“Representing Radicals” Lawyers’ Guide from Tilted Scales
Resisting state repression and surveillance is one of the cornerstones of The Final Straw and has been since the beginning of this project. Over the years we’ve featured interviews with support committees, political prisoners, defendants in ongoing cases, incarcerated organizers, radical legal workers and lawyers and others to talk about how power strikes at those who it fears constitute a threat. For those of us caught up in cases, navigating self-defense through the courts, penal system and mainstream media can be treacherous, as we attempt to balance our political and personal goals with our lawyer’s desire to have us do as little time and pay as little money as possible to the courts. Winning in these circumstances can sometimes seem to pit a well-meaning lawyer or legal worker against their own client. Enter the Tilted Scales’ new book, “Representing Radicals.”
This week, you’ll hear Jay from the Tilted Scales Collective talk about this book out from AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, about anti-repression work, and about this book’s attempt to shift the culture of legal representation by intervening with arguments by radical lawyers, more intimately inviting clients and their supporters into the fray and new frameworks for approaching cases.
The Wrong Side Of The Law by Mick Jones from Mick Jones
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TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with any names, pronouns, affiliations, or references that would help the listeners orient themselves?
Jay: Sure, my name is Jay, I use they/them pronouns. I’m a part of the Tilted Scales Collection since 2017, and have been involved in anti-repression organizingmore broadly over the last decade or so.
TFSR: Would you talk a bit about Tilted Scales? Who constitutes its membership and what activities it gets up to?
J: Sure, we are a pretty small collective of anarchist legal support workers who have been supporting and fighting for political prisoners, prisoners of war, and politicized prisoners mostly in the so-called United States. Tilted Scales Collective was formed out of the North American Anarchist Black Cross Conference in 2011 and out of the need to build anti-repression infrastructure more broadly, but what folks were noticing was re-inventing of the wheel every time folks in the United States got hit with serious charges. There was a need to pull together or draw in resources and experience to rebuild some infrastructure for providing legal support. So our collective has written two books, the first book is called A Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant, which is published in 2017. And we recently published a follow-up book called Representing Radicals. And that’s what I’m going to be talking about a little bit more today. We also have given training and workshops about anti-repression organizing, as well as participated in numerous committees and legal support efforts over the years.
TFSR: Cool. And for folks who are unfamiliar with anti-repression work, a lot of our listeners have heard various conversations on the show about it, and those who have been with us for a long time may even remember a chat with folks from your collective about the Defendant’s Guide when it came out. But could you talk a little bit about the framework of anti-repression work or any of the cases that your collective has participated in, offered support for?
J: I guess the idea behind anti-repression work and organizing is that repression from the State is an inevitable part of making change, or building the new world or destroying this one, etc. Repression of some kind is going to be inevitable, people are gonna get hit with criminal charges. So anti-repression organizing seeks to, at baseline, do some harm reduction around the negative outcome of criminal charges. But also use the fact that folks, maybe one person or group of individuals, are facing charges as kind of a vehicle for movement organizing or building bonds of solidarity and coming out on the other side stronger. Some examples that I’ve been a part of… I was involved with the organizing around the J20 case back in 2017. I know other folks in the collective have participated as individuals, not necessarily as part of Tilted Scales, but I’ve participated in different legal support efforts for different mass mobilizations throughout the years, the Eric King Support Committee, etc.
TFSR: It makes sense to be coming out of the ABC conference, because, as you say, most of the work that Anarchist Black Cross does and has done historically is to give post-conviction support to people that have already been given a sentence, are already behind bars in a lot of cases. And so it makes sense to do the forward-thinking of how we A) decrease the number of people that are ending up behind bars, B) decrease the amount of time that people are going to be serving if they are going to do any time behind bars? And, like you say, with the mobilization and popular education element… What is better to stop people from interacting with Grand Juries than to have regular discussions where Grand Juries are a part of people’s vernacular? And what people are talking about, and you may not be able to totally demystify them, but at least making people aware makes them readier to be able to… Just like how talking about CopWatch, know-your-rights type education stuff is going to hopefully get ingrained in people’s brains that they can refuse to speak to law enforcement, or they can make those interactions as safe as possible or whatever. I think that’s super helpful.
J: Yeah, and I think that the Defendant’s Guide definitely hits on a lot of that. I know much of the guide talks about the different aspects that are involved in various stages of the criminal legal process, like what happens pretrial, what happens if you take your case to trial, what happens if you plead out, what happens if you are convicted, what are your options for sentencing and how to think about that? That’s one aspect of anti-repression work – that demystifying piece, the other aspect of it is helping the folks who are facing charges and their comrades move through that process while still advancing or moving forward with their political goals at the same time. And sometimes that looks like bringing those politics into the courtroom or into the way that legal support happens around a case. And sometimes it looks like resolving the case as quickly as possible so that folks can get back to the other organizing that they’re doing.
TFSR: The approach that was in the Defendant’s Guide, and which also shows up in Representing Radicals, it’s like a bookmark, a “This is the thing that you should pay attention to”. Obviously, it’s a lot more filled out in the Defendant’s Guide, but a Venn diagram of personal goals, political goals, and legal goals, and setting that out and working through the process of what that looks like for you as a defendant, what do you want to get out of this? What damage can you legally inflict, hopefully, on the process of repression to make it not profitable for them to ever try that again, or at least decrease the amount of damage it’s going to do in the meantime? That’s a really cool model that you present. I like the visuality of it.
J: Yeah, I like that model as well. I’m glad to hear that it reads well in the Defendant’s Guide. I think it’s been really useful in conversation with folks who are facing charges. One thing that our collective does is occasionally have calls with groups of friends or support crews who are coming together, sometimes after a big action (this happened a lot last summer) to help them think through the next steps in terms of navigating the criminal legal process. Thinking about options kind of as containing discrete but overlapping goal areas, or overlapping but discrete areas of impact is, at least for me. and seemingly other people, a useful way of being able to visualize what options exist within the context of the system that is fully designed to make you feel like you have no options or the only option is to be out immediately.
TFSR: That’s really well put.
So as you mentioned in 2017, you published a very timely Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant, just as over 200 people were arrested during the January 20, or J20 inauguration of Donald Trump had started building their legal defenses. The defendants from that case were over 200 people. This is not in a vacuum, obviously, following months of resistance at Standing Rock against the Dakota AccessPipeline in which I believe thousands of people participated. And a lot of people caught charges, although it’s notable that the federal felony charges all fell on indigenous people. You and the AK Press bumped up the publication date in early 2017 and got a lot of copies into J20 and I’m imagining NoDAPL defendants’ hands. I guess it’s always a good time for books defending radicals to come out, which is a depressing thing also. But would you speak about the general goals of this new book Representing Radicals? Who your audience is? Is this primarily aimed at radicals approaching legal work such as yourselves or legal workers who are shifting towards radical approaches at defense? Law professors? Should we be sneaking copies into public defenders’ briefcases?
J: I was not involved with the Tilted Scale Collective back in 2011 when the idea for the Defendant’s Guide was first dreamt up. But as far as I understand it, the idea to write this companion book has always been there. As you said, the Defendant’s Guide is written to anarchists radicals who are facing criminal charges and to their comrades and supporters and close people who might be wondering how to help them through that process. And, by contrast, Representing Radicals is mostly written to the attorneys who are representing them. So we tried to balance throughout the book the fact that some attorneys are going to be already quite sympathetic, maybe share a lot of politics with their radical defendants. For example, people at the People’s Law Office in Chicago or the CLDC or movement lawyers who’ve been devoting decades, their whole career to defending activists, anarchists, radicals, etc, Balancing the fact that there might be some people’s lawyers, but other people’s lawyers may not understand at all where their anarchist, radical clients are coming from, are less familiar with anarchists and radicals and concepts like movement perspective, non-cooperating pleas, etc.
The other audience that we’re hoping might have interest in this book would be law students who are still figuring out who they might represent, or how to bring in some of their ideals about the world into their legal practice. We really wrote this book coming from the idea that it could be something that defendants or a support committee could give to attorneys and say, “Here’s what you need to read to understand how to provide the best representation for me.” Or similarly, for supporters of defendants who are locked up pretrial, just to have a tangible resource that you can send to an attorney and say, “Here’s what you need to read to understand how to provide the best representation for my friend, partner, comrade, etc.”
One thing that in my own experience being a part of different anti-repression groups over the years that I run to is that oftentimes, defendants, as well as their supporters, run up against a variety of tensions, even in trying to communicate with and work alongside the most sympathetic attorneys, just because the role of an attorney is quite different than the role of a defense committee or a group of supporters. So, like our first book, Representing Radicals isn’t intended to necessarily be a protocol, a “how-to guide” telling lawyers how to do their jobs, but rather a guide to help people think through what they might want to achieve when facing charges, and how their attorneys can focus on those legal goals specifically, while still helping their client balance other goal areas. Personal and political, and whatever other goals a defendant and their comrades might have.
TFSR: It makes a lot of sense, something that I’ve seen in terms of conflicts come up between lawyers and radical defendants / their defense committees, or support committees is this ingrained – I think you’ve touched on this – this ingrained training in the US legal system: A) the concept of innocence and guilt is a strange one, B) also the idea that individual culpability, for a process when there’s way more dynamics in that and it leaves out the social context in so many cases, and people are often stymied from actually presenting social context to flesh out what was going on. I think that that process of thinking through… Like no incident is going to be exactly the same as the next… But like teasing the lawyer who’s reading it into, instead of just advocating or speaking on behalf of their defendant, to get them the best deal, which might include some sort of plea deal where they’re asked to name other people or whatever to get their charge down. If the lawyer’s thought is “My goal is to get my person as little time as possible and to end this in a timely manner”, especially if I’m a public defender and have like a stack of people to handle. And the challenges that the book poses and the quotes, also, which I want to get to in a bit, but trying to open up this whole world of conversations to lawyers who may be very good at doing their job in the way that they’ve been trained to do it. This might get them to think about the myriad of other ways of looking at the outcomes of a trial besides just what charges, what fees, whatever this individual defendant has to pay. I think that’s really important.
J: Totally. You really hit the nail on the head. Throughout the book, we talk a lot about what “the best possible representation” could mean to radicals, and oftentimes, the training that lawyers get in law school, really hammers home this idea that they have an ethical obligation and a professional obligation to provide their clients with the best possible representation that they can, which in criminal cases often equates to ensuring that they come out the other side relatively quickly and with minimal legal consequences, usually plea deals that are going to minimize prison time, minimize probation, etc. One of the shifts that we try to make in the book, a bit of a paradigm shift, is to help lawyers understand that, as anarchists and radicals who are thinking about facing criminal charges from a movement perspective, we’re gonna want outcomes from a legal case that are aligned with our political goals and principles, even if it comes up at personal expense, or even if that means unsuccessful legal outcomes or negative legal outcome. Also helping lawyers see that those outcomes in cases are in line with lawyers’ ethical obligation to their clients, so as long as their clients fully consent to the terms and have an active role in shaping what their legal defense looks like.
One thing that the book does hopefully pretty well is it includes not just our own perspectives, as of folks who’ve got quite a bit of experience doing legal support work over the years, but also includes the voices of a lot of movement attorneys, who’ve been doing movement lawyering for decades, who really restate that point over and over again… That actually it’s your clients and your client’s supporters and the projects and movements that they’re a part of that really should be driving the bus, and that the lawyer’s job is to listen to their clients and help them meet their legal goals, while still balancing their other priorities.
TFSR: The whole experience of going to court is a terrible thing. It’s meant to be alienating and terrifying and make you bow before the majesty of the representation of legal power and the sovereignty of the State to ruin your life. All that like standing and sitting and all the weird churchy stuff, leftover from the time of kings and queens. It feels really important to find this space to intercede and say, “Hey, you’re supposed to be this person’s… you got their back. So let’s talk about how do you understand what they’re saying?”
Also, I really appreciate the glossary that you provide, and some of the key concepts that you’re trying to introduce or shore up in the legal work. Could you talk a little bit about the glossary and what you put in there and what you’re hoping to achieve?
J: We decided to make the glossary pretty early on in outlining the book. And our decision to do so was partly to include terminology that, unfortunately, may not be familiar to every person who might be reading our books, like different identity terms are included in the glossary. And also, we wanted to break down what we meant by anarchist and other radical tendencies. We wanted to be clear about that. But we also use the glossary to explain a little bit these broader concepts: movement lawyering, collective perspective, politicized prisoners, prisoners of war. In the anarchist subculture, it might be unnecessary to define a glossary, but when communicating with a lawyer who doesn’t have experience working with anarchists, radicals, that particular population, it might be a new territory, very unfamiliar.
TFSR: There are also the quotes that you mentioned, which are interspersed throughout. You mentioned already a few, the People’s Law Office in Chicago and the CLDC. Can you speak to what the hope was by including direct quotes from people who do legal work as professionals and who work in movement and the idea of movement lawyering?
J: I know that we wanted to include the voices of movement lawyers primarily because we have experience doing certain kinds of anti-repression and legal support work, but none of us are lawyers, and so we felt as though there are some things that lawyers would just be more knowledgeable about and to speak to with more experience. We also thought that by including the voices of many attorneys who are movement attorneys and represent radicals every day in their professional lives, we could shift the conversation a bit. So that an attorney who is reading the book, who maybe is not in that world, would feel as though it’s more of a peer-to-peer conversation, as well as the added bonus of hearing from folks with a ton of experience doing legal support. By movement lawyering I really mean… I mentioned PLO and the CLDC. But movement-centered lawyering really happens when a defendant and their legal team take into consideration the defendant’s legal, personal and political goals in relation to the political movement of which the defendant is a part. One definition I read recently says that “movement lawyering increased the power and capacity of people involved in social struggle, rather than the power and capacity of the state and legal system.” I like that. So, movement lawyering, in my mind, is an approach that means not only meeting the ethical obligations of an attorney but understanding a radical client’s legal, personal and political goals fully when creating legal strategies and an overall defense strategy. And it means having some mental context for the case itself and understanding how that case situates in a broader movement and then using that understanding to build a legal representation that is going to align with the client’s goals and principles and interests, and possibly, hopefully, the goals and principles and interests of their supporters and comrades.
The other thing I wanted to say was that movement lawyering, even in cases where there aren’t multiple defendants and even when we’re not talking about collective defense necessarily, movement lawyering really does take into consideration other people who might be affected by the outcome of a particular case. That collective perspective considers the short and long-term political consequences of criminal charges and takes into consideration co-defendants’ affiliated groups and broader movement when making decisions about legal strategy.
TFSR: One of these quotes really stood out and I’m gonna read it at length…. The ethical obligation to the greater good by Dennis Cunningham, Esquire. It’s on page 91. “As lawyers, we have it drilled into us that we owe a duty of representation to each client, the rest of the world be damned. If something would make us hesitate before attacking someone else’s interests, our loyalties are said to be divided, and we’re supposed to avoid taking the case or withdraw. But wait, our political clients want and deserve to be represented on a political basis. If a client to whom we owe such unflinching duty demands it, we owe a broader duty to the client’s community or activist group to receive input from and account to their community, show solicitude for the welfare of others in it, act in ways that promote the esprit and effectiveness of the community, and take care not to undermine its values or the goals of the client’s activism. Call it intersectional lawyering, no adversary has ever tried to pierce the attorney-client privilege, because I met in solidarity with fellow plaintiffs, defendants, or legal supporters. My amazing activist clients have always been my teachers and my comrades and helping me hone this practice. And for it, we have all been the wiser, happier, and freer.” I like that quote.
J: I like that one, too. I think I’ve said it already, but one thing that that sidebar that you read from Dennis Cunningham really hones in on and one thing that we try to repeat throughout the book is, again, this paradigm shift from an individual defendant’s best legal outcome to more of a collective perspective that reimagines what it means to provide someone with “the best possible representation.” And within that thinking beyond the best plea deal, the best legal outcome. Yeah, and Dennis really says it well in that quote, thinking through actually, from our perspective, that is what a lawyer should do. And that is the job that they’re ethically obligated to do for their clients. Many movement attorneys do share at least some or many of the principles and goals of their clients. But even when they don’t, I really do feel as though it is the job of any attorney to be able to meet their clients on that place, and be able to provide your clients representation that takes into account co-defendants, takes into account broader social struggles. And that is their job, and that is doing it well.
TFSR: Could you talk a little bit about the introduction of concepts and realities of support committees into this? Because it feels normal for me and for a lot of us, I’m sure, to be like, “Yeah, of course, all your buddies are going to show up to court with you.” What sort of conversation are you hoping will come out of this? What sort of understandings are you trying to bring to lawyers around defense committees? I think it’s really useful that you talk about some of the complications that can come up.
J: In the Defendant’s Guide, we do talk a little bit about defense committees, aka support committees. By that, we mean the folks who show up to provide the political, personal and legal support for defendants as they move through the process. And that can look a lot of ways. And there’s a lot of different names for efforts like this, but all are rooted in community care and support in the face of systemic oppression or state repression. Some examples that come to my mind would be the RNC8, the organizing that was done post J20s, Water Protector Legal Collective, and all the other various support efforts that arose around Standing Rock, various efforts for a wide range of anti-occupation, anti-imperialist freedom fighters over the last several decades. We could refer to a lot of different formations or groups as different support committees, and most referred to them as something along those same lines. Sometimes it’s a formal organization that takes the reins with providing support, but often times, it’s like our buddies or friends, and it’s an informal group of friends, comrades, loved ones, tend to cover a lot of the bases when folks are facing charges.
So in the Defendant’s Guide, we talk about what is a defense committee how to form one, what might it do, what are some areas of tension that might come up? But in Representing Radicals, we really wanted attorneys to view the defense committee, or supporters more broadly, as potential assets for them to do their job well. From the mindset that attorneys and supporters can work together, they have separate goal areas or separate lanes that they’re driving on (to use this sad analogy) but to separate track. But really work collaboratively to provide defendants with a solid way of meeting their political and personal legal goals. Because too often, in my experience of doing anti-repression work, lawyers can view, groups especially, groups of supporters as threatening or feel concerned about attorney-client privilege, feel as though political organizing around a case might detract from the legal representation that they’re wanting to provide, might harm a client case, might do more harm for them, politically and legally, than good. And there are certainly legitimate concerns there sometimes, but we really do think that if we could demystify some of what a defense committee does for attorneys, many of them might hopefully be more inclined to work collaboratively or at least communicate about their boundaries and accept that a support committee might take other actions and that’s okay, so long as it’s okay with the folks who are facing charges. Because ultimately, those are the people who are going to be most impacted by how the lawyer participates and helps the support committee.
TFSR: Similarly, the book talks about the strengths and pitfalls of different kinds of media and breaks down different conceptions. I’m really proud that we could be mentioned among movement media in the book, that just delighted me so much. Can you talk about the things that you touch on and some of the suggested frameworks of approaching media that you makein the book towards lawyers?
J: I want to say that the Defendant’s Guide also talks about media and talks about it more from a perspective of if you and your comrades are wanting to produce media around a case, here’s some ideas for doing and some tensions that have occurred in the past in our experience, here are some awesome folks who are doing media already to reach out to, etc. I think about media as one area where often times, an attorney might bristle at the idea that a defendant, even indirectly through a support committee, might put anything out there about a case before a legal outcome is reached on it. And in Chapter 5 of Representing Radicals, we talk about how media engagement might help or hinder legal goals and some tensions that we’ve encountered in our experience, and also some considerations for attorneys who are advising their clients and their support committees on a media strategy. But the point that we’ve really tried to make is that, ultimately, it’s going to be up to a defendant (and potentially to their supporters) about what gets said to the media or what sort of media is produced. And that’s fine, so long as it’s aligned with a defendant’s legal goal and strategy and that a defendant is aware of and consenting to the impact that certain media might have on the legal case.
In fact, in my own experience, for example, I was involved with the support committee for CeCe McDonald, who is a transwoman in Minneapolis, who survived an attack by a white supremacist man at a bar and was charged with murder after he died. In that particular case, we thought media would be tremendously helpful in shifting the public narrative about CeCe, and also, in my opinion, had a tremendous impact on the legal outcome of that case, she was offered a plea that she felt she could live with, ultimately, and one that was, in terms of legal outcomes, substantially better than, in my opinion, what would have happened, had we not taken a media strategy in that approach, in that particular case.
For attorneys who are advising their clients about media, and many attorneys are going to say, “Don’t say anything at all”. And that is a fine way of approaching media if the client’s goal is to resolve the legal aspect of the case as quickly as possible, with very little fanfare. Engaging with unsympathetic media might not be necessary or effective or desirable, depending on the facts or the circumstances surrounding the case. But, however, like I just said, if the client’s goal is to shift public opinion about the political circumstances surrounding their case or, even more broadly, to shift a public opinion around the political circumstances of the case, so that it may have an impact on the legal outcome of the case, engaging with mainstream media or putting out your own media might be strategically necessary, even if it complicates the legal strategy or make the lawyer add stress to the defense preparation. And so we really want attorneys to understand that there are separate spheres that the support committees and attorneys are operating in. Attorneys don’t have to talk to the media, but other people might and that’s okay, so long as defendants consent to it.
TFSR: It’s cool to hear the experience around CeCe McDonald’s case because she was fighting such an uphill battle with that.
J: For real. And the early media that came out around her case was horrible. And she was facing at first one and then two murder charges in Hennepin County. So I do strongly feel that the political campaign and specifically the media strategy part of it really did directly influence the legal outcome of that case. And then more broadly, influence the community, public narrative around self-defense, around the intersections of anti-Black racism and transmisogyny, and the criminal legal system. I really do feel that media work was very successful in terms of meeting its goals. We were lucky in that case to have a very sympathetic attorney who was not involved in the creation of the media but consented to let the CeCe McDonald Support Committee do what we did.
TFSR: In 2013, one of my co-hosts, William, got to interview Katie Burgess from the Trans Youth Support Network about CeCe’s case. That felt really important for us to be able to participate in that. When you were talking about, before you named CeCe, I was thinking about Luke O’Donovan’s situation in Atlanta where he defended himself against young men who were attempting to queer-bash him. Being around for the court hearing, the actual trial, part of the trial, at least… but just seeing the impact.
Folks in his support committee did a really good job of framing some public narrative around the circumstances. Because I can totally understand a lawyer or legal crew deciding, “We just don’t want to engage, we do want to just keep our heads down, get through this and not become a target for either reactionaries or for the prosecutors. For the prosecutors often times try to frame these narratives around prosecutions anyway, because their literal job is to prosecute, not to resolve a situation towards justice. So if they’re gonna frame a narrative anyway, you might as well try to steer it in a different direction.
J: Totally. And I do think where it gets a little sticky, often it is difficult to talk about the context of a case and the politics of it and the ways that power operates within it, without getting into the facts of the case. And so it makes sense that lawyers would bristle about talking to the media before they’re able to do their job, which is to bring up the facts in court or negotiating a good plea deal based on the facts of the case. But I do think it’s possible. And I also think if someone, especially when we’re talking about situations where the charges might be not very serious, maybe it was a pre-planned mass arrest where folks willingly participated in it and are now facing not-very-serious-consequences, it totally makes sense to talk about the fact. It can, it doesn’t always have to, it could totally make sense to talk about the case publicly before a legal outcome is reached. As long as that fits within the defendants’ broader political and legal goals and strategy.
TFSR:To pop back to the quotes that you interspersed throughout the book, I could see it being pretty useful if a lawyer reads this, and they’re just they’re radical-curious, or if they’re going through law school and they’re trying to find a way to become a movement lawyer. It’s cool to think they suddenly have a list of names, a list of organizations that they can either intern with or contact and reach out and say, “Hey, I read this thing. I’m having these thoughts. Can I bounce some ideas off of you?” There are already organizations, for better or worse, that do varying qualities of jobs from ACLU to the National Lawyers Guild and other groups, other networks. There‘re already networks that include movement lawyers, but it seems like a good tool for networking movement lawyers.
J: Right, we hope so.
TFSR: Are there any topics that I didn’t ask about that you want to share on?
J: Well, I already hit on how this book includes not just our voices, but lots of input from movement lawyers, comrades, and also we wouldn’t have been able to write this book without conversations with other legal support workers who’ve been in it with us over the years. And just like our first book, this book is intended to be an experiment. It’s the wisdom collected from people and their networks for decades and in many of them for far longer than any of us entered the field have been doing this work. We hope that the experiment will help people fight back more effectively and better survive the brutality of the legal system. But we don’t intend it to be a definitive, only way to think about these things, but we do hope that it is useful, and we would love it to be a resource that gets used and built upon all the time.
TFSR: Just out of curiosity, though, the idea for this feels very novel, but obviously there have been periods when the struggle has been heightened, and at least in the US, I can think of certain decades or certain periods of time and movement eras when there has been more activity and more agitation and more arrests, whether it be the late 1800s, during massive labor strikes around the country, or the suffrage movement, or movements to end Jim Crow or the civil rights era, the 1920s communist and anarchist and socialist agitation, the “long 60’s”, obviously, or theClamshell Movement. Are there any other private experiments in this vein that you’ve heard of where radicals with anti-repression experience were trying to formally reach out to change the culture of lawyering, to bring more lawyer comrades into the fold?
J:This is a big on-me, but I can’t remember them. To my knowledge, there have been other publications that are similar to the Defendant’s Guide, but I’m not aware of anything like Representing Radicals that speaks to the way of representing radicals directly. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
TFSR: I didn’t know there was an inspiration where you’re like “Well, this is sixty years old at this point, so not really that applicable, but it is a cool idea”.
J: I would defer to other members of Tilted Scales Collective who are more involved in lawyering.
TFSR: So you are pleading the Fifth?
J: Yeah, I don’t know.
TFSR: How can folks get a hold of the book and keep up on the work of Tilted Scales?
J: The book is available through AK Press, it offers a discount on books sent to prisoners and bulk orders if you contact them about it. We really appreciate that folks from the AK Press and The Institute for Anarchist Studies are putting effort into this book to be more accessible. About the Tilted Scales Collective, you can learn by checking our website, Instagram, and Twitter with the caveat that we are not super active on any electronic platform, mostly because none of us really likes them, but we do try to make it easy to find out resources and we hope it will help people in their struggles. Our website, for example, does have a link to chapter 2 of the Defendant’s Guide, and direct links to other media we produced in the past, as well as templates that may be useful in you getting to work with a lawyer and specifically around navigating collective defense.
TFSR: Thank you so much for having this conversation and thanks for all the hard work and amazing stuff that you do.
J: Thank you, it’s really nice to talk with you and we are excited to see how this book impacts our movements more broadly.
This week, we’re excited to (re-)present a 2015 conversation with Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley, editors and authors of their book out from AK Press entitled “Dixie Be Damned: 300 years of Insurrection in the American South”. The book is a study of Maroon, Indigenous, White, Black, worker, farmer, slave, indentured, women and men wrestling against institutions of power for autonomy and self-determination. All of this in a region stereotyped to be backwards, slow, lazy, victimized and brutal. The editors do a smash-bang job of re-framing narratives of revolt by drawing on complex and erased examples of cross-subjectivity struggles and what they can teach us today about current uprisings in which we participate.
Throughout the hour we explore some of the examples that became chapters in the book, critiques of narrative histories and academia and what new ways forward might be towards an anarchist historiography.
Asheville-based punk collective called Bandits Never Die, in conjunction with the DIY-Bandits label, is doing an online fundraiser for Pepe, the founder of DIY-Bandits who is doing time in Federal prison. We interviewed Pepe before he went in in 2019, you can find a link in the show notes about his reflections of preparing for prison and what he’d learned about the realities of families of people serving time in the BOP. The benefit is a limited time print of a t-shirt and or poster and 100% of proceeds will go to support Pepe while he’s in prison (https://banditsneverdie.bandcamp.com/merch/i-want-to-believe-t-shirt-poster-combo). You can also see Q&A’s and some videos of Pepe before he went inside at his blog, https://preparingforfreedom.org
Anarchist bank robber and prison rebel in Greece is still healing from the attack he suffered at Domokos prison at the hands of guards under the New Democracy administration. G. Dimitrakis was held for a period in solitary confinement after the attack rather than be transported to a hospital to help treat his serious wounds, likely as an attempt to inflict permanent damage or kill the rebel. There is a new letter from Mr Dimitrakis that was kindly translated into English by comrades in Thessaloniki available on June11.org that we invite listeners to check out and will link in our show notes, alongside the original Greek. You can also find his firefund to raise court costs to argue for a quick release for Giannis Dimitrakis at firefund.net/giannis. Our Passion for Freedom is Stronger Than Their Prisons!
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TFSR: We’re speaking to the editors of a new history book out from AK Press “Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South” – Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley come on down. Thank you so much for your time.
Saralee: Thanks for having us.
Neal: No problem.
TFSR: So considering the relative popularity of regional histories and what this book is actually about, what brought you to write this book? And how does it diverge from what one might expect from a Southern history?
Neal: Yeah, there’s a lot of regional histories out there, and Southern history is sort of its own genre that draws up, perhaps a niche, but highly, highly fanatical crowds. So, that is something we encountered when we first started talking about writing the book. You know, our take on it, first and foremost was that we’ve read a lot of those histories, but always found them really unsatisfactory in either even remotely dealing with these kinds of rebellious moments and social movements and whatnot that we deal with in our book. But when they do deal with them, there’s these sort of very highly-scripted narratives, choreographed almost, if you will, that seek to explain the kinds of tension, social tension and social war that you see in the South. You know, just the short answer to your question, I think, is just that we found those explanations, highly unsatisfactory, in actually explaining, the roots of those tensions, and the kinds of conflict that happened in those rebellious moments and how those moments speak to today. Right? How they speak to the present. You know, we’re anarchists, we sought to write a book about Southern conflict and social conflict and social war in the South that speaks to those politics, but also just that actually speaks to the present in general.
Saralee: And I think that while there is volumes and volumes of regional history, specifically about the South written. There’s not much to speak of regional history written by anarchists right now. And we hope that in doing this, also, it inspires others to kind of take on regions that they live in and look at inspiring histories of revolt from around different regions in the South, and not just the South, but the country. And I think, furthermore, this problem that we have a lot as anarchists, especially Southern anarchist, is that we are constantly looking at history that’s in one sense, not our own, for inspiration. Whether it’s to the big cities in the US or Europe. And I think for us, it was about trying to find things that resonated. Because in order to have the history be relevant in your present, it is important to know about what revolt has looked like in your own region.
TFSR: To be a little more direct, Neal, when you were talking about tensions that get danced around? Can you talk more explicitly about what kind of tensions you’re talking about, in terms of histories written of the South?
Neal: Yeah, absolutely. It’s something we deal head-on with in the book, and that have this hypothesis as we’re doing the research and from our own politics and experiences. But that became more and more frustrating and explicit, as we learn more, and as we talked as collaborators and thought more was specifically like the way the progressive narrative has shaped the South. And I mean that in the broadest sense possible. I don’t mean, like left Democrat. I mean any narrative that seeks a sort of progressive version of history. And so with that the specific examples like you’re asking, could be the the way that people who do history with that narrative, gloss over social conflicts that are inconvenient to this idea that progress with a capital P is something that happens gradually over time and inevitably that it happens through modernity, industrialization, citizenship, the granting of rights from the State, etc.
And so there’s these pockets of conflict that we probably disproportionately focus on in the book. For example, after the Civil War during Reconstruction, pockets of conflict during the Civil Rights Movement, that breakout of both rights and Black Power, organizing models, labor conflict that breaks out of the workplace, only model. So these are kinds of examples that we focus a lot on in the book. To give a very specific example for Reconstruction, a lot of the major social conflicts that emerged post-Civil War involve various populations of dispossessed either, you know, for example, all Black communities or former slaves or mixed race communities of Indians and former slaves and poor whites in other areas of the South, challenging not just the former Southern regime, the former Confederate regime, but also simultaneously challenging Northern models of redevelopment that bring in waged work that bring in contracted labor that bring in certain industry. And so they’re fighting sort of a war on two fronts: one against this “capital S South” and one against “capital N North”.
That war, the fact that dispossessed people would actually burn down plantation property in rejection of the idea of labor contracts. And the rejection of paid labor doesn’t match with the traditional historical notion that slaves were trying to transition from slave labor to wage labor. So that breaks with both the traditional kind of lefty progressive vision, also the Marxist vision that people like W.E.B. Du Bois would would espouse.
Saralee: Also, in a lot of these registries, even Leftist academic ones, you have the problem that was that Reconstruction failed, right? That it was the Southern backwardsness, and there was this failure to instill this Northern project. So what we’re looking at is not that it was a failure, but that it was also rejected, actively rejected from the beginning.
Neal: That’s maybe a more specific example of what we’re trying to dig into real deep and get at this idea that the alternative to the traditional notions of like the conservative South that’s posed by most folks as like rights, citizenship, democracy… it’s not a real alternative in that actually those things existed and came about as ways to contain social conflict. And that’s a larger truth that’s sort of taken for granted and anarchist discourse, but we wanted to dig really deep into Southern history and figure out how that’s played out here. And we wrote this book for an audience at large, not just for Southerners. Because a lot of the major conflicts in the United States that have determined where political economy has gone, where social movements have gone, have all honed in on the South. So the major wars fought on this country’s soil: Revolutionary War, the Civil War, really primarily deal with the question of what to do with labor and political economy in the South, what to do with potentially rebellious people in the South, specifically what to do with people of color, specifically, African folks. And so this history becomes meant to anyone interested in questions of social movements or recuperation, or how social conflict is happening today.
TFSR: When y’all talk about the American South, what are you pointing to? What does that signify geographically, historically, and culturally?
Saralee: Yeah, this is a… this is one that we wrestled with a lot at the start of the of this project, one, because, of course, we wanted to include so much, you know, we wanted to think as broadly as we could about the South and include as much interesting conflict as possible. But obviously, that wasn’t… it’s not possible. And we are already kind of recovering in working with a lot in the 200 some pages that exist now. But I think one of the ways is to look at where, in kind of a pre-Civil War idea and definition of the South in terms of how specifically slavery played out in the Southeast, was an important marker.
What were the slave states? What were the states that did withdraw from the Union and engage that conflict. Because we knew we were going to be dealing with a lot of Civil War and post-Civil War land struggle. And so that was really relevant. I think, also, a lot of it had to do with what we found and what we had access to, and narratives that kind of found us in the process of writing the book. Neal and I have spent most of our lives in North Carolina. I spent a lot of my life in Georgia. You see a lot of Appalachian struggle show up because those are histories that are really palpable when you’re trying to look at these things like autonomy and less politically motivated struggle. Appalachia always comes up. So, I don’t know… How else would you characterize?
TFSR: First off, what do you mean by less politically motivated forms of struggle?
Saralee: Well, what I mean by that is in the way that people defined how they were in conflict and what they were rebelling against and what they were working towards. And so we definitely were trying to find periods, you know, in areas of rebellion that were not kind of self organized as Marxist as socialists, even as anarchists, but were more organized through kinship, through through ideas in connection to land, through ideas and connection to various forms of dispossession. Does that make sense? Rather than for a specific Political agenda, party, organization, platform.
Neal: Yeah. So, I think that sort of anti-political bent, if you will, and I realized that’s not a conventional use of the word. But I think Saralee summed it up pretty well. But that anti-political bent becomes important for two reasons. One, is that it speaks to our current political moment in the 21st century, where, you know, increasingly, you’re seeing riots erupt all over the country all over the world that don’t betray in immediate politicality in the sense that you can’t point to it and label it very easily. You can’t identify clear demands, clear representatives, clear negotiators, until those people try and emerge from outside kind of like the the ambulance chasers of whatever riot you’re talking about. And so, because so much defines our current political moment and the moment that anarchists seek to intervene in and engage in, that makes the history in which social struggles will also look like that back in the day, really important because it speaks to the present.
The other reason I think that anti-political bent is very important is because without it, you can’t actually digest social conflict in the South, because the South hasn’t had a lot of the same degree of politicization of social movements that have happened in the northeast, for example, or the Midwest areas like Chicago or the west coast, where you have, for example, large immigrant communities bringing very established philosophical ‘isms’ like anarchism, socialism, communism into social movements, and really giving a very clear political trajectory to those movements. That happened a lot less in the South for a huge array of reasons. And that’s not to say, when we say that a social struggle isn’t political, we’re not saying that it doesn’t involve visions of new ways of living, new forms of life, that it doesn’t involve questions of decision making, or egalitarianism, or questions of power dynamics, or ethics of care, strategy. What we’re saying is that it doesn’t involve an institutionalization of narrative of structure, if that makes sense. And I realized that’s a little vague, but I think that becomes particularly important in the South because of how the South developed differently.
TFSR: What stories do you focus on in your seven chapters? Why did you choose those? And what are you hoping that the reader will derive from them?
Saralee: I guess, just to give an overview… the book starts in early 1700s, and runs along the colonial territories of Virginia, North Carolina, and the Great Dismal Swamp. Looking at a kind of evolution from the Indian Wars against colonial settlements into maroonage as a form of both escape from plantations and slavery into a form of attack. So the Great Dismal Swamp was an area that was deeply feared and hated by colonial Europeans. They didn’t understand that kind of geography, they didn’t like the animals in it, and then quickly became associated with territories that were controlled by escaped slaves. And so that area is… it’s important. Not only because of how long of a period of revolt that went for well into the 1800s. But also, just from the beginning of the book, setting up the importance of the figure of the maroon, and the social position of the maroon as not something that was just an identity formed out of escape or running away from these systems, but directly engaged in attacking and trying to end slavery.
So I think that creates like a strong basis for some of the kind of subjects that we look at throughout the rest of the book. And then we move on into the Civil War period, specifically in the Ogeechee area between the Ogeechee rivers and Coastal Georgia. Where we are looking at the kind of struggle for land and autonomy and for life without labor contracts that Ogeechee people were engaged in, in that area. So from like, 1868, to 1869, but definitely starting from the onset of the Civil War to well into like the early 1900s. Along all those tracts of land that Sherman initially had kind of gifted back over to former slaves, and then that was immediately rescinded by Johnson.
So looking at that, and then into another period of really interesting Reconstruction Era revolt called the Lowry Wars. Which was in coastal, eastern North Carolina. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the Ogeechee struggle because while the Ogeechee insurrection was pretty much entirely Black former rice workers, were rice slaves, the Lowry Wars focuses on a multiracial banditry of Lumbee Indians, poor Scots-Irish whites, who had kind of integrated into the Lumbee ethnic and cultural world, and also former slaves who had escaped and joined the Lumbee tribe. And their attacks on Reconstruction plantation society similar to Ogeechee in that planters were returning to lands trying to trying to kind of reassert their power that well at the same time Northern labor institutions like the Freedmen’s Bureau were trying to get people to go back to work through introducing of the wage contract to the labor contract. And so we see a lot of different forms of resistance in the Lowry’s there. And then there’s a little bit of a leap into the coalfields and Tennessee and I’ll let Neal talk about a couple of chapters there.
Neal: Yeah, so from there the book sort of takes a bent towards focusing on what at first glance might be a more sort of traditional radical or lefty history in the sense of focusing on labor and labor battles. But the labor battles we choose to focus on are pretty specifically chosen to highlight a struggle that challenges that model. So, the next chapter that comes to pass is called the Stockade Wars, which refers to a heightened period of conflict in the early 90s in eastern and central Tennessee, between Black and white free coal miners, as well as almost entirely Black prisoners in conflict with various mostly Northern owned coal companies and railroad companies as well as the actual state of Tennessee and the National Guard. And they’re they’re basically fighting against the convict lease, which is what a lot of listeners will be pretty familiar with, probably, but was a system of re-enslavement by which almost entirely poor Black folks were imprisoned for small offenses, and then they’re physically leased out to private companies to do their labor, especially in mining and in railroad, also often timber as well in the deep South.
They’re fighting that system, which was a way to undermine the power of waged workers as well as exploit the dispossessed generally. So that resulted in a pretty unusual alliance of people fighting out of their own interests and social networks against those companies in the state of Tennessee. You know, what comes to pass is that laborers and prisoners end up burning down company property, looting company property, and then setting prisoners free, giving them clothes and food and helping them get out of the State. So you have a situation where Southern white folks are actually freeing Black prisoners and helping them get out of the state. And so some pretty unusual alliances develop in that context that we don’t often read about or think about. It’s not a typical workplace struggle, if you will.
And then, with some interludes, we skip on to a Wildcat struggle led by women also in eastern Tennessee, in the mills, in 1929 in Elizabethton, Tennessee. It’s a bit of a leap, but it involves similar issues that are at the fore. But we focus also to a large degree on some of the gendered constructs that break down in the heat of a wildcat struggle at primarily to mills and Elizabethton, Tennessee in 1929. And the dynamics of conflict internal to that movement. The ways that the union sort of helicopters in at the last moment to try and sort of negotiate the struggle and how that dynamic plays out and how that prophecies what’s going to happen in central North Carolina with the much larger mill strike activity starting in 1930.
From there, the book goes on to focus on a period of Civil Rights as well as Black Power and urban riots that happens in the late 60s, sort of dealing with like, digesting how the New Deal and how other government programs managed to kind of subsume and contain that period of radical labor conflict. And so what you see decades later is a lot of really heightened social conflict that deals directly with the identities around which some of those new deal concessions, avoid or sell out, right? So Black folks, women, queer folks, things like that, movements like that.
And so we deal next with urban riots that erupt beyond the boundaries of both Civil Rights and Black Power as narratives. And we try and deal with some of the urban riots that are have often been ignored in the South as emblematic of a kind of social struggle that can’t be contained by the Political narrative with a capital P. And so it exposes some of the limitations of Black Power and identity, as well as the rights framework that the Civil Rights movement is basing itself around.
