Fox also notes that workers at the publisher, Duke University Press, are currently struggling to unionize. You can find out more about that struggle at DUPWorkersUnion.org
Oso Blanco Postcards
Revolutionary, Indigenous political prisoner, Oso Blanco, is marketing the first in a series of full-color postcards based on his paintings to fund-raise for children’s schools in Zapatista territories and Turtle Island. More at BurningBooks.com
Certain Days Calendar Call-Up
The Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar collective (CertainDays.org) will be releasing our 21st calendar this coming autumn. The 2022 theme is “Creating a New World in the Shell of the Old,”looking at collective approaches at creating a more inclusive and fulfilling world through mutual effort. Read the invitation up at their website!
The conference was titled Fitting In and Sticking Out – Queer [In]Visibilities and the Perils of Inclusion. From the panel’s description for the conference:
This panel brings together 4 local (Asheville, NC) and regional groups working at different intersections of queer community support. We will learn about the work these groups do, the particular issues that affect southern queers, the changes in visibility and inclusion for queer community, and the building of larger coalitions of liberation. Representatives from four organizations will be part of the panel:
Youth OUTright (YO) is the only nonprofit whose mission is to support LGBTQIA+ youth from ages 11-20 in western North Carolina. Learn more about their work on their website, and support them financially here.
Southerners on New Ground (SONG) is a nonprofit aimed at working towards LGBTQ liberation in the south. Find out more about their work on their website, and support them financially here.
Tranzmission Prison Project (TPP) is a prison abolition grassroots organization that provides literature and resources to incarcerated members of the LGBTQ community. Learn more about their work on their website and donate here.
Pansy Collective is a decentralized, DIY, queer, music and arts collective that created Pansy Fest, an annual queer music festival showcasing LGBTQ musicians from the south and rural areas, prioritizing reparations for QTBIPOC artists and community members, and community education and organizing around the principles of autonomy, mutual aid, antifascism, love, and liberation for all. Learn more about their work on their website, or donate here.
Phone Zap for Florida Prisoners in Mandatory Toxic Evacuation Site
Over 2,000 prisoners in Florida are trapped inside an evacuation zone less than a mile from a retention pond that is in imminent danger of failing, sending 800 million gallons of acidic radioactive waste water flooding over the local area. According to Deputies, the local jail has no plans or intentions to evacuate prisoners.
Please CALL AND SHARE NOW demanding the safe evacuation of all prisoners at the Manatee County Jail.
Scott: Okay, so welcome everyone. This is our the final event of the first day of the 2021 Queer Studies conference. So happy to see you all here, we made it through the day. This is a really special panel because we’ve invited representatives of local organizations and groups that do work in the community in the region to help queer community – and we’ll hear more about the work that they do specifically – but this is in the spirit of the conference, which is going back to its founding, conceived as a way of like having academics and organizers and activists meet to talk about queer issues. So this is special to highlight the work that queer folks are doing on the ground. So I’m gonna be moderating, my name is Scott. And I’m going to now turn it over to each of our panelists to introduce themselves, the group that they represent, and give a brief overview of the work that the group does in the community and beyond, and then we’ll get into more involved discussion from there. I can name y’all, or if someone just wants to go, go ahead. If the spirit is calling you…
Leroy: Alright, I will jump in here so that then I can sit back and listen to all the rest of you. Hello, I’m glad y’all are all here. My name is Leroy Kite, I use they/them pronouns. I’m here with Tranzmission Prison Project, we are a queer and trans powered abolitionist books -to-prisoners group that serves the entire country…with a few exceptions of states that have banned us. And we are a sister organization, a sibling organization with Asheville Prison Books, which just serves general population prisoners in North Carolina and South Carolina. For those of you that are Asheville specific, we are located out of the back of Downtown Books and News, you can drop by and see us.
And, yeah, we’ve been around for like a little over 20 years somehow? So a very long time. It’s kind of a mystery to me, how that has really sustained this long. I’ve been involved for about seven years, and there is some historical memory losses, there’s just been a lot of turnover over those two decades. Basically, we are still in the process of reconnecting with the origins of how this group began and trying to call up those long lost elders of this project so that we can kind of seam some of the pieces together of what has changed from then and now.
But that pretty much gets up to date. The arc of our work is we receive requests from prisoners around the country, across the LGBTQIA and two spirit spectrum, and mail them back books that they are asking for whether that is romance, thriller, sci-fi, erotica. You know, we try to highlight getting people materials that a lot of other organizations are either unwilling or under-equipped to send to those populations, particularly when it comes to things that regard people’s sexual and gender autonomy. That’s a area that it can be very, very hard to find free resources from organizations that are willing to send that to people. So that’s kind of one gap that we see ourselves filling that’s kind of unique. And with that, I’ll pass it off to whoever wants it. Thanks.
Adrian: I can pop in. So my name is Adrian, I use they/she and he pronouns. I’m the executive director of Youth OUTright WNC. We are a support and advocacy organization for LGBTQIA young folks between the ages of 11 and 20, which kind of led up to 24 during COVID. Thanks for dropping our link, Shawn. So our programs focus in on racial justice, gender justice, and sex and relationship education. So right now we’re running programs Tuesday through Thursday, we have chat rooms on Tuesday and Thursdays that are held on Discord. And we have a video call on Wednesdays that run 6 to 8pm. And that’s those programs are run by Brian Thompson, our youth programs manager, and they’ve been doing a great job there.
We also do some work supporting the GSA clubs across the state of North Carolina. If you’re not familiar with GSA’s, those are “Gender and Sexuality Alliances”, formerly known as “Gay Straight Alliances”, and those clubs really vary between social support and activist groups. But we support them wherever they’re at and with whatever they have self determined to be their goals, right? So if they’re focused on building community with each other, that’s awesome, we’ll talk to them about that if they’re looking at changing policy at their school, also awesome. And we’ll talk about that we try to meet them with wherever they’re at and with what their goals are.
Self determination is really important to our work. Over the past few years, we’ve been really incorporating youth leadership, all the way up through the board level. And so that’s been really important to us as we progress. We like to create professional opportunities for young people as well. We had some part time staff positions last year as educators and facilitators, there’ll be more opportunities for that later this year. And we’ve provided stipends for peer education around sex ed, or mental health, different things like that. In 2019, we held a GSA summit, we hope to do that again. We were a little shaken by the by the pandemic, as most folks were, so we’ve had to postpone that but we’re looking at a virtual version soon. Keep an eye out for that.
And beyond the direct Youth Services, the GSA work, we also do advocacy around policy. So we’ve been working with Campaign for Southern Equality around the Department of Public Instruction’s name policy within the virtual learning system. We were seeing last year that a lot of trans young people were being outed just by the virtual learning system, and so we now do have a preferred name field that will be integrated into Buncombe County and implementation is happening now.
We work with Equality North Carolina on things like non-discrimination ordinances here in Asheville and surrounding counties. And we’re also working right now to put together a storytelling campaign around the anti-trans sports bill that just hit earlier this week. So we’re working with some trans athletes at a couple different high schools to uplift their stories, and really raise awareness to that.
One last little plug I’ll make is for our racial justice and gender justice panels, which happened once a month on our Instagram Live, and that Space A Digital Place to Talk About Race, and TYME (Trans Youth Movement and Education). Those panels are led by young college and high school trans folks digging in deeper to racial and gender justice. And I’ll stop taking up space.
Monse: I’m happy to go next. Hi, everyone, my name is Monse, I use they or she pronouns, and I’m here at repping SONG, or Southerners On New Ground. We are a 28 year old LGBTQ base-building membership organization. We are definitely unapologetically abolitionists, Black and Brown, and all things queer and magic. So we have chapters all across the Southeast. We have chapters in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, in Louisiana. We currently don’t have an Asheville chapter but we have lots of Asheville members who, in the past couple of years, have been engaged in our bailout action that we have done for Mother’s Day where we have raised money to pay the bails of Black mothers and caregivers who are in jail due to bail. And this was definitely to bring awareness to the issue of money bail used as a racist, classist practice in not only Buncombe County, but all across the south, where folks are held pretrial. So before their conviction, and if they don’t have the money to pay to get out, they have to stay in jail and await their court date when people who do have access to wealth or money can wait for their court date from the comfort of their own home. So further criminalizing folks who are already targets of the state.
So SONG was founded in 1993 by three Black lesbians and three white lesbians, and was definitely founded as a way to kind of infiltrate into the queer and gay movement in the moment, and really saying that money bail, that criminalization, that all these things are people facing oppression, like, is the gay issue. So we definitely wanted to make space for folks who are Black and Brown, who are facing oppression and criminalization every day, to be able to be in these spaces and organize and bring their full selves and not having to be closeted.
So SONG is an LGBTQ feminist organization, with core Black leadership. And we believe that until all of us are free, none of us are free. So that’s why we’re really wanting to move this work. Currently, we have campaigns to end money bail, so really connecting to our direct action to bail Black mamas and caregivers out of jail, and bring more awareness to the issue to end money bail and pretrial detention.
We also have been doing research around campaigns to end the collaboration with local law enforcement and ICE – so Immigration and Customs Enforcement – because we know that police and ICE are the same beast under the prison industrial complex. But we do a lot of training, a lot of just skilling-up and building community across the South because we know that the South is where all the shit goes down, and where all our people are. Where we have roots, where we have community, and we want to be able to grow and build and organize in the South. So that’s a little bit about SONG. And hopefully, you’ll get to hear more about the work that we do. But thank you all so much for having us.
Beck: Thanks Monse. I’m Beck, I used they/them pronouns and I’m here as the representative of Pansy Collective. And so Pansy Collective is a DIY decentralized queer LGBTQIA arts and music collective. Our biggest thing that we do is Pansy Fest, and it kind of started out as like, a queer visibility type of thing. Like the punk scene in the South and in neighboring regions around Asheville has been pretty bro heavy, pretty homophobic, racist, and we’re trying to make space that was an anti-racist, anti-homophobic space in the punk community. And then from that, it kind of started to build into more like Southern and rural coalition building and then specifically around moving from like, visibility to BIPOC reparations. So the first fest we actually worked with SONG’s Black Mama Bailout, and that was like the first beneficiary we had, and TPP was another one! But it’s like, it’s so cool that we’re all here right now.
But yeah, it was kind of a way to engage like queer folks into to put a public space that wasn’t some liberal kind of, I don’t know, upitty Asheville…you know? [laughs] People who are living here, you know. But yeah, so it was it was cool to like, create a space where we felt okay around each other, where we can have hard conversations. And also like, where we could bring some of the anarchist principles and things like that, in kind of a more tangible way into the punk scene. It’s like, “Okay, we’ve got all these lyrics that are like, ‘fuck this, like, hate cops’”, follow that. But also, do you know about prison books? Do you want to sign up? You know about Black Mama Bailout? So you know, having people tabeling there at all of our shows and events was really big. Making sure we have Narcan, you know, bringing in harm reduction into the scene…just kind of trying to, like, the spaces that we have idealistically in our head as like “a queer scene”, just trying to make it happen to the best of our ability.
And so we’ve been around since 2016? 2017! And it was such a bummer last year: we were like getting ready for a really cool event with HOT BITS. It was going to be like a really cool coalition building, with sex workers rights, and having a really cool, I don’t know, sex positive space, which was like something new for Pansy. And it kind of went all down because of COVID, of course. But we’re still meeting together! We’re still organizing, we, you know, try to coalition build where we can. It’s not looking like events around music and art right now. It’s more like, “Okay, let’s do a noise demo at the jail with Charlotte Uprising.” How can we be outside and distance and really do the work that we believe in, which is like mutual aid, it’s love, it’s like anti-prison, you know, it’s not queer assimilationist, right? So it hasn’t been so much “festy”, like punk stuff going on, but we’re still here doing it. And yeah, super stoked to be here. Thanks for having us.
Scott: Thanks, everyone, for introducing yourselves and the groups and giving an overview. It’s really interesting too, to see where these local regional groups have intersected and work together. My first question beyond the introduction is specifically linking to Asheville, Western North Carolina, a larger region, the South, what do you think Southern queers need? And how does your work try to meet those needs? And you can, you know, get as specific to our town as you want, or think more regionally.
Beck: I’ll go ahead. I think one of the things pre-pandemic, when events were happening, was just having a queer focused event that you didn’t have to pay for. That it was like, sliding scale and all of the money, it wasn’t, you know, going to this model of building up, it was just going to go into the hands of folks who need it. The fact that you didn’t have to show up and pay. I feel like everything else in this area in those spaces, too, it’s like “pay to play” situation. And it’s not really inviting, you know, from a class perspective, but also just like…those spaces aren’t necessarily where, like, I want to be anyways, right? Like I want to be in a space where it doesn’t matter how I’m dressed, how I look, if I can afford it. So just creating those spaces, I think.
And something that I just think of, like, resources and education and coalition building is something…there’s like, there’s a lot going on in the South, trying to make it happen, but it’s much more of an uphill battle, I think, compared to West Coast, East Coast, right? And so, you know, tabling events and stuff like that, but also like teachings, where we learn how to do jail support, or, you know, like fun stuff too! Like, do you wanna learn how to screenprint? Just having this open space, you don’t have to pay to get in. And you don’t have to know everybody, you can just come in, and people are gonna be like, “Hey, what’s up? Welcome to the teach-in.” And you’re like, already welcome at the door. And a place where people can share ideas, and it’s not coming from this hierarchical like, “I’m going to educate everybody in this space.” It’s “everybody has something they can bring to it.” So I think that’s one part that Pansy Collective comes from, for sure.
Scott: Adrian, that made me think, like, what Beck was saying about kind of the educational aspect and like, maybe that fits in the mission of Youth OUTright, connecting to young people?
Adrian: Yeah, a couple of things were coming up for me when Beck was sharing. The first thing that came up for me around education and teach-ins’s is: I feel like young people really need us adults to step up and educate ourselves. Frankly. You know, I think that our young people are often in the position either at school or with their families, where they have to educate adults around them about sex and gender, or racial justice, or any number of social movements that are happening in our intersectional community, right? And so something that breaks my heart, but also makes me really proud is watching these young people really articulately say what they need to say, to these adults, right? It’s impressive, it’s great. And also, come on adults, what are we doing? And so you know, where that brings in Youth OUTright is we’re in the process of developing relationships with Buncombe County schools to provide training to all of their counselors and social workers, right? From the adults, providing them training about how to support young people, and we may compensate young people to record their experiences or, you know, provide some amount of input in there. But we don’t want them to have to expend that emotional labor and potentially re-traumatize themselves in entering a space where they have to teach their teacher, right?
And so I think that there’s a big need for adult allies to step up into this place of peer educator for, you know, the people in their community and having these conversations. Of the folks who do want to engage in those conversations, we’re hosting every third Monday, a space called Continuum, which is an intergenerational conversation for supporting specifically gender and sexual minority young people. And so that’s a space where people can engage in conversation with the community there. But you know, we obviously have a little bit more of a focus on young people, right?
So part of our work last summer, we did a direct action training at Carrier Park. And so we brought together a small cohort of young people. And we were socially distanced and talked about what power mapping looks like, talked about some of the changes they want to see in the community, and they identified the Trans Panic Defense, right? They said “the Trans Panic Defense is something that we think is abhorrent and needs to go away”. And that’s super valid. They also picked a hard one. But you know, I think that having spaces like that, centering the young people’s vision, is really what they’re asking for. And again, I’ll go back to self determination, right? And I think that when we allow young people to set the waypoint, we realize that a lot more as possible, right? As adults, I think we get a little bit salty, we get a little bit jaded and cynical, “we’ll never get there”, right? So I think young people need us to tap into that imagination, and tap into that vision and support that, right? As well as stepping up to educate ourselves and understand that like, I’m still learning new pronouns, y’all! Like I’m still…there’s a lot going on, and culture is always changing. So I think they need humility from us, right? They need us to recognize that, to disrupt that adultism in ourselves, right? There’s always this dominant cultural belief that adults know what’s best for young people. They might know what’s best for us! Let’s look at our planet and what the young environmental activists are saying, right? There’s so many ways to look at this and where young people really have the answers. So I think we need to take a seat and listen, and then start making some moves from there.
Scott: Thinking of like, you know, identify problems that they want to attack made me think also about the kind of particular terrain that we have in the South. Given the kind of like, Republican legislative power and the way that they can kind of steamroll anti-trans, anti-gay policies, and I don’t know if maybe that’s something that Monse, you could talk about, in terms of the work that SONG is doing? Because it’s like SONG is as a Southern thing and there’s like, simultaneously kind of invisiblization of queerness in the South, but also this huge social war being waged by the state against queer people in the South. So yeah, that was a way to start to throw it to you. If you have some ideas.
Monse: For sure, I can definitely speak on that a little bit. Yeah, and I would say, like, the South is a region of both great despair and historical trauma, but also great organized resistance and resilience and magic. Like, we really organized in this region because we want to build up. And because we are a part of a long legacy of organizers and cultural workers, freedom fighters who have been committed to the South, and this is a place where folks live, where folks build their lives, where they love, where they organize, and continue to build their families, regardless of all the things and history that has. And I really would want to highlight that resistance piece, because there has been so much resistance that has happened in the South. And I think that’s the beauty of it. I think that folks, we’re naming, like, we organize in the South, and we have that kind of like a southern hospitality where we can find our people, where we can create the potlucks and invite folks in and like, making sure that our neighbors have what they need, that our community is good. And we are doing mutual aid, and we are doing those things. And there’s also like all those things against us, too.
But I think that organizing in the South, to me, is about kind of like that resilience that you’re like, “I’m not leaving this place, because this is where my legacy is, my history is.” And a lot of the times that negative and racist rhetoric is highlighted in the South, but I think, like, right alongside with it is where we grow, like where we are making everything out of nothing. And we are doing that pushback, and we are seeing some wins. And I think we have been able to see some wins, like even specifically throughout this year. Like folks organizing and doing the uprisings. Like we saw so many wins from that, like, where folks, like we are literally, everyone was talking about “what does it mean to defund the police? Like, what does it mean to believe in a world where we don’t have policing, where we don’t have jails and prisons?” And I think that that is because of years and years worth of organizing. It didn’t happen just out of nothing, and like folks rioted and stood up for what they believed in, just like, overnight. I think it has been years of oppression and resilience that ignited folks to continue that conversation. I think that the work is not by any means done yet. But definitely we’re making, we’re seeing the fruits of those commitments and those sacrifices happen. I think it’s up to us here in the South to continue to say like, “Fuck that” – [smiles] I’m gunna cuss on here – but like, “Fuck that, like, we’re gonna keep fighting and we’re gonna keep doing what our ancestors wanted us to do and what rightfully we have to do”.
So yeah, and I think in Asheville there are so many nonprofits, and like so many folks already organizing, and there is a great need for folks to organize. And we definitely saw that even locally in Asheville, when, like, we need to hold local and county government accountable. Like we saw that in the summer, we saw demands of Black and Brown organizers being ignored. We saw that there is a big need, like, we can’t, in Asheville at least, we can’t hide behind liberal organizing and expect things to to move. I think that we have to continue to push and continue to make space for Black and Brown organizers and for demands to to move, so that we can organize and build the world we want to live in, even here, on a local level. And I think that what SONG has to offer, at least here in Asheville, is like training, skill-up opportunities. Like, this 28 year old legacy of folks who have been fighting and organizing in the South because the South is their home, and definitely connection to those folks all across the south, and years of like trans and queer abolitionist organizing. So that’s what I have to say,
Scott: Thanks. And then, you know, building on that idea of like, how the queer communities in the South can get invisiblized in the racist and bigoted ideas of the South, I was gonna use that to sort of transition to the work that you’re doing Leroy with Tranzmission Prison Project, because also a community that gets invisiblized, is the people who are incarcerated, and specifically people like trans and queer people who are incarcerated. And I don’t know if you have something to say about that in terms of like, the way that you’re working with them to get their voices out or get their needs met. Because that’s also a site of like, tremendous resistance, building off what Monse was saying.
Leroy: Yeah, I think that there’s both so much potential here, and in full transparency, so much room for TPP to continue growing in ways that move beyond where the reality of, you know, most of our work to date has, even as an abolitionist group, typically shown up as service provision. Where we’re not as involved on the policy end of things, or able to keep up with all of the specifics of what is happening in this state in the South that specifically targeting these queer and trans prisoners. We, you know, have occasionally popped in to, like, offer a statement here or there about things that have happened on the federal level. Like in 2018 there was this change to the Transgender Offender Manual from the Bureau of Prisons, that really fucked over, altered, the safety of trans folks in prison across the country.
But as far as specific to the South, I personally don’t feel like I am informed enough to be able to say where, you know, we have as a project not yet had the capacity to orient towards how can we show up more and do more coalition building and outreach beyond our little silo of what this project has been maintaining over the years. But I think that that’s the real growth edge for us right now. And where the conversation has really been building over the last several years as we’ve gone from, basically like myself, and like one other person, when I first joined this organization, we sort of went through a period of so much burnout, and turnover seven years ago that the last seven years have been really just building back up our own base and trying to just keep up with the mail. We have, like, 100 to 150 pieces of mail on average that we get a month.
And so we’ve sort of been stretching to make space to have conversations within our group that are more than just “how do we sustain our own morale in this work?” And how do we actually network with some of these bigger, juicy or more challenging questions of “what does it mean to be abolitionists doing books to prisoners work”, and I think that networking with other folks in the south like SONG, like Pansy Collective, like Youth OUTright, is really where the work is headed for us. So that we can kind of use the best of what everyone else is already tapped into, on sometimes more of the policy end of things, sometimes more the grassroots end of things, but just where people have their ear to the ground in places that we don’t always.
I will say, as I kind of alluded to, I think in my first answer – and maybe this is foreshadowing for like another question that I don’t know, it still coming up – about like challenges of working in the South. But I think that the irony is that for longer than I have been involved with this project, North Carolina specifically has been one of the states that has banned us, Tranzmission Prison Project specifically, from sending mail in. And we have – for the cop who may be sitting in this room right now, this is the time where I’m gonna say “Fuck you, and you can leave this call” – but, you know, we we have done what we’ve needed to do to get folks books that they’ve requested. Like, we still get requests all the time from prisoners in North Carolina, and we’ve basically just found some ways to fly a little lower on the radar when mailing those books back to people. But things like we can’t use our letterhead, we don’t use our mailing address when we return those. And so there’s room for us to potentially challenge that.
