions interact in a way that makes both worse. And that that is caused by a structural or social condition.

And generally, those occur in circumstances of inequality, as you can imagine. There have been hundreds that have been identified. This is now a huge body of work in anthropology and public health and other fields. It’s complex and it’s not always done accurately. I would say that there’s a lot of things out there that are referred to as syndemics that actually don’t meet the definition. There’s some examples on the CDC website, because they’re so good at everything lately… But this particular syndemic, I’ve worked with him quite a bit in this area. And this particular one is one that I identified with my colleague, Roula AbiSamra, who’s in Atlanta, and actually does excellent work with an abortion fund there. I’ll make sure to share the website with y’all.

Roula and I both worked in abortion clinics for a long time. And she also worked with the National Abortion Federation for a while. And so she and I were talking a lot over the years, it’s been decades now, about abortion stigma and some of the effects that it has that we had noticed. Then we started talking about why some people do or don’t come back for follow up care. Many clinics will encourage everyone to come back for a follow up appointment, or people can come back for a follow up appointment if they’re concerned that they have any complications or anything that’s not resolving. This, to me, is one of the hallmarks of a feminist or independent clinic is telling people here are all the things you can expect “this is what would be a normal amount of bleeding or cramping after a procedure. If it lasts longer than this amount of time, or if it’s more than this amount, if we would like you to call us. This is when it would probably be a good idea to come back…” And then essentially trusting the person to know their body enough to know whether or not they feel like they want or need to come back.

So one of the things that Roula and I talked a lot about was like what seems to determine when somebody is pretty clearly having a complication that is outside the range of what we have indicated would be typical, and when they do or don’t come back. And it was very clear to us that stigma had a lot to do with that. So for example, somebody who had not gotten a lot of support, or had actively been being pressured by a partner or friends or family beforehand, somebody had not wanted them to have the abortion, we were noticing a trend in our clinics and with our patients that if somebody hadn’t gotten enough support for their decision in the first place, it seemed like they were less likely to come back for follow up if they were having complications. And then some other things that we would notice is if there were a lot of protesters and someone had had to walk by a ton of protesters the first time they came in… are you gonna want to go through that again to come back for follow up? Maybe, maybe not.

And the way that that fits into a syndemic, what we started thinking through is: for something to be a syndemic, there has to be at least two biological factors that are interacting in some way. And that has to be occurring because of a larger structural condition. And so where we propose this as an abortion stigmas syndemic is that I was working with Merrill Singer and another colleague. Cher Lerman and I, we were putting together a collection of chapters about different stigma caused syndemics, basically different disease interactions that were caused by stigma as the structural condition. And so I went to Roula and I said, “Hey, do you want to dig deeper into this? Let’s think about what are some ways that there are biological interactions that are caused by abortion stigma?”

And the first thing we had to reckon with was: is pregnancy itself a disease? It’s not, right? Feminist scholars have fought for a long time to de-pathologize pregnancy and to say that pregnancy in and of itself is not a disease. And so we had to first kind of like revise the definition of syndemics a little bit and say “it doesn’t just have to be a disease it can be a biological condition.” So we can talk about how pregnancy as a biological condition, interacts with possible abortion complications. Which also want to say from the get go are very rare. Abortion when performed in a safe setting, when it’s high quality care is extremely safe. Complications are very rare. But when they do occur, the types of complications that are most common are: an infection which is easily treated with antibiotics. or continue bleeding. Typical and I should probably have done a content warning for talking about abortion complications and bleeding. So if you’re squeamish, this is maybe also not for you.

But pretty typically after a high quality, safe abortion, it would be pretty typical to have some cramping and bleeding. Cramping for a couple days, and typically bleeding similar to a menstrual cycle for a week or two weeks, depending on how far along you were. But more than that would be not very typical. And that, again, is speaking about instrumental abortion. Medication abortion is a totally different story. People tend to have much more cramping and bleeding for a pretty long time and it’s much harder to give people an idea of what’s normal, because it varies a lot. But I’m talking specifically about instrumental abortion.

So we started talking about what are the specific interactions between pregnancy and any of these complications that we think are caused by abortion stigma. And what we started realizing is that there’s something specific that happens to pregnancy because of abortion stigma that the pregnancy itself becomes pathologized. That’s kind of the first piece of this. In the context of abortion stigma, even the pregnancy itself is pathologized. That unplanned or ill timed or unintended pregnancy itself, from the get go is already pathologized. So somebody who might otherwise go to the emergency room for care, for example, or go to their regular doctor for care. Often, people who’ve had an abortion, don’t ever tell their primary care doctor that they had an abortion. They’re not going to seek care in regular circumstances. They’re not going to go the places they would normally go for care, because there’s such pervasive abortion stigma in our culture and in society, that they don’t want anyone to know that they had an abortion. And so if someone is having abortion complications, if they’re in that very rare category, where they have continued bleeding, or they have an infection, or something is going on., they’re much less likely to seek care in the usual venues. So in that way, that complication might get worse, or it might not resolve, they might not be able to get the care that they need, because the pregnancy itself has already been pathologized by the stigma. That’s one of the ways that this works.

Another way that it can work is abortion stigma itself can mean that people are further along by the time they get care, because it can take longer for them to figure out where to go because information about where to go is not easily available. Like we talked about before, there are fewer clinics that offer later care, so it can take longer to raise money for transportation to get there, you have to take time off work, you have to figure out childcare. So because of abortion stigma, somebody might be further along, and they’re going to be fewer places for them to go and though the risk of complications is very low, it does increase in later weeks of pregnancy. And so someone is slightly more likely to have complications in a second trimester procedure. There’s this catch 22, where, because of stigma, you’re more likely to be further along, because of stigma, you’re more likely to then need a procedure that has a slightly higher risk of complications. And so in that way, also, there’s this interaction between the gestation of pregnancy and the risk of complications.

And then finally, another way that this works… what I’m speaking from here is a whole chapter that we wrote about this that’s a 30 page long chapter where we walk people through kind of each of these dynamics. Another way that this operates, is kind of specifically what I’ve been talking about what this Planned Parenthood phenomenon where, in some ways abortion stigma has contributed, I think a little bit to this promotion of medication abortion, to the exclusion of instrumental abortion, because of the idea that medication abortion is something you can do privately by yourself, no one will know. So then you’re doing something because you think it can be made more concealable, fewer people, maybe will find out, nobody will see you walking into the clinic, but then you’re also doing a procedure that has a higher risk of complications. And then if you need follow up care, it might be harder to find somewhere to go because more clinics are closing, because of the emphasis on medication abortion. So I know that’s complicated, and I’m happy to explain more about it. But it’s also this very specific kind of academic description of something. So I’m happy to talk more about it, but we also don’t have to.

William – TFSR: Thank you so much for going into it. Super, super fascinating work and I am really stoked personally just to read more about it and understand it further because it’s just such an undeniable fact that these things have such a profound impact on people’s bodies, people’s minds, which is a part of their body and all of that stuff.

Those are all the the like pre-scripted questions that we had. And I really just want to thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to speak with us about this topic. Can you tell folks how they can read your writing? Are there any resources you would recommend for further reading and research? And are there any projects or networks you would recommend folks getting involved in?

Bayla: Totally, thank you. Yeah, this has been super fun. This is not an area of my work that I have gotten to talk about as much lately, so I really enjoyed it. I’m kind of doing other work here and so I always love the opportunity to come back into this part of my work. I’ll start with the resources and other things that I’d recommend related to this. And then I think, as far as my work, we can talk more about that I don’t know what your capabilities are of how much you can post or share things. There are things I can share that you could just directly post and then otherwise, some of it is on websites that are not entirely accessible, because they’re academic types of sites. But I can also probably make some things more accessible that are the specific pieces of work I talked about here.

The sites that I would recommend are the Abortion Care Network. Absolutely. It’s just AbortionCareNetwork.org. That’s the National Association of Independent Clinics. And that’s where they have a lot of information of what I was describing about the role of independent clinics, how much and what type of care they provide, and how threatened they are, how many clinics have been closing. It’s kind of like a good reality check, and a good picture of the actual landscape of care and full spectrum care in the United States. Another site that I recommend is AbortionFunds.org. Just practically speaking, in terms of if you or anyone you know is looking to get an abortion now or at any point in the future, that’s a great resource for finding funding. And I should back up and say Abortion Care Network also has a listing of all of their clinics. So if you need to find a clinic, Abortion Care Network is a great resource. I mentioned Sister Song before their website is SisterSong.net. They’re fantastic. And then locally for people that are listening in North Carolina or this part of the country. We have the Carolina Abortion Fund, which is our specific local fund, and that’s just CarolinaAbortionFund.org And then kind of more regionally, there’s the Access Reproductive Care Southeast Fund, which does not include North Carolina, but I think it’s South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, and I might be forgetting another state. But that is a fund that the person I was just speaking about, Roula AbiSamra, who co-wrote the chapter on abortion stigmas syndemics with me. She co-founded that fund and does a lot of work with them. They’re fantastic. And their website is ARC-southeast.org.

And then otherwise, I have links that I can share for y’all to put in the show notes. There’s a summary from the Guttmacher foundation – that is an assessment of what would happen in different states if Roe falls. With the caveat that the Guttmacher Institute has excellent and very accessible summaries of different research on abortion and sexual and reproductive health but their employment practices are garbage as an organization, they’re very problematic. I’ll share a link, kind of an exposé of what’s been going on with their toxic work culture for a long time. So I feel very complicated about recommending them. They’re an important resource for information, but they are treating a lot of workers there very badly. So I never quite know what to do with that. And then I can also share links for the website where I have those quotes about Reproductive Justice, and also link for the book that I mentioned about the history of the self health movement.

And then I’d also say in general avoid just Googling abortion because most of what is on the internet is bad and stigmatizing and inaccurate and scary. Like when I was talking before about having to deprogram patients from things that protesters say… the other thing that happens a lot is people coming into the clinic have been googling. If this does not illustrate what people go through to get an abortion, I cannot tell you how many patients I’ve had who I am literally doing their intake for them to have an abortion and then they asked me questions that are like, “so is it true that…” and then they say something that they’ve read on the internet that they believe is going to happen to them that has permanent lasting effects. And they think it’s going to happen to them and they’re there in the clinic anyway. Luckily they asked and so I have the opportunity to debunk it and say “absolutely not.” We would never do that to you. That this is not going to have that permanent effect and then I can give them the accurate information. But the amount of stuff on the internet about abortion that’s just not true and super horrifying. I encourage people, just don’t even go down that road. I think that answered that question.

Bursts – TFSR: Yeah, very well. And we can host files, either between our archive.org account or on the website, depending on the size. Are there any topics that we missed, which you wanted to cover just in closing?

Bayla: I think this was great. No, this was great. Thank you so much. Awesome

Bursts – TFSR: Bay, thank you so much for having this conversation and all the work that you do. I think is going to be a really good resource for folks.

William – TFSR: I have such a deep appreciation for you taking the time and for you doing the work that you do on such a culturally sensitive topic, and I want to recognize that and thank you so much.

Housing Struggles in Asheville

Housing Struggles in Asheville

Housing activists occupying the lobby of Downtown Asheville's AC Hotel - Photo by Elliot Patterson (permission of Asheville Free Press)
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This week on the show, you’ll hear from Doug, Onion and Papi, three folks involved in the Aston Park Build, a daily event to hold space in Aston Park in downtown Asheville, creating art, sharing food and music and a wider part of organizing here to demand safer space & redistribution of wealth to care for houseless folks and relieve the incredible strains on housing affordability in Asheville. We talk about the park actions, the housing crisis and service industry wage woes, local government coddling of business owners and police repression of folks on the margins.

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Sean Swain’s Transfer

This week’s segment is Sean’s statement given to the Interstate Compact Hearing he was to face before the foregone conclusion of his transfer far from his spouse & support base. If you want to write to Sean, for the moment it’s a good idea to send to his Youngstown address until his support site says otherwise, but also to hold on to a copy of your letter in case he’s been moved and ODRC doesn’t send back your original. You can find info on how to support his legal campaign (Donations can be made via CashApp to $Swainiac1969), his books and past writings at SeanSwain.org or find updates on Swainiac1969 on instagram or SwainRocks on twitter.

We got an update that the Interstate Compact Committee, during their hearing this week, recommended that Sean stay in Ohio (but they didn’t quit their jobs).

Feel free to reach out to the following public officials to express your concern at the moving of Sean Swain out of Ohio based on the word of a former ODRC because Sean spoke out about torture he suffered in Ohio prisons. More details in the statement at [01:04:19] in the episode…

Biologica Squat in Thessaloniki

The Biologica Squat at the School of Biology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, has been open for 34 years and is now under threat of attack by the New Democracy government and their new campus police. There are calls for solidarity at Greek Embassies, businesses and other places around the world during the up til and through January 10th & 17th of January 2022. The original post can be found in Greek on Athens Indymedia or in English at EnoughIsEnough14.org

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Featured Track:

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Transcription

Doug: Hey, my name is Doug. I used to be homeless, now I am not. I have an apartment. And yeah, that’s pretty much it.

Onion: I’m Onion. I use they/them pronouns.

Papi: I’m Papi. I also use they/them pronouns.

TFSR: Would y’all maybe talk about what brings you to talk about the housing crisis in Asheville and the way that the city and the police are dealing with homelessness. Some might think that, Doug, if you’re in a place right now… that since you got yours, you could just kind of chill and wouldn’t be worried about the stuff that the city is doing?

Doug: I could, but that’s not me. I worry about people that I know out there. I worry about if I was homeless again. I would want things to be fixed better, you know? I don’t want to be treated bad like we used to be – when you’re homeless getting kicked in the head by cops. I think if I was not to care, or just to give up to be in my apartment, or whatever, I wouldn’t feel right. Because there’s a lot of things wrong in this scene that have to be fixed.

Onion: I’ve been evicted twice myself. I’m a single parent. It’s kind of a miracle that I’m still able to live in Asheville. So I feel that it’s personal for me. But it’s also a collective issue that if we don’t push hard on right now, it’s gonna get extremely worse.

Papi: I’ve lived in western North Carolina all my life. This is my first time being on my own, can’t afford it… can’t do it. I’m actually living with… well, my family’s living with me now. My family can’t really own places on their own because of documentation status and being immigrants here. So that’s like a whole thing on its own. That’s where I’m at right now.

TFSR: Could someone give a definition or a description of what’s happening right now in Aston Park in downtown Asheville? During the summer Asheville police, for instance, evicted of a bunch of camps around town. And that was during milder weather, despite the fact that it was also amidst a pandemic. Also, could someone give a definition of what Code Purple means?

Doug: Yes, Asheville did. They did a lot of people earlier this year. They put some people in hotels, and if you weren’t on the list, you were just basically stuck out in streets. I was on the first list of people to be in the hotels, and I still haven’t gotten a hotel. All the hotel stuff that happened when COVID first hit was because Buncombe county got money to put to put us in housing, hotels, or create tent cities for us that were safe with toilets and washing. That never came. Came and went, we never had any of that. So we’re still stuck in the woods. Some people are in hotels now. The Ramada, I guess. But it’s institutional living, it’s not happy there. So scratch that.

Code Purple is when it’s gonna be 32 degrees or below freezing. They say it’s unsafe for people. So they provide emergency shelters – a men’s one and a women’s one. Usually we go out, pick people up at night or have a ride to get you there. Last year we got dinner in the evening and breakfast in the morning. I don’t know what they are getting this year. But I haven’t heard anybody complaining. So Code Purple is basically just to keep people alive – from freezing.

Papi: This year was different. Last year, and I guess 2020 shelters didn’t want to open for Code Purple because of the pandemic. So the city decided after a minute to open one up in the civic center. It was a more centralized bigger space. And this year, they didn’t do any of that. No one opened. So there was Code Purple happening. The city calls it when the weather hits. They call Code Purple, but there’s still nowhere to go at the beginning of the winter this year. So it lasted for a bit of time. People can die or lose their limbs or all of that. We decided to start pressuring the city to create and find Code Purple shelter so that we wouldn’t see loss of life.