And then to sort of close out the book. The last chapter deals with a large women’s prison rebellion in 1975, in Raleigh, North Carolina. We chose that because we wanted to focus on a prison struggle that hadn’t been talked about much we also chose it because we wanted to focus on something dealing with prisons, just because of how that’s emblematic of where political economy and institutions of control and exploitation are headed. But in that time period in the early and mid-70’s, it prophecizes against sort of the world we live in today. And so we focus on a five day uprising at a women’s prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, and sort of internal dynamics of that revolt and how activists sort of negotiated for it and within it, how the administration’s dealt with containing it, etc, etc. And then we close out the book with a concluding sort of a more meta chapter that basically is our own notes for historiography that might break beyond some of these leftist narratives of Southern history that we’ve been attempting to challenge throughout the book as a whole.
TFSR: So the 40th anniversary of that struggle in the Raleigh women’s prison is coming up in June. Is there anything going on? Do you know?
Neal: There should be! It would be a great June 11 thing for people who celebrate June 11. I guess, for listeners who don’t know that is, but it’s the remembering and celebrating long term anarchist and eco prisoners struggles. But yeah, no, I mean, there absolutely should be.
Saralee: Every Mother’s Day there’s a big demo, which was just last Sunday, at the… what’s kind of closest to what was the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women. So it’s basically the same facility in the same neighborhood. And I think maybe because of that, it’s hard to turn around and do a June event, but there definitely should be.
TFSR: I’m not trying to interrupt the flow of questions. But since you’re gonna be doing a book opening right around that time… the event will be spoken about in a public setting again, which is pretty damn cool.
Saralee: Definitely. That’s a really good point. We should we should bring that up.
Neal: You should just show up. And, you know, yeah, go ham with that.
TFSR: Throw bananas from the crowd.
Neal: Why aren’t we doing anything for the 40th anniversary? But I don’t know sir!. Who’s that crazy man with a banana?!
TFSR: And I warned you!!! Can you talk a little bit about the process of collaborating and writing this book, like do the chapters come out in each of your voices? Or do you find a different, not third position, but like fourth or fifth?
Saralee: Whoah, that’s deep.
Collaborating has been for both of us one of the most frustrating and surprising and just kind of alchemical experiences of the last few years of my life, I think. Neal and I came into this project with a lot of affinity and I think a lot of seeing a lot of each other in each other. That makes sense? And being like, “Oh, we can work together!” And then, you know, obviously, through any kind of deep collaborating like writing a book together, I think we just were able to strike this balance where my writing background is deeply abstract and theoretical, and I had never written anything this kind of concrete and material before. And I think it was really helpful to have Neal’s writing background which is really different than mine. To be able to force deadlines, and also to just kind of know. He’s had five more years on me of writing. So I think we kind of ended up playing this dance between deadlines and having to just like force stuff out and just get it done. And then also, having a really good editing process between the two of us. We both catch different things and see different things. I don’t know, it’s been really interesting.
Neal: Yeah, I feel like if two or three years ago, somebody’s been like “you’re gonna collaborate with one person on a writing project for two and a half years.” Or two years, or however long it’s been? Maybe three at this point? I would call them crazy, and never want to do that. But I think, because it emerged gradually, we learned how to do it sort of over time in a way that was… you know, it wasn’t like we were writing for a university that gave us a deadline. This is our own project that we’re passionate about. And that we have written in… basically in the cracks of the things we actually do with our lives, which are a lot of wage work, and then a lot of actual political activity in the streets and projects that are our primary priority, I think.
And so, you know, and all the friendships and ethics of care that have to come along with those things. Those always take priority. And so this is a project that emerged in the cracks of those, and I feel like at least for me, I got a lot better at collaborating without an appropriate amount of space for it to take up and ways to communicate about it. But it’s an intense thing. I think for anybody who’s listening… everybody knows if you ever tried to just write text for a flyer with another person, it can be really hard. You know, you can kind of be like two bulls with horns slamming into each other about it. But try doing that for three years! You know?
It’s been a joy. I’ve actually really enjoyed it. I’ve become a much better writer and a better thinker, and I think a better person through it. Hopefully a better communicator too. In terms of your question of voice. I think that’s up to the readers to tell us what they think, that we did a good job with the voice. But I think at least what we were going for was the same voice in all of the chapters. Our vision for the project at the beginning was not to have the book be read and experienced like an anthology by different authors but by one voice and one political vision and set of ideas and interpretations. Which is not to say me and Saralee probably agree in terms of interpretation about everything, but for the most part the book is a singular shared set of narratives around what we’re researching. And I think we did a pretty good job with it. I feel pretty good about it, having read it more times than I care to ever again, through the editing process.
TFSR: So would you say it’s the kind of book that someone could just pick up and delve in anywhere? Or does it serve the reader more to start from, you know, introduction and go through the whole thing?
Saralee: Well, I think if you start from the introduction you get more of a… I mean, definitely, we wrote in the introduction to be read, not as some kind of like aside. We spent a lot of time collaborating on the introduction and conclusion and was most fun, I think, for both of us to write those. But no, the thing I love about this book is that you can just pick it up, start in a section that you already have interest in, or maybe something’s inspiring you to read that. And then if you like it you can read the rest. So I do think that’s helpful. Especially in dealing with such a big book. I don’t want the size and like the scope of the narratives to be intimidating, or to feel like, “Ugh, I have to read all of this?!” So yeah, people should read it however they want, really.
Neal: I’m gonna add one thing on there. I do think, you could pick it up. You could be in a bathroom and pick up one chapter and just read the chapter by itself and get something out of it. But the chapters are inter-referential both directly in the sense that you’ll see a sentence that’s like “just like in Ogeechee blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” That’s the next chapter, whatever. But they’re also inter-referential in terms of the ideas. Just to give an example, the kinds of interpretation we have over conflicts around citizenship and assimilation that occurred during Reconstruction period speak directly and immediately to the kinds of internal conflict and recuperation and containment strategies that the state uses during the Civil Rights period.
Specifically those two moments Reconstruction and Civil Rights 60’s / 70’s era. They speak to each other in history, so they speak to each other in the book. You’re going to get a lot more out of reading about those urban riots in the way that the state contains them if you read about the way the State sought to contain conflicts post-Civil War. Because the strategies are very much related and the way they manipulate and exploit and contain Black rage, specifically Black rage are highly connected. And so actually, the book is very much a unified whole, in that sense. And I do hope that people read all of it.
TFSR: Through a few sections of the book you talk about the creation of whiteness, can you talk about race and how y’all tried to handle it in this book?
Saralee: I think that any book or text that is grappling with the history of the American South, but also the history of this continent has to directly deal with the forced enslavement of millions of Africans, of the genocide of the people that were here before colonizers showed up. And also, through that the creation of whiteness as something separate in a privileged kind of non identity, then the marked identities of people of color that were created through these violent colonial regimes. So it’s not a separate topic, you know what I mean? It’s just how we have to look at this history. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant, right?
So I guess, I don’t want to treat race as like a separate topic. It’s part of the narrative and kind of spirit of every single chapter throughout. In terms of specifically the creation of whiteness, one of the reasons that the Great Dismal Swamp was really important for us, just looking at the struggle on the dividing line of North Carolina & Virginia, is that some of those very first distinctions between the indentured Anglo servant and the enslaved African happened in these territories and in these struggles. So what happened when an indentured white and an enslaved Black… Well, those terms weren’t even used yet but an indentured Anglo and enslaved African ran away together. What happens when they’re both caught, right? And so, the history of how those two subjects are created differently is the creation of Whiteness in that early period. And then you see it evolve throughout the book. You want to talk about the evolution of it?
Neal: Yeah. I mean, so I really like what Saralee said. We are not interested in talking about race as like this separate thing, or even as a separate product of identity. But part of this larger whole of development and resistance that are always happening, you know, in tandem with each other and against each other. We talk a lot especially in the earlier chapters about primitive accumulation as this sort of… it’s a classically Marxian concept but we take a pretty different take on it. And we’ve been influenced by people’s like Sylvia Federici’s understanding of that, whereby primitive accumulation is not a one time event, but something that continues to happen over and over and over again. It’s sort of capitalism, or what the State or various structures sort of constantly weeding the field, if you will, to renew their own projects.
In much the way that Sylvia Federici highlights a focus on the witch hunts and women’s reproductive power and women’s bodies in Europe as an often overlooked aspect of primitive accumulation for capital in Europe, the creation of Whiteness as a concept as something which previously sort of disparate groups could could gather around. And likewise, the creation of different ethnic groups and identities and Blackness becomes a part of that process, it’s part of primitive accumulation in the United States. It’s something that hasn’t been talked about, perhaps as much as it should be as a way that Capital made its own development possible on this continent. It couldn’t have happened without it.
And so on the one hand that’s where you find the origins of Whiteness. It’s also where you find the origins of Black identity, not just as a victim of these forces, like democracy or divisions of labor, but also in the process of resisting those forces. So, Blackness emerges in places like the Great Dismal Swamp where people, on the one hand, are victimized by Capital and plantation life and the State, but they’re also coming together and forming a sort of pan-African identity vis-à-vis their resistance, so they have direct agency. And that’s also something the Marxian narrative of primitive accumulation never takes into account is the actual agency of the dispossessed. They tends to view them as sort of passive pawns. And we see this process of primitive accumulation also as one in which resistance takes place. And that’s the source of a lot of these identities. And so when we talk about race, we’re trying to take that larger picture into account and you know, whether or not we succeed in that is up to the reader, but that’s what we’re going for.
TFSR: And I like the way that you see on page 268, where you address this. Like where you suggested, for example, that race and its inherent violence could be re-framed from question of identity and belonging to a method of government. And where you go on from there, I thought was also another interesting way of posing it, not only in direct relation to that ongoing process of primitive accumulation.
So you get a bit heady and introspective with your views on history, historiography and storytelling. So, what were some of the things you were wrestling with in writing and editing this book concerning… I guess, in particular, what I was getting at with that question is…
Saralee: Well, I think an interesting thing that happened in writing this book is that… There’s a theorist, Walter Benjamin. He was an antifascist, and I don’t want to call him a communist because he would have hated that. But he lived in in the early 20th century in Europe, and he killed himself at the at the border between France and Spain when he thought he wasn’t able to escape the Nazis. He wrote these really beautiful, right before he died, these really beautiful theses on the philosophy of history. It’s a text that I discovered when I was really young and probably really misunderstood it. It didn’t really actually come to make any sense until I was engaged in this writing project. And Neal had also been reading Benjamin and been playing with that as well. And, honestly, I think to give a shout out to the work done by folks in the West Coast who wrote that and I think they they brought Benjamin into the anarchist context in a really fierce and relevant and beautiful way that made me realize it was okay to read non-anarchist theorists and use them when trying to write a book like this.
But yeah, I think basically, the work by Benjamin by Federici by Foucault, you know, all those kind of European all-stars. We don’t use them to to try to sound important or to try to like obscure our own ideas, but I think we tried to pull out threads of their concepts of history that just felt really relevant in our context and more specifically for Benjamin. So, our goal in working with such a large amount of material and definitely having to… we had to order the book in somewhat progressive fashion just in the sense of dates. But we wanted the actual work to speak beyond that. And so, for us getting away from the linear progressive narrative that Neal was talking about earlier is looking towards a version of writing and doing history where capitalist time, colonial time, all these different structures of time, that are that linear progressive narrative break down in these in these moments of rebellion.
And that’s the word rupture that we use a lot, right? Is to kind of mark where the time of work, or the time of imprisonment, or the time of enslavement is destroyed, even if just momentarily by those actors, by those subjects. The difference between something like a rupture, or what we would say, and what we’re referencing a lot in the insurrectionary time and historical materialism an introduction, And then something like a progressive version of revolt is that at the end of a progressive revolt, the idea is that the subjects are reinstated and are just in a better position than they were before. Right? Those are things like rights and things like getting your demands met, right? And then what we’re looking at that breaks with that concept of time, is the time of the rupture, where you don’t return to the same subject position afterwards with just better conditions, right? Life kind of halts for a while, and new life forms and new forms of activity are created. And obviously, we know these are temporal. These are temporal junctures, they don’t last. But they’re important for us to to seize on and to hold up. And it’s those memories that get washed under, and get erased, and get ignored in progressive histories. Is that helpful?
TFSR: Yeah, definitely. It seems like, and I hope I’m not just reiterating, but in those moments, if you ever experience those moments of rupture, when the world stops, it’s like you can see the potential for a line of flight out of it at that point. It’s like you can see that utopia or not…you know, whatever, whatever Uopia. You know?
Neal: Yeah, I think for us, that’s where for, well I should say for me, but I think for us? Where, for example, a lot of these writers, these theorists, but especially Benjamin, becomes really exciting because he had a lot of courage to basically break with the Marxism of his day which was saying that communism is a product of these inevitable but gradual historical forces. And, you know what that does is it takes agency away from us as actual people acting on the world. And it also means that to a large extent it’s this inevitable, despairing version of history. There’s not really… for example, I remember Marxists, orthodox Marxists responding to the Zapatista rebellion when that broke out and was big in the late 90’s. They would be like, “well, it’s really inspiring, but doesn’t really matter because they haven’t become proletarians yet, so they can actually progress”
Saralee: Or Du Bois says says the same thing about the Maroons In the South.
Neal: Right, Du Bois sort of writes off the Maroon rebellions as this thing where like, well, they haven’t become wage workers yet. So it’s like, they wouldn’t know how to make communism yet. It’s kind of arrogant. And it’s also just writing off this period of really important history. And so in our historiography, and you in the conclusion we sort of… it is a bit heady, I suppose. But also we try and get into a lot of concrete examples as to how that progressive version of history causes historians to ignore really important stuff. Because they don’t find it interesting, because it doesn’t present any possibility to them of the gradualism they’re looking for.
And to your point, the important things in those insurrectionary moments… One thing that’s important is that sometimes a riot leads to an insurrection, which leads to a social revolution. So, it’s not just a visionary, imaginary exercise, they do actually lead to real ruptures that can be permanent. Right? But also, even when they don’t do that, like what you just said, Bursts, that I really like is that they are these lines of flight. You’re in this moment, behind a barricade and you suddenly realize life doesn’t have to go back to normal. The line of flight can go towards any of these things that we have words for like the commune or anarchy or the wild or whatever.
And so doing history differently allows us to see, I think with more clarity hopefully, those moments that provide a line of flight. Whereas, for example, doing history of vis-à-vis, the traditional labor history model, just to give an example tends to not give you a line of flight so much as a way to see how to press for individual workplace demands. And that doesn’t actually provide you with the same kind of line of flight, as might a Wildcat strike in eastern Tennessee whereby they burned down all the city infrastructure and steal from the rich. And so it’s not just a matter of they’re more militant, it actually is that the content and substance is different.
Saralee: And how people are transformed in those moments are different.
Neal: Yeah, that is another aspect of this messianic quality that Benjamin talks about is that it changes the actors themselves. And that becomes really important when you talk about all the ways that race and Capital and gender and the State have made us who we are. We need those moments of transformation. We need Fanon’s psychoeffective violence to change ourselves. We have to go through that violent process or otherwise we can’t change ourselves either. So, there’s an individualist component just as much as a collective one. Yeah.
Saralee: Yeah, like that.
Saralee: Yeeeeeah. Psychoeffective Violence.
Neal: That’s, by the way, my DJ name.
TFSR: I was about to say that! I was about to say that needs to get looped, and just like… a good beat underneath it. Anyway, this brings me to the question about what is an anarchist historiography? And are you attempting to frame one out at the end of the book in the conclusion? Or is it more of a challenge and a call?
Saralee: I think we attempt to frame it out, but it’s definitely through the context of the narratives in our book. And so, we don’t kind of transpose an idea of our historiography onto just a blanket future concept, if that makes sense. I think it is a call for sure. For me, this whole book is a call. I want to see more anarchist in this work and doing history. And I hope that it’s a provocative call in the sense of it creates dialogue and creates more discourse around what an anarchist historiography could be, because I think we’re definitely also looking for that in comrades and looking to push these ideas and make them better, make them more present to our times constantly as well. But what would you say Neal?
Neal: Um, yeah, I mean, in its best moments I think it could be interpreted as a call to new kinds of historiography. Speaking personally, I mean, I am an anarchist. But I’m not really highly invested in that word as an identity. And I’m not particularly interested in things like historiographies, or critiques or things like that being connected to that word. I question how useful it is. I think, for me, I want historiographies that are negative and critical of the things that exists now. I’m sort of less interested in them affirming a singular narrative and then calling that anarchist. I think it would be a step backwards. Anything that presents itself as singular or universal. I mean, I don’t think we could substitute an anarchist narrative for a progressive one, or for a Leftist one. I think that would be futile and bad. You know, a step backwards.
So I’m interested in people writing history and interpreting and taking on that task, seriously, as it informs the conflicts we’re living in now. Because it does. And I’m interested in people doing so in ways that are just as critical and combative as like all the sort of fiery polemical communique type things that we read now on the internet in utter abundance. You know, I think people should fight over and delve into these ideas that are historical with that same degree of passion. I guess I would be interested in seeing that. I would never expect a singular anarchist historiography to emerge from that. I would expect a diverse and contradictory array of historiographies to emerge that have certain sort of principles in common, like a rejection of Leftism, like a rejection of the progressive narratives that we were confronted with now.
And also a rejection of the way that the Academy owns history. That’s something we don’t have in the interview, but it’s something we’ve talked about in public discussions and talks that we’re hosting with this book. Pretty much I think anytime when we go and talk at university, we’re probably going to be basically presenting front and center a critique of how the academy owns this material. Because we’ve had to confront that in our own research as non-academics doing a somewhat academic kind of project in all the degrees of the real things like money and time and professionalism and salary and tenure that invoke privilege around who gets to own and do history are something that anarchist should also deal head on with. Anarchists already have been dealing head on with as well as a lot of non-anarchists. But in terms of the historiography, I’m probably a little skeptical. I am less interested in it being anarchist, but I’m definitely interested in more critical historiography is emerging. And, and having a deeply sort of negative and critical take on how things have developed with history. Is that vague? I don’t know.
Neal: Okay, good.
TFSR: Where can people expect to run into y’all on this series of speaking engagements? Do you have a schedule slated?
Saralee: Yeah, we have the beginnings of a schedule. We’re having an actual release party like a bacchanal celebration, no formal speaking, you have to dress up.
TFSR: Like what? Like Bacchus.
TFSR: Toga party.
Saralee: We’re hoping that people actually bring their formal attire. We don’t get to see each other in formal attire enough because we’re poor. But I think that’s May 31, in Durham at the Pinhook. So that’s kicking off a couple of weeks of local events. So then we’ll be Greensboro, June 1 at Scuppernong Books. We will be in Durham, June 3 at the Regulator. We will be at the International, which is an anarchist run space in Carrboro, on June 8. June 14th will be in Atlanta at the Hammonds Museum with some people who have been involved in struggles in Atlanta that were actually written about in the book and mentioned in the book. So it’ll be really exciting. June 14. That’s a daytime event. And then June 20, in Raleigh, at So and So Books. We’re hoping to be in Asheville in July whenever Firestorm opens and invites us. And then in the fall, we’ll be doing some stuff on the west coast. And then we’ll also be doing a big Southeast Midwest tour. Then eventually in the Fall also in Northeast tour.
Neal: We took joy in making the Northeast have to be last. Sorry!
Saralee: Yeah, if you want to see us soon, you’ve got to come to us in North Carolina or Georgia, but we’ll come to you at later.
Neal: Yeah, and you can get the book off of probably AK Press’s website. You can also get it from us. I hope you can get their website. You can get it from us as well if you come to our events. I want to, if it’s okay to do a totally disgusting plug, we also have a poster series that we’ve put together that deals with like four or five of the themes of different chapters. And they’re really big, beautiful, like three foot tall, full color original watercolor art themed around like protagonists in different chapters with text that was written by us and Phil. And they’re really big and beautiful and wonderful. And they’re going to be sold with the book at different events and stuff pretty cheap. So thanks to P&L Printing for helping us with those because it gave us a really, really good deal.
TFSR: Thank you, Denver.
Saralee: Yeah, what’s up?
TFSR: Oh, cool. Thanks so much for chatting. And is there any other disgusting plugs you want to make before we stop recording?
Neal: Yeah, go crazy on June 11th. Get real. Get hard. Go hard.
TFSR: Stay hard.
Neal: I want to send some shout outs anybody listening to this who helped us with this project. Or was a patient ear or who gave critique, because there’s a lot of those people out there and we owe so much of this work to them. So, thank you to all those people.
Saralee: Thank you to all the rebels in the last two years that have given us inspiration as well.
TFSR: Yeah. And go hard, stay hard.
Neal: Yeah, that’s good. Why don’t you make that a T shirt.
TFSR: Hey, I’d actually be stealing it from Ida.
Saralee: And Atlanta…
TFSR: Yeah, they won’t mind. We’ve been speaking with Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford about their new book “Dixie Be Damned. 300 years of Insurrection in the American South” published by AK Press. More about the book can be found at AKPress.org
Aishah Shahidah Simmons on Love WITH Accountability (Rebroadcast)
This week we re-air an interview done with Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who is a writer, community organizer, prison abolitionist, and cultural worker who has done just an immense amount of work over the years to help disrupt and end the patterns of sexual abuse and assault within marginalized communities. In this interview we talk about a lot of things, her background and how she came to be doing the work shes doing right now, how better to think about concepts like accountability, what doing this work has been like for her as an out lesbian woman, and about her book Love WITH Accountability, Digging Up the Roots of Childhood Sexual Abuse which was published in 2019 from AK Press.
This interview feels very important right now, because we are in a time of overturn, tumult, stress, and uncertainty, and I think that in order for us to really be able to knuckle down and go in this for the long haul itll be imperative for our radical communities to take solid care of ourselves and of each other. I hope you get as much out of hearing Aishah’s words as I did conducting and editing this interview.
Before we get started, as a content notice: we will be talking about some difficult topics in this interview. I will do my best to repeat this notice at regular intervals, but please do take care and treat yourself kindly (however that looks).
TFSR: This week I am very excited to present an interview done with Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who is a writer, community organizer, prison abolitionist, and cultural worker who has done just an immense amount of work over the years to help disrupt and end the patterns of sexual abuse and assault within marginalized communities. In this interview, we talk about a lot of things: her background and how she came to be doing the work she’s doing right now; how to better think about concepts like accountability; doing the kind of work that she is doing as an out lesbian woman; and about her book Love WITH Accountability: Digging up the Roots of Childhood Sexual Abuse, which was published in 2019, from AK Press.
This interview feels really important for me right now, because we are at a time of overturn, of tumult, stress and uncertainty. And I think that in order for us to really be able to knuckle down and go in this for the long haul, it’ll be imperative for our radical communities to take solid care of ourselves and of each other. I hope you get as much out of hearing Aishah’s words as I did conducting and editing this interview.
Before we get started, as a content notice, we will be talking about some difficult topics in this interview. I will do my best to repeat this notice at regular intervals, but please do take care and treat yourself kindly however that looks. I let some words from Aishah’s introduction to Love WITHAccountability lead us into the main interview.
Aishah Shahidah Simmons: The conscious breath can be a grounding anchor. It is in this context that I insert the word “breathe” in between every five chapters to invite you to pause, take conscious breaths, and ground yourself while reading. Whatever you decide, please take your time and please take compassionate care while reading, imagining and working for a world without violence. Breathe. This is sacred space.
My name is Aishah Shahidah Simmons. My pronouns are she and her. I am a culture worker, in terms of creating work that’s used to, hopefully, make our culture and society better places to live in. And specifically, my work is on sexual violence, disrupting and ending rape, child sexual abuse. And focusing my center is in diasporic Black communities, because this is an international reality, sexual violence knows no boundary. I view it as work that transcends race, but very clear that my focus and my lens as a filmmaker, as a writer, are diasporic Black communities.
Before I could get to the anthology, I first started working not necessarily on child sexual abuse, but on sexual violence, through my film, NO!The Rape Documentary that I spent 11 to 12 years making from 1994 to 2006. And the film looks at sexual violence and accountability and healing in Black communities. And I start with NO! because Love withAccountability…without NO! I’m not sure Love WITHAccountability would exist. I am a child sexual abuse survivor, I’m also an adult rape survivor, I was raped my sophomore year in college. But while making NO! I couldn’t really touch child sexual abuse. And both my parents are prominently featured in NO!, they did not sexually harm me at all, however they were bystanders to the abuse because I told them what happened.
And I really think it’s important because I think that when those of us who are able to break our silence around the harm that we’ve experienced in our lives, there’s an assumption of like, “Oh, I could never do that. Oh, you’re so strong” or xyz for anything, even while working on my film NO! I couldn’t even touch my child sexual abuse, so, with all of the work. And so for me, it just leads to like, the subtitle of Love WITHAccountability in terms of “digging up the roots of child sexual abuse”, because, for me, I’ve fully believe that child sexual abuse is foundational to all forms of sexual violence. And it is mainly because it’s for most of us the first places where we are violated and is the first place that we are taught to protect the institution known as “the family”. And so then over time as an institution expands to the church or the mosque or the synagogue or the temple, to the school, to the college university, to the activist organization, the community organization, to government. I think that it really begins at home and so that’s why I just want to like in terms of just recognizing while I was doing, I hope, important work around addressing sexual violence committed against adults by adults predominantly, that I, even as a child sexual abuse survivor, couldn’t even touch child sexual abuse until moving into this work called Love WITHAccountability.
And I started the project in terms of recognizing that there isn’t one answer, there isn’t a one size fits all, that it’s going to take multiple hands by multiple generations to address it. And so I really wanted to begin with an anthology, with a chorus of voices bringing a diversity of experiences, expertise, and ideas and visions about how we can not only disrupt it, but ultimately end it and how can we do it in a humane way that centers survivors — the most immediate survivors, recognizing that many who caused the harm are also survivors — without dehumanizing all those involved, but really inviting them in or calling them into be accountable, and to change their behavior, and hopefully move towards a place where these things don’t exist anymore.
I view myself as a prison abolitionist. But when I say “I view myself” there’s viewing and being, and it’s an exercise, I work at it every day. I don’t believe that there’s anyone who should be in prison, right? And then for me, it’s: what does it mean, what does accountability look like outside of prisons? And sometimes what I’ve observed happening is that there’s been a lot of kind of conversation on that, than it is around:how are we going to protect the children? How are we going to protect the survivors? And I think it’s a both–and, and not an either–or, and I think that our society has set it up is that it’s either–or.
And this is what excites me about the work that so many are doing around both transformative justice and also restorative justice. That people are really working towards both-and. We have to be mindful about how do we center the survivors needs, right? And that that doesn’t get lost in conversations around ensuring that people are not harmed by the state. Like, and so I want to do both.
What we know is that communities of color, and specifically Black, Indigenous Latinx communities are disproportionately incarcerated, so we know that. And most of those folks are not incarcerated for having harmed the members in their community, right? So while most sexual harm is intraracial, meaning within the community, it tends to be the interracial, outside of the community, sexual harm that gets the high profiles. And then it becomes like, what victims survivors get values, right who do we value more? And so we know that BIPOC — Black Indigenous People of Color — women, femmes, trans folks, that we are not valued. Our voices, our experiences are not valued. They’re not valued in the criminal justice system and court of law so it becomes like, who gets prosecuted? What happens? So we just look at it that way, right?
And then in terms of the horrors that’s going on in prison there are all these jokes, “oh, well, at least you gonna go to prison, like he’s going to get prison justice”. I can’t stand it. It’s so rooted in homophobia. It’s just so barbaric. To me, somebody may have committed a heinous crime, but is that the response to then be heinous towards that person? Studies show that 40 to 45% of the rapes that occur in prison have been at the hands of correctional personnel. We’re not talking about other inmates, that people are being abused and assaulted by correctional personnel. And so if that is the case, who are you going to call? Who are you going to report that your body has been violated by the very people who are charged with quote, unquote, “guarding you”? There’s no real therapy, therapeutic sources happening in prisons.
So just this notion — unless somebody is doing life, which is horrific, and just completely inhumane — that they’re going to serve their time and then when they come out, what were they taught? Was there any training? Was there any understanding of what occurred? I don’t think that we arrived here on the planet as molesters of children, as rapists, I don’t believe that. So what happened in their lives, that they started using violence in response, to either sexual desire, to power, to all these things, we have to understand that. And that requires a lot of work, and a lot of different types of resources. Because we know that the prison industrial complex is a multibillion dollar industry. So it’s not about not having the resources. It’s about what we choose to spend the resources on.
What would it be like if we created environments, they are healing spaces, where people understand the origins of the harm and heal from that, that is what we need. I want to transform society, I don’t want crime and punishment. Yes, people need to be held accountable for the harm that they caused. Yes, we have to make sure that they don’t continue to commit the harm. All of that. But I believe that we can do that, that is not punitive, that encourages all of us to call on our best selves.
We’re in a very mean spirited society. And to be clear, this country was founded on rape, genocide, theft of land, theft of people. So you know, I don’t want to act like “oh, this is a mean society because of the person, the occupant, in the White House right now”, I’m not going to be a revisionist. We haven’t really dealt with the origins of the fact that rape and genocide and theft is the very fiber, the very foundation, of not only this country, but all of the countries in the Americas and the Caribbean.
And Qui Alexander — who is also one of the contributors to the anthology — his piece is calledThoughts on Discipline, Justice, Love and Accountability: Redefining Words to Reimagine Our Realities, and Qui has done a lotof really important work working with the harm doers. I use “harm doers” and not “perpetrators” and that’s very conscious. And I credit restorative justice and transformative justice movements with my understanding of that. We’re all learning and we’re learning from each other. And it’s on a continuum, it doesn’t just happen. Because I used to say perpetrators I didn’t think about it like in terms of harm. We need all folks on deck in terms of like, we need those folks who are going to work specifically with the harm doers, like and that is their calling. And that is the work in terms of really helping them to transform and do the work that needs to be done in response to the harm that they’ve caused. And then we need the folks who are focused on the most immediate survivors.
And I think one of the things that I appreciate about Cyreé Jarelle’s chapter is that they talk about what happens when you have disabilities. I mean Cyreé Jarelle talks about being autistic, and how they, how autistic children or children who have any forms of disorders, how they are, it’s like, it’s like “oh those poor parents”. It’s just like we don’t see the children, so that even when they are being harmed, we don’t even see it, when they are more susceptible than the child who doesn’t have disabilities, when they are more susceptible to relying on care by providers who can also cause harm, and no one even really checking for them.
So just briefly, I was abused by my grandfather for two years. And I told my parents and they didn’t remove me from the situation. So there’s the two years of the abuse. It ended, and the only reason I know I ended was because of hindsight. So it ended but I still engaged with, loved, cared for, all of that, my grandfather. I’m 51 or will be. And so this started in ‘79 when I was 10. My grandfather became gravely ill in 2010. So we’re talking about a long time of no accountability. Not only him but by my parents. I didn’t seek any accountability from my grandfather.
And so it was a complicated thing where he became gravely ill and I played a role in saving his life. I was the person who was by his side and really advocating after a serious crisis occurred up until the point where my father and aunt were able to come. And it was there that everything imploded for me, that was 2010. And then my grandpa became an ancestor and I did not go to his funeral. In 2015, I realized that not only was a grave injustice done to me by my grandfather, but that by my parents, who are really incredible human rights activists who’ve been on frontlines of struggle, internationally, nationally for over 50 years. And I share that to emphasize we have to really move beyond these kind of notions and ideas of who the bystanders are, who the harm doers are. Like, I find that so much it’s like rooted and really classist, definitely racist, elitist versions of like, “oh, who does it”.
So I started reaching out to them — they’re divorced — and signing my communiques “love WITH accountability” in the with was always all caps, so it’d be “love WITH accountability”, because I was essentially saying “that while I love you, and I believe that you are love me that that love is not going to shield you from accountability”. So that’s where it came from, didn’t, wasn’t thinking about a project, wasn’t thinking about anthology. In 2015, I was 46 years old and at that point, my film NO! had been out for, what, nine years?! And had been screened all over and translated and all of that, and was very much known as an antiviolence advocate. And again, I hone in on all of these things because I think that we have to really — those of us who are survivors — be kind and gentle with ourselves about when or if we’re even able to face abuse. Because even with all of the work that I’d done — and I was always out about being a rape survivors, especially — I never could fully talk about my child sexual abuse. There was so much shame and I always thought it was because I was protecting Pop Pop, and I was protecting my grandfather, but I was really also protecting my parents.
And I also want to say that my grandfather, like all of us, are complex. He took care of my grandmother, for 10 yearswhen she had Alzheimer’s. For 10 years. And he took care of her around the clock, it is because of him that she never set foot in a nursing home. And he did it almost single handedly. And I think that that played a role in my own silencing, right, because he was the hero who took care of my grandmother, and he was definitely my sexual terrorist.
And so, again, these complexities. And I just really think about this in this era of Harvey Weinstein being sentenced to 23 years and Bill Cosby is in jail and R. Kelly’s in jail — I don’t know what’s going to ultimately happen — and not by any stretch of the imagination say that they should have not done horrific, unspeakable, outrageous, disgusting, inhumane things, to women and children. I want to be really, really clear. But I’m not really sure how prison is going to– what is prison doing? And each one of those men and all of the other people who have committed harm in our families, they don’t do it alone. There is a whole culture that surrounds them that enable them to do it.
So for me, my parents didn’t stop it. And I told, for all the people, the survivors, that we hear, I’m just thinking about celebrities, people told and nothing was done, because people were making money, whatever, all the reasons. And so this notion of “Yay, Harvey is going to go to jail for 23 years”. I’m like, “who are all the people that allowed it to happen for decades?” Like and there is another Harvey Weinstein right now as we speak, happening, that we don’t even know about. So it’s like if we don’t really tackle the issues of who’s committing the immediate harm, but also all the people that are surrounding it, and then to think that therefore we can lock up everybody? Like, we’d be locking up most people, because all of us have, indirectly, even myself! I have to think about what are the ways in which I have indirectly allowed harm to occur, let alone the harm that I have caused, not sexual harm, but the harm I’ve caused my friends, my loved ones, that we make these people monsters, rather than saying no people commit monstrous acts.
What’s really important is that we understand that healing is a journey, and it’s not a destination. That’s the first and key thing particularly with CSA — child sexual abuse — and even rape but definitely in child sexual abuse and even if you haven’t come to grips with it until being an adult like, it’s so layered, right? And the other thing, and this is something I am constantly learning and relearning, is that healing cannot be contingent on someone being accountable to you for the harm that they’ve caused. Because there are so many instances where that will never happen. Either because they died, because they said “I didn’t do it”. In Indigenous communities in this country and elsewhere, it’s like, in terms of the laws and Indigenous communities, so much of the harm happens externally, right? And then those people who are white are not even held accountable. Tribal law is outside of the US Justice System. And I bring that up — and I don’t know a lot so I’m not going to stay there, because there’s nothing worse than talking about something you don’t fully understand, and particularly not being a member of particular Indigenous nations — I bring that up to say that, I’ve heard many Indigenous women saying that “we have to focus on healing, and doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to fight and seek justice and accountability. But we have to focus on healing”. And I would offer that that is the case for most of us in marginalized communities, right?
And again, like we know, the criminal justice system is flawed. We’re not even seen as being capable of being raped or molested, as children or as adults. It’s just not, we’re not even seen as the victims, so to speak. So we can’t rely on institutions and structures that don’t even see our humanity. That we have to rely on our own practices and cultures, many of which we’ve not had access to, because of enslavement, because of genocide, because of colonialism, because of forced migration. But then there’s so many of us where we are relearning and tapping into methods and modalities.
I believe, for me, I don’t know where I would be without therapy. I’ve been very, very fortunate to be able to work with a Black feminist psychologist who supported my healing journey by making her fees accessible to what I could afford, and sometimes what I could afford was single digits, literally. And then I practice meditation, that has been very powerful for me in terms of focusing on intentional and conscious breath, particularly in periods of rage and periods of sadness, to let my breath be an anchor. And “intentional” because we’re always breathing, until we don’t breathe. Being in community with other survivors who are working on healing, as a reminder that I’m not alone, I’m not the only person who’s experienced the harm. I don’t have to do this work alone. That I think that there are ways in which how we kind of come together around all kinds of really important political issues, and really trying to change our society — the political system, the criminal justice system — that we also have to make space to come together as survivors.
And I think bystanders and harm doers have to really do that work as well. I say this as a survivor, but also recognizing that I want all of us well. I want all of us well because I really want us to cocreate a world where there will one day be children who look back and say, “they did that?”
This is why I call upon my comrade, my friend, my sister, Walida Imarisha, who talks about the power of speculative fiction. And that is envisioning the world that doesn’t exist. So often we’re like “no to this, no to that”, and we have to, right? We gotta resist, we gotta say “no cops in the schools, no prisons” “no rape”, but we also have to do that work of envisioning. And when we think about all of us, in terms of our ancestors, we are the result of speculative fiction, particularly those of us who come from marginalized communities. That our ancestors before us didn’t know that I wouldn’t be here doing this work, but it is because of the choices that they made, good and bad *laughs*, that I am here. And so for me, I’m definitely wanting it to change right now in this instance. But I want to think about the generations that I don’t know I’m on that long distance, intergenerational run. And I think that if we think of it that way, then we can really come up with some, just incredible visions, and then begin to do that work. As long as we’re trying to do that “one size fits all” instantaneous we’re going to end it in one generation, how?! When we’ve got so many generations behind us. Like, how are we going to do that? And maybe if you can show me how we’re going to do it, great! I’m not saying we can’t do it, but don’t do it in a way that cuts off someone on the margin, because it doesn’t work with our quick program.
TFSR: And the one size fits all approach has is the thing that got us here in the first place.
AS: Exactly. Exactly. So NO! focuses on sexual violence committed against cisender Black women and girls by cisgender Black men and boys. So for me rape was something that happened to cis women at the hands of cis men. Period. Like, and I think it’s really important to share that, because to talk about the evolution…so often people share where they are in this moment, but they don’t talk about the process to get where they are. So for me, my vision for Love WITHAccountability expanded because of my understanding that sexual violence knows no boundary. It’s not about a gender. It is about human. So that trans children, gender nonbinary, men, boys, all are being harmed, and women commit sexual harm so we have to kind of move beyond that. We can talk about “Yes, the majority of the numbers that have been reported”, but new studies are coming out, for instance, that you know, gender nonconforming, gendernon binary and transgender children are the most susceptible to sexual violence.
And so Love WITH Accountability is not as expansive as I would like it to be. But I created a wider net, in terms of the perspectives that we hear, that we’re hearing from deaf survivors, from autistic survivors, from cis Black women survivors, cis Black men, trans men, gender nonbinary folks, because it was just to really encourage people to think beyond a binary. To understand that, particularly, as diasporic Black people, we know racism. Like, we know it. But then to say, we also have to know ableism, we have to look at the ways in which we are marginalizing within ourselves. We have to look at transphobia, how we are marginalizing within ourselves, so that it’s not enough to solely focus on racism, because if racism ended right now, we’re not safe. Most of us in our communities are not safe. And I want racism and white supremacy to end yesterday. But I don’t fool myself to think that once that happens, I’m going to be okay. That’s not true.
TFSR: I just really loved, specifically in your introduction that you wrote to this book, you were like, very compassionately diligent with just naming all of the isms: ableism, transphobia, racism, transmisogynoir, misogynoir, all of these things. And I think that that’s very, very key to further understandingthe thing that we’re going through.
AS: Yeah, I viewed my introduction as like what I called “word libation”. Instead of pouring water on the ground, putting words on the page to really set a context, starting from the beginning since Columbus came over here — to this hemisphere in 1492 — to really ground that what we’re trying to undo– and I don’t want to romanticize and be like, “oh, there was no rape in Africa or India”, I’m not saying that at all, but in terms of this reality, in this hemisphere, we have to be aware of this continuum of violence, from the moment that the Europeans set foot here. Tragically, they couldn’t cohabitate with love…with love and accountability! *laughs* And so that because it’s so easy to be like, “oh, Trump, is this or that person is that” and yes, he is, but he is a product of this continuum. An\d even how we treat each other and ourselves is such a product of white supremacy, of capitalism, misogynoir, misogyny, ableism, audism, you know? Like we have to understand it, that doesn’t let anyone off the hook from saying, “Oh, well, because of that, that’s why they committed harm”. No, no, no, it’s not excusing it, but it is to have a broader context. And I think that when we do that, then we have to say, “what are we doing with prisons? Like what the hell?” You know, when we really understand the whole context it’s like, no, that’s not the solution.
We’re creating the Good Guys, Bad Guys. And as long as we do that, we’ll never see the harm doers amongst us, right? Because when our person, the person that we love, the person that we know, that we trust, when they have been accused or have committed harm, we won’t want to believe that because “harm doers are monsters”. But if we can see that harm doers are people who commit monstrous acts, who are dealing with their own fragilities and their own pain and trauma — that again, doesn’t mean not focusing on what they’ve done — but if we can see that, we understand that this is why it’s so pervasive.
And I feel like we need multiple teams. Like for me, my work is not to necessarily work with the harm doers, or bystanders, that’s not my strength. I want to work with survivors. But there are people who do want to do the work with the harm doors. And I think that that is critical, we have to have that, in a way so that the survivors, immediate survivors, don’t feel like they are being sidelined. And it’s hard work, I’m still- my mother is a contributor to the anthology, and she writes about how she did not protect me. She is the only public bystander in the book being accountable. And I have to say, I’m on the journey with my parents, both of them, in very different ways. And I recently just shared because it’s like stop and go, and it’s very painful, you know cuz I do, I still get very angry, and I’m hurt. And I think particularly for my mom who’s like, really trying and she feels like nothing she can do is enough. And all of that is real. And I just had an epiphany, I said, “you know, mom, we’re dealing with 40 years of trauma it’s not even with all the progress that we’ve made — and we’ve made a lot of progress — it’s not gunna…40 years versus 3 years of us doing this work *laughs*, you know what I’m saying? And my parents are incredible in terms of they get it, they, they they want, we talk about reparations, we talk about all of these things that we understand we’ve got to undo centuries of this and that, but then it’s like, it gets hard when it becomes like, how do we undo this harm? Right?