I mean, in the last seven years, again, as a group we have not had the capacity to necessarily even investigate, like, is this really still a thing? Like, could we run a campaign to get this overturned? And so that’s where having a real upsurge of interest in prison abolition in the last year has been starting to put some more wheels under what feels possible for us, in terms of maybe doing some bigger work, then has really just been on the table for us. Just trying to like keep up with the need that has been there, you know, not not to fall into like, capitalist supply demand lingo, but I mean the reality is like, the prison system is a part of capitalism and we are often in our own constraints that are placed upon us by it by the nature of the prison industrial complex.
So there’s this real tension between like, “how do we ensure that our baseline commitment to just getting people the books that they are asking for is being met”, while also being like “is that in and of itself, abolitionist”. We really situate what we’re doing as centering people’s humanity, and really just restoring that sense of dignity and autonomy to people, that having information is something that we believe everyone should have. Having access to pleasure is something that everyone should have a way to expand their own minds beyond, you know, what’s often a cell smaller than a lot of people’s bathrooms. How do we, again, just connect the dots of the bigger constellation of “how do we keep these prisons from becoming kinder and friendlier to trans people” – whether that’s in the South or around the whole rest of the country – towards “how do we really shrink the system into nonexistence”?
Scott: Yeah, so jumping off of the obstacle point, that was a question that I had prepared. And I’m thinking also of just specifying a little bit because it’s come up – and this is the place we’re in, like, you know, post or not post pandemic, but in the middle of the pandemic – the pandemic hit, right, and like changed the terrain for organizing for everyone. So that, obviously, is an obstacle. I’d be interested to hear how a little more about how have you dealt with that. And also, potentially, on the plus side, the way the uprisings, rebellions last year affected the kind of energy and work that you’re doing, because that’s also something you’ve all been mentioning, in terms of the hearing more about abolition. So obstacles and but also like the recent sort of things that have occurred that have changed the nature of organizing.
Monse: I’m happy to kick it off. I think that yeah, definitely, what has been shared is definitely what we’ve been experiencing too, within SONG. I think even the election was a huge obstacle. I think that that brought up so, so many conversations, but also like, we were able to run a Free the Vote program within SONG in particular parts of the South, where we were doing voter registration and in the jails, for folks who are incarcerated, trying to get absentee ballots. And then we also face that same like, trying to mail stuff in trying to get to talk to people, it was those same things. So I definitely resonate with that, like trying to navigate and even just reach our people who are inside, making sure that they know that we’re out here and just trying to communicate with them has been a barrier put up by the state. And I think it’s very intentional, you know, they don’t want us to talk to them, they don’t want them to talk to us. So I would say I definitely resonated with that.
And I think even, yeah COVID in itself changed so many of the conditions which our folks were living in, and organizing in too. And we as SONG were definitely trying to figure out like, “is this the moment like to free them all? Like, are we trying to push for that, like, get everyone out of jail?” Like, of course they’re not following the CDC guidelines. Of course, they don’t care about the people who are in there. And really trying to see like, what ways that we could turn up on the state, and also keep our people safe from from COVID. We definitely started to do car caravan actions, like honk-ins at the jails all across the South, making sure like, hey, like we haven’t forgotten about y’all out here. And trying to do that. Folks in Atlanta and the Atlanta chapter were definitely turning up and putting pressure so folks could be released. Like, if they didn’t have to be there – of course, nobody has to be there – but like, if they were their pretrial, that they should be free.
So definitely trying to push on the campaign’s that we were already moving, in relationships to like, we need everyone out of that jail because it’s just COVID in there. So yeah, I think that even our tactics of organizing changed so much, and finding our people, and being able to do direct actions…we were thinking, a lot of like, “what does it mean to continue to turn up on the state and keep our people safe from getting sick?” Because we know that historically, our people don’t have access to health care, like our people don’t trust the health care systems, at all, and in fact, have been victims of violence by the healthcare system. So all the things, all the things. And I think, even just locally, some obstacles that have been coming up is also the fast-paced gentrification here in Asheville. Black and Brown folks, especially queer trans folks, are being pushed out of Asheville, so, so quickly, so so rapidly. And I think that that’s also something that my brain goes to is like, how are we like turning up against all these developers who are trying to take our towns, trying to take our people’s homes? And how are we creating space for folks to continue to live here, and work here and organize here in Asheville? It’s something that I would love to get into with any of y’all. But yeah, some of the obstacles.
Adrian: Thanks for sharing all of that Monse, a lot of that really resonates. And I think that, you know, with what’s coming up for me and the young folks that I work with, is I think that we’ve really shifted into more of a survival mode, right? You know, sex ed, and sexual violence prevention work was really integral to our programs before the pandemic, like every single meeting we’d talk about consent. Once we hit quarantine the kids were like, “We just need to hang out with each other, like, we need a little bit less educational stuff.” And we stepped back a little bit because they didn’t have the capacity to keep learning and keep learning. And they were also doing virtual school, right? I think the capacity for everybody, not just young people, just really got lowered.
And, you know, I have been fielding a lot more crisis calls over the past year. We have young people who are stuck at home in transphobic families, right, abusive families. And so, you know, we move from potentially thinking about targeting a trans inclusive policy at school to, oh, I might get kicked out of my home, right? And so I think that’s one of the challenges for us, is that while we try to build power within the youth community, so many of our young folks are just dealing with a different level of marginalization, by the pandemic, right?
One thing I’d point to is our GSA clubs, right? Like we before the pandemic, there were upwards of 35 clubs across North Carolina. Now we’re under 25. And a lot of those 25 are folks who have registered, but like, their club isn’t really meeting right now, or maybe they don’t have the tools to meet digitally, or, you know, they’re running their meeting but they’re only getting 5 of the 20 and 30 people that used to be coming to their meeting, right? So there’s this really big challenge in reconnecting with all of our young folks that have been a part of this network, and making sure they’re alright.
We launched a mutual aid fund over the past year, to support young folks 24 and under who were economically impacted by the pandemic, and we’ve distributed about $14,000 now, mostly to young folks who are housing insecure, and a good number of them are already homeless. And so, you know, in my conversations with the McKinney Vento liaisons who work within the Buncombe County school district and support the homeless youth there, they told me that they expected to see the homeless youth population balloon, maybe even double, over the course of the pandemic due to just the economic impacts, right. And the family impacts again, putting, you know, trans people back at home in spaces that aren’t safe for them.
So, all of those things are hard, but I do want to add a silver lining that has come out of some of these pivots. You know, we moved to digital programming pretty much within a week, right? It was pretty quick. But what was really awesome about it was a lot of our young people took a lot of initiative, right? They’re like, “Oh, discord, yeah, I can make a server, I can make you a robot. I can make you all these things.” And It was incredible and inspiring to see these young people step up to the plate…wow, a sports metaphor, how butch? Okay, that was weird. That doesn’t happen a lot. So, you know, these young people really stepped up to support each other and advocate for themselves, right? That’s been really incredible. And the other thing that comes from that, in the beginning of the pandemic our groups were smaller, but they were rural people, they were POC folks, and so we were actually getting to these young people who really need our services a little bit more. Not to say that young folks don’t need our services – we’re here for them as well – but there tend to be more GSAs within Buncombe County, there tend to be more supportive adults within Buncombe County. And so to see young people from Candler, Lake Lure, Cherokee, these other places, checking into our call, that’s a huge impact for me and for I think the folks in the community.
I think that moving out of the pandemic, as we slowly start to, we’re going to be keeping a lot of these digital organizing strategies that we’ve developed, and need to find this balance between, “okay, we’ve created access to our world programs, and there’s this thing that’s lacking from our in person programs that we need to bring back”. But I tell you, I’m not going to remove all the digital programs, because I’m like having those rural kids around.
Leroy: I can jump back in. Yeah, I’m really feeling the themes of COVID challenges plus, like weird COVID boons that no one necessarily saw coming. Yeah, at the very start of the pandemic, we definitely went into rapid response mode in a way that like, isn’t very typical for us. And again, wasn’t necessarily sustainable for us, but I think, as Monse already touched on – everyone’s familiar with this, I think, on the global level, but for those of us, especially with our finger on the pulse of what life inside of prisons is like, it was just like watching the storm rolling in times 1000 – it was just like the contagion of this is going to kill so many people so rapidly. And there was also this potential, like no one had really ever seen before, for these mass releases.
And so again, even though that’s not something that we, as a group, necessarily had a lot of power to help push for – I mean, I think individuals within our group are kind of like tapped into other campaigns outside of the work of TPP – but what we did do was reformatted a pamphlet that was a collaboration between Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross and Asheville Prison Books, which was basically just an informational two to four pager about what is COVID, and how can you keep yourself safe? And obviously, there were ways we were like ”We don’t know if people are going to be able to apply this.” I mean, obviously, there’s no PPE, there certainly was no PPE inside of prisons at the beginning of the pandemic, we were worried if people were even going to have soap. Hand sanitizer was like, not allowed for a lot of folks because of alcohol. But we were like, “We don’t even know what people are being told at this point, so it seems like the least we could do to just share what we were hearing, as we were hearing it on the outside, with those that we love on the inside,” to just say like, “this is what we know so far about this virus. And this is what we are hearing about what you can do to keep yourself safe as much as possible. And we realized that a lot of this may not be possible for y’all.”
The flip side of what those pamphlets offered was a sliver of hope, for those that were able to receive them, about some of what was happening in terms of folks being released in the South, actually, as well as around the country. And while that did not happen, I think as much as a lot of us in the abolition movement hoped that it could have gone further, there were also some prison breaks. And they were also just stories of people freeing themselves from the cages that they were in. And so there were some little blurbs about that. We also had some of those pamphlets bounce back, and we assumed that that was for that reason. There was like one or two that came back to us that something on the return to sender said something along the lines of like “this is a threat to our security and that’s why this wasn’t let in.” And so you know, it’s not really surprising because we know that knowledge is a threat and prisons don’t want prisoners to even think about the fact that they might one day have the power to liberate themselves, let alone be granted clemency. So, you know, the vast majority of them we think reached the folks that we intended them to get.
But we also weren’t sure for a while when we were going to have access to our office because as the original shutdowns were going on – like I said, we’re out of the back of Downtown Books and News – we lost access to our space for the first like, three, four months that things were going on. So part of those pamphlets, too, was this very kind of frightening disclosure that we were like, “Hey, we don’t know when we are going to be able to send you books, because there’s just a freeze on our ability to maintain this right now, but we want you to know that you are in our hearts and we are thinking of you.” And even just being able to send that little bit of personal love to folks, that in and of itself, I think, was where we were able to put our hearts forward at the start of this pandemic and let people know, like Monse, you were saying, again, like, “you are not forgotten even in this, and we’ll be back with you as soon as we can be”. And so yeah, it took some time for everybody to kind of get their feet back under them again, but by the summer last year we were starting to socially distance gather ourselves in the park to just like, reorganize our core group.
And then as we started to launch our packaging parties back up, which is how we kind of make room for more community engagement than just our regular core folks who come and pick out the books – in the pre-pandemic times used to do this out of Firestorm Books and Coffee, where we would take the books that were ready to be wrapped up and we would just do like a big almost holiday style wrapping where we just brown paper bag everything and address stuff and tape it up, and then it’s ready to go to the post office – we started to do that outside, also in Carrier Park, so that we could continue to do the work. And really, I think this is where this work gets really intersectional. I think that with everything that happened, with the uprisings of the summer and abolition starting to be talked about more and more, we started to see more people show up at those outdoor packaging parties than we had ever seen before. And we have been continuing to get new interests through our Instagram, through our email inbox. And yeah, I think that that’s where the last year has presented some really unusual, but exciting opportunities for where we’re now positioned, just with more folks plugging in all the time than we previously had. So that’s the upside of things. Beck, you want to get in on this?
Beck: Sure. Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty quick and easy. COVID really threw a wrench in like everything we do. [starts laughing] We created physical spaces for queer community to come together and learn in sheer joy and you know, art, music. So, yeah, we really were at a loss for how to adapt, and none of us were in a place where we were like, willing to switch to digital. So we’re like, “Okay, what can we do right now”, we had applied for a mini grant from the Trans Justice Project. And we got it! And we’re like,” oh, dope, but there’s not a fest going on. So what are we going to do?” And so we decided to do a kind of like reparations drive project, community reach, outreach type thing, where we used all those funds from that grant, to BIPOC artists who are now like, without work. So focusing on Black and Indigenous queer and trans artists, and making sure they’re getting their needs, uplifting the work that they’re doing, you know, from a distance, and also just like, literally just fundraising for them and having our own reparations pool every month. So that kind of shifted that way.
I think a lot of it though, like Pansy Collective as individuals, was just like showing up in the summer, showing up in the street, showing up for aftercare type stuff, showing up where we could, as individuals, for our friends in our community. And so yeah, I think, you know, as things start kind of shifting and maybe outdoor meetups and stuff is possible, it’ll kind of start to go back to what Pansy is used to doing. But really, it’s just been, I mean, as a collective, just kind of being there for each other, and for the folks in town, showing up just as people has been the work, just giving love in a really isolated time.
Scott: Thanks everyone for going into that. I want to ask maybe a final question that would have two parts and then leave room for anyone here who wants to directly ask you individually or collectively questions, but so I’m going to put a couple of things together and hopefully this will work. So on the one hand we see queerness kind of getting more visibility and inclusion and representation, and I’m wondering – because all the work that y’all are doing is still on the terrain that is disruptive for, you know, systems of power, state control – so I’m sort of just interested in what you think queerness still holds that’s disruptive or liberatory, and then kind of putting that into like, what sort of coalitional projects you envision your groups doing in the future?
Adrian: Right now the one sentence that’s coming to my head is like “pink capitalism sucks” right? And I don’t have a whole lot more beyond that right now, in this moment. No, I think that, you know, the sort of acceptability politics that’s happening in like the big LGB sometimes T circles is rather sex negative. So I think there’s growth we could do there together in coalition building. You know, I think that this is probably because of the particular lens that I approach this work, but I see a lot of ageism and adultism generationally, right? I see a lot of skepticism from my elders on the vision that my young folks have, and sometimes I look to my elders to say, like, “Look, I don’t quite see how all the dots connect, but can you help me connect the dots for these young people?” And I need that support from our trancestors. And so I think that’s part of the coalition building that can happen. You know, I think that also we see a lot of white LGBTQ representation, right? So I think there’s a lot of work that we can do around, you know, centering BIPOC experience and what they need, right? So I would really love to see more inter-generational coalition’s between the different LGBT and racial justice serving organizations, I think that could be really, really fruitful. And I’m just kind of curious what other folks are thinking to?
Monse: Yeah, I think you hit it spot on for me Adrian. And yeah, I think that there are a lot of visible spaces and like, spaces made for queer and trans folks here in Asheville at least, but they’re mostly white spaces. And I think that just making spaces for Black and Brown folks to lead the work, for Black and Brown folks to just even come together and organize is necessary. And I would love to collaborate with folks, and just like creating those spaces, like finding the folks that are looking for the spaces and being able to support and find joy to bring our beautiful queer selves and organize together. So I think that that’s where we have a lot of room to grow, where I could see SONG collaborating with folks.
And I think even just like, also language, I’m very passionate about language justice, and that we need to be organizing not only in English because queer and trans folks aren’t only white, don’t only speak English. And I think that these identities can be very intersectional and like, folks are trying to do all the things. And yeah, so I think creating more spaces that are language accessible, that are culturally accessible, and that folks want to come to, because I think that there are so many white, queer, trans spaces in Asheville that a lot of times my folks don’t want to be in, that I don’t want to be in. And I think that there’s a lot of room to grow and a lot of space for collaboration, where we can make these spaces together.
Beck: I’ll go ahead. Yeah, thank you Monse, Adrian. I think all of y’alls responses…what I’m thinking of, how Asheville in particular, and a lot of liberal Southern cities, loves to show it’s pride in like, “we just hired a lesbian cop! Look at this girl boss who just joined the local government!”. When we look at our roots, when we look at queer oppression as a timeline, we have all of the same evils, all of the same oppressive entities are still the same, and no matter how pink or queer, whatever we make them appear, they’re still creating the same evils and the same oppressions.
There was a TikTok of a local lesbian police officer that got really big, and I was just like, “I know her. I’ve seen you arrest some queer folks before. And your TikTok famous, cute.” So yeah, just when we really look at all of these intersections, we can’t be pro gay cops, while gay cops are arresting Black queer people, Brown queer people, are incarcerating and deporting Brown queer people, Black people, Indigenous queer people, all of these evils are still there. If we put queer in front of it, it does not change that. And that’s the same for pink capitalism, like you talked about Adrian. Like, sure, I can go to Target in July and expect to find some rainbow t-shirts, right? But they’re still made in fucking sweatshops. Just because we put a coat of pink on it doesn’t change the system of oppression and the same status quo that we’re really trying to fight against.
And when we think of like, STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolution, and like that awesome organizing that was happening, it was focusing on people who were incarcerated, was focusing on trans Black and Brown people, it was led by trans Black and Brown people, like that is what, to me, that is where revolution is heading and has always been from. It’s not going to be from the lesbian white cop on TikTok who Asheville loves and had a meet and greet with a rainbow flag behind her, you know? Like, no, that’s not going to be it.
And thinking of, yeah, like Monse, you talked about earlier, there’s a gentrification that’s rapidly pushing Black and Brown folks out of Asheville. Like, that’s another thread that I don’t see a lot of queer organizing, like, really looking at, is that class piece, that racism and class piece, right? Yeah, like there’s a Save Charlotte Street going on in town – which is like important, right? This is a whole community – but it’s white folks that are affluent. And there’s a lot of build up and organizing around that, and like, what about all the Brown folks that were pushed out? What about all the Black folks that were pushed out during the 90’s?
So starting to bring all of that in together and look at that same root that is there, instead of just trying to, like, paint it pink and call it cute. Yeah, that’s the direction I would love for us to be heading in.
Leroy: [sighs exasperatedly] Yeah, “paint it pink and call it cute”, there is slogan to be dissected. Yeah, I feel like that was kind of where my brain was going as far as “where’s the liberatory potential of queerness still?” Is that actually still a thing, or is social capital and social hierarchy kind of just subverting this work into something really superficial? And where I see popularity as the potential thing that’s like drawing people into this, and social cred, more than what this work is actually about? I think that’s something that has been a really disturbing trend to try and assess.
Where it’s like, we have a very trendy logo, some might say, that was designed for us in the last few years, and to see our social media suddenly popping off has been really exciting. And it’s like, at the same time that we want people to come towards us and enter into this work, in the time that I have been involved with TPP, this has been primarily white led organization, and it has primarily been white folks involved. We have not had a lot of people of color come to us and say that they want to be involved in our work. And that isn’t to say, none, but I think that there are uncomfortable questions that I’m okay with being uncomfortable about that, for me, when I think about these things, I’m like, I just continue to sit with more questions than I have answers for. What does it mean for us to just continue to listen to other folks in the community, to continue to show up for other POC and Black led organizations in Asheville, so that we’re not just perpetuating part of the problem?
I’ve sat with this question of “if at some point this work needed to completely dissolve in order for something new to take form that was not the folks who have been leading this project for the time that I’ve been here to occur”…I think that’s part of what change is. It’s like death and rebirth and not being so attached to what we have carved out, what we have created, that we can’t still be humble and know that we, again, don’t have all the answers. So I’m excited for where we continue to get to connect, as you know, these four groups that are in this panel.
I’ll say as far as networking goes, TPP actually just got an email from Georgia chapter of SONG like last night about them wanting to start some books to prisoners work for LGBTQ folks in Georgia. And so we basically just send them like everything that we know about how to do this work, cause that was what they were asking us. And we are really like, “Yes, please. There need to be more groups that are specifically serving LGBTQIA folks that are incarcerated”. Because, again, whether it’s in the South or anywhere in the country that remains one of the most marginalized groups in prison, and we know that so many of those folks are Black and Brown and Indigenous.
And yeah, I think that more and more youth are starting to come to us. We have our first ever high school intern right now and she’s getting ready to plug us to the Racial Justice Coalition at her high school. So I feel like a lot of what’s being names as far as intersectionality in this conversation is really like coming to the surface. And it’s an exciting time for, you know what’s possible right now.
But there is a lot of cooptation at the same time. And so yeah, I really hesitate to say with great confidence like…yeah, there is some, I don’t know…the language might have to change. And I think that that’s actually the place where I want to insert this quote that I pulled from – for the old heads who still know who Critical Resistance is – this anthology Abolition Now from 2008, which at the time was the 10 year anniversary of Critical Resistance, a national abolitionist organizing group. I mean, at this point, it’s been more than 10 years since this book came out, but this is a quote from Alexander Lee, the founder and director of the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project, or TGI Justice Project, of California. Alexander Lee says:
“As we go forward, we should expect to be forced to discard language that limits this movements to prison and the prison industrial complex, in favor of descriptors that foster prickly coalitions with others who don’t see themselves as anti-prison, but who do believe in the sacred nature of human dignity, however imperfectly expressed in practice. The prison abolition movement must expand its arms to envelop the same people who fight for housing but demonized prisoners, who protest war but love to watch CSI, people who marched for civil rights but yell trans slur at trans women, and queers who demand the death penalty when yet another one of us is murdered. We should move into these other sectors and act as the lodestar, pulling everyone towards the ultimate goal of building a world where liberation is the status quo. When we achieve these goals, the abolition of prisons will just be the icing on the cake.”
Scott: Thanks for sharing that. Powerful words. And yeah, I guess maybe if we can just transition. I mean, I’m really grateful for all of you kind of speaking out of your experience and knowledge of doing this movement work. That’s so important. All right well thank you everyone.
This week we are re-airing a conversation that Bursts had last year with Aric McBay, who is an anarchist, organizer, farmer, and author about his most recent book called Full Spectrum Resistance published by Seven Stories Press in May 2019. This book is divided into 2 volumes, and from the books website [fullspectrumresistance.org]:
“Volume 1: Building movements and fighting to win, explores how movements approach political struggle, recruit members, and structure themselves to get things done and be safe.