Doug: Code Purple is weird because if it was 33 degrees and raining or drizzling or just wet outside. There’s no Code Purple. There’s no shelter. But 32? You are in there. Last year the VRQ did it – which is the Veterans Administration Quarters. But they kind of hate homeless people. And I get it because some of my comrades out here are just rude, crude, and they have no respect. But if you offered a service, like VRQ did, no matter what people come into the door you still have to keep your composure and put your hat on and say “Come on in. How are you today?” Yeah, I was gonna go off on a tangent there.

I wasn’t done answering your question, but I got to thinking about the way that we don’t hold ourselves accountable for our own actions out here. People just do what they want and screw people over. Rob and steal, some call it survival. Survival would be like stealing a rabbit or some meat from the store, not my backpack. And we act obnoxious, and we do drugs in places where we probably shouldn’t do them. And people don’t like that. So they hate us, and they don’t help us anymore. And that’s not cool.

Papi: Another thing with the Code Purple is that the city might put some funding into it. But oftentimes they wait. And this year they waited and so the only Code Purple for a minute when it was super cold around Thanksgiving, or before that, was volunteer run, and they had no funding. So there’s a bunch of people running it that are just signing up for shifts overnight and everything. It’s totally inappropriate. It’s not well done or safe, or careful. So, the city is sitting on $26 million of federal funding that they got for relief, specifically this year. They still haven’t, to my knowledge, apportioned it. So they’re just sitting there on piles of money. And people are dying. Right now. They’re dying around us in the streets, like… currently.

Doug: Yeah, not just from the cold. Other things, too. COVID and sicknesses, illnesses. It’s just like, are you gonna wait till there’s five of us left and then help people? Or are we gonna put this thing in action now? I know things cost money but it’s not really hard to say to a bunch of people “come line up and get your shots or get a checkup. Here’s a house.” There’s plenty of abandoned buildings out here. I know a lot of people, even myself, who has taken over abandoned houses. Go inside, black out all the windows, and some have electricity, just live in there. It’s kind of scary, because you’re trapped. But it’s a nice place, but still it’s illegal. The city could take this house and offer the person money.

We need shelter for everybody. So this house is not being used or your family is not using it? Why can’t we? Require us to keep it clean, and to keep it up, just to not be like, disgusting pigs. I myself have been a disgusting pig. And I recommend people to do this stuff. Because as homeless we already got a bad look and then we’ll just do this other stuff. Sorry, I went off again.

Papi: Well, Asheville is full of money, there’s no lack of money. You know, there’s a lot of money moving through this town via tourism. And it’s just that we don’t see any of the money it’s ported. The Tourism Development Authority has a budget of I think it’s $15 million a year for advertising to bring people, tourists, to Asheville. We don’t see any of that.

Doug: Yeah, that’s why a lot of crime doesn’t get reported. Or a lot of cases get dropped. I believe this. If it was all be reported and everybody’s get charged the tourism would stop coming. They would be like “this place really sucks, I don’t want to go there.” We need to get some of our people off the street because they walk around, not in their head, they’re out somewhere. Just go one day to Pritchard Park. Sit down in the corners and just watch the show. You can just see why we need help. If they got the money they gotta take that money and if you want to budget it? Get a bunch of military tents. Make a tent city for us. They were supposed to do that two years ago. That’s not asking for much. I mean I’m asking for a house and walls. I mean, I am. I want that. But we’ll be happy with a canvas tent and a cook. I’ll cook for them!

TFSR: It seems like a lot of those things are intertwined with each other. Like if someone has easy access to privacy, they’re not going to be doing drugs and public. Plenty of people with houses do drugs. You know, if you’ve got a shower and a place to wash dishes, you’re not going to stink as much you’re not going to be walking around. You can do your own laundry. And you’re not going to probably be suffering from as many mental health crises. If you have a place to lay your head and you’re not going to get rousted in the middle of the night or get your backpack stolen or whatever else. It just contributes to this problem.

But the city as Onion said, and as both of you have said – has the money to spend on it, but it’s just choosing to hold that back. It would rather use a bludgeon against people that are on the street than actually help them out of that situation.

Doug: Yeah, they make it worse. I don’t understand why they don’t do anything. They can still keep a lot of money and still help us out. We’re not going to go anywhere. We’re not gonna die off. And quite frankly, a lot of people here do have mental illnesses. That’s why they’re here. They need medications, they need a good safe place. Not necessarily a hospital, or a house. A house, but like a maybe halfway house type situation, where there’s somebody there to give them their meds every day to help them clean their self or their whatever. Some people need to be retrained into life.

TFSR: Or assistance with addiction issues or counseling or access to medication or… right. There’s solutions out there. Folks’ camps have been getting broken up by the city. I wonder if ya’ll could talk about that and what’s been going on in Aston Park and some of the solutions that people are calling for immediately that we could do to resolve the unsafe situations that folks are in right now. If they want to find shelter, what could the city or mutual aid be doing to provide some sort of alternative to what’s going on now.

Papi: So the city of Asheville has gotten some flack this year for sweeps. But the thing is, most of the sweeps that they do aren’t public knowledge. It’s a policy that the city has, to do them constantly. So we’ll hear about one every once in a while if it makes the news for some reason, or if it’s in a prominent place. But it’s kind of ongoing all the time. So it could be in any weather. If enough people call in, in a neighborhood or whatever to complain – they’ll sweep.

There was an encampment underneath the overpass, and one tourist made a complaint through this complaint website to the city. And they decided to sweep right then, right before a cold snap in February. With extremely cold temperatures that day. The larger city found out about that one because people were witnessing people having to walk away from that site and having their tents destroyed by the Department of Transportation and Asheville Police Department. They were bulldozing all their possessions and people were walking away without shoes with nowhere to go. And so that is obviously violent and deadly. The city caught a lot of flack for that. But the thing that most people don’t know is that it’s customary. It’s their policy.

Doug: Yeah. Not to be on the side of the city. What they’re doing is very wrong and very bad. But they are doing it a lot better now than they were two years ago. Like two years ago, they would just come in and slice your tent up and throw all your stuff everywhere and make you go. Now they’re not giving us enough time but they are giving us some time. Tents aren’t being slashed, but they don’t let you take it.

When they closed down the camp by Haywood Street Church. They got people and their bags and put them in cars and took off. I went by there later that night and it was like a free for all with everybody’s left over belongings. It was like a free flea market. I collected lots of it. Everybody was pilfering all the stuff. Why would you kick them out of there and say they can’t take their stuff and leave the stuff there. When they kick us out they don’t have a contingency plan. I don’t know if they’re supposed to but they should because they have to take care of the people. They say they do. But they don’t.

“You have to move. You can’t be here. We’re gonna put you here. You have to go, We don’t know where you are gonna go.” And that’s that. There’s a lot of land out here. This is western North Carolina. I know BeLoved got a big donation a couple years ago. They were going to build a tiny home village and Buncombe County didn’t want to have it in Buncombe County. So they had to go outside of Buncombe County somewhere. I don’t see why that would be the problem. I would live in a tiny home homeless village. But that’s cool. Like, we want more of those. That’s a whole ‘nother story.

Papi: Yeah. So what we’re trying to do now is open up space that’s safer and that’s sanctioned by us. So that’s why we decided to start holding space in Aston Park, which is south of downtown in Asheville. It’s a central location that’s convenient for people and it’s good for camping. We’ve got a lot of flat space and it’s accessible. So we are focusing on that space to create sanctuary camping which a lot of other cities have done in the so called United States. It should be a done deal. It’s very easy to do. It’s been done. It’s not complicated, but the city is holding out because they would rather basically enact social cleansing.

Doug: All they have to do is put in some hand washing stations it’s important out there. And garbage pickup. They will not pick up people’s garbage. Their job is sanitation, to keep the place clean. Every time there’s a homeless encampment, the garbage sits there for weeks. I’m like “well, you guys complain that we look bad but you’re leaving the garbage here after we’re gone.” People know it’s us, but it’s like the tongue to a wall. They’re complaining and complaining but they don’t do anything about it. Like they’re just showing up, shut them down and take off. Couple weeks later, same thing happens again. Who’s door do we gotta go knock on to get this done. All they have to do is put tents in Aston Park… it’s flat. Just throw some Port-a-Johns, a hand wash station, and a dumpster.

Onion: I feel like we kind of skipped where we were saying, why we’re doing this or something about what brought us to this.

Papi: I think a lot about what Doug said about what the city could be bringing, and how the city is not going to do shit. So it’s like, “okay, just let us do it.” Because we’re capable of resourcing and finding things. And if it’s so bothering… just get the fuck out of our way. City don’t bother us. Cops don’t bother us. We’ll put hand washing things there. We’ll put Port-a-Johns there. We’ll put things there and we’ll take care of it. And I mean, people have been showing up every weekend to Aston and been doing that. So we’re capable, we’re very capable, the community is capable of coming in and taking care of each other. and continuing that.

Doug: They are coming in and make us look bad. Like they come in to throw their shovel in there. We’ve done all the work. But they take all the credit and make us look bad. But you know what? Ya’ll know where Hopey’s was? You know it’s empty now. There’s a nice building where people sleep. I don’t know they have plans for it. But that could be a shelter, a temporary shelter.

Papi: We could make plans for it.

Doug: We could just go in there and claim it. But we gotta do it right, though.

TFSR: Well, if you plan on doing that, I can cut that portion out of the radio broadcast. One of the ways that this has been framed recently: the taking space in Ashton Park despite the police evictions has been under the name of Aston Art Build. And I’m wondering if ya’ll could talk about how there’s public invitations for people to gather and create art and to make it a multi generational space.

Papi: Yeah. So when the invites went out… by the way the invites are so cute! I love them! They’re very fun to me. We should make some more. We started Sunday. It’s been pretty fucking cool. I think before we even had donations come in, everyone’s been able to resource around, calls out. Before calls out to social media we were just asking friends and people that we see “bring anything and everything that you can.” It’s pretty cool how quickly people can find furnitures everywhere. I want to bring a bed. There’s been multiple beds brought and built. And a house to put it in. And there’s lots of art. There’s lots of art and very large banners. And so far it’s been very cool. Just yesterday, there was music finally, because we were really lacking in the music area because it’s kind of awkward.

Doug: There wasn’t just music, there was a DJ there.

Papi: It was really nice.

Doug: They were spinning records. I don’t know if this will help Asheville or the conversation but online a while back I saw in other countries. They have homeless issues too, right? So they take a dumpster. And it’s a small living area. It’s clean and they put a little bench or something in there. And it’s like a little home for a person. But they have these little boxes. More than just tents. We should look….

TFSR: Like storage containers?

Doug: Something like that. Yeah, smaller ones. And I mean, some of them were small as a coffin. But I wouldn’t want to sleep in there. But we want to problem to go away. We want housing, we want things in the meantime, we can’t housing like that. So we need shelter till we wait for housing. What are we doing for that? Are we just protesting? Are we actually trying to get some shelters going?

Papi: Yeah, this is a direct action. So we’re creating this solution. I mean, it’s gradual, because of the way the cops are enforcing the issue right now. They’re fudging the law or their own policy that they have been doing which is giving seven days notice to vacate. They decided to stop doing that. And they changed their policy internally in a quasi probably illegal way. Now they’re saying they have the right to just evict people from from camps immediately and arrest if people don’t leave.

Also the issue with it being an art build is pertinent to the culture of the city, because Asheville likes to pride itself on being a creative zone for people to come and listen to music on the street and art festivals and all these sorts of things. Yeah. But that is accessible for some people as a way to be in a city and it’s not accessible for other people. So we decided to make art central in what we’re doing to sort of make that point that it’s important for everyone to have the ability to live creatively. And that’s part of direct action too.

Also the fact that we are prioritizing this being an intergenerational space, because that people suffering right now they don’t have a particular age. It’s from elders to babies. So we need to include everybody in our solutions. That’s how we’ve been organizing, we have childcare for all our meetings, and children are extremely welcome in all our spaces, and parents, and so on and so forth. We try to make the most accommodation for everybody that’s around.

Doug: That’s for sure. You talking about ASP? Or just us in general. Yeah, we definitely help make everybody stay comfortable, more comfortable. I’m very grateful for that. Because when COVID hit it was bone dry. There was nothing. You couldn’t get a cup of coffee. And then one day, in comes —- and I think it was — and —-, —— was there. And here we are today. We are doing big things. So do they have a problem with the art because we can go to beer because it’s also the beer city. We can star making beer! We could make a homeless ale. [laughter]

Papi: If art is controversial…

Doug: Yeah, bring out the little… What do you call that? A still?

Papi: We could just call it a hotel and then they would let us do it.

Doug: Right? Do we have people going to these meetings where they vote? Like zoning meetings? If nobody ever goes to the meeting then zoning gets passed.

Onion: I think the zoning meetings aren’t necessarily up for a vote all the time, like they are a council that kind of like rubber stamps.

Doug: But these policy changes, they should be open to the public. So we have to get a team to go in there and suit up in their best Under Armor hoodie and jump in there.

Papi: I think it’s been interesting to see people going to like the mayor’s lawn and stuff here and just kind of skipping meetings.

Doug: There’s no “No Trespassing” signs on the courthouse. We can camp there. But it’s concrete.

Papi: And I know people have gone to city council meetings. They give you so many restrictions in order to talk. And it’s because they know that they don’t want to hear us. Like I remember people would sign up and they would cut you off after a certain time.

Doug: You have to beat them at their own game, we have to get our words in a certain time. It shouldn’t have to be like that. But we’re stepping up to the plate. So we are doing a lot anyways. I’m not trying to sound bad, because we do a lot.

Papi: I think it’s a question of who calls the shots. And you know, this is our city and we can call the shots and they can listen to us, right? We don’t always have to fit into their framework, they can fit into ours.

Onion: It shouldn’t be the other way around. Right? This is our city. We live here. They’re the ones who should be listening to us. But they don’t they just care about all of our money.

Doug: I mean, if we had guns and cars, we can make them listen, but we’re not doing that. [laughter]

Papi: They will listen.

Doug: Yeah, they will. They will. I see the future of ASP changing a lot of things for homeless people. Not just in Asheville, but like we’re gonna set up in Asheville. It’s gonna be city to city to city. We literally can set the standard to better the homeless all over the United States. And then the world, I guess.

TFSR: Y’all were mentioning calling the shots. And it’s one thing to demand and say “yeah, we’re the people that live here.” Can you talk a little bit about some of the pressures that maybe people from the outside like Onion mentioned the amount of money that the county and the city budget towards advertising towards the tourist industry? But can you talk about some of the motivations on city council and on the county commissioners that are keeping forward motion on actual solutions with public funds to solve the crisis for houseless folks, as well as the cost of housing for regular folks.

Onion: So the city of Asheville is run by a gang and the gang is not publicly accountable. That’s what I mentioned before, the agency called the Tourism Development Authority. They’re not elected or anything like that. It’s a private agency. And so, for example, they have this thing that they call “Heads in Beds.” And it’s their way of saying, of all the hotel rooms, because I don’t know how many 1000s of actual hotel rooms and beds in Asheville, but their push is to get all the beds full.

Their way of measuring that is “Heads in Beds.” And so this is to say, they are completely focused on housing tourists in this town and making accommodations for certain people. If they want to put our heads in beds, there’s no resources for that. But all of a sudden, they have millions and millions of dollars to fill the other beds and build other hotels for all these thousands and thousands. Basically, they have a huge priority of creating space for white wealthy people to come in and visit and social cleansing and hyper gentrification for the poor and the struggling.

So the thing is, is this agency runs the city. City council rubber stamps whatever the TDA wants. They might debate it publicly, or there might be a little bit of dissent. But eventually, they just agree to whatever it is. City council is not calling the shot. They are agreeing with a larger entity, a more powerful entity. So the city manager and the planning and zoning office and other city staff work very, very closely with the tourism development entity. And then you have the Biltmore on top of it, which everyone kind of like forgets about, but it’s like a huge piece of land in the middle of town that’s being privately used for huge amount of profit. That’s basically a feudal type of situation. I mean, I’m saying, let’s take the Biltmore. You know? It’s literally a castle in the middle of Asheville.