I mean, and I know for myself I’ve caused harm. I’ve caused harm to my brother, who is nine years younger than me. So that means he was one when I started being abused as a child. And there’s a saying that Alice Walker said and it’s very heteronormative, I wanna say that, but it’s like, “the husband beats the wife, the wife beats the child, the child beats the dog”. And it becomes like, we abuse those who are less powerful. And I say that in terms of my brother, like I was being abused, no one was taking–no one rescued me, so then I took it out on my brother and there’s kind of a legacy of that. And he and I unpacking that and doing that work. I mean, we’re good and grown now. But just me even thinking about the impact of the harm that I caused as a child who was being harmed. That’s why I said, it’s like, everybody’s been- we’re responding to our harm. And that stuff is hard. It’s hard. I’m not a parent and I have so much remorse about the harm. And I’m not talking about the little Aishah, I’m talking about, like how that legacy continued well into adulthood.
So being accountable in those ways…this is hard work. And I think that that’s why so many people are like “just lock them up, throw away the key”, because it’s not easy for the person who is locked up, but it’s easy for us because it’s like, we don’t have to think about it anymore. Well they’re gone, Harvey Weinstein’s in jail. Like, you know? We don’t have to think about, well, wait a minute, what happened here?
TFSR: I’m wondering like, how this, how doing this work has been for you and your daily life? What kinds of responses have you gotten to NO!The Rape Documentary and to Love WITHAccountability and to your other work?
AS: Thank you for that question. I, um…I’m gunna say it’s hard. I’m gonna just put myself out there and say that this is hard work. I don’t know where I would be without therapy and meditation. So and my partner Sheila has been, she’s been a Rock of Gibraltar, and has had my community of kindred spirits and friends. And my brother, and you know, the work I’m trying to do with my parents, my parents are trying to do with me, and it’s taken its toll. What I will say that NO! was different, because I’m not in NO! I would offer that I’m throughoutNO! I am a rape survivor. But I’m not in NO! My testimony is not in there, at all. So there was a way that I think I had a barrier, as opposed to Love WITHAccountability. I write I’m in it. I talk about my abuse in the introduction. My mother, then she’s the first chapter, she talks about how she didn’t protect me. So it’s there. And in addition to that, I’m very, I’m digging up the roots, I’m digging up the roots in my own life. So it’s a lot harder than NO! and I struggle.
My PTSD comes up. My complex PTSD comes up, it definitely comes up and I go through periods of rage I’m sad, I’m depressed. All of that, because of therapy, because of meditation, because I have tools. So I’m aware like, “Oh, this is coming up”. And then I have community who are like, “I’m checking on you, I haven’t heard from you. What’s going on? Are you okay?” You know and then I think, like really trying to embody what I’m talking about, in terms of love with accountability, rage, meditation, action, healing really remind I tell people “take a breath when you get upset” and then I try, I have to remind myself like that,just step back, give yourself somebreathing room. So it’s hard, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I made NO! to save all those Black women survivors out there and in making NO! I saved my life, because it was making NO! that led me to Love WITHAccountability.
When I started working on NO! I was 25, it was 1994, I was a filmmaker. Like, NO! it was just gonna be this quick project, and then I thought I was going to Hollywood! And this is pre- you know, Netflix, pre-anything. And then NO! took 11 years because no one wanted to fund a film about sexual violence and healing, committed against Black cis women. And so it was just kind of like…you know, HBO turned me down, PBS turned me down, Sundance…no one was interested. So it’s very fascinating to me, right? Like, this is not the trajectory. But then doing NO! then led to this work. I mean, my grandfather, and then I wrote an essay in this important text called Queer Anthology: Queering Sexual Violence, Radical Voices from Within the Antiviolence Movement, edited by Jennifer Patterson. And so she invited me to write a chapter in 2010, it was right when my grandfather became ill. I didn’t get into all the deep details in that — I touched on it in Love WITH Accountability — but that led to this work, to the Love WITH Accountability work. So it’s really it’s one of those things is like: is life imitating art, is art imitating life? And I think that for so many of the people in NO!, the survivors, the activists featured in the film, and then definitely the folks in Love WITHAccountability, this may not be their sole work, but it is definitely a part of the commitment in terms of their work. It’s like, we know this horror, we lived with it and we don’t want it to happen anymore, you know.
And so I just found out that Love WITH Accountability was named a finalist for the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards. So we’ll find out on June 8, if it actually wins. But I’m just honored that it was selected as a finalist. I’m really, really honored about that. The Noname Book Club, they selected Love WITH Accountability as one of the two books for March. And why it’s so important for me is that my teacher, Tony Cade Bambara, it’s the community you want to name you. It’s the community you are accountable for. And that’s the things I always had to fall back on with NO! like, because I didn’t get this big grant or I didn’t get — while making it, ultimately, I did get a big grant that made it accessible in terms of translation, captioning, from Ford — but it just took a long time. The blessing about all that was that I could, I made my film. I didn’t have to meet the rules or regulations of the big funders, right? And so, because I’m not accountable to the funders, I was accountable to the community.
And so why I’m excited about Noname Book Club naming Love WITH Accountability is because it was selected by a brother named Dawud Lee, and he is the facilitator of SCI Coal Township prison chapter. And this brother, if he says he’s innocentI believe he’s innocent. Like based on his case, and what I’ve read, it just seems like another form of railroading another person in prison — particularly Black body — in prison, because it’s not just Black men, it’s Black cis women, Black trans women that are disproportionate in prison. And the fact that A) that there’s been access to books, because for many prisoners, they’re not even getting access to books in prison. And that this book was chosen, as a resource, as a pick, like that just, for me, back to Tony Cade Bambara, is just like, the community you want to name you. That, for me, is really important. That he, and Noname Book Club — which is really picking up radical and revolutionary books — and committing to send them out to inmates to marginalized communities throughout this country. And that this book is a book that they’re lifting up as a resource and a tool is just like, wow, this is powerful.
I am working on another book project, another book project called From Love to Justice. I’m really going in, in terms of, I have historically curated and collected and shared the wisdom of, I guess now total of about 70 survivors, advocate, scholars, all diasporic Black, around addressing adult sexual violence and child sexual violence, and while I’m a part of the, clearly, a part of the work, I want to hone in on what I’ve learned and shared that as as a resources as an intervention. So that’s my next project.
In terms of reaching me for I have two websites, there’s NoTheRapeDocumentary.org and LoveWithAccountability.com. So those are the two websites that focus on those two bodies of work. I’m on social media, on Twitter and Instagram @afrolez, that’s A-F-R-O-L-E-Z. There is a Love WITH Accountability Facebook page. I have an Aishah Shahidah Simmons cultural worker Facebook page, and then there’s a Love WITH Accountability Instagram page and a Love Accountably Twitter page, but usually like, if you go to notherapedocumentary.org or lovewithaccountability.com, the social media handles are there.
And AfroLez is like, my name *laughs delightedly*. It’s something that I came up, developed, in 1992 when I was a very young baby dyke, 23, and it was my downpayment on the future. Because I was like, this radical, raging dyke and I was happy and very proud of it. And people were, particularly elders, like elders like my age — and I’m like, “Oh, my God, I’m an elder” — but yeah, I would say, “Oh, yeah, when I was young, I used to be like that, but you know, you’ll mellow out”. And so little Aishah or young adult Aishah — *laughing* I’m being pejorative to me, not to anybody else who’s 23 — was just like “NO!!!” And so I created Afro Lez. And I have to tell you there was some part of me that knew because there are times when I’m just like, “Oh, my God!” because it’s very, it’s part of my whole thing. It’s AfroLez Productions, it’s AfroLez-it’s everywhere!. In terms of me my identity. And I’ve had people say, “is that AfroLez?” (pronounced “lay”) You know, it’s like, there are those times when, because I don’t feel safe, it‘s like, “Okay, I’m dealing with rape now I got to also come out about being gay?” it’s like all of that. And I was like, “Oh, yeah, 23 Aishah knew”.
So it‘s my constant accountability about like, “no, you’re not hiding” in terms of that. And because it has been hard at times, because it gets into the, “oh, is that why you’ve been raped?” Or because everybody’s always trying to pathologize us about our sexual identity–sexuality, or gender identity. And at the end of the day, all they’re doing is they’re saying “your sexuality is wrong”, or “your gender identity is wrong, and I need to get to the root of it”. Because they’re not really concerned about if I’ve been raped or not. It’s like, “Oh, is that why?” And this is like, really? So now, I mean, I love AfroLez. I definitely, I love AfroLez.
But it’s just, it’s funny, in terms of that. Even now, like in contemporary people, because I always say I’m a Black feminist lesbian. And for me, it’s really, all those identities are very important. People will want to drop lesbian before they’ll drop feminist. It’s very fascinating. Very, I mean, it’s not fascinating, it’s homophobia. But I mean it’s, it’s interesting. And it’s…and I learned that from — I didn’t know her — but I learned that from Audrey Lorde. And where would I be if I didn’t know the people who identified as lesbian. So I mean, I’m out from my own survival, but I’m also out for people to know “I’m here”, you know? I’m here. I’m here. Like, my dad used to always say that, “you have to let people know you’re in the room so that they know they’re not alone”. And so because I have the privilege — unfortunately it is a privilege in this society — to be able to say, “I’ve been raped. I’ve been molested. I’m a dyke.” I believe I have a responsibility.
TFSR: Absolutely. And I resonated with that so much, in in your introduction and what you just said, because as somebody who is also like a survivor of childhood sexual assault and adulthood sexual assault, and as a queer, trans man, I hear this just all the time. And you’re like, “No, no. I believe I would have been a queer trans man had none of this happened”. This is not, don’t pathologize people’s sexuality, their gender identity, all of these things and don’t weaponize something that is so rooted in trauma for the individual, and trauma for communities to be homophobic or transphobic. Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much for that.
AS:And you knowwhat I’m so gladabout? And not that I need this, but I have journals. I used to keep journals when I was a kid. And when I was like, before my molestation, I created a list of people I was like, “I don’t know if I’m gonna marry a woman or man”, or “girl or boy” is what I wrote as a kid. So, you know what I’m saying? Like, I was just like, “Yeah, I was always queer, and it doesn’t matter!” Let’s just say, let’s sayI wasn’t always clear, it doesn’t matter. Like, just, I’m gaynow. It doesn’t matter. We don’t have to understand how- how did you get that way? Why are you straight?
TFSR: Do you see the look, see the look on people’s faces if you ever posed that question? Like it is, is…it just blows people’s minds.
AS: It really does. TFSR: Straight is not the default. You know?
AS: Exactly. TFSR: Most, most people think of themselves as straight, but straight is not the default, it is a colonial, colonial construct.
AS: It really is, and what would happen if people had the space to be who they were, you know what I’m saying? Like if…would people really — consensually and safely, let’s be very clear — live it all out? Would they, would they really? Would they be? You know, those are the questions and we just don’t know. And that’s what excites me about the young people — like, young young, I mean you know, not even, nowhere near 18 — because there’s studies are showing there are many more young people who don’t identify as straight, you know? That there’s just a space and a freedom for them, which I think is the fear of the Right. I mean, that’s a whole nother conversation *laughs*.
TFSR: And a fear of the young on the part of establishment, folks we see, every single generation has some kind of problem with young people. It was tongue clicking, it was vocal fry, it’s the skinny jeans, it’s all of these things, and it’s just like, “no, you’re just afraid of growth, and you’re just afraid of this world not feeling like your own” and you know what, that’s legitimate that’s fine. But like, please don’t demonize people about it. People are learning and growing, and like, not being so straight and *smiling* I’m here for it personally, you know?
AS: Mhm, me too. It’s a fear of change, is really a fear, you know? And ultimately — you know, me getting all esoteric — it’s a fear of death. You know, I don’t, I’ve yet to — and probably will never — learn Snapchat, right? Because I was like, I just can’t do it–
TFSR: *laughs* Same.
AS: *cracking up* I’m like, I’m doing Instagram, I’m on Twitter, I just can’t. And I’m sure I could, but it’s just like, it becomes a comfort zone, right? So then you, we all just want to keep it this, this way. And I think then I think it’s extra intense in this country, where we’re really monolingual, or not as a country we’re not monolingual, but the way it’s enforced being monolingual. And it’s happening elsewhere, though, I mean, you see what’s happening in India with the new prime minister. I mean, it’s just, it’s everywhere. It’s just the rise of fascism, it’s really scary, cause we keep talking about change, but I’m just like, “we’re like, it’s almost like the turn of the century is repeating itself. It’s like we’re in 1920!” Like the rise of fascism, it’s just, it’s, it’s frightening.
TFSR: And also, we’re dealing with a global pandemic too these days–
TFSR: –which is a whooole nother, sort of, how it’s interfacing with capitalism with the prison system.
AS: Exactly. And then this whole kind of Yellow Peril thing, you know? Just the racism towards it’s just as disgusting. You know, last year was the second hottest year ever. And then there are all these viruses that are frozen, or were frozen that’s what was keeping us all safe. So as things melt, other viruses are going to be coming up. It’s scary. And then people talk about revolution — I’m not talking about this kind of the craziness that the pundits do like, *mocking voice* “oh, we’re gonna have a revolution”. I was like, “You all don’t, that’s not, that’s not how, you don’t have a revolution at the *starts cracking up* ballot box necessarily”– but even with a talk about revolution, as a feminine femme identified survivor, queer, Black, anti-gun, prison abolitionist…I don’t feel like I’m safe. You know I’m not safe you know revolution doesn’t necessarily make me feel safe — not that I want this craziness that we’re in — but it’s just kind of like, it’s just, it doesn’t feel safe. Everybody has guns, like it’s just I, I have a lot of concerns about where we’re all headed as a nation. And which is all the more reason why this work matters so much, because I want to feel safe in my community. And I don’t necessarily, right? And we all know about “the outsider coming in for us” — and we can define how the outsider is — I want to feel safe with the insiders on the inside.
TFSR: That is such a good reframing of that, though, of the issue of safety in a time of increasing, escalating instability.
AS: And that’s the work I think that you know, I feel like Love WITH Accountability tries to do in tandem of what so many people are doing on the ground. As a cultural worker, I want my contribution, I hope, is the work that I produce as resources and tools. And I learn also from what’s being done on the ground. So those are things for me, that’s really important. And I think that it’s hard for us to talk about child sexual abuse. And not that it’s easy to talk about police brutality, it’s not. But it’s “easy” only in the sense that we can identify the quote unquote, “enemy”, right? It’s the outsider, it’s that cop. It’s that white vigilante. What do we do when it’s the leader of our movement, or it’s our father or our sister, you know what I’m saying? That so much more complicated. And that’s the stuff that, for better or for worse, I’m drawn to I don’t know. *cracks up*
TFSR: It’s hard and it childhood sexual assault and rape still exists within this sort of lattice or network of silence. And I think that there are some really badass people, yourself included, who are trying to fly against that tendency that people have to just brush it under the rug or not talk about it or anything, because that’s not, that’s just not how we’re going to move forward. And we can’t move forward until things are right at home. You know?
AS: Yeah,I agree. And that’s how in the opening of the book, I use two quotes from “the Tony’s”, I call them, Tony Cade Bambara and Toni Morrison. Bambara says “if your house ain’t in order, you ain’t in order. It’s so much easier to be out there than right here”. And then Tony Morrison wrote, “what you do to children matters, and they might never forget”. And I think that we have to understand that because a lot of us are wounded healers, are wounded leaders, and unbeknownst to us, if we’re not doing some form of therapy, or healing or something, we’re replicating. We’re replicating that which was done to us.
And it’s not necessarily sexual it’s not like, “Oh, I was abused, sexually abused, I’m sexually abusing someone”. No, no, no, there are other ways in which we can replicate the behavior. So we have to be mindful though because we want to create healthy movements, we want to create healthy societies.
TFSR: And I think that the only thing that’s gunna push us through these times of escalating instability are the health of our communities. Like, I think that we are gonna be really tested.
AS: You’re right, we are so tested. I mean, I’ve just like, as an independent contractor, my livelihood is based on speaking engagements, all, everything, it’s just a twinkling of an eye. It’s all gone, right? For now, at least. We don’t know, right? And so I’m just like, “how am I gonna live?” Like literally,I don’t know, right this second. There’s no socialized medicine, there’s no social program, there’s nothing in the way in which other countries have, specifically Europeans.
And then we are — the way in which our societies are such, right, this society, US society — so many of us are disconnected, maybe by choice, and also by situation, like from family of origin, or community, you know? It’s like we have to create these networks of care. Which is what alicia sanchez gill — actually, that’s the name of her chapters — Networks of Care. We have to, we have to do that. And in order to do that, we’ve got to be safe and loving and caring and accountable with each other in those communities.
TFSR: Are there ways that listeners can help support you? Is that something that you’d like to throw out here?
AS: Oh!I hadn’t, I mean, I haven’t thought about that *bursts into laughter* I welcome it! I would like that. If you look up @AfroLezProductions on PayPal, it’s there, Aishah Simmons but it’s AfroLezProductions. And then Venmo, @AfroLez and Cashapp it’s $AfroLez. So I hadn’t thought about that because I’m not a 501(c)(3), a nonprofit or any of that, I hadn’t even thought about asking or trying to seek donations. So thank you for that offer.
Fortunately, it’s just me “me”, I mean I have a partner, but meaning I don’t have kids. I don’t know what I would do if I was responsible for children. And I’m thinking about all of the frontline workers and you know, the restaurant industry. I mean what’s happening? I don’t want this situation to bring out the worst in us and it’s just the racism, the xenophobia, the transphobia, homophobia, the guns that are just everywhere I’m scared. I feel like, “Oh, my God, are we in an Octavia Butler novel? Are we in Parable of the Sower?” like I’m really a little nervous about where this is all going. That’s my fear. So all the more reason why we have to be compassionate and loving with each other and ourselves.
I think, I think the big thing is to take care. To take care of ourselves and take care of each other and, and the planet. The planet. We can’t, this is our home. We can’t live without the planet. I don’t know what people are thinking, and the powers that be, but we have to take care of the planet. And breathe. Intentional breath. Take time — because people can’t go on retreats and nobody wants to go on a retreat at this point anyway — but just to connect to your source.
TFSR: It’s amazing to me how many people are going through life holding their breath. And I think that many of us who are marginalized by capitalism, by racism, by white supremacy, by hetero patriarchy I think so many people go through their life just braced for the next thing, which is really real, but sometimes it’s great to allow your body to just breathe.
AS: And that’s something that you, we can all do. And I really, I creditEricka Huggins, who was a Black Panther, and an educator and teacher and just incredible human who was incarcerated with a newborn. On trial for murder. I share this because she talked about how she taught herself to meditate and that’s what got her through solitary confinement. They can take our breath away, as Eric Garner, we know that, but until they do that, they can’t take that innate power. That is our own. Easier said than done, but I’m just talking about our wage jobs, our salary jobs that you know, all of these things…they cannot take that power away.
TFSR: If you are interested in seeing more work from Aishah, visit our blog post at TheFinalStrawRadio.noblogs.org or scroll down to the show notes if you’re listening on your phone. We will post all the links in those places. If you’re interested in reading her book Love WITH Accountability, visit AKPress.org for more information
Cindy Milstein On Mending The World As Jewish Anarchists
This week, we air a conversation between Scott and anarchist, author and organizer Cindy Milstein. The conversation is framed around the most recent compilation that Milstein has edited and contributed to, “There Is Nothing So Whole As A Broken Heart: Mending The World As Jewish Anarchists” (AK Press, 2021). During the conversation, they speak about walking through the world as queer, non-binary Jewish anarchists, Palestine and Israel, Milstein finding increasing healing and ritual among diasporic Jewish anarchist and other communities, antisemitism from the right and the left, argumentation and Cindy’s relationship with Murray Bookchin and more. [00:10:28 – 01:44:47]
And Sean Swain speaks about the recent meeting between Vlad Putin and Joe Biden [00:01:48 – 00:10:26]
Just to briefly mention, the latest episode of BAD News: Angry Voices From Around The World for June 2021 from the A-Radio Network is now up and downloadable. Hear anarchist perspectives in English from Thessaloniki and Athens in Greece as well as Colombia and Ethiopia! Keep an eye out the middle of each month for the next episode!
Thanks for your support!
Thanks to the those who support our project! We have a new update on our patreon about prisoner support and the transcriptions. If you want to, you can share us on social media or in person, contact us with show ideas, buy merch, donate or support us on Patreon or Liberapay (more on that at tfsr.wtf/support), or contact your local radio station to get us on the air (more at tfsr.wtf/radio). Your support keeps the episode going, keeps us paywall and paid add free, and the transcriptions rolling.
TFSR: Could you introduce yourself for the listeners? Your name and pronouns and any other information that you’d like people to know about you?
Cindy Milstein: First, I really want to thank you for having me on the Final Straw and preparing so well ahead of time for this. My name is Cindy Milstein. And I use they or he for pronouns. And yeah… prior to the pandemic, I was doing a lot of anarchist organizing, including anarchist summer school, and was part of the Montreal Bookfair Collective. And I focus a lot on doing care, solidarity and grief projects. And I also do books! So I’m on the show today about the latest anthology I just did.
TFSR: Yeah, I was really excited about this book: “Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart – Mending the World as a Jewish Anarchist” which is out with AK Press. Particularly for me as like a queer anarchist Jew to see all this writing that you put together by people who are navigating those things being queer, anarchist, and Jewish. And I think the book provides a really beautiful take on all the kinds of feelings that I’ve tried to work through for myself, and my relationship to Jewishness, and the book as a whole makes a case for how Jewishness fits into queerness and anarchism… As an ethical, political way of living in this world, which is also the way that I’ve heard you define anarchism before that I find really helpful. But before we dive into some of the stuff in the book, I want to just talk… mention, you know, the recent widespread attention given to Israel’s violent occupation of Palestine. It always comes up now and again, in the mainstream media, but we know that this is an ongoing thing… the state’s genocidal treatment of Palestinians. So I wanted to ask for your thoughts on how Jewish anarchist specifically can speak out and respond to the ongoing Palestinian struggle for liberation.
CM: Yeah, I also wanted to start off and saying that my heart is really heavy with all the Palestinians who are having to deal with… yet again, massive amounts of death and destruction. It’s too bad this keeps happening. And I was thinking about how as Jewish anarchists, you know… maybe this plays into, in a way, why the anthology came out too… And why there’s a resurgence of sort of Jewish anarchism… I was thinking about a lot of people that were anarchists or anarchistic who did something called the International Solidarity Movement. Was that like 20 years ago or something? Mostly? And people would go to the occupied territories and help with olive harvests and be there as, you know, bodies in solidarity doing both contributing through to helping Palestinians with things they needed, also being bodies against the Israeli state.
Anarchists Against The Wall was another project. Again, not everyone was anarchists in it, but it was Israeli, including anarchist Jews. So there has been a tradition of Jewish anarchists engaging in really tangible direct action and solidarity in Palestine, and the State of Israel. And then you kind of flash forward and the past few years… I was thinking about this a lot. It’s not, again, by at all anarchists but some Jewish anarchists have been really involved in groups like “If Not Now”, and “Jewish voices for Peace” and other groups like that. And that have been doing a lot of work within Jewish institutional structures in larger Jewish communities on Turtle Island, and other places to try to switch away from this conflation of Judaism with Zionism and there’s been a lot of groundwork.
So then we come to this moment. I don’t know, it’s just felt really powerful to watch! It’s been really moving. The solidarity demonstrations are massive. They were instantaneous and in so many places. But just the one I went to, which wasn’t huge, in Pittsburgh. I felt this even there with a few 100 people. It was, you know… Muslims, Jews, Palestinians, Christians, anarchists. And it felt so much a deeper form of solidarity, where it wasn’t as unusual in a way for there to be people coming there with the fullness of who they were in a solidarity. It just felt really moving. And myself included in that I and a couple other queer Jewish anarchist decided to make some banners and one of them we made there was “Solidarity With Palestine. Abolish the State.” We had lots of kind of debate about that. How do.. should we be bringing a perspective? I thought we should. But I was really struck ahead of time and when we brought it to the solidarity demo people were really receptive to having Jews there naming that they were Jews bringing their views. There were other signs that other Jews had brought there weren’t anarchists that were… you know, “Judaism Does Not Equal Zionism” and all these things! But that would make it clear that they were Jews and I think and… as many people by listening have seen images of the solidarity demos, there’s so many demonstrations in which Jewish anarchists and also radical Jews were being really clear about who they were at the solidarity demonstrations.
Now, why is that? It’s not to be like “Hey, look! Here I am.” But I think that’s because Jews are told we should have an extra responsibility to that struggle. For us to be contesting the way the State of Israel is instrumentally using what we understand to be the beauty of Jewishness and Judaism to uphold the state and occupation and colonialism. I think it’s really powerful to say “No”. This is not this hegemony of a viewpoint. And I think the other thing a lot of Jewish anarchists have been doing is holding spaces for the grief of people being killed.
Again, I was part of a… I didn’t organize this, but some Jewish anarchists in Pittsburgh organized a really beautiful Kaddish a mourning prayer for a half hour in the Jewish neighborhood on Shabbat. Which means a lot of Jews are walking around seeing us do this, and it was a half mile from the Tree of Life Synagogue. It was the same corner where they had done many different vigils, grief rituals, and other things around the white supremacist murders at the Tree of Life only a little over two years ago. So it just felt really powerful to be there and say that we understand because of our own traditions of mourning, why those traditions actually compel us to be in solidarity with other people and their pain. When they’re sick, or dying or after death. And it actually… it isn’t just those traditions don’t just apply to us, they compel us to be here for other people. It was very beautiful.
So I want to say just to wrap this up with Jewish anarchists… because I’ve just been watching around I think it’s like a lot of anarchists, but Jewish anarchists have been really throwing themselves for Palestinian solidarity forms of direct mutual aid, and doing a lot of really beautiful speaking and writing and organizing. Again, very visibly. And I think that’s a change. It’s a real palpable change this time. Not just Jewish anarchists. But there’s a sea change in the kind of incredible attachment to Zionism, among Jews, and I feel like Jewish anarchists… I’m proud in a way that we’re at the forefront, because we’re anti-statists. So I guess the last thing to say is… I think the difference of what Jewish anarchists bring to this moment is that we bring the things we’re speaking like it isn’t just the State of Israel, it’s all states! It isn’t just colonialism in this region, It’s colonialism everywhere! It’s not just occupation here, et cetera, et cetera.
And the last thing I want to say is a form of critical solidarity that said, “we will be in solidarity with the Palestinians to become liberated. And when people are liberated, we understand how liberation has often gets perverted into states and ends up doing exactly what people want it to liberate themselves from. And we will be in solidarity and when people liberate themselves, we will be in solidarity with those who are then looking for forms of autonomous self determination that are outside states.”
TFSR: Yeah, that seems so important because in addition to the way that people talk about the responsibility of Jews to speak out against Israeli state violence against Palestinians, then you add the responsibility of anarchists to provide a take on these situations, that’s also anti-state. That was solidarity… but not saying “well, we need to support anything that’s going to be against that state.” Some leftists or state communist type people will like just take whatever side is against the US or Israel. So it’s a more nuanced approach. And I think that’s… I’m really glad you brought that up. To think about those two things kind of overlapping and the Jewish anarchist response.
CM: You know, there’s also anarchists who aren’t Jewish, who are doing profoundly beautiful work right now. In terms of creating all sorts of actions, beautiful actions, direct actions and other forms of organizing. But I’ve really appreciated at this moment, where in a way maybe the responsibility… The mosque that was being targeted during Ramadan. I was breaking my heart for my Muslim anarchist friends and Muslims in general that were having to have the Ramadan hurt. But some of my friends were Muslim anarchists. I understood the meaning of them trying to do Ramadan in different ways that are outside often the normative ways that get done in Muslim communities. Doing it in anarchistic ways. And also the pain of that during a pandemic. And then to have that sacred space be turned into a war zone.
But I really… that mosque just really touched me as an anarchist. Because I’m like, “here is a space. That’s a sacred site.” It was a sacred site for all different peoples. Centuries and centuries ago. And it’s because of a state and colonialism, it’s been turned into this horrible battleground, right? So in a way as Jews, for us to say Jewish anarchists have a special relationship to say “could we envision a time when we could come to different forms of solidarity again?” Across our various understandings of our of who we are and stop essentializing it.
So I guess that’s my last thing I think Jewish anarchists bring really to this moment is looking at people is deeply, fully human and messy and flawed. And instead of just going “The Palestinians” being like, “there’s a range of viewpoints within the Palestinians!” There’s a range of viewpoints… and there’s no category that is some essential… pure… right? I feel like Jewish Anarchists have been helping against this sort of essentialist politics. Which leads more toward fascistic forms of thinking when you just flatten people out to one category, instead of seeing the fullness of people and being in solidarity with them through moments and then through other moments being again, in critical solidarity. I think that’s a much more respectful way to look at each other as full human beings and see the pain.
Even the solidarity demo I went to was just so beautiful because I was just watching… it was kind of… the people hosting it were more liberal… you know? I’m still glad we went. But they were so sweet about anyone that came up and wanted to talk and I was really struck by people just wanting to come tell their stories of their relationship to that place called Jerusalem. It was a very moving to listen to people’s histories and personal stories of their connection. And then not wanting it to be both an occupation, a battleground, and a state. A place where the state and settlers are engaging in it… you know?! Human is a flawed term. But anyway, from a very experiential thing where it broke across these kind of barriers. Anarchists seem often good at doing that, in a way where we’re able to see kind of the messy fullness. And Jews are definitely good at that. So combine Jewish anarchist and wrestling with all the complexities in the questions.
TFSR: Yeah, what you said really struck something in me to think about why it would be that Jewish people, specifically Jewish anarchists, who would be positioned in a good way to kind of take apart those essentializing identities. There’s something particular about how the history of Jews in all these different places they’ve been let in and kicked out and harmed and I don’t know… used for things, that allows them to think about identity… for us I guess… to think about identity differently than we get told to from our dominant culture. That that’s really exciting idea. I don’t know if you have any other thoughts about that, like why we’re as Jews and Jewish anarchists in such a good place to kind of articulate identity not as flat or singular thing, a decentralized thing?
CM: Yeah, I mean the more I’ve come back to my own as part of what this Anthology, this sort of resurgence of Jewish anarchism, which just feels so beautiful and moving. I think we’re all in this incredible “we’re so glad to find each other! and we’re so glad to all be like learning so much from each other and challenging!” I like feel so challenged, and in a good generative way, of myself. like “Wait! I never understood that. I understood this!” You know? And so some of it for me is a lot of: “Well, this is who I am” or “This is the culture I was raised in.” And then the generosity of so many people right now who are Jewish anarchists, who … it’s a range of experiences.
But a lot of Jewish anarchists are really going back to Torah, and teaching it in ways often, almost all overwhelmingly, well, maybe it’s the people I hang out with. They’re trans and queer Jewish anarchists. And I think there’s something to this, like when you go back and you start looking at the text. I’m no scholar in this yet, but I’m really enjoying going and scrutinizing. The whole structure is intended to be a communal, educational, ongoing investigation and you have all these things written down, but then it’s this living… it’s intended to be argued with and interpreted and debated and questions are elevated. It intends for you to question.
I keep going back to this word, but I think it’s a really prominent within Judaism is “we wrestle”, you know? We wrestle with everything. And even a friend of mine who does believe in God. I don’t. At one point I said, “I don’t believe in God” and they’re like, “but there isn’t that notion of belief in God.” In Judaism. There’s like a wrestling with what God is in what context, and where, and how that plays itself out because it’s different depending on… there’s a bunch of different names or time periods or context.
But it’s also… “Do you do trust in it?” Like if you start translating some of the words that are originally connected? Do you trust and in some kind of thing that’s greater than us? And I go… “I don’t know?” It’s like all these, it just raises these different questions. There wasn’t, there wasn’t an answer. I don’t know. I just… somehow you combine things that we think are just our cultural things and you say, “well actually even if I’m not religious” let’s say or “I didn’t come through that training. I don’t believe in God, I’m a product of the culture of 1000’s of years of people that have used those tools to keep together.” So I don’t know, somehow that you bring that to anarchism, which is also about questioning everything and not believing in authority.
I think that the two together work really well because there are plenty of Jews that will still believe in authority and will wrestle with and debate and raise all these questions in order to solidify authority whether it’s justified or not. But there’s very conservative and hierarchal forms of Judaism. But then anarchism is questioning hierarchy, and you bring those two together, and it’… Yeah. I don’t know. I think there’s something. I still don’t even know what the answer is to it. But there’s so many stories within Judaism and the Jewish experience and Jews throughout history that have had to rebel and had to figure out ways, it’s just, it’s also just so prevalent.
So many Jews have had to become, or desire to become rebels or resist the dominant culture, because the dominant culture mostly did not, and still doesn’t in a lot of ways accept. Whatever the rationale for why you need the state is because we’ve been pushed out across the world, most Jews have never had citizenship or been parts of states or been protected by them, or before that empires! We’ve all we’ve been our own autonomous communities for most of our history until the very recent history. The State of Israel is so young. It’s such a baby, right? And it’s not the whole, it’s such a minor part of Jewish understanding of how you stay together. And in a very anarchistic way before that.
TFSR: The state is a relatively new invention anyway.
CM: I mean, I guess maybe for even for this idea that Jews connecting, I was saying protection. Okay. Yeah. So, I understand at some point most people that face enslavement and displacement, and genocide, and destruction of all their institutions, their languages, etc. At some point we’ll turn to trying to figure out ways to protect themselves. And Jews have engaged in a variety of ways to protect themselves. Some Jews thought that the state would protect them. Others of us like anarchist Jews understand that states do not protect us. But I get how…you know. I think one thing that gives us stuff specially positioned to understand that states don’t… we understand that almost nothing has protected us. And that we have to protect ourselves. And other communities have experienced that too, not specifically just Jewish. If you’re Black and Jewish. If you’re Black, other communities…indigenous, or indigenous and Jewish, a whole bunch of other categories of people have experienced that.
When you combine that again: Jewish with anarchism, there’s a special … we’ve been pushed across all borders. We don’t really belong to any nation states. Whenever there’s been moments of mass antagonism toward us. It’s turned into violence. We’ve only pretty much… sometimes other people protect us, but they’ve been people, not states. Communities, not states. And that, in a way, is beautiful, too, right? It’s like we figured out how to protect our community. Self defense and community resilience. And now you have this moment. I think that our Jewish anarchists, feel such affinity with people who are like…. the Palestinians that are like… we were having to figure out how to protect ourselves, and we know how to protect ourselves, and we know how to resist and we’ve been doing this now for a while. And in a way, there’s this recognition of like “we get that that’s what you have to do to keep your community together.” Yeah, because most Palestinians are in diaspora now, too, right?
TFSR: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good point. And it’s interesting because that main narrative of the necessity of the State of Israel to protect the people often blinds people to the fact of what’s going on between Israel and the Palestinians, where it has such a reminiscence to the things that the Jews have experienced from violent states in the past. I really would like also, just to go back… One thing I heard and what you were saying was like the idea of… instead of belief in God,like wrestling with God made me think about, committing to wrestling with God and committing to the question. Its also like the way to enter just sort of commit to the struggle as, like not an endpoint that we’re going to reach, but something that we have to keep doing and keep asking. So that we can always counter where power starts to collect and do its thing.
CM: Yeah, but you know in a way… I think why it’s been really increasingly powerful to me as, a like, non binary, queer, Jew and an anarchist is to bring all these things together. But within anarchism, we do wrestle as anarchists with things all the time. Constantly! Like, okay, there’s a pandemic, let’s wrestle with what this means now and how the world’s going to shift and what we should do to respond. But we don’t really have places that bring us together to do that regularly. I know a lot of us are, myself included, are grappling with… this has been a hellish or one of the most hellish 13 or 14 months, a lot of us are… collective trauma. A lot of us are doing really badly. As anarchists, I know, all of us need to be talking about it, and thinking about it. And working through wrestling with what just happened to us. And we’re not. There’s no place to go to do that. And as a Jew, who’s an anarchist, I know I have places to do that, because Judaism for 1000’s of years, Jews have survived.
Jews have been around almost 6000 years or 1000’s of years. Any diasporic peoples in a way that haven’t been protected by states or empires or, you know, church hierarchies, have figured out how to create community without states. Yeah, and have kept their culture together without a state. And part of that within Judaism is a really intricate amount of ritual and holidays and time and creating time for things. And so I was especially struck by it this year, maybe because this year has been so hard, but during Passover, eight days, you don’t necessarily celebrate every day, but that time period asks of us, and it has for 1000’s of years, to get together and for hours wrestle with the story of what it meant to be enslaved, what it meant to engage in forms of resistance and direct action to get out of that. And then to leave and not know where you’re going. To be liberated, but not free.
The first moment in this year, it really struck me, was to create this temporary space to start bringing people together. And that felt sacred, that we could begin to sort of process it and heal from it. Feel whatever! I’m not gonna describe it religiously, but some people might. This space that… like as anarchists I mean… here, we are in Asheville, and yesterday, you and I went to Firestorm: anarchist feminist queer collective bookstore, 13 years birthday party in a park. I’m visiting. For a lot of us it was the first time we’ve been with queer, feminist, anarchists together in this beautiful space of celebrating and gathering, which is what our spaces are usually. Right? And it just felt like “Okay, this is what all of us need!” Right?
Within Judaism there’s so many places like that. And so we set up these spaces really regularly in Judaism. During Pesach we come…. Passover, we constantly are debating “So what does it mean to liberate yourself? And then, how do you? In the story, you have 40 days where people are wandering around trying to figure out how to create freedom, or how to begin to understand that? But you really, every year, wrestle with it. Are we good enough to be free? How do we be free? How do we liberate ourselves? Do we do a good job of it? Blah, blah…
And this year, the conversation I went to online about it, someone pointed out because Jews like to go “Hey! But there’s another piece to the story. You can go a few more pages ahead in the Torah, it talks about how there’s this whole debate about how do you treat slaves well!” And they go “why would we have done that after we just liberated ourselves from slavery?” And it was like, “well, that is a part of wrestling.” If you become the person that suddenly is free, maybe you’re not as free as you think. And what if you start enslaving other people? Shouldn’t you start wrestling with why you’re doing it and how you’re treating them? And then maybe you’ll start thinking “Hey, this isn’t what we want to be doing.” So we have this really nice conversation about how does sometime liberation turned into the opposite? Which is exactly what’s happening right in the State of Israel.
And I’m just like, “Okay, this is why as a Jewish anarchist I’m just really appreciating spending more time within radical Jewish circles.” In one person’s conversation, [they] said “Why do we think even as radicals and queers…. “ (they weren’t anarchists in this space, but it was definitely a queer space, radical space…) “Why do we think what it’s telling us in this passage is that all humans have the capacity to enslave other people.” And if we don’t continually revisit that, remember that, and reject it. We’re prone to doing it again. More than if we forget to talk about each year. And I thought that, “I feel like anarchism needs more…” It needs grief rituals for when things happen our communities instead of maybe it happens sometimes maybe it doesn’t. It needs holidays outside of capitalist time. There’s such a richness within Judaism of ways to create community without states ways to create solidarity without states.
TFSR: Yeah. And also like practicing, almost like practicing conflict, in a way, like the arguments and the reinterpretations…. in a way that doesn’t divide s community up. Or tear everything apart or make you enemies. There’s so much arguing and disagreement that is actually a richness rather than a problem or something to run away from.
CM: A lot of Jewish anarchists are very generous people. It’s really interesting. It’s because Judaism, there’s such a compulsion, you need to be studying and teaching and learning all the time to whole your life that’s completely another value within Judaism. The reason there’s so much sacred out of capitalism time in Judaism is meant used to spend time studying and learning and teaching and sharing ideas. And so, I was mentored by and learned a lot from Murray Bookchin. And he was very generous. Another Jewish anarchist. Murray was such a lovable and such an intense… So Jewish! Eastern European Jewish. Ashkenazi Jew. But like when I first met him, he was like encyclopedic, his mind was just like, amazing. The first year I was like, “Okay, I know, there was critiques of his ideas, but I can’t [argue], like he’s just… I can’t figure out the way…” And then when I did and start arguing with him… he loved that.
And everyone was kind of scared because he really argued intensely. But then when I started we became … in a way…. I feel like that’s we broke through and had a loving relationship. when I would argue back… could finally argue back. He was teaching me to be able to argue back with him, even though it pissed him off. It’s kind of like, “I don’t want you to disagree with me, but I want you to argue with me. But that’s how all of us feel,” you know? Like, I want to argue things! But then I understood within, like Bookchin and a lot of his argumentative style, you could on the one hand find there’s a host of other reasons… his bitterness, blah, blah, toward the end of his life which I kind of understand the older I get… It’s like, how can we not be? Yeah, I’m not going to get bitter. But you can get tired being an anarchist for a long time, because people don’t stay anarchist for life or a whole bunch of other things.