Volume 2: Actions and strategies for change, lays out how movements develop critical capacities (from intelligence to logistics), and how they plan and carry out successful actions and campaigns.”
This interview covers a lot of ground, with topics that could be of use to folks newer to movement and ones who have been struggling and building for a while. McBay also talks at length about the somewhat infamous formation Deep Green Resistance, some of its history, and tendencies within that group that led him to break with them.
Links to Indigenous and Migrant led projects for sovereignty and climate justice, and some for further research:
Wet’suwet’en Strong [groundworkforchange.org/wetsuweten-strong.html], which includes extensive educational material on allyship, racism, settler colonialism, and decolonization.
Interview on TFS with Smogelgem, a Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief of the Likhts’amisyu clan, on ongoing struggles against pipelines and moves to create a Wet’suwet’en lead climate change research facility on their lands at Parrot Lake.
Chicano anarchist communist prisoner, Xinachtli, fka Alvaro Luna Hernandez, has an upcoming parole bid and is hoping to receive letters of support. Xinacthli has been imprisoned since 1997 on a 50 year bid for the weaponless disarming a sheriff’s deputy who drew a pistol on him at his home. The last 19 years of his incarceration have been in solitary confinement. Details on writing him letters and where to send them can be found at his new support site, FreeAlvaro.Net, as well as his writings and more about him. He is also one of the main editors of the Certain Days political prisoner calendar, author and a renowned jailhouse lawyer. Parole support letters are requested no later than March 20th, 2021.
Mumia has Covid-19
It was announced last week that incarcerated educator, broadcaster, author, revolutionary and jailhouse lawyer Mumia Abu-Jamal has been experiencing congestive heart failure and tested positive for covid-19. There are actions scheduled in Philadelphia before the airing of this broadcast, but you can find more info and ways to plug in at FreeMumia.Com
Transcription, Zines, Support…
Thanks to the folks who’ve been supporting this project in various ways. You can pick up merch or make donation that support our transcription work with the info at TFSR.WTF/Support. Our transcripts are out a week or so after broadcast and we’re slowly starting to transcribe older episodes. Zines can be found at TFSR.WTF/Zines for easy printing and sharing. You can find our social media and ways to stream us at TFSR.WTF/links and learn how to get us broadcasting on more radio stations at TFSR.WTF/radio! Thanks!
U.N.I.Verse at War by The Roots from Instrumentals Album
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TFSR: So I’m very proud to be speaking with farmer, organizer, artist and author Aric McBay. Thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation. Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself, what stuff you’re farming, for instance, where you are, and what sorts of organizing you’re involved in?
Aric McBay: Sure. And thank you so much for having me on your show. So I farm just east of Kingston, Ontario. We have a vegetable CSA farm Community Supported Agriculture. So we grow about 40 or 50 different varieties of vegetables, and we provide those to about 250 households in our area. We do kind of a sliding scale to make it more accessible to people. And we normally host a lot of different educational events and workshops. But of course most of those are on pause right now.
In terms of community and activism or community engagement, I have worked on many different causes over the years. I’ve worked with militant conservation organizations like Sea Shepherd or doing tree sits. I’ve been a labor organizer, I’ve been a farm organizer. I’ve helped start community gardens. A lot of the work that I do right now is about climate justice and about other issues that are topical, at different times in my area, especially prisons, and housing right now. Prisons are quite a big issue that the nearest city Kingston has the largest number of prisons per capita of any city in Canada. So prisoners issues continue to be very important and I think that the situation with COVID has only kind of highlighted the ways in which prisoners are treated unfairly, and in which the prison system actually makes us less safe, makes our society more dangerous rather than less so.
TFSR: Well, you did an interview with From Embers at one point, which are friends of ours and members of the Channel Zero Network. They also had a show recently, or I guess a couple of months ago, about the pandemic and the history of pandemics in the Canadian prison system. And it’s like, yeah, it’s pretty sickening. And you’re on occupied Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee land, right?
AM: That’s correct. Yes.
TFSR: And this is Tsalagi and Creek land where I’m calling you from. So you’ve been thinking and working around big picture ecological survival, and as you said, ecological justice for quite a while. For someone picking this up on the radio and maybe not keen on environmental concerns, can you give a kind of a quick snapshot of where the civilization is in terms of destroying the Earth’s capacity to carry complex life?
AM: Sure, and it’s so easy to forget about or to push aside because the other emergencies in our daily life just keep kind of stacking up. So right now, we are in the middle of really a mass extinction on on this planet. And industrial activity, industrial extraction has destroyed something like 95% of the big fish in the ocean, has fragmented huge amounts of tropical forest and deforested many tropical areas, including much of the Amazon at this point. But it’s really climate change that’s kind of that global, critical problem. The temperature has already gone up nearly one degree from their kind of pre-industrial norm, but the emissions that human industry have put into the atmosphere of the greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, are already enough to set us on a path of significantly greater warming. That’s even if we stopped, you know, driving cars, or burning coal today.
And so that produces a bunch of different challenges. Of course, we’re going to see already more and more hot weather heat waves, like we’ve certainly been seeing this summer, more extreme storms happening more frequently. But in the long term, the outlook is potentially very grim. Depending on the emissions that are produced around the globe, we could be looking at not just one or two degrees of warming, but potentially five or six degrees of warming by the end of the century. And that produces a very different world from the one that we live in. Even two degrees of warming would be enough to essentially wipe out all of the coral reefs on the planet, to wipe out entire biomes.
We’re at the point where even relatively conservative international organizations understand that climate change could displace hundreds of millions of people, could create hundreds of millions of climate refugees around the world. And there’s never been any displacement like that. You know, when you talk about making a place where where potentially billions of people live, much harder to live in, and much harder to grow food. And, you know, we’ve seen things like the so called Arab Spring, for example, and the situation in Syria where those areas of unrest or those uprisings were triggered, in part by prolonged droughts and agricultural failures. And we have seen the streams of refugees coming from those places, especially in the United States, has really increased the amount of xenophobia and racism I think that a lot of people on the right feel comfortable demonstrating.
So the ecological crisis is not just about fish and trees, it’s really about the kind of society that we’re going to have in the future. For human beings, are we going to have a society where fascism is considered kind of a necessary response to streams of refugees moving from equatorial areas, as of local economies collapse? Are we going to see an even greater resurgence of racism in order to justify that? Are we going to see much more draconian police response to deal with the unrest and uprisings that could happen? So our future, our future in terms of justice and human rights really depends on us dealing effectively with climate change in the short term, because climate change is not something that we can kind of ignore and come back to and 20 or 30 or 40 years. There’s a real lag effect, that the emissions now those are going to cause warming for decades or even centuries. And the response is really nonlinear. So what I mean by that is, if you double the amount of greenhouse gases that you’re putting out, that doesn’t necessarily double the temperature impact. There are many tipping points. So as the Arctic ice melts in the Arctic Ocean, and that white snow turns to a darker sea, then that is going to absorb more sunlight, more solar energy and accelerate warming. It’s the same thing in the Amazon rainforests, the Amazon rainforest creates its own climate, creates its own rainfall and clouds. So you can easily hit a point where the entire forest is suddenly put into drought and starts to collapse.
We really need to prevent those tipping points from happening and to act as quickly as possible to prevent catastrophic climate change, because it’s going to be almost impossible to deal with, in a fair way once that happens. And that’s really the idea of climate justice, right? That the impacts of global warming are disproportionately put on people of color, on low income people, on poorer countries. And so if we want to have a fairer future, then that means those of us who are living in more affluent economies have a responsibility to reduce those emissions. Those of us who have more affluent lifestyles, their main responsibility to deal with that, to produce a future as well, that is fair and just and where human rights are still important.
TFSR: And like to, I think, reiterate a point in there, it seems like fairness and justice are good rulers to kind of hold ourselves to, but it seems like it’s for the survival of the species, as well as for the betterment and an improvement of all of our lives with these eminent and emergent threats. Resolving this and working towards working together with everyone is the best option.
AM: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s true. And I think one of the reasons that I’m interested in organizing around climate justice is because it’s one of the ultimate areas of common ground, right? It kind of connects people who are in many different places and working on many different struggles. Because activists who I work with, who are mostly anti-racist activists, understand why this is important. I mean, we’re already seeing that impact around the world. And activists who work on food security and hunger, I mean, it’s totally clear why climate change is important, because our ability to grow food in the future depends on avoiding catastrophic climate change. When I’m working with anti-authoritarians, it’s the same thing. So I really do see climate justice as an important movement building issue, something that can connect a lot of causes that might seem more disparate from from kind of a distance.
TFSR: I think your work does a really good job of pulling together, the fabric, sort of like weaving together these pieces and patchwork to say that these are all interrelated. And for us to ignore one of these elements means that we create a much weaker fabric, if even something that’ll hold together at all. Your most recent and huge two part book was entitled Full Spectrum Resistance, and the first subtitle was Building Movements and Fighting to Win, and the second was Action and Strategies for Change. Can you share what you mean by “full spectrum resistance”, and what you hope these books will bring to the table for folks organizing to not only stop the destruction of complex life on Earth, but to increase the quality of our survival and our living together?
AM: Of course. So I wrote this book because I’ve been an activist for more than 20 years, and almost all of the campaigns that I worked on, we were losing ground, right? I mean, that was the case for many environmental struggles, but also in struggles around the gap between the rich and poor, around many other things. But I saw in history and around the world, many examples of movements that had been incredibly successful. And the fact that a lot of the rights that people take for granted today – a lot of our human rights – come from movements that learned really valuable lessons about how to be effective. Movements that didn’t know necessarily know at the beginning, what would create kind of a winning outcome. And so full spectrum resistance is an idea that I think encapsulates some of the key characteristics that successful movements need to have, especially when they want to move beyond maybe a single issue or a local concern.
So one of those components of full spectrum resistance is a diversity of tactics. I think that’s really critical. I think one of the reasons that the left hasn’t been as successful in recent years, is that it’s really been whittled down to a couple of main tactics, it’s been whittled down to voting, and to voting with your dollar, right? To kind of ethical consumerism. And those are very limited tools. And they’re tools that leave out the vast majority of tactics that movements have used in the past, right? Successful movements like the Civil Rights Movement, or the suffragists or their movement against apartheid in South Africa. They used a huge range of tactics. I mean, they certainly use things like petitions and awareness raising tool at different times. But they also use tactics that allowed them to generate political force and disruption. So a lot of people don’t realize that, you know, to win the right to vote suffragist movements use property destruction and arson quite frequently. When people are talking about Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement, people often use Nelson Mandela, ironically, as a reason why we shouldn’t be disruptive. They think of him as this really peaceful guy because he spent close to 30 years in prison. But Nelson Mandela helped to create the underground armed wing of the African National Congress. That was a struggle that used armed self defense and sabotage extensively in South Africa. And allies used all kinds of economic disruption, especially divestment around the world to try to pressure the South African government. And we can take a look in more detail at some of these case studies if you want. But I think a diversity of tactics is really critical in building movements that win. Because if we stick to only one tactic, then that really limits our ability to escalate, and that limits our ability to adapt. It’s easy for those in power to understand how to undermine one tactic, if it’s the only one that we use.
I think another aspect of full spectrum resistance is cooperation among different kind of…constituencies, you might call them. So those in power can stay in power through divide and conquer, right? That’s one of their primary tools is to split resistance movements or social movements into different manageable chunks, like “militants” and “moderates”. So they can split the people who are willing to go out into the street and protest with kind of maybe a broader, more moderate group of people who support them. And they can just go ahead and arrest you know, a small group of militants in the street, if they’re able to separate those people.
Let me, actually let me give you an example of how a diversity of tactics and this cooperation can work. One of the movements that I talk about, or one of the campaigns that I talk about in the book, is an anti-apartheid group that organized in New York City at Columbia University in the 1980’s. And they were an organization that was trying to get Columbia University to stop investing in companies that did business in South Africa, right? South Africa was kind of a resource empire at the time, there were huge mineral resources that were being extracted, and people were making a lot of money. But because of the racism, because of the authoritarianism of that apartheid system, people around the world were really struggling to generate political force to put the pressure on to end the system of apartheid.
And so Columbia University, like many universities had big endowments, big investments. And there is this group is called the committee for a free South Africa at Columbia University. And they started with kind of classic strategy of awareness raising, so they held discussion groups and teachings about apartheid. They had, you know, petitions to try to convince the government of Columbia University to divest from South Africa. And they really did everything that you were supposed to do, right? They did all of the things that we’re kind of told, told that we are supposed to do in order to succeed. They built that public awareness and understanding, and they hit a wall. They got to the point where the administration and faculty and student representatives in the student government all voted for divestment by the top level of government, their board of trustees overruled them. And I think that point that they reached is a point that a lot of our struggles eventually meet, right? Where we’ve done the things that we’re supposed to do, but still those in power refused to do what is right. And it was a real turning point for those anti-apartheid organizers. And their attendance at events started to decrease after that, because well people thought “hey, this struggle is over, the Board of Trustees isn’t going to diverse, so what can you do, we just lost this one.” But those organizers, they weren’t willing to just give up, they realized they needed to escalate to win.
They decided to plan a series of disruptive simultaneous actions, they started a hunger strike. And they took over a building, they blockaded a building on campus and said “we’re not going to go anywhere until Columbia University divest.” And this was a big risk for them, right? Because they’d seen this declining participation. But it actually worked. They started with a handful of people at this blockade. And more and more people started coming. There’s this fascinating statistic about this campaign. Before the blockade, only 9% of the student body considered themselves at least somewhat active in that campaign for divestment. So only 9% had shown up to a rally or you know, signed a petition. But in the weeks to come, 37% of the entire student body participated in that blockade, by joining rallies or by sleeping overnight on the steps.
So, you know, that kind of divestment campaign, I think is very important. Now, in part because that campaign worked, Columbia University eventually did give in and did agree to divest. And that shows to us, you know, the value of a diversity of tactics, the value of disruption, the value of cooperation between people who are using different kinds of tactics. I think that really is something that we can learn and apply very effectively. And then the current day, another key part of full spectrum resistance is that solidarity between movements, to avoid the divide and conquer tactics that those in power try to use. And the fourth thing is really an intersectional approach is to try to synthesize the different ideas and the different philosophies that motivate different campaigns and that motivate different movements. Because we’re in a time when I don’t think single issue campaigns can succeed anymore, certainly in the context of climate change, but also in the context of rising authoritarianism. We need to look at how we can build that shared analysis, build genuine intersectionality in order to create movements that are truly powerful and effective.
TFSR: So with the Columbia example, it’s really interesting to point to that, I hadn’t heard of that before, and that seems like there’s a lot of lessons to be gathered from that. With what we’re talking about with the scope of climate change, like the larger scope of climate change, obviously, is you can break it down into smaller and smaller points of this extraction thing happens in this place, those materials are transported here, they’re processed here, they’re consumed or subsidized by these populations are these organizations. So I guess, like the level of amplification of resistance that you’re willing to apply to a situation should scale according to what you’re trying to succeed at doing.
With this wider scope of resistance to something that you could look at as a whole as the way that governments backup energy infrastructure, and monocrop industrial agriculture, the scale of this…I get kind of lost between that point of pressuring the people at the top of the university to divest once all the other steps have been denied, like the scaling between that and looking at, say, for instance, the US government and pressuring them…I kind of just get lost in the clouds at that point. I’m like, well, the US government is going to want to continue business as usual as much as it can, in part because of its investors, much like Colombia, but also because it’s sustaining a more “holistic” system. How does the anecdote of Colombia and the resistance there fit into a wider scope of looking at governments and the ecological destruction that they’re involved with?
AM: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think one of the biggest challenges of the climate justice movement is the way that climate change and fossil fuel emissions, it all just feel so overwhelming and so diffuse, it’s hard to figure out, where should we actually focus our energy. But I think that many, or most movements in history, at some point, faced a similar problem, right? I mean, the anti-apartheid movement that Colombia was was a part of and were supporting. That was a movement that lasted for generations, the African National Congress was founded in 1912. And certainly at different points it was very unclear what people should do, you know, what was actually going to work against such a violently repressive regime. And so for me, I think there are a bunch of things that we can and should do to help address problems that seem really overwhelming or diffuse. And one of them, of course, is just to keep building our movements and to keep building our capacity and our connections. Because as long as we feel like we’re kind of isolated individuals or isolated pockets of resistance, it’s hard for us to see how we can tackle bigger problems. And that isolation is not an accident. Any authoritarian power especially wants to keep people divided and distrustful. So it’s important that we build cultures of resistance, that we build real connections with each other, and that we celebrate movements in the past that have won, so that we can kind of build up our capacity.
And I think it’s also important to look for areas where we can have early wins or kind of low hanging fruit. Areas where the problem is not as diffuse, but where the problem is more, is much more concrete or much more tangible. And so a great example of both of those things that work would be some of the mobilization against fossil fuel that has happened in so-called Canada in this year, and in recent years. So I don’t know if all of your listeners have been following this, but in February and March of this year of 2020, we saw some of the biggest Indigenous solidarity mobilizations in Canadian history. And those were kind of provoked by a particular flashpoint on the west coast. So there’s a settlement called Unist’ot’en which is on a pipeline route, there’s a site where the Canadian government and a variety of oil companies have been trying to build a series of pipelines to the west coast so that oil and fracked natural gas can be exported. And the Indigenous people who live there, the Wet’suwet’en, the traditional hereditary leaders have been very committed for many years to stop that from happening, and have essentially built this community on the pipeline route to assert their traditional rights and to assert their Indigenous sovereignty.
And in February at the beginning of February 2020, the government sent in really large armed force of RCMP officers and other officers, to try to kind of smash through different checkpoints that Indigenous communities had set up on the route leading to this site on the road, and also to destroy the gate that was keeping oil workers from going in and working on the construction of this pipeline. And the community there had been really good at building a culture of resistance over years, not just amongst Indigenous people, but among settler allies across the country. And so when that raid began, there was a really powerful response from many different communities. So a Mohawk community located just west of me, Tyendinaga, they decided to blockade the major east-west rail line that runs through Ontario, and that is kind of a bottleneck for the entire country. And other Indigenous communities started to do this as well, to set up rail blockades. And essentially, the entire rail network of Canada was shut down for weeks. You know, there were massive transportation backlogs.
And there were other disruptive actions as well, things like blockades of bridges – including international bridges – blockades and slowdowns of highways. And there was all of this mobilization that a year or two ago seemed inconceivable, it seemed impossible that any kind of disruption would be able to happen on that scale because nothing like that had happened before. And it was a really powerful movement that did cause the government to back off and cause the police to back off and start these new negotiations. And you know the COVID pandemic was declared at the same time as a lot of this organizing was still happening, so it’s kind of unclear what might have happened if that action had continued without a pandemic. But the rallying cry for a lot of organizers at that point was “shut down Canada”, which the pandemic did on a much larger kind of unanticipated scale.
But I think that example of the Wet’suwet’en solidarity and the disruption around it really points the way to potential successes and potentially more effective styles of organizing for the climate justice movement. And I think they have done a lot of things, right. They built that culture of resistance. So they didn’t just wait around for kind of a spontaneous uprising to happen, which I think almost never happens. They had built these connections over many years and build capacity and people had trained each other and trained themselves. And they had a particular location that they were trying to protect, right? So it wasn’t just “let’s go out and protect the entire world and protect all people.” You know, it’s hard to mobilize movements around something that’s so vague, but there is a particular community of a particular group of Indigenous people on a particular spot. And I think it’s much easier to mobilize folks around tangible sites of conflict like that.
The last thing that they did that was really effective, and that I think we can learn from, is that they turned the weakness of having the fight against this diffuse industrial infrastructure into a strength. So instead of just saying, “Oh, well, there’s so many pipelines, there’s so many rail lines, there’s so many highways, nothing we can do is going to make any difference.” The movement kind of said “Hey, there are all of these pipelines and rail lines and highways that are basically undefended, and that we can go and disrupt – even if it’s only for a day or two – and then move to another site. This actually gives us the potential to be incredibly effective, and to cost oil companies a lot of money and to cost the Canadian economy a lot of money.” Because that’s often what it boils down to right is “can we cost a corporation or a government more than they’re getting from doing this bad thing?” And I think that the Wet’suwet’en struggle has been an example and a demonstration of how to do that.
TFSR: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that that points to a really cogent point in terms of how to think about this sort of resistance. There were, what, 200 years for the Canadian government to think about its relationship to Indigenous communities and the sovereignty of like…them just pushing through sovereign territories to get what they want to extract, to run railways, to put pipelines in or whatever. And so appealing to the logic or the “reasonability”, or the sense of justice of the people that were representing the bodies that were sitting in the chairs in the suits in government – who were enacting the logic of capitalist settler colonial government – was not working.
But what did work was showing that if you do not see this point, we will shut down your ability to do this, or we will escalate to the point that you will have to like, step up further, and push back. And I think it’s a point that often gets lost. And I think, consciously, it’s been inculcated out of us, I guess, that’s a way to say it? Like, in the United States at least, we’re educated that the example of the suffragettes, the example of Gandhi, the example of the resistance to apartheid in South Africa, all of these examples, the winning view that’s given by the power structures when they educate us is that reasonability won out because of the justice of the cause. And because people went out and put their bodies on the line, but also like their petitions were eventually heard, their voting actually was the effective measure that changed the balance of power and that forced those in power to recognize the justice of the demands. And I think that’s like pandemic offers an interesting insight into, again, how that’s BS, like marches don’t stop people in power from making decisions. The threat that marches bring with the amassing of angry people who can do damage, or who can disrupt things, is what actually makes people in power look at marches and why that specific way of engaging is considered dangerous to those in power and why they want to stop that sort of thing.