Papi: And it’s boring!

Onion: It’s super bad. Yeah.

TFSR: Yeah. So for folks that maybe haven’t heard of the Biltmore Estate, the Vanderbilt family built a huge mansion. It’s the largest private residence in North America. It’s run by a foundation now, so that they can, you know, siphon money through a nonprofit, I think it’s like 60 or 70 bucks to get a visit to the actual house. I’ve never been there. I hear the land is really beautiful. There’s like a dairy farm. There’s a winery. There’s the gardens. It’s also apparently got a really, really intense biometric surveillance system, through the cameras that they have there. I just heard about that.

Papi: It’s a lot of money, and they don’t even pay their employees well.

Onion: Exactly.

TFSR: There was an article that was published a few days ago by Barbara Durr of the Asheville Watchdog. It’s based on a 2021 Bowen national research piece that was commissioned by the Dogwood Health Trust. And I’ll put a link in the show notes to it. But the numbers are not pretty in terms of how much people spend on housing here and the availability of “affordable housing.” Would you all talk about your experience? Papi already mentioned rooming with family now because it’s gotten so expensive And because buying property is so difficult and Onion mentioned being evicted twice. So what does it kind of look like? How does how does housing actually pan out for the people that live in work in the city where the tourists kind of take over the rest of the time?

Papi: Well, just from my experience with housing, and the people that I work around and live around, people kind of have been stuck where they’re at. Working three part time jobs, just to make it as is. Also, it’s now very common to just depend on community which is not bad. Which is what we should be doing. But always it’s like “oh, it’s the first of the month, let’s ask for mutual aid. Let’s ask for some rent assistance. Let’s get some money in our hands that we can afford to survive and live here in this apartment for the next month.”

I know that’s the thing with housing. And then I just see that and hear that a lot. I’ve had friends who try to game with roommates or things like that, but they don’t work. There’s just so many things. Because if you can’t work or live where you’re at, then how are you going to get transportation and then the bus pass.

Doug: Right now my rent is free for a year, because that’s the program I’m in. But after that it goes up to like $895 for a two bedroom, one bathroom in the projects. You know, it is what it is. That ended the median in Asheville is $350,000 per house. That’s the average cost. I couldn’t work two full time jobs and my girlfriend were two full time jobs and sell anything on the side and afford that!

Onion: Yeah, it’s like turbo gentrification up in here we are one of the most gentrified cities in all of the United States. And we’re also in a region that is historically under organized. There’s no housing advocacy organization in Asheville. It’s just us. There’s no resource center for renters. There’s no pushback against the landlord’s. City council and other entities don’t do anything. So the City manages to get away with really intense gaslighting, even when they describe what their idea is of affordable housing. What they call that is not really affordable to people that are working class, it’s kind of more accessible to the middle class.

So you have a situation in Asheville, where the conditions here and their decision making on the city level. In name, it’s progressive people on city council, they’re liberals and Democrats. But it’s not in line with that. It’s more in line with the city in California about the same size that had a bunch of wildfires, and half the houses were destroyed. And after people felt generous for a few months, they started to get irritated that there were so many displaced people around them. And so their city council went from progressive, got voted out, and it was a bunch of Trump supporters that got up in there. But their policy that they’re enacting over there, in their city where there’s really immense amounts of people that are completely precarious and have absolutely no resources. Their policy is the same. The same exact policy that our city council is doing every day. So you know, essentially, we have a right wing city government that calls itself liberal somehow.

Papi: I was just thinking about how, in this past year alone, I moved to Asheville last year around this time, and how right now, for a two bedroom apartment where I’m at, when we first started, it was like about 1,000 – 1,200 for a two bedroom apartment. That’s not including all the utilities and everything. Now I’d looked again after six months, for a one bedroom apartment. It’s at 1,400 right now. 1,400 to almost 2,000 for a one bedroom apartment. And no one’s gotten pay raises at all.

All the jobs I’ve worked at are like… what was it called? What did they call people who worked at grocery? Essential? I’ve been working in essential working jobs for all the entire pandemic. And no, I have never gotten a hazard pay or anything like that. Working at one of the hottest tourist restaurants downtown who caters to tourists, and they came around maskless and everything. I have no more money, not gotten more money. Rent has skyrocketed, and they’re like stealing from us practically. That’s all my money right there.

It just fucking sucks. And then eating here also kind of sucks. I always remember going to Walmart and it kind of sucks seeing a lot of the shelves really empty. And then you go to Earth Fare or something like that, and shits three times as much. And it’s like “oh my gosh, I can’t even eat healthy” or whatever that is. I don’t know, everything is already so much and it’s getting worse.

Doug: A loaf of bread is almost five dollars.

Onion: It’s totally getting worse. Especially I feel like since like the summer, it was like August, maybe July. I don’t know, it was like every week. How many friends are getting pushed out their housing? Their landlords are selling the house from under them. They’re living in their cars. They don’t have a new place to go. There’s literally like 20 slots on Craigslist for 300 people looking.

So there’s just absolutely no housing and nowhere to go. And more and more people getting displaced because the market is just benefiting selling right now, so much. And selling to people that are coming from other places in the country are also converting to Airbnb market. So they can make like $300 a night and city council has just kind of let that go wild. So, you know, it’s basically mass hysteria around money.

TFSR: So the last decade or so that I’ve lived here, it’s been consistently getting harder and harder to find housing. There was a 2014 study that showed that the vacancy rate was less than 1% for Asheville. And that’s not even talking about the cost of that housing and my ability to afford it or anyone else’s. But yeah, it’s kind of interesting because the hotels have been such a power player in terms of Tourism and in terms of pushing the city manager to make decisions that are going to be taxable income for the city.

With more and more of these “short term rentals” like Airbnb…There’s a couple of other companies just gobbling up all of the, in a neoliberal style, just further privatizing all these little spaces that some of us could have long term rental in. So much that it makes sense economically for the owners to hold them off the market and leave the house the room empty for a couple nights so they can charge that $300 A night. It’s weird to see how the city council has bent, instead of how they would have before protected the interests of the big moneymakers in the hotels, and now they’re feeling the pressure of all the little individual bourgeoisie that own the little mini feudal spots. Ah, it’s so frustrating.

Papi: Yeah, it really is a petty bourgeois situation with that. By the same token, I feel our struggle is becoming something more like the landless struggle in other countries where it’s about land, the bottom line is. With so many people without access to a place and without access to resources, we just have to do what we’re doing, which is go where there is land and take it and sit there and do our thing.

Onion: It makes me really angry to have the cops and DOT come around and evict people while saying things like “Y’all can’t be on city property. Y’all can’t be on this.” When it’s like “okay, well, first off, fuck city property. This isn’t city property.” This is land that’s first off stolen. We’re all living on fucking stolen land. And it’s not the city’s. This is new, no one can own land. I’m still learning a lot about land stewardship and what it would look like to… not not buy land necessary, but to literally give land back to indigenous people. To have indigenous stewardship.

Hearing about how there are people coming in to Asheville. I don’t know if ya’ll have ever been on *beeped out*. Which is just a housing thing that people post that they need housing or looking for something on Facebook, and it’s so irritating to be on there. Because a lot of people are like “Oh, my gosh, I’m moving from Atlanta to Asheville. I’m moving from California or something.” And they are a bunch of white couples who aren’t even from here who are making like three times more than what we all are making.

And then it’s funny when they post because then people are like “yeah, so this thread… this thing right here is for people who who can’t pay more than like 1300 for rent.” And all these people are like “Oh, I can do like $2,000 a month for a two bedroom apartment” and all this shit. And I love watching them get torn up in the comments. I do

Doug: There are people who pay $2,000 a week to come stay in Asheville for business or for a doctor’s appointment. They pay, I don’t know, maybe anywhere from like 500 to $1,000 for the week, they’re here for two or three days, probably sits empty.

Papi: Exactly. Exactly. And how many second homes are here? I have a job where I work for homeowners doing land care and I have a lot of clients that don’t live in their houses. They’re sitting there. There’s a huge number of properties that are under or un-utilized in this area.

Doug: And we need each other. We need the tourists because they provide jobs for us. And the tourists need us too because we got to wipe their butts and cater to them.

TFSR: It’s interesting, that report talks about how y’all are saying about 48 and a half percent of the population of Buncombe County pays 30% or more on their rent every month, something like a third of the population pays 50 or more percent of their income on rent. What’s recognized as being an affordable amount is a quarter of your income, tops on housing. So that you can pay for food. So you can save money. So you can pay for medical bills. So that you can pay for education for yourself or for your kids or whatever. All these things. It’s not budgeted in.

And what they’re doing is they’re creating a circumstance where in a couple of years and they’re already seeing it, there’s so many employment signs up all around town. Places can’t hire people and won’t pay them a wage that will actually allow them to live here. And I think like Papa said… they’re not going to have anyone that’s going to be able to actually work the jobs are willing to work the jobs. They’re digging their own grave in terms of an economy.

Doug: So you can only get a fast food job or a restaurant job. You’re gonna max out maybe $300 a week take home. So that’s 1200 dollars a month when your rent is 1100. I mean, how do you pay your electricity? How do you pay?

Papi: The actual condition of housing that people are in, too, is really, really messed up around here. Because of the climate so many people are dealing with intense mold issues and suffering from black mold. Their kids are living in that and they can’t get repairs because landlords just won’t do anything and there’s no one making them do anything.

Because City Council’s is, this is not on their radar. It’s not something they care to talk about. But at least half of us are living in that situation. And you know, we’re all like doubled up and tripled up and 10 people to a house, and we’re still paying $400 a month. So it’s getting to a point where the living conditions aren’t livable, even when we’re housed.

Doug: And when it breaks, it’s gonna be not good.

Onion: Something’s got to give.

TFSR: It has to stop being us.

Doug: I’m 45 years old. I got an apartment with my girlfriend who… she got some issues going on there and I love her to death, but she can’t really work. But even even with her, if I got an $1,100 security check, and she got a little $1100 security check. It’s 2200 bucks, that’s really not much. We get over $500 a month in food stamps. And usually about five days, six days at the end of the month, we’re not shopping. That’s plenty of money to be a lot of food. I have no day of the month that we don’t have any food.

If I get a job, it’s gonna be part time. All these places are hiring. They say they’re hiring, but you fill out an application online. somebody like me who didn’t graduate high school doesn’t have no really real education on paper it just gets tossed out. It’s just deleted right away. So if I went and sold myself to the company, got the job, still would only be &350 a week.

Papi: Yeah, it’s like they want it both ways. They want to own their restaurants and pay you a pittance and still make their big profits. The result from their decision making, which is that we don’t have housing, and we are on the streets. They won’t accept us on the streets. And so they sweep us. So they want to have their cake and eat it too. And they don’t understand that this is something that they’ve manufactured.

Papi: Oh, and also with COVID with a lot of places hiring, as well as not being paid enough. People are getting long haul COVID. People are getting sick and employees are not letting us have time off. They don’t care about us. And what are we supposed to do? I remember seeing these things and hearing things of like “oh, like nobody wants to come to work or anything like that”. It’s like, “No, it’s because you don’t pay enough. You don’t give us sick time. You don’t give us time off.” And it’s like we have to be there constantly like 45-50 plus hours of our lives working and giving your time and energy. And then once we have the money, it goes right away to rent or living necessities. We don’t have the energy to do anything else. We don’t have the energy to come out and into the park and make art. We don’t have that energy.

Doug: You can’t even go to the Chic-Fil-A and get yourself a chicken sandwich because you earned it.

TFSR: There’s been a push, it’s a North Carolina wide push. And I think it’s backed by the SEIU. But the NC Essential Worker Movement and the Fight For 15 has really been pushing around North Carolina. I think the Burnsville Bojangles has been striking because of the conditions around people getting infected with COVID and not being given time off. And the managers not paying attention to safety standards inside of the place in terms of customers coming in without masks and co workers without masks.

Plus people tell their stories on the social media of like people working 80 hours a week between two jobs and having a kid and not being able to afford to make ends meet. But these little franchise fast food shops make hella money. And it’s not even like the fancy restaurant that Papi works in downtown. That’s that’s one end of the scale, but even places you don’t have to go in a white shirt or whatever. It’s yeah.

Doug: The Chocolate Shops downtown. I don’t have clothes nice enough to go in that damn shop. Like they must make a million dollars off of chocolate. That’s crazy.

Onion: Yeah, that’s another thing because that place got off to its start by having the community kind of sponsor them. They were like we pay a living wage. We’re community supported business. And what? Two years later? They changed that to where they were not paying a living wage. And they put all the money that they made into capital resources to build a factory so that they can manufacture their own chocolate and they’re paying worse than they used to.

And that’s really familiar in Asheville to have businesses start out as like, “Oh, we’re socially responsible, small businesses” and then they become these engines of pure exploitation. And so everyone that I know that has worked at that place is like “it’s the worst place to work in town. It’s so exploitive, it’s transphobic it’s disrespectful, the clientele is horrible. It’s it’s a terrible work environment.”

Papi: Or stuff like a decade ago was claiming to paying a living wage or whatever. They were claiming that a part of their, they were paying medical to people by giving them kombucha for free. Yeah, their own product.

Onion: Pay a living wage with parking space. They consider that part of the wage.

TFSR: Or like when you consider the tips getting figured into it.

Papi: Exactly. Yeah. And then there’s no enforcement. So it’s not really a thing. It’s not a real thing.

Onion: I love riots. I’m tired of being like, palatable. I don’t care to be looking nice, being pretty and telling people like “Oh, can you give us this pretty please?” No, I’m gonna scream. I’m gonna yell until you give me what I want. Like, give me more money, stop having rent like this. Stop killing our friends in the streets. I’m ready. I’m already screaming.

Doug: We’ve ain’t even gotta get more money. We just got to stop your price of things going up.

Onion: I mean, all of it. You know? It’s time for us to call the shots. I remember during the uprising here, when downtown was full of anger and we took downtown and the cops couldn’t handle. You were there? Well, there’s a lot of video. And so it was pretty amazing. Because downtown, which is always full of tourists, like completely dominated. Like 95% of people from South Carolina or Atlanta or Knoxville or some shit. Well they were gone. It was just us. And you would never see the surface of the… what’s that hotel called the IRIS? It’s a big fancy new hotel in the center of downtown that spared no expense. That shit was covered. It was covered in tags and people were having a time of their lives. Windows did get broken.

TFSR: So much anti ICE graffiti.

Onion: It was a happy group of people until we got tear gassed.

Doug: I would have been helping y’all smash things and loot and carry stuff out. (laughing)

TFSR: in Minecraft.

Doug: Our buddy got caught in that riot and he ended up dying in Buncombe County Jail. Yeah, shout out to Jacob Biggs. He was a good guy. He just gets lost like most of us. We fall. Some of us stumble and we get back up. Some of us fall and we’re like, “I’m still falling. I can’t get up.” And we don’t need much. Just like hope, like a job, paycheck or something to look forward to. Like the promising of a house. I finally maced somebody at AHOPE because he was threatening me, he attacked me. And that same day is when they told me I had an apartment.

Because if you go through floating like regular “Hey everything is cool” you’re not in danger, your life is not at risk. But if you go in there stressed out every day, and you’re suicidal, and you want to kill the dog you want to kill and you start being irate they will move you up faster. And I don’t see how one person’s life is more or less than another one’s. Some people just lose their minds in the streets because they’re waiting for housing.

Papi: For housing. Yeah. For years.

Doug: I just want a roof over my head.

Onion: That’s the thing at this point. The city doesn’t understand where we’re coming from, which is that we’re not leaving the park. We’re not stopping. You’re not going to push us out. We’re not budging. So, you know, they’re going to have to find some way to compensate and open up their wallets and deal with us because we are here to stay. We have nowhere else to go.