But Murray had a really great mind about wrestling with ideas. Some phenomena would happen and he would want to debate, and argue it, and think about it, and really intensly! And we’d be almost nose to nose, almost screaming at each other about an idea. And then we would stop I would go “I love you” and hug each other. And that’s so…. at least culturally, how I understand Judaism to me. Yeah. So I never took it as he was upset with me. And I get that I do that sometimes when arguing. And I’m like, I’m not being intense because I’m angry. I’m just enjoying, like, so enjoying that our minds are moving so intensely, because none of us know the answer. And I did appreciate this about Murray. He was like if I teach you nothing else, I want to teach you to think critically, and always imagine something else. Even if he ended up disagreeing with me, that really is what he wanted. That’s such a Jewish thing. I want you to learn to think for yourself. And then I want us to continue to argue and none of us know the answer. And we’re not going to…. always based on the context.
If you look at his body of his work… let’s stick with Murray for a bit. His work is mostly very dynamic. You can disagree with different periods of different shifts. But he’s this… he’s constantly trying to reinterpret his own ideas through lens of society and reinterpret society through the lens of new ideas, bringing in other theorists. Because he’s only one person he didn’t… there’s a whole host of things he ignored and didn’t bring in right? Queer theory, colonialism… you know but what he did was so similar to a Jewish practice of continuing to push yourself and challenge yourself, wrestle and, you know?
As anarchist, I think we could stand to bring in, whether they are Jewish or not, a more generous sense of wrestling with ideas. I create a lot of anarchist spaces where I’m like, let’s all come into the room and pretend none of us know the answer, because none of us do! And have a big conversation about it. I’ve been so perplexed, I’ve tried that experiment so many times. It is really hard to get a roomful of anarchists to set aside with their preconceived notion of the answer they think is right to solving capitalism. I’m like… if any of us knew we would have done… or whatever the question is. And I think it’s so much more interesting to me, and I really am coming to understand this be more than my Judaism and my anarchism is: that it’s actually okay for us to come in with questions, not answers and then together, question the questions and wrestle with them and come out with more questions and maybe a little bit better understanding, that’s probably the best we can hope for. I don’t know. I guess I’m wandering around on different topics, which is another very Jewish trait, you wander around and you come back to somewhere, but a very diasporic trait, you wander around, but you know, kind of where you’re going.
TFSR: No, I love that. I mean, that’s something I share too. And it’s an experience I’ve had to with people that are close to me being like “my wanting to argue about that is love!” It’s not, like anger or anything. And my intensity sometimes can read that way. But I am always wanting that and I love just like having to face the conflict, rather than let it sit. Because that’s when we like get silenced and don’t work together. And I don’t know, it’s much better to work those things through. So I can see that, you know the opening this line of like Jewish anarchism… trying to bring some of that Jewishness into anarchism, too. And it does seem, again, I said this in the beginning of our conversation, but this book seems timely in a way to me because I’ve been part of communities doing the same kind of thing that this book represents. And then, through my conversations with you around the book and meeting more and more people, who are all like “this is a moment to rethink it all.” And so actually a question kind of along that line and going back also to how you’re saying there’s a sea change in terms of like the way that people are starting to distinguish Jewishness from the State of Israel from Zionism… Your book also shows how there’s different forms of Judaism. And like, even what you’re talking about, it’s not a uniform thing is not a one centralized hierarchy of like thought and beliefs. And new book contains all of these counter narratives to those stories. So I was just wondering if there’s more of these kinds of perspectives that you might want to share here. Things that get left out, when we think about what a Jew is, what Judaism is, what being Jewish means… the diversity of the practices that go to make up Judaism?
CM: Yeah, yeah. I’m not sure I can answer that whole question. Because Judaism is… again is so enormous. And there’s so many different understandings of it. I’ll speak to … maybe within the like radical anarchist Judaism that has led to this anthology is like, me generally. Especially before the pandemic, which made it harder, but finally me being like “Hey, I’m just I’m so much more comfortable in the diaspora, being diasporic. Both maybe from my own trauma and ancestral trauma, just this compulsion to move.” I’m realizing that’s part of how I protect myself and safety in a way. But also this way in which diaspora is like making connections and being really intentional about community and scattering seeds. And I don’t know… I like doing that. So for a few years I was just going. When I was in all of these different communities across Turtle Island, and a little bit of other places. It was so striking to me. Suddenly, everywhere I go, people go “Hey, you happen to be staying tonight in a house where everyone’s queer Jewish anarchists! We’re also going to have a Shabbat dinner!” And then you’d sit down, people would start talking about how they’re doing language… Latino and Yiddish language classes or they did a demonstration together as anarchist Jews, or blah, blah. I was “What is going on?!” There’s suddenly… and then I started being looped into friends going, “Hey, we’re gonna start every month meeting up some of us who are queer and trans for Rosh Chodesh.” Which is like the new month and do conversations and rituals around that. Which I’m still doing! And so I thought “okay, something’s going on.” I think that’s one reason I logged in diasporic.
Two is, I really like seeing the bigger picture about trends that are happening. And I was like “something’s going on.” And so then this Anthology… between putting out a call and asking people to write. It’s actually been surprising to me since it’s come out. Almost some things I was intentionally trying to do. Other things have been like this beautiful surprise! So there’re about 40 contributions to it, magical stories, really heartbreaking. A lot of vulnerable, really moving, poignant stories, very honest and open, poems are at work.
And I mean, I definitely had a viewpoint in things that I like. I wanted pieces that were not assimilationist not Zionist, not statist. I want people, all the pieces to be challenging white supremacy, to be anti-colonial. There were things that I without saying that… anti fascism is like a big theme, that are threads through it. But I really wanted people to speak from their own experience and their own trauma. And I think one thing going into this anthology that really struck me is, and maybe it’s because for me, I’m just like, “well, I don’t know what else to do but say the truth of what I see in the world in myself.” Which also feels like I understand coming a lot of my cultural Jewish experience kind of a directness because we put out what we want and we start wrestling with it.
I just realized how many people that are kind of coming in new to both their Jewishness and their anarchism and saying “well, maybe I can do both, and my queerness!” Not everyone in the anthology is queer or trans, but a lot of people are. And a lot of people were like “Who am I to say?” Because, within the wider anarchist and left and radical progressive circles… people see Jews as like, “What do you guys have to complain about? You’re not facing any difficulties. You’re not, you know… you’re fine! There’s no antisemitism, there’s nothing going on. You don’t have any trauma. You don’t have this.” And I was like “I know that’s wrong.” I don’t want our whole story to be one of trauma, but we have profound amounts of trauma ancestrally and contemporarily. From how we’re treated, including as Jews, and there’s still globally but it also in United States, there’s antisemitism is not going away and it shifts and it changes, but it’s not gone. And it can be deadly as we found out as expressed in the anthology. There’s a lot of pieces on the Tree of Life, because that was kind of a pivotal moment that happened during the anthology being produced.
So the differences that struck me in this was I really wanted people to speak to their experiences with a forcefulness and a boldness and not hide that, because I understand that it isn’t a contest. We have just as much stake in fighting white supremacy and fascism. Because white supremacy and fascism are fundamentally anti-Semitic. See Jews as other. See us as a threat to white supremacy. A threat to states. And we are! I want them to. But I also understand that they target us as people they want to kill. Right? I’m not saying it’s all the same. The history of anti blackness is not the same as a history of antisemitism, or anti indigenous understandings, or anti… all the other anti’s that are part of the founding of… let’s just say, the United States. But there’s a pretty serious connection between them all, there is a very powerful and real connection between them all. And our fights, our fates are linked, our liberation is linked, our pain is linked.
And so to come back to your question on the differences. I want people to be like “it’s okay to say that. It’s okay to say that.” Because, I really felt the pain of a lot of Asians lately. A very flattened out category, because I know that does not encompass all the diversity within that phrase. So my apologies for using that as a shorthand for Muslims or other people that go “why don’t we get named as often?” Or “why don’t people see us?” Or “Why do people buy into the stupid stereotypes that make it seem like we’re not in the bullseye of fascism or the state or hate or all these other things.” Right? And that pain of like, I know, we can’t just have a laundry list of things. So I wanted this anthology to humanize. I feel like when people see pain, each other’s pain, they understand colonialism has stolen a lot from all of us. Capitalism has stolen, the state has. That pain feels similar even if the histories are different and through that pain, we can understand that the way to lessen those losses and create liberation. Freedom is going to be a shared struggle.
But the experience in this anthology, to come back to that question, really surprised me after reading. So many people want to write about their relationship to coming to spiritual practices. Whether that was going to Rabbinical school, or embracing trusts in God or understandings of God. There’s that which in another Jewish anarchist book wouldn’t have gotten there. And there’s a profound amount of sort of wrestling with spirituality and rituals and other huge… people engaging in a lot of ritual. Different understandings of how you can use it as a personal practice or a political practice or combination there of. I think it also shows the spectrum of people coming in through, and what their relationship to Judaism was, whether they were raised to be religious or not religious or Zionist or not Zionist. Or whether they were Jewish or converted or not. How they came to it. I really wanted people stories to be their own unique stories to really show that it isn’t there isn’t this one path there never is.
But I really wanted that to be like… the differentiation of our experience is a strength. Not just Jews. In any understand whether we’re queers or feminists or indigenous. But there’s something I think I like showing in anthology is like a dialog that shows you know how difference can not end up meaning that people have to be antagonistic to each other. I don’t know. I’m trying to think of what your question about, like different kinds of Judaism? I don’t know. I think I’m not answering the question as well as like, what different types of Judaism there were in it, because I think a lot of them it’s more an emphasis on how they choose to approach their Jewishness or their Judaism or their political practice.
TFSR: I think you answered again, in a way that I wasn’t expecting. But it’s by having every contributor be forcefully, vulnerably sharing their experience, you show that each person’s experience of Jewishness is different. And yet also kind of is Jewishness right? Or Judaism. So then it’s like, that becomes the kind of multifaceted version. In a way, my question kind of would leave, like, “there’s these different kinds of Judaism and like a, and b, and c” but actually you’re telling me through the book that what we see is that there’s all these different ways. They’re all these strategies, rituals, practices, struggles. And for me reading, it was so helpful as almost like, therapeutically because it’s something that I mean, maybe as you’ve said, my Jewishness is something I’m constantly struggling with. Actually, that made me think some of the stuff you were saying that maybe, in a way, I feel like Israel as the focus, and then the kind of history of the legacy of the Shoah, as a kind of defensive of why Israel needs to be. The same way that we see identities get flattened out, antisemitism, I feel like gets flattened out into this one thing. I could relate to the book a lot of the ways that I’ve been brought back into Judaism beyond just sort of a cultural identity has been through trans Jews and seeing how they … because I’m always like, “I can’t be Jewish and be queer, and be a feminist” and now I’m seeing all of these trans Jews finding ways to do ritual, and in the book there’s one piece that I thought was so beautiful about hormones, like a ritual, a Jewish ritual around having your hormone shot. So for me I was wrestling with that my own internalized antisemitism of the fact that I couldn’t be like anarchist and Jewish or queer and Jewish. And one of your pieces in the book that I found really important and beautiful was heartbreaking is you kind of going through all this sort of everyday antisemitism. I think non-Jewish people don’t realize that like we as Jews face … all the time. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that, the experience of sort of mundane antisemitism, not like the big violence, but even in like left spaces that should be on the side of Jews. If you have some thoughts about that you would like to share.
CM: Maybe it speaks to all the different experiences like… or what I was saying about wanting people to be able to speak directly to their experiences, because I’ve had so many experiences where in general, people do not see antisemitism or take it seriously. Like the January 6th Capitol assault being very recently… the far right, we have explicitly a whole bunch of symbols, explicitly antisemetic symbols and words and practices. Because white Christian supremacists, evangelical prayer as part of it, which I feel like is an assault against all sorts of things that aren’t white, that aren’t Christians supremacist. But there was very little conversation about antisemitism or Q Anon, or all these recent phenomena. A lot has shifted, where abolition is being named, or anti Blackness is being named, or white supremacy. And that’s a phenomenal leap, because those things were not being named. But antisemitism still, it’s almost never spoken.
And for years being in radical spaces, it’s almost like… antisemitism-lite in this sort of sense. “Antisemitism isn’t real because you all have power.” And that’s at the heart of a lot of the conspiracy theories, right? The Jews are behind the scenes pulling the strings. So when you’re in leftist or anarchist spaces and people are basically saying, “We don’t need to hear from you because you have all the benefits of society.” And I’m like “we’re also anarchist for a reason!” And we’re talking about the liberation of freedom of everyone and hierarchy. I mean we can look in every category of people that are seen as oppressed or targeted people and find some people that have better off situations. So I think it’s this mythology that Jews are somehow both all fine and have lots of power.
I just kept thinking how much that hurts is when you needed people to come to your aid because you were being targeted for antisemitism. And nobody… people just got angry at you or laughed at you, or went on with what they’re doing and ignored it. The pain of how that feels no matter what our identities are, right? And the peril to me as I understand is you can keep ignoring it until something awful happens. So one of the stories that I talked about that is [when] we happen to be in Pittsburgh, and some swastikas were painted on anarchic spaces a week or so before the Tree of Life synagogue murders. It’s not a direct relationship but you know, those two spaces made a choice not to tell anybody it happened and to buff it over. To not publicize it. To not take it seriously. To not warn even the people that use that space, some of whom are Jewish, and they know that! Or queer! So this way in which “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything and we’re not gonna take it seriously.” And then a few days later, white supremacists walks into a clearly labeled Jewish space.
As Jewish anarchists we get that it’s all these things are dangerous, right? I used a quote at the beginning from a piece I really like called *Feminism Hurts by Sarah Ahmed* She talks about how patriarchy hurts because it’s still happening, you know? And so I really liked that piece. It’s feminism hurts or feminist hurts. I can’t really remember the exact title. But she talks about all these little moments that happen in your daily life if you’re treated as female or treated as hetero-normative. That the patriarchy just makes all these assumptions and you keep trying to tell people about them. People don’t take them seriously because they’re like, “Oh, that’s just someone…” There’s just all these little things you can almost not get words to.
And I was trying to show in a way with antisemitism. A lot of us who are Jews have just had so many experiences. I’m like questioning, thinking we eat odd foods, to joking about practices, to not taking seriously when people like are treating us with antisemitism. And then now I think another reason why there’s a resurgence of Jewish anarchism is because there’s a resurgence of fascism around the world and we viscerally understand. So many of us have parents or grandparents or know people that survived Pogroms or Shoah or other attacks more contemporaneously. And I think people think it’s like the some far off distant thing and I think it’s not… I don’t know if to call it antisemitism but this way and not taking seriously. The pain is when people kind of go “You don’t understand what it means to have your people tried to be killed off by structures” and I was like, “I mean it’s horrible that the Holocaust industry, whatever you want to call it, turned it into almost a parody.” I don’t know where.
In the State of Israel was using it. But that was like a massive genocide and it wasn’t just Jews. It was Roma peoples, and queers, and people with disabilities, and all the anarchists pretty much. It wiped out so many people. But underpinning that was antisemitism. So you can’t understand especially in German forms of fascism, national socialism, you can’t de-link antisemitism from it. But even contemporarily now, in the last four years, the number of like, all the neo-Nazis in the swastikas you still don’t hear people talk, like suddenly that’s completely de-linked from this history of antisemitism. And as someone who’s Jewish that feels so disturbing. I don’t understand how you can stop saying Nazis have anything to do with an anti semitic logic and they have it in the room. I mean, we can go into the analysis of like “what does it mean theoretically, antisemitism” or “what does it mean historically?” But there’s just a pain in which people not taking it seriously when not that long ago, they were trying to annihilate every single Jew in the entire world, including every single space and every single book and every single grave, and there was going to be one museum left that had pieces of Jews… so you could go look and see to show how weird Jews were. That was the end result of it, you know.
It’s like, even if that didn’t happen, which it didn’t. I don’t understand why that pain doesn’t…. Of course we have pain, you know?! I was thinking I saw this thing the other day (I copy edit books for a living) it was in a book. Totally unrelated… Just a little tidbit about the schools in New York when there was a wave of immigration or a lot of Jews trying to get away from Pogroms before Shoah and poured into New York City especially, and had really huge Jewish communities. A lot of them spoke Yiddish and the public schools in New York were like “we will not allow Yiddish to be spoken in the public schools.” And so they would wash the kids mouth out with soap if they spoke Yiddish. They would punish them. And it’s not equivalent history. There’s the pain of being like “I lost Yiddish.” My Great Grandparents spoke Yiddish. And my dad spoke it, and he wanted to teach me. He was really young. And I was like “why do I want to learn this language?” Because they screamed at each other all the time in it so I wouldn’t understand what they were yelling at each other. But now I’m like “that language was intentionally killed off by the State of Israel officially, and the Nazis were trying to destroy it.” And then you have a contemporary history in New York and I think about the residential school history. It’s not the same history. I’m not but where we’re going to take indigenous children away, and we’re going to beat their languages out of them, like, quite literally.
And the pain of people losing their languages. That’s a pain. And there’s so much more that happened in those residential schools that is horrible and painful that continues to this day. And for us to understand that, again, I really want to come back to that the pain I feel over loss of language. And a lot of this research as a queer Jewish anarchist. It’s like “let’s relearn languages.” There’s many different kinds of Jewish languages. And same with indigenous languages. And the beauty of relearning them is, you tell different stories about the world, you understand the world differently, you reconnect to the natural world. Because language has all, diasporic and indigenous languages have a connection to the natural world in a way that a lot of dominant colonial languages don’t. And you understand that we come from a pluralism of people that didn’t know borders, that knew sharing space together in different ways….
I don’t want to romanticize indigenous peoples or Jewish peoples or any diasporic peoples. Peoples had conflict. People had asocial behaviors, people have things that… community riffs, etc. But they had all sorts of rituals and structures and ways without carceral logics. Without states without colonizers. To deal with them in a totally different ways. And if we bring back even those languages, let’s say we will have different words for understanding how to deal with things, conflict in our community, that isn’t about prison industrial complexes, for instance.
So, to come back to emphasize antisemitism hurts on this really personal level. And I want people to take it seriously because the more… when the Tree of Life happened, I went to this beautiful solidarity rally, but I know a lot of, almost all, the solidarity rallies that happened made this huge connection to white supremacists are coming into Jewish spaces and killing people that they can clearly see are Jewish. They’re coming into black churches, they’re going into mosques. They’re going into places where they can find the people that they think are who needs to be eradicated.
I think the resurgence of this new Jewish anarchism is like a lot of people are starting to wear visible signs of being Jewish, Kippahs and embracing how they look and embracing practices in public spaces that clearly signal. Holding up a sign that says “I’m a Jew at a demonstration.” Two years ago, I know a lot of my friends were scared to do that because of the fear of being targeted by white supremacists. And now, we should be able to do that, right? I don’t want us to have to hide any more than anyone else should have to hide who they are. So people not seeing the antisemitism within…
To come back to that lastly it really has been painful to me. I expect antisemitism is in the world. And I know most people don’t see it or take it seriously. But what’s painful is when your own community doesn’t. In the same way when my own anarchist community doesn’t take patriarchy seriously, or doesn’t take forms of hierarchy seriously. It pains us extra because we’re like, “but we should know better.” It’s not any worse, I would say, but it’s more painful. And I think the last thing I learned is that a lot of Jewish anarchists have this really weird fear of when push comes to shove… who’s going to protect us? We are going to protect everyone else. Like anarchists are really good at protecting each other and other communities… mutual aid and solidarity.
But I think part of the trauma of being a Jew is history has not been on our side. We have had by and large to protect ourselves way too many times. And whether that’s a false narrative or just a feeling or trauma… but you know, it brings that up for me in my anarchist communities, if you don’t take antisemitism seriously now and it’s just someone being a jerk to me about it in a public space. What happens when, you know, they come into our Jewish spaces and kill…. People say “Okay, yeah, fine, still, it’s only a synagogue. It’s only Jews.” I don’t know, I think even to some degree, the Tree of Life… there’s a couple really poignant pieces in the book. There’s a bunch about the Tree of Life. But there’s some about Charlottesville and other moments where, you know, fascist were yelling, blatantly antisemetic phrases, or targeting synagogues. And no one was thinking to protect those spaces or taking seriously again, those slogans.
The hurts! Of course it hurts. But it just doesn’t hurt it has consequences in terms of who’s going to ultimately get killed or targeted when it gets worse. And I think unfortunately, it’s going to get worse again. Like that Capital assault was just the beginning of a euphoria from what they know their capable of… White supremacy, and White nationalism, Christian evangelicalism, White supremacists know what they’re capable of and I feel like the reorganizing. It has not gone away.
So in this moment if we could take more seriously anti-Asian, anti-brown people, anti-Black people, anti-indigenous, the anti-queer, anti-disabled, anti-Jew, anti-Muslim, and say “Okay, this isn’t just a fucking laundry list. This is our lives.” And that “We care a lot about each other and that we have shared pain, and that we have marvelous…” I guess that’s what I want to say with the anthology is a lot of stories of pain. In the Shoah, I think that’s also the other problem is like “Oh, this whole stupid narrative. The Jews went to their death, like sheeps!” Total crap. There’s so much resistance. You know, it wasn’t just the Warsaw Ghetto, which is an amazing story. If you read the story, it’s a gripping story, because there was a lot of socialists and anarchists organizing that went into that. But there was all sorts of acts of resistance by Jews and non Jews, but especially including Jews during that time period that has gotten erased.
A beautiful book, I just remembered the other day again is *Blessed is the Flame* – about what resistance looks like. When you’re at the last moment when you’re about to be, you know, shoved into the crematorium or something. I read about 100 autobiographies of people who barely survived Shoah and each of them talked about what resistance is possible when almost no resistance seems possible. And that’s what the *Blessed is the Flame* is about. And yet people still resisted. And we still are. But we resist in ways that also are about resilience and joy and beauty and creating life. So a lot of the forms of resistance that happened, as why I point to this book *Blessed Flame*, but also looking at a lot of these autobiographies and what people did was they wanted to have a Shabbat before they knew they would be killed in a concentration camp, or they wanted to write down their name to keep or some or things they wanted to keep alive. The spark of the beauty of how they understood their Jewishness or their Judaism or their rituals. It wasn’t, you know, just trying to pick up arms or trying to do other forms of direct action or blowing up a crematory – which were good, incredible forms of resistance that happened too. But yeah, just the way in which even in the worst moments people want to create life. Because that’s what we do… and beauty.
So this anthology is full of all these Jewish anarchists. “Okay, the world’s really bad right now we’re facing fascism and ecological ecocide and now this pandemic, and capitalism…” There’s so many things that are so overwhelming, and we’re going to do it as joyfully and beautifully and lovingly and resiliently and queerly as we can till the last, very last moment, and that is resistance. You know? That is resistance because they don’t want us to live. Us living is resistance. But us living… I don’t mean just like surviving, I mean, trying to thrive, to love. There’s a lot of really beautiful pieces like that.
I am diverging off the antisemitism part. But maybe coming back to the queerness and the trans-ness, I think I wanted people with this anthology to see both the pain and the beauty. And so with antisemitism, you can see here’s the pain, but the beauty of it is, there’s a lot of Jewish anarchists that are doing beautiful anti fascist resistance. And they’re using their rituals as part of that, or their wisdom and their queerness and trans-ness. Part of that I’ve been really struck by is that there’s another thing have been stolen from us and indigenous people and Black people and a whole bunch of other people who have been made diasporic and colonized and destroyed by states… we’ve had a lot of things stolen from us, like elasticity and dynamism in gender.
Within Judaism from the beginning, there’s all sorts of ways, there’s stories of people without pronouns, and there’s five or six different ways of understanding gender, and there’s a lot of spaces. A friend of mine was talking me recently about how trans-ness, or non binary people, non conforming people are often associated with Twilight. Within Jewish writings… with liminal spaces, with in between spaces, and they are considered the most holy and the closest… if you believe again in some kind of holiness framework. Because they have the most ability to see in a way.
In a way, bringing Judaism, and queerness, and anarchism, and trans-ness together creates a wider frame to see more. You know? Non-binary people, you’re not stuck in this box. You see a spectrum that so much more beautiful and offers so much more possibility. And so we see antisemitism, we see anti-Blackness, and we bring those together… we’ll see a better way to struggle against it. But we’ll also see all the practices we share. They’re so beautiful. How we’ve kept communities together without states, and how we’ve done community self defense without police. How we resolve conflict without cops. We’re not going to have to expropriate from each other steal from each other. We can learn and borrow from each other. We can share land together without having to be a state.
There’s plenty of diasporic people of all different genders and colors, and indigenous or non indigenous, that had all sorts of ecological and harmonious relationships with land and using it for different seasonal harvesting or gleaning or commons.. We’ll have so much more wideness of a lens, and I think that’s why I want people to see both how much we’ve lost as Jews. How much has been stolen from us, and how much we’ve been devastated over the centuries. It just widens the lens with each moment in history and there’s more.
I just learned this thing recently about the witch trials, I love Silvia Federici’s book – as a lot of people do – about the witch hunts been this massive way to kill off healing arts, and mending arts, and queers, and non binary and feminists in a way to rein in massive amounts of queer women, healer people murdered in the name of being witches. And then I overlaid that recently by learning about how much of that was tainted with antisemitism and potentially why some of the understandings of what witches look like because people equated them with Jews. A lot of antisemitism that led into who got killed during that time period. That only broadens the horror of that moment. And gives us more understanding, especially as queer anarchist Jews to be like “Wow, of course, we’re going to fight against those things with other people.” And we’re going to try now. There’s a whole bunch of Jews that are doing healing arts, grief rituals, and mending rituals. Because we’re reclaiming this beautiful thing that was killed off at this moment. 500 whatever years ago.
TFSR: You bring up a lot of really, really interesting, important parallels, in listening to you. Thinking about how… this is making connections in my brain. I connect like the kind of State based thinking with the kind of like universalism of Christianity in ways that tries to narrow our…. make our narratives uniform. That’s what cuts out the histories of resistance both with like Jews or Black resistance during the time of slavery. It makes it seem like this like simple thing. In a way I connect that with “leftist spaces” where they’re, like “look like your particular problem as a Jew – with like antisemitism that can come later. We’ll deal with that later. Because there’s more pressing issues right now.” I’m not saying that we should be playing the oppression Olympics, but to secondarize whatever kinds of experiences of oppression that we have based on like embodiment, or like perception. I think there’s the history of antisemitism going back. You know, it’s completely entwined with the development and the subtilization of oppression that comes with like the formation of the state and the development of capitalism and markets. I don’t think we can disconnect that from all the other things. Again, there’s always like, risk in analogizing. You’ve been very careful to say “it’s not the same what happens to different groups of people, but…” And I really like the connection you made with feminism because like with Sarah Ahmed too, like she talks about being like a kill-joy. My internalized antisemitism… sometimes I’m like, even just bringing up antisemitism is like “Oh, that’s like an annoying Jewish thing to do.” You know what I mean? And it’s so prevalent because people are ignorant of how much antisemitism is just basically woven into… implicit antisemitism is woven into our lives. Even just thinking Jews are powerful and therefore can’t be experiencing kinds of oppression because there’s been some kind of assimilation. That was really helpful to me to kind of tie these things together and I thought you did a really…. just bringing those parallels up was important and kind of building off the resistance and ritual…that’s something else that really struck me from your book from various writers. You have mentioned a few times how the kind of horrors of the Tree of Life massacre kind of shadow the book and there’s a lot of responses to that. Your previous collection of *Rebellious Mourning* is about grief and mourning. So I was wondering if you wanted to talk a little bit about like Jewish rituals as forms of resistance or even direct action. One of the things that gets talked about in the book is particularly mourning and sitting Shiva as a kind of communal thing. So I don’t know if you have more that you want to say about that. But I would really love to hear more of the kind of Jewish resistance.
CM: Yeah, I think for variety personal reasons have been really drawn to loss, grief and mourning, but also because it’s a part of life, you know? And as queers, anarchists, and Jews, and other identities, they’re probably listening to this. We know, we are gonna experience a lot of loss. And so how do we handle that? We want to lessen unnecessary loss. And we want to… I don’t know, skipping over it doesn’t make it go away. And not using it as a form of instrumentalness, but to both allow us to fully begin the journey of processing it so we don’t…. people need each other to do that. Otherwise it is almost impossible to ever kind of integrate. Grief doesn’t go away, you just have to integrate it in ways that allow me to journey forward with your grief in a better way.
What I love about Jewish grief traditions, just to focus on those. Traditions around sick, dying, and post death… I think they all pretty much ask of you to do it in community. And so you’re not supposed to leave a body alone that is dead, until it is properly buried. Is that possible? I think that’s why the grief of when police murder people and the bodies are left in the street… The horror of that! It is horrifying. It’s horrifying for the people that know that person and love them. It’s horrifying for those…
I’ve been around many of those, unfortunately, watching those bodies for hours in the street, and the indignity. There’s so many levels, it feels horrible. Then denying people the capacity to be with that body and stay with that body. Right? And do it in community so they can process it. And I think why those moments when the police do that. That felt horrible and powerful to people is that you stand there for hours together and you create your own sort of communal space of helping, I’m gonna just wash the time again, you can see the pain and people instinctively want to be with other people. To be there for the friends and the family to help them process the horror of this for that moment and not skip ahead.
And Daunte Wright… I was just struck by that, because I love Unicorn Riot when they’re right at the scene at the very beginning and some other live streamers right when he was first murdered. I would just watch for hours where people were like “Before we go to the police station, we have to sing songs to the ancestors” which they did. “We have to circle the body and be here with it, we have to write.” And so what I appreciate within Judaism, is it’s understood for 1000’s of years we need… we don’t want people to be murdered by police. There’s also a long history of Jewish songs and tradition. Jews have not liked police for a long time. We want to get back to a time when we can stay. It gives you things that are already there to turn to that makes sense, right?
It’s like you should be with a body, but also sitting Shiva is 7. Shiva means 7. It’s like when someone you have a loss or someone dies, you’re supposed to, as a community, stay together for seven days and talk and laugh and cry and eat and sing and be there. And if anyone has experienced someone who they love dying, you know, especially, I mean, there’s so many different things that happen with grief. But that first week, especially, it’s almost just… it’s so unreal and you just don’t know what to do. And the capitalist industry tells you to start worrying about buying things – coffins or arranging funerals. But the beauty in just being with other people is really profound. And knowing that that’s the beginning of the journey.
And then there’s a lot of different traditions, but how do you come out of that week? There’s a lot of intentionality. One thing I’ve heard was like, with people, you walk outside and you walk around a block together to help you transition back into the world. Okay, so these are such beautiful moments, right? And so a lot of Jews and there’s a whole bunch of other traditions I could go into. But a lot of Jews have been doing a lot, as Jewish anarchists and others, like with the Tree of Life. You know, again, I think it was just because that was people’s practice. It’s like that happened and people started sitting Shiva in the street around where it happened because this is what they do as their practice as the ritual.
And because the community was in pain, and because it’s in a extremely long term Jewish neighborhood. It’s everywhere you walk. Like, it feels powerful to me, because I don’t really ever experience being around lots of things, where there’s so many Jews, you know, even if they’re not all my type of Jews! You see yourself in a way, you know, but yet here they are completely feeling like everyone sort of been a target. And in this neighborhood that’s clearly a target, you can easily find Jews in this neighborhood, and people chose to sit in the street again and be visible and do this grief ritual. Then it became a direct action blockade in a sense too. But I’m not even sure that was, who knows whether that was the intentionality. But who cares! It doesn’t really matter? Right? How do we use these rituals, not in the sense of “We are going to do the Shiva so we can have a blockade!” But be like “We need to be together now, we can’t go home.” We have to be here together.
And then over in Pittsburgh, there was a lot of intentionality for that first year. In Jewish rituals every month you’re supposed to do something, then after the first 11 months, and the 12, then there’s every year, it never ends, if you have someone that dies within Judaism, there are moments to remember that person, because remembering is keeping them alive, and the love alive, and the honoring. So that Jewish anarchist queer community in Pittsburgh was doing like, a lot of monthly and weekly rituals and ceremonies and on the one year did a really beautiful -which I end up coming to – a really beautiful Shabbat, that combined grief rituals, but also, were doing political organizing at the same time. I don’t think they could have if they didn’t have the community to be processing. They don’t have to also happen in the same place.
But when we seen how profound it is… a lot of direct actions lately where people are like “You’re destroying sacred land with pipelines. You’re killing off sacred bodies with your cops.” I think people are creating grief spaces around them, whether they’re doing it explicitly or not, and bringing them because a lot of Jews are going “It’s okay to be both anarchist and Jewish now.” Which is a new thing again, and this is what’s really distinct about this moment. And if you read the anthology it’s so different than any other Jewish anarchism before… and to be spiritual.
That’s been challenging for me, because I’ve never understood myself as religious or even believing in God, or even believing faith or having even spirituality. It’s been really recent. “Oh, that’s just that’s like, you know, higher… That’s something I don’t know.” I just always felt like it’s something outside myself. And then I’m like “No! How can we do we do it ourselves?” Spiritualities, the non-hierarchical ways we are taking these rituals and making them queer, or bringing out the queerness in them or bringing our politics to them and making them anarchist.
Just a couple weeks ago, I was sitting under a beautiful stars with a bunch of queer anarchists in a backyard and we sang for like two or three hours: these beautiful songs about healing and solidarity and resistance and anti cops and under the moon. That’s been Shabbat. We’re waving to the sky change. And then it’s just like “what are we doing?” We’re having an anarchist hang out in the backyard! But we did the Shabbat. Which was lighting candles and every Friday (you’re supposed to for 24 hours, slow down, stop, be with each other, be in community) you know? And again, politically, you’re also with your buddies who are anarchist, and you’re talking about other things. In fact, three days later, we’re making banners to go to the Palestinian solidarity demo.
And because you see each other regularly and you build relationships, and you’re like when things happen, okay, we need to be there. Right? So I don’t know. There is an interrelationship with them. But I think there’s something especially profound this moment where so much of what we’re experiencing is loss and death. And that’s what our resistance is responding to: loss of beautiful forests that we love, loss of human beings to pandemics, loss of, you know, fentanyl, or whatever. We can go on and on about the horrors of what’s happening. And as queer as queers, and as Jews and as anarchists… When you bring all those three identities together, that are all about having to make our own families, or on practices own on communities, each has its own lens, but I think you bring them together and you end up having this like “greater than the sum of their parts” way of understanding how do we create.
I was not able to be integrate my Judaism and my anarchism as much. Both my biological parents, I helped them die. What could have been horrible death and beautiful death. But I inadvertently sat Shiva with in both cases. Because they were both in hospice II type situations, a lot of other people were around. I just hung out there for a week and it was beautiful. But I went, I had to leave the anarchist world because I know the anarchists understood. They’re like, come back when you’re done. I’m like, I don’t understand that I’m gonna be done with grief. And then when I came back I was like “Okay, this isn’t enough.”
As an anarchist, it’s not going to be enough to keep me. I had such a lack of faith in anarchism at that moment. And I think that’s what led me to think “faith is a promise”. It’s not a belief in a god, it’s a faith that you will be there for me when someone’s dying. It’s a faith that we will be there for each other when a pandemic is really hard. We did sort of okay during this pandemic, we also did woefully inadequate as anarchists. As Jews, I think we did better. I think Jewish space that got created was what helped. This has been a horrendous year.
And the spaces that a lot of queer, radical, and anarchist Jews…. there’s a space called Pink Peacock and in Glasgow – this Trans and Queer Yiddish thing. Yiddish anarchist, Jewish anarchist, and they’ve been doing on online Havdalah. It’s very intimate and small. And we have these lovely conversations. I started doing that in a moment when I was unbelievably depressed and didn’t even know if I wanted to live. Just waking up every morning and going “why am I still on this earth” and was at one of the lowest points. And I started going, and the first time I got on the phone, they said “it’s okay to be wherever you’re at,” and I just almost started crying on the phone. And no one, you know… it was in held in a ritual Havdalah, which is another Shabbat and I’ve been going to that for months. I’m like, “okay, they created that space, the ritual to grieve and to find joy again, and to process what was going on”. And anarchists have not been as good at doing that.
Muslim anarchists that I talked to have also profound rituals, and Black anarchists and indigenous anarchists. And I guess I want to ramble on about lots of topics. Part of the pandemic is I like “how do we keep our minds on… I feel so scattered!” What about the pandemic side effects? There’s also a resurgence of Black anarchism and indigenous anarchism. And what I like to think of all in a way is all diasporic anarchism might be a next Anthology. Anarchists that have been people that have been displaced repeatedly and disenfranchised, seen as disposable, are understanding that their own… they’re reclaiming. They’re saying, “Hey, we’re not going to let you take away things from us. And in fact, we’re going to bring those things back in and use them as our power and as our resilience and our as our playbooks and as our way of being this for life.” But it’s making anarchism so much more beautifully complex and sustainable.
I’m more an anarchist each passing year the older. I’m like “Why are anarchists always in their early 20s?” The vast majority of them! Where do all the other anarchist go? It is hard, because there are not the things that keep you in it. But when you’re a Black anarchist, or an indigenous anarchist, or Jewish or Black Jewish anarchist, all the overlapping [identities] where you can go and you can say “Hey, we have traditions! We have rituals!” More and more people bringing those into the spaces of resistance. And we’re bringing our multiple prayers into those spaces of resistance, or multiple grieving rituals.
I’ve been at things where people want to do several of those from different traditions. They all are so similar in a certain way. I’ve used this example before, a lot of diasporic peoples have used different things to make noise because you have to gather people. Jews use Shofar – a ram’s horn. Things you can find in the ecosystems where people were. In Mexico or that part of the world, I just learned, people use big snail shells to call people together. There’s the conch shell! A friend of mine yesterday said… I think it’s in the Gulf region, some indigenous folks and other peoples. Black and indigenous communities use drums…. Indigenous peoples, we’re all in different places. We’re all experienced our own displacements and pains, but we have these rituals and we have these things we do. And when we get together, we’re like, “Oh, that’s cool! We all have these different ways of gathering each other!” We can return to those things together.
But especially I think the sense of what’s sacred at this time on earth is so imperiled. In a way, I think that’s why, weirdly, I think it isn’t just me coming back to the sense of spiritual. Not in a hierarchical way. But a sense of if we don’t understand the beauty and the mystery of the earth and that we’re part of it, and that we actually can’t even explain that. It’s just beautiful. Why do we have to explain it? You know, you’re sitting in a forest with some friends and you’re like “why do you have to explain why this feels powerful?” I’ve done some Jewish anarchist grief rituals in the woods and it’s absurdly beautiful and moving and healing. Why? Because I feel so connected to the ground and we’ve done things, the burning, and rocks, and blah, blah. We need that right now because humanity is destroying the earth and we have to remember our connections. And part of that is remembering this mystery.
The little anecdote about that Shabbat I was telling when we were under the stars? It was almost transcendent where you start singing… If you have ever done that? Just acapella. Your voices start… It’s like so anarchistic… you all kind of know what song you’re gonna do next and which words. Your voices rise and fall, when to start and when to stop. Like how is this organization without hierarchy? Whoo! Your bodies are just feeling really good! All of a sudden I was looking at the stars and was just in this beautiful “I just feel so good! And I haven’t so much of the time!” And then I see this line of lights across the sky and they’re moving and I almost scream and broke the beautiful space we created. Everyone looked up and someone’s like, “Elon Musk, that’s Elon Musk’s satellites!” We all stood for five minutes watching him destroy the sky. I thought, “Oh my god. Jewish ritual asks you to look for three stars at the end of Shabbat to end the sacred 24 hours of a non capitalist time” Time and community time, and here’s Elon Musk that’s taking away the sky.
It’s good to do rituals to remember that we have things to fight for. Things that are beyond us to even understand that we shouldn’t be doing that to, right? Rituals have meaning. They’re not just like woo woo looking at stars, they’re like those are ours to destroy and they aren’t Elon Musk’s to desecrate in capitalism in the name of money and all this other shitty stuff. It makes you want to be radical and resist even more and not have it be that. So they’re interconnected, not an instrumental way.
TFSR: I love how you’re talking about that. One way I think about anarchism… or like, the way I want to talk to people about it who maybe aren’t anarchists yet is to think about all the ways in our lives that the state doesn’t touch us and doesn’t reach us. And really what the history of the state and the capital is like, kind of tearing people away from their life ways from the land and making them dependent on the state (or seemingly dependent on it). But really, there’s all these moments that we don’t have the state in our lives. The way that you’re describing the rituals for all the kinds of cultures, not just Jewish culture is creating a different time in space that isn’t the state that isn’t capitalism. It changes that and that, and the more we do that, we would be making our lives more outside of the state. Doing something else than what we’re expected to do or asked to do. So I think that’s a really powerful way that you describe that.
CM: I watched someone during the “Chinese New Year” this year, they did this really beautiful series of posts about how this is actually not the Chinese New Year. It’s the Lunar New Year. It’s actually not one day, it’s… I don’t remember… I’m going to not say how many days it is because I don’t remember, but it’s multiple days. They said each day has a very specific thing and it’s not, you know… you think about New Year’s. New Year’s has become this ridiculous go get fucking drunk and just have a horrible time. But you’re supposed to pretend you’re happy! That’s not a ritual. That’s like an unthinking, commodified… like Christmas or whatever, all these things!!!
But these rituals that you make your own. The Jewish New Year is also extends over multiple days, and you’re supposed to spend a lot of time reflecting on harm you’ve done to others and harm. You’re supposed to actually gather with the community, if you’re part of one. Jewish anarchists could stand to do this, and other anarchists, once a year, to get together and think about harms that have happened in the community and whether it’s possible… how we dealt with them, how better could we have dealt with them? Should some things be forgiven or not be forgiven? There’s all these moments that are structured into ritual to help us do things that we want to be doing in our anarchist world. What does an abolitionist future look like? Well, we practice it through rituals. We’re going to get better at doing that! Cleaning our space.