I think that there’s a parallel to be drawn between that great example with the Wet’suwet’en folks and the resistance that was given to the attack on Unist’ot’en and Gitdimt’en gate, alongside of what we’ve seen, during this pandemic, in a lot of countries, and particularly the United States – where I’ve heard this morning on the radio, which, hopefully, hopefully, it’ll be wrong by the time this gets broadcast – but the US where I’m based, has a quarter of the deaths from COVID-19, around the world, and yet we are something like 5% of the world population. Those are similar numbers to how many people are incarcerated in this country versus the rest of the world. And people in power, at this point are not representing that they have the ability, the capacity, the interest, the will to actually stop this pandemic from spreading, and killing off the people that are most marginalized – starting off with the people that are most marginalized – in our society.
And so it seems like appealing to that same wing of power, the ones that profit off of ecological destruction when it comes to scaling back ecological destruction, and trying to reverse that trend, doesn’t seem that reasonable. But the sort of like direct action instances that you’re talking about, in coordination with other methods of dialogue and culture building, feels really important and exciting to me. I don’t know if you think that seeing the reaction of governments during pandemic is comparable to the vast amount of knowledge of ecological destruction, is an apt comparison or not?
AM: Yeah, I think you make very important points. And I think that, especially under capitalism, one of our continuing challenges with those in power is that they always consider profit more important than life, right? They always consider profit more important than human safety and human wellbeing. And that applies whether we’re talking about incarceration or COVID, or climate change, or police departments. And because of that, those in power are almost never convinced or persuaded by arguments to do the right thing. And that’s the case in the examples that you’ve mentioned, as well. If we look at those historical movements, we have been given a really sanitized kind of false narrative about how things like the Civil Rights Movement worked, or the suffragettes – or the suffragists, rather – we’re told, hey, that, you know, the Civil Rights Movement, just finally convinced people because people like Martin Luther King were willing to risk getting beaten up. And that’s what changed things. But that is not primarily what changed the people who are in positions of power, right? I’m sure there were a lot of people on the sidelines, especially in the north, who saw Black people and white people being beaten up by police on the Freedom Rides, for example, and that changed their opinion about things, or that helped mobilize them to do something about racism. But the racism, especially in the Southern states, and segregation, that didn’t end because of the Civil Rights Movement, giving a good example, that was dismantled, essentially, because of different kinds of force, political force, and sometimes physical force.
So in the Civil Rights Movement, we can look at the example of the Freedom Rides, when groups of white and Black organizers rode buses through the South where they were supposed to be segregated. And those buses were attacked by police and vigilantes, violently attacked, people ended up in hospital, buses were set on fire. And that didn’t actually end until essentially the federal government intervened, the federal government sent in troops to escort those Freedom Riders around the South to kind of complete their journey. And I think that’s something that people forget often, that racist violence didn’t just end because of a good example. It ended because there was some other form of force being employed. And I think people also forget that a lot of the non-violent demonstrations, the Civil Rights Demonstrations in the south, were protected by armed groups like the Deacons for Defense. The Deacons for Defense were an armed group before the Black Panthers, that was in many cases made up of military veterans, Black military veterans, who decided that they were tired of seeing civil rights marches getting attacked by the KKK or their police, and said we’re going to use our right to bear arms, and we’re going to go down there and defend people. And so a lot of the nonviolent actions that happened, were protected by armed Civil Rights activists.
So these sorts of things get written out of the history, especially by the in power, because those in power want to seem like the good guys, right? They want to seem like, “Hey, we are the ones who are going to come down and give you the rights, if you can provide us a good example, we’re just going to gift you these rights, these human rights” and that’s almost never have things will wind they will one because people were willing to struggle and people who are willing to disrupt.
I think that ignorance of social movement struggle is a form of white privilege. I have seen this at many different workshops, and many different talks that I’ve given, that often at the start of a workshop, I’ll ask people when they’re introducing themselves to name movement that inspires you, or name a campaign that inspires you. And oftentimes, the people who are coming to that workshop who are white organizers, who are newer organizers, they don’t have such a large repertoire to draw on, right, they’re much more likely to name a movement that happened locally or a movement that’s been in the news. Whereas a lot of the organizers who are people of color or from other marginalized communities, they can list off a ton of movements that inspire them that they’re learning from. And that’s important because marginalized communities understand better how to deal with those in power, how to get rights and how to protect your rights. And that’s often through social movements and through struggle, whereas people who are used to those in power looking out for their interests, especially, you know, middle class white men, they can afford to ignore social movement history, because they haven’t really needed social movements in the same way, or they don’t appreciate them.
And so when we have situations like we have now with growing authoritarianism, much more obvious racism, the climate emergency, people who are in positions of privilege, they find themselves at a loss, because they don’t know that movement history, so they don’t know how to respond. And it’s often movements of color movements of marginalized people, those are the movements that are going to teach us how to deal with these deep systems of injustice, these deep systems of inequality.
TFSR: So I guess, shifting gears back to like questions of wider approaches towards resisting ecological change, over the last couple of years there have been a few groups that have garnered a lot of headlines, and gained some sort of recognition and interplay with mainstream media, with governments around the world. I’m wondering what your full spectrum approach towards resistance sort of use the efficacy, or the impact of groups. I’m thinking of 350.org, Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion, do those feel like single issue approaches towards ecological struggle? Because I know that there was some critiques definitely in the UK about extinction rebellion, specifically, the leadership weeding out people who are wanting to bring up questions around not only ecological devastation, but also around racism and around the existence of industrial capitalism, and its impact on that.
AM: Yeah. And I think that’s a big problem. I think that you can’t really address climate change without talking about capitalism, you can’t address climate change without talking about racism. And I think that, in general, the big liberal movements against climate change, or the big liberal organizations have failed. Partly for that reason, probably, because they’re not, they’re not looking at the root problems. They’re not radical organizations, right, they’re not going to the root of the issue. And so they’re not going to be able to use the tactics that will resolve it.
I think at this point, companies like Shell Oil, and you know, a variety of petroleum companies were very aware of climate change, going back to the 1960s. I mean, they had more extensive research at that point into climate change than the general public. And when I’ve done research into organizations that have fought against offshore drilling, for example, you can see that even in the 1980’s, oil companies like Shell are already building their oil rigs with taller legs in order to compensate for the sea level rise they expect to see. So the issue is not that those in power are totally ignorant of climate change, it’s that they’re making a lot of money from climate change and they think with all of the money they are making, that they can deal with the consequences for themselves personally, although not for everyone else.
And so that’s a huge problem and in some ways it’s slightly different from COVID. You know, in Canada, I think one of the reasons that we’ve seen a much stronger national response is because very early on the prime minister’s wife tested positive for COVID. And so clearly the impacts of the Coronavirus have been disproportionately bad for communities of color and for low income communities, but there still is much more potential for affluent people to get it. Whereas something like climate change, I think those in power have felt very isolated from especially in more northern countries. So that’s a huge problem. And that’s one of the reasons that just appealing to the good sensibilities of those in power is not going to succeed.
Maybe I’ll speak mostly about Extinction Rebellion, because when I was doing my book tour last here, and traveled from coast to coast in Canada, I ended up doing workshops about direct action and movement strategy for a lot of different Extinction Rebellion groups here. And I think, you know, from what I’ve seen, the people who have participated in those events have been very committed and strongly motivated, they understand that it really is an emergency, but they don’t always have a lot of history in kind of activism, or they don’t have as much movement experience as some of the other groups that I’ve worked with. Which can be good and bad, right? I mean, I think, you know, a lot of the liberal left, the reason that groups keep failing to address the climate crisis is because there’s kind of a standard issue dogma about how we need to convince governments to change and ask politely, and so on. And that’s really a dead end. So I think for people new to a movement or getting newly active, they are potentially more open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.
But I think that the Extinction Rebellion kind of movement in general, in Canada, and definitely in the UK, has not done a very good job of, of including the needs of Indigenous communities, and has not done a good job of including the needs of communities of color. And in particular, I think we see that in the relationship between Extinction Rebellion, and the police. This was a discussion that came up in almost every XR group that I have spoken with, that that kind of official line from XR in the UK is that you’re supposed to have a good relationship with the police, you’re supposed to go to the police in advance of an action and let them know what’s going to happen. And, you know, as a direct action organizer myself, and on many different issues, that sounds absolutely ridiculous, for a lot of reasons. One of which is that you lose the element of surprise, which is one of the key strategic advantages that smaller resistance movements need to have. But also, because if you go and try to cozy up to the police, or try to expect them to give you a good treatment because you’re bringing them a cake or something, I mean, that is really kind of a white focused thing to do, right? And that ignores the long standing grievances of Black and Indigenous communities in particular, because of the violent treatment that they’ve experienced at the hands of police. And of course, that has become even more obvious in recent months, and you know, the amount of attention and mobilization is long overdue. I think that’s been a real weakness of Extinction Rebellion, and I think it’s going to need to address that, and other climate justice movements will need to address that in order to succeed.
I think another challenge to Extinction Rebellion has been that they still are kind of assuming that if they make a strong enough argument that those in power will change their behavior. Because one of their big demands has been for those in power to tell the truth. And from my perspective, as an organizer, that almost never happens, right? Well, those in power rarely tell the truth and you don’t want to give them the opportunity to dominate the messaging. Those in power, whether it’s the corporate PR officers or government PR, I mean, they almost always dominate public discourse. And so if we have an opportunity to put in our own message, we should be doing that not kind of punting it back to those in power so they can either repeat the same business as usual line, or try to co-opt or undercut what we’re saying. I think there’s a huge strategic mistake. And what it means is that even if you’re blocking bridges, you can be doing that essentially as a form of militant lobbying, because you’re putting the potential for change in the hands of other people. And I think that movements that have succeeded in overturning deeply unjust systems In the past, they have been able to build up communities of resistance, they’ve been able to build up movements that can direct the changes that need to happen, and movements that are led by the people who are affected. In climate justice, that means, you know, we really need to highlight the voices of Indigenous communities, we need to highlight the voices of communities of color in the global South. And if we don’t do that, not only is it morally wrong and a moral failing, it’s going to be a strategic failing as well, because we’re not going to have the experience and the perspective we need at the table to create movements that will win and to create strategies that will win. It’s a real dead end.
So, you know, from my perspective, the most exciting movements that I see around climate justice are being led by communities of color, are being led by Indigenous communities, and that are incorporating people from a lot of different backgrounds. But keeping in mind that it’s not an option to fail here, it’s not an option to say, “Oh, the government should reduce emissions. And if they don’t, I guess, oh, well, we’ll go back to what we’re doing”, we actually really have to commit ourselves to to winning this struggle. And I think a lot of affluent white communities, because they’re insulated from the effects of climate change, at least so far, they don’t have that same motivation. They don’t have that same drive to win, they don’t have that same genuine sense, I think maybe of desperation even. So for them, the risk of getting arrested a few times maybe feels like a bigger risk than the risk of the entire planet being destroyed. I think the calculus of risk for Indigenous communities is often different, which is why we see them taking so much leadership like in the case of the Wet’suwet’en.
TFSR: So there’s the example of the Wet’suwet’en in terms of not only a sovereignty issue, but also the ecological impacts and the solidarity that they’re offering to the world by trying to blockade the extraction and eventual burning into the atmosphere of, I believe the tar sands, right, from Alberta. And then skipping to a not specifically ecological movement, the Black leadership and leadership of color in the Movement for Black Lives and the movement against white supremacist violence and police violence that sparked off with George Floyd’s assassination, but also has spread around the world because anti-blackness is so endemic in Western civilization. I’m wondering if there’s any other examples of current movements, particularly around ecological justice, that you feel inspired by that are led by communities of color and frontline communities?
AM: Hmm, that is a great question. I think that we have seen, you know, in Canada in particular, but all over we have seen many different movements that are Indigenous lead, I think that’s often the movements that I end up working with or supporting. The Dakota Access Pipeline is another example of a movement that has been Indigenous lead and has been very successful. I think, around the world, I see a lot of hope in organizations like La Via Campesina – the international povement of peasants and small farmers – which is a very radical movement that looks to overturn not just fossil fuel emissions, but also capitalism in general, that looks to create fundamentally different relationships between people and the planet, and to create community relationships. I think that sort of thing is really exciting. And I think when you look at food and farm based movements, there’s a lot of mobilization potential there, because food, like climate, is one of those commonalities between people that’s common ground. Everyone has to eat every day. And so I’m very excited about the tangibility that movements around food like La Via Campesina have the potential to lead to. I think there are a lot of migrant worker and migrant justice movements as well that really understand the connection between climate and justice in a way that a lot of liberal movements don’t.
I also think that a lot of the really effective movements and groups that are led by people of color, they’re often more local, kind of environmental justice movements, they are not necessarily as big or as well known. And they sometimes don’t want to be, right? I mean, they’re not trying to kind of mimic the corporate structure. They’re not trying to become a gigantic NGO. And I would encourage people to look for those movements that are close to you, to look for those movements that are led by communities of color and that are led by Indigenous people, and to try to connect with them and to support them. If that’s not the work that you’re doing already, how does that work connect? And how can these movements help to support each other, and to develop a shared understanding, and a shared analysis of what’s needed for action.
TFSR: Cool, thank you for responding to that one. One thing I thought of was the Coalition for Immokalee Workers – which is an immigrant led struggle based out of Florida – they do a lot of media work, but they also are addressing like the real impacts of the epidemic on undocumented populations and farm worker populations in so called USA.
So people who are also familiar with your work are going to be familiar with the fact that you co-authored a book called Deep Green Resistance, alongside Lierre Keith and Derrick Jensen some years back. And DGR, besides being a book, is also an organization or a movement, a call out for a movement. And I know one notable thing that was mentioned around Extinction Rebellion was the idea of putting your name out publicly and saying “I’m going to be participating in this direct action”. And that was the thing that I recalled anarchist being critical of DGR, and ecological resistors, where people were asked to sign up publicly and make a pledge to participate in this movement. But I know that you’ve left DGR, you have made public statements about why you have left Deep Green Resistance, but I would wonder if you could reiterate those right here and talk about the group and like why you came to leave it?
AM: Sure. So when writing Deep Green Resistance, what I really wanted to do was help people to understand the climate emergency and to understand better some of the tactics that would be required to deal with it. I do think now versus 10 years ago there’s a much greater understanding that we are in a climate emergency, and that more effective action is called for. It wasn’t my intent for there to be a group or an organization by that name. I kind of figured well, other people who are doing work already and other organizations will hopefully incorporate this analysis, or it will help to mobilize new people as well. And when some of the people who had read the book said, “Oh, we should make an organization about this”. I said, “Well, okay, great”. And it was really a fairly short period that I was participating in that, in kind of the first few months, because unfortunately, what happened when groups started to organize and people started wanting to get together for kind of trainings and conferences, my co authors became very transphobic. There were, you know, people who are asking, very reasonably, “oh, can I use the correct bathroom when I come to this event?” And they would say no. And, you know, it reminds me a lot of what’s been happening with JK Rowling recently. Instead of kind of responding to this critique, or instead of responding to people’s concerns about this, they really doubled down in a way that made it impossible for me to keep working with them, or to keep working with that organization.
I’m someone who is fully in support of trans rights and trans inclusion. And I think that their anti-trans attitudes were really detestable and really destructive. In part, because, you know, a lot of experienced organizers who had been getting connected to the organization left after that, totally understandably. So, it was really disappointing and heartbreaking. And I think that the choice that they made, basically destroyed the potential of that organization to be effective, to be kind of a viable movement organization, because it was such a toxic attitude. And I believe that, in general, it’s good to give people a chance to change their opinions or to learn from their mistakes, because there’s no perfect organization, there’s no perfect movement, right? There has to be potential for growth and for improvement, there has to be potential for everyone to kind of take feedback and learn. But at the same time, if it’s clear that someone is not going to do that, then I’m not going to keep working with them, because it’s not a good use of my energies, and it’s not an I don’t want to be connected with an organization that’s going to be transphobic, or that’s going to endorse any other kind of oppression.
It was a very disappointing experience in a lot of ways, but I think there’s still a lot of valuable content in that book in the book, Deep Green Resistance. I think it still had an an impact and beneficial ways in that it helped to in some communities or in some sub cultures, to accelerate and understanding of the climate emergency. It’s just disappointing that that was the outcome. I think that hopefully it will be a lesson for other activists in the future and for other organizations, to really, from the very beginning of your organization, to set out so much clearer ground rules and clearer points of unity about anti-oppression that everyone will agree on. I think a lot of movements or organizations can emerge out of kind of an ad hoc approach, can kind of coalesce together. And I think it’s really important to pause and make sure that you’re on the same page about everything, before putting in too much effort before putting in too much commitment.
TFSR: So besides the transphobia, another critique that’s come to the DGR approach that that was sort of laid down in the book, was valorization. Maybe not in all instances, but in some instances of like a vanguard, or like a military command structure. Which, in a military scenario and like combat zones, I’ve heard it like I’ve heard anarchist talk about like, yes, it makes sense to have a clear lines of communication, someone who’s maybe elected into that position for a short period of time, and who is recallable, be a person that will make decisions on behalf of whatever like a group is in an activity. Is that an effective approach towards organizing ecological resistance? On what scale is that an effective or appropriate model for decision making? And is there a conflict between concepts of leadership versus vanguard command structure?
AM: Sure, I don’t think that we should be having military style command structures. Part of the critique that I was trying to create speaking for myself, was that consensus is not always the ideal decision making structure for every single situation. And I think, especially in the early 2000s, in a lot of anarchist communities, there was this idea that consensus is the only approach and if you don’t believe in always using consensus, then you’re kind of an authoritarian. And I think that’s really an oversimplification. I think consensus is very good for a lot of situations, right? It’s good for situations where you have a lot of time, it’s good for situations where people have a similar level of investment in the outcome of a decision or where people have a similar level of experience, perhaps.
But consensus has some flaws, as well. And I think one of them is that, you know, if you have a group of, say, mostly white people and a handful of people of color, who are trying to make a consensus-based decision about something that has to do with racism, then you’re not necessarily going to get the outcome that you want, because that is a system that can downplay inequalities in experience that are real, right? Some people have more experience of racism or, or systems of oppression and consensus doesn’t always incorporate that.
So we were talking a lot about the Wet’suwet’en example earlier, the Wet’suwet’en struggle. And when settler allies have gone to Wet’suwet’en territory to help, they actually have to basically sign off and say, “Yeah, I’m fine to accept Indigenous leadership for the duration of my time there. And if I don’t want to accept it any more than I can leave.” And I think there’s a place for a lot of different kinds of decision making structures. So for me, it’s like tactics, right? I mean, there are some tactics that are really good in some situations, and really not very helpful and others. And I feel like with decision making, it’s the same way. For myself, I prefer to work in consensus situations most of the time, because that’s a way of making sure that you’re incorporating a lot of different perspectives. But I think when you do have a very tight timeline, you know, it makes sense, as you mentioned, to consider electing people or to have people who are maybe on a rotating basis kind of in charge for that action. I think that there’s room for a lot of different approaches in terms of decision making. And like our tactics, our form of decision making has to be matched to our situation and to our goals.
TFSR: So it feels like when talking about ecological devastation, and like the precarity of where we’re at as a species, in particular – again in western civilization – that there’s this misanthropic approach towards looking at problems and solutions in terms of human caused ecological unbalance. It’s sort of a Manichaean approach. And people talk about there being too large of human populations, or historically, that sort of numbers game kind of leads to a eugenicism position. That puts blame on poor people or indigent people, and darker skinned people, as they tend to be more marginalized in the settler colonial societies in this parts of the world. And often, like, even just those nations are taking up more resources, those nations are developing in a way that’s inconsistent with you know, ecological balance.
It feels like that sort of approach is one that ignores the question of how populations are interacting – or the economic systems that populations are kept within – with the world with, quote unquote, “resources” with other species. And there’s often a presumption affiliated with that, that we as a species are alien to or above the rest of the world, that we’re not a part of nature, that we’re separate from it. And I think there’s some kind of like Cartesian logic in there, because we can think about ourselves to be self aware, in a way that we understand. We presume that not only is there a lack of agency to other elements, within our surroundings, with other living things…I guess it goes back to, like, in the western sense, stories of genesis. Of human beings being given control over the natural world to determine how those quote unquote “resources” are used, as opposed to being a part of that natural world, and that we have a responsibility for ourselves and for our siblings. Can you talk about why it’s important to challenge like, sort of the fundamental weaknesses of the misanthropic approach that looks as us as outside of the natural world? And how shifting that question actually allows us to make the changes that will be required for us to possibly survive this mess?
AM: Sure, yeah. I mean, I understand why people get frustrated with humanity. But I think, both from a philosophical perspective and from an organizers perspective, blaming humans in general for the problem really kind of obscures the root of the emergencies that we’re facing, and it obscures the things that we need to do. I think some of what you’ve talked about, it’s really different forms of human exceptionalism, right? There are some people who don’t care about the environment at all, who are human exceptionalist, who think humans can do whatever we want, we’re immune to the same kind of rules that other organisms follow. We’re immune from the effects of the weather or the planet or the ecology. And of course that’s ridiculous. But at the same time, we have at the other end, people who really believe a different form of human exceptionalism and believe that humans are doomed to do bad things, that we’re kind of doomed to destroy the planet. And I don’t think either of those things are true. I think, you know, if you look at that history of humanity and our immediate ancestors, for millions of years we managed not to destroy the planet, or even put the planet in peril. It’s really a fairly new phenomenon that specific societies, and especially specific people in specific societies, have been causing this level of destruction. And that destruction is not really about population, it’s about wealth.
If you look at someone like Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon who’s bringing in what? $12 billion a day that he’s adding to his his fortune, $12 billion in profit every day, compared with someone living in, say, Bangladesh, who’s barely emitting any carbon dioxide at all. There’s a huge disparity. And I think that people like Jeff Bezos would probably be happy to have us say, “Oh, well, the problem is just humanity. The problem is we’re going to destroy the planet. And I guess we have to build rocket ships and go to other planets, because that’s the only way to solve this problem.” Whereas really, it’s about wealth and capitalism. It’s that people in very wealthy countries, and especially the richest people in those countries, are doing most of the ecological damage, and who also have the power to stop doing that ecological damage if they chose and if they were willing to give up some of the money that they’re making every day.