TFSR: Yeah. And the “not in my backyard” approach doesn’t work anymore when people won’t stop being pushed away. Yeah. So y’all are holding space, you’re doing direct action by holding space publicly. You’re inviting families. You’re making art, taking the opportunity to make public art and make statements about it. We’ve already talked about how city council and county commissioners will do their best. People are trying to engage it, but they’ll do their best at silencing people actually making any changes and the city manager calls the shots anyways who is an unelected official. Do you want more people to show up at the park? What do you want people to bring? How long do we expect y’all are going to be out there? What’s the next stepping stone that y’all are reaching for?

Onion: We’re out here, you know. So by the time this airs, Friday will probably be over but it’ll be after Christmas. We’re going to have a big Christmas party and with lots of music and stuff like that. So this is ongoing. And yeah, I think that by the time people hear this on the air, they can just come on out at any time. We’re oftentimes picking up the festivities around four o’clock.

Doug: Yeah, if they don’t have anything… They can come with nothing. They can come with themselves or something, but just as support. They don’t have to bring sodas. A lot of people bring donations. Great. Because we can use them, but if you don’t have anything still show up. A big crowd is better than a little one.

Papi: It’s a nice big park. So there’s space for really a lot of people.

Doug: You play pickle-ball and tennis. They took the tables out. So we need a picnic table.

Papi: We got to bring tables in. But yeah, like anybody’s Welcome. Come over. You don’t have to bring anything. Everyone brings a little bit something. If you have the means and the money, yes, bring something, bring furniture. We people like to sit. We like to be cozy. Bring that. Drinks are always appreciated. Hot warm food. Very appreciated. Of different varieties, please, not all of us can eat everything.

Doug: Bring your Christmas tree.

Onion: Yeah, we like to like build things too, we get really crafty. And so we usually build structures every day. Engineering and stuff like that. And so we go high up in the trees, and we make our art and it’s really a cool scene.

Doug: Yeah, we want to make a birdhouse.

Papi/Onion: Ladders, you want to donate a ladder? Give us a ladder.

Papi: Bring a ladder, bring your client climbing gear!

Doug: We can go get a ladder tonight. I got a big one. Well, I think it stretches. Tools! Bring ingenuity. Bring a good attitude. Just be genuine and sincere to be there helping some people that need housing. Don’t just come for the show. Cuz you’re gonna love that.

TFSR: Musicians bring their instruments DJs bring their setups. It seems like a lot of the more inspiring things that I’ve seen in town around housing… I feel excited having conversations like this with people, because it’s just real that living in the city is much more difficult than it needs to be. And there’s people on the top that are skimming off. And then there’s tons of bureaucrats and cops and whatever and middle management in the middle that make their money off of keeping us out of empty buildings and keeping us from getting the food that we deserve.

And not only that, but also because this city sometimes feels like it doesn’t have actual community. It’s got the drum circle on Fridays, maybe. Especially during pandemic, the uprising felt to me, like the first time for a bit in that year that I felt a real sense of community and inviting people out to a space to share music to share food to be inspired by each other. That’s amazing. Personally, I feed off of that.

Doug: Yeah, and it’s not just in Asheville, it’s a lot of cities. A lot of big cities, small cities, it’s happening everywhere. People need to pull together and get it right. And because if we don’t, then not just us, we’re all gonna be a load of crap. I don’t know how people don’t see it. It’s totally gotta be flipped. Put us in power and power underneath us. I love people that want to challenge people to come out here with us for an undisclosed amount of time. Depending on their attitude they can leave tomorrow go home, are they can leave in 30 days.

You have an undisclosed amount of time of how long you are going to be in the streets like we are. You’re stripped of your whole life and put on the streets and you’re homeless. And then what? Anybody can survive if they know they are going home within a week. Like I can last all week. But if there’s no hope for tomorrow, no, stale sandwiches or nothing. You really get down and hate life. And I would challenge them to come see how we do it. We don’t want to live like this. To see how hard it is to survive some situations.

It’s cold. I don’t know if any of y’all have been outside all day in the winter, but I hated it. I was warming my tent. Because I don’t like the cold. I moved from New England, because I thought it was cheaper here. And when I came from Connecticut here, the only thing that was cheaper was cigarettes. Meat was the same price. It was terrible. I had $1,000 month rent up there, it was a two bedroom. Everything was $1000 month, pay utilities, all your bills to come here and be homeless.

Onion: We also want to make the explicit invitation of people that have nowhere to go to come and visit if they can and see if there’s anything there for them that they want to build with us. So it’s hopefully a space that welcomes people that really don’t have anywhere else to go right now.

Doug: You see our community. See how we shoot, we love each other. How we try to look out for each other. I’ve given people the shirt off my back out here. The food off my plate.

TFSR: Well, I guess if you’re new to town and having difficulty keeping up on stuff. It’s a good place to come and meet people and also to find out about resources that are available. And Doug mentioned ASP before, that seems like a cool place to interface with that with the street side of ASP or the Free-store.

Doug: They talk to us with sincerity, not condescending. I love this group. Like, I’ve never met anybody like that, the people from ASP. I guess that would be me too, I volunteer to help. They’ve taught me a lot. I learned a lot. They keep me in check. I’m grateful for them. Grateful for everything that we do,

TFSR: Where can people keep up on this if they’re not in the area and they want to apply pressure. Or if they want to get involved, but maybe don’t want to show up immediately? I know there’s some Instagram accounts that have been broadcasting news about when police have been coming in or the really cute flyers that have been being made. Yeah, how can people find out more?

Papi: It’s kind of an autonomous group that is forming this project, but it’s being supported by a coalition of collectives and groups. And so you could go to any of those pages to find out about what’s going on. Those could be Asheville Solidarity Network that has a Facebook and an Instagram. There’s Asheville Survival Program. Same thing Asheville For Justice. DefundAVLPD – the movement to defend the police here. So yeah, check those out. And that’s a really good way to get in touch and plug in and find out what we’re doing.

TFSR: Cool. Is there anything that I didn’t ask about that y’all want to bring up and mention?

Papi: I do have something. I remember asking some folk because I’m pretty new to just a lot of stuff. So I was like, anybody want anything to be said, and someone brought up about just what happens when when sweeps happen, and friends and family are displaced Is that you no longer know where your friends are. You no longer know where your family’s at. And it just makes it a shit ton harder to get yourself okay. And shit around you okay. If you’re constantly being removed from your area, and you can no longer make appointments, and you can no longer take care of your dog or go to doctor’s appointments, or go to school or anything like that. And the main thing that someone had told me that they were really thinking about was how you can no longer find your friends and family. And that’s very scary. Fuck sweeps. Fuck DOT.

Onion: I think I wanted to say Fuck them all. Yeah, definitely echoing that. I wanted to say that, to city council, we see you. We see what you say and how what you do doesn’t match up with it. And so we’re coming for you. There is not anybody that’s safe sitting on the city council, because the furthest left member of city council on the first day of Code Purple, when there was no shelter, put up a Facebook post saying “it’s my birthday. Oh, it happens to be Code Purple. What you can do is donate to this tiny nonprofit who doesn’t even do emergency housing support. Give them money, because the city can’t handle our shit.”

And basically, that’s the furthest left that it gets in Asheville is like passing the buck. And so we see you passing the buck. Kim Roney. We’re here watching what you do every day. And you haven’t shown up at Aston Park yet. And we see you. So there’s an invitation for city council to open up your wallet of the city coffers, and give us what we need. Or we will come for you.

Papi: For city council to come down and to shut up and not say anything and hear houses folks and hear them at every single thing they have to fucking say. Everything.

Doug: We want your routing numbers! To your bank accounts,

TFSR: And do a damn thing about it, not just show up and listen and go back to their heated offices, right?

Doug: No, I want them to just come and listen. They’ll hear something but they just come and they’re not listening.

Onion: They hate having to listen to us. They hate it.

Doug: When you’re able to put up a tent and be homeless. That means you’re comfortable there, it’s feel like a safe spot. And then when the police come and sweep it or tell you to move, it’s like you’re being evicted from your home back to first time being homeless. Every single time. I went through 18 tents in two years. That’s ridiculous. You know, police take them down or weather. it just sucked. Fuck the police.

Onion: Yeah, and how many campsites have been burned down in the past couple of years. People need a safe place to go where we have folks watching out. There’s just been a lot of danger for people living outside in every every kind of way.

Doug: Unfortunately when there happens to be like an OD or something. And they shut it down. Like take the OD and deal with it, and not police it but support. Not just beat us down and make us want to go get high. Iv’e been clean for a couple weeks now. It’s a struggle. When they get on me and bad days, I’m gonna want to go out there and you know, do that bad thing. Stay warm.

When I was homeless, I ain’t gonna lie I got high everyday. Because I needed that to get through to get up and get my food for the day, my clothes, my shelter for the night. Take care of my girlfriend’s dog. God they don’t understand. Sometimes you wait 4 hours for a shower at AHOPE. And for lunch, more time. We’re not just sitting around doing nothing with our time, twiddling our thumbs. So this is the south and we are in the Bible Belt, right? This is the holiday season. We need some love like Jesus from these people. I hate to bring religion into it, but show us where your hearts are.

TFSR: Congratulations on keeping sober.

Doug: It’s a little easier with an apartment I can just stay in there and eat and not have to go outside. But I hate it for people who don’t have housing. I was just there not too long ago. And I could be there again. If things were bad, but I’m gonna do my best not too.

TFSR: I guess any of us could. It’s kind of the point, right?

Doug: Most of us are one paycheck away from it. me. Me and my ex-wife we we’re doing fine, two jobs, kids in schools, both the cars, and then both cars died. We were off the bus ramp. But then, here we are. Yeah. Well, she’s not here anymore. She’s here but not here.

Papi: Yeah, I was living outside to after leaving an unsafe relationship. And I had an infant. And so I was in a really precarious situation. And so I was living in a vehicle for a while and you know, it can happen to any of us.

Doug: People lived in a tent with their children. It was okay.

TFSR: Yeah, thank you all for the work that you’re doing and for being willing to come on this and talk about it. And I really hope that it it gets more folks out there. And yeah, thanks for sharing your perspectives.

Papi: Thanks for having us.

Doug: Yeah. Thanks, man.

Onion: Thank you.

The Perils of Prison Mail Digitization

The Perils of Prison Mail Digitization

"The Perils of Prison ail Digitalization with Prison Books Collective" showing bird cage broken free & bird escaping, "TFSR 12-12-21"
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Leigh Lassiter from prison books collective in Durham, North Carolina, a nonprofit project that sends zines and books to prisoners in Alabama in North Carolina prisons and jails comes on this week to tell us about recent changes by the NCDPS to use the private company TextBehind to scan all incoming and outgoing mail track, their contents surveil the outside users and mailers, and to make a profit on an already indigent population. We also talk about the work of sending literature, to incarcerated folks privatization and digitization of other services, and what literature gets rejected. More about the press books collective at PrisonBooks.Info or check out their linktr.ee

You can also check out local books to prisoners projects in your area that you could get involved with by visiting PrisonBooks.Org/PrisonBooksNetwork. There’re also a couple of really good articles from The Intercept about this and related surveillance services topics within you as prisons and jails.

Or check out the following resources:

Zine Updates

Just a reminder, a comrade’s been compiling our zines into a catalog, for easy mailing into prisons. You can check out the latest, December 2021 list at the top of https://TFSR.WTF/Zines as a pdf.

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Featured Track:

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Transcription

TFSR: Could you please introduce yourself with whatever name, pronoun, and affiliations you want to share?

Leigh Lassiter: Yeah, my name is Leigh Lassiter. I am fine with any pronouns. I work with Prison Books Collective publishing distribution, based out of Durham and North Carolina. However, I speak on my own behalf as an activist and an individual rather than a representative of Prison Books.

TFSR: Cool. And could you talk a little bit about Prison Books? How long has it been around and what y’all do?

LL: Yeah, we started in 2006. I was not there then. But we have gotten in touch with some of the people who were involved in the original starting of it. It started in someone’s garage. And it has grown, although we’re kind of in the equivalent of a garage still. But as I said, in 2006, it wasn’t recognized as a nonprofit until about a decade later. But we have been able to keep it going. We’ve just been sending books to North Carolina and Alabama, and zines across the country for all that time. We meet every week to answer the letter requests and send packages out to people and talk to each other. It’s not as anarchist as it once was at its roots, more service-based space now, there is a variety of political opinions. But as a group, we still share the vision of alleviating the tremendous cruel pressures of the prison industrial complex on the incarcerated people that we serve, and generally feel that incarceration in this country is done poorly and has overkill. If we weren’t needed, if our mission was served either by prisons or there weren’t prisons to incarcerate people, we would prefer that. But while people are locked up, we get them all the books that we can.

TFSR: And what kind of requests do you get? Is it for technical manuals, dictionaries, religious texts? There’s a lot of religious groups, for instance, that do outreach into prisons and send in materials that tend to have their specific religious bent and view on the world, because they’re missionizing? What does the normal packaging party or packaging event look like for Prison Books?

LL: In regards to what the event looks like, we just pick up the individual letters and start reading for what they request. Sometimes we do get requests for specific books and specific authors that we have in donated stocks. So it’s rare that we can answer someone’s specific request with the exact book that they want. Sometimes it happens, though. We just look around to find something usually, under 2 pounds, two books that we send, print off some zines and staple them. Fill in an invoice, send our information, write a little note, and pack it up neatly and tape it up to be taken to the post office later on.

People request all sorts of books. The most common being a dictionary or legal dictionary, and DIY sort of things and career books are often very frequently requested. A lot of people want to start food trucks or build their own houses, or learn to weld or repair cars, do plumbing and carpentry, that sort of thing. Which is extremely understandable for both jobs inside of prison and outside for whenever they get out. Those, of course, are very hard to find. We often get a lot of requests for coloring books and drawing books, lots of thrillers, biographies, and autobiographies of, particularly, African-American activists. We have everything. So we try to send everything from classics, to how to start your own business, or histories about things, rock stars’ biographies. It’s whatever we can get. As I said, this specificity of requests can vary from “please send me some books” or people misunderstanding our mission and just saying, “I’d like to sign up for your book club, just send me books every month”. Then we have to say, “Oh, you have to write it every time, we have a limit of how many books we can send, but you can request them”. We have some publishers that we dealt with who would occasionally give us a whole box of books that they want to donate for a cause. Usually, because the subject matter has to do with prison or social justice. We’ll try to send those to the people who seem interested. But a lot of it is volunteers trying to read what fits their needs most. Because we can only send so many so quickly to people. And of course, usually prisons only allow them to have so many at a time. So there’s a little bit of art to figuring out how to get them what they want. I believe in the questions you sent over, you also asked what wasn’t allowed, if you want me to talk about that?

TFSR: Yeah, that’d be super helpful.

LL: We mostly send to North Carolina state prisons. And this is true for Alabama prisons, too. However, for the state prisons, anything that can do with tattooing is not allowed. Nudity is not allowed. They say “artful” nudity like Michelangelo or something would be allowed in, but in my experience, any nudity is not allowed, because that line is gray enough that they just err on the side of “No, we’re not going to let that in”. Things that are gang-related or could enable crime in whatever way they interpret are not allowed in. Hardcovers are occasionally allowed in, but it depends on the prison, so we just don’t carry them because trying to keep track of where we can send certain books is just a real time-drain. Spiral-bound books usually aren’t because they could take the spirals out and use them for whatever. Those are the main restrictions, but we still get occasionally weird bannings and rejections very often from jails more so than state prisons. Federal prisons are at the level of state prisons in terms of what they allow. Jails have the worst policies, generally speaking, it’s just sort of determined by the warden in charge there. If you want to talk later about some of the rejections that we’ve gotten over the last couple of years, I can speak to that, because I usually handle the appeals process as it exists.

TFSR: Yeah, I would like to hear about that.