These there’s all these rituals that people do there outside of the hegemonic ones. Christmas makes me so agitated and angry, because, you know, what? It’s three months long and it’s nothing but buying things. It’s so dominant. Everybody assumes everyone’s Christian. There’s so many reasons, but it’s even beyond that. It’s like this deadening. It’s not even a holiday or ritual. And when you come back to all these other traditions you realize people did them around harvest times to celebrate the harvest. Around moments to celebrate! There’s a day, the highest day of sorrow, where Jews spend the day thinking about mourning, and then there’s highest days of joy.
A few years ago, before the pandemic, I spent a lot of time in Montreal and some friends and I went to the day when you’re supposed to unroll the Torah scrolls and start again, and I’d never done that before! You take them and dance with them. People were dancing it was really fun. And then when someone said “Oh, let’s go outside and dance!” And my queer Jewish anarchists friends and I were like “Hey! Let’s dance in the street!” Because not everyone was a radical. And then people were all moving in the street and then we’re kind of creating a little blockade. But we were also just dancing, right? It was really fun, you know? And so you were kind of teaching people “Hey, you could actually take over streets.” We weren’t intentionally doing that. It wasn’t like a lesson, but it was just like… “Hey, we’re anarchists, we’re gonna we’re gonna go in the streets.”
There’s a joy in remembering these moments. We can do this on this day. I think this year has been really hard for a lot of us because our little teeny rituals… I realize how beautiful and precious they are and how flimsy they are, you know? Anarchist bookfairs are our sort of like dancing together. I don’t know, we’ve lost those. And I think we need to come back into this time and think more about it. I really want to encourage Muslim anarchist, Jewish anarchists and other Black anarchists, indigenous, brown, all the anarchists that are coming to try to say, “No, I want to be the whole of who I am with this!” And not have to keep those in separate spaces.
Of course, there’s some beautiful about just being with indigenous anarchists to do your thing, or just be with Jewish anarchists. I get the value the power of that too. But if we can all start saying, “Hey!” If we all start reclaiming all the beautiful rituals and holidays and practices and playbooks and trading them, I just think it’s gonna look so different. It’s gonna make our resistance better and our anarchism better too. Our anarchism needs probably more refreshing. It’s actually a much younger tradition than most of those other things I’m pointing to, which have actually had to go through…. much, much longer they have had to be rebellious and exist outside the states. Yeah, much, much longer.
TFSR: Yeah, we’ve been talking for a while. But one question. My questions is in a light hearted spirit, but maybe I don’t know where we’ll go with the answer. One thing that struck me reading this book talking to my people – my queer trans Jewish anarchists, the way that all those things being queer, being Jewish are being anarchists individually often we are like “am I queer enough? I’m not queer enough, I’m not Jewish enough, I don’t know enough about Torah. Am I anarchist enough? Am I committed enough to the struggle? And I just wondered if you hadn’t any thoughts about how these three things? I mean, the book gives us a different image of that for sure. But why do we internalize… or how do we internalize these like… this impossible measurement of like what we should be to really be that?
CM: Yeah, it was funny when you said that. I was like “That’s so true!” Like, almost. I don’t know, almost everybody, especially Jews. There’s something about Jews always going around, “I’m not a good enough Jew!” I don’t know, I feel it. Maybe all of them. Maybe less so with anarchism. I think there’s something nice about that. I don’t know. It’s like, to flip it around. There’s something nice about being humble. We have to always be striving to be good enough to be these things. You know? It’s an honor to be all of them to me. Will I ever be a good enough anarchist? Probably not. But I should aspire to be a better and better one all the time. Especially all three of those, in their own way, have really profoundly beautiful (this is not a universal, because some people say “they are not always welcoming”).
But I think in general, they’re very generous and welcoming and mutualistic and reciprocal. You know, if you say you’re interested in anarchism, people start handing you zines or whatever it is. People really do want to share and borrow. Maybe to flip it around, maybe it’s comes out of humility. It also maybe comes out of… it is really hard to feel enough. Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just gonna flip it around. Because I think it’s nice think about humility, which I think maybe we need, and just be like “let’s aspire to be better and better at all of them” you know, maybe more… the “not good enough” comes from: it’s hard enough to be all these things in a world that says those things aren’t. Especially like radical versions of Judaism, and anarchism, queerness, that they’re all seen as is not enough. They’re outside of the… so it’s too bad that we have to take on that sort of self doubt about ourselves.
It does become hard to sustain them sometimes. I really hope with this Anthology, and almost everything I do to really emphasize, like, all we really have is each other in the solidarity more than anything to me is… if we don’t stick by each other, we don’t have anything else with each other. Maybe we’ll feel more of enough if we try harder to be there for each other in ways in the fullness of who we are. I don’t know. For me, I want to hear other people point out antisemitism, so it isn’t just Jews. I want to hear people that are not queer. I want everyone to not have to be their own advocate, as it were. So maybe that’s another way we don’t feel enough because we all just feel sort of invisibilized by each other, which I think is sad, you know?
If we were more acknowledged, like, celebratory of each other. But I think it’s really going in that direction. I really do. I feel like the last few years there’s been so much collective trauma, so quickly, targeting so many people. Like every day now almost. The past few years if you think how many white supremacist murders, assaults on people. They pretty much have killed now every category of humanity except themselves.. I think we’re all starting to go into spaces, each time, unfortunately. I don’t want that to happen, for us to see that. Then I start realizing we’re like, “Oh, we are enough because we start seeing each other. We are enough because we’re there for each other.” So, yeah, maybe we’ll start getting past that. When we all try to be more of ourselves to each other too.
TFSR: Well, I’m grateful for you giving me your time to talk for the Final Straw and also it was really exciting to be in an actual space with you, physically together. But also for putting this book together because it did, for me, made me see that I’m not alone and that there’s other people struggling with the same questions and having answers that I would never have thought of. That confirm things that I feel. So the book creates this community too. I think is really important work, so I’m really grateful to you for that. I really like the idea: may we be queerer and more Jewish and more anarchist!
CM: I know! I want to be! May we be more. We have to be more of all of them. Again, what I said I wanted this anthology to be liberatory. Queer liberation. Jewish liberation sounds weird. But I do want like a liberatory-ness within our Judaism and our Jewishness as radicals and anarchists and queers, you know? I wanted it to be bold and beautiful, and assertive in a way of beauty. But not just for Jews, I really, I hope. I’ve been really happy. Because one thing I was trying to do with this was to not just have this be something for Jews, to have the anthology really show interconnections of struggles and identities. Jews are all colors, all languages, all places, there are no borders within Judaism. If we don’t see that enough, we push ourselves harder. I’m not saying that it’s perfect at all. But there is no homogeneous Jew. And that points to this beauty of “we are all things across all borders.” And including beyond just Judaism. So I hope… I feel like it touches people on this other level outside of being a Jewish anarchist.
But I’m also really, really appreciative. I feel the same way. I really want to acknowledge and thank all the 40 or more people that contributed to it. I’ve been really touched by how many people are reading it and saying “Oh wow. I feel. I feel seen for what I’ve been struggling with as a queer, feminist, non binary Jewish anarchists.” Who is trying to be part of this resurgent, beautiful, bold new thing that’s been coming out and creating this of anarchism with other anarchists that are coming to their senses of who they are together. And it’s just really touching to see people. That’s what I want. I want us all to see ourselves. The fullness of ourselves more. That’s the title. *There’s Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart.* We’re all so brokenhearted by this world because we should be. But I want us to be whole in that too. So I’m loving that you and other people are responding to it that way.
Eric Laursen on Anarchist Conceptions of The State
One thing that sets anarchism aside from other radical, egalitarian critiques of Power developed in the modern West is the conception of the State as an enemy. But what is the State, how does it work, why and how do we as anti-authoritarians and anarchists oppose it? These questions and more are the focus of the recent book, The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State (AK Press, 2021). This week, we air Scott‘s conversation with Eric on the book, theorizing the State as computer operating system, the necessity of social revolution prior to a political revolution and other heady topics.
TFSR:So today I’m talking to Eric Laursen, who is the author of the new book The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State. And I want to welcome you to the Final Straw.
Eric Laursen: I go by he/him/his pronouns. I am, I guess, a longtime journalist-activist. And I’ve made a study of the state, partly as a result of not only my activism and my involvement in the anarchist movement but also just some of the work I’ve done as a journalist over the years on finance capital, corporate structure, aspects of the economy. So it all comes together in this book, which I call An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State. But I think of it also as an introduction to that. I want it to be a conversation starter for people, especially in the anarchist movement itself to think a little more systematically about what is this thing that we’re so opposed to? What is the state? We know what capital is, we think we know what the state is, but do we really, do we really understand the connection between the two as part of anarchist theory? And where does that get us? What I’m trying to do in the book is to throw out a new way of looking at the state or thinking about it, and then get more people involved in a discussion around that. It’s something that I think should appeal to non-anarchists as well, simply because, like most of us, people in the general public think of the state and they think, “Well, yeah, I understand what that is, that’s government or whatever.” But really, it’s more than that. And I think that anybody who wants to understand better what kind of a society we have needs to think about the subject very seriously.
TFSR: The book, I also think it comes at a really opportune time because we have this post-election where Biden’s coming in and it’s possible that people who are driven to organizing or movement work, because of Trump, might start pulling off from that when there’s apparent low of the really egregious harm that we can see so clearly with Trump’s administration. You say that, in more recent anarchist analysis, there’s been a loss of the focus on the state, in favor of analyzing power more generally, or in the forms of race, gender, and sexuality, but tracing anarchism back to its beginning, in the 19th century, it was distinguished by its anti-state stance. Why do you think it’s important to refocus an anti-state argument in our liberatory politics? And why is it not enough just to focus on capitalism? One more part of this question is how does the analysis of state help us understand better these other aspects of oppression like race, gender, sexuality, citizen status, etc.?
EL: Well, yeah, that’s a good question. I do want to say just at the outset that I’m not complaining about the direction that anarchist analysis and thought have taken over the last 30-40 years. I don’t think you can really have up-to-date anarchism unless you address all of the subjects that you just mentioned in a specific way. There has to be an anarchist angle on racism, class, obviously, on colonialism, imperialism, and so forth. All of those things. What I think is that the answer to your question is that the state is the organizing principle for these oppressions. You can look at it this way: Can you understand racism unless you understand how it helps promote and bolster the state? How can you understand sexism or gender inequality? Unless you look at them in the context of how do they serve the state? There’s a lot of analysis among Marxists about how capitalism benefits from these sorts of oppressions, but not a lot about how the state specifically does. And we have a tendency, the way we were brought up to think of the state as the solution to these problems, that through the courts, through the legal system, through legislation, and so forth, that those are ways to tackle gender inequality. What I’m suggesting is that ultimately, that is not the case, that the state has a stake in maintaining gender equality, maintaining racism, maintaining other forms of prejudice and inequality. And that we have to bring it back into those discussions before we can really deal with those problems.
TFSR: Right. So I guess before we go too far, if you can share what your definition of the state is. You said it is a sort of organizing principle, but is there more that you would like to expand on how we can understand what the is?
EL: Yeah, definitely. One of those rhetorical things I do in the book is I think of the state in two ways. There’s the state with a small ‘s’, which could be the United States, or Egypt, or Russia, or Mauritania, or any number of states that we have in the world. But then I also refer to the State with a capital ‘S’. And the state with a capital ‘S’ is a system that all of these individual states have adopted in one manner or another. The State, I argue, originated in Europe, and it’s been exported all over the world. It’s probably the most successful export of all time, on a certain level, at least in the intellectual sense.
So what does all that mean? State with a capital ‘S’ is what we’re really talking about in this book. And that is a system or a way of organizing reality, or the perception of reality. I compare it – and this is where the title of the book comes from – to a computer operating system, like iOS or Windows or something like that. And what that means is that the state is an attempt to create a framework with which we can organize reality and manage our lives within that reality. It struck me in researching computer operating systems that really, they attempt to be all-encompassing. Microsoft wants you to use Windows, so that everything you can do, more and more of what you do can be done within that operating system. You pay your bills, you get entertainment, you write, you create, you design art, you do all of these things. You manage your relationships with people in every part of your life.
And that there’s a continual effort to make these operating systems encompass more of what you do day to day. The state, the modern state, which is about 500 years old or a little bit more, is an attempt to do the same. It creates a framework that every aspect of our lives operates within. It’s how we govern ourselves, how we organize our economic life, the economic life of the country. It’s how we educate ourselves. It’s what creates everything from educational standards to weights and measures. The fact that we use inches rather than meters is something that the state came up with. It’s something that was decided upon by this institution. Capitalism is part of the state in the sense that capital is needed to promote economic growth, which is needed to help the state expand, strengthen itself, expand outward, expand deeper into the population. There are various aspects of this. But the basic statement I’m making is that the state is not just government, it’s an entire system that has been set up to essentially satisfy all our needs and it’s a framework in which all of our day-to-day planning takes place, all of our aspirations can be theoretically achieved within this framework of the state. It’s something that’s, I guess you would call it a totalizing thing. It’s continually to try to absorb more of the things we do that are new. Suddenly, we decide we need to travel internationally, which is something that people really for the most part didn’t do until a few hundred, couple hundred years ago. The state needs to regulate that. Everything we do, the state finds a way to fit into their framework, otherwise, it suppresses it. The question is, after 500 years, do we still want our lives to be regulated and directed in this way? That’s the challenge. But I hope that gives you some idea of the basic conception here.
TFSR: Yeah, the last thing you said reminded me of another point that you make is that the state intercedes, interjects itself in every relationship that we have, so that we have to go through the state to do anything, basically, more and more things. One line that you have in the book that really struck me is, and you talk about it in various ways, but I’m gonna quote you: “the state has trained us to think of it as a substitute, or perhaps, a shorthand for the collective, or the community.” And in a way, this calls to mind for me Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, and also the totalizing aspect that you talk about reminds me a bit of different analyses of fascism and totalitarianism. But I wonder if you have any thoughts on the way that your operating system analogy helps us to think about that totalizing aspect that the replacement, the image, imitation of life, and maybe how technology fits in that? Because you’re specifically outlining or elaborating on the technological aspects of that.
EL: Yeah, I like the fact that you use the phrase “imitation of life.” What I meant by a substitute is that the state provides us with something that, without the state, we might think about providing for ourselves through small-scale organizing, direct democracy, communal cooperative forms of economic production, and so forth. The state is a substitute for that. You don’t have to do this, we will provide you with the superstructure you need to do these things, we’ll make it easy for you. There’s a sense in which the state is a product that’s been sold to us. Because, yes, we understand that as human beings, you need to cooperate and work together in order to produce food, to reproduce, to tame the environment, or get what you need out of the environment. But we’re going to provide a framework that makes it easy for you, you can do it all through us. It is an attempt to relieve us of taking responsibility for ourselves on a certain level. It’s the same as if you buy a house with an alarm system, rather than actually having to get to know your neighbors and forming a community with them, we will sell you an alarm system so that you can sit in your house and not have to worry or think about the other people out there. That underscores a little bit the connection between capitalism and the state, that capitalism is one of the tools that the state uses to fulfill these needs and to make itself into this substitute that you’re talking about.
TFSR: I really like the way that your book includes an analysis of capitalism, but as necessarily linked to the state. Because sometimes we might focus so much on capitalism as this worldwide system, that we don’t think about how it operates through the state. But one thing that really comes into relief in your analysis to me is the fact that both the state and capital get the benefit of the doubt, as being permanent, inevitable, perpetual. And I was wondering why you think that is. You have said a couple of times maybe that it proposes itself as the solution to our problems, even though, as you’re pointing out in this book, they’re both also the cause of our problems. So why is it so ingrained in our mind, and why do we accept it?
EL: This is where we get to the cultural part in a way. The state has been one of the things very adept at creating an emotional link between itself and the population, in other words, us. In the early days, in the 15th-16th century, Renaissance period, when modern states really first appeared in Europe, there was the monarch, there was the king, or the Emperor, or what have you, who had a personal connection. There was an attempt made to make people feel a personal connection with these sovereigns, that there’s a sort of a godlike quality to them. Really, what they were at that point was dictators or warlords, if you look more closely, but the attempt was to say, “Alright, let’s form a tight emotional bond between Elizabeth I of England or Louie XIV and the people.” So they felt like there was almost a family that you were part of with these people. The next thing you had was the nation-state or the national state, where the state was the embodiment of a larger community that you were part of. And so, there was the family of French people or English people, etc, that you belong to. So that’s another form of an emotional tie. Fascism, you could say, is sort of the end result of that. That’s the ultimate in the nation-state connection. Although it’s really built much more on pushing other people, excluding certain other groups, rather than including the group that you’re a part of.
Then you have what I guess is known as the social-democratic or welfare state, which is something that we had in the mid-20th century before neoliberalism came in, and the idea of that was that the state is something that can really substitute for socialism, or for anarchism, or these other revolutionary ideologies that grew up. Yes, we can have racial equality, we can have reform, we can have a social safety net, the state will provide it. You don’t have to think about it anymore. Or you can give us your suggestions, send your representatives to Congress. The emotional bond there is this sort of bond over welfare, over safety and the ability to feel secure in yourself. Nowadays, we have what I call the neoliberal state, which has abandoned a lot of that. The neoliberal state is all built on the idea that “we give you the opportunity.” We don’t give you welfare, but we give you an opportunity to do wonderful creative money-making things and that’s the key thing. So each stage along the development of the state over the last 500 years has been a different rationale and a different way of building a connection between people and the state that the state relies on to legitimize itself. So that’s the cultural aspect of the whole thing.
TFSR: Yeah, that analysis, in your book, I found really helpful because it points to the way that we exist now in the hangover of the post World War II era where there was this welfare state, and also the concessions that were made to various civil rights-oriented movements, and even among like anarchists and other anti-authoritarians, you can see people who have an anti-state analysis will still have this knee-jerk reaction that the state would provide us some solution or is there for us in some way.
EL:And that it will again again if we push it hard enough, and we try hard enough to reform it.
TFSR: Right, which in a way explains a lot of the repetition of protest movements, because we end up repeating these old forms that no longer really working. To bring that to the present moment, what was one another aspect of your book that’s so helpful is that you wrote this in the wake of the pandemic, and also the uprisings after George Floyd’s murder, and we’re talking today after another black man was murdered in outside of Minneapolis, while the police officer Derek Chauvin is being held on trial. So there’s still this rebellion going on. But you incorporate this analysis of the virus and the pandemic and the very literal, invisible state violence into your analysis of the state. So it’s very up-to-date. And as the pandemic started, I started having some hope that the contradictions would be so stark to everyone, that we’re expected to pay rent and bills and we have no health care and the horrors of this all would become clear to everyone, but in ways, I’m seeing that go away. And I wonder if you have any thoughts about what events in the crisis like a pandemic provide us an opportunity for resistance and how we can avoid it being co-opted?
EL: That’s a really challenging question. And I think that ultimately it’s something that has to happen independently of any particular choices. But you’re absolutely right that when something like the pandemic happens, it makes starkly clear how incapable the state is and the system we have are coping with this problem that at a certain level it created. It’s the same thing with the death of George Floyd, for example, or this most recent atrocity we had, that it makes starkly clear that this is a pattern, it’s not a freak event, this is something that somehow must be in the interest of the state to allow, that the system is not broken down here. This is how this is supposed to behave. So yeah, these crises do make a lot of things very crystal clear to us that worked before.
The problem is that the State does have ways to recoup when these things happen, the state can throw money at developing vaccines. It can prosecute someone like Derek Chauvin and use that as a demonstration that “yes, we can do the job that we’re supposed to do in terms of making sure that everybody is treated fairly and equally.” Those are not permanent solutions. They don’t address the fundamental issue. In the case of the pandemic, the problem is that globalization has created a situation in which and the advance of industrial societies into wilderness areas, wildlife areas has made it almost certain that we’re going to have more pandemics going forward. And yet the state has not developed the ability to cope with them. It treats them all as emergencies rather than improving public health systems and so forth that would help us to be prepared for this thing, it has not done that.
In terms of the issues that are raised by the movement for Black Lives, essentially, no real reform or real fundamental change is made in the system of policing. It stays in place, it is never really reformed except in cosmetic ways. And things just go on as before. What I argue in the book is that we have to think of revolution as a two-part process. And that contrary to the way we’ve tended to think of it in the past, the social revolution has to come first. We have to start thinking about organizing in and beyond and outside of the state so that we have some conception of what we would put in its place, rather than simply… If a revolution happens tomorrow, and the United States government is swept away, we can put something in its place that’s better, that we’ve already conceived and we’ve already begun to implement, rather than essentially having to rebuild the state in an emergency, which is what has tended to happen with revolutions in the last 200-odd years. So that’s a big order. But I think that we have an opportunity in a weird way because the state has withdrawn from certain parts of our lives.
Under neoliberalism, the state has decided that the social safety net is not something that needs to provide or something it can provide only in a very limited way. That gives us some space to recreate something like that along more cooperative or collective lines. We can start to create a more humane community ourselves outside of the state because the state isn’t competing with us so much in that area. The interesting thing about the Biden administration, for example, is that there’s some understanding of this and some understanding that they have to do something to make it look to us as though the state is actually able to be effective in our lives and helping to improve our lives. It’s not going to last, it’s not going to work. The opposition to it is huge, and it’s not going to go far enough. What we’re going to find at the end of the day is that we do have to start implementing something new ourselves. This is something that goes back to the early, classical thinkers of anarchism, Bakunin and Kropotkin talked a lot about this, they didn’t use the word “prefiguration”, but the need to start the revolution now among ourselves, so that we have something to put in place this genuinely different. So that’s the challenge that I see.
TFSR: You talk about how the revolutions that some leftists will hold up as successful always end up reproducing the state in various ways. Because, I guess you’re arguing, that because that social revolution hasn’t happened, or the ingrained Statist thinking doesn’t get critiqued enough to say that we can’t actually use the state to achieve freedom. And something I really appreciate your book is that you use the State to talk about… you don’t make these distinctions among the states, because essentially, this larger system of States functions in a similar way, even if various tweaks happen from one state to the next. And they rely on the system to stay together. I wonder if you have any more thoughts on that failure of revolution, or the way that State thinking gets replicated? Or leftists get caught in the feedback loop of Statism?
EL: Yeah, it’s really powerful when you take a close look at it, because if you look at the Russian Revolution, the big one of the last 100 odd years, the first thing the new Soviet state started to do after it came into power was to essentially reassemble the Russian Empire that had disintegrated just before the October Revolution happened. The process of suppressing ethnic minorities or Russifying them continued, geographic areas that had succeeded were pulled back in, an immense military establishment was built up once again, an immense prison establishment was built up once again. Really, the pattern was put right back in place that had existed before the Soviet Union, maybe it was a little more efficient this time, but essentially, the ambition of that state was the same.
You can look at it similarly, if you look at sort of post-colonial states. You can look at India, which is a country that never existed really in that form until the British imperialists put it together. They created literally an Indian Empire. When Britain pulled out, it essentially turned that whole structure lock, stock, and barrel over to the indigenous people. And specifically to people who were English-trained, who were trained to think about the state as something fundamental, to think of economic development as something that powers the state. And who essentially ran that Empire along, in a lot of ways, remarkably similar lines. This is why I say that the state has been something that’s a European export because it’s essentially sold to at least a small stratum of people in each of the places that it comes in contact with. And they’d set up something that’s ultimately along the same lines, where there are territorial boundaries, there are certain kinds of institutions that are common, there’s a nationalist thinking in each of these places. And that’s essentially what we get. It doesn’t always work. We have failed states all over the place. But that’s the aspiration. And the remarkable thing, of course, is that if you look back even 100 years ago, there were vast parts of the world that had no state, where the State really only existed in name. Today, it’s very, very different. Almost everything is encompassed by the State now, and the parts of the world that that still resist or lie outside of it, such as, for example, people in Amazonia, there’s tremendous pressure upon them as well. So, the reality is that the State has almost become supercharged in the last 100 years. And anything that’s resisted it or stood in this way is being undermined increasingly rapidly and quite violently, in a lot of cases.
TFSR: Thinking about the way that the state has come to settle itself all over the globe is helpful too to think about it as that colonial export, especially since Settler State comes into more focus in a lot of critiques now within indigenous-led movements. But I wonder if also there’s a way that the State is used to try and consolidate power after a revolution. But there’s this other problem. And maybe this pertains to the system of states that you’re talking about, where if there was a revolutionary movement or freedom movement that was isolated, how does it exist as a non-State structure, while the system of states at large exists and would continuously exert that pressure for it to conform in some way? Do you have any thoughts on that?
EL: Yeah, that’s a problem. The answer to that, ultimately, is resistance. And in the book, I talked a little bit about the idea of insurgency, rather than revolution. And this has been an interesting topic lately, amongst other writers as well, is that insurgency is something long-term. It involves creating a prefigurative or an alternative community within the present State while we are resisting it. Insurgency is something that could include anything from the Zapatista movement in Mexico to the Landless Movement in Brazil, even in some respects to the agriculturalFarmers’ Movement in India, where people are forced to organize outside of the State because there’s literally no way that the State can address their demands, however reasonable those demands are. And so you start to develop something that is outside the state, and that can eventually create institutions that can replace it.
Now, I don’t say this in the book, but I’ve thought this for a long time, is that ultimately, if the State is going to be brought down, most likely the process is going to start in the developing world, where state structures and power are more tenuous. They’re not exercised as uniformly literally in the geographic space. And where there’s room for people to develop alternative institutions. Most likely what we’re going to see is developments like this growing and really metastasizing in the developing world, and then perhaps extending to places like the United States, Western Europe, and so forth. Because I think also there are, in those places, more of the remnants of traditional ways of life that alternative structures can be built around, and this is something that goes back to the beginnings of anarchist thinking. In the 19th century, Russian anarchists looked to traditional peasant communities, as offering models to develop some an alternative system around, rather than this European state that’s been grafted on to the place. And I think that that’s going to continue to be something that we see.
Just getting back to the point we were talking about a second ago, one of the things that the Soviet Union did once it got into power was it essentially completed the job of destroying those traditional communities in Russia, which has begun under the Czarist regime. The Soviet Union essentially completed that task. So that’s the thing we see in empires or restored empires, even when they have leftist governments. I think that the answer is to start at home and to start locally, and to consciously, really consciously create structures where the intention is not to let them be co-opted by the State.
TFSR: You make the argument in the book that all the so-called good things that the state has provided, particularly in the last 100 or 150 years, maybe extending to that long have been co-opted: from community-based solutions and versions of mutual aid. Do you want to elaborate on the history of how those things have come to be seen as state-based programs that really came from communities?
EL: Sure. The example I use a lot because I wrote a book about the subject is social security. The social security and medicare systems in this country are something that really was born out of cooperatives from mutual aid associations that workers formed in the 19th century. You have people pouring into large industrial cities from the countryside, there was no social safety net, there was a need for people to provide these things for themselves. And so they did. Welfare systems or social insurance systems like Social Security and Medicare, in this country, were created as a way to nationalize that. In the early 20th century in the United States, when universal health care systems were starting to be discussed, there were people in the American labor movement, who literally said, “We don’t want to do this, we don’t want to back this because we feel that the state is going to at some point snatch back, it’s not going to be forever. They say it will be but it’s not, we have to organize this ourselves.” And that thinking died out.
But I think that these days, there’s a real need to revisit it and to look at institutions like Social Security, for example, or unemployment insurance, or these social safety net systems, and think about whether this is something we can essentially denationalized and turn into something that’s run on a cooperative basis. Because, again, what we have seen is the state makes a commitment to these kinds of programs over the last 100 years, let’s say, and then withdraw out of that commitment, they said, “Well, maybe this was a bad idea, maybe we need a lot less of this.” Well, no, we don’t need a lot less of this, but the state thinks we do. There’s a need to revisit that element of the social contract that the state imposed on us.
TFSR: To pivot our discussion more to revolutionary aspects. One thing you say is the state exists because we choose to let it, and that feels really empowering to think about as a way to, not choose to let it. But to me, it also calls to mind some of that social contract idea that keeps us within the circle of the state that we’re all here by some form of consent. Right? So I was wondering, what are your thoughts on and how do we choose not to let the state exist? What does that look like?
EL: I can give you a little bit of a visual. It looks a bit like the Capitol Hill occupation that happened in Seattle a few months ago. It looks like people rejecting the police, rejecting the presence of the police in their communities. It looks like people essentially forming in small clusters to self-govern themselves and then reaching out to other groups that are doing something similar. It can seem very small scale, it can seem minuscule compared to the power of the state itself. That’s the challenge. But I think that the answer to that is what used to be known as internationalism. In other words, smaller communities, right from the get-go need to link up and network with smaller communities in other places that are doing something different. We need to have a network that is as widespread and as diverse as the community that the state itself governs. We have to create a new, larger federal structure that is consensual, cooperative. We need to figure out how to do this.
An interesting model, actually, if you want to think about it, is, although there are problems with this model on a certain level, the committees of correspondence that existed in the colonies before the American Revolution, which is essentially people who were interested in independence, interested in freedom, who essentially formed a letter-writing collective among themselves. There wasn’t a lot of transportation or travel between the states or the colonies at that point. So you use the mail to essentially create a community that wasn’t there before. It’s a prefiguration of the internet and of social media, and what can be done with that. But the point is to find commonalities with people in other places and to share tools and methods of organizing that can work in more than one place. So there’s essentially getting creative thinking about how to organize going completely outside the state, but also outside of state boundaries, outside of specific state boundaries.
TFSR: That seems important. One of the things we’re talking about here, and you talked about in the book, too, is the State’s so good at scaling up, and I hear this often within anarchist organizing groups, that’s a problem that we have. We have our mutual aid network with our town, and maybe some neighboring towns, but how do we scale that to the region? Scaling, in a way, sounds like it could end up reproducing that state form. How do we think about doing that across the state lines and not within a state idea of bigness and totality?
EL: Well, the first thing is to keep in mind people’s specificity. Not everybody’s struggle is exactly the same everywhere. And so to be sensitive to that, I should back up a second. You said the magic word, which is “scale”. That’s the ultimate argument for the state: we have the resources, we have the reach, we have the depth, we have the technology and the expertise to do beneficial things on a large scale, you don’t. Okay, so that’s the primary argument for the State’s existence today. What we need to do is rather than thinking about scaling, to begin with, we need to think about addressing local needs and local desires. The federative part comes later. And if you structure an organization that’s built around fulfilling the needs of people in a local community, and doing it in a directly democratic way, there’s less likelihood of putting together a federated structure on top of that, that subordinates everybody to some big idea. That’s ultimately what you don’t want to do. But it has to originate at that local level. And they have to be focused that way.
You’re going to be a little surprised to hear this, but I would direct people to look at some of the things that Ho Chi Minh wrote during the Vietnam War, in terms of when he was talking about what’s needed to win this war. He stressed over and over again, there’s a need to go to the people and find out what they want. Don’t tell them what they want, but to find out what they want, and to give them the power to get those things for themselves. That was a big part of why the National Liberation Front was accepted in so many parts of the country because there was this constant emphasis on putting the question back to the people themselves and helping them to organize. And maybe it was a little bit phony, maybe people were induced to think this. The North Vietnamese system was fairly monolithic. But I think that he was right in terms of what the emphasis has to be for any liberatory movement. It’s got to constantly go back to that local level.
TFSR: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And yet, in your book, you also keep an eye on the fact that there are these huge problems that affect everyone, like the climate catastrophe that is happening and worsening constantly, it is inescapable for everyone to some extent, and then you also talk a lot about the forced migration and displacement of people that are being caused by climate, by state violence, by economic and trade agreements. I want to get to the strategy that you articulate at the very end of the book. You talk about making a reasonable demand that is impossible for the state to fulfill. Can you explain that strategy and how that relates to these very big problems that we’re facing?
EL: Yeah, with climate change, it’s easy, in a way. There’s nothing easy about climate change, but it’s easy to address that point with it, in that if you look at the measures that are contemplated through the Paris Accords to deal with climate change, they are inadequate. A reasonable request of the state in a time of climate change is to do what needs to be done so that we don’t all die, so that the planet doesn’t become uninhabitable for us. Nothing that has been proposed, including the proposal the Biden administration has made over the last few weeks or started to formulate, will do it. Well, it is a reasonable request that we be able to continue to live a healthy life on this planet, the state system has proved pathetically unable to meet that. It’s for a very simple reason, which is that the State is built on this model of rapid economic growth at all times, it cannot reconcile itself to a world in which that is directly antithetical to survival, it can’t do it. And so, essentially, we asked theSstate to address this problem of climate change in a realistic way. It falls back on things like carbon trading, or efforts to sort of shoehorn this back into the private enterprise system in some way or other, clunky innovations, desalinization and removal of carbon from the air and so forth. Innovation is going to solve the whole thing. Don’t worry about the inequality part. Once we start to ask for reasonable things, that the state can’t deliver, we start to expose the workings of the State, its MO, the way it operates, and how the way it’s operates is antithetical to the lives that we want to have. So it’s a matter of exposing what’s hidden there, essentially.
TFSR: Going back to a discussion of the pandemic and the response to demanding an end to state violence is more state violence. Those moments heighten the hypocrisy of us relying on the state to solve these problems.
EL: …more of the same and getting the same results. Sorry.
TFSR: Right, exactly. I was interested in your use of the term of making a reasonable demand that’s impossible for the state to fulfill. I see people and using the impossibility theoretically within anarchist or anarchist-influenced or adjacent ideas, and I wonder what your thoughts are on that category of impossibility as part of our thinking through, shaking off the State, as you said?
EL: Right, that’s where we have to have a dialogue with other people on the Left, essentially, we agree about the demands with other people on the Left, who are not necessarily identifying as anarchists, also want a healthy planet, they want an end to racial injustice, and so forth. But they think that it can be done through the State. And what we need to get across is that that’s not possible anymore, that these are problems that cannot be met by the State because of the State’s own interests clash with any attempt to really address these problems seriously. That’s where that discussion has to go. I hope that people will go on upon reading this book.
TFSR: Putting all this critique of the State into an accessible and easily digestible form… These are things that I’m aware of, and yet putting them all at once and seeing how glaring the failures of the State are, when listed off in this way and analyzed in this way…. I don’t know, I think it really makes it even more imperative. And then, as you emphasize, the anarchist aspect of it, anarchism always gets dismissed by even Leftists as impossible. When you put the word impossible on the state as the solution, we see that anarchism doesn’t look so impossible anymore, because it’s actually perhaps one of the few hopes that we have to actually get at something like surviving.
EL: Yeah, in a way it’s the attempt to continue to use the state to achieve something that it’s not interested in achieving. That is unrealistic, that is impossible. And we can continue to beat our heads against that wall, or we can try something else. I’m really sensitive to the fact that in this book, in terms of dealing with the problems that the state creates, I don’t suggest any magic bullets or any quick fixes, or here’s how we organize… here’s the step by step, this is how we organize in order to overthrow this thing and to do what we need to do. These are not easy things. There are no easy solutions. But the beginning of it continues to be organizing locally, understanding our needs as a community, being our communities, and working from there, that’s a step that we can’t skip. There’s no way to finesse that.
TFSR: It might be suspicious even to have a clear blueprint, but one of the things that I see your book really insisting that we do as anarchists and people who are getting opened up to these ways of thinking is to see to what extent we still contain these vestiges of the state in our attempts to solve the problems of the state, or we get caught up in the traps the state sets for us as a means of redress or something. Your analysis helps us keep trying to de-link from the state in various ways.
EL: Right. That’s what we need to push for constantly, is that capitalism, the state are enormously adept at co-opting. That’s what they do. That’s one of the ways they evolve is by co-opting things that are done on a community level by individuals outside of the system. It is honestly hard to avoid. But, as I say, in terms of the social safety net, is that it is possible to find gaps, to find places where there’s a vacuum, places that the state has not entered into yet, or the state has withdrawn from, in fact, because it doesn’t think it needs to address these things anymore. Like having a social safety net. That’s been the hallmark of this sort of the neoliberal era is just eroding the social safety net. And like I say, that gives us some opportunities to fill those gaps with something different. We still have to guard against being co-opted, because the State might come running back in and say, “Hey, looks like we better do something about this.” But we can at least be sensitive, and we can be aware and we can keep pushing into those areas.
TFSR: Another tactical question for me is do you see a flaw in the totalizing desires of the state? And furthermore, where would you locate right now the biggest threat to the state on the side of freedom, not on the side of further fascism or something like that?
EL: When you say flaw, you mean something that is a weakness in the State, a chink in its armor?
TFSR: Yeah, exactly.
EL: Okay, something that makes it vulnerable?
Well, a lot of it is actually very physical right now, and I’m talking from a high level here, the way relentless economic development has destroyed parts of the world itself. You have places like the Sahel in Africa that are basically being desertified, that used to be farming areas, you have the Amazon that’s being destroyed. Global warming is one piece of this, but you have devastation of the physical landscape going on all over the world in one way or another. And ultimately, that’s going to make it less likely for the state to be able to continue its path of all-devouring economic development. I bring this up a little bit in the book and the more fanciful thinking that people in the economic and political elite have about spaceships and space stations and colonizing other planets.
You see the talk about that among people like Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos, you can see that talk multiplying as it becomes clear that we’ve already devastated huge parts of this world. Well, let’s just go somewhere else and do the same song and dance there. The problem is that leaves the vast majority of us stuck with a basically alluded world. And so that’s the thing that I think is going to create a crisis. Again, global warming is part of that, but there are multiple facets to it, that we can take advantage of, where we can point out, this is what essentially the plan that these people have for us is, we have to do something about it. So we need to point out where they’re essentially creating a world we don’t want to live in, they don’t want to live in.
TFSR: Yeah, because they’re preparing the rockets. We’ve been talking for a while, and maybe I’ll ask a question about anarchism. Anarchism, specifically, was developed in a particular context, historical context and geographical context in Europe as a response to a specific stage of state development and capital development. It also calls to these stateless societies that have existed and do exist and existed before the state and capitalism. I wonder how you feel anarchism, given that historical origin, serves us today in this context, and why it still is so helpful for thinking about the path towards liberation?
EL: In two ways, anarchism is more relevant today, or more clearly relevant today. Number one, I hope my book is reflecting a certain amount of thinking on the part of other people who already said it, is that we’re not dealing with a situation where all we have to do is end Capitalism or tame Capitalism in order to get out from the dilemmas that we face now. It’s a more complicated project than just using the State to tame this thing. That doesn’t work. And I think this is becoming more obvious to us over the last few decades.
The second thing is that anarchism doesn’t just look forward, it encourages us to look backward and to look around us for other systems, or elements of other systems that might work. So, anarchism is an invitation to think creatively about how we organize society. There’s nothing determinist about it the way there is a lot of times about Marxism, like we must go through this stage of historical development before we can do this. No, we can look at the way people are organizing things in indigenous communities, we can look at the way people were organizing things in fourteenth-century Europe, we all have these things, our ideas and tools and notions that we can put to use. So that’s the exciting part of anarchism is that it tells us that we’re not bound by some historically determinist process. We can change the process. These tools are here, if we want to use them, we don’t have to go through a hundred more years of capitalism in order to think we’re ready for it. So there’s an exciting creative element to this. That’s not something I talk about a lot in my book, because I’m talking about some fairly depressing things in my book, but that’s the part that has a lot of promise, where there’s something really optimistic we can grab onto.
TFSR: Yeah, that’s like a really helpful way of putting it because something that struck me in reading your book and other things I’ve been thinking about is that we get caught in the status way of thinking, even when from this a lot of leftist traditions, by agreeing to the inevitability of the state and inevitability of capital. And anarchism allows for a way of viewing history as more contingent, unless evenly developed on this road of progress or whatever, that allows for the creativity that you speak of. I could ask you so many different questions. And a lot of things came up in my mind that I hadn’t even prepared for while we were talking, but to wind it down, are there any like things that you want to bring to our listeners’ attention that we didn’t cover, or that you’d like to expand on as a way to close it out?
EL: Yeah, I’d like to suggest something actually. We touched on this a little bit earlier. There’s an anxiety people have when they think about life without the State. Well, there are so many things that we have acquired that we like in the last 500 years. We have fine art, we have computers, we have music, we have access to all kinds of culture that we didn’t use to have, people have much more of an opportunity to rise out of their social class, all these various things, and there’s an automatic fear that if we didn’t have the state, we wouldn’t have a framework where we could get all these things. And what I want to suggest is that that’s something we have to get over. It’s not true.
The example I like to give is, if we hadn’t had the state for the last 500 years, we would probably have computers now, we would have software systems, they’d be different. They’d maybe be less hierarchical, they’d be organized differently, but we would have got there. Would we have not had an Einstein, if there hadn’t been institutions of higher education to nurture people like that? Well, we probably would. They’d just be less hierarchical, and they wouldn’t be designed to reproduce an elite the way they are now. So the framework the state creates, it creates the mentality, a lack of confidence in the world outside of that framework. And that’s something we have to try very consciously to overcome. It’s not just that there won’t be chaos, it is that we can have all the same things that we really, really value now, that we value for good reasons, for honest reasons. And we don’t need this framework in order to get them. I think that’s an important lesson for people. And it’s something that is very hard for people to get over this sort of fear factor, or this feeling that we have to stay in the sort of womb of the state or else we’re going to lose everything. That’s the ultimate big scare we have to get over.
TFSR: Yeah, that seems like the other side of that contingency or that it’s not inevitable that the things that we have, the so-called fruits of the state could have come in other forms, and aren’t worth the pain and violence that we have to experience to have them. That’s a really helpful and important point. Well, thank you so much for talking to me, explaining some of the ideas, and refocusing our analysis on the state. I’m really excited about this book and I loved our conversation. So thank you for your time.