So as an organizer, one of the reasons that I avoid that misanthropic approach is because it just doesn’t give us a lot of options, right? Like, if humans inherently are the problem, then do we just wait for humans to go extinct? I mean, I’ve certainly heard people say, “Oh, well, I guess the earth is going to come back into balance.” So you know, that kind of line of thinking. But for me as an organizer who works on many different issues, from prisons to gender equality, to you know, farm worker issues, that’s not a good enough solution. It’s not good enough to just throw your hands up and say, “oh, what can we do? It’s human nature,” because it doesn’t address the root power imbalances. And it also doesn’t give us any models for how to live better. Because that’s also what the misanthropy kind of obscures. It obscures the fact that the majority of Indigenous societies for the majority of history have lived in a way that has been beneficial for the land around them. And there are still many traditional communities and many societies that managed to live without destroying their environment and destroying the land.
And so I think, you know, if we say, “Oh, well, humans are just the problem”, then that kind of frees us up that burden of of learning more and actually changing our lifestyle, maybe, or changing our approach. I think it’s really important we look at the root of the problems that we’re facing, which in terms of climate, and many other things, is really about capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, these overlapping systems of inequality. And I think, again, the solutions that we need to find have to do with looking to those communities that have been living in a better way, whether that’s Indigenous communities or communities that have struggled for genuine equality, genuine racial equality, gender equality, all of these things. And those are the kinds of communities that can help us to not just survive this climate emergency, but after that, and now to have communities to have societies that are actually worth living in. That are fair and inclusive, and where people aren’t constantly in this competitive struggle, and on the edge of precarity in this, you know, doggy dog situation. I think it’s a very good news story to look past that misanthropy and to look at societies that are worth living in.
TFSR: So your two books, in a lot of ways – just at least by the titles and by what we’ve been talking about – a lot of what they map out is strategies for resistance and strategies for challenging the current system. And I’m not sure if there’s a strong focus on what you’re talking about right now the like, “what are people doing in other places, what have people been doing?” Are there any examples, or any good roads towards gaining that knowledge that you can suggest? You mentioned just listening to people that have been living in other ways and to the people that have been most affected by the impacts of climate change and racialized capitalism? Are there any authors or any movements in addition to the Wet’suwet’en for instance, that you would suggest listening to or looking to?
AM: Sure, well, in closer to me, I think the Indigenous Environmental Network is a movement I look at a lot, the Migrant Rights Alliance is an organization that I’ve been paying a lot of attention to. So a slightly older book that I think is important is called Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth, which is edited by Steven Best and Anthony J Nochella, and that’s a compilation of writings from many different people that kind of brings together anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism. I think that book is a really great place to start. And I think also, for me, a lot of the case studies that I talked about, a lot of movements that I talked about, are examples of people who’ve tried to kind of bring this intersectionality together in the past; Black Panther Fred Hampton was an incredibly powerful organizer who brought together, you know, this anti-racist, anti-capitalist approach. People like Judi Bari, the environmental activist who put forward a philosophy she called “revolutionary ecology”, that synthesized feminism and Earth First! and kind of working class analysis of capitalism.
I think people like that are really important to listen to. And I think, you know, it’s no coincidence that Fred Hampton was assassinated by the police, or that Judi Bari was bombed by the police. Those in power are really terrified by movements that take this intersectional approach and by people who do this, because, you know, when we start moving in this direction we can be incredibly effective and bring together a lot of different groups and movements, and have a really powerful transformative impact.
TFSR: Thank you so much for having this conversation. Aric, could you tell listeners how they can get ahold of any of your books or where they can find your writings or follow your ongoing journalism?
AM: Yeah, so you can find out more about Full Spectrum Resistance by visiting fullspectrumresistance.org. And you can also download some additional resources and read or listen to the first chapter there. If you want to look at some of my other work, you can visit aricmcbay.org, A-R-I-C-M-C-B-A-Y dot org. And I also have a Facebook page, Aric McBay author.
TFSR: Thank you again, so much, for taking the time to have this conversation. And yeah, I appreciate your work.
AM: Thanks so much. Likewise, it’s been a pleasure.
This week, I spoke with John from the Working Class History collective and host of their WCH podcast. We spoke about the new book, “Working Class History: Everyday Acts of Resistance“, that WCH has published through PM Press, their archives, methodology, the project of popularizing working class, movement and human-sized history and a bunch more. [00:05:53]
If you thirst for more conversation with John, you’re in luck as Firestorm Books will be hosting a presentation with him about the book on February 25 from 7-8:30pm eastern or UTC – 5. You can find out more at Firestorm.Coop/Calendar.
A transcription, downloadable pdf and imposed zine should be up in about a week here!
Transcription & Support
As an update on our transcription project, we’ve sent our first batch of zines to patreon subscribers over $10. Much thanks to everyone who is contributing at whatever level. We are still $75 short of covering our minimums for the transcription and podcasting fees, so if you think you can become a sustainer consider visiting patreon.com/TFSR. If you don’t like patreon, we can receive ongoing donations from liberapay or paypal, as well as one-time donations via paypal and have merch for sale in our big cartel store.
If you don’t have cash but want to help out our project, that’s great! Reach out with show ideas, tell some friends in meet space or on social media, rep our content, print out some zines and send them into prisoners, rate us on podcasting sites, translate our work, or if you have a community radio station in your area you want to hear us on, get in touch and we’ll help you. We have some notes on our site under the broadcasting tab as well, for our weekly, 58 minute FCC friendly episodes.
Letters for Sean Swain
Our comrades continues to be denied access to regular communication with the outside by the Department of Corrections in Ohio as well as Virginia where he’s being held. It’s also notable that his website is currently down. Sean has a complaint pending before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission for the torture he suffered at the hands of the state of Ohio. He is also collecting support letters for his bid for clemency. You can find more details on instagram by following Swainiac1969, SwainRocks.Org, our Swain tab or by checking out the script up at https://cutt.ly/Hkph3KY.
Thanks to Linda from Subversion1312 for reading this week’s Sean script. [01:18:02]
BAD News #42
The latest episode of BAD News: Angry Voices from around the world by the A-Radio network has just been released. You can find find past BadNews episodes at the A-Radio site. This month, you’ll hear calls for support for the evicted ROG squat in Ljubljana, Slovenia, prisoner and prisoner solidarity updates from Greece, excerpts from a discussion of Russian anarchists about the current protests across that country and Alexei Nawalny, and a short piece highlighting the 100th anniversary of the death of Piotr Kropotkin.
FREE OUR COMRADE & RELATIVE STEVE MARTINEZ! Thank you for the birthday wishes, let’s use this energy to Free & Support Steve! He resisted a Grand Jury for the second time in regards to alleged events from the NO DAPL struggle in Standing Rock, is currently NOT cooperating with authorities, & is awaiting federal extradition! Steve needs our support! Steve helped save our friend Sophia Wilansky’s arm from gettin blown off by military weapons, & he is a solid & brave Indigenous warrior! We are asking our comrades to call the jail to DEMAND they release Steve who is wrongfully in custody at: 701-255-3113, & PLEASE WRITE STEVE in Burleigh Morton Cty Jail at:
Po Box 2499
money orders can also be sent to him in his name at that address, as well as to his government name above on jail.atm.com
We’re sharing a short rap by imprisoned indigenous, emo man, Loren Reed. Loren is facing years in prison for poorly chosen words in a private message on facebook during last summer’s uprising. We’ve mentioned his situation before. You can learn more by following Tucson Anti-Repression Crew and you can hear a great interview on Loren’s case done by fellow CZN member, the ItsGoingDown podcast. You can donate to his support by cashapp’ing TARC ($TucsonARC) or paypal’ing to paypal.me/prisonsupport, don’t forget a note saying “For Loren”.
Daniel Alan Baker
In the run-up to the January 20th presidential inauguration, the far right around the US was threatening large, armed and violent rallies at US state capitols across the country. Daniel Alan Baker, a US army vet, former YPG volunteer combat medic, yoga instructor and leftist activist called for people to counter what could have been seen as the deadly sequel to January 6th events in DC. He was pre-emptively arrested by the FBI and is currently being held at Tallahassee’s Federal Detention Center. Like Loren Reed, he is facing years in prison for statements made on social media. For more information, check out this article in Jacobin Magazine, or a great chat with supporters of Daniel’s from CZN member-show Coffee With Comrades. Updates can be found at Instagram by following GuerillaGalleryTLH.
A-Radio Network Live Show
Join the A-Radio Network on Saturday, February 13thof 2021 from 14:00 till at least 20:00 o‘clock central European time, that’s 8am to 2pm eastern or New York time for our 6th transnational live broadcast of anti-authoritarian and anarchist radios from deep within where anarchy reigns.
Since 2016 this is an important part of our yearly gathering of the A Radio network. Due to the pandemic and strong restrictions given by Governments all over the world, this year’s gathering was forced online. But don’t worry, against all odds we will nonetheless join together online on February 14thto broadcast an international show full of interesting contributions and discussions with/from comrades based in different parts all over the world. And you, dear listeners are also invited!
So far, our topics will include international experiences of: prison resistance; anarchy in the time of covid; Far Rightwing threats; and experiences organizing mutual aid!
The show will be carried by (a) transnational and militant spirit which hopefully is highly infectious.We promise our bad anarchist jokes aren’t lethal.
You will find a more detailed schedule, a player for the show and a link to the livestream soon onwww.a-radio-network.organd if you’d like to participate, you can also reach out to member projects that can be found on that same site!
TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with your name pronouns and any projects you affiliate with for the purpose of this conversation?
WCH: Hi, I’m WCH:, he, and I’m the host of the Working Class History podcast.
TFSR: Would you tell us a bit about the Working Class History project, how it got started, who was involved, and why you started it?
WCH: Basically it came out of some discussions that I have with some friends a few years ago. We’d been involved in lots of different activist groups over the years and publishing projects, and involved in different campaigns. Myself, I spent most of my time organizing at work. And social media, it’s obviously a really powerful tool, and we were thinking about how could we try and put out information—radical sort of information—on social media in a way that would go viral. And we’d also got very interested in reading about the history and learning about past struggles, because the more we did organizing ourselves and were involved in social movements and such, the more it gets a bit sort of frustrating on one level seeing in general, mainstream society, that there’s so little connection that most people have—especially people of our generation and younger—have with mass working class oppositional counterculture which used to exist. Especially in the UK, where I’m from. Most of us we don’t have that organic link with the past anymore where there’d be generations of union families in certain communities. We wanted to think how can we try and not bring that back immediately, but draw that link with the past and at the same time on the (you want to call it the Left or whatever or the workers movement or whatever term you call for it) thinking that so many people get involved in stuff each new generation gets involved in stuff, and they repeat the mistakes of the people that came before them. So all sorts of thinking about how can we try and learn from these struggles in the past and try and help get these lessons to new generations of workers and activists that crop up every generation. And then we thought people seem to like anniversaries, so let’s do that. We started doing that on social media. And we were hoping that it would be viral and it was a lot more successful than we thought, in that. Because I guess for people who are, like, a bit lefty or whatever, seeing a post on social media about something happened on this day, it gives them an opportunity to share something with friends, colleagues in a way that doesn’t seem random, because it is about something that happened today. So now I’m not just lecturing all my work colleagues and family about the Paris Commune of 1871 or whatever, it’s like, “Oh, this is a historical thing that happened today, this is interesting and you might find it interesting, too.” And I think it worked in that way. Because it does give an organic and nice way of sharing information without being a bit fun and without being preachy, or lecture-y, or whatever. So that’s where it came out of, and then as the project’s got bigger we just started trying to do other things like a podcast to look into a bit more detail. Because sometimes we get comments on the on post being like, “Oh, this doesn’t have a lot of background in it, or this should really have a bit more detail.” It’s a social media post. It’s not a PhD thesis or something. We recognize that. We wanted to look into stuff into a bit more detail so we can do it in a podcast. And for people who don’t like looking at stuff online and want to have more of a reference work, we’ve done a book now.
TFSR: I’d like to talk about the book. One thing that you described in there is not a thing that I’ve ever experienced growing up in, I guess, middle class community in the United States, is a knowledge or an expectation or an experience of what a multi-generational working class feeling is. I have tons of friends growing up who were working class. But I think that a thing that you’re describing and that your project is building towards is a little bit different and a little bit something that I’d love to hear if you have any more like insights into how it’s been described to you the sort of like edges that you’ve danced around in trying to create it and what a working class culture in the UK where you grew up, for instance, felt like. What delineates that from just the experience of people who are poor and working and trying to get by?
WCH: I grew up in the southeast of England which is one of the places where the erosion of sense of working class identity has really been very successful especially with policies brought in by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and onwards. The major industries where workers were best organized and most militant were systematically divided up and then defeated one after another, first with the mine workers, then with the print workers, also around the same time period steel workers, and shipping workers were defeated as well, and then later dock workers. So that was one side of it. And then another side of it was around housing, where social housing was attacked and instead ‘Right to Buy’ was introduced, which gave working class people the ability to buy their own council house, which was—especially in the southeast of England where I’m from—massively successful at converting what was a relatively large group of working class people who mostly were Labor voters and identified in that line of things. It was very successful at turning that collective sense of identity into a massive atomized individuals who can do better for them. Because buying your own council house was a move which did help those individual people who did it significantly. And that was the area that I sort of grew up in amongst a lot of people where that had happened. So their families had bought their own home and then had a sense of themselves as very middle class, mostly conservative individuals striving to do the best for themselves that they could. I’m one of the people from that generation that had no connection with these working class oppositional cultures that I just learned about later when I got into lefty ideas and radical politics.
TFSR: Would you mind talking a bit about the book that y’all just published through PM Press and sort of the process that you went through of compiling it? And what do you hope, as a project, that this book will spark or will bring out and people
WCH: The idea for the book came out of our discussions with our publishers, PM Press, who are a great independent, radical publisher, and who contacted us to see if we’d be interested in doing a book, because we hadn’t really thought about it. We were doing social media posts, and then a podcast, and we’d been involved in some print publishing in the past, but it was a huge amount of work and that put us off the whole-put us off the whole thing. PM talked us into it. And we were excited to do it because on a personal level, like, I love books. Books are great and doing one is great. Even, say, for people who follow us on social media, because of the large amount of other people are putting up posts and algorithms, people won’t see everything that we put out most the time only a fraction of a percent see anything that we put out. And also, because of algorithms, certain posts get much more prominent than others. So especially things that are more about countries where more of our followers live, like the US, that stuff gets a lot more engagement and then a lot more people see it. So people who even do follow us on social media might get a very narrow view of the historical events that we have in our archive. And also, of course, a whole bunch of stuff there aren’t photos of. And in this book we do have a lot of photos, we’ve got over 100 photos. We’ve also been able to feature a lot of stories from our archive where there are no images that exist, so we can’t put them on social media.
We wanted to put something out for people who enjoy consuming content in a different medium. And also to have more as a reference that you can flip through without having to look at a screen or whatever. And it was exciting to be able to think of putting together in terms of a whole, creating as a whole thing. So taking a random selection of everything that we post over a whole year, instead of what we normally do, which is every day we post a couple of things. It was good to think “we’ve got 366 days out of the year and these are the countries that we’ve got events about and we want to feature them the biggest amount of countries and have the most diverse range of stories possible with respect to gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation, race, ethnicity,” and that sort of thing. And with the idea of the book being as diverse as our classes—we acknowledge in the introduction to the book that we have made a lot of efforts in this regard but we still have a long way to go due to the nature of the bias of the sources available to us, which are disproportionately about white guys in more developed Western countries. Most of our research over the past few years has been trying to find out and uncover stories about different parts of the world. But even that is tricky because of language stuff and even knowing what you can Google and such. So, while we’ve still got a way to go, we are still pleased at the range of different types of stories that we feature.
TFSR: It’s quite the tome. And it’s been remarked upon before, like, how much of it—so like, two events out of every date out of the year, including the February 29—which, “thank you” from leap your babies. And I appreciate the fact that there’s an index in the back because there’s a thing to be said about the way that we think about information and that we categorize it if your main impetus is, like, “what is the day today?” “What else has happened on this registered day in history?” That can be, in some happy ways, a bit lackadaisical. You’re not going to be flipping from one page to the next and saying, “Well, then what happened after the workers rose up or after the Soviet tanks came in or after, like, the British military massacred people in Kenya?” It’s interesting to just sort of get these little bite-sized morsels of history. And it seems to invite the reader to embark on a journey of research on their own afterwards, and sort of build the context for themselves as to why this is like important—build an understanding and maybe build wider networks with folks that were more directly affected by those historical events.
WCH: Yeah, that’s what we hope it will do. Like, we list all the sources that we use for each of the posts in the back. So that we do hope that if people see something that is interesting to them, they will go and look into it further. Because in our stories, we don’t try and tell people what they should take from them or what they should think because of them. We don’t want to tell people what to think or anything like that. Obviously we have a perspective, there’s a reason that we’ve put these stories in here. We want people to be able to read these stories and then look into them further if they want and figure out for themselves what the relevance is for them, their lives, and any struggles that they’re involved in.
TFSR: Class has a lot of meanings when it comes from different voices. And we’ve talked a little bit about your experience and basically with how class had been experienced by some people in the part of the world that you had grown up in. Can you talk a bit, for the purpose of this project, which I think was started by people in various parts of the world and not just in, like, the UK, for instance. Can you talk about the standards you used to determine something in the book or in the social media posts or in the podcast, or someone that falls within the parameters of what working class is? And why is it important to view it as a position of agency?
WCH: I think there’s so many different ways that you can talk about class. And they all have some validity. But for us, what’s important is we don’t use it as a system for classifying individuals. Our interest in it is as a political tool which is, how can we best understand society? And how can we then use that understanding in order to change it? And we think that class is a really essential tool in understanding that, especially living as we do in capitalist society. So capitalist society is based on the dispossession of the majority of the world’s population. We are dispossessed of means of production. So land, factories, workplaces, etc., we’re dispossessed of that. So that either by enclosures in European countries, and by colonialism pretty much everywhere else, were dispossessed of that, and therefore, we have to work for a wage for people who do own the means of production, who do own land, factories, blah, blah, blah. And that’s the defining feature of capitalist society. And that’s our broad understanding of class and how we use it. The defining feature of working class for us is this dispossession and then the requirement to either work for another or if you can scrape by on state benefits, if your government provides benefits, or petty crime, or whatever else you have to do. Some people use it—and I think in everyday parlance in the UK, it’s much more of a cultural thing. So what class someone says they have is often more to do with someone’s accent than anything else. The kind of British version of Donald Trump, the guy who hosts the Apprentice TV show, he’s, uh— I don’t know, if he’s a—he’s probably not a billionaire. He’s a very rich business owner called Alan Sugar. He sees himself as working class because his background is—that’s his background and that’s like his accent. And he can think that and that’s, that’s fine. That’s one sort of interpretation of it, but for our perspective, he’s an employer. And his wealth is from exploiting the people that have to work for him because we don’t own businesses.
So obviously in the US there’s even different —there’s all kinds of different ways we’ll have a talk about class. Like, in the US, unions mostly talk about the middle class, talk about being middle class. Because of struggles over the past 100 plus years, a good number of people in blue collar jobs have been able to improve their conditions to the point where they can have a decent standard of living because of the struggles they’ve had. So that there’s a lot of union talk in the US of unions defending the middle class, blah, blah, blah, which is funny, really, especially from a UK perspective where middle class normally means kind of like posh people that like films with subtitles and stuff. So we use it as, not about classifying individuals, but about understanding and changing society. So for example, in our archive we have stories about Oscar Wilde, the author and poet and libertarian socialist. And sometimes people will say things like, “He wasn’t working class.” And it’s like, yeah, fair enough. But his political ideas and the kind of world that he wanted to create was one in which working class people were in control of society and were really able to make the most of our lives and live vibrant, free, beautiful lives. That’s the thing that interests us the most, that for us is the key thing.
TFSR: There are examples in the book that do not take place directly within the framework of the means of production and employment—you point to the intersections between the dispossession and the wielding of state, religious, or social power against populations that are marginalized, whether by ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, place of birth. Can you can you talk a little bit about that widening too of the framework of working class? Because I’m sure there’s some people that are some pretty strict Marxists or workerists out there who are of the perspective that, “Well, that’s all fine and good, but that is not working class.”
WCH: And that was one of the reasons that we specifically chose the name that we did, as opposed to something more populist like “People’s History” ala Howard Zinn, a historian who is a big influence on us. Because those vulgar— want to call themselves Marxists or workerists or whatever, are a problem. People who, while they talk progressive talk about overhauling society and building a new type of world, what they often mean in a lot of ways is that they mean that for white male factory worker-type people, and everyone else like women, or Black people, or Indigenous peoples should pretty much be quiet and stop being “divisive” until the revolution, and then all the other problems can be sorted out and hunky dory. And we think that is pretty terrible, in short, not only from a moral perspective, but also it’s completely counterproductive. And it’s a misunderstanding of what class is. While these people may often criticize what they see as identity politics, which is, in most cases, just people in oppressed groups fighting for their own self-interests. They, in fact, are adopting a crude identity politics of their own on the identity of being working class, which they normally also see as excluding other types of identities. And class doesn’t exclude other identities, it overlaps and intersects with all other identities. Obviously, most trans people are working class, most other LGBT people are working class, and the vast majority of the world’s working class are people of color. And they’re located primarily in the global south. And every other type of oppression and exploitation overlaps and intersects with class. For example, things like abortion: wherever you are in the world, whatever the laws are, generally, if you’re rich, you can get an abortion if you need one. Whereas if you are poor, you may not be able to get one, even if it’s nominally legal where you are.
So things like abortion rights are inherently part of a class conflict, class struggle. Abortion rights is just one example—all other types of oppression, racism, homophobia, transphobia, all that sort of thing is very much linked to class, and any single part of our class, fighting for our own interests, benefits all of us because these workerist-type people who would say that struggles of women workers against the pay gap is a section— is a sectional thing, not in the interest of a class of a whole, say, they don’t have that same perspective when workers in one industry go on strike, or one employer go on strike for a pay increase, because they rightly recognized in that case that a victory for one group is a victory for all. And it’s exactly the same with different sections of the working class divided up by any other arbitrary characteristic.