I’d also like to hear though, you’re filling a need. I get a picture that at a certain point, maybe in the 1950s or 60s or 70s, that prisons maybe didn’t always have – it is dependent on the prison – but prisons had a more robust legal library for people to research their cases, or for writing appeals, or more literature, that at some point, education as a part of the “rehabilitation” part of prisons was a bit more funded and a bit more focused. And so a project like yours may be – unless a group had a specific ideological mission of like, “we want to get more Muslim books in the prison, or we don’t want to get more pagan books in the prison” – maybe there wouldn’t be as much of a demand. But that’s changed. And I wonder if you could give a sense, as you understand it, of what prisons libraries look like, and what prisoners’ access to educational resources or reading for pleasure looks like in North Carolina prisons.

LL: I will try to the best of my abilities. I have not seen a prison library, but we hear about them pretty frequently. I should mention that doing the COVID pandemic, which is still ongoing, libraries have often been shut down. We’ve heard that across the state many state prisons have shut down their libraries, or that sometimes they shut down visiting the libraries and then had a cart they took around, but maybe the person who took the cart around died of COVID. And then no one is there to take the cart around. So some people told us we are the only access point for getting new literature right now. So right now it is in a particularly dire state in North Carolina.

However, in general prison libraries, I can’t speak to the 1950s. But given the boom of the incarcerated population, I’m not surprised by the amount of need that is not being addressed by libraries in prisons, particularly legal needs. We get a lot of requests where people are either suing the state or trying to appeal their own case or going through other cases, and they have access to almost no legal help. They can’t communicate effectively or to their satisfaction with their attorneys, if they even have one yet, they don’t understand all the terminology or what they have to do. We have an extremely limited stock, as you might imagine, and paperback up-to-date specific accessible law books are not widely provided and easily accessible by us. We try our best and the number one thing on our wish list is always the intro to criminal law and defending yourself. If anyone looks at the Prison Books wishlist that we have up, but we go through those extremely quickly. People are very poorly informed by the system about their rights and the ways that they can appeal or sue and try to protect themselves. So that’s, unfortunately, something we see a lot of, but that we, as just a small group of volunteers sending books for education, entertainment don’t really have to resources for, and there’s a huge need for legal help within the prisons.

It’s something that you mentioned before that I had forgotten, the religious outreach. I’ll say that we do get not a huge amount of requests for spiritual and religious literature. As you said, there are lots of organizations willing to provide that, and no other kinds of books but literature about that. We do get requests often for religions that do not have as many groups, who are less represented inside of prison, like Rastafarianism, paganism, satanism, that sort of thing. There’s often a pastor inside of a jail or prison, and you’re not going to have that for Rastafarianism or something.

TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about the stuff that that gets rejected? I’ve spoken with other folks that do books to prisoners and hear about books by Franz Fanon, or George Jackson, or Angela Davis getting denied because the content relates to prison and is critical of prisons. What stuff gets kicked back to you and why?

LL: I wanted to add a little bit of perspective on rejections that we had gotten. Firstly, zines, because we send zines all across the country, just as a glimpse into the reasons that institutions all over the country might reject things. One of the most recent rejections that we got was of a literary magazine Words of Fire which has publications of art and literature from incarcerated people across the country. And therefore, we think it’s very important that they also have access to read it all across the country, whether they are authors or might want to be authors. We had a rejection in Connecticut of it, because it was on printed paper and was not considered a real publication. And we’ve been doing several weeks of phone calls and some letter-writing to try to appeal this. Because they are worried that “having anything beyond what looks to be easily printed or copied paper will have inmates calling their families to send them copied paper, or printed paper, straight out of books”. And the mail then will be flooded, and they won’t be able to deal with all of the rejections and appeals of rejections. We’ve had it also rejected before, from Florida when I was trying to get it to an author we’d published because it supposedly contained commercial content, which is incorrect. Because we don’t get paid for any of our services. And they also supposedly continue to quote “disallowed content” with no description of what that would mean. That was in 2019.

Some of the other things that we’ve gotten rejected across the country include the GURPS, the General Universal Role Playing System, which we sent out, it was rejected from Texas for having fighting styles in it, which, by the pages given, was referring to rolling dice for hitting another character or doing damage or having a bomb go off as an example for this role-playing system’s damage. We’ve also had rejections for supposedly promoting insurrection or posing a threat to safety and security for things like The Lectures On Liberation by Angela Davis. Florida is definitely one state where it’s very bad to try to get things in. And we’ve had things like Tai Chi being lumped into martial arts, for example, over this. Some of the other bannings: The Art of War has been consistently requested and consistently banned in North Carolina. It’s not currently on the banned list, but we’ve still had so much trouble sending in the past that we haven’t challenged it this year, because of the number of rejections we’ve gotten over the years in the past. The New Jim Crow was banned but that was overturned in 2018 because it was a national outcry about it. And that being overturned actually got them to redo their system of how they banned books. So they looked at that list again every year, and it actually overturned, a lot of other things being banned. Although you can tell from the banned list, including Twelve Years of Slave and Malcolm X books and things like that, that they have not fully fixed the system, which some might argue shouldn’t exist.

A lot of our rejections, as I said, aren’t bannings, they are actually just blanket blocks that do not care about the content that you are trying to send. For example, we had a jail recently write that we do not accept books on a package, despite having talked to them within a month about them accepting our books, and having word given to us that they did still. Sometimes it just depends on who’s in the mailroom. There was a federal institution in the state that just rejected something and then I called them, I was just told that was probably the other post and “I understand what your packages are, we’ll take them in”. One instance, in particular, it’s really been an odyssey over something like three or four months this summer and the fall was that there was a state institution that was allegedly having issues with drugs being smuggled in in packages. So they cut off all outside packages and then re-approved vendors and distributors like ourselves on a case by case basis. And we had not yet been re-approved, so I called the captain and we had a few discussions. And he said, he went up the chain and got us re-approved after a little less than a month. And then when we sent books to the people who had written to us from there, half of them were rejected, because those inmates, in particular, hadn’t filled out a form and been approved to receive books. So we had to set up a system where every time we got a request, I called them after that person was approved to receive books or not, and sent them. Except for the two packages that we initially got in to people, every time I called the person was not on the approved list. And I asked whether maybe, since they heard from us that we have requested them and they want to receive books, maybe they could get that form to the people that I was calling about, but they told me that’s their initiative and they should know.

So that’s been a pretty frustrating time. I’ve just had a lot of detention centers and jails in particular not consider us to be legitimate or not know what zines are, or give us differing statements about whether we can get things in or not. As I mentioned, Durham jail hasn’t given us issues about us as a publisher but was just blocking books for several months because of the amount of, apparently, extra material that was built up and was a fire hazard in the cell. So there’s a lot of obstacles to face in bannings and rejections that can’t really be predicted and can apparently only be solved by weeks of phone calls. I hope this helps. Thank you.

TFSR: Do facilities ever have an approved book list that’s the inversion of the banned list?

LL: No, I have not seen an approved books list except in the case of one jail that went back and forth on a policy where I was initially told that they were going to have reading tablets and not allowing any books, any books besides the Bible or Quran, but then they said that was incorrect. And they would be allowing in certain books, but only new books, no used books, and also have e-readers. The E-Reader thing is a thing that we are extremely worried about, I say we, in this case, for all Books to Prisons groups across the country, because that is an approved list of books, that is what that is functionally because they have a catalog of books that they said, “No, these are okay for them to read. And they will pay per minute to use these expensive, breakable e-readers and not have access to any other literature”. So you can imagine people looking for specific legal help or niche interests, for example, someone looking for Rastafarianism, there’s probably not going to be a book about that listed inside of this e-tablet that they also have to pay to use.

So that’s very concerning to us because usually, in the case of prisons, digitization and technological advancements, which can look like progress in the outside world, is not progress inside of the prison. For example, changing from having in-person visitation to having a digital video visitation is not an improvement. Changing from having books sent in for free, that you can request on any topic, and having that be disallowed in favor of e-readers, is not an improvement. Or as we’ll talk about in a second, having your letters be scanned and reprinted is not an improvement of what we’re seeing with the letter. So a lot of times people will think, “Oh, things are going more digital, they’re going more virtual and online, this is advancement, this is progress.” And in the case of prisons, it isn’t.

TFSR: Yeah, and each of these steps basically shifts the whatever it be: the medical treatment, or the books, or the mail, or the phone calls, or the commissary, it shifts them into monopolies by specific corporations, that are prison industry corporations, that not only are they siphoning money out of the prisoners and of whatever supporters they have on the outside… In North Carolina, they changed the law about three years ago where people can only get money added, at least on their Jpay accounts, for spending inside of prison, they can only have people on their visiting list. Therefore people who have not, for instance, been convicted in some cases of felonies in the past. A bunch of limitations. Anyway, back on topic, as you say, you and I got in touch to talk about the changes to the North Carolina prison system that we’re snuck in a couple of months ago, we got a letter from a prisoner in the middle of the state, just sort of being like “Heads up. I can’t hear your radio but I have heard of your project and this change is coming”. Can you talk a little bit more about the privatization and digitization of prison mail in North Carolina and how it’ll affect prisoners’ communication with loved ones on the outside?

LL: Yes. On October 18, North Carolina state prisons switched for all personal mail – that’s letters, photos, and art and cards – they switched to having those be sent to the people who intended for incarcerated in state prisons, to having to send them to Maryland to be scanned by a company called TextBehind and then have copies reprinted by the prisons and redelivered. The announcement of this was subtle, I only found it because that was on the state prisons homepage looking for something else and notice the little pop-up that said: “Mail policy changing on October 18” and I happened to click on it. Otherwise, we would not have known. I should admit this doesn’t affect prison books operations so far. Although we are worried about the possible ban on physical books being sent in. Now it affects the loved ones of incarcerated people who are trying to communicate to them.

TextBehind is not alone in this. There are a couple of companies who are trying to exploit this very captive market of people who are trying to sustain relationships across the miles and across the bars and charging their money to either get their physical letters back if they send physical mail hundreds of miles away because otherwise, they’ll just be shredded. So you have to pay to get that back. Or if you want to do it easier, of course, they have an app. For using their app on TextBehind, letters are 99 cents, you can add photos to 25 cents each, greeting cards are 99 cents, and Doodle for kids. So you can draw on your computer and send that at 99 cents. And that’s only for partner facilities, it’s more expensive if the facility is not partnered with them. And you may not think that sounds like a lot but if you are trying to keep up a relationship with someone or start a relationship with someone inside, then 99 cents a letter, 99 cents a card, 25 cents for a photo – that’s very expensive. If you are sending physical mail, it’s a flat rate to get it back, I believe at around $3 or higher to get that sent back to you. So this could add up really quickly, even if you just sent one letter a week or a couple of letters a month or something like that. People don’t really have a choice in the matter if they want something that feels personal to be sent behind bars. And we just find this immensely worrying and honestly also unjustified. Because there’s really almost no data provided for why this switch is being made. But we can talk about that in a second with drug policies.

As a prison book volunteer, I have received countless letters telling us how important it is to have a lifeline to the outside where they can hold on to that letter that someone else wrote and see the signature and look at this and say it someone out there wrote this for me and intended it for me. Not to mention if it’s a kid’s drawing or something like that, it’s going to mean so much more if you’re holding the crayon drawing that your son or your daughter, your child drew for you. And it’s one of the things that sort of keep them sane in there. If correctional facilities, as they’re titled, were truly invested in making people more connected to humanity, kinder and more willing to invest in society, they would absolutely not be supporting this cut off from the people who are trying to keep relationships going across the bars, because it’s incredibly dehumanizing. Not to mention probably riddled with errors. Wisconsin also just announced that they are using TextBehind as of December 1. They put in their announcement that they’ve experimented a lot with TextBehind and there have been errors, they admitted cut-off letters where you can’t read the whole thing.

I know from my own experience of keeping records in prison books, that a lot of things don’t scan so great if someone wrote in blue pen, or on white paper with pencil, it just doesn’t scan correctly. The number of letters that TextBehind must be handling, I don’t think that it’s going to be 100% accuracy rate, which looks fine on their numbers, but for the person who gets a messed up, cut off or barely scanned letter or drawing, it’s going to be devastating because that matters so much. The people who wait for the mail, there’s a huge emotional investment in it. And it’s just really saddening to think about that being taken away from them. Not surprising, but extremely saddening. And unfortunately, it looks like North Carolina is going to be continuing that policy for the foreseeable future, despite so many people protesting it.

TFSR: TextBehind is a new project to me, but for the last few years, I’ve noticed that Pennsylvania prisons use a company in Florida called Smart Communications to scan and email their letters to print on-site at the facility. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, according to an article recently by Lauren Gill of The Intercept, appears to be moving forward from just scanning mail in-house to having a company called Mailed Guard do the same service for them. We’ve already mentioned this trend generally in the proliferation of private companies that are profiting from incarceration. This seems to be a rather frightening and growing pattern to capture that data and increase the costs.

LL: Smart communications is another one. And I just want to mention that the Pennsylvania ban initially also banned physical books, but there were enough protests that they changed that. So it’s only mail right now. And so there was some worry from Books to Prisoners groups that the ban on mail is going to continue to try to ban books as well.

TFSR: That’s quite frightening. I have to admit that I’m not very knowledgeable about drugs in prisons. I’ve heard that you can get many things if you have money and resources inside of prisons, especially depending on what state you’re in. But most ellicit items I’ve heard about prisoners getting a hold of have come through corrupt guards and other staff as they shore up their personal accounts because they don’t get as much scrutiny as generally incoming mail or visitors and loved ones who are coming in. When PA started using Smart Communications, it was after mail staff, screws on the inside, basically, were supposedly dosed by letters containing the drug K2 in the paper. But then again, this other Intercept article about the privatization of prison mail references talking to a director of toxicology at a major medical institution in Pennsylvania. And that person saying basically, you can’t get high off of that, it’s not like Angel Dust where it’s going to just go into your skin by touching it, you have to increase the temperature, and you have to inhale smoke, basically, for that K2 to get into your system. So it seems like an unrealistic expectation that was a major source of drugs coming in.

LL: Yes. North Carolina, in their announcement about TextBehind included a couple of sentences saying “the new mail process will also prevent drugs from entering the prisons in the form of paper coated in Fentanyl, K2, Suboxone or other dangerous drugs, these are harmful to breathe or even touch. This is something you would expect to have a citation. It doesn’t. The only spot of data that is mentioned in the announcement of this switch to TextBehind is the sentence “In the year following use of TextBehind in North Carolina’s four women’s facilities infractions for drug use, and possession dropped by 50%. Now, 50% is a pretty round and impressive number but there’s a lot of missing context here. They say the number of infractions for drug use and possession dropped. They don’t mention actual numbers, for example. This was also taking place during the pandemic for most of that year. Because most of that was 2020, so the number of people in prisons across North Carolina went down by a lot, you might think that would potentially affect the numbers of infractions, not to mention the staff being able to investigate that sort of thing. And they also did not provide any numbers for cases of drugs causing any hazards to the people inspecting the mail. There was no citation for that. And as you said, there’s been medical pushback from people saying that K2 and Fentanyl don’t come into the skin. I looked this up a little before the interview, and the American College of Medical Toxicology and American Academy of Clinical Toxicology agreed in a 2017 statement that you can’t inhale and get high from Fentanyl without really high, really long exposure to it, and that you can’t just absorb it through small unintentional skin exposure, it would not affect people. So I am almost impressed by the boldness of NCDPS just stating that flat out as a reason without citations in the announcement.

We have a Freedom of Information request that is making its way through the bureaucracy right now in trying to get any information about the hazards to people in the mail-room and how many drugs have come in through the mail. But, like you, I am skeptical about that being the way that most drugs make their way in. Texas saw a ban on mail for the same reasons, but their drug infractions didn’t go down because, as it turned out, they were mostly coming in through guards still. Some people say there’s a connection between that and guards having lower pay and they can make a lot on the side by carrying in drugs. When I went to a prison in person and got the tour when I was in college, I was told by a Captain that they mostly have to be careful about the guards bringing in contraband, that was just stated outright to the group. So this policy seems to be not only dehumanizing, but also not based on fact, and to make this huge of a change, there’s a burden of proof that they should make. But this wasn’t a law. This was simply a new departmental policy. People started commenting on our social media posts, when they put this out, like let’s call the lawmakers or something, but this was just something that was handed down and decided. The fact that privatizing prisons and prison services is just getting more and more popular, is very concerning to me. Because they can’t negotiate. And also the poverty of incarcerated people and their loved ones on the outside is statistically much higher than the general population. So they don’t really have alternatives other than to go to these services.