EL: I got to say your questions were great. And you pressed me on some points that are really good to press me on. So I appreciate that actually. Because, as I say, I want the book to start a conversation, not to end it.
TFSR: Exactly. I think it will, it’s making a really important contribution, and I hope it will help inject this focus on the state into the regional mutual aid networks and projects that are going on right now in such a dire time.
This week, we present a conversation with Shane Burley, author of the new AK Press book, “Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse”. For the hour, we speak about the contents of the book, anti-fascism, toxic masculinity, pushing racists and fascists out of cultural space, antisemitism (including in the left), conspiricism, right wing publishing and other topics.
TFSR:So, I’m happy to be joined by Shane Burley. Shane recently published Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance and Surviving the Apocalypse through AK Press. We spoke with Shane in 2018 about Shane’s previous book Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat, Shane, and for this enjoyable and insightful book. Would you care to introduce yourself further for the audience with any preferred gender pronouns or anything else you want to say?
Shane Burley: Yeah, thanks for having me on, I love the show, I’m happy to be back. I use he/him or they/them pronouns. The new book is a collection of essays, some published before, some were not published before. I write for a number of places, NBC News, Daily Beast, Al Jazeera, Protean magazine. My last book was Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It from AK Press, and I think, that’s the last time I was on the show, I was talking about that book.
TFSR:I really enjoy that chat and I’m looking forward to this. Can you talk a bit about your focus on the apocalypse in the book? I really enjoyed explorations of End-Time concepts in the introduction and counter-posing a revolutionary hunger for a new beginning versus a reactionary draw for regression back to the purity of oblivion on the Right.
SB: Yeah, it would be dishonest to not discuss this cultural pessimism that we are living in, it’s not even just in the place of the culture, it’s a real depression that we are living in. Socially watching as a collapse basically takes place on a number of different levels: ecologically, economically, socially. As we live through really profound emotional crises, the murdering of BIPOC communities by police, the constant mass shootings… We’re talking now, after a week of basically almost daily mass shootings. We are seeing really massive ecological devastation, one that feels like it’s triggering an accelerated collapse, and it’s really hard to then think about what it means to confront power or improve the world or even great revolution when we’re living in such a state of uncertainty and a real cynicism about the world. So when I look back at the work I’ve done over the Trump years, that was the primary feeling I started to get and also about what it means to live through the apocalypse. So I talk in the book quite a bit about mutual aid work and how people have survived, and how expectations and structures and communities have really changed over time. When we were doing mutual aid work during the pandemic, what stuck out to me a lot more is that people were in need of the mutual aid work more, but also the mutual aid work was better. We had reached a certain capacity on it. Years back, I used to do food not bombs and all kinds of mutual aid work and I felt like in a way it was performative. A soup kitchen down the road did much better than we did. State services were much more effective than we were. We were there for ideological reasons, but people were there to provide services, probably better than we had. That changed, and I think, because of that, that’s opened up a space, a very real space in this crisis – for us. For us to be us, and for us to offer another vision.
So I look in a lot of ways at traditions of the apocalypse that have maybe a different spin on the depressions. I talk about Jewish Messianism a little bit, particularly work ofGershom Scholem and others, with the idea that when we’re talking about the end of the world, the crisis that we’re living through, of collapse, of mass shootings, of the world, that’s actually the day to day realities of capitalism and the state. We can expect that this is basically an accelerated version of the world we live in. It doesn’t end anything. The only way we end it is we change the rules. If the world is actually fundamentally different, then it could actually set the end, and so I pull on this work by Walter Benjamin and others, I’m thinking about what the Messiah means as a concept. And really what the messiah means is that the Messiah brings the end, not the end brings the Messiah, it’s the other way around. And when we think about this in a broader social way, if we’re thinking about this Messianic Age is one that we all participate in the different ways, we pull the pieces together, that it’s actually us that ends the world by building a new one, not just reacting to the crisis as other people have.
And that reminds me in a lot of ways that fascists often present themselves as revolutionaries, but they are a continuation of the same. Being a radical anti-Semite or a radical misogynist is not revolutionary. That’s just a very loud version of the world we live in. What’s truly revolutionary, is to build the world a mutual aid, kindness, and solidarity, that’s a truly radical vision and that’s what actually ends things. So I think when we are going forward, we have to live in the reality of the world that exists now with very serious problems that aren’t necessarily just getting better. We have to start thinking about what it looks like on the other side, and I think that vision of the apocalypse, so to speak, of this profound end and change, is one that we should start to live in, one where we can think about how we’re going to build something new as a form of resistance.
TFSR: Have you read Desert?
SB: I have read Desert, many years ago.
TFSR: It sometimes gets talked about in these terms and for listeners that haven’t, it’s an eco-anarchist text that was published in the early 2000s that talks about what happens if ecological collapse as a process is going on, and how do we take agency during it and make the best out of it possible without… Some people read it as a pessimistic approach to the problem of anthropogenic climate change, but I always took it as this practical approach that. Like “Alright, the government, the militaries are considering this to be a way that the world is going to be shaped differently as we move forward and continuing to shape itself differently. How do we adjust to this? How do we adapt and had we make the most out of it?” So I think, a radical ecological justice-centered approach towards doing a similar thing in recognizing that their power struggles are ongoing seems like an attempt to turn the apocalypse into something else. I don’t know. Maybe gives up too much agency, and I doubt that the authors are wishing for a WaterWorld scenario, but…
SB: Yeah, there is a nihilistic version of that vision of collapse, and it’s actually not just a radical version. We have this all over the place. There’s a giving up or trying to live in the moment, purely in the moment as a way of accepting the reality of climate change, but I think the actual reality is not that someday it will explode in some spectacular moment of excess, but that things just get worse over times and then profoundly change. And I think we’ll be confronted with what does it mean then to build a society. And I think the structures of the past, the states, and economic systems, they will survive to a point through this crisis. But we will have to decide whether or not we’re going to challenge them through that and build something that actually creates a new vision. I think we should obviously deliberately do everything we can to push back an ecological crisis. I don’t want to get anyone an “out” there to say like it doesn’t matter, but we do need to think more about what does it mean to build a world, not just stop that, but in the midst of that, I think by doing that, we’re going to find a much more cogentanswer, find a more important answer for how we live our lives, for what effective resistance looks like, but I think we’re also gonna find an answer to the problem itself. We’re gonna find an answer to the ecological crisis by building a world amidst the reality of it and thinking about was the new rules. I saw this meme a year ago, it said “I’ve been trained to survive in a world that no longer exists”. I think we need to start thinking about what world does exist and training each other to survive and flourish by those new rules.
TFSR: Yeah. Your intro also points to the possible limitations of a negative version in movements of opposition, such as like shallow anti-fascism. You mentioned mutual aid as a thing that people have been engaging in and that’s been engaging them more. I want it just like tap up a thing that I heard recently and would love to hear your ideas of it. But in a recent episode of Black Autonomy Federations’ podcast, Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin talks about white anti-fascism as a shallow response that only wants to fight Nazis in the streets without recognizing and actually struggling against the structural fascism faced byBIPOCcommunities from the start of the American project. What do you see in the anti-fascist movement and vision that gives you hope, and how do you see the building of positive, wider approaches that actually aren’t just oppositional?
SB: I think that critique is really important. Black anti-fascism, in general, has been entirely erased from history. It’s almost as part of a different tradition, a part of this Black radical tradition, that’s not the same as anti-fascism, which I think has a certain narrative to it that anti-fascism is a white radical project or something. And that erases the NAACP NRA chapters that were fighting the Klan, Black Panthers, which was basically an antifascist platform. There are dozens of organizations that go over the history, frankly, a lot earlier than any white anti-fascist organizations which in the US didn’t really come onto people’s radars until the 80s. There are a number of things there. So, on the one hand, it’s a debate over what constitutes fascism. Is the state and police fascism, or only these insurgent white forces? I think that it might actually not matter as much. Both things are important and obviously, intervene into successful life or any equitable just society. I think what people often are focusing on it’s very easy and non-complicated to fight neo-Nazis, that’s not emotionally or morally conflicted in a lot of ways and it’s actually one that can uniteton of people. But when we’re talking about real systemic white supremacy and anti-Blackness, specifically, it becomes really complicated for people and they don’t always jump in with the same ease of commitments. And those movements require a lot more long-term work, we’re talking about really high stakes and talking ones that don’t have easy answers. And so I actually think it sometimes even the push-back from the view of it as anti-fascism is to think about, looking at a situation of what is important here.
So this is April 2021. We have just seen a slew of murders of Black folks by the police. Now when we are looking at the issue, is the top priority the white nationalist organizations, or is it a top priority fighting expansive, violent policing. Well, I think both are and we get to see them actually working together, to have them actually intersecting in really profound ways. We can’t start to see those things as fundamentally separate, and so I would less push back on anti-fascist groups that focus on white nationalists. It’s good to have a focus and be skilled at one thing so that you can do that one thing really well. But I think it’s important for all of us to see how do we work those things together? How do we build coalitions? How do we see larger projects, how are those things able to support one another? And that gets to mutual aid because mutual aid is what is required to have what we used tocall social reproduction, for movements to reproduce themselves and exist. We now live in a place where the existing structures of the system no longer can even take care of basic needs in the best-case scenario. So this is whatPanthers used to call Survival Pending Revolution programs. It’s what we actually need to survive. And I think what we’re seeing now and what we saw over 2020 particularly, is that any of the mass movements that were rising up to confront the police, one, needed antifascists, because the police were coming with their allies in white nationalist white militias, and (two) they needed mutual aid to just help build the infrastructure, to get people to events, to get people fed at events, to get medical care – all those things that now are required. What we’re seeing now is none of those things can exist independent of one another. If we want to have avibrantantifascists that pushes back on white nationals, then you have to have a mutual aid structure there to support it. You’re gonna have to have a mutual aid structure to support, if they’re gonna be really mass movements against the police, that has to have their structural base. So now we have to start thinking about what does it mean to build the infrastructure between movements with collaboration and solidarity, and then, more importantly, how does that become permanent? How do we grow and not mean it’s just here for this event, but now we are gonna rely on these structures permanently and they’re gonna grow into a a permanent, existing movement that’s always there. Those are the questions I think we enter into as the world is changing and as we enter a place of permanent struggle.
I was just talking with some reporters about the recent slew of protests around the country this past week, and I was saying, I think the people on the ground no longer have to turn to just one incident. We’re living in a case where there’s constant repression by the police and – communities of color and all around the country – and because of that, we also now have a state of permanent revolutionary action. People are engaging in permanent organizing. This March is all the time, constantly. The generations have changed, people’s realities are changing and now there’s a place of permanent struggle, and because of that, we need the place of permanent collaboration, solidarity, coalitions, and infrastructure.
TFSR:I think it’s pretty fair to say, and from this perspective that an antifascist perspective takes into account the structural dynamics that have been normalized in our society. Obviously, you can say a name like Rodney King, and that sparks a lot of attention for people. There were – besides the individual makeup of that person, his life – there were thousands of Rodney Kings going on simultaneously in the early 90s, in 1992, at the same time, but the wider public’s attention was not captured by the constants of the brutality against Black, Brown and Indigenous populations against poor people more generally, but especially against racialized people. And in my life of around forty years now, I’ve seen an increase of, you know, it’s not just a rebellion every few years. It’s happening as you say, it’s like this perpetuation, this constant thing. Do you think it’s just the technology that’s led to this discussion, the cameras everywhere on people’s phones or the social media activity and people relating to each other outside of the mainstream press or some wider shift in our culture that recognizes the constants of brutality and hears the voices of people that are brutalized?
SB: I think it’s a number of things. I think you are right, technology has a big thing to do, it makes us ever-present. I sympathize with people that are critical of technology, but the reality is that there’s a dialectic to it, that it actually helped, for example, create the visibility around police murders. It helped to create organizing visibility and things like that. It also helps to create repression. Cameras in everyone’s pocket also helps police nab protesters, but it has definitely accelerated that presence. The sense that we’re existing with lots of people all the time… So I checked my Twitter and I can see what’s going on in a lot of people’s lives all the time, and they’re with me all the time. I think that creates that sense of presence and particularly in people’s struggles. So that’s one thing.
We’re seeing certain types of crisis accelerate, environmental and economic ones in particular. So I was born in the 80s and lived through the 90s. There was a lot of sense of perpetual growth when I was growing up, that it just wasn’t going to be a big economic crisis for at least middle-class white communities, but that was a little more of a point of stasis. Well, that has really broken down, that “end of history” mentality has broken down really effectively and also with the increase of just nationalist movements all around the world. I think that we will eventually return to a place of really aggressive, combative struggle. Those things happening in concert with one another creates a bit of that. I think there’s also been generational shifts that happen because of organizing. We actually see the results of a change in consciousness that is a result of real material organizing, the material conditions have affected people’s ideation, the way that, for example, Gen Z thinks about struggle, is a little bit more present than my generation was when I was their age, or, probably the generations before. So there’s been a bit of a move there. I’m not a person who just believes in purely material conditions. I don’t think that when the time is right, the working class just rises up and that happens. I think it actually requires agency for people, but I do think those conditions have dramatically changed. And because of that I actually think people have lived with the notion of organizing a little more frequently, it comes naturally to people a bit more because infrastructure has existed for a while, at least as we transmit histories and things like that. So I think a lot of that’s there. Now that doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful. It means that there’s energy there. It can a lot of directions, so it requires us to intervene, actually channel those things in particular directions, but I do think in a lot of ways, the conditions had just become more dramatic. People’s reactions are more dramatic, the material deprivations are more dramatic and obvious. I think we’re able to see the world a little more clearly now.
TFSR: Stepping forward a little bit and because you’re talking about the material conditions and the changing circumstances that you witness, at least between a sense of perpetual growth versus deprivation, I’d like to jump to the last essay and talk about experiences of broken promises and entitlement and unreachable goals. Your last essay talks about toxic masculinity and not just on the far Right but just as experienced within the wider culture in the so-called United States. And I wonder if you could talk about, including but not necessarily just focusing on incels and Wolves of Vinland, but like the deeper roots in our culture and what you try to draw out in that essay about recognizing the toxic roots of hyper-masculinity or a disembodied masculinity. What was it? Your wife used the term “intoxicating masculinity”. And ways that you see of breaking that cycle of violence.
SB: The essay you are talking about was originally called “Intoxicating Masculinity” and it was the notion we’re talking about, specifically the Wolves of Vinland and the project Operation Werewolf and the way in which it actually makes – I would say a man, but I identify as a gender non-conforming, but a masculine-presenting person, so it has an effect on me and other people of infecting them with this fake euphoric notion of their masculinity, fake promise that people live out with. I was talking with my wife, and we had this joke about, because one of the notions – and here was this tradition – it used to be called masculinism, I’m not sure what it would be called, maybe just would be a part of feminist circles now, but it was talking about “in what way does patriarchy also harm men?” And there is this joke, we’re talking about the Men’s Rights Movement, which I talk a bit about in the chapter, this ultra misogynistic movement. And I was thinking of that meme, where the guy shoots someone and says, “Why did you shoot yourself?” So it’s patriarchy shooting a man looking and saying, “Why did feminism do this?” It’s this idea that patriarchy has created such a profound sense of disconnect in a lot of men, that it creates this constant cycle of toxicity, inability to relate, inability to be whole. And then the question is how do we parse through that in a way. What would even non-toxic masculinity be? Is there something it’s even possible? I don’t know, I don’t have the answer to something like that. But what happens there is that masculinity plays a character in a lot of people’s lives, and a lot of people feel like it’s something that has to be quested after and that the pernicious thing about something like Wolves of Vinland, is that it calls to question on men who were promised something from patriarchy and then are doing everything they can to seek it out and to live it out engaging in the most higher of toxic forms of abuse.
TFSR: Yeah, and also pointing out that Waggener, the founder of it, the self-help industry…: you set someone desiring a path, you set someone seeking this unattainable platonic ideal, and then you just find a way to harvest their energy, while keeping them addicted to the visions of a carrot on a stick in front of them. If you could talk a little bit more about Wolves of Vinland and maybe that character and what they do.
SB: The Wolves of Vinland is a white nationalist pagan group, so basically they were a bit innovative in their structure. They created this group on Nordic paganism, specifically a white nationalist, white supremacist version of Nordic paganism, and they built their organizations like a biker gang. So, you’ll see the guys to get patched in like if they were in one percent or something they were like 1%er…
TFSR: Hells Angels.
SB: Yeah, like those Rebel Motorcycle crews, and they have the hierarchies within that, and they all study the runes. And Paul Waggener had started stepping further in creating these different brands and self-help projects – financial projects and different things. There is one called the Werewolf Elite Program which was making a lot of money and helping people build similar groups to the Wolves of Vinland for themselves. I followed a lot of the program while doing research for about a year and chronicled that. Essentially, what they’re doing is stacking a bunch of very b–rate self-help stuff mixed with intoxicating masculinity, this promise that you could be like Paul, this hulking person, built by steroids and covered in tattoos, and that you would be able to be great and wonderful, just like him. They follow this process, pay him tons of money to basically follow this model and they really ease people into what is an incredibly violent white nationalism by using coded words. By taking people one step at a time, by phrasing things in ways that feel more like a gym or more like maybe black metal culture than it does like white nationalism or what people would assume is white nationalism. And then it takes people along this road and gets people really deeply involved in these projects and sets people up in this revolutionary vision.
So they retell people the story of their own failure as one of something other people have done. You shouldn’t have to be alone. You shouldn’t have to be so poor in your career. You shouldn’t have to live in that house or live in a town where no one respects you. Basically, they offer their program as a solution to that. So, one of the things they talk about absolutely constantly is testosterone. They over-essentialize gender and they use testosterone as a marker for that. What they constantly do in their videos is trying to get people to get on testosterone. What they want they will do is to be injecting testosterone, to have their testosterone as what Paul Waggener says is maximum normal for a human body. That’s what he says is the “correct.” He often uses the term – that’s “correct”. What he is saying there is he’s using testosterone as a proxy for masculinity or maleness. Now, that’s not science, that’s not reality. Injecting more testosterone doesn’t change how you sense. It doesn’t make people’s personalities different, that’s a pseudoscience they’d like the prop up, but what they want to do by saying that is to conflate the two. Your lack of success in your life is your lack of masculinity and your lack of masculinity is bio-social. It involves your testosterone, so by literally injecting testosterone, you’re becoming more masculine as they define it, and so there are all these modules that they have in there to reframe how people think about the world, to put them in the toxic binaries, they think that women or folks of color as fundamentally biologically different than them, and then retail them a story of their own heroism that they can acheive. For example, they are having people constantly working out, but what’s really interesting about their workout programs is that they’re meant to make people intentionally painful and intentionally uncomfortable. And when you do that, you actually break down people’s sense of self. When people are constantly in pain, doing these workouts, they are constantly feeling that they’re improving themselves, that they are participating in something, that they’re part of this great grand story of becoming a hero, and that has an intoxicating effect. It reframes how people think about their lives and think “Oh, wow, I’m on my way to greatness”. In reality, you’re just pumping money into a b-rate self-help program.
TFSR: Possibly leading towards long-term health difficulties from straining yourself perpetually to chase after this goal of looking like Paul.
SB: Yeah, some of the programs in their advice on things like the amount of… I’ve been through all their programs, their not healthy programs, this is not a healthy way of doing things. And this notion that you have to treat your body as an enemy thing sets people up for obvious things like body shaming, but a real, deep sense of discontent with your body, with your own identity. I can’t imagine that anyone in this program comes out feeling anything than worse about themselves and therefore more toxic in their relationships and cling to patriarchy even more so as if it’s going to be the solution to the problem.
TFSR: In an earlier essay called “Contested Space”, you talk about these social spaces that are taken up, particularly in the creation of art and identity, focusing initially on neofolk as activator engaged by the far Right, and in that essay, you also point to what we talked about: the Wolves of Vinland and their connection to a racialized, maybe Assatru Folk Assembly or an Odinist approach towards Northern European neo-paganism. You talk to some of the people involved in, for instance, Heathens United Against Racism. I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit about – in particular, with neofolk or with metal – the taking of the aggressive feelings that people are drawn towards. There’s a history of struggle in spaces of punk and metal, for instance, around racist ideas or anti-racism. If you could talk a little bit about what you found and the expressions of anti-racism from some of the pagan folks.
SB: Yeah, in “Contested Spaces”, we talk about this idea of what are spaces where people from the radical left or working-class communities also might have white nationalists in those same spaces. I think that term was really used for things like Oi, punk rock venues in the 80s, where there be white nationalist bands and also be anarchist bands and there be multiracial bands and they would somehow be in the same “space”, sometimes physically the same space. These were days when venues were not particularly woke to what some of these bands were actually talking about, and so literally people might find themselves in the same space, and so the battle will be held for that space. If you talk a lot of folks in Anti–racist Action or the anti-racist skinhead groups in the80s – early 90s, a lot of them were going to punk rock spaces specifically and kicking out white nationalists, and they’ll credit that for why we don’t have a ton of white nationalist bands in punk rock these days because they went in and said: “No. This was ours and we’re not gonna cede this ground to you. We are not gonna say ‘Okay, because you’re here, I guess this is yours’”. But that has expanded out to a lot of places where white nationalists and fascists have basically staked their claim in different subcultures. So neofolk music is one, black metal music is one, inside spirituality, Nordic paganism. Honestly, European paganism, in general, has this problem, but particularly with heathenism, which is Nordic Northern European paganism. There are people fighting out there, different fight clubs, different gyms, things like that. People want to have some of those spaces themselves and what it comes down to the fact that fascists don’t belong to these things.
For example, neofolk is a form of music. It uses traditional folk, cultural music, romantic melodies, things like that, mixes in black metal, and other things. That’s music and it attracts people for aesthetic reasons, and I know people who are radical antiracists, anarchists also have some of that. There’s the look to indigenous traditions. There’s the look to the ecological sustainability, things like that. So there’s a reason why traditional folk art might be appealing and so thebattle linesof being why does the white nationalist get to have this? Why are they allowed to be here uncontested and to say that this is actually a legitimate form of art for them? They don’t get that, they don’t get anything. So people who are in those subcultures have a unique role in the ability to push those people out, so it’s happening. It’s happening in neofolk with a number of projects, it is happening very heavily in black metal, and I think folks like Kim Kelly and bands like Dawn Ray’d have done a really good job of being divisive in a positive way and saying “Here’s the line: no fascist black metal in these spaces”. In creating intentional spaces for anti-racist, revolutionary black metal.
And groups like Heathens United Against Racism have done that inside Heathen saying like “We’re anti-racist heathens, we have nothing to do with these in these racist heathens. In fact, we are active organizers and we are going to kick them out”. And in a way, they take a special responsibility because they know Heathenism better than non-Heathens, and so the unique angle that they could take it on, and I think the lesson in a lot of ways is a tactical one, it is that people, if you’re in a particular subculture, maybe you’re in a religious group or in something that isn’t explicitly political and that there is far Right influence, it’s on the edges or people trying to make Entryism. You have a unique angle in which you can take it out, and I think a lot of people are taking thatin that position that they’re in and using it to push back. I think that’s been incredibly effective. This happens in a lot of different ways that aren’t just about fascism. For example, I’m Jewish, there’s a number of Jewish groups that specifically fight for Palestinian rights because they think “Okay, we have a unique position here in the Jewish community, where we can fight from an angle that maybe other people can’t”. So I think that that’s actually what we’re talking about is what we can do in an anti-fascist sense in these specific subcultures.
TFSR: A thing that I came across recently that another member of the Channel Zero Network that this podcast participates in, 12 Rules For WHAT, which is an anti-fascist podcast based out of the UK, did an interview with this project called “Postcards from Cable Street” about anti-fascist engagements into role-playing games, RPGs, into fantasy and gaming culture that I thought was really a fascinating breakdown, especially asking about okay, so there’s these neo-romantic elements that you find in a lot of fantasy games like orcs and wizards, and whatever else, and those characters or races or whatever often get crudely turned into archetypes by racists that are trying to engage with Tolkien stories or whatever else. That overlaps with a lot of fantasy metal type stuff. I think it’s interesting when people are actively saying “No, actually, and I don’t need to engage with this and take it back. It was never yours, but we’re going to fight you out of these spaces”.
SB: In the original draft of the essay, I had to take it out because it was running long, but I talked about Furries because there is a recent issue, maybe 2019-ish where basically furry conventions were happening, and there was far Right, alt-Right Furry people and folks like Milo Yiannopoulos who were trying to go into the furry world. So Furries got together and decided “No, this is a fascism-free Furry zone” and they engaged as Furry. So they weren’t just an activist group coming from the outside that may not understand or respect Furry culture and saying “Oh, we’re going to take care of this…” “No, we’re taking care of it, we’re gonna organize, we’re gonna learn about this and confront it there.” And I think that’s not the only way, obviously, to approach fascism but it’s a particularly effective one in the sub-cultural world, where fascists actually are. Those sub-cultures are really important for fascist recruitment and organizing. Because they have, for example, a counter-cultural vision and they want to approach people on that counter-cultural level, and they also want to affect what I talk about as meta-politics. Basically the way people think of themselves, the cultural modalities that come before practical politics, and subcultures have a really important role in that. So they want to be in those spaces. Particularly if they see a subculture as the vanguard of coming cultural standards. I think, wherever people are at, they should really – and this is good, in terms of organizing as a journalist, to look at where you’re really at, what communities and networks are you part of, what identities are you working with in this way. Does it give you a unique position in those struggles?
TFSR: Because you mentioned meta-narratives and stories that we tell each other… I thought that the story that you told around the alt-Right publishing houses and far Right publishing houses, for instance, Counter-Currents, are not one that I had seen laid out in such detail before. Can you talk about that project and the world around it? Maybe some other publishing works. Also, Arktos is like a project that I’ve seen in radical bookstores that carry in their fringey sections, like things about conspiracy theories about the Arctic or whatever. And, not for a while at least seemingly, making the connection of some of the other materials that that publishing house carries. I think, if you were to mention some of the far Right thinkers that those houses carry, people might be a bit surprised to see them at their local independent bookstores,
SB: I talk about two publishers – Counter-Currents, ArKtos and those are generally considered two of the biggest, if not the biggest, far-Right publishers in English. What’s interesting about Arktos is I was enjoying a documentary about the Flat Earth Movement a while back and I noticed that when they were at a conference, a big Flat Earth Conference, Arktos was the main sponsor of it. I’m not a defender of Flat Earthers, though I’m guessing most will probably didn’t realize what Arktos was. I think that Arktos and a lot of these publishers basically go where they can. This comes back to the subculture question. They go where they’re not gonna be fought and where they feel like they can build something.
So basically Counter-Currents is an explicitly white nationalist publisher, they publish a lot of books to the right of Richard Spencer. A lot of their authors aren’t people that people would know, but that is not the point. What they do is they create an intellectual canon for white nationalism, where the left or other academic traditions will build big volumes of books, big libraries, they’re gonna do the same thing. Most of the books I came across are just republished blogs and things like that. For example, they have a book that collects blogs that try and take white nationalist lessons from My Little Pony. Real, rigorous intellectual works like that. But what they’re doing is basically making it so that they pile up a number of books so it feels like their tradition has an intellectual weight. What they do is oftentimes publish any author, philosopher, literary figure that was a part of the far Right. So there’s a lot of focus on Ezra Pound, authors that crossed over a bit. Big figures in their movement, Julius Evola, Carl Schmitt, Oswald Spangler. What they wanna do is create that large canon of what they call “traditionalist writing”.
Arktos is also a fascist publisher, though they maybe always don’t lean in with the white nationals quite as much. They are run by a former skinhead and they are pretty openly involved in… They were a part of the alt-Right corporation with Richard Spencer, they created altright dot com and they’ve been a real central piece of the alt-Right movement. They’re known for actually publishing a lot more international stuff, basically translating a lot of fascist philosophers from around Europe, but also folks from South Asia, India, Hindu nationalist authors, a lot of conspiracy stuff, a lot of alt-religion, which is the pieces that often have crossed over. Like you mentioned, it’s not uncommon, at least it wasn’t uncommon to find Julius Evola books in cult or new age bookstores. It wasn’t uncommon to find somebody like, for example, Jason Reza Jorjani who is involved in the traditionalist movement, he ran Arktos at one point, had some questioned relationship with Steve Bannon. He wrote a book basically about how ancient Aryans had ESP and stuff. His book has actually been in para-psychology departments in these book stores. People often allow them in unquestioned.
So those but those books are those publishers have allowed what the alt-Right has also called meta-politics to flourish, to help them build up a really committed base of people by creating a large diffuse set of ideas that they could draw on. A lot of the books you find in Arktos are in contradiction with one another. One couldn’t be true if the other one was true, but that’s not the point. The point is that they want to argue that their far Right position isn’t just simple bigotry, that it is actually deep philosophical tradition with all these different scholars and all these different historical figures, all these different artists that make up a really vibrant living tradition. And that by itself has a propaganda effect. Just the existence of these publishers and these books has a propaganda effect. But when you look even a little bit, you are gonna find that there are actual fascists involved in the organizing of publishing there, a lot of race and IQ kinds of stuff and scientific racism. And basically, anything that they can capture together that they can get from the distant parts the world. They also will sell things that they think are associated with the Left or they think are associated with edgy parts of radical culture. I’ve seen John Zerzan books at ArKtos. Obviously, Derrick Jensen as a favorite over there. They’ve recently published Pentti Linkola, which is a genocidal eco-fascist, but it wasn’t really a part of their tradition before. So what they’re trying to do is get as many things together, so maybe they get someone from this tradition. Maybe they can pull someone from this. They’ve sold neofolk records for a long time. So these are the kinds of ways in which they build up that base.
Counter-Currents specifically has taken a lot of hits since the deplatforming wave that started in 2017 after Charlottesville, mostly because they’re the most upfront about their white nationalism. For example, they publish a tribute to Hitler and things like that. It’s pretty clear, there’s neo-Nazi stuff going on there. Arktos might be a little more confusing for people looking at, though they’ve had a lot of attention because of their attempts to connect with Steve Bannon and with international traditionalist movements and Alexander Dugin, the Eurasianist from Russia. So they’ve had some attention, but I think they haven’t been deplatformed in the way that Counter-Currents has. When the alt-Right first started, it was called alternative Right then, about 2010, around a website called AlternativeRight dot com, that Richard Spencer made. The goal was to build meta-politics. It was the build-up of a philosophical base, with the idea that, if they did that, it could actually help radicalize a group of people that they could move on to engage in movements and that’s what happened. They started in 2010, they didn’t start launchinginto street activism until 2015, and then with Trump in 2016 they helped ride that wave. Now they’re back in that building phase, and so I think if people want to look at what’s gonna stop the next wave of this specific version of white nationalism, you’d look at Counter-Currents and Arktos because that’s their base, that’s the foundations on which they build their movement.
TFSR: Just to jump back for a second to a range of things that you’ll see coming out of these publishers, fascism has been defined as syncretic before and the ability to hold opposing opinions in this magical sense. So to see something like Savitri Devi standing alongside a New Atheist, Richard Spencer, I guessisn’t that surprising.
SB: Yeah, these things run in complete contradiction to each other. One of the things that Arktos was founded on was this concept of traditionalism whichpeople mostly associate, at least in the US, with Julius Evola. What they wanted to do was to recreate this culture around white nationalist esoterica. In doing so, you’re gonna see a lot of out there stuff that they created symbolic. For example, they publish an old book, a republishing of an old book that says that white people come from an ancient Aryan god race that comes from the Arctic, they descended down through India and was degenerated because of their interactions with not-white peoples. This is a very neo-Nazi myth that was published a hundred years ago, but they’re republishing that now because they believe it literally. That’s not the point. The point is that they like the myths to help build up this cultural sensibility of storytelling about themselves, and that is a lot of the ways in which they think about this, about building a mythology and cultural scene and a sense of identity, it is really foundational for how they approach politics. They’re anti-materialist in a lot of ways, they believe in building a consciousness exclusively and hoping that politics emerges from that consciousness. I don’t think that’s how politics happens. They have been successful in a lot of ways in doing that. So I think people dismiss a lot of their stuff for being so silly, but the reality is thatit goes somewhere. They also publish a lot of esoterica that has been involved in real acts of white nationalist violence and terrorism. For example, Julius Evola. Both Arktos and Counter-Currents are really built on republishing Julius Evola stuff that wasn’t in English, and he was really foundational for what was called the Years of Lead. Basically, these fascist terrorists in Italy in the 70s bombing things as a strategy of tension helping them bring down the government. And now, for example, a lot of the Satanist white nationalist writings or stuff to do with Miguel Serrano and different forms of esoteric Hitlerism are inspirational for a lot of Atomwaffen and other groups that are basicallyengaging in accelerationist violence and plotting attacks on anti-fascist and non-white folks in synagogues, and things like that. So this has a real effect. They build this foundation and it actually results in real acts of killing./
TFSR: Mmmhm. And at least one of the interviews says that their publishing model isn’t so much that the materials are, like people are gonna be buying the books that cost money and keeping them in. It’s more buying the books to put on their shelves, it’s more about the idea of I am identifying with the thing that I am buying and it’s providing funding for this website, but most of the shit that they’re translating, they’re putting out for free online, right?
SB: Most of it is. And actually, the books are really expensive, much more expensive than the books should be. There’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve only really seen there, which is that they’ll publish a book and publish the hardback and the paperback at the same time. The hardback will be three times as expensive as the paperback. The reason is that you’re buying a prestige copy to give them a large donation. That’s the function of it, you’re not buying literature, you’re buying a token that shows that you have donated to the cause, so to speak, and then the books function in a way of building that sense of allegiance to something. So, for example, there’s a good book I read called The Cleanest Race, it’s about North Korea and racist politics in some of their propaganda. The author describes the way that Juche ideology is created there, where there is these multiple volumes of books and Kim Il-sung basically wrote these to mimic Mao’s creation of a lot of literature. If Mao’s gonna be a great political figure, he was gonna be a great political figure. So he wrote these books. If you’ve ever read any piece of theJuche books, they’re completely incomprehensible, just nonsense strings of words that don’t make any sense, that don’t add up to anything political. But that’s not the point. The point is that they go on someone’s shelf and they are lined up next to each other and they look like a really big canon of political philosophy. Look at all these books, something really deep, a whole nation was built on these books. And that’s what happens here in Counter-Currents.
Some of these books are literally just collections of movie reviews. Greg Johnson’s released, I think, four giant volumes of his movie reviews, some of which were just posted on message boards. This is not important literature that changes lives, but it does add to the canon. Look at all these books, stacks of these books. They must have something really profound to say. And that has been in a lot of ways how the white nationalist movement, particularly in Europe and the US, has helped to create an image that it’s not just street people in boots and braces, but that it’s actually something that has really core ideas because they have a critique that we must engage with. It should go without saying that they don’t have a critique and we shouldn’t engage with it.
TFSR: I guess the last question that I had is: you wrote a chapter “The continuing appeal of anti-Semitism” and I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that. You talk about some of the different historical tendencies in western anti-Semitism, comparing and contrasting the way that they’ve come out between Christian anti-Semitism… I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the blood libel and the trajectory of that into today, cause we see that in relation to QAnon. And there’s also the, obviously, there’s certain Christian sects that have a support for Israel as a state, but that’s based on the idea that if the Israelis get into enough conflict with neighboring states that it’ll bring about the second coming of Christ, which doesn’t seem very much like it’s an appreciation of those people who are gonna get killed in flames from the sky or whatever. You also talk about the space given by the Left to anti-Semitic tendencies, whether it be 9/11Truthers or some strains of anti-Zionism that bleed into anti-Semitism. So I just threw a lot at you, but I think you wrote really well on the topic.
SB: To start with the blood libels. Blood libel is essentially a medieval Christian concept. There’s this idea that Jews needed Christian children’s blood to make matzoh or to engage in different rituals. I shouldn’t have to say that’s not true, but it’s not true. Basically, this rumor about the Jews led to centuries of expulsions and mass murders, torturing of Jews, and things like that and in a lot of ways set the stage for later conspiracy theories, obviously laterProtocols of the Elders of Zion, which is a forgery that allege that Jews were plotting to control the world through deviant modernity and things like that, and lead to a lot of the modern structures of conspiracy theories we have now…
TFSR: And that was produced by the Czarist secret service, basically right?
SB: Yeah, it was under the belief that the coming socialist revolutionaries in Russia were Jews, and so to disrupt the revolutionary work would be to turn people more further against the Jews and also to take their attention off of the Czar. One thing is was really critical about anti-Semitism is that it confuses the direction of power. So, anti-Semitism is fundamentally different than a lot of other bigotries because of the way that it functions. What a lot of it does, it attempts to turn very righteous, for example, class anger against the powerful and turn it back on someone who’s less powerful. So, basically, if you’re angry about rents going through the roof, losing your job, basically saying “Oh, actually, it’s not the capitalist class, not the one percent that controls, it’s this other class of people, these Jews – and maybe you know a Jew in your neighborhood. Maybe the Jew works at the bank or maybe a Jewish person is a landlord, and then we can identify them, single them out and it can redirect anger away from the powerful and back onto somebody else, and so that’s really the function of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That’s a historical function largely of anti-Semitism, and that’s actually in a lot of ways why there is a continuing appeal towards anti-Semitism, cause what anti-Semitism does, it gives a face and voice to an anger, a class anger and a subjective anger that’s very real and doesn’t always have an easy place to go with. It’s a lot easier to name a name and use demonic images of that person and weird narratives than it is to say “Actually, it’s a system of capitalism and it’s people I can’t get at, they are unreachable a lot of ways, they’re controlling it”. That’s a very unsatisfying narrative. It’s very difficult to organize around that, and anti-Semitism is a stop-gap there. Conspiracy theories are likewise, they’re able to create a more satisfying emotional narrative.
I’m going to oversimplify this, because there are volumes written, but a modern anti-Semitism that shows up in the 18-19th centuries, basically is a secularization of Christian anti-Semitism. Christian anti-Semitism saw Jews as a demonic race that killed Christ, that were working in secret cabals to undermine Christian civilization. They were forced into money-lending in some cases, so then the image became that they were actually responsible for economic problems, even though it’s actually the king and things like that. And when people were looking for a way to explain the changes that were happening in the economy in the world – financialization, contract law, just basically modern infrastructure. The structure was then blamed on the Jews. People looked at old, Christian anti-Semitism that was superstitious and they modernized it with a pseudo-scientific explanation they called anti-Semitism. “Oh, it’s actually the Jews who are creating this new cultural sphere in their own image, they were responsible for Usury, and now the whole world is Usury!” That kind of logic. And that continued through racialization of Jews up into Nazi Germany.
I think one of the things I’m getting at there is why a lot of folks, much of them Moishe Postone, and other Marxists have called structural anti-Semitism is that there are some really basic things in the psychology of Western countries, but now internationally, that mistakes where power is and anti-Semitic narratives make up the underlying superstructure of it. So for example, conspiracy theories are so rampant now and they all come down to a really well-worn track that comes from anti-Semitism. So you mentioned QAnon,it’s the idea that Democrats have a satanic cabal where they use blood for rituals, it is the blood libel, they don’t say Jews quite as frequently, usually, it takes a couple steps on the road to get to Jews, but it literally is the foundation for all this conspiratorial thinking. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is foundationally how people explain things like Rothschild and George Soros and those sorts of conspiracy theories that have motivated the Right and some parts of the Left as well. What’s happened is that I think anti-Semitism has built up this structural base and it’s really hard to free people of it, because what it does is it manipulates the impulse to liberate oneself. One of the things that I think when you looking at critical theory and people like Adorno and Horkheimer talk a lot about how not all impulses to liberate are actually good. In fact, some of this energy can be turned backward and some fascist moments actually take whatRobert Paxton calls “the motivating passions”, basically energy created from class conflict or from the crisis, things like that, and it turns it back on marginalized classes of people. Instead of organizing across the working class or amongst anti-racist coalitions to confront the powerful. So anti-Semitism is a really key piece of that. One of the things I want to get at with this is that not only is anti-Semitism dangerous for Jews and needs to be fought for that reason, but it also is dangerous for everyone, because it takes any impulse to liberate, it destroys its actual ability to do so. We will never liberate people from oppression if we’re wrapped up in conspiracy theories, if we’re looking for Rothschilds rather than looking for capitalism. The continuing appeal of anti-Semitism I talk about is the continuing appeal of easy answers for this to look at the complexity of modernity and try to boil it down to just one or two key elements instead of seeing the complexity and realizing that we have to work together in mass movements to confront it.
There is a certain impulse towards populism on the Left and I don’t have a problem with that in essence, I think that there needs to be a sort of left populism. People have to tell the story in common language and populism, historically, been the language by which working people talk about socialism. “Oh, it’s just working folks, they’re put down by these elite class”. I understand that sympathy, but we can’t stop there. We can’t let that populist anger redirect from who’s actually responsible here, and so I think it’s important to have some analysis in there. It’s important to see things with complexity.