Things like the super-exploitation of migrant workers, or particularly oppressed racial groups, the low pay for black workers in many countries, fighting against that specific racism, exploitation, raises the bar for everyone. So there’s not the constant race to the bottom, in terms of paying conditions where employers can use us to undercut one another. So we thought that was really important to get across. And also point to, historically, that often it has been the most oppressed and the most underpaid workers who have been at the forefront of organizing for better pay and conditions. Not like some populist lefty is trying to say about migrant workers being used to undercut good union jobs or what have you. But more often than not, migrant workers are really at the forefront of workers struggle fighting for better paying conditions and have been. And through history, whether it’s people like agricultural laborers in the United States, or whether it’s people like cleaners in London, England right now, leading so many struggles. Obviously, historically, in the US, women textile workers were often forgotten about. But women textile workers were the first group of workers who properly organized in factories and took strike action. And in the (US) South, black agricultural workers and workers in industries like logging and mining were central and leading in organizing and fighting for better paying conditions, which benefited everyone, including white male workers who often tried to exclude women or black people from their unions.
TFSR: So I’ll totally admit that I haven’t read the book cover to cover and the intro says that I don’t have to so I can just pick it up whenever and say, like, I wonder what happened on June 15. But I am looking forward to continually reading portions as the days passed. I’m noticing a libertarian bent to the stories that are told, for example, I haven’t seen any acts of state by so-called worker states represented as working class events in the book. Could you talk about that a little bit?
WCH: Yeah, well, our approach is summed up in our slogan which is on the back of the book and on our social media accounts, and that’s, “history is not made by kings, politicians, or a few rich individuals, it’s made by all of us.” So that’s the perspective we’re coming from. So the act of politicians and governments isn’t particularly interesting to us because we’re believers in the principle that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. And that was one of the rules of the First International—the first big international socialist organization. And that’s our view of things, that the thing that drives history is not the actions of governments, politicians, or the powerful, it’s the everyday actions, often really small and unnoticeable, by millions, hundreds of millions, billions of us. So that’s what we focus on.
Although we do feature some events which have been done in our name. That have been done by governments which call themselves representatives of the working class. Because we think that as well as learning from successful struggles in the past, we should also learn from our mistakes where terrible crimes have been committed in the name of the working class. So some of the things we include are things like the Soviet Union re-criminalizing homosexuality, which was decriminalized during the 1917 revolution and then in the 1930s was re-criminalized. And that led to the huge numbers of gay and bisexual men being sent to the gulags, to labor camps, to suffer horribly. And that was done in the name of the working class and fighting fascism. We think it’s important to remind ourselves of these things that while those of us who say we want a new world, our ideas are beautiful ideas in a lot of ways. And that we want to create a great world where there’s a lot more happiness and joy than we have now, and a lot less suffering. It’s important to bear in mind that having these lofty ideas in our heads doesn’t always mean that that’s how they work out in practice. And we should be constantly vigilant not to think that the ends justify the means when it comes to certain things.
TFSR: You talked about the limitations of the project in the introduction, such as the limit to two events represented for each day. You also mentioned where you’re starting from, the types of events that you’re aware of, linguistic factors that determine the scope of what you could include. But can you talk about this work in your project in the social media, or in the archives, the work of translating your social media posts on the days of history? Or if you’ve had success through translation to bringing histories that were formerly out of your reach into that wider fold of your project?
WCH: Can I check? Do you mean translating stuff from other languages into English? Or do you mean vice versa?
TFSR: Into English is what I meant, to bring it to your existing audiences. But also, I would imagine that there’s a give and take when it comes to the fact that you’re now doing translations into Arabic and other languages and it seems like you’re trying to expand that framework. Is that right?
WCH: We are very fortunate in that a number of people have got in touch and have launched sister pages, essentially, of Working Class History in other languages. So at the moment there’s WCH sister pages in Arabic, Farsi, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Norwegian, Swedish, and the latest one is Romanian, which is really cool and really exciting to see. Some of those groups also are researching their own events and writing up their own history more about their part of the world. So the Farsi page has a lot of stuff about Iranian radical history, which is really fascinating. And the Arabic page as well about the Middle East. And that’s great, because that’s teaching us a bunch of stuff that we didn’t know. And the Portuguese lot as well are writing a load of great stuff, not just about Portugal but about—especially about struggles in former colonies like Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, and Bissau. So that’s really great for us. And in terms of us finding out things because, as I said, when we first started the social media page, we got a few radical history calendar-type-things and went through and wrote some stuff up, but the ones that we found were massively US and Western Europe and male-centric.
So like I said, the majority of the time we spent looking up new things have been to try and diversify that and correct the bias and imbalance that was in it right from the beginning. And for doing that—not that I want to give any big corporations any praise—but I love Google Translate so much. It’s such an amazing tool that it can do pretty decent, pass-able translations from so many languages into English. So we do use that a fair bit to find out about things. The problem with it being that if writing about something is only available in a language that you don’t speak, you wouldn’t even necessarily know to look something up there unless you had knowledge of it in the first place, which you might not have if it wasn’t in English, if you see what I mean. So it’s a bit—it’s a bit chicken and egg. Basically, when we find out about something in a country or a place that we haven’t heard of, we can use that as an entry point and then read things about it and use Google Translate. And then that references other things which we can then look up. We go down rabbit holes. It’s quite a fun way to—like, nerdy, but a fun way to spend an afternoon like going down a rabbit hole. I did that recently just reading up various things about struggles by Japanese students and things in the 1960s and 70s. I’m sure that there’s lots of stuff that has been written about kinds of stuff by people in academia at some point or by students at different universities or whatever. That’s not the background that we at WCH come from. We wouldn’t even know if any of that stuff exists because most stuff that’s written for academia is then just never heard from again by anyone outside of it, which is a shame I think.
TFSR: Or it’s just behind a paywall so you have to have the JSTOR—shout out to Aaron Schwartz, but most people don’t have that sort of access.
WCH: Exactly. So problems remain where, in the availability of information around the world, but at least on a positive, things do seem to be getting better in that regard. And I think a lot of the time just driven by ordinary people researching stuff and writing it up and then sharing on social media, and then you can find out about it, look into more and what have you, and find more kinds of things that have been digitized around the place. And the more of everything that’s made available online and translated, eventually, the more that we get to find out about all of it. But so it is exciting seeing new things get to get digitized and put online. Yeah, it’s a slow process.
TFSR: Like off topic a little bit, but to the Google Translate thing? Yeah, Google is a terrible company in its application. But also, like, six years ago I was in Istanbul and I remember—like, I don’t speak any Turkish—but I remember sitting in a cafe and one of the workers came up to talk to me because I was sitting in reading, and they asked me what I was reading in Turkish. And I was like, showed them my phone and, like, typed in to Google Translate to translate into Turkish, like, “I don’t speak Turkish, sorry.” And they just put up their phone and they were like, “Okay, well, I was wondering what you were reading—” We just had this conversation showing screens to each other and eventually got to see this, like, barista’s artwork that they wanted to show me that they had drawn and it was just neat to be able to have this conversation that would have been excluded if not for the fact that we had this intermediary technology standing between us. It’s Utopic if not for the fact that it’s owned by a terrible Skynet corporation that is trying to control all the library books.
WCH: I guess you could say at least their business model is more to let people use stuff for free and then just make money off our data in private information, rather than—don’t know if it’s better or worse. Certainly we can make use of it more than, like, the other companies that buy up historical images and then their model is to try and own all the images and then make people pay to use them. Those terrible, terrible things. Capitalism is like, it’s bad?
TFSR: It’s like it’s enclosing everything. So have you considered making a Working Class History page in Esperanto?
WCH: If someone would like to take that on and do that they are very welcome to.
TFSR: Very diplomatic.
WCH: We’ve got a bunch of stuff about that. Esperanto has a really exciting and interesting radical history. And, sadly, a guy that we are planning on doing an interview about him—a guy called Eduardo Vivancos, just died a few days ago, aged 100. He was a guy who, he fought in the Spanish Civil War in the Durutti Column Militia and survived the war, obviously, but he was also a very prominent Esperantist who wrote and did a lot of stuff spreading anarchist and working class ideas in Esperanto, and was able to communicate with lots of people in China and Japan, in particular, at that time. So I think certainly that Esperanto was a really exciting Utopian project at the time. It has a really interesting history.
TFSR: It’s really easy to point to the limitations of it being such a Euro-centric language and what have you. Like, it’s definitely an imperfect thing, but the approach and the desire to have some sort of universal tongue among peoples, it’s a really beautiful idea. A universal tongue that’s not distinctly just English or German or French or Spanish or whatever else. I know that Radio Libertaire in Paris has a weekly Esperanto show that tries to teach listeners how to speak it, which I think is pretty cool to see that still alive. I don’t know.
WCH: Just you saying that and I think that is—the idea is really cool and really Utopian. But what popped into my mind as well is also—also recently what is also about things like Indigenous languages. And so many languages are dying out. I say “dying.” Have been eradicated essentially by colonialism and neocolonialism, particularly with the spread of English. So it is heartening to see, it seems like there’s been a real like growth in interest in trying to—particularly by indigenous peoples—to re-popularize things like indigenous languages and other languages are dying out, which I think is also really important because on the flip side of universal communication there’s also that, like, because of how our brains work, so much of the language we speak shapes how we can imagine things and how our minds work and having languages die is—those whole ways of thinking die out along with them and which is really sad.
TFSR: So in the US, the last national regime was pushing a program of patriotic education, attempting to reform and shape the inculcation of public school students away from influences of critical race theory and projects like the New York Times 1619 projects, as well as “People’s History” ala Howard Zinn, who you mentioned before. States in the US have, with various levels of success, attempted to bar ethnic studies programs and to ban books like Zinn’s. Can you talk about the approach of “People’s History,” which you mentioned as being—or at least in name, at least a bit populist—and it’s maybe like, Zinn’s work or Studs Terkel or other documentarians of working class experiences, how it’s, like, influenced y’all in working class history and why you think the reactionaries find it so threatening, like that sort of approach to popular history?
WCH: Some of the stuff especially being pushed by the last government was extremely worrying with their very blatant attempts to rewrite history, especially for, like, right wing people who like to complain about Black Lives Matter activists trying to rewrite history by removing some statues, and they actually try to rewrite history by making a lot of shit up and lying about it. It’s ironic at the least, especially as it’s also so completely nonsensical that—yeah it is good that there has been a real growth recently in more people-based history, more grassroots history, more Black history, more Indigenous history more history told from the perspective of Black people, Indigenous peoples, and so on. And that is great, and that so many people are out there doing that. But at the same time, that idea in the right wing that these ideas are, like, Marxist indoctrination of schoolchildren is predominant in any public education system is to such a complete joke that. I mean, it’s obviously not funny because it’s extremely disturbed. The fact that a lot of educational institutions pay at least a bit of lip service to teaching about slavery or the civil rights movement, I think a lot of teachers and educators are doing really great work. In a lot of ways, the way that history is still taught for the most part is still very much top down, Euro-centric, colonial, blah, blah, blah.
So anyway, that’s a bit of an aside. People like Howard Zinn was really a big influence. Reading his book for the first time was very exciting. And I think on a personal level, I don’t think I really realized it at the time— I read “War and Peace” as a teenager by like Leo Tolstoy who was an anarchist, but I also didn’t realize that at the time. And intersperse—because the books about the sort of war and all these countesses and counts and whatever. And it’s really fucking long. For anyone who has or hasn’t read or whatever, interspersed through this really long story is a kind an essay about the nature of history. And the thrust of it being that, like, history is not—obviously Napoleon or whatever is a great man of history, but Napoleon is not what has made this history happen. What’s far more important is the infinitesimally small actions of tens of millions of people every single day that goes to create what history is. And I think when I read that, at the time, I thought that was a bit random that this essay was in here amongst all this sort of stories of aristocratic love and intrigue and everything. That actually stuck with me way more than the rest of the book. I think that probably had a real impact on how I think about things later. So obviously it did have an influence on me personally and on WCH in general.
And for reactionaries, yeah, it is threatening because the idea that we as ordinary people have the power to make history and change society is the most threatening thing for the people who are in power now. Because what is in their interests is the fatalistic idea which I think—I don’t know about most people, but probably most people have at least at some time—is that things are the way they are because that’s the way they have to be, and there’s nothing we can do about it. And things will never change, blah, blah, blah. Which is obviously what people thought under Feudalism that the divine right of kings was something which could never be—which was, it was in the natural order of things and it could never be question never be changed. But then when people realize that, actually—Ursula LeGuin was a legendary anarchist, feminist scifi author, who sadly died a couple of years ago, said, I can’t be the exact words, I am paraphrasing. It’s not the right quote, so don’t quote me on it. “Any society that’s made by humans, however, can be changed by humans” which is, of course, true.
TFSR: I think there is some truth to the argument that they’re rewriting history. Like when we push different narratives, it doesn’t mean that people are making up facts. But history is a narrative that—or a series of narratives that we choose to accept or that are accepted by institutions and that shape the way that we view ourselves and we view the society in which we live. And a fundamental shift in that way of adopting, funnily this view that two pacifist at least anarchist-adjacent individuals like Tolstoy and Zinn had of the world…I wouldn’t call it Cultural Marxism like a lot of people on the right do. I think that it does pose a threat to the way that the world is constructed. And we can think outside of the Feudal bounds that we’re stuck in now even.
WCH: Yes. Yes, I concur.
TFSR: Along those lines there is the rewriting of history. But this isn’t even necessarily part of it, this is a byproduct of the fact that people are rethinking their relationship to historical figures who are in primacy in the historical framework—the historiographies that most of us have grown up in the US under in mainstream society. It’s been the history of great men, to paraphrase Gang of Four.
And the breaking down of that, the rethinking of these public figures who do have statues around, whether it be Christopher Columbus, or Thomas Jefferson, or General Robert E. Lee, or Conquistadors or missionaries on the west coast—they’re not even just in the West Coast of the United States. Cecil Rhodes, or whoever—like, statues have been toppled. Statues were at the center of Unite the Tight number one in Charlottesville in 2017, August 12. It was a fight over statues and public representation. And similarly, throughout the United States south there have been the toppling of other statues and monuments, either to individuals or to symbolic ideas of the southern soldier, like, facing north ready to, like, fight back the siege and re-impose—continually impose white supremacy. Symbols like this mean a lot to people. Enough for people to fight over or to like struggle to destroy to build something else. Like, I’d be interested in hearing how Working Class History members felt during this last couple of years, but in particular, this summer during the uprising that took place in so many places around the world.
WCH: It was an exciting time. Not to play down obviously, it came out of horrific events the brutal on-camera murders of unarmed Black men around the US—not to downplay the horror of it. The upsurge in Black-led, self-organized protest and militancy, not just around the US, but that also had an impact, partly because of US cultural dominance of the planet in large part, that also saw similar protests breakout all over the world, and as well as parallel movements in Nigeria—again about police brutality by the colonial era police force. So on the one hand, there was the Black Lives Matter movement. And then at the same time, from our perspective, it looked like a real surge of interest from people in radical history, people’s history, the history of past movements and colonialism and social movements. We had a massive growth in new followers and interactions with our content that was unprecedented, which was exciting for us as a history project, but then also seeing how many of the kinds of discussions happening were about history and the nature of history and the telling of it was interesting and inspiring as well.
Talking about the negative impacts of colonialism that’s not something which I can recall being on the public agenda in my lifetime which is tremendously significant. And then seeing the physical manifestations of that top down—bourgeois if you want to call it right wing, colonialist, capitalist history in the statues of right wing, rich, enslaving, genocidal monuments have been built to these—I think (that) these statues that—they say what our civilization is supposed to be about. That’s what we acknowledge and revere is wealth, genocide, racism, colonialism, and all that. And seeing those symbols being toppled, or damaged, or just graffitied and denigrated. And my favorite one was the Colston statue in Bristol, of an enslaver in Bristol, just being thrown in the river. Chefs kiss! That was really sort of inspiring to see.
Then for some people on the right to complain about, oh, this is rewriting history. These things are happening because people have studied history and a lot of cases, their bodies and their selves, they’ve experienced and lived this history through their ancestors, the trauma and they’ve possessed that and they know their history and the history has been studied and it’s being talked about and this is happening because of the actual history of things. The statute is not the history, the statue is a piece of metal put up by some rich person. This is being done by people who actually know the history, not just whoever Tucker Carlson or some other right wing [beep] spews out about whatever—and especially because so many of these statues as well were erected in in the US south were erected by pro-Confederate, pro-slavery groups like the Daughters of the Confederacy, literally in an effort to rewrite history and change the narrative about what the Civil War was about. About state’s rights as opposed to the enslavement of human beings. So, it’s an interesting time to be a People’s Historian.
TFSR: Some of the stuff that happened over the summer really, like, reminiscent of that, like—and this is like an old, I don’t know how old it is, like the two examples I can think of are—as flawed as the invasion of Iraq was, it’s very flawed—as much as I wish that it had not happened—like, the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein was a pretty powerful public image. At least, I’m not sure how much it was organic and how much it was put together by the invading forces—or the like decapitation of the statue of Stalin in Budapest in 1956. That’s a, there’s some really cool photos of that. But people like their symbols and also people like destroying their symbols.
WCH: And also all the right wing hysteria about them is like absolute nonsense. Like I don’t know if it was seen over here in the US, but in the UK there was this right wing counter protest to Black Lives Matter that happened by these mostly fascists, and mostly fascist Nazi racist types. And from having been crying about, “Oh, they defaced he statue of Churchill,” or whatever. Obviously you can say a lot of bad things about Churchill or whatever. But also, Churchill did—was involved in a big war against Nazis. So I’m not really sure that he is your boy as much as you think. I mean, yeah, he was a racist, genocidal anti-Semite pro-fascist, whatever. So they had this big protest but they got caught on camera like pissing on statues because they’re just drunk Muppets pissing on the statues that a couple of weeks before they were like, “Oh, look at these thugs,” crying like Churchill was a racist on [inaudible] or whatever. Being like, “Oh, that’s outrageous,” and then they just go piss on them. So, how real is the outrage, huh?
TFSR: Yeah. Yeah, here, I don’t know. There was—I remember seeing footage of like a certain neighborhood in Philadelphia where just a bunch of Italian American people were out in this park defending a statue of Columbus because they were afraid that someone that Antifa was gonna come and topple it or something.
WCH: (There) could be a few less statues of Christopher Columbus and some more statues of like Sacco and Vanzetti and Carlo Tresca and if you want to tie in American statues.
TFSR: Yeah totally. A statue the Galleani. I would appreciate that more than, like, a statute of Frank Rizzo. I think they took that one down at least but it was like a racist reactionary. Police Chief in—
WCH: Yeah, in Philly. I think that got blown up at least once or twice didn’t it?
I don’t know about that. The—maybe? The ones that I remember being—or the one that I remember being blown up that was to the police was the—
WCH: Haymarket one.
TFSR: Yeah, the Haymarket one. I think that’s great. That’s maybe the best thing the Weather Underground ever did.
WCH: Yeah, it was similar to a statue of Margaret Thatcher was decapitated by a man with a cricket bat when it was unveiled in England a few years ago that was a fun day.
TFSR: That’s awesome. Back to the interview…
WCH: Yep. Yep. Yeah.
TFSR: So I’ve been a fan of the Working Class History podcast for a while now. Would you talk about the work there and what you choose to cover in it? And do you have any favorite episodes that stand out?
WCH: Well, as I said, we started doing the podcast to try and look some more into some of these stories, and in particular, capture the voices of participants who took part in some of these movements and struggles, to learn from their experiences. We’ve been doing that for a while now. And in terms of what we choose to cover, we’ve got a massive list of episodes that we want to work on. It’s like 160 episodes or something and constantly growing. What we’re trying to do right now is prioritize producing episodes about social movements where the participants are at risk of, because of age, not being able to— And sadly a couple of people that we had lined up to interview about things have died recently before we were able to speak with them. So we’re trying to do a fair bit of stuff about struggles in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s right now, for the most part. Again, as with the rest of project, we tried to have a diverse selection of different types of stories and movements.
We’ve got a couple of series that we’re working through. They’re kind of intermittent series on themed things. We’ve pretty much wrapped up now our series about the Vietnam War where we had a lot of episodes about that, including possibly—I don’t know if it’s my favorite one, but certainly one of—it’s a miniseries about the Columbia Eagle Mutiny where we speak with a guy called Alvin Glatkowski. He was a merchant sailor during the Vietnam War. He was working on a ship with a friend of his, called Clyde McKay, that was carrying 10,000 tons of napalm to be used by US forces in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. He and Clyde hijacked a ship at gunpoint and sailed it to Cambodia, which was neutral, and his story is incredible. He hadn’t been recorded telling that story before. Hearing him tell it and then being able to put it out was something that personally I’m really proud of. And it’s a great story and a crazy story as well. So that’s a favorite, for sure.
Also, on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion in New York, where LGBT people rose up against police harassment, was able to get in touch with few people who participated in the rebellion and were involved in the organizing afterwards, where people set up the Gay Liberation Front, which revolutionized the LGBT rights movement. That was really inspiring to talk to these people as well.
Another occasional series we’ve got is about the British Empire. And we did an episode on the—it was quite timely actually because it was while a recent wave of riots were happening in Hong Kong. I met with a bunch of people who were involved in the Hong Kong riots in 1967 against British occupation, British colonialism. And that was super interesting because I knew almost nothing about that before starting doing the research for that episode. So it was super interesting just to learn about their experiences growing up in British colonial Hong Kong. Especially because it’s always spoken about quite widely is an example of British colonialism done well, and getting to the meat of that. Because up until these riots took place, Hong Kong was a trading post, obviously, but also had a large number of super-exploited factory workers working in like really appalling conditions, making things like—the factory where it was started was a plastic flower factory, and things like that. And it was these riots in 1967 that were successful in substantially changing the nature of British colonialism in the country from a more openly violent and repressive, racist colonialism to, I guess you call it, I don’t know, a more kind of—more friendly Hillary Clinton-style of colonialism, if you want to call it that. So even these examples, people choose of colonialist capitalism being not so bad or what have you, it’s not due to any—it’s not due to the benevolence or the generosity of the oppressors or exploiters or the business owners or whatever. It was due to the self-organized struggle of the workers and the people in the area. So that was really interesting chatting to them as well. And also, in that one of the people I was talking … During the riots there was like a really high profile murder of a right wing talk show personality and that murder was a notorious unsolved murder in Hong Kong history. One of the participants in the interview basically told me who did it. Enough time had passed. And not the name of the person, because obviously they have descendants who could essentially the reasons behind it. I’m kind of a true crime buff, like in my personal life—it doesn’t accord with my political views at all. Other than that I do—
TFSR: Everybody gets their your guilty pleasures, that’s fine.