That’s my thoughts on that, but there are plenty of things to read about, particularly, the drug claims, investigating whether Fentanyl can actually give you an overdose just from touching it, or where drugs come through. There are lots you can read online, I suggest at least starting with the Prison Policy Initiative because they’re a good resource to keep track of the different policies going on around the country and their factual bases.

TFSR: That’s super helpful. Thank you. I do have another question about the implications of the privatization and tracking of mail coming in and out. But you did mention that when people started commenting on your social media page saying, “Hey, call politicians chant, challenge it,” the NCDPS is a part of the executive branch. So I guess you could put pressure on the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, but how do you suggest that people try to apply pressure, whether they’re in North Carolina or in any of these other states that are being affected by similar policies and some of the same corporations across the country?

LL: Well, we haven’t had success yet, it is my addendum. But I would find at least one phone number, one email, and one physical address to call or to write to to express your opinion, I’ve usually heard that phone calls are the best political weapon out of those three. But I know from personal experience that trying to get through the phone trees and the various extensions you have to press and voicemails you have to leave can be extremely confusing. So an email or a letter could also work.

Prison Books is not as an organization calling for people to do this push because we have to keep our services separate from this. However, I can say as an activist, that I would love it if people started writing to, for example, the Commissioner of Prisons, Todd Ishee, who is quoted in a lot of articles about the digitization policy change, to express your opinion, or writing to the general NCDPS mailbox, the address of which is at the bottom of every page of the NCDPS website, in Raleigh. What you basically want to do is make it obvious that it’s a lie to say people don’t care about this or that this is fine, this doesn’t affect people. You want to get the voices that are shouting out individually to be able to unify and be heard together. And we’re still working on that. But anyone who wants to be involved in the Free the Mail movement that has started forming between Wisconsin and North Carolina activists, because we’re both being affected by TextBehind in these most recent months, then they should, first of all, start looking through the hashtag of #FreeTheMail, and second of all, potentially email just to get the information where to go prisonbooks@gmail.com. Prison Books is not organizing this, but has information of people that you can get connected with to try to organize something against this,

TFSR: I have to say that a hashtag is confusing and also very catchy, since a lot of us use the #FreeThemAll. And those two look very similar.

LL: Yeah, I would suggest even for screen readers, you should be capitalizing letters for hashtags because otherwise, it’s gonna be a jumble of letters. It does look like that, but I looked it up on Twitter to do a little research about it, it was used for the Pennsylvania issue as well. There were some ideas thrown around of “don’t jail the mail”, but it’s prisons, not jails, that’s incorrect. Hashtags are going to leave some meanings out, unfortunately.

TFSR: We’ve been talking about the limitations that people on the inside experience with their mail getting scanned and sent to them and not being able to physically touch a picture that your child or that your sibling or whatever drew, getting an actual picture, these sorts of things, very sentimental, very charged with emotional energy and feeling, smelling a piece of paper that someone else has touched… Prisons are all about cutting people off from the outside and making money off of them.

The other side of this, as you say, the majority of people that are inside of prisons, or that are inside of a part of the carceral system, tend to be poor. And whether that’s because of survival crime, or because people have less access to lawyers or bail to be able to get themselves out, to be able to make a better argument to avoid charges, or because police tend to hang out in poor people’s neighborhoods – all sorts of reasons. And these industries, like Smart Communications or TextBehind are literally siphoning money out of poor people’s families when they’re trying to keep those connections.

And surveillance inside of prison, the panopticon idea, that’s a pretty common idea. But when you download an app on your phone that you’re paying for, and there’s the chance in this Lauren Gill article on the Federal Bureau of Prisons talking about them switching over to this privatized scanning and emailing of letters, talks about the amount of metadata that gets also put into the database of that private corporations so that they can market more stuff or sell that information if they want to to another third party that provides other “services to prisoners”, or that information is also available to the BOP or to whatever prison administration there is for tracking and surveilling the person on the outside that’s keeping track. Suddenly, there’s a permanent digital copy of this letter that somebody wrote to someone that could be used in some case in the future or to build a case or something like that. Can you talk a bit about the concerns of surveillance when people aren’t even necessarily committing crimes, but just trying to stay in communication with friends behind bars?

LL: Well, I think the article writers are probably more informed about that than I am, but I do know that TextBehind on their Services page does advertise a variety of their investigative tools and that includes communications, monitoring and looking for gang connections, and they keep the records. Not just the pictures, but the scanned text and the addresses and names of those who sent mail in their system for years, to possibly give away to other prison systems, the federal system, things like that. Yeah, they are using the people that they already have under their thumb and can watch with this panopticon set up to extend surveillance outside and try to make connections and look for patterns in a way that they probably think is very efficient, but which is frightening to any of us who are concerned about our right to privacy. But because it’s a human connection to people who are incarcerated being held hostage, people are going to have to make the choice about do I want to be able to talk to this person or do I not want to be put on a list of possible contacts to a third or fourth party to something that they think exists within the prison system. Having to choose between those two, that’s our choice that should exist, that should not be something that writing a letter to someone starts for you. That’s very concerning.

I’m always concerned about the privacy of people incarcerated as well. But I think a lot of people maybe aren’t aware of this extension of surveillance to those who were just in contact with and care about the people who are incarcerated. As you mentioned, Jpay’s changes, now you can’t send money unless you’re in the visitation approval. That requires getting approved, but also giving them information about you. This data harvesting and surveillance is really getting hooked on people on the outside as well.

TFSR: Well, is there anything that I didn’t ask about that you want to mention, or that you want to broach as a subject, Leigh?

LL: I would like to mention, for people who are looking for what they can do, that jails are often where a lot of bad policies will be implemented first because they have far less oversight. They are county institutions, so they don’t even have the state looking out at them. So if you’re concerned about privacy, education, cruel and unusual punishment, pay attention to a local jail, the sheriff, the warden, their policies, and if they make changes like “no one can send books here anymore,” or a lot of jails in North Carolina now have to send your letters to Texas to get scanned, call them, and deluge them because they have even fewer resources to dedicate to supporting what I suspect to be a lie of the danger that letters and books pose. In your elections, vote for a sheriff who has concern to incarcerated people, if that’s possible. And keep an eye on your local jail. And then also keep an eye on state policies. But if you want to start somewhere local, that’s where to start.

TFSR: And if you’re not much of a voter, you can still apply pressure during the period when there’s more scrutiny on what sheriff is running for office. Or if they’re working with ICE are just a couple of the potential…

LL: Yeah, that’s a big one. Everyone who’s closer is easier to reach. Make some noise when you can, when these policies get implemented near you.

TFSR: In my understanding, a lot of the Books to Prisoners projects are pretty independent and they keep in touch with each other and share news and resources from time to time. The project that you’re involved with covers North Carolina and Alabama, the prison books here actually, I can’t even speak to what APBP covers… But for the most part, don’t cover national stuff. And they pass off things in other states to people that are closer to them. Tranzmission Prison Project covers a lot of the US but mostly is in the southeast, as I understand. How can people find a prison books project where they’re at if they want to start getting involved in this sort of way?

LL: People can find local Books to Prisoners groups by looking at https://prisonbookprogram.org/prisonbooknetwork/ and searching for their state. If there isn’t one serving their state, then perhaps they can start their own. It’s not that difficult. Contacting really any of those listed on the directory will get you some advice on how to start up. Luckily, books are something that a lot of people want to donate. It takes not as much effort as you might think, I would say particularly X Books in Georgia started up about a year ago and have been doing very well and probably have a lot of advice for newcomers. For supporting us and particularly for Prison Books Collective, I have to say probably what a lot of nonprofits say, which is that money is our first need. Postage, in particular, is what costs us money, sending those packages out and every year the rate goes up. So if you have money to donate, donate it. If you don’t have money, then give us your time, if you can. We just started accepting volunteers again, as long as everyone is vaccinated and masked and we are still limiting the number of people that can come in.

And if you can’t do either of those, there’s probably online work that you could do if you got involved, whether it’s social media, applying for grants, reaching out to bookstores for partnership, helping with email. There is a lot of activism that you can do remotely, that isn’t just discourse on Twitter, necessarily, but actively working behind an organization to help them enhance their capabilities and do reaching out and things like that for them. Of course, we also take books for Prison Books Collective. You can email us if you have books to donate. However, I have to say we’re doing pretty well in terms of books right now. And we have most genres pretty well stocked. But as usual, law and DIY stuff is always in demand. If you have any books on homesteading, farming, fishing, or trying to appeal your case in court, then send them our way. We have a PO Box:

Prison Books
PO Box 625
Carrboro, NC 27510

You’re welcome to reach out to us on our Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, or through our email prisonbooks@gmail.com to ask us for more things you can do. A lot of people have come in with new ideas that have been very exciting to us. We hope that people can engage remotely or in person again, because we are an organization that works as a collective and we’re only as strong as the collective is. So we’re excited to have new people join us. And of course, I personally would advocate for everyone to just keep their ears and eyes to the news and look for a variety of news sources, not just the mainstream news sources about what’s going on, and to advocate for the destruction of the prison industrial complex as we know it. Thank you.

Grief, Storytelling & Ritual in Liberation Struggle with adrienne maree brown

Grief, Storytelling & Ritual in Liberation Struggle with adrienne maree brown

cover of "Grievers" novella by amb
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Today we’re excited to share a conversation with adrienne maree brown, the writer of such books as Holding Change, We Will Not Cancel Us, Pleasure Activism and Emergent Strategy. adrienne’s recent novella, Grievers, the first of a trilogy, was published by AK Press’ new Black Dawn imprint of speculative fiction. In this conversation, we dig into the book which is set in Detroit where a new illness that seems to only effect Black people (spoiler alert). We talk also about the role of speculative fiction in liberation movements, spirituality, ritual and grief in our organizing and holding space for inter-generational struggle.

You can support us by sharing our content in real life and on social media, more info at https://TFSR.WTF/Social!

Check out Scott’s prior conversation with adrienne on We Will Not Cancel Us.

Zine Catalog

You can find a catalog of our transcriptions to this point (Oct 2021), thanks to a zinester comrade. This could be good if you run a distro to prisoners and want to see if any zines sound interesting to them:

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Featured Track:

  • Locusts (feat. Finale) by Invincible from Shapeshifters

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Transcription

amb: I’m adrienne maree brown, I’m a writer. I write speculative fiction, science fiction and nonfiction that is about… maybe it’s called transformative fiction, transformative nonfiction. I’m really thinking about how we transform our conditions and transform ourselves to transform the world around us. And I recently moved this year from Detroit to Durham. Although I still feel my roots in Detroit and I’m shooting new roots down into the ground here in Durham, and I’m an auntie and a Virgo and a voracious feeler.

TFSR: That’s really exciting to hear. You’re in the same state as where we’re based in this podcast. I’m over here in outside of Asheville right now. So… welcome!

amb: I keep hearing I need to go there.

TFSR: Yeah. It’s a place. There’s a lot of good people there.

amb: It’s a place. [laughs]

TFSR: It’s beautiful.

Well, yeah, I love that idea of transformative fiction and I’m also thinking about speculative fiction. I first came to your work through Octavia’s Brood which is a collection of science fiction. It was so exciting to see fiction by people who are grounded in movement work. I use the stories when I’m teaching around liberatory science fiction. I feel like from that time, you and your co editors and contributors are making the case that science fiction and liberation work go together to envisioning a new world. And then you also kind of develop that in your nonfiction by kind of like theorizing through Octavia Butler, who’s a very wonderful science fiction writer. So I just want to start kind of generally, because I know people, especially people who are committed to changing the world will sometimes dismiss fiction as not important or escapist. I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about what you think stories can do, and especially stories outside of strict realism and how they help us?

amb: Yeah. I think that a lot of people throughout history, who have been trying to organize and change the world have realized that ultimately, what we’re trying to do is change the entire narrative inside of which we live. And that the narratives inside of which we live are what allow us to either accept the oppression, accept the oppressive conditions we’re in and participate and become cogs in them, or to see ourselves in resistance to those systems, or to see ourselves as transforming and creating something beyond those systems. And Gloria Anzaldua said that “we have to dream it before we can create it,” I’m paraphrasing. I also think the work of Toni Cade Bambara and the thinking of our work as artists is to make the revolution irresistible. That always comes into play for me here because anyone who’s organized for any period of time, we learned very quickly that if we don’t have a story that people can see themselves a part of, it doesn’t matter how good our data and our facts are, right? People are not going to radically change their climate impacting behaviors, because we’re all going to die because of what’s happening to the climate. We need a story in which we fall back into right relationship with this planet and what that can look like.

So I think, every advance that we have made for human rights, social justice rights, economic and environmental rights, there’s a story in there about how humans are changing that helps us to make that advance. So then the work of writers becomes really important. It’s actually on us in some ways to figure out what are new stories that feel compelling for people to move towards a future that involves changing themselves. And that’s one of the things I think Octavia Butler did really really well. I think she is like the master class of that because she did not write easy futures. She did not write utopias. But she did write worlds where we could imagine ourselves still wanting to persist and wanting to figure it out and wanting to form the kind of relationships that could persist through change. I hope that’s the lineage that I’m picking up and that there’s a whole generation of writers who grew up reading Octavia. Who are shaped and inspired by her and by so many other Black speculative fiction writers. And Ursula Le Guin – feminist science fiction writers and other folks. I hope that that field grows and grows. I want to see lots of people who are up to movement work also writing the stories of our future.

TFSR: I love how you’re talking about that and it made me think about people sometimes talking about how we need, on the Left, some kind of myth that is compelling. But there’s often a feeling of danger with myth, because we’ve seen myth be motivated, obviously, for horrific violence and fascism. And I’m wondering if you have thoughts about myth-making. Myth is a spiritualized story in a way. It has has kind of ritual and practice, that’s often part of it. I’m wondering if you think spirituality is connected in this fuller vision of the world that our movements need to engage with?

amb: Yeah, it’s interesting, I feel like I’ve come back around to it. I feel like this past two years has really been kind of a shock to my system as an organizer, and someone who has just deeply loved and cared about humans. Watching what this last two years has looked like, and how far we are from a future in which we could think collectively and make decisions for the community and not just for ourselves. So, I have been driven back to the spiritual realm, more in this period, in the sense of, I don’t think it’s enough to have a great case and a great set of information and a great even set of practices or a road map. I think that we have to attend to the aspect of humanity that thinks of ourselves as having some kind of destiny, some kind of purpose, some kind of calling for being here. I think, if we don’t, we cede that territory to the purpose of capitalism, the Manifest Destiny, the destiny of colonial efforts which is: we constantly grow and we accumulate more and more territory and material and then we die. You’re just trying to win the game for while you’re alive, and then you’re gone. And it doesn’t matter what you leave behind.

If we have a radically different purpose, which I think we do, I think our purpose is around loving each other. I think our purpose is around finding ways to be in relationship that transcend difference, that actually created biodiversity out of a bunch of different peoples. If that’s our purpose, which does feel spiritual, to me. That work feels spiritual to me, in the sense that it is greater than the material. It’s something that happens that we could feel in the body. I feel deeply connected to ancestors who I knew while they were living, and now they’re not in a body anymore, they still shape my decision making. They still tell me things that I need to do and pay attention to. I feel very connected to those who are not born yet. Generations that are yet to come, who have intentions and designs for what this world could look like. And I feel deeply connected and driven by the non human elements of this world. I feel that the water has a design and the air has a design and the creatures all have their purposes. I think we’re the lost ones. I think the humans have lost our way inside of the greater, greater narrative.

I think in the myth piece, the thing that comes to mind… I was recently taught this wisdom that an Ojibwe elder who has since become an ancestor, Walter Bresette, shared which is that the most European thing is to think that there’s one way to do anything. When I think about that, that colonial impulse, then the opposite of that is to have many, many myths, and to live in a world in which all of them can coexist and dance with each other. I like that. I’ve read some really beautiful collections of stories of origin stories and myths that people hold for the beginning of the world. They’re all really perfectly logical for their location and their time. I think we need to create myths that feel perfectly logical for our location in our time.