It’s important to listen to Jews when we are talking about anti-Semitism. There’s a lot of mistrust when the claims of anti-Semitism come up that we should be taking seriously. If we want to not go into the direction of conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism, we have to be able to hear people basically creating those boundaries and saying that that’s happening so that we can actually start to work against those trends. That’s really important. I think that we need to obviously be at its best and avoid making grand conclusions and stuff. I thought that the killing of Jeffrey Epstein was suspicious, but I’m not going around saying he didn’t kill himself, because I have no evidence of that and I think it’s really important to be really clear about what we know or we don’t know. And building a common shared reality is I think the foundation where we make effective political decisions. This is true, we need to be really obvious about our bigotries, we are not free of them. We need to be really upfront about the anti-Blackness that we have, the misogyny and a queer-phobia that we have, and that does bleed into our organizing. That’s gonna be really important. But the other answer here, the less satisfying one, is “I don’t always know.” We have never had the revolution, like none other, so we don’t actually know in a way what unites people with the perfect rules of the game. I think there’s a lot of trial and error. We have to be willing to learn, to be subjected with each other and hear that, and we have to be willing to live in a very complicated world that we are now: states, capitalism. Late-stage capitalism operates in ways that we don’t have a clear road map for, and so we’re having to adapt to really complex systems, we need to create narratives to explain those and then to communicate with other people about them. It’s a really challenging project. I think it’s one that we just have to be vigilant in and to really look at the lessons we’ve already learned about the reality, conspiracy theories, bigotries in our organizing and lacks of a path to power.
TFSR: Where did you get the title from?
SB:I got it from Fredy Perlman. The first version of the essay talked a bit about Fredy Perlman, two essays about Fredy Perlman’s “The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism”, which is a good essay. It’s more about left nationalism and the appeal of nation-states as a solution to oppression. I have a somewhat different perspective on that. And though it’s not exactly the same thing here but I think in a way it’s about the appeal of easy answers. The other essay was the “Beirut Pogrom”, which I have mixed feelings about. It’s about the violence perpetrated by Israel, though he gets some facts wrong and things like that, but I went back and forth thinking about both those essays when writing this. I think Fredy Perlman is one of those voices that remains iconic, classic, edgy and useful decades past when it was written. I think it always will be, he wrote so little, but those essays stand out so much.
TFSR: Awesome, I think that’s really well put. Also, it’s Bernie Sanders who killed Epstein.
SB: Hahaha! I heard it was JFK Jr.
Okay. I really appreciate you having this chat, for the work that you put out, again, I think I said at the beginning, I think the book was beautifully written. The introduction literally had me tearing up a few times.
SB: I really appreciate it, it’s really kind of you to say.
TFSR: Where can people find your writing, or follow you online? Where can they get the book?
SB: You can get the book anywhere ya buybooks and also akpress.org, that’s the publisher. You can find me on Twitter @shane_burley1 and I’ll be putting out a bunch of different articles ina number of places. That should be the prime location.
adrienne maree brown is the writer-in-residence at the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute, and author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds and the co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements and How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office. She is the cohost of the How to Survive the End of the World and Octavia’s Parables podcasts. adrienne is rooted in Detroit. More of their work can be found at adriennemareebrown.net
If you like Scott’s interview style, check out their interviews with Kristian Williams on Oscar Wilde and Eli Meyerhoff on higher education and recuperation. Also, to hear an interview with Walidah Imarisha, who co-authored “Octavia’s Brood” with adrienne.
So much heartfelt thanks to the folks continuing to send us donations or pick up our merch. We’re almost at our goal of sustainability, but still not quite there, but the one-time donations have definitely cushioned that need. If you’ve got extra dough, check out our Donate/Merch page.
As an update on the transcription side of things, we’re still rolling forward, comrades have gotten each episode so far this year out and we’ve imported the text into our blog posts and imported links into our podcast after the fact about a week after the audio release! Also kind soul has done the immense work of making zines and downloadable pdf’s of almost all of our already transcribed interviews up until last week! Those posts are updated and linked up to the text and you can find more by checking out the zine category on our site.
The Final Straw Radio: Thank you for coming and talking to us in the Final Straw. Do you mind introducing yourself with a pronoun and relevant information you want to give?
adrienne maree brown: Yeah, so, my name is adrienne maree brown, I use she and they pronoun. I am a writer based in Detroit and I’m the author of Emergent Strategy, Pleasure Activism, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood, and most recently, and I think what we are going to talk about today, the author of a book called We Will Not Cancel Us and Other Dreams of Transformative Justice. I have been a movement facilitator and mediator for over 20 years, close to 25 years now. And most of the writing work that I do is rooted in the experiences and questions that have come from those places. That’s who I am for people who are meeting me here.
TFSR: Thanks! I’m so excited to get to talk to you and I wanted to dive into your most recent published book because it offers a lot of food for thought, especially for people who are engaged in different kinds of community processes and accountability and larger projects of abolition and transformative justice.
amb: Oh, one thing you should know and it may show up for your listeners, too. I have neighbors upstairs and today is the day that they host the preschool pot, so if you hear big thumps and bumps and things like that, just know it’s kids playing and everyone’s all good.
TFSR: That’s a good [chuckle]. I also have a sleeping cat that may awake and attempt to hang out on the computer.
amb: Real life continues happening even during Zoom calls, so…
TFSR: I kind of wanted to just jump in into the stuff thinking about listeners have a basic concept for abolition and transformative justice. The first thing I started thinking about when preparing to talk to you was that way that cancel culture which you, you know, you reverting in the title, it’s become a kind of meme at this point. And there is plenty of critiques from the radical liberatory side which is the one that you are offering, but also right-wing conservative perspectives, like I’m thinking of Trump getting kicked out of Twitter, or the J.K. Rowling transphobic stuff that prompted this all of these rich and powerful people to talk about cancel culture, so I was wondering what you think… How do we differentiate those critiques from the liberatory side vs. the powerful side?
amb: Yeah, I feel like I’ve had to explore this a lot more since the book came out than I ever did before. I’m really not following what right-wing conservative people are up to or saying or doing. It’s literally not a part of my world, my conversation. So when I wrote the initial piece and people were like “Trump uses this language”, I felt like “What?” I don’t follow him, so for me, it was interesting. I can totally see the right-wing using the critique of cancel culture to dodge accountability and to me, the major distinction is what is the impetus of the critique. For me, it is a love-based, abolition-based impetus. I do believe that as people who are fighting for abolition, there are conversations we need to have, questions we need to be asking and practices we need to get good at that are related to how we practice being in deeper accountability with each other and starting to develop an expectation that accountability is possible when harm happens. Because I believe that those twin expectations are what lay the foundation for a truly post-prison, post-policing coexistence. So that to me feels like the primary thing is that when someone like J.K. Rowling is being like “No, cancel culture is being no good”, what she is fundamentally fighting for is like “I want to protect my right to be oppressive, to basically cancel or deny the existence of other people”. And what I think we are fighting for is the right to protect as many people as we can from being harmed, denied, erased. So there is a call, you know, to me, the difference is also people talk about call-out vs. call-in and this kind of things, I think a lot of what we are doing is that we want to actually pull ourselves into more interdependence, relationality, accountability. And that feels like a huge distinction.
TFSR: That’s a good point, cause the words can become slippery, especially as they get co-opted by people who don’t have those horizons that we have.
amb: When I was trying to figure out which words were are going to fight for, and how we do that fighting for. It’s hard, but I do think it’s worthwhile in some places. Abolition is actually still ours, transformative justice is still ours. I don’t think cancel culture necessarily is the one that is ours. For me, We Will Not Cancel Us is about the activity, like we are not going to cancel people we need to be accountable for. How do we do that?
TFSR: Yeah, this is a very important distinction, because cancel culture is already a mainstream critique of this thing, probably they see it as a youth phenomenon on social media. And canceling is a thing that people do, but it’s not a whole culture necessarily.
amb: It’s not, and what I think is interesting is that there is a culture of disposability, and there is a culture of conflict avoidance, but I think the cancelation… So much of it is rooted in social media culture, so social media culture is a shallow engagement, clickbait headlines, very surface-level arguments, and then canceling people. It all goes together: trolls-gone-wild, then we are trying to build a movement and how do we navigate and organize around social media as a part of building movement, and how do we harness it as a tool? I think what’s been happening is that it’s been harnessing us. We’ve got drown into the way social media works as if that’s how a community works and changes.
TFSR: There are two different levels that we can use social media as a tool for things that we’ve done historically to protect ourselves, but then there is this other level where it takes on another meaning. One thing I was thinking about reading your book is that probably also the most notable mainstream version of this that gets discussed is the #metoo. It’s called a movement, but from what you discuss in your book I don’t see it as a movement, cause it’s an isolated ax of naming something. It’s not necessarily a struggle in the streets. And I’m not saying this as a judgment, I’m reserving judgment of like it’s effective or should people do this, but I’m interested in thinking about that, not having a basis in a tangible community.
amb: It’s interesting, I think it depends on where and when you enter the MeToo conversation. If people enter the conversation as like this happened related to Harry Weinstein, a year and a half ago now, then I think that’s the case. But if you take it all the way back to the work that Tarana Burke has been doing for years, that was very tangible and the work that she has continued to do is very much tangible, happening in real-time, in real space, in real relationships and calling for changes that happened in the offline world, and using social media to help push that along, to spread that. But I just did an event with them recently and I was blown away by how much they are inviting people into offline practices. And I think ‘movement’ is a kind of slippery and tricky term. I see people telling like “We are starting a movement”, I don’t think that is how movement works, how things take off or people get called into something and like what is actually moving. And I look at, like, is policy moving? Is our sense of identity moving, is our sense of capacity moving? And in that sense, I would say that to me MeToo is absolutely a movement because it has moved and transformed how people negotiate the intimate relationship, intimate harm, how people negotiate being public or non-public about the harm that happened to them. So I would see it that way.
TFSR: I like that idea. I was thinking, bell hooks distinguishes between political representation and pop culture that doesn’t get grounded in grassroots. But the way you mention it makes sense, and the thing I admire about the call-outs that happen, cause though we could read from a lens of canceling or even carceral sort of minds, but it also is demanding accountability and giving voices to people.
amb: Absolutely, and that’s what I think is interesting is who do we listen to, so if we listen to Cherana and Nikita and so many people who are now working in that space, one of the things they talk about all the time is… this is actually not about destruction, it’s not about trying to bring people down and destroy them. We are trying to heal trauma, to end cycles of harm, and end trauma that has come from that harm. And I think this is one of the most interesting pieces about the distinction between what I had actually an issue writing about and the larger culture of cancellation and call-out, cause call-outs are rooted in the communities I come from – brown, queer, trans communities. And the reason why we initially needed the strategy was because the power differentials between us and the folks who were causing harm were so vast that we couldn’t be heard as equal parts of the story-telling, we couldn’t be heard in our survival. That’s still the case in so many scenarios where “Oh, these workers need to call someone out, or call out an institution, a corporate entity because the power dynamics are so vast. And with Harvey Weinstein, with R. Kelly, with some of these big public cases, I hundred percent support those, I’ve tweeted that, those make sense to me because the power differentials are so big that the only way to potentially stop this harm is by making this huge call. I think the difference is then how do we handle it when the harm is much more horizontal, within a community, where there might be slightly more positional power, slightly more social media cachet or something, but no one is wealthy, no one actually owns anything, no one has long-standing security in any kind of way, and a lot of time we are talking about survivors, where everyone is in a situation of survival or something.
And that to me, as I’ve stressed, has got much more complex, and again, that still doesn’t mean that we take it off the table. It might still need to be. I’ve witnessed, I’ve held, I’ve supported the situations where we have tried a million other things to get this person to stop causing harm and this is not the move. And I think that is the case… A lot of the push-back I got from people when I published the original essay, they were like “Hold on, in a lot of these cases, we have tried everything”. Don’t take the power out of the move that we do need the capacity to make. And that was not my intention in writing and it’s not my intention now is to say “How do we make sure that we are using the tactic precisely when it needs to be used and how do we make sure we have other options when we need other options, right? This is not the first thing people jump to.
TFSR: I guess that’s the thing with social media, and we have so many examples of it, especially because being harmed is a really isolating experience and being able to voice it really scary…
amb: It’s so hard.
TFSR: We see the representation of that on social media that can give you the ability to do something even if you wouldn’t reach out to your pod or whatever. That’s a distinction that, I don’t know, I don’t know…
amb: Well, just briefly on that point, that’s also part of what I’m fighting for. As someone who is a survivor myself and who really has to battle like “Would taking this public be healing for me? Who would I share this with that it would be healing for me? How would I actually be able to heal the pattern that happened here? What do I want for the person – multiple people in my life – who have caused harm?” And it’s a very intimate reckoning. I can’t outsource like “Here is what I landed on, and that’s what everyone got to do too”. Because it’s very intimate. What I do know is that I want the result to be satisfying. If people are taking this huge risk to tell these stories, I want them to be satisfied that they are not able to get justice, but they are able to get healing. I think it is often what happens with the way the call-outs play out right now. A lot of what happens is people take this huge risk, tell a story and now they are associated with that story. It’s now they become a public face of the worst thing that ever happened to them, and sometimes there is some accountability, but often there is not, sometimes the person who caused them harm just disappears and goes somewhere else and keeps causing harm. For me, I’m just like “Hold on, let’s examine this strategy and figure out how do we actually make sure survivors are having a satisfying experience or healing and being held, and getting room to process and not having to be responsible for managing anything to do with the person who caused them harm.
My vision is where we live inside of communities, that have the capacity and the skill to be like “That harm happened to you – we are flanking you, we’ve got you, you are being held, we are attending to your healing. And that there is also enough community to go to the person who caused the harm and hold them in a process of accountability and also healing”. Because fundamentally, we know something’s wrong if someone is causing that kind of harm, if someone commits sexual assault, if someone commits rape, steals resources, abusing power. We know that actually some healing is also needed there. Not that the survivor needs to guide the healing, but the community does need to be responsible for it. I think we are a long way from that. Where we need to be heading if we call ourselves abolitionists is we have to develop a capacity to hold all of that in the community, so that we are not outsourcing it to a prison, to the police.
TFSR: Yeah, it’s interesting in this transitional period, we are not there, it that vision just discussed, we are trying to reach that. There is that experience that so many people have and you’ve probably seen and had it yourself where accountability processes go wrong or a call-out isolates someone and the person who caused harm gets scrutinized and their process doesn’t happen or even I feel like processes can be used to wheel power within subcultural communities, whether that is anarchist or queer, and exclude people. So there is a high level of burnout or disillusionment with these processes, and I just wonder what you think about how we counteract that. That’s another form of healing that is needed.
amb: Yeah. I keep pointing people to these two resources, they just came out last year, which to me says so much about how early we are in the transformative justice experiment. And to place ourselves in a context of time, helps me to drop my shoulders. Be like “Of course we don’t know what the fuck we doing, these processes are fucking hard and everything” because we are so early and we have been… Mariame Kaba talks about this, that we had 250 years of the carceral experiment, of well-funded policing and prison systems rooted in enslavement practices, had a long time of those being well-funded and we have never had a period of experimentation in what we are talking about – transformative justice and abolition practices – have been well-funded. Of course, we don’t have the resources to do it.
So one book is Beyond Survival by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha which gives a history of transformative justice, which talks about the people who were doing it before they knew that they were doing it, maybe they didn’t call it that, but just different kind of case studies and models and experiments so people can see that we have been innovating and adapting and trying to figure this out. That feels like one resource for people to say “Go look, we are not the first people to fuck up”. We still don’t know how to hold this, we are learning. The other resource is Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan put out this workbook called Fumbling Towards Repair, and I’m in love with this workbook because it’s very tangible as a resource. Here is how you can do a community accountability process in your community when something happens. It’s rooted in the idea that Mariame talks about which is it’s not going to be a one-to-one shift from the carceral state to a perfect transformative justice system that someone else still holds outside of us. It’s going to be a system where we want to defund the police and the state and redistribute resources into a million different options in our community including that many of muscle up our capacity to do community accountability processes. And if we are doing one for the first time – I remember the first time I did one – I went in with a big dream of healing and I came out mid-level satisfying, like I said my piece, and this person agreed not to do whatever.
So I just think it’s important to be humble on a grand scale about the fact that we are still learning these things and there is a lot of people in our community who actually are developing some expertise around this, but you are developing an expertise in something that is very often a private process, so it’s not something you are writing out like “Honey, let me tell what I just did with this horrific person”, a lot of it is very private and quiet, and I think that also skews the sense of this moment because a lot of times the initial call-outs, initial accountability moves are much more public, and social media takes them very far, but then we don’t see what happens behind the scenes, we don’t see what was happening behind the scenes to lead up to that moment, all the things that are behind. So if we were able to be like “Ha! We don’t know how to do this yet, we have to learn how to do this. And learning happens mostly through failure. We learn by trying something, it doesn’t quite work, then we make the adjustment. We have so much to learn. We have to learn what roles work best for different people, who are the mediators, who are the people who can hold these processes, who are the people who are like “I’m a healer, I can hold a role in a community”. Do you have to experience these accountability processes yourself, can you just read about it and hold it? There is so much to figure out, and to me, it’s actually exciting. We are in an exciting place potentially for transformative justice and abolition. But not if we stay committed to outsourcing those we deem as bad or the processes themselves. It’s more like how do we turn to be like “Yeah, we don’t know how to do this, let’s learn”.
TFSR: Right. I actually had an opportunity to teach a queer and transformative justice class, it was very well-funded, it was right when those books came out, I was so excited, look at all these new books on this. Teaching this stuff to young people seems important, but also familiarizing them with the fact that it’s not a one-to-one replacement or solution. I use a lot Walidah Imarisha’s Angels with Dirty Faces because she talks about it not being a resolution we are used to within a Capitalist society…
amb: Exactly, and looking at those three stories, cause I think that’s the stuff, looking at these different real-life scenarios and being with the complexity of each of these human beings, I think it is such a great book. I also point people a lot to Mia Mingus’s work, particularly the work around apology, because so much of it is, you know, you are trying to get water out of the stone, it feels like “When I really need is an acknowledgment of the harm you did and an apology for that. Few people know how to give a good apology. There is a myriad of resources that we’re building and generating and slowly bringing into a relationship with each other. I think in ten years, it’s going to look very different.
TFSR: There is something interesting I was starting to think about. You talked about the privacy of the intimacy of situations that need this kind of handling. If we start having people specializing in training and that stuff that go around doing the work, we can run the risk of professionalizing it.
amb: I hope this is not the… To me, that’s why the workbook model is so exciting. And I say this is someone who has worked as a facilitator for the last 20 years. I recognize what happened for me was I had the skill, those I used in my community, and then it became a professionalized skill. Suddenly people started “We’ll fly you to all different places to do this”. For a while, it worked for me and allowed me to work with very exciting movements, but it also has the impact in the long run of making people think that they have to fly me in rather than looking around and see who in their community has this capacity and strength. I wrote Emergent Strategy to help with spreading those tools and I have a book coming out this spring called Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy. Facilitation and Mediation. And for me, the idea is similar, the workbook is like “Pick this up, integrate the skill-set, find the facilitators, the people who are like this in your community and do mediation, who are drawn to it, and let’s start to have more capacity for local reliance in these different systems and needs. I think the professionalization and the sense of bringing someone from afar to do this – we can do this, it’s possible on the level of the community.
TFSR: I know since you post so much from Octavia Butler that maybe you are kind of seeding the communities, then figure it out themselves.
TFSR: And thinking about Emergent Strategy and the new book you’ve just mentioned, OK, in We Will Not Cancel Us, you talk about the sort of supremacy within us and connect it to the diagnosis that the Oankali make in Octavia Butler’s book about the problem with humans is like…
amb: Hierarchy and intelligence…
TFSR: Yeah. I see that work that you do, the writing that you do as part of the process, the internal process that we need to do to unlearn supremacy, the hierarchy within us… And that would work on so many different levels – power, masculinity, and all these things.
TFSR: Do you see this as a sort of thing that takes place in culture, is it internal… It seems like you’re initiating a new genre to have an “anti-authoritarian help book” or something.
amb: [laughs] Thank you. The other day I was interviewed and they said that my new genre was “facila-writing”, writing stuff that facilitates people through a process, so I’ll accept this too, “anti-authoritarian help books” I do think that is something that happens at both ends and I say this like one of my great teachers, mentors, was Grace Lee Boggs who is an Asian-American freedom fighter based here in Detroit, part of the Black Power movement. And she said we must transform ourselves to transform the world. And when I first heard it, I was like “No, we have to go out and transform all the fucked-up people who are doing bad things, we are good”. It took me such a long time to understand what she meant, which is any of the systems that we are swimming in have also rooted inside of us, and as we un-root them, uproot them, we unlearn things inside of us, then we become both models for what it looks like to be post-capitalist, post-nationalist, post-patriarchal, post-white supremacy, we become models of that, we become practitioners and scholars. We actually understand what it takes to do that unlearning. That feels like such a crucial part of this.
In We Will Not Cancel Us, I reference my friend Prentis Hemphill’s essay Letting Go of Innocence because that feels connected to this. First, we have to recognize we are not above the people who have caused harm. They may have had different circumstances, they have let us to moving our harm in different ways or processing our traumas in different ways. I think it’s such a blessing, you know I have a life of trauma, but early in my life I was given tools around therapy and healers, I had a loving household, a loving jumping off board from which to process the trauma of being alive in this time, which I think everyone actually is experiencing at some level. I interact with people and they didn’t come across the idea of therapy or they thought that’s not an option or a healer – that’s private, that’s something you don’t do. And that energy is going to move somewhere. So I don’t look at myself as above anyone who ends up in the prison system or anyone who ends up canceled. I just had different circumstances and they allowed me to process the trauma in a different way. That’s internal work that allows me to be present with the fact that capitalism is in me, petty jealous behavior is in me, judgmental behavior is in me, and that I have to examine what is white supremacy, what is patriarchy, what are those things that live in me. I keep uprooting that.
At the same time, I do believe it is cultural work and that is why I write books instead of just having these thoughts in my head or only doing the work with a small group of friends, as I am interested in dropping seeds into the culture to see if other things can bloom. And my experiment with that, with Emergent Strategy, was so exciting to me because I released the book, didn’t really promote it, I was just like “Look, if there are other people hungry for these ideas, this will spread, if they are not, I will know that I’m alone in Detroit looking at ends and that’s fucked. I felt kind of OK either way cause the Earth is still offering its amazing lessons regardless of people see it through my book or not, but now I know that that strategy can really work. And We Will Not Cancel Us similarly, we did a couple of events that just felt like important conversations to have with Charlene Carruthers, with Cindy Weisner, with Shira Hassan, and with Malkia Devich-Cyril who wrote the Afterword. But mostly it was like the book is out and people are either reading that or not. And I have a lot of people who were like “I’m reading this”. I got a lot of messages from people who are like “I’m really surprised based on the first essay to what happened in the book, I’m surprised. I see what you did, I see the growth”. That’s still not the perfect book, it was a quick process, but to me, it feels important that people are reading it in their own groups and talking about their own local culture. Because social media is not the whole world, and so much is happening in our local movement circles, and how at a local level we are integrating these questions of “Well, how do we handle harm? How do we handle conflict when it arises? What are our case studies? Are there people who we have canceled or tried to dispose of? What happened with them? Where are they now? Did they stop causing harm? Did that work? If not, what else could work? Are we putting people in the line of the state, in the eyes of the state?” Just having it as a local conversation.
The thing I’m interested in is a culture of discernment, a culture of mature, generative conflict, and I think that’s so important on this journey towards an abolitionist future is it’s not just a policy change that will make that possible, it has to be an entire cultural shift, and culture shifts because lots of individuals shift.
TFSR: That’s a good way of thinking, cause the internal work, we are sort of taught to think of the internal work as of the work you do for yourself, your goals and your profession, but actually the internal work and this stuff, it turns you into a potential facilitator. I’m not perfect obviously, but I’ve done a lot of work, and the work that I do allows me to enter the situations from a different place, that I can help facilitate them. It’s not because I’m better or to be above them or avoid them completely, cause that’s impossible.
amb: Yes, and I think right now the culture that is being produced is one where people have a lot of fear around making mistakes which limits how honest people are, because if we are being honest, we are making mistakes all the time, and we have fucked-up thoughts all the time. One thing that I appreciate about my best friendships is that I can say something that is wild and my friend will go like “That’s wild, girl, you can’t say that, and let’s examine where that thought came from”. I grew up in a military household, in a capitalist family. I have to know that that shaped me that by the time – I went to an Ivy League University – all those things shaped me. And so as I’m unlearning this, a lot unpack there, and if I’m above that unpacking or I’m hiding from ever making a mistake, then I can’t do that learning. We want to move from a culture where people are terrified to show up to a culture where people are excited to be able to be like “Here is all of me and I know I have work to do”. And if it’s a culture of belonging, where even if you are fucked up, which you definitely are, you still belong to your species and you still belong to your community. And belonging means you are in a constant state of growth.
I’m rereading bell hooks’ It’s All About Love, and she uses this definition of love which is that you have the willful extension of yourself towards the nurturance of another’s growth or your growth. I want love-based communities, to me, that’s what it looks like when you see that someone has fucked up or failed, you are like “I’m going to willfully extend myself towards your growth” so that there is room to come back. That doesn’t mean people are ready for that. I held space for people who were like “I am a flamethrower, I’m in a flamethrower phase of mine, I’m just going to throw flames and everything, and then I was like “OK, this community just needs to set some clear boundaries, so that you know it’s not OK for you to be burning down everybody’s everything.
And that’s a particular move that says “You have a space here when you are ready to come back, and until you are ready to come back, we have to set this boundary. And again, there is no public shaming needed for that, there is no public humiliation, we don’t get pleasure from boundary setting, it’s just a boundary that needs to be set. So that is a kind of cultural shift that to me feels important.
TFSR: That’s an interesting way of putting it, to try and talk about it without shaming. In a relationship, I try to say “If I fuck up, tell me, cause that’s a learning experience for me, it’s an opportunity for me to hear your thoughts and know something else and also not do that again if I can avoid it.” It’s surprising that so many people don’t expect that, you have to normalize that.
amb: Right, because people don’t even realize that this concept of perfectionism is one of the ways capitalism plays out within us and within our community. That there can be some perfect and we can buy our way there or fake our way there or botox-or-plastic-surgery our way there or something. But actually, no one is perfect, people are making mistakes all the time, and I love how you said that, Scott, that a mistake is a place where an aliveness becomes possible, and learning becomes possible. There is also something really important. Just that piece around boundaries. I want boundaries from other people around me. I want to know what the boundaries are that I need to uphold and honor, even if it hurts. I think about it, in my most intimate relationship, when someone’s like “No, adrienne, you can’t cross this line”. And I’m like “Me? For real?” and them “Oh yeah, let me integrate that”. Because it actually isn’t personal, that’s that don Miguel Ruiz shit. Don’t take it personally, when you stop taking it personally, you recognize that people’s boundaries are about them, taking care of themselves, and you can love them by upholding those boundaries. Even that is part of learning.
I know a few people who have been through big call-outs and now they are sitting outside of a boundary, outside of a community that they once felt so at home in, and it fucking sucks. And I’m holding the boundary and I’m learning what I need to learn out here in order to be able to make my return. Even if I think there are other ways to do it, fundamentally, what we are trying to do is to develop a culture where we can set boundaries, the boundaries actually create growth and space for actual authentic love to be possible.
TFSR: It’s so funny, I always thought about the thing I liked about hanging out with anarchists is that I can leave any situation and people don’t need an explanation for it. I’m just like “I’m done”, with that ability to… there is not the same kind of expectation to participate beyond your limits.
amb: Because there is a practice of non-attachment, a practice of really being free around other free people, which is very uncomfortable for people who are… Ursula Le Guin wrote about it in The Dispossessed, that’s I really still identify as an anarchist, is that what it really means to be free is so at odds with how our culture is currently structured. We don’t realize all the ways we are weaving ourselves into a self-policed, self-controlled state, and we are making all kinds of agreements – control me, control me, police me, correct me, control me. I’ve just noticed that in the past year my visibility has gone up to a whole different level, which means that a lot more people think they should have control over me, and really staying free within that context is like “Oh, I’m glad I have developed the muscles before this visibility, that I am free and I deserve to fuck up and make mistakes and I can handle being in public, and someone is like “Yeah, I fuck up”. I am a human being, visibility doesn’t make me less human, but it is a muscle that I wish more people were thinking about even developing, much less practicing.
TFSR: Yeah, you have your podcast, but also your book model is a process. We Will Not Cancel Us is presented not as a finished…
amb: Yeah, it’s a process and I made uncomfortable decisions in it. It would be much easier for me on some level to just pull down the original piece and be like “That’s embarrassing. I made mistakes and people can see that”. But again, if I step outside of it, if I don’t think about it so personally, then I can imagine some young organizer being able to read a book and go back and see the piece and make a connection and be like “Oh, this was what you learned and improved, you still have room to grow, this could be better, sharper, clearer”. And I’m like “Great, you write the next book”. Keep this process going.
I recently got to be in a conversation with Angela Davis which is wild, she is someone who I really look up to, but I also love how I see her handle critique in her life. People come to her and are like “Why are you like this, whatever?” And she’s like ” Yes, exactly. Those questions are real questions that I’m in”. That she keeps herself a living, breathing, growing being who is learning and changing all the time. And she’s like “I’m not the same person I was when I was being pursued by the government when I was arrested and all that, when you campaigned to Free Angela Davis, now I’m this Angela Davis and I will continue to grow”. And I’m like “That feels like a great model for those of us who hope to be elder organizers, elder activists, elder radicals. Grace continued to be curious and grow, Angela continues to be curious and grow, and I want to be that. If I have the blessing of being old, I want to be that kind of an elder.
TFSR: I got what you mean, to have a continuation and the inter-generational connection for a diversity of people coming in now, stuff that is happening and just sharing our knowledge and experience and also getting theirs, cause they have a different perspective.
TFSR: I’ve seen this tactic used when there is a serial abuser in a community, someone who the community doesn’t believe can be accountable, they do a general call, flyering, posters whatever. There is also in science fiction like Woman on the Edge of Time, there’s this idea that eventually, if you keep harming, you get killed, right?
amb: In Woman on the Edge of Time, you get one chance. You mess up one time, they give you the tattoo, if you mess up again, they say “We are not doing prisons”.
TFSR: I have an organizer friend who says that part of abolition is maybe the community decides that that’s it for you, that’s the vision of it. I’m not saying that everyone everyone needs to adopt that, but there is also revenge and stuff like that, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on this.
amb: I think it’s complicated because I will admit that I have one response – here is my theoretical, philosophical higher-self response, which is that we have to keep building our capacity to hold even the most harmful people, somehow we have to figure it out. But then a part of me is in communities regularly and has had to hold and set those boundaries and has seen that person, I’m like “You literally don’t care, you must work for the Feds, you are just… when they are passing out fives of happiness and joy, you miss the entire bucket, you don’t know what happened”. I’ve seen this side and I’ve definitely been in a place where it felt like there was no other option. What I mean inside of this is I am not actually judging what communities have to do to survive and I don’t think that any of us can do that for other communities. At least I’m not trying to judge, I’m not trying to be like “You all are weak, cause you need to do whatever”. My thing is, there is something around how we feel inside of it. Any of those times when I finally had to be like “Look, they are not willing to stop causing harm, we have to set this boundary”, for me, it’s been a move of grief and relief. Like we just have to make this call and prayer, cause I know us holding this does not mean that the harm is going to stop and they are going to find someone else to hurt. And at an individual level, this is always a thing, someone has been abusive to you, do you call the person they start dating next and say “Look, this person is going to fuck you up” or you just like “Well, I hope it goes better for them”? People make different calls about that. The things that helped me through this: one is I do believe that people change. They may not change at the pace that we want them to. I do believe that sometimes a hard boundary is the only way to get people to change. I’ve seen it happen before, I’ve seen it happen to people who had that positional power, that they were abusing and abusing, and finally were like “You don’t have it anymore”. And that’s where they actually were able to turn inward.
So I do believe that hard boundaries sometimes can be the most powerful thing. I do think it’s difficult with the flyers and revenge. I’ve said it before – that person just needs to get their ass kicked. That what needs to happen. I struggle inside of the same complexities. I think it’s the important piece here. What I want us to get good at as a community is feeling like we have as many options as we do actually have and practicing all the options. A lot of what my writing is in this time is let’s not just above all the options that help keep this person in our community or help this person to heal from the harm that clearly has happened to them, or help this scenario play out differently. Let’s not leap over all of that to have the very first thing we do is, say, plaster this person’s face and name and the intimate stories of the worst moments of their lives all over the internet and then anyone can see. For me, that’s the move that I’m trying to keep us from. To be like “First, let’s understand the history of that person. What do we know? How do we protect the survivor from any further harm? Is the person actually open to mediation or any other process? If they are, who are the right people to hold that, we need multiple people to hold that?” And so on and so forth.
Now, I think we need a boundaries school. If I were creating a school that everyone in the movement had to go through for the next year, it’s the pandemic, and we are like “OK, you can’t be on the streets, let’s all go to boundary school, let’s all go to abolition visioning school and figure out when we say ‘Defund the police’, what responsibility are we taking on in that scenario?” I would have us be in some real serious schools. I think Prentice Hemphill could run a boundary school. I have visions on this step. And Sendolo Diaminah could run the school on abolitionist visions and on practicing it at the local level. Andrea Ritchie could do that, Mia Mingus, Mariame Kaba, there are so many people. There is a lot of learning and political education and practice education that we could do because there is pleasure in revenge, there is pleasure in being able to finally say “This asshole is an asshole”, there is pleasure in all those things. But I think it’s a temporary pleasure that doesn’t actually change the conditions that will lead to more harm happening. I want us to get the pleasure mostly from healing and knowing that we have a chance from the conditions that the harm will not happen anymore.
TFSR: That’s a really good way of putting it. I was thinking about glorifying Fanon sort of violence that cleanses things. Going back to Butler, she explores violence in terms of community, but she holds it in complexity. She doesn’t endorse it, she shows detriments to it.
amb: Yeah, and there is something fascinating. In one of my favorite explorations that she has, which is The Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind, those are two books inside the Patternist series, there is this character Doro, who is a straight-up body snatcher. I remember doing a series of reading groups around this where eventually, a whole huge interconnected network has to take him out because he just cannot stop causing harm. He literally can’t survive if he stops causing harm. But I was sitting in one of the reading groups one time, and someone turned to me and was like “Did she ever try to heal him?” The lead character is one of the most amazing outstanding healers that’s ever existed. And the person said, “Did she ever try to heal him?” I went back and read the book and I couldn’t really see it, cause she tried to argue, she tried to demand, she tried to shame, to run away, she tried a million things to hold him accountable and ask for him to change, but there is not really a moment that she laid her hands on him the way she did with others, and reached into that place where he was a child, his entire family had been killed, and this was the strategy that emerged for him to survive. I always come back to that, it moves me to tears each time, cause if we look at each person causing harm as a child who has been harmed, it changes the conversation, and I think it can change what’s possible. I keep wanting to make this distinction, but that to me is not the work of the person surviving their harm, for me as someone who had been and is being abused, it’s not my job to be like “Oh, I can see the child in you”. But I think in the community, we need to grow that capacity. We have to help, to figure out getting this person to therapy. That might be the mandate. I do feel there are things like that, like if you want to be here, we have to know you are getting support, if you want to be here, we have to see this commitment to your healing. And that would be a sophisticated future if that was happening.
TFSR: That’s a really good point. I was really intrigued in the book about this idea of how we feed intp surveillance and sort of a counter-surveillance. I just wanted to hear more about that idea. Is it airing dirty laundry, is it leaks that get turned against us? Again, it’s like, I’m thinking COINTELPRO and we are bringing all this stuff back to black queer organizers who use call-outs as self-defense. How do you conceive this kind of surveillance?
amb: I think it’s an interesting conversation and it’s part of why I was really excited to have Malkia write the afterword because Malkia grew up as a child of a Black Panther who has really done a lot of scholarship around COINTELPRO and surveillance and who has been fighting around facial recognition and surveillance and all these things. I feel I learned a lot about what Malkia thinks about these things. I wanted to bring this conversation into the larger conversation that we are having which is I don’t think we’ve ever healed from COINTELPRO and I don’t think we’ve ever really figured it out. There are people who are doing really interesting work around how do we relate to living in a completely overwhelming surveillance state, how do we relate to the fact that infiltration is very common and expected. And we can see the patterns of it play out, that is very hard at an interpersonal level to ever know who you can trust and who you can’t trust.
I just saw a screening of Judas and the Black Messiah which talks about the infiltration of Fred Hampton in the Black Panthers in Chicago, and it’s just devastating to know that people show up inside movement spaces with the intention to cause dissent, harm, and to keep us from justice and liberation. But that is definitely happening. And at meetings, I’m like “Hmm, I think that person is here for the wrong reasons. My response to this is mostly like “Let’s be overwhelmingly on point with what it is we are up to and hope that we sway them and they become a turncoat to the government, whatever. But that is very unrealistic. And much more realistic, since we have to be thinking how are we building trust with each other… For me, it’s all of the above, that is airing the dirty laundry piece that harms us mostly in the eyes of our opposition. They are like “Hey, they don’t actually have unity and solidarity, they are everyone at each other’s necks. And even if it’s true, I don’t think it serves us to have that be public and transparent. And I don’t think it feeds to generative conflict, if the move is that we put people on blast rather than sitting down and having a face-to-face conversation, I’m concerned about that. Zoom, face-to-face, whatever it is.
But then I also think there is something around how we isolate people. If we are taking someone and we are like “This person caused harm in our community” and we are putting that on the internet, then that person is now isolated out of the community and if someone who is surveilling and is looking for like “Who could we turn into an infiltrator, who could we reach in those ways, who could we take out, who could we disappear”. To me, it’s saying “Here are our weakest links, here are the weakest points of our movement. Come get us”. And I think right now, because the movement has grown so fast and because social media is such a bizarre space where people think they have a relationship with people they never met, they don’t know anything about, they don’t have any sense of an actual history for, we are in a really endangered species’ zone, when it comes to our movement work right now. That was a big impetus for the writing that I did, cause I was being asked to do these call-outs, and then I would go look who was asking me to do this call-out, it was almost people I didn’t know and there was nothing to show me that this person’s ever done any other community work. I can see that they’ve done other call-outs, but I don’t see anything like “Here is what they’ve built”.
I said this in many places: I’m much more moved by people who are creating, building, growing the movement, rather than people who are like “My job is to destroy this institute or organization, or turn down this activist, whatever”. That’s not organizing work. And we definitely have people in movement right now where I’m like “They may not be on the State’s payroll, but they might as well be based on how they spend their time, how impactful is it growing efforts of actually being able to advance a united front, something that is complex organizing strategy. So I just think we have to be more mindful around it. To me, even if you don’t agree with me, even if you are just like “Fuck that, it’s more important to be able to call these people out”, I’m like “That’s fine”. And at all times, let’s not pretend we didn’t live through COINTELPRO and not pretend that infiltration and subterfuge and undermining and sabotaging our efforts is not a possibility for what’s happening right now. To me, it’s not learning from our history and be able to transform the future, which is what our job is.
TFSR: That’s such an important point. That we can be serving the state in ways that are unintentional and holding up a purity…
amb: If we are already embedded in philanthropy, we already have so many compromises. We can’t also be throwing our people into those hands.
TFSR: Exactly, we need to accept that we are not pure and not expect other people to be pure. That was a really helpful way of way of packaging it, thank you.
amb: Thank you for this conversation. You have really good questions and I hope that it serves us all.
“Hannah was also the creator of the documentary “Shelter: A Squatumentary”. We talk about squatting in the U.S., homesteading, market values, views on squat resistance in other countries from the U.S. and more. The latter half of the show features a musical selection from the metal and gothy end of the spectrum.”
This week on the Final Straw, we are taking a break from consistently bringing fresh content over the last few months (frequently twice a week, instead of just the usual Sunday episodes) and re-airing this segment form a prior episode 2 years ago. Here we re-present a speech by William C. Anderson, keynote of the 2018 Another Carolina Anarchist Bookfair in so-called Asheville, NC. William is the co-author with Zoe Samudzi of the book “As Black As Resistance: Finding The Conditions For Liberation” (AK Press, 2017).
The talk he is giving here is based heavily on the first chapter of the book called Black in Anarchy, and in addition to laying the groundwork of how he and Samudzi wrote the book, he speaks about the truly conditional nature of so called “citizenship” that many people living in the US face, the continuing evolution of race and the reliance of white supremacy to Black subjugation, and he places Blackness in proximity to Anarchy, and much more.
From the back cover: “As Black As Resistance makes the case for a new program of self-defense and transformative politics for Black Americans, one rooted in an anarchistic framework that the authors liken to the Black experience itself. This is not a book of compromise, nor does it negotiate with intolerance. It is a manifesto for everyone who is ready to continue progressing towards liberation for all people.”
We hope you will enjoy this talk, and if you are curious about the book As Black As Resistance by Zoe Samudzi and William C. Anderson, you can head over to AK Press to learn more!
We’ll be back with new content soon, once we’ve re-energized. If you are in the radio listening audience and are fiending for more voices from the streets, radical authors and more, consider checking our website for a backlog of episodes going back to 2010. You can play on our website, or subscribe to our podcast stream with your smart phone, tablet or computer, and you can also find all of our content for free on those nasty, streaming platforms like spotify, youtube, google podcasts, itunes ad nauseum.
Comrades at Sub.Media have had some really exciting projects hit the web in the last week or so. First up, after ending their monthly Trouble series, they have inaugurated a new series entitled “System Fail”, this first episode is entitled ‘Riots Across America’, is hosted by a Dee Dos and features an interview with Oluchi Omeoga of Black Visions Collective and Reclaim The Block in so-called Minneapolis. While it’s currently unavailable on youtube, it can be watched via Archive.org and their website, Sub.Media.