WCH: No, exactly. And a lot of stuff I listen to is about miscarriages of justice and stuff like that. There’s too many. A really great chat I had as well was a guy called Tariq Mehmood who is a member of the Asian Youth movements in Britain, who fought against racism in the 70s and 80s. Those are the first ones that jump into my mind right now. I’m sure I’m forgetting… I could keep going but I won’t.
TFSR: I know y’all had taken a break at some point. And so I dropped off and restarted it. But the ones for me that really stuck out—and I had to like do a little searching because it’s been a while—are the anti-Zionism movement in Israel I thought was a really fascinating multi-part episode. There was the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, and sort of contextualizing that. And just the Angry Brigade episode I thought was really fascinating to hear voices affiliated with that. And the Grunwick Strike in 1976 I had no context for, that just sort of, like, opened up a lot of conversation for me of experience of, like, workers struggle in the UK among immigrant populations. And there’s just a lot in each of those discussions. And it’s really easy to talk about the context that you can grab out of that that explains where we’re at right now. It explains little snippets of these struggles that people have had that resonate with experiences that others have had. I really enjoyed those ones.
WCH: Cool, thanks. Some of those early ones, apologies for anyone who listen. The quality of them isn’t so great, but we have got better since then from a quality point of view as we’ve learned. And there was a reason that we did the Grumwick Strike episode first. Because we thought that was important just from the things that we’ve spoken about today, because that was an example where this was a group of—they were East African Asian women workers who self-organized a massive and militant struggle that lasted two years. And were unfortunately defeated in the end because the forces against them were just too powerful. Up until that point, the British trade union movement was chauvinist, essentially. The overarching thrust of the movement was towards excluding Black and Asian—Asian, meaning South Asian, primarily anyway—workers and trying to protect privileged conditions for their white members, as opposed to organizing all workers and fighting collectively for better conditions. And the women in the Grumwick Strike pretty successfully exploded that (myth). Obviously there’s still that chauvinist, nationalist current within the work, but it’s much more minor now. Worrying it seems to be getting a bit bigger with—it’s unclear how really it is, and maybe more Twitter-type personalities, villains like Paul Embry who are trying to resurrect this pro-nationalist idea of a traditional working class of white blokes—as opposed to workers uniting together in our class interests. That strike really successfully changed the general atmosphere of the workers movement in a way that made working people stronger, because of course we’re stronger when we’re united fighting against employers, when we’re not fighting amongst ourselves over scraps.
TFSR: So are you all seeking more help with the project? You’ve talked about sister pages coming up and translation work. If you are looking for more help in providing historical insights or translation work, I guess, like video editing, what sort of ways can people participate?
There’s all kinds of ways people can help out. The primary things that we need help with at the moment are things around fact checking research and translation. So if anyone is up for helping with that, that would be amazing. Just get in touch. Email us on email@example.com.
TFSR: And where can listeners find out more about your work and grab the book?
WCH: Well, you can follow us on social media, just search whatever platform you’re on for Working Class History. You can listen to our podcast on every major podcast app like Apple, Spotify, whatever, just search Working Class History. There’s links to all of our information on our website, workingclasshistory.com. And you can get the book on our online store, which is at shop.workingclasshistory.com. And all of our work is funded through our readers and listeners on Patreon where you can also get the book for free depending on your patron level and access exclusive content at patreon.com/workingclasshistory.
TFSR: John, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you Thanks a lot for taking the time.
WCH: It was really fun, thanks for having me. And I hope that for the theme music for this you can get the rights to a Gang of Four “Not Great Men,” because I think that would be very appropriate.
This week on the Final Straw, we’re sharing another audio gift from comrades. Isbel Diaz Torres is a participant in the Taller Libertario Alfredo López / ABRA in Havana, Cuba, recorded in late 2018. In this chat, Isbel talks about the ABRA which is the only openly anarchist organization in Cuba at the time, about the LGBTQ movement and abortion rights which are both facing repression due to pressure from Cuban Evangelical and Catholic churches on the Cuban government, political discourse and difference, government co-optation, neoliberalism, animal rights, repression of dissent and the erasure of anarchist history.
In May of 2019, Isbel and his boyfriend Jimmy Roque Martinez were arrested on their way to the annual Conga Against Homophobia and Transphobia, essentially Cuba’s main Pride Parade and detained 24 hours in order to block their participation. As Isbel talks about in the interview, the state-run National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) had bowed to pressure from right wing Christian groups and canceled the event so activists were planning to hold an autonomous Conga resulting in several more arrests. A report with updates on the subject can be found at the Rosa Negra / Black Rose Federation website. You can also find an audio statement from Mario from the TLAL space on the subject in Spanish via BRRN.
Sean’s segment runs [00:35:56 – 00:42:36]. More info at
We’d like to say a brief hello to our new listeners on Royalton Community Radio in eastern so-called Vermont, where this show will air every Saturday at 10pm following Nocturnal Combustion as well as Tuesday mornings at 5am!
If you’d like to hear two recent interviews with the hosts of the show, check out last week’s FE-Live podcast (audio or video) with David Rovics for Fifth Estate Magazine, as well as the final episode of the SoleCast from the end of 2020, soon to be renamed The Institute for Post American Studies.
The Final Straw Radio: I guess, just tell us who you are and what this space is….
Isbel Diaz Torres: OK, my name is Isbel Diaz Torres and I am a member of Taller Libertario Alfredo López which is, I guess, the only anarchist organization here in Cuba – but it doesn’t mean that we are the only anarchist people – who are organized and public as us from my knowledge. We’ve been working for almost 10 years as an anarchist organization but before that, we were one of the anti-capitalist organizations in general, independent ones, in Cuba. Eventually, we decided that we wanted to form an anarchist group, so we made it. And the space, although it is run by us, by the people of the Taller Libertario Alfredo López, is not exactly an anarchist space only. It’s open to communitarian activities, anything that we like because we feel it is coherent with our view of what life is and what development is, what culture is, etc. The space is ABRA, it’s just a word in Spanish that has about seven different meanings. Over there, you can see the word ABRA. It also means ‘open’, by the way, ‘open the door = abra la puerta’.
We started this place almost a year ago, in May 2018. We made crowdfunding on the Internet because first we were touring in France and Spain and the comrades there had all kinds of different libraries, cafes, physical spaces where they could gather and have meetings. They all the time asked us, ‘Do you have a place?’ We didn’t have a place. So the ideas started there: why don’t we create a physical space for us to meet.
With the help of all the comrades we met in France and Spain, we made the crowdfunding, the got the money and bought the house. It’s not completely ready yet, we are still working and deciding what kind of activities we want to do here. We don’t want to go very past, because we want to be inserted in the community more organically. We don’t want to look like aliens who come here and tell people what they need to think or do. We just want to be neighbors and propose activities, get to know what they need or want. We have pretty much the same needs because we live here, this is what we are trying to do with this space.
TFSR: The first thing that caught my attention was the big, rainbow flag. And also, we went to a sub-cultural event in Santa Clara at Mijunque. I couldn’t tell if it was a gay bar or just had gay nights, but there seemed to be some overlaps there. Is anarchism and counter culture very linked to the LGBT movement in Cuba? What’s the history of the relationship between them?
IDT: I don’t think you can say that anarchism and the LGBT movement have a link. A link in a way are some of us who are gay or lesbians, or queer people. But not because of the history of the movements. If we go to the history of the movement of anarchism in Cuba, it was pretty much anarcho-syndicalism. I wouldn’t say it has any relation to a gender topic or LGBT topic. The only link that I can identify is quite interesting: some of the anarcho-syndicalist groups in the 40-50s of the past century had these naturist groups who went to the wild naked and had this kind of interaction, it was very cool. It has something to do with sex or gender. But this is just something I want to say about, but this is not that they were really thinking in these terms like the LGBT movement or feminism.
The thing is that my boyfriend and I are a gay couple. So we are promoting this topic inside our group. In most other groups, the majority is heterosexual males, so, in a way, that is a process of learning how to break all the paradigms of hetero-sexism. The difference is that we have access, we’ve been in touch with people with different perspectives on it. When people come to the common LGBT movement in Cuba they receive the information that you can see on the Internet, but they don’t know about radical LGBT or queer people, radical feminism, etc. We have a lot of materials like that, we want to promote these ideas. In our library and the stuff that we publish, we have the materials that we want to be promoted. That is something different when you see the LGBT spectrum, you can see right-wing people, leftists, and us – we are more radical about it.
TFSR: What is right wing in Cuba? And also, you talk about being in anti-capitalist groups… what does being an anti-capitalist mean in Cuba? Does everyone think that they live in an anti-capitalist country?
IDT: I guess people don’t think in those terms anymore. That was part of our language 20 years ago but not anymore. People don’t think about it. That’s why we use the word anti-capitalist, and even for a Cuban it’s like, come on, man, what are talking about? Nobody cares about it. In fact, if you ask them, they will say they love capitalism. Although they don’t really accept it, they don’t say it in those terms. But they love consumption, international corporations that come and invest in Cuba, they agree with the credits or the whole economic structure related to capitalism. They don’t have questions about it. In fact, when they make demands to the government, it’s pretty much asking for that kind of economic liberties. So they like capitalism in many ways.
It’s very difficult, cause you have different discourses. On the one hand, you have the speech of the government and they would say that anyone who opposes them are right-wing. You just need to be loyal to the system, not to the idea of emancipation, etc. You have to be loyal to the government and its leaders, that’s the idea of what a leftist person is, of what anti-capitalism is.
On the other hand, all people recognize capitalism as what it is – a system of relations where people are alienated in many ways. From my perspective, everything is there, what social class you are, if you are a worker or an owner, but also your gender, race, the color of skin, where you come from, what part of the island you are, what’s your job, how much money you have. Everything has to do with being anti-capitalist. They don’t want to acknowledge that, of course. For us, we can identify right-wing movement or right-wing persons or collectives here in Cuba, both in the system and independent ones. For example, there is one organization here in Cuba named Estado de SATS, it’s pretty much the most prominent right-wing organization here. Of course, they are against the government, the government represses they as much as they can, and they are like think tanks, they propose designs of the colony?? that has to do with free-market or private property. They want to privatize pretty much everything, including the healthcare and educational systems. That’s obvious that they are right-wing in that sense, but when you try to find out what their position is regarding other topics like abortion, relationship… the position on LGBT people in society or racism, etc., they might have a progressive position about it.
Then you have other sectors in the society that… Maybe they are not promoting this kind of free market, but they have a very conservative position, they are members of very orthodox Christian churches, they are against gay, equalitarian marriage. We’ve been fighting with them last months. So, that’s another part of society. Maybe they are not organized politically, like challenging the government, but they do have the means and resources to promote these ideas.
And then, inside the government. I first mentioned the right-wing opposition, then I mentioned Church and all the families who are gathered around that. And the third place in my opinion, inside the government, there are a lot of people who are promoting the economic activities that include lifting any… Do you call it the opposition of protectionism? No taxes for foreign investors to come to Cuba and do what the want, or no workers unions inside those businesses, international corporations, that kind of design of economic relations – this is what they promote. And in my opinion, they are right-wing.
TFSR And is abortion legal in Cuba?
IDT: Abortion, yes. It is a struggle that we already won. We are afraid that it can be strictly regulated. I’m worried because the government is in constant dialogue with the Catholic church and with protestant churches. Both of them opposed the possibility of gay marriage to be included in the Constitution recently. They made strong statements saying that the people who go to their churches would vote NO to the new constitution if they didn’t change that, regarding the equalitarian marriage. And the government complied, accepted it and changed it. So they know that they have enough strength, to challenge the government, to do what they want them to do. And on the other hand, those conversations are never public. You never know what they are talking about. They have meetings but they are not open to the press. It really doesn’t matter, because the Cuban press doesn’t care what happens anywhere. So I’m concerned in that sense.
TFSR: I want to go back to the history of anarchism before the revolution…
IDT: I will do my best, but Mario is the one who knows it better. I could give some relevant…
TFSR: Yeah, a broad picture…
IDT: First, I recommend reading the book Anarchism in Cuba by Frank Fernandez. He lives in Miami and the book is both in Spanish and English. You can download it or buy it on Amazon. This is a good version of the history of the anarchist movement in Cuba before 1955, before the triumph of the revolution.
As I mentioned, it was mainly anarcho-syndicalist movement and there was this person, Alfredo Lopez, that guy over there (pointing to a poster) who was connected with the liberation movement in Cuba. But, of course, at some point, because of the link of the leaders – Fidel Castro and there were some leaders of the 26th of July Movement – with the Partido Socialista Popular (there was this party in Cuba who received direct orders from the USSR Communist Party), after the triumph of the revolution, most anarchists were sent to prison, were killed or sent to exile. So it collapsed. Mario has the exact date of the last public meeting they held to place maybe one year after the triumph of the revolution, that was the last time we heard about it. And there was no anarchist movement for decades. Maybe you can find on the internet some references to other groups, Zapata Group or something like that. But we don’t have any certainty if they existed during the 80-90s. You can have a look on the Internet, but we don’t have any direct information. As far as we know, we are who took the spirit of anarchism again and tried to make a movement with that.
On the other hand, I can say that the anarchist spirit in a way was present in the common sense of the people of Cuba. That’s part of the work that Mario does: trying to identify the anti-authoritarian structures of people who decided to organized beyond the government or with no relation to the government. For us, it’s a symptom of anarchist feeling. Maybe for you, it has nothing to do, but for Cuba, everything was related to the government for decades: we had no private property, the state checked every single activity you can imagine – economic of even your personal relationship, culture, art – everything was controlled by the government. So when you find something that tried to exist outside those barriers, then you consider it a symptom of anarchist spirit.
TFSR: I read the Frank Fernandez book years ago and it described anarcho-syndicalist unions that had tens and hundreds of thousands of members and wondering, where did they go after the revolution? He talks about some of them that were exiled or killed, but 10’s of thousands of members?
IDT: The activity of the Communist Party, because they infiltrated into those organizations and turned that into vertical unions and communist structures. So when we talk about people who were exiled or killed, we talk about the heads of movements, but common workers were the victims of the Partido Socialista Popular (the name of the previous communist party).
TFSR: That’s a good segue. I understand that the modern Cuban authoritarian state uses a subtle and soft touch in order to exert it’s influence politically, but what does it look like today, how the state influences dissent or alternative political organizing?
IDT: Well, they have an impact. When you are a member, you feel it. If you are just a neighbor, you say, “No, nothing is wrong, nothing is really happening”. For example, you can see this poster here, it was there facing the street. And we received an inspection, not a political one. It said you have no license to put that banner over there, so you have a ticket for 200 pesos and 2 days to remove it. And they inspect the whole house, cause they said that they received an anonymous complaint that we were illegally constructing here, which was a lie, just an excuse to get into the house, inspect the whole house.
For example, the most common thing they do is out of the structure of employment has changed in the last years, but maybe 10-15 years ago, I’ve been working for almost 20 years, all employees were state employees. So if you receive a visit at your workplace, and this political police talks to your boss, like, this guy is having meetings with counter-revolutionary people, you can be fired. My boyfriend has been fired, and he is an optometrist. So that kind of pressure is over us, but that’s for us who have a public face, we consider ourselves anti-capitalists and we have friends and comrades of different movements all around the world. But when you go small organizations (yeah, we are very small), the ones that just started, that have no history, it’s very easy for them to dismantle that, with one phone call they will stop them. It’s very real. And it’s not what they do, it’s also the history that still is in the imagination of people. It triggers something there that says, OK, I cannot say this or that in a public place because it can be repressed. And they say, there is no repression, but the people repress themselves, they don’t express themselves freely, and it will work.
So when you make a comparison, like you say there is repression in Cuba, but we never saw a policeman beating people on the street with rubber, with gas or anything like that. But what I think is much worse is that they don’t even need that. The control is so well-installed in the brain of people, in the common sense of the communities, that they don’t need that kind of stuff.
That’s the reason why people, very few of them have come inside this house. Most of them want to know what is happening, but they are not brave enough to come up here and see what’s inside.
For example, you need to be very careful with the things that we do because they can use anything against us any time. For example, we started this space, we painted it anew, you see the door and the wall here are painted. We did it ourselves, but the kids from the neighborhood, you hear them out there when they already came this morning. They say, “We want to draw something, we are bored, we have nothing to do”. And we were all the time proposing stuff for them to do, and they were involved in painting all these walls. The next day, a security of the state officer came to us and said, “I know who you are, what you are trying to do, and we won’t allow you to do it with the kids. We said, “Why?”. “I know you were taking pictures of the kids”. We were taking pictures of the whole process, because that is part of our history and we want to have a record of that. “Yeah, but you were taking pictures of black kids who are poor”, the officer said. We said, “OK, that’s what they are. I don’t know how you can change the color of the skin, but poverty, you can’t do anything about it”. The next day we printed all pictures and we went to those kids’ families and gave them the pictures as a gift. And everybody loved it, cause they cannot afford to print, to have a photo of their kids. With our money, we printed the photos, took it to parents and informed them that their kid, son, daughter was yesterday with us painting, and we took a picture, here are the pictures, is that OK? Everybody liked it, it was super cool. We have no problem with the community, parents or anyone, but that was a measure that we needed to take in order to face any demand in the future or manipulate using the image of children.
So, it’s there all the time, you need to watch every single step to not make a mistake. This is how repression is expressed.
But there are so many other ways, for example, they can stop you from leaving the country. A lot of people have been stopped at the airport for no reason. They just stop them, wait until the plane leaves and then release the person. What it means to means a flight, it’s a lot of money. They needed to pay for the passport, for the visa, to legalize all the documents, buy the tickets. And you can lose all that money just because of the security stopping them at the airport for no reason.
Or when you come back. For example, the first time I visited the US, I was stopped at the airport. They took Frank Fernandez’s book, I had a copy signed by him. They also took my laptop, all hard drives, pen drives, materials, books. Ten days later they returned everything, except Frank Fernandez’s book and a newspaper. But they checked all my information, my telephone. They kept everything. That’s the way they control and it works.
For people like us, who are a bit trained in this fight, we can deal with that, but for some young university student who suffers that for the first time, he will never come to this place anymore. That’s why it’s so difficult for us to grow in membership. It does work. For example, the environmentalist group “Guarda Bosques,” another group that is connected with this movement here, has approached young people saying that we receive money from the CIA. And they believe it, why not? This is the information they receive all the time on television in Cuba. Then five years later they come to me and say, “You know why I never came back to your space? We received a visit from an officer saying that you received money from the CIA”.
TFSR: How do people in Cuba become anarchists? How do they hear about it, how do they learn besides the CIA paying them? (chuckle)
IDT: (laugh) I don’t know, I don’t think people just become anarchists.
TFSR: Is there anyting about the anarchist movement in University history classes or anything?
IDT: No way. One of the members of our collective is a student at the history and philosophy faculty of the Havana University. Just yesterday we were talking about it. Because they started studying political movements in this course, and I asked him if anarchism was there. He said that his professor didn’t even know what it is.
TFSR: Camillo Cienfuego’s parents were anarchists I think. Cienfuego’s parents were in the CNT in Spain during the Revolution there.
IDT: In Spain, yes. But it’s not in the history. Cuban students don’t know that.
TFSR: Did Che and Fidel kill Camillo Cienfuegos?
IDT: (laugh) How can I tell? You know, Camilo is a very… We really love Camilo. I guess because he didn’t have the chance to become like the others.
TFSR: Like Rosa Luxemburg?
IDT: Exactly. But he was a very plain person, people from the street could approach him. He was not like an intellectual, he was nothing thinking in terms of ideology, I guess. But he was just a fighter, who fought for freedom, liberties, justice, whatever. So in that sense, I’m not saying Camilo was an anarchist, but he was a figure that is very close to the Cuban people, and that’s why we use his image in one of our… Let me show you: it’s a Bakunin, he has nothing to do with Camilo, but anyway. We have those bookmarks, that’s the symbol of Observatorio Critico, so we play with that. And we are in the neighborhood where Camilo Cienfuegos was born.
TFSR: Oh, really? Oh, yeah, La Avenida Cienfuegos is right there…
IDT: But nobody says Avenida Cienfuegos, Dolores Avenida and his house was there, and there was a plaque on the wall that was stolen about six months ago, and nobody cares.
TFSR: The government didn’t just put it on a plane and….
IDT: I don’t know. (laughs). What else?
TFSR: What kind of issues are you and your group tackling in the community? Do you mostly focus on the LGBT community or are there other things? In our communities, often projects focus on prisoner support or anti-fascist work.
IDT: When I say community, I’m talking about this community over here, this block and surrounding blocks, we are thinking in a very small space. We just want to develop the idea that you can do stuff by yourself, you don’t need to ask for permission to do anything. We don’t want them to think in any direction, we don’t want to extend any ideology for them to be part of, we just want to create spaces where they can decide when and where to meet, what to do.
We have a knitting workshop here, both young and adult women, kids of thirteen years old come together and spend time here. Every Friday afternoon we talk and knit. This is an example. They are exposed to everything here, but we don’t invite them to read or take anything. They are just here, we want them to feel free and eventually, they will ask or do what they want.
We also have been working on a corner, because all the trash over there is a huge issue for the community and we have transformed that corner because all that trash that was on the street was where the garden is right now. We built a garden together with the neighbors, so the trash is not inside the block anymore. It really has an impact on people, because they don’t wait for the government to come and fix that corner, we have to fix it by ourselves. Eventually, we are going to do something with it. We will start recycling, reusing. In fact, we used a lot of stuff from the trash, transformed it into something else, and neighbors started to do the same. They also take some herbs that we planted there and use them. Getting them involved in some direct transformation of the environment.
We also have movie, cartoons projections, and neighbors don’t go to movie theaters, most of them don’t have computers, tablets or laptops at home, so they watch what the Cuban television provides. So we provide something new from here. It’s very funny, it’s a huge screen at night, it dramatically changed the logic of the neighborhood. What’s that light? The sound is very loud, and we try to find Cuban films.
We also have the project, ion in here, but with other contents, we have LGBT nights, now we are planning to have another night in the month for anarchist films, or a night for environmentalist documentaries or films. With the space out there we don’t want to go with very political content because that will not attract people, so here come the people who are interested in the topic, member of LGBT community, students of the Havana University, researchers, environmentalists, whatever, they come directly to the film and talk about it.
We also have developed some dialogues or chats on topics related to something that the community feels necessary. For example, the Afro-Cuban religion. We promoted a dialogue between Afro-Cuban priests and environmentalists, animal defenders. Because these people make sacrifices of animals, so we create a space for both sides to talk about it, about the issue of sacrificing animals and placing the remains in the street, in the corner. And that idea of such conversations appeared because the neighbor that works with us in the garden is an Afro-Cuban priest. And we talked about the issue of sacrificing animals, how much we like animals, and we decided to make a serious conversation about it, let’s bring specialists from both sides to talk about it. It was very relevant for the first time in Cuba when environmentalists and priests were talking about animal protection. And then we discovered that there are some priests who made no animal sacrifices. They do the same ceremonies with no animals. It was something new even for some priests that were here, they were not accepting that practice but…
So this is what we are trying to do, to identify topics that have some connection with the community and make conversations. Sometimes they could be here or there.
TFSR: Is there ever a tension… you’re working with the community out here but I’m obviously a gringo, dressed weird. Is there ever a tension between it being a space that brings people who look like they’re not here here and being able to organize with the neighborhood?
IDT: Not that I know. I guess they will talk about but they haven’t told us anything. Nothing has changed, we have very good relations with everybody.
I guess people feel important when they get visitors from other countries here. Like they didn’t know that we were making anything so important, e.g. the garden – everybody goes to see the garden. And they think, ok, it’s important to have a garden, people are interested in that.
For other communitarian projects with a different perspective, sometimes it has really affected the whole point. Because it has become a place to develop something to show to tourists. We have something like that five blocks from here, it was supposed to be a communitarian project with art…
TFSR: Is that the building on the corner with all the art…. I was going to ask what that was…
IDT: That’s a perfect example. And the community is not there, they don’t go to visit or use the space, they just receive foreigners. That’s the danger. But I’m sure it will not happen here because we are very aware of that and we have a political perspective of our own and it’s not the same with those other spaces. They are looking away for survival.
TFSR: Is there ever a dynamic where if you are doing lots of communitarian projects like the garden or film nights, and someone from the government or the party comes over and says “Hey, you’re doing a lot of great things for the community, you should consider becoming the head of your local Comite En Defensa….
IDT: That’s been happening all the time with all the interesting projects. When they see someone who is really active in the community, they try to coopt and make him part of the system. But they won’t even try this with us. But that’s the logic, it’s been happening here forever. In any kind of thing you could imagine, hip-hop, rock, whatever, you will see that.
TFSR: I went to La Madriguerra and thought, I can tell from where this is placed that the government said “Let’s make you a rock club in the middle of a park, far away from houses, over here where you’re not bothering anybody…”
IDT: Exactly, they really know how to do it. They created a Cuban agency of rock, an agency of hip-hop, it killed the whole movement. At first, there were some divisions with some of the bands who wanted to part of the agency, and the others didn’t, they wanted to keep their autonomy, but eventually, they disappeared and the ones that remained are connected with the agency. And all political content, the real stuff in the lyrics was not there anymore. They have a magazine. Having a magazine here in Cuba, it has to be approved by the party. If you have a hip-hop magazine approved by the Communist Party, you really don’t know what’s that. That power of co-opting is always present.
TFSR: For anyone who comes to Cuba or anyone who hears this interview, what can they do to support ABRA and other anarchist initiatives in Cuba?
IDT: The first thing I recommend is when people want to approach the Cuban situation, try to look for personal collectives that they can identify. Because there is this idea of what Cuba is, an abstract idea with a focus on a rebel, an alternative for the world, and it is not. But you can find people who are really fighting, struggling against Cuban and international capitalism. So if you want to support, you need to identify to whom you want to be related.
On the other hand, for us, the best help that we have ever received is to be completely public. Since we are not that group of anarchists, we are not like insurrectionists, we don’t have the power, the number of people, we don’t intend to be violent, so we can be completely public. Because we want a communitarian transformation and do grassroots work. That is our protection – we never hide from the government.
Just tell them exactly what you think, and international comrades, organizations, helped when they also promote the ideas of ours, or any public statement that we publish, or a call that we make for an international event – it’s a very good help for us. It helps to build that shield that is transparency, being public.
TFSR: Are there vegans in Cuba?
IDT: That’s interesting. I’m having a fight right now on Facebook. There are, a few of them. It’s very difficult. In my opinion, in Cuba, that’s an option for only wealthy people. We eat whatever we can find, there is no option, if we want vegetables or… Everything is difficult: vegetables, meat, eggs, milk. If you find any of that and you have the money, you get it. I understand the need for being responsible or coherent with that topic, it’s important for us, as we are also environmentalists, it’s quite important. We promote this idea and for example on any event, gathering, meeting that we have here there are always vegan options. We don’t think that they don’t exist. On the contrary, we say, “There are people who are vegan or vegetarian, they need to have an option here”.
We also develop permaculture. We just started a permaculture workshop, we are learning about it, and most people related to it are vegan. But I don’t think that you can really demand from people to have this position because people don’t have means to have a balance. So we’ve been thinking about it, it’s not the subject that we ignore, but it’s something you need to promote carefully here, not demanding but saying how beautiful it is.
TFSR: On that subject, I was curious, it’s not the same as animal sacrifice but I wondered if anyone does anything about birds in cages? There are a lot of birds in cages, here.
IDT: There is a whole movement of animal protectors in Cuba right now. It’s something new, from the last three years. There are small groups all around the country, and they focus mostly on cats and dogs, also horses. Eventually, birds, but that is not very common. There is no protection for animals here in Cuba. These groups demand a law for protecting animals’ lives, but we don’t have it yet. We recently discovered a guy, who was in contact with an international network of people who torture and rape animals. They video-record them and upload it to the cloud. There was a Cuban doing that, and people in the US identified the person and sent the information to the Cuban protectors. They identified the guy, complained and the policemen arrested the guy and he was free three days later.
About 1-2 months ago, these activists went to his neighborhood and made a public campaign in a park very close to his house. They went to his house, he was not there, they went to the river and found a lot of corpses of dogs and cats in the river, probably killed by this man. And the guy is free. He was not violating any law.
TFSR: When they went to his house they did it as a demonstration to expose him?
IDT: They really didn’t know what to do. In Cuba, there are no real social movements or the practice of that. So they were very angry and decided to go and make this campaign for the protection of animals in the park. And then a couple of them decided, “Why don’t we go to the house of the guy”. They didn’t know what to do, they just went. Another part of the group thought it could be dangerous. Nothing happened, the guy was not there. But it’s a good thing. For the first time, this topic like the LGBT or the animal protection movement is emerging in a way. They are taking positions disregarding what the government thinks about it. So it’s important.
TFSR: It sounds like practicing some form of direct action, going to his house…
IDT: Exactly, but there is no organization yet. They don’t know what to do, they don’t plan anything, but it’s a good thing.
TFSR: When you said that it’s not common in Cuba for demonstrations to happen…. I don’t know if it’s modern Cuba or in Cuba’s past, but that often a practice of the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución is that they would organize a staged protest of just CDR members to make their repression look like a community action…
IDT: That’s what they do, but of course, they don’t do it spontaneously. There is an order from the political police, they prepare everything. In fact, we are very close to one of the dissident group, Damas de Blanco, I guess you heard about them, Ladies in White. They are four blocks away from here, they live with a police car in front of their house all the time. They organize demonstrations in front of his house, tiran cosas contra paredes.
TFSR: Yeah, throw things against the wall. But they’re super patriotic, the Damas En Blanco?
IDT: Damas en Blanco is a dissident group. They are mothers, wives, daughters of a group of dissidents that were put in prison, 75 of them. They were journalists, they were writing and put in prison for very long terms. So the women started demonstrating in the street dressed in white with a flower in the hand and walking in a line in silence. That’s all. They were repressed all the time, and now those people were released, some were sent to Spain, but the movement remained. I think they have connections with the US government and that’s the excuse of the Cuban government to repress them. Although what they are doing is just manifest in a peaceful way. But they have support from the US government.
TFSR: It sounds very parallel to the Argentinian Madres de la Plaza de Mayo…
IDT: Also, the Cuban government never recognized that it wasn’t fair for them to be in prison. If there is a similarity with Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, we are at a very early stage.
TFSR: Yah, the government changed there…
TFSR: Thank you!
IDT: I’m sorry you just had to listen to my opinion about it. Ask people in the street, and they will tell you a different story. You will have a more complete picture of the Cuban reality.
Class Power on Zero-Hours: A chat with Angry Workers
This week, you’ll hear Kiran and Marco of the Angry Workers, a collective of anti-authoritarian communists struggling to think through and build workers autonomy from the UK. For the hour, they talk about their organizing and the book they just published, “Class Power On Zero-Hours” (available from PM press and currently 50% off if you purchase from the publisher using the discount code ‘GIFT’).
Over 6 years, the Angry Workers got jobs in West London in factories, warehouses and logistics, building relationships with coworkers and neighbors from origins worldwide, and getting their hands dirty building working class power alongside other precarious and gig workers. The book documents attempts at building a solidarity network, their newspaper to open dialogue (called Workers Wild West) and engagements in workplace action and organizing. They worked inside and outside of trade unions and the IWW, assessing victories, defeats and lessons to move forward with and sharing glimpses into the struggles and ideas of the people they worked and lived with. This book is an amazingly detailed exploration of building solidarity, learning from mistakes and working towards a collective vision for liberation amongst the labouring classes at the points of production and reproduction.
Jason Renard Walker Parole
Incarcerated journalist and author Jason Renard Walker, minister of Labor for the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (Prison Chapter) will have a parole hearing coming up soon in Texas. Jason has faced serious backlash from white supremacist gangs and guards due to his activism and reporting while held by the TCDJ, so much so that he was recently transferred to a new prison, apparently because of the threats he was facing at Clements Unit. Jason’s book,about which we got to interview him earlier this year, “Reports from Within The Belly Of The Beast: Torture and Injustice Inside Texas Department of Criminal Justice”, is now available in paperback as well as digital via Amazon, and his writings have regularly been published by the SF Bay View National Black Newspaper. Letters of support for his parole will go a long way toward getting the parole board to release Jason so that he can finish his Federal stint and get back to the outside. Check our show notes for details on where to write and suggestions on content.
Here’s some information about supporting Jason in this effort:
Board of Pardons and Paroles
8610 Shoal Creek Blvd.
Austin, TX 78757
Things to mention (per Jason):
* Your relationship to Jason,
* Any credentials you have,
* Positive things you know about Jason,
When Jason is paroled from Texas he will immediately begin a minimum six-year federal prison sentence.
Jason said that the most common reason for denial of parole is that the prisoner is a threat to the community, and that his continued incarceration will prevent him from any contact with the general community. He is also worried because TDCJ has poor covid prevention measures.
As many of you know, Jason was facing problems with a white supremacist gang recently and in response, he has been moved to another prison. Jason’s current address is:
Eviction Defense, Community Resiliency, and Getting Free
This week I got the chance to sit down with Olive and Yousef of the Durham NC based eviction defense group HEDS-Up! HEDS-Up! stands for Housing Eviction Defense Solidarity and is a group which formed in Durham North Carolina when COVID was first hitting the area and folks’ housing was becoming more and more unstable.
We get to talk about a lot of topics in this episode, among which are gentrification in Durham, what the NC eviction process might look like, and about the group’s handbook the Eviction Defense Handbook, vol. 1312, as well as their all points call for autonomous, abolitionist jail support, on their website https://cantpaywontpaydurm.org/.
The Eviction Defense Handbook is extensively written and researched, and was put together by HEDS-Up! for educational and empowerment purposes. It covers topics from abolition, to how one might structure an eviction defense team, pertinent information regarding COVID and evictions, how to look up information on a specific property, a step by step of what to expect in eviction court, and many more topics.
The Wabanaki Community Herbal Apothecary in so-called Maine is working to support their tribal communities during these Covid-19 outbreaks. They are asking for herbal medicines and medicine making supplies or monetary donations to support these efforts. The supplies list can be found on their fedbook page, linked in our shownotes, and monetary donations can go to their fiscal sponsor WhyHunger, via https://whyhunger.org/ewrematriation/.
You can contact firstname.lastname@example.org for coordination or more details.
Loren Reed, a 26 year old Diné (Navajo) man residing in the small town of Page, AZ, is facing ten years for comments left on facebook during the nationwide protests because some dumb ass white with no scruples or sense of humor reported him to the cops. There is a breakdown of the case available at ForgiveEveryone.Com/blog . At the end of that, you can find Loren’s address and tips for writing him, as well as how to put money on his commissary, how to make donations to Tucson Anti-Repression Crew via cashapp ($TusconARC) or paypal (PayPal.Me/prisonersupport), noting “For Loren Reed” in the comments.
“As of last week, Santos Torres-Olan (#ML7947), a comrade of Dwayne Staats of the #Vaughn17, is on hunger strike at SCI Albion. He’s protesting the physical, psychological, and emotional abuses at Albion — the prison administration uses meals, showers, rec and mail as a form of punishment, retaliation, and psychological torture. His protest is against the prison system as a whole. Santos has also been charged with assaulting a guard, and the courts, public defender and prosecutors are trying to railroad him. He ended up having to go pro se in order to fight his case.
Help out Santos’s struggle against the prison system by calling SCI Albion at (814) 756-5778. Ask to speak to the superintendent and make sure they know people on the outside are paying attention to their torture and abuse of prisoners.
Our incarcerated comrades are struggling against prisons on a whole different level — we MUST support them from the outside when they ask us for help!”
Since late October, there appears to be a spike of Covid-19 at the Federal BOP’s prison at Fort Dix, jumping from prior reported numbers of 57 infections to at least 127 cases. The BOP is exacerbating the problem by moving all of the folks with infections onto a single floor and the back to their former dormatories, increasing spread. FCI Fort Dix is also denying PPE, medical care and compassionate releases from the prison population.
Jorge Cornell, 44, has two daughters, and recently moved to Fort Dix. Jorge has high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and is obese and borderline diabetic. This, along with a previous heart attack, make him high risk. He is being held on the third floor of Building 58-51.
Jorge is a friend of many in central NC organizing communities. As an outspoken community activist, candidate for city council, and police critic, Jorge was frequently targeted by law enforcement. Despite beating dozens of bogus charges prior to his current incarceration, Jorge is currently being wrongfully held thanks to overly broad RICO laws and targeting by the FBI, leading to a trial and conviction in 2012. He maintains his innocence, but still has 15 years left on his unjust 28 year sentence. You can hear two interviews about the case from 2013 at our website by searching ALKQN.
To press FCI Dix administration to give PPE, free medical care, stop spreading the virus in the prison by shuffling people around and to give compassionate release to people like Jorge with compromised immune systems, you can contact:
Federal BOP Health Services Division: 202 307 3198, press 4 for “other” and then 6 for “general medical inquiries” and select any of the four available recipients, leaving a voicemail with your demands. Email BOP-IPP@bop.gov or PublicAffairs@bop.gov .
Regular listener, Jay in Aotearoa brought to our attention this week the passing of anarchist prisoner, Brian Caswell McCarvill in the so-called state of Oregon.
Brian McCarvill was a radical social prisoner who in the early 2000’s was involved in taking the Oregon Department of Corrections to court challenging their censorship and rejection of anarchist publications for prisoners with his cell mate Rob Thaxton. The ODOC was attempting to declare anarchists to be members of a Security Threat Group, sort of like a gang, based on their shared political tendency and use of language and symbols, their stances to protest unfair circumstances. By winning the court case he forced the Oregon prison system to allow anarchist materials into its prisons.
Brian had terrible problems with his health and following his victory in the court case, he was being punished by the authorities for taking a stand. He passed on his 68th birthday, September 27th 2020, causes unknown to us. Rise In Power, Brian!
I found this interview extremely illuminating, perhaps like many other people who might not have strong ties to either academia or popular education models of learning, I had sort of written Oscar Wilde off as this kind of white dead rich guy who carried little to no relevance apart from a model of queerness that we could look back on. This interview very much proved that this isn’t the case, and that he and the circumstances around him very much influence how we as queers and as anarchists can sense historical threads that pull on our lives very tangibly today. Thanks a million to Scott for researching and conducting this interview!
You can learn more about the author, Kristian Williams, who is most known for his book Our Enemies in Blue, which is a critical history of American policing and police, at his website kristianwilliams.com.
Help Charlotte Jail Support Rebuild!
One announcement before we begin from our comrades at the Charlotte Uprising, Charlotte Jail Support has been getting extremely targeted harassment for some months from CMPD and the sheriff’s department. In times of rebellion or revolt, it is the support infrastructures that are often the most vulnerable to repression and violence. All of their supplies have either been seized or destroyed by the police, if you would like to support them re upping their much needed materials, you can Venmoing them @Ashwilliamsclt or Cash App $houseofkanautica.
This is a slightly edited transcript of Scott’s interview of Kristian Williams on Kristian’s book, Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde, published in 2020 by AK Press. Thanks to Jim of the MKE Lit Supply for all the work!
Kristian Williams on The Final Straw
First aired on 9/12/2020 at https://TFSR.WTF
Scott (TFSR): I’m talking to Kristen Williams, who just published the book Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde. Kristian, would you please just introduce yourself, your pronouns, your name and any information that you think would be pertinent to the listeners of the Final Straw?
Kristian: Sure. I’m Kristian Williams, author of a handful of books, probably most famously Our Enemies in Blue, which is a history of the police in the United States. As you mentioned, my most recent book is Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde, which is probably the book that has taken me the longest to write. I started working on it about 13 years ago.
Scott (TFSR): Oh wow. Is it nice to have it out? Was it a big passion project for you?
Kristian: Yeah, it was the thing that I was always working on, never finishing, and had a surprisingly hard time interesting publishers. I think everyone I approached about it, their first response was, “that sounds great, but no.” Eventually AK [Press] asked to take another look at it, and I don’t know, here it is.
Scott (TFSR): Well, that’s exciting. And I’m glad [for] that.The shadow of Oscar Wilde kind of loomed large for a long time on anything that was related to him,so I’m glad that’s not still persisting, and they published the book. I also just incidentally, as an aside, I was writing my dissertation with a chapter on Wilde and got super sick during it, writing about Dorian Gray. And I ended up in the hospital, and I couldn’t finish that chapter, so I don’t know if there’s like a curse with writing on Oscar. I always thought about that. All right. Well, I’m really excited to talk to you about Oscar Wilde and anarchism. The main argument of your book is that to really understand Oscar Wilde, or at least to understand Oscar Wilde as a political thinker, we need to think about all of his art and philosophy through the lens of anarchism. And it’s really exciting to read the book and see how Wilde kind of intersected with anarchism and anarchists at the time. To read about the history, like the fear of anarchism that we’re [still] presented with today, and then just like getting another perspective on Wilde as a person, his relation to the aesthetic movement, the beginning of the queer movements, and all of these things I think still are pertinent today. I think a lot of people have heard of Oscar Wilde, maybe read a little bit or heard his epigrams, but do you think you could just give a quick overview of who he was as a figure and a person?
Kristian: Sure. Let me see if I can do this at all efficiently. So, Wilde was born into the Irish aristocracy, educated at Trinity College in Dublin and then in Oxford, where he excelled in classics. Immediately, [he] became of sort of an early example of a person who was famous for being famous.Having developed a kind of celebrity and notoriety before he had really accomplished very much,[he] then leveraged that notoriety into a year long, a little bit more, lecture tour in the United States on the aesthetic movement. After that, he went on to publish a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and then really rose to prominence with a set of four society plays, which were sort of nominally comedies about the manners and dramas of the elite of English society. At the peak of his popularity he became embroiled in a dispute with the Marquess of Queensberry, because Wilde was having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, who was Queensberry’s son, which led Queensberry toward more and more public and offensive behavior toward Wilde, which then led Wilde to file a ill-advised lawsuit for libel, which Queensberry very aptly turned back on him and produced criminal charges for gross indecency, which was the criminal term for homosexuality. That led Wilde to prison for a couple of years. He lost his family, lost his fortune, lived the short remainder of his life in exile in France and died virtually penniless.
Scott (TFSR): Thanks for that overview. And I want to touch on a few of those elements that you brought up just, [but] because this is an anarchist radio show podcast—I [want to] to start with anarchism in particular—did Wilde identify as an anarchist?
Kristian: There are two occasions when he did. One was an interview in which he said, “once I was a poet and a tyrant, but now I am an artist and an anarchist.” And another, in a separate interview, he said, [when] asked about his politics, he said, “I’m a socialist, but we’re all socialists nowadays, so I must be something more. I think perhaps I’m an anarchist.” There were other occasions where he sort of flirted with the term, and probably my favorite is in a letter.He tells the story of being on a sailing trip with these two young men, and them getting caught in a storm, and it taking hours for them to get back to port. And when they got there, they were freezing cold and completely drenched and they rushed back to their hotel and ordered brandy. And the hotel proprietors sadly explained to them that because it was after 10 o’clock on a Sunday, the law prohibited him selling brandy. But given the circumstances, he decided he would just give them the brandy. And Wilde’s comment was along the lines of,“Not a bad outcome, but what utterly stupid laws” and then he finishes by saying that,“the two young men are, of course, now anarchists.”
Scott (TFSR): If I knew that that was the way to convert people, I’d be taking more sailing trips with young men. I’m always wondering. So, he used the term sometimes, but clearly anarchism and anarchists were out and about in Wilde’s time. I’m wondering a little bit what the common conception at the moment was of anarchism, and anarchists, and how it might have changed since then.
Kristian: At the time, it was considered practically synonymous with