TFSR: I kind of want to pick up on this thread, but grounding it more and Grievers your recently published novel, which I really loved. And because In this discussion I’m going to talk about what happens in the novel, so I guess I’ll have to put some “spoiler alerts”. But the main character who we follow closely throughout, she, Dune, is grappling with some of this stuff very specifically, especially as it comes to grief and loss. But before I go more specific to that, there is a reflection that she has on this idea of cultural appropriation in the kind of rituals that we do, and wondering what her place is in that. Thinking also about the formation of Black culture and the history of cultural theft and how she’s trying to piece things together or sees the her elders doing that and what’s okay for her to do? And I thought that discussion in your in the book was really perceptive and flexible in thinking about how cultures…. what we do. I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about that and the formation of culture in our present actions in relation to the histories that we inherit?

amb: Well, I think if you’re okay with it, I want to read that paragraph that you’re referencing. So in the book, Dune is a very analytical character. She is someone who doesn’t think of herself as spiritual at all and she’s been raised by a mother who is very spiritual, and a father who was highly analytical, both of whom have now passed. And so she’s creating this, what she thinks is a research project in her basement, about all the death that’s happening in Detroit. And her aunt comes over and she’s like ‘it’s an altar. It’s a sacred space, actually, that you’re creating.’ So, Dune is hesitant about that, because she said ‘we never had a clear lineage, and I don’t want to be…’ and she talks about that kind of grabbing everything all around me. She says ‘I don’t belong to anything, it doesn’t belong to me.’ And what Eloise, her aunt, says to her is ‘when everything has been taken, filling that emptiness ain’t appropriation it’s something else. It ain’t pure, none of it. I think of these practices, my Orisha, my altars, my prayers and chants and all this accumulation of spiritual armor as something to comfort me when my ancestral ghost limbs hurt, because I need spirits so much. I answer what calls me. Spirit is bigger than any one lineage. It comes through all these channels. It’s complicated, beautifully complicated, but it ain’t appropriation. Not amongst displaced and denied peoples. It’s different. At minimum, it’s sacred data.’

So when that piece of writing was coming through, I was very uncomfortable. It felt like it was something that was coming from beyond or coming from another place that I needed to contend with and sit with. And it felt like something that also felt true as it came through. And I feel like I have sat in rooms full of displaced peoples. Peoples who, through the process of colonization have been intentionally pulled away from their indigenous stories and their indigenous landscapes and their indigenous songs and wisdom, whatever that originally was. And not only displaced, but then the multiracial and interracial pieces start to come in. Dune is an interracial character. And most of us in the US at this point are interethnic, if not interracial people no matter how we are viewed. There has been some straying from whatever that indigenous singular identity was. So I’ve been in so many spaces where people are being called by spirit into an action, and then are catching themselves and stopping themselves and in a way policing themselves. ‘Is this right? Is this okay?’ And I think that it’s such a complicated piece of ground.

In my own life have felt myself really drawn to spaces that had an intention to be shared. So I’ve been really drawn to the wisdom of Aikido. I’ve been really drawn to the wisdom of Buddhism. I’ve been really drawn into some of the wisdom and practices of Yoga. Things where there was an intention. There were teachers who were like ‘we want this to go as far as it can. We think there’s something universal here that everyone can use.’ And I’ve always defaulted to the idea of if someone in the room has this practice that they can authentically bring in… that’s good news. But I do think we all need practices. And so I think that there’s a big question for me right now, for everyone to be figuring out. How do I find the spiritual practices that help me line up with Spirit helped me actually hear Spirit? And how do I do that in a way that is what I think of is right relationship? Where I’m not dishonoring stealing or taking. And I just love this wisdom from Elouise that it’s like ‘if everything has been taken from you, then accumulating some practices is not a bad thing. It’s actually okay.’ And I think a lot of us need some permission to find those ways. And then inside of that to figure out how do I do this without causing harm? What does that look like?

TFSR: I really resonate with that. As a person who was brought up Jewish and pretty observant, and then rebelled against it, because it felt like it didn’t align with the way that I wanted to live in the world and then recently finding community with other trans and queer rad anarchists Jews. I was like ‘Oh, we can do this in a way that works for me.’ And keep some of the rituals that I grew up with, or rethink them. It’s such a big part of me but I don’t have to get rid of it.

amb: It’s even like a thing of releasing the shame that comes from not having those things, or from having them tied to a politic that you don’t agree with. I grew up in a Christian household and going to Christian church services. And I still love more than almost anything to be in a group of people singing together. Singing spiritual music, singing hymns singing in harmony with each other. It moves me. I love praying with other people. I love laying hands on people when it’s time to heal. All of those practices still generate in me a connection to Spirit, even if I needed to move them outside of a political context that was homophobic, and transphobic, and racist, and hierarchical and all those things that don’t align with my politic. I think there is something about reclaiming the practices that are around you, and that you grow up with.

Then I think there’s also, for me in my lineage, recognizing some place it got cut off that I need to be in a worshipful relationship with the moon. But I know that I need to be in a worshipful relationship with the moon, because the moon tells me that directly. Then I can and I have, can go research and try to figure out what are the practices for this. And what I’ve cobbled together is something between what I’ve researched and learned and what I can feel called directly to. And I think that feels really important to me. That as a human being on land, in relationship to the earth, in relationship to other people, there’s some of this that we have to be able to feel. We have to be able to trust that that feeling can cut through the divisiveness that colonialism implanted in our society.

TFSR: Yeah. I think that spiritual are the ancestral phantom limbs is a really perfect way of saying saying that. I think it’s an experience that people have, who might not even identify in those ways of having lost something or knowing that they lost something.

amb: On a deepest, deepest, deepest level, I think that so much of our fighting with each other, so much of our power tripping with each other, is because we have lost that place in us that needs to be in relationship to something much larger than ourselves. There’s a part of us that needs that. And if you’re like, ‘but it doesn’t make sense to me, that’d be one white guy on a throne.’ If that story doesn’t ***jouje out for you… then it’s like ‘oh!’ What I feel like I’ve been learning slowly is that almost every people’s has some part of our story that is about being tied into the land, being tied into the actual superstructure of nature, of the natural world, and that we are not outside of that, but part of it. That, for me, has been the way that I’m like ‘it doesn’t matter what other things are going on in your belief system. If you can go out and get in relationship with the land you’re on… you’ll be heading in the right direction.’ And it needs to be a real authentic listening relationship because the land has borders and boundaries of her own.

TFSR: I want to get a little bit to like place but sticking with ritual, thinking about grief, one of the really moving parts early in the book is the extended scene of Dune doing the work of dealing with our mother’s body. Cremating her. So I’ve been thinking about this via other texts, like how grieving itself can be a political act, and certain rituals can be forms of resistance. I’m just one wondering how you think what kind of act is doing undertaking in that moment? Is it just for her? Or is it belong to the movement in honoring her mother and her father, because they’re both people who had who had been part of movements?

amb: So I think that this is a ritual. I have done a lot of reading around death rituals. And it’s so fascinating to me how recent it is that there is this economy around death. That takes the bodies away from their families, away from their home, as soon as possible. That fills them with chemicals and puts them on brief display and then puts them inside of a box, that’s going to make decomposition very difficult, and then puts them in the ground, somewhere. That’s a very recent practice inside of the long history of humans. A much more common practice, in most places, has been some variation of washing the body, some variation of sitting and honoring the body, being with the body, everyone getting to come and say goodbye. And then a process of burying the body into the dirt or burning the body, setting up a pyre pushing it into the water. But there was so many ways where it was like ‘return to nature, you came from the dust and into the dust you shall return.’ Right?

So in this story, it’s an economic resistance. Dune is like ‘this system did not care about my mom, it did not protect her did not keep her alive, and they don’t get to touch her now.’ So there’s a part of that that’s just the resistance that poor people get to have of ‘I’m not going to keep giving my body over to systems that do not care about me. I am not going to give the bodies of the people I care about to these systems. I’m gonna take her into the backyard and do this myself.’ And then I think there’s the labor of it. It’s very much Dune setting off on an individualistic path. I hope that readers see throughout the whole time that there’s all these places where Dune probably needs more people around her right now, but she keeps turning in towards herself. What happens when you keep turning in towards yourself. This is that first big move. What would that ceremony have looked like if she had invited her community members into it with her? What would have happened if she had let movement hold her in that moment? She’s not ready to do that yet. It’s also why it’s the first novella in a trilogy, because this is a long arc. I think it’s a long arc to move from that individualistic path to something more collective.

TFSR: That was actually something I wanted to ask you about because I think that’s a huge dynamic in the book – between isolation and community and the conflicting desires that one can have around that. So Dune, for much of the book, is isolated in her grief. But I think in addition to the family members that she’s mourning, she’s grieving that community that she doesn’t feel like she can take a part in or there’s some obstacle for her. Even though she was kind of born into it in a way because her parents and her grandparents were part of this community work. So this also connects to the illness and the theories behind the illness in the book. What do you think the relationship is between grief and an attempt to recover this intergenerational sense of struggle? Is there like a need to do personal work to be able to get to the community? Does it prepare us for community?

amb: One thing I wanted to interrogate was, I know a lot, a lot of people in movement who have kids. I know a lot of people who are like ‘ Oh, because my parents were movement people I wanted to do something different.’ And a lot of people, even if they ended up coming back into movement, there’s a part of them that’s like ‘I need to go somewhere else.’ There’s some natural rebellion, that natural differentiation from your parents. So part of it was I wanted to write that. You can be steeped in it, and then your rebellion is to go the other way. And so in some ways, Dune’s rebellion is to be this introverted isolated character, who comes from hyper-extroverted, deeply interconnected people. She’s never quite felt that connection, that space to get to be her authentic self.

There’s a critique of movement inside of that, that movement can have a very prescriptive way that you have to be in order to be accepted in it. And if you don’t fit in… I see people doing this contortion all the time to try to be like ‘how do I fit in and belong here?’ I want movement to be the kind of space that sees itself. All the movements that are concurrent, to be spaces that see themselves as sanctuaries for people to come and be, however we are, moving towards justice. And instead I think it can become this narrow path. ‘If you’re like this, you’re gonna get to justice.’ It becomes heaven. It’s like ‘if you just do All these little rules, you’re going to get to the utopian end game.’ And otherwise you’re cancelled! Or something else is going to happen to you. So I wanted to get permission to Dune to go about this in her own way. And then I wanted to be in an exploration of how do you authentically awaken the desire in someone for community? And then how do you authentically meet that desire with community that can actually nourish what the Spirit needs?

TFSR: In a way, that moment with Eloise is sort of a crossroads for that. But one of the main conflict of the book is that everyone that is surrounding is getting stricken by this illness. Thinking about, that still on idea of grief… One of the theories that is in the book, because there’s not an explanation necessarily of what’s happening, but it’s only afflicting Black people in Detroit. One of the theories is that the illness is some kind of accumulation of grief, mourning the movements and I was thinking about our last conversation where you were talking about how we haven’t fully grieved the effects of COINTELPRO on on the Black freedom movements. What are you trying to capture about Black grief in this book? And the contradictions? Because Dune experiences contradictions, also being interracial. What do you hope to convey about the experience of intergenerational Black movement work through that affect of grief as the main one?

amb: That’s a great question, Scott. I mean, for me, I think there was something I am interrogating around Blackness in general. Which is, there’s this expectation that we will persist and keep trying and keep living and keep creating culture and joy and magic without an acknowledgment of how much oppression, how much trauma, how much torture, how much death, how much accumulated conditions are still impacting us. So there’s never a moment of ‘wow, that was horrific what happen to y’all.’ and reparations? ‘Wow, this should not happen.’ Abolition. It’s never clear like ‘no people should have to live through this level of police killings. Seeing the data, we recognize, we need to change our ways.’ It never happens like that. So what happens is, we’re constantly in pandemic conditions. Combined pandemic conditions, depending on where you sit inside of Blackness plus your economic status, plus your educational status, plus these other things.

So, when I was living in Detroit, I started writing this back in 2011. And what I was seeing was, the city was just towards the end of this massive economic crisis. We were heading into the emergency manager period, and there was just this idea of ‘how much can you try to humiliate a Black city and act like Black people don’t know how to govern or how to manage our own budget and finances and our water.’ Just the insult of how people respond to Black leadership. And the inability to give any space for learning, right? We’re supposed to go from having no access to power to sitting in those positions of power and doing it perfectly without that space in between to necessarily get to practice what does it look like to govern in different ways. So there’s a grief, there’s shame, there’s rage, and all of that is accumulating in the Black body. And it shows up as early death.

What I was noticing around me was the Black people in my life don’t live as long and the deaths tend to be so unnecessary, and so tragic and often born of exhaustion. Things that might happen to other bodies, but we don’t have the spiritual immune system to respond to it because of how much we’re carrying. So I wanted to write about that, and particularly Detroit. I’ve had a lot of people say that they see their city in this book as well. Folks are like ‘there’s a lot of Black cities in this because there are so many similarities of what it means to be Black city in this period of history.’ But I wanted to spend some time there and I wanted to feel my way into it and feel into what does it look like to pay a debt of grief? Is it possible? Is it possible?

In this book, at least, the initial answer is even trying to begin to turn towards it… It overwhelms. It’s that much. And I think that a lot of us feel that way. If I actually stopped to let myself feel everything that me and my people are going through on a daily basis, I would not be able to go on. That feeling is always right there. Just there. You got to just push forward. Because if you look back, it’s your you’re going to get sucked into that. So I also wanted to name that and see if we can still find something compelling to help us move forward.

TFSR: That’s interesting. I’m hearing you on that idea of if you’ve stopped and let it catch up with you… I feel like that’s still an internalization of that need to be productive and a kind of individualized feeling that doesn’t actually reflect on the way that this kind of pain and death happened to individual bodies, but it’s the effect of a larger social war that’s going on. That’s creating the conditions in which people perish.

amb: This is part of it, too. I know you can’t compare pains. I deeply believe that. I know people from every kind of possible background. And what I know is that the human experience is mostly aligned and similar. Mostly we are struggling to belong. We want to feel safe. We want to feel dignified. We get hurt. We’re trying to recover. For everybody, of any background. So then inside these constructs that get set up, the whole idea of these constructs is to divide us from having these common human experiences, so that some of us can be manipulated, can be oppressed, can be overused. So that we can produce what others need. And for me, the tenderness when you recognize that just by being born as a Black person, there is nothing about me, that is necessarily distinct from the human experience. Every human is miraculous, and has the capacity for all the same magics. It’s all there.

But because of this construct that someone came up with, which again, the story, the power of story. Someone came up with a story of superiority, and because of this story an unimaginable and too heavy amount of trauma has been allowed and enacted upon my lineage. Yeah. And right now is this interesting moment where Black people are looking each other like ‘Okay, our lives matter, we’re gonna raise the bar, we’re gonna hold this standard.’ It becomes necessary than interrogate what is Blackness inside of this ‘Black matters’ right? If our lives matter, do we mean everybody Black? Monolithic Blackness? and we started to really have to name ‘we mean Black trans people, we mean Black disabled people, we mean Black queer people, we mean Black homeless people, we mean Black people with HIV and AIDS, we mean Black incarcerated people. ‘We’re really talking about all the people who have experienced the brunt of this weight. Those intersectional Blackness’s. Those are the lives that we want to center and uplift inside of this mattering. So even those kinds of conversations, there are people who are like, ‘I’m not even there yet!’ We’re in a really interesting moment inside of Blackness.

One of the things Octavia Butler always did brilliantly was say ‘a Black story is a human story. If I’m telling you a Black story, no matter who you are, you should be able to relate to it because it is also a human story.’ And I think we’re in that moment on a grand scale. The story of what’s happening with Black people, not just in the US, but globally. The story what’s happening with Black people is the human story right now. And it’s not the only human story. The story of what’s happening with immigrants is the human story right now. The story of what’s happening with incarcerated peoples is the human story right now. What we have to constantly be able to do is recognize our humanity as never, ever actually separate from those that we are trained to see as lesser than us. That’s where the path has gone astray. And that’s what we have to figure out how do we return ourselves to ourselves?