Sub.Media has also announced, in collaboration with AntiMidia in Brazil, is launching ‘Kolektiva’, an anarchist and anti-colonial video platform based on peer-tube. This project already features videos in French, German, English, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Greek and Arabic and they are looking for more rad video collectives to participate and more folks to help with translation. You can check it out and learn more at Kolektiva.Media
There are a number of ongoing fundraisers for folks arrested during the Uprising for Black Lives aka ACAB Spring, many of which can be found at ItsGoingDown.org among other places. One group that could use the funds is the Free Deyanna Davis legal defense fund in Buffalo, NY. You can learn more by visiting gofundme.com/f/free-deyanna-davis-legal-defense-fund
Also, from Black Hills Bail and Legal Defense Fund:
“On July 3rd, 2020, Indigenous People and our allies were arrested in the process of defending our sacred lands in the Black Hills. Acts of courage and civil disobedience resulted in arrests and criminal charges. We were protesting the desecration of sacred lands that were stolen by our people.”
To support the 15 arrestees from July 3rd, consider visiting BHLegalFund.org.
The SF Bay View National Black Newspaper has been producing a print newspaper since 1976 featuring voices from the Bay Area in California, voices from imprisoned people, stories about struggles for ecological justice in working class communities of color and views and news online and in print up til today for Black Liberation. The paper is sent to prisoners and thus acts as a powerful conduit for ideas and action behind bars and with the outside. I had a chance to speak with the editor, Mary Ratcliff a few years back about the paper. Mary, who is in her 80’s, has been diagnosed with breast cancer and her husband and the publisher, Willie Ratcliff, has his own serious health issues and she is his care giver. They are fundraising with a GoFundMe at the moment to help bring on board the soon to be released, but currently incarcerated, Comrade Malik to become editor. Malik has been acting as assistant editor of the Behind Enemy Lines column and is set to be released from Federal custody in September and is excited to take on this responsibility. If you are excited and want to learn more about how to help, you can visit GoFundMe.com/f/fund-liberation for more information and how to help sustain the SFBayView in this exciting transition. And you can check out the paper at SFBayVIew.com
Prisoners at Coffee Correctional in Georgia are facing a major spike in the pandemic and are requesting a phone zap beginning Monday, July 6th in response to this crisis. You can learn more at the Atlanta
To hear more recent updates about political prisoners and their struggles in the so-called U.S. including some context about the recent uprisings and arrests, check out the latest addition to the ‘Prison Break’ column at ItsGoingDown.Org. For a wider view of the impacts of the pandemic and resistance to it behind bars, IGD also just published a new installment of their ‘Break Out’ column featuring views from members of the Philadelphia chapter of the Revolutionary Abolition Movement and Oakland Abolition and Solidarity (formerly Oakland IWOC). Both are linked in our show notes.
Pan-African Social Ecology: A conversation with Dr Modibo Kadalie
This week, we’re happy to air a conversation I had with the author and activist, Modibo Kadalie, author of Pan-African Social Ecology as well as Internationalism, Pan-Africanism and the Struggle of Social Classes. A version of Dr. Kadalie’s conversation with Andrew Zonneveld of OOA! Publishing, entitled Pan-Africanism, Social Ecology and Intimate Direct Action appeared up in the recently released collection Deciding For Ourselves, edited by Cindy Milstein out from AK Press. Dr. Kadalie has also been involved in political organizing including resisting the draft of the Vietnam War, labor organizing in Detroit and Memphis, ecological protest, community self defense in Atlanta and currently is working on writings about ecology and living in the territories of southeastern Turtle Island, including those of the Creek and Seminole peoples, and working at the Autonomous Research Institute for Direct Democracy and Social Ecology in Midway, Georgia.
In this hour, Modibo talks about autonomous community organizing, the contradictions between the survival of the species and capitalism, CLR James, his read on Pan-Africanism and Social Ecology, the pandemic, and direct democracy. We also talk about Geechee history in south so-called Georgia, the weaknesses of nationalism, hierarchy and revering individual historical figures and the strength of spontaneity and community action.
This conversation was recorded before the killing of George Floyd and but after the increased awareness of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery nearby to Dr. Kadalie in Glynn County, GA, which reflects in the discussion. Modibo shares some criticisms of official Black Lives Matter, liberal cooptation and the veneration of representative leadership.
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Marvin Gaye – Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) – What’s Going On
Quincy Jones – Everything Must Change – Body Heat
Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come – Ain’t That Good News
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TFSR: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat, Dr. Kadalie.
Dr. Modibo Kadalie: It’s very good, thank you very much. I’ve seen thiscollection. It’s a very good, very easy read, deciding for ourselves, it’sgot quite a few different perspectives. What makes it so good is that everybody talks about where does this ideal society exist, where can you find it, and what we got to do is showhow it’s emerging all over the world. The collection is a really good read. I recommend it highly.
TFSR: Awesome, we just received a copy from AK Press which we are excited to dig into. I’d like to say first off that I really appreciate the wide focus lens that you use when discussing the history and popular movements and popular participation in discourse. When you have Q&As and discussions. It seems like a lot of your public presentations are focused on the idea of de-centering the individual as the focus, and you engage other participants in lively discourse, rather than a monologue. I feel that says a lot about your politics.
MK: Don’t you find monologues boring? I think their peculiar emergence in a liberal individualistic society. The lecture shows you that somebody’s got the answers, and you’ve got to listen. It is very boring and authoritarian.
TFSR: Absolutely. One thing that I noticed from some pieces that are in your collection from OOOA! was you talked a lot about the impacts of, among other people, C.L.R. James on your thinking. We’ve never had anyone talk about his writings and what he brought to the Marxist tradition and the postcolonial struggle tradition. Can you talk a little bit about, maybe like some of his thoughts that influenced you and interactions that you had with him?
MK: The most dramatic thing was he was a critic of the nation-state. Of course, I was disappointed because he never went as far as I wanted him to go. He was a critic of the nation-state, yet he venerated certain pan-African statesmen. I don’t think he ever made a distinction betweenclassical Pan-Africanism, which is statist in its nature, and neo-Pan-Africanism, which is what I am. I’m a neo-Pan-Africanist, I believe that Pan-Africanism as any kind of humanism has to emerge from my people sitting down,talking, and discussing things to decide how they will go in their society, consistent with their natural ecosystems there that they depend upon for their survival. And these ecosystems are mutually dependent on human beings, symbiotically, relating in a natural world. And I believe we’ve got a real serious problem because capitalism has taken human beingsinto a very bad dark place. It’s a real detour that people have degenerated, and the technology, it is not very impressive when you look at it from a social-ecological perspective, all the patterns and human knowledge and all that stuff. Beginning with the industrial revolution, it was really inhuman what they did. It’s a very vicious and horrible period we live in. And they’ve been successful in making us believe it is the golden age of human thought and existence. To me, it is just the opposite. You get weapons of mass destruction, human beings fighting all the time with other human beings. Capitalism is driven by the private ownership of property and wealth accumulation. The writers of history look at human society as something which is not only great but the modern technology is wonderful, but the tragedy of it allis that they cannot see the inhumanity. We are on the verge of completely destroying the planet. Nobody seems to understand that human beingswho try to own everything and try to rule everybody, there is a danger. The danger for the survival of the species and human society and human advancement not in the materialistic sense but in a humanistic sense.
TFSR:I think what you are saying plays with the definition of social ecology that you give in some of your pieces. Can you break that down a little? Because people may not be familiar with the term?
MK: The term ‘social ecology’ was coined by Murray Bookchin. His contribution was that he saw that human society was natural as opposed to the people who thought human society was unnatural. The rest of the natural world was natural and humans were pitted against the rest of nature. Bookchin saw that human beings and human society were a natural outburst of nature, and what we have to do is reintegrate human society with the rest of the natural world as a naturalsymbiotic relationship, a mutual affirmation.
TFSR:Where do social ecologists feel like it went wrong? You pointed out the industrial revolution- and I think some people might point to the application of Cartesian Logic, but some people might go back to primitive accumulation.
MK: Well, I have a serious break with Bookchin at the point when you start venerating the Age of Reason, venerating the American democracy. I really don’t think American democracy ever existed. I think that in the American state, there is a particular bastardization of democracy, of direct democracy, for sure. Now, there’s gonna be a debate about that. Because there are people who believe that the American and the European experiments with the rise of the nation-states in the Age of Reasoning and, of course, what they call modern science… I believe that science hasexisted, as long as human beings have tried to live collectively on the planet. So I’m a little different there, and I’m gonna write more about that later. But I believe that American democracy is no contribution to human social history. And we can see it’s not any kind of contribution to ecology at all. Look at America today, look at what’s happening in the North American continent, this is probably the most unnatural of the continents, because, by the way, you have to put this element in it, this idea of individual ownership of property, the unbridled right to own people, including other people, as it began. And this private property is against human collectivity. Human beings have existed socially and as a species for documented over 200,000 years. And if the greed and avariciousness and competitiveness that we know now, that defines individual relationships with one another, the kind of exploitation and the kind of brutality that human beings exact upon each other and nations, exact upon one another.
And as you know, nation-states in their legal systems have a right to kill people. They call it capital punishment, and war. They venerate people who kill people, those who kill the most other people are the people who are the heroes. So I mean, capitalism and individual private property really must be looked at seriously, because that’s just where human beings, and that’s where the detour began to take place. Now, there was some hierarchy before, old against young, against women and men, but it never reached the point that it exists now. The point it exists now is almost unimaginable. Can you imagine, some nations can wipe out every living thing on the planet with their weapons? And they got all kinds of technologies circling the planet, most of its purpose, of course, they tell you, the purpose is to facilitate communication, but most of its purpose is to seek some advantage over one another. So that they can develop this diplomatic concept that they call Mutual Assured Destruction. What an inhuman concept! I’m laughing because I’m hurt so bad by it.
Bookchin and C.L.R. took me up to a point. But they were people of their time, just like I am a person of this time. So hopefully, we can write this stuff down so other people can take a look at it and critique it and see where they don’t take it.
TFSR: So if we decenter the individual, just in terms of decision-making or deciding what’s best for the communities in which we live and the repercussions that we have to live with as individuals, I can see people who have been raised in places like the United States, we’ve been taught what democracy is to be this representational constitutional republic, whatever it is, that people would reject the term Democrat outright, because that’s what has been fed to them. Are there any visions of democracy that you can talk about that you’ve been personally influenced by that have had a different, more decentralized and human-level version?
MK: Even you can look at the most popular movements of our time, which have started off as direct democracy. And even the native people that were culturally and socially destroyed with the North American genocide, (when I say ‘we’, I don’t mean ‘me’) the American government wiped out all these democratic forms which they could have learned from. Anytime you see a picket line, when a local group, when a local society is under great pressure and in crisis, like in a storm or flood, people do what they have to do. People get sandbags, they don’t get paid for that, they line on the riverbanks with sandbags, they feed themselves, theyfeed other people that are in this pandemic. But let me give you a good example of how we don’t even know because we’ve been so brainwashed, don’t even know what’s happening for us.
For instance, Black Lives Matter. When Black Lives Matter started off, it was completely democratic. People were marching in the streets and raising their slogans and saying what they needed to say. But by the time the social workers and various people came in from the outside, as people came in, it became the Black Lives Matter. Next thing we’ve been raisingindividual people who were running for office, who were credited with founding the Black Lives Matter movement. First thing, it became the Black Lives Matter movement, because the media did that, the media named it that. And so it became. So they had to interview somebody, to interview these people who claim to be articulators of the program of the Black Lives Matter movement, but the Black Lives Matter movement was spontaneous of people from the suburbs of St. Louis. And basically, when we look at it, we’re looking at what I call a state creep. The state is taking it back over. And now people are running for office and using the Black Lives Matter environment as credentials. So they become members of the bureaucracy. But what you’re looking at is the shadow of the Black Lives movement, the aftermath, what the state has creeped up and done. Like the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement started in Montgomery. These people spontaneously began to organize themselves. Martin Luther King didn’t really know what was going on. And they organized an alternative transportation system on their own, boycotted the bus. They boycotted the buses. But that wasn’t an important thing. The important thing is a lot of those people were getting to work on time. Taxicab drivers were organizing, people who had cars organized themselves. And so they maintained a transportation system because the city continued to function despite what they call the boycott. Martin King came in, they got somebody who can speak, they always get the best speakers to articulate what the masses want. But they usually are not clear on what’s going on anyway. And even now, I don’t know if you know about a young black man who was killed in the streets of Brunswick, Georgia.
MK: Okay, let me tell you something about it because you have to look at it. When the history is written, if we don’t say anything, it is going to be the NAACP leaders, the ones who call the rally on the steps of the courthouse, and then, of course, they interview his mother. And that’s the story we get on TV. But what happened was that Ahmad was a very popular young man. And his friends went over to that suburban, almost all-white community after he was killed. After they got the story straight, because they had to go through the story to get the story straight, the officials. The official story was that he was trying to rob, there was a burglary in progress. And the police came in with these other guys helping to stop this burglar. And so after the story got out, people didn’t believe that, they were his friends. So these young people went over to the community where he was killed and started walking up and down the street and saying, “We runwith Ahmad, all of us, we run withhim“. And so they started running down the street. But there were no preachers there with no Bibles, no black leaders with no suits and ties telling them how to conduct themselves. And then when the guy who took the video saw that these kids were getting some publicity like that, he then released the video. And then when the video was released, then everybody knew them. But these kids are not gonna get any credit for any of that.
TFSR:Because they don’t have a non-profit or a pulpit.
MK: Yeah, because people don’t look for direct democratic, spontaneous people as being significant in human history. But that’s where the new society is born, and that’s why we have to write it like that. And once they see it, and once you look at it, everybody knows, yeah, that’s what happens. Because you can verify it, like in the case of Montgomery, the Montgomery Improvement Association was having regular meetings, but the black bus boycott, it already jumped off. And I saw it in Detroit, in New Orleans, when these people were trying to keep their community running. And next thing all the drug stores are flooded. So you are going to the drug store and ask the cashier to get you some Pampers, but there is no cashier in there. And the kids need Pampers, people need medicine. So they go in and get it and give it to people. But then when the media gets it — they’re looting the drug store.
So we just have to begin to look at history from a real directly democratic eye. Because that’s how it’s been happening the whole time. And you can see it even in the dark ages. If you look at European history, that gives you a good example.
Before all these philosophers, like Locke, and Hume, and Berkeley, even Rousseau started writing. That was the Dark Ages. And that was between the period of the fall of the Roman Empire, the disintegration of the Roman Empire, and the rise of these kingdoms in northern Europe and the periphery of the Roman Empire.
These are the Dark Ages because the church was not strong. There were no strong kings, these are the Dark Ages. But the people were organizing guilds, the artisans were organized, they were directly democratic forms. So when they say the Dark Ages existed, then what we got to do is shed some light on the Dark Ages. And when they say that African people were not capable of civilizing, that’s why they have classical colonialism, we have to show that these people were civilized, self-organized, but they don’t look at directly democratic organizations as being any form of civilization. And that’s why European capitalists in these states who now rule the world, or some form of their organization all over the world, this is a very dark period of civilization in human history. And I don’t know if we can survive it or not. What do you think?
TFSR: I hope so.
MK: I think we will.
TFSR: You pointed to how these directly democratic forms are coming up when people are feeling under pressure, you pointed to Katrina, you pointed to more recently during the pandemic, these examples of mutual aid and goods redistribution. I think there’s a lot of hope in there. I think the scale is lacking, and not that things have to be centralized, but if things can integrate together, if these things are happening in a bunch of different places, there are forms of communication between them, but it seems like networking and sharing resources.
MK: All the time now I’ve been zooming my ass off. I’ve been on a Zoom in Europe, people from Belgium and France, and I’ve been all over the screen and read my screen right in front of me. Young people understand it. But the point is, as long as you measure human beings by some material wealth and some private accumulation of property and federate these corporations because that’s all they are, they are just people organized to amass enormous material, wealth, and control. These things have to be dismantled along with the state. They put up these big centralized states, people have to become unmediated human beings. You can’t represent me, I can’t represent you, we have to get together and talk about what we want to do and figure out what we want to be. And we can figure it out. Human beings have always done that. Human beings wouldn’t exist for 200,000 years in some kind of without any kind of mutual aid or some kind of cooperation. And if they were selfish and individualistic, there would have been no more human species, human society. That’s why we got to this point by people understanding that despite all that… Sometimes people do it without even knowing it. If you went to Montgomery, Alabama, and asked anybody black, even a month or two before the bus boycott broke up. If you asked them, “Do you think that black people in Montgomery, Alabama can organize an alternative transportation system that can get people to work on time for a year?” “No, can’t do that? Who is going to teach us how to do that?” Well, you teach yourself, you work yourself, you work yourself through. I feel very strongly about it, I guess you can tell that.
TFSR: And you’ve done a lot of thinking and observing of that, too.
MK: Oh yeah, it’s a marvelous thing to behold. It’s like anything else, beautiful. If you know what to look at, it becomes greatly beautiful, if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you won’t be able to appreciate it. We are all learning, of course.Do you have any examples that you marvel about in your life time?
TFSR: Well, it’s hard to not have like the tinted glasses of retrospect and be like, “Well, that was weak for this reason, that reason, but definitely like the mutual aid stuff…
MK: Where are you now?
TFSR: North Carolina, Asheville.
MK: Asheville, North Carolina? And where did thatbookstore come from?
TFSR:That came from people getting together and saying, “We want this in our community.” And that’s how it gets supported, it definitely doesn’t make money.
MK: Y’all trying to make money in a massive fortune?
TFSR: It would not work. That’s probably the joke at the beginning of every presentation.
MK: You want to have a whole book chain of all these books, so you can get on your computer and count your money?
TFSR: Here, we have a couple of mutual aid projects that are distributing goods that are donated from people and doing deliveries of groceries or handing out sandwiches and coffee to houseless folks or folks who just need a little up in the morning.
MK: Who taught you to do that?
TFSR: Our program’s named after the Black Panther Party Survival Program, and they learned from someone, too.
MK: Does it make you feel good?
TFSR: Yeah, absolutely.
MK: And you know who’s not going to be there and who’s going to be there when you get ready to do it. That’s how it works.
So we’ve talked a little bit about the decision-making and the organizing aspects of what some of the things that we’ve experienced that humans are capable of in our societies. Shifting a little bit, you mentioned militarism and mutually assured destruction. Trump just dropped out of the Open Skies Treaty. And before that, he removed the US from the INF Treaty and the Iran nuclear deal. And there’s talk of sparking an arms race with Russia and there’s been saber-rattling with China. A lot of the people that are listening to this show have grown up under the war on terror, and haven’t known a time when the US hasn’t been actively engaged in a war abroad. Besides the police interventions that were going on in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, or whatever you want to call it.
MK: I grew up during the Cold War. I thought the Russians would come. We used to duck and cover under the seats in the school expecting a nuclear attack. But the only country that used nuclear weapons against the civilian, nuclear weapon against anybody is the United States government.
TFSR: And you resisted the draft, right?
MK: Yeah. That didn’t make sense. As dumb as I was, that didn’t make sense. For whatever reason, I wouldn’t go into that one. That’s the whole history of the last century. Nation-states fighting armies. Only ones that have armies are Nation States. Nation-states got armies, and they got legitimate armies. You can be a nice guy from Northern California and get drafted into the military. You can’t get drafted now into the military. And you can go into a place that you have never been before. And because you’re an American military person, you can kick down somebody’s door and shoot him in the head and get away with it. And then come back a hero. Cowardly, what you can do is just become technologically savvy and send drones over there to do it.
TFSR: And then afterwards, you carry the trauma of having done that sort of thing as a human being in a lot of cases, right?
MK: Yeah. And you do it because other people tell you to do it, you don’t even have a chance to think about it, you follow orders. I don’t mind following something that I’ve agreed with other people that we are going to do. I don’t follow somebody telling me what to do, that I never had anything to say about. And I think that’s a human, not so much an instinct, but I think human beings are wired to work in common with other human beings and to not destroy other human beings, except over something material. And we are taught that I think.
TFSR: Yeah, because we’ve been taught that, I wonder how – especially for those folks that have been living under this war on terror thing or those of us who grew up during the Cold War – how do we move away from being influenced by these leaders who… it’s obvious that Trump and the administration feel that not only have we lost the prestige of our imperial halcyon days of the Cold War, but the economy also could do for a boost, and all these other associated things with militarism, like patriarchy and white supremacy. And these things are waning in some ways, because of the threat of social justice movements, or just people being good to each other.
MK: It’s the way they mobilize everybody behind the banner of patriotism and stuff. So it’s not just a war on communism, or war on terrorism, it is the war on poverty, the war on the virus. The American policymakers know one thing, they know that to get everybody behind a policy, you got to declare war. There is a war on everything, on drugs, etc. And so what we have to do, is get out of our mindset, this jingoism when we get involved in a debate about policy. Anytime it says a war on something, what that means is that they’re trying to rally people and appeal to their nationalist fervor. You have a war on virus – what the fuck is that? So what you have to do is criticize, there is no war on viruses and we’re not all in this together either. Some people ain’t even in it, but they’ll send you to be in it. The fact is that there are people who are unevenly affected by this kind of thing.
So, what you have to do is you have to explain it to people that these are viruses, these are naturally occurring viruses that are part of the evolution or the failure of the evolution of the human body to adjust to the environment, to their immediate environment. And then you have to explain it scientifically that there is a cancer pandemic. People understand that very well. Because cancer is the human body trying to adjust or accelerate evolution in an uneven way. So, all these tumors and everything come as a result of the human body trying to adjust. And these viruses are like that. These viruses come in for several reasons, they turn down the natural support system of other life forms on the planet. They are trying to survive, their bodies have viruses, too, and what we need to do is understand how we have to live within the scope of our own context. And we have to put scientific knowledge in the service, not of developing a vaccine, and showing that a vaccine is gonna make a lot of people a lot of money, a lot of people will get famous. So that’s why over a hundred different corporations are putting money into vaccines as an investment. And explain the system to them, and how the policy arguments are not fruitful. The argument that we have to look at is how do we take control of our own local communities and help other people do that. And we have an opportunity here too, because the virus attacks community, locality. And that’s why you have outbreaks here and there, and you have to work it from that angle. But the rhetoric gets to be really emotional.
We have to have a war on this and a war on that, and then, of course, everybody’s thinking that Biden is going to save us. And Trump has betrayed us. That’s what the liberals think, and the more conservative think that Trump is trying to save us, and all you other dummies are trying to stop them from saving us. But the point is, people will have to have an enlightened discussion about the relationship between human society and the rest of the natural world. And we will have to understand that the nation-state and the corporations and individual ownership of property stands in the way of human beings realizing the scientific and ecological future. A lot of people are going to say “What the hell are you saying?” But over time, and we have to sacrifice ourselves, your children will understand, that generation will understand. But if we have nothing written down, no kind of discussions like this on tape, then they will have to reinvent the wheel, because these things will be suppressed. So we have to keep these things alive, so they won’t be suppressed. So I don’t see my role too much, I just trying to write something down so that people have something to think about in the next generation when the real pandemics come. What we have right here is nothing compared to the real pandemics, the real wars and stuff and real confusion.
Young people understand climate change, but the really important thing, all of the major real issues have nothing to do with state policy in the sense. Climate change is across borders. Borders don’t mean anything to climate change or the pandemic. And it doesn’t mean anything to these immigrants. People gonna go where they go and people gonna fight where they need to fight. And then they go organize themselves to make the fight. And we have to put a mirror in front of them. So they’ll see who they are, what they must do, and support them in doing it and not try to interpret what they’re doing in some capitalistic bourgeois bullshit way. I get tired of reading these people, you read them, and they reach, they get to the point where all the shit is wrong, obviously, they’re wrong. But you know what they end up doing? But we got to develop, we got to change the state so it can really save us, we got to make sure the corporations are accountable. That’s where they fuck up right there. We got to get beyond that point.
TFSR: They haven’t rejected the state structure or capitalism fully, but they recognize the climate crisis is real. And they recognized the patterns of disease and how capitalism facilitates its spread. I just keep thinking back to all the money that’s been poured into the airlines, and how much of an effect on the ecology there’s been since fewer flights have been going, and how cheap the planes are right now, and how it’s just trying to stay alive. But it’s literally the vector for not only massive amounts of pollution for people to make pleasure trips in a lot of cases or business trips or whatever. But it’s also the vector for so much of the disease spreading. So many of these huge places where it’s become pandemic are not that far from an international airport and then it’s complicated by racialized and class-based impacts of capitalism.
MK: I just enjoy looking at the sky and not seeing vapor trails. I don’t know whether you noticed it, but in the morning, the sun is much brighter and the grass is much greener. And seeing like nonhuman nature seems to be responding, releasing itself in a very good way. I’ve seen animals come out of the woods. I have a comrade in China, he texts me and he says, he’s from Beijing. He says the sky is blue in Beijing. I thought it was great. You got to see the sky. That has an impact. And I understand that the fish coming up into the Grand Canal in Venice now. You don’t have those big luxury liners going up in there. So you can catch a fish off the Grand Canal. People don’t see that. The earth is telling us something.
TFSR: Yeah, and we need to heed that and we need to stop this shit from coming back.
MK: It’s gonna come back, but it’s not gonna come back without being seriously challenged next time. It goes like that way. I have another little difference with my friends. They think that I’m some kind of a historical generator of spontaneous upheavals. Because they think that what we should be doing is agitating and telling the masses, they must fight and engage blah, blah. No, no, no, this isn’t the period of propagandizing, this is the period when we conceptualize stuff, and when they erupt, that’s when we should be agitating. And they say, “Spontaneity, what is that?” “That’s the NewSociety trying to emerge?” “How come they never take over?” Because they aren’t trying to take over, they just try to understand who they are, what the world can look like. And over time, it’ll become clear to everybody. Let me just draw a line right here, I have drawn a line with my mentor C.L.R. James, when he venerated certain black heads of state, he says, the states are evil and we must go beyond them. But then he turns that around and venerates the guy like Lenin, a guy like Kwame Nkruma. If you’re gonna be against the state, you gotta be against all of them, whoever they were, whoever they are. He’s circumscribed by us all the time. He can only act in a certain way. And Bookchin, he’s gonna raise the Age of Reasoning and the American Revolution. I broke with him there.
I just want you to know that I’m thankful for these guys. But we got to go further than that. If we stay where they stood… And I’m sorry that there are people who are venerating these people now without understanding what they represented in the development of certain ideas and certain political trends and stuff. You should never venerate anybody, no individual person should be… When you put out a work, or you engage in the discussion, like you and I, it’s supposed to be for critical purposes. So you can understand one another better.The axe doesn’t get sharp on his own must be sharpened by file. That’s a metaphor.
TFSR: It’s a good metaphor. I was talking to a friend the other day about having this conversation and she was asking, “What are you reading?” And I mentioned your book and she asked about social ecology. And she also asked “What’s the definition of Pan-Africanism?” and I gave like the Wikipedia definition. I wonder if you could break down what that phrase means to you and what it means to be a neo-Pan-Africanist.
MK: Pan-Africanism is a concept that arose to counteract the colonization of Africans on the continent of Africa and the segregation of African people in the new world along with some other colonies in the Caribbean and Central America, which were black. The original Pan-Africanists saw that the empowerment – that’s why I call them classical Pan-Africanists – that the empowerment of African people requires that they create state bonds, state formations, and unite them like the United States in North America so that they can be on the world stage as representatives of the will of the black masses, both in the United States, the Caribbean, and in the continent of Africa. That’s what classical Pan-Africanism is. Now, most people don’t make this distinction. My distinction is neo Pan-Africanism is for the empowerment of all African people, wherever they might be, without the state, the empowerment of African communities all over the world in unity with the rest of the people all over the world. So that’s what I call neo-Pan-Africanism. Now, most people don’t make that distinction. So if you talk to somebody, you tell them that that’s the distinction that I’m making. So they won’tthink that you haven’t thought about it as well. To be clear, classical Pan-Africanism is associated with a response to classical colonialism. Classical colonialism is the period in human history where European nation-states sent their direct administrative apparatus to administer their colonies. They lived there. Neocolonialism is the period in human history where indigenous groups of people emerge to take over control of these states and administer them like they’re doing now. The period of classical Pan-Africanism is a response to classical colonialism, the idea of neo-colonialism, neo-Pan-Africanism is a response to that.
TFSR: And is the need within the neo-Pan-Africanist push, or as you experienced it, or that delineation that you make, you said that the nation state format is an unnatural, or at least a detrimental form…
MK: Yes, it is unnatural, and it needs to be swept aside, along with these various confederations of states, like the Organization of African Unity. People see them as that. People just say, “Why don’t they act right? Why don’t they be what they’re supposed to do that?” The Organization of African Unity and various governments, they call socialist governments in Africa, like in Tanzania, sometimes, Ghana sometimes, and even Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela never was anything but really a classical Pan-Africanist and, actually, he was a more broad-based classical Pan-Africanist, because he united with the Cubans as well, and the Chinese as well. But he never was a socialist, even of the old classical socialist ilk, but he’s like Martin Luther King. You can say nothing against Martin Luther King because that’s being racist, and he’s denying black people and he was turning against your race and all that, but you got to criticize him. Even Malcolm X. These people understood liberation in the context of nationalism, black people, white people have got nation-states. And what we need to do is have nation-states of our own, and that’s how you liberate yourself. To me, that was bullshit from the beginning.
TFSR: But you do feel that it’s important that people of African descent have been able to organize together, right?
MK: Yeah. Being organized together in places where they have a commonality with other people organized with them too. I don’t see it as a separation thing, it’s like right here, down here in Midway. There’s Black people and white people. Black people can organize and then white people want to come and we can organize together on how we want to live. And as time goes on, you will see more and more of that.
TFSR: Can you talk a bit about the community that you live in and some of the history of resistance there? Your interactions with the authors ofof Dixie Be Damnedand other essays that you talk about are really impressive.
MK: Well, I live on the coast of Georgia. And during the reconstruction, during the Civil War, this was a rice plantation area. And you had rice plantations up and down the coast of Georgia and up and down the coast of South Carolina. But even before the Civil War, there was a shift in the south, where big money was invested in cotton, cotton don’t grow well down here. If you look at the Black Belt, that is a demographic area where there were large black populations before the migration to the north, you don’t find the coastal areas included except in various places. But you’ll find the use of those plantations in central Georgia, central Alabama, up and down the Mississippi on both sides and up into Western Tennessee and Eastern Arkansas. That’s where,in North Carolina, South Carolina. But when the Civil War broke out, the market and rice were already gone. So the rice plantations don’t look like the cotton plantations, the rice plantations were left alone and they workeddown here. The owners only came as traders who actually traded that it didn’t last so long during the Reconstruction. People just claimed the land for themselves. And then they didn’t give any kind of acknowledgment to white ownership. And they just claimed that, that’s why when Shermancame down, he issued Field Order #15, and he said that all of the land, from the ocean to 31 to 32 miles inland couldn’t be claimed by the emancipated slave as their own. So they did.
So as the country grew and developed, there was an erosion of that ownership of land, but people held on for a while. I was born down here. When my parents came from central Georgia… And by the way, these people voted. They couldn’t run for office in the South, because the state government didn’t allow that. But they could vote for white people.
So I had all kinds of Gullah Geechee communities and all kinds of African retentions. And all kinds of independent, autonomous institutions. So that’s who they were. The Geechee had a reputation of being a rice-eating, fish-eating, mean, recalcitrant, disagreeable person, short, black. And those are the people I grew up around. So it has a collective history.
And even the people who ran the county government really didn’t bother the black people too much. When the paper companies took over some of the lands, they just want to make sure that the people brought the wood to the sawmill like in many other places. But that tradition was a part of who I am. So I never believed that black people were not resourceful and could not govern and decide for themselves what they want to do. I never believed that. Other people believed that, I think in central Georgia, there was less of this kind of self-organizing activity. But in coastal Georgia and coastal South Carolina, there were a lot of legendary leaders who guided the people to some kind of autonomous existence. And their history is written. There’s a place called Harris Neck, Andrew went over there, he was amazed because they still live over there, even though there’s a great push from Northern, New York people primarily from Long Island to settle down here after they retire, instead of going all the way to Florida. So it’s always changing. But that’s the context. You want to come down here sometime.
TFSR: I’d love to.
MK: When this is over, you come down and take a look around.
TFSR: You also have a Social Ecology center down there, right?
MK: Yeah. We just found that about three years ago, after I retired from my teaching career. We set up, primarily myself, Andrew, one of my students, and another friend of mine, a guy who found a Geechee Cultural Center in Riceboro, which is about four miles down the road. But he passed on. So we became the convenersof the Autonomous Research Institute for Direct Democracy and Social Ecology. Now, that’s a complicated name. But we wanted to have a name that was not confusing to what we were doing. If we called it the C.L.R. James Center, that would be an amorphous venerationof some individual person and that wasn’t serious. We wanted people to know that it was autonomous, which means we have a different kind of fuels, historical development. And we want to let them know that it was an institute for direct democracy, we’re not interested in people writing about their heroes and famous baseball players or anything like that. And it is for social ecology. But we believe that direct democracy, social ecology cannot be achieved without having a direct democratic social organization. And a group of people who could see that. History shows that, the Native American people show us that. I’m writing about some Native American people, it will probably be released next fall. So I’m here working now and talking to you of course.
TFSR: That’s awesome. Are the Gullah and Ogeechee communities what one might consider to be Maroon communities?
MK: Yeah, you can consider it, but Maroonage has taken on all kinds of forms. It’s not just people running away and setting up their own… Some of those communities right on theridge in the front of plantations and interacting with some of the people. And some of the people went far distances and set up very complicated societies and stuff. So the type of Maroonage is dependent upon demography, history, the type of plantation and was the type of monocrop that was being raised, and how people fed themselves, what kind of transportation was available.
TFSR: It’s kind of attesting to the adaptability of people.
MK: Oh, yeah, they adapted. They were all overif you study Maroonage, they were in Mexico, and across the islands, the big islands, they have substantial populations in the hinterlands, like in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and, of course, in Cuba, and Jamaica. In Haiti, that was Hispanola, and after slavery was over, a lot of those people just simply took over the land in the Caribbean and grew crops to feed their families. And that’s why in places like Trinidad and Guyana, they had to import plantation labor. So the black people who were slaves developed their own autonomous communities. They grew crops on their own, no monocrops. So if you wanted a monocrop labor force, they had to go to inland and get that. That’s why he has an in the population in Guyana and Trinidad, coming out of that type of relationship with labor with capitalist mercantileagricultural laborers.
TFSR: Is the nature of the writing that you’re doing right now on indigenous populations about what might be understood as social ecology of… to put that term onto what communities were experiencing and living? What’s the topic?
MK: Well, the two examples that I’m using to do some detailed writing, the Forte Moseexperience and Spanish experience in northeastern Florida. How the Seminoles evolved from this interaction. And how the Creek Seminoles where the creeks came from autonomous, complicated, hierarchical society. Do you know anything about anthropology and archaeology in St. Louis, upper Mississippi, and middle Mississippi areas? Have you heard of Cahokia?
TFSR: Yes, Kevin Tucker writes about Cahokia. He lives right outside of it. So I’ve heard it referenced.
MK: In that connection, I’ve talked about how Cahokia ,which was a hierarchical kind of society, and peoplelook atthe big leaders in Cahokia, but I was trying to explain how Cahokia… People left Cahokia, people didn’t like it. That’s why the Creeks were fleeing Cahokia and that’s why they migrated down the Mississippi and all the way up to Northern Florida. And they went along creeks that’s why they were called Creek Indians, but I hook them in and then the African populations which fought with the Yemassee in early Charlestown, the early Charlestown settlement, and they went south to St Augustine and then to Cuba. That’s what that’s all about. Then I’ve got another section, which is a more naturalistic section, it’s got to do with the Great Dismal Swamp and the history of that geographic area. I’m looking at that one as a part of the lore, the place and why it became known as the Great Dismal Swamp, but it really wasn’t dismal. Depending on who you were, if you were running away, it was a paradise. But I think it’s coming in the right size. I remember the first book I wrote, that thing was way too big.
TFSR: I still use it as a reference, though.
MK:It had all the documents in the back. I think that’s just saving grace, the rest is shit. I lose to self-organization every once in a while. But that was where I was in the 1970s, a young man trying to put it together.
TFSR: And at least he referred to the book very clearly on the cover as the raw notebooks.
MK: It’s raw, really. Because my students, one student, in particular, he came by the house and I was rummaging through some stuff andhe said “What’s over here?” It was oneof those manuscripts. He put this together. He grabbed the thing, and took it back to the office, and started hunting and pecking, I said, “What are you doing?”, and he said, “I want to put all this together”. They organized it and put it in a book. It’s very raw. It offers no real solution. But it shows certain attempts: it shows the 6th Pan-African Congress, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and its lack of democracy. And it shows the African Liberation Support Committee. So it came from the minutes and stuff that I was keeping at the time. So it has an empirical side to it, I think
TFSR: It’s interesting to hold that up to your shorter book The Pan-African Social Ecology, because a lot of those events that are in a lot of cases you and Andrew talking about or that you referenced during speeches, to be able to dig back into this book and say, like, “Well, here’s the notes from that time, here’s a little deeper context of what was going on with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers or the 6th Congress”.
MK: I guess it has that value, but it doesn’t speak to any kind of ecology. When I started exploring questions of ecology, I was really out of the anti-nuclear movement, I just thought the nuclear shit was dangerous to the planet. But I didn’t have a real conceptual context you put it in. And I was just trying to deal with some Marxism and critique the limitations of Marxism, especially the vanguard party in need for the revolutionary people to lead the ignorant masses to victory.
TFSR: It’s so patronizing.
MK: It’s preposterous. But I think we got a nice size for people to actually read this. There are pictures in it, too. A guy from Nova Scotia was in my last zoom session. And he saw a picture of me on hillside. That was me. I owe a lot of that to Andrew [Zonevald]. Andrew edited and put this book into great context, and the introduction is of great detail. And when I mentioned something he says “Oh, man, we should have put that in there”…
TFSR: I like your working relationship. It’s really awesome. I like Andrew a lot, too.
MK: Yeah. And Andrew brings it out. He knows when I get contradictory, he says, “What does this mean in relation to what you just said?”
TFSR:That’s the beauty of conversation.
MK: When there’s an election, I do vote in the local election, and I vote for sheriffs, representatives on the county commission, but the rest of the stuff, I don’t vote for. But I know these people. And that guy who’s running for the county commission chair thing, I sat down with him, and he says that he’s gonna make sure and he made it part of… He’s been on social media and essentially, his thing is to get people involved in the decision-making of their local government, and he said that he will have some town-hall meetings where he don’t say nothing unless they call along. And he’ll organize in such a way that everybody gets their say. And he’s committed to what he calls participatory democracy, which I don’t know what that means for him. But participatory democracy is not the same as direct democracy. But if we really get it kind of close like that. And if he wins, which he stands a good chance of winning, more people understand that we’ll be able to set up a couple of forums, regular forums, where people can actually decide something about their local government.
TFSR: It seems like that critique of the stuff that was going on in Jackson for a while.
MK: You can’t just stop at participatory. You can’t have people come in and they talk and talk and they listen to you, and then they go do what they want you to, you can’t do that. Not only do people have to decide, but they also have to actually implement, that’s what direct democracy means.
TFSR: Because there has to be, some sort of accountability and recallability. Right?
MK: Yeah. There has to be a direct recall. And no hell of a lot of money involved beyond the task, if you enlist somebody to do something, you paying for that and that’s it. No lifetime appointment, no president-for-life shit. So I’m involved in that. But if the guy doesn’t win, he’ll at least raise the credit, but he got a good chance.
TFSR: That’s better than a lot of us have right now. We just got to not stop at participatory.
MK: In terms of the state legislature and state governments, I don’t vote in that kind of stuff. But people are really upstanding Trump, it is primarily a black community still in East Liberty County.
TFSR: Again, some meandering. Here Modibo shares some criticism on decision-making in vestiges of Leninism, and projects like Cooperation Jackson, and the Zapatistas.
MK: That’s all that they were doing. They were trying to push the gathering over and think it was supposed to be an anarchist gathering in Detroit or somewhere, and they were pushing, the people in Jackson have been in the vanguard of what they call this concept they introduced as organizing dual power, which means that they were kind of stuck with the Leninism. And I really think that they need to examine that. I don’t want to get associated with that. Because dual power, to me, is a statist concept in itself. When I started writing about the origin of dual power, and how it’s a statist concept, and how we got to break with Leninism. And I couldn’t explain that in an article and stuff. So I just want to hit on a road. That turned out to be about 12 or 14 pages. Andrew said, “Why don’t you put that with your critique of direct democracy and republicanism?” So I put it there. And then it turned into a chapter and like the explanation of what representative democracy is and the difference between participatory democracy and all these sham democracies? So I never did. Because if I got associated with that, and somebody was gonna write a book and reference that book, and reference somebody else in that book, and then I’d be associated with people trying to organize the democratic institutions. The point I’m making is that getting organized is shit, people don’t do that. All you have to do is shepherd the process.Frankly, I found it kind of vanguardist because I know what’s going on in Jackson, Mississippi is not a direct democracy. I know that so I’m not gonna even go there.
TFSR: I feel like in the book, at least, that’s one of the goals they point to and say they get a lot of influence from Rojava and the Zapatistas. I know that there’s a history of Leninism in the backgrounds of both of those.
MK: Well, the Zapatistas, I gotinto a tiff with Andrew on that. Andrew was sympathetic to the Zapatistas, which is a Leninist, Marxist organization stuff, plus their stated goal was to take power in Mexico, they see themselves as operating in the kinds of... And then when the Cheran people emerged, that’s what you need to be looking at, the Cheran people.
TFSR: I don’t think I know that. How do you spell that?
MK: Cheran. It’s in the book. The women who stoned the logging trucks that were taking logs from the forest.