TFSR: Yeah, that quotation from Octavia Butler also makes me think. What I love so much about her work is how complex the worlds and the situations and conflicts and emotions. Nothing is straightforward. It’s always kind of ambiguous or ambivalent in ways. It made me think also about James Baldwin, and Everybody’s Protest Novel, He’s like, ‘the novel isn’t here just to send a message of Black politics, it’s to render the complexities of experience.’ And so in your book, there’s this tension between is this a Black illness, which in a way makes Blackness this simple thing. But what the illness is, is that accumulation of grief through the stories and the history. And that goes back to the way that you’re kind of parsing Black Lives Matter to not be the monolithic, we know what we mean when we say Black, but that it’s this weight of it, and it’s this history, and it’s all these intersections.

amb: Exactly. It feels important to me to note that I know a ton of Black people who have never been stopped by the police. I know a ton of Black people who’ve never been arrested. I know a ton of Black people who mostly have not even felt that personally endangered by the police. But when they start to pay attention to those numbers, then they have to interrogate ‘Okay, where in my own Black experience am I tied to that and disconnected from that?’ And what made that the case? I have a friend who was like ‘Oh, I went to an all white high school, and from there kind of moved on to a path where I was mostly socialized inside of white spaces. I experienced micro aggressive racism, but I never experienced that overt institutional racism until a later, institutional experience.’ It opens up the idea that there’s so much complexity happening within the Black experience right now, today. That’s why Black people run the entire gamut of politics. You have your Black anarchists and you have your Black Republicans. Everyone’s having these human experiences and trying to figure out ‘how do I relate to these constructs?’

I think it’s a really hard thing to want to be free of a construct. And for some people to think ‘if I deny the construct is there, I will be free from it.’ And for other people to say ‘we have to actually point at the construct, all of us together and tear it down, for it to not be there.’ And yet others to be like ‘that construct is permanent.’ All of that is happening concurrently. I get really curious all the time about that, because I can see that ignorance is bliss. I can see there are definitely some Black people are just bopping along like ‘it’s fine! It doesn’t happen to me.’ You know, whatever. And maybe it feels good inside of that. For me, when I’m denying something that is true. When I’m denying pain that is actually happening to myself or others, it actually causes me more suffering. It’s not just the pain, but the effort to hold it down. Or the effort to keep it locked behind a door. Eventually that effort becomes exhausting. So for me, I’m like ‘let’s bring it into the light and see if if we can be deconstructionist?’

TFSR: Yeah, what you just called to mind is Joy James who tries to distinguish between threads of Black feminism. There’s liberal Black feminism, there’s even conservative, and then there’s radical revolutionary. And she says ‘Black women in the position that they’re placed in our society in the US are seen as default radical.’ Even just speaking up against racism, which doesn’t need to have a radical perspective to be like ‘that’s wrong.’ That’s placed into this, ‘Oh, my God, that’s an outrageous thing to say.’

So I was just thinking about how there’s all these different ways to relate to this. To make this into a question… Because you’re writing this within the history of Black movements, and other kinds of community movements and liberal liberatory movements… I feel like one interpretation could be that these people who succumb to this illness are failures in some way. But I don’t think that’s the story you’re telling in the book. They’re not, right? But there’s not a revolutionary response, at least in this volume of the trilogy. There’s something else happening.

amb: Yeah, it felt important to me. I hope that it, as people keep reading the trilogy, I hope that it shows as a form of discipline, but I was really trying to be realistic. And what I’ve experienced every time there’s been a massive crisis is that even if people want to move straight to organizing, the part of us that needs to feel happens first. And even just this past couple years going through COVID processes, there was that first initial wave. People are actually grieving. People are losing folks and were really confused. We don’t actually know what to do. Let’s just follow the CDC even though we’re all anti capitalist, socialists, anarchists. People were like.. ‘Sure! Now, we’ll follow what they say.’

I wanted to be really humble in some of this. Because I totally got caught up in the corrective policing behavior of the beginning of this pandemic. I deeply did. I still feel the vestiges of that. I’m really trying to tease out in myself what is policing and what is protection inside of me. When I am walking out and I see someone without their mask on, the part of me that wants to be like, ‘You need to put your mask on!’ And then quickly this other voice is like ‘you don’t know what that person’s situation is! You can’t make assumptions!’ My responsibility is to keep my six feet of distance and wear my mask. What is the collective move that’s needed right now? All that still happens and I’ve been a radical organizer for 25 years!

So I wanted to be in that where we don’t always know what to do, especially when it’s happening when it’s overwhelming. And then there are organizers and what we see Eloise doing in this book is really holding the position of the organizer. I wanted people to see that even though Dune is on this individual path of her grief, organizing is still happening. People are being like ‘we need to figure out the response here.’ And one of the things that I love about Eloise is she’s like ‘we have to resist, but I don’t even know what way we need to resist yet.’ And I think that happens to us a lot. Where we’re like ‘we know this isn’t right. But we haven’t quite figured out which way we need to go.’ We get caught in the tension. Where my Emergent Strategy brain comes into this is that I think we need to be more open to the idea that we’re going to run multiple experiments concurrently. So in a way, to me, the book is that. There’s multiple things concurrently happening, and we get to see Dune’s experience up close, but there’s also other experiments going on.

TFSR: Interesting to relate it also to COVID. Initially when COVID happened I was like, ‘Oh my God! These contradictions of what we’re supposed to and do not supposed to do are gonna hit everyone and we’ll all rise up and do a general rent strike!’ Then that didn’t happen, but then the George Floyd uprising…

amb: I thought we were gonna be so clear. Eviction moratoriums and rent strike and the whole thing but then it was like… we’re not. But Minnesota turned the fuck up! They were like ‘Oh, well. We’re just going to take to the streets and y’all gonna catch up.’

TFSR:

I think that’s related. I think the conditions also what’s happened in Minneapolis wasn’t isolated to Minneapolis, but spread across the country and across the globe was in relation to the pandemic and the work that people are doing that isn’t as visible as a riot, but the kind of mutual aid care work that people were doing in the immediate effects of COVID and having to figure out how to survive when you’re abandoned.

amb: Right, and also the analytical work that people are doing all the time. I think that when something happens, when something like COVID happens, if we don’t have an analysis, then it can feel like an isolated event. Or we can be like ‘we don’t know why this is spreading the way it’s spreading and hitting certain communities the way it is and we don’t understand why these variants are emerging or anything.’ When you’re steeped in organizing, then you’re like ‘Well, I do have a sense of why and, actually, it is deeply tied back to what’s happening to George Floyd.’ Being able to make that connection of if you don’t care about the life of poor people, you don’t care about the life of Black people, you don’t care about the life of indigenous people and immigrant people, if you don’t care about the life of people who have disabilities or people who are struggling with a system, struggling with substances. If you dehumanize those people, then when something like COVID happens, that same pathway of thinking is just going to burn it all down.

Now, we’re in such an interesting place and I think Grievers in the real world are very aligned in that way. that we’ve lost a huge portion of people. It’s like ‘How do I still be normal? Now do we function? Now do we go back to normal?’ It’s a little bit more pronounced I think in Grievers, that normal is not available in the way that we currently seem to think it is. But in terms of the actual impacts, is just as unavailable to us now. What’s happening right now, it’s people who try to go about things as normal die. Then you sort of move back into a boundary, and then repeat the cycle. And because we don’t have any strong enough leadership to be like ‘actually, we’re going to change the rules, so that we can actually survive this a different way.’ We don’t have that kind of leadership.

TFSR: I mean, it’s like the negative side of running multiple experiments. Where I live, the school board just decided to lift the mask mandate in the elementary schools. And I got a kid in there. The people in the school are preparing for a spike, obviously, because this is unsafe. Everyone has a hand in this and no one’s actually on the same page.

amb: I think this is the interesting thing… From a scientific perspective, you run the experiments so that you can reach some conclusion. You gather the data, and then you apply that data. What I think has happened is that we can see the multiple experience happening around the globe. So my friend, Sonya Renee Taylor is down in New Zealand. So I’ve been watching how New Zealand is navigating this experiment versus how the US is. In New Zealand, they’re like ‘we got a case? Quarantine everyone. We’re going to track what unfolds.’ They are like ‘we found out exactly the moment that these two doors were opened in a hospital, and the Delta variant was able to move between the rooms and that’s how this person got infected.’ That’s something unimaginable that we would be tracking and be self responsive, and be able to say ‘we’re shutting everything down for three weeks until we have contained this’ and so on, and so forth.

So even at that level, we do have the multiple experiments happening, but we, as the US, is very locked in, we’re not going to learn from anyone else’s experiment. We will not let new data change our position. Which is a very American way, right? There’s really a commitment to ‘I’m going to put what I believe over any new incoming information.’ Because superiority makes you think that that can create a different reality. I don’t know if you’ve been following, but I can’t look away from the stories of people who were hardcore COVID deniers, and hardcore anti-vaxxers who are dying. I just keep reading these stories and feeling in myself, the complexity of emotions that get generated in that. Because I’m like ‘you are loved by people. There’s people who care about you.’ And in some cases people were like ‘we were fighting with them till the very end’ and they just refused to get help, they refused. And I find myself really mystified, like I really want to understand. As someone who’s in this novel writing journey, I really want to understand what it is in our human nature that allows us to create and maintain conditions of illogical danger.

TFSR: You know, I hadn’t thought about this before. But, a novel I really love is Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, which is also about a pandemic that is about Black cultural crossover into white culture and, and when the way that Ishmael Reed talks about Western culture as a whole – it’s a death cult with a propulsion to kill everyone in the end. Even the white people who are like helming it.

amb: I write about this in multiple ways, but…There is something you know, I’ve written about this in a number of ways, but I think that there is something…. if you feel really truly disconnected from spirit, like if you are like ‘I’m not connected to something that’s larger than myself. I don’t, I can’t feel it.’ I feel my connectedness to aliveness so viscerally that nothing can take it from me. There’s no argument to it. It’s so clear in me. It’s taken a lot of work to uncover that and get into it, and trust it, but it’s there. And I think there’s a lot of people who don’t feel that. In the not feeling of that, I think the terror is so absolute, you have to almost disconnect from being connected from any desire to continue living. That death cult piece, I think there is a grand scale collective suicidality that is at play and has been!

I don’t think it’s always been that way, which is important for me to remember. This is not our human nature, because there were many, many, many, many experiments in humans that have not moved towards death, or towards war, towards violence, towards guns, towards domination. There’s all these other experiments. But how do those experiments actually survive the onslaught of those who are really obsessed with moving towards death. Because in some ways, if you’re trying to move towards ‘power over’, you’re ultimately constantly moving towards death, because you have to always be in a position of defending that power, or having that power taken from you in a violent way. And, to me, that’s the invitation of ‘power with.’ You can be in a power that is not fatal with other people.

I’m cultivating that landscape in Grievers. It’s my thing for myself. I don’t know if you’ve read Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like. But it’s a memoir, political memoir, of a South African, anti apartheid organizer that I love. But I write what I need. I write what I need. Sometimes I like what comes out. A lot of times, I’m just like, ‘Well, it’s true, or it’s honest. It’s true to me.’ And what I feel like right now is I’m like ‘I need to write something that helps me see a compelling way out of this time. Because it’s breaking my heart.’ So I’m writing from that place.

TFSR: And I feel it in the book too. You talking about wanting to be realistic and you render the world in it really beautifully and richly. I love some of the striking combinations of adjectives and stuff like that. One thing that I just pulled out was ‘the calm waves sweeping Dune’s parents away.’ Thinking about it as a calm wave, but like the motion… I think that’s interesting to juxtapose with the speculative aspect of it. It’s really physical, palpable, embodied, and also connected to the seasons really strongly in a way that’s maybe counter-intuitive too. Because hardest time is summer, and then winter is where she’s reaching out to people. Do you have thoughts about the way that you were trying to render that kind of physical embodied experience in a novel?

amb: Oh, yeah. I really wanted to pay homage to Detroit as a location and what it feels like to move through the year there and what it takes to survive a winter in Detroit. It’s so cold and it can get so isolating, and you just need people so much. I have such sweet, sweet memories of discovering how to stay warm inside of a cold place. And then sweet, sweet memories of what spring feels like after a Detroit winter, which is incredible, and enlivening. And then summer. I also wanted to capture the fact that the places that are rotting, the places that are not being tended to… the summer can be really dangerous and fatal time. And so that’s what’s happening in this book.

I think we’ve been learning a lot about the seasonal aspect with COVID. It’s been interesting. Actually, the winter is so dangerous and summer actually gives us more space. So I wanted it to feel for people like no matter when they read it, that it can feel current. Like they can feel themselves in that world and in that particular Detroit. This is my book of grief, too. So it’s a grief of a certain time and place in Detroit, a certain set of people. So I also wanted to bring it to life forever, or as long as the book exists. I wanted it to be like ‘if you need to go be in that Detroit where Grace Lee Boggs was alive and Charity Hicks was alive and Shetty was moving around and David Blair was spitting poetry. If you need to visit that Detroit, it’s still here in these pages.’ And I hope other people also write about that time and place and people. But this was my offer.

TFSR: I want to actually pick up a little bit more on Detroit because you said people reacted to the book saying ‘oh, this could have been my city.’ But in a way I felt this is very much a Detroit novel. And I just read a book, a novelization of the riots in ‘67. And thinking back then the abandonment that’s so commonly known about Detroit was happening so so long ago, right? It wasn’t just in the ‘80s. It was like that in the ‘60s.

amb: And it’s moved in waves and waves and waves. Part of it is it’s a river city and things are always moving through that city. Detroit is a place where people have survived for such a long time in the absence of what we would call ‘success’ or being a ‘successful city’. And it’s one of the reasons I think Grace Lee Boggs said that ‘Detroit is what the rest of the country has to look forward to.’ Because every city goes through these cycles in different ways. Some cities never recover from them. And we forget the names and other places continuously recover. Detroit feels particularly unique in it’s not-going-to-give-up-ness. Because there’s been many moments where it’s like, ‘Okay, I think that might be it.’ But then organizers generally keep on going. People who wouldn’t call themselves organizers. One of my favorite things when I was living there was, that would I would meet people who were doing all the work of organizing, and they were like ‘I’m not an organizer. I’m a community member. I live in this community. And so I’m doing this.’ And I think it was that spirit in that location unlocked something about persistence that I want people to know about and think about and consider.

I also think it’s like a vortex city. Like Sedona, Arizona has that spiritual vortex around it. I think there’s something similar happening in Detroit. And I want people to consider that, that there’s a reason why it doesn’t disappear. There’s something Karmically that the city is moving through and learning about its true value, which I think is in its collectivism and in its fecundity, it’s in the proximity to the water, it’s in the Blackness that has moved up from the south, up the Underground Railroad. I think it’s a sacred place.

I know we are at time, but I also want to say to people that I hope that the book invites people to read a lot more from Detroiters and about the city. I’m a student of Grace Lee Boggs and her autobiography, Living For Change, is a beautiful piece of work. But James Boggs, who was her partner, an incredible labor organizer has a ton of writing an ‘American revolutionary.’ There’s so much good content that’s come out. And then there’s people who are living and writing and thinking and creating around the city now. So I hope that it’s an invitation to people to get curious about what is coming from Detroit.

TFSR: You really feel the space and the place and the relationship to the history and the people there and a knowledge of how people live and survive. So yeah, thanks for extending that to the larger canon of Detroit literature. Well, thank you. I could talk to you about lots of different things for much longer, I’m sure. But I want to keep this succinct. So thank you so much for taking the time.

amb: I always love our conversations Scott., I really do. I appreciate you inviting me on and I hope they’re of use to the listeners.

TFSR: Yeah. And I’m looking forward to the next the next volume of the trilogy. Thanks so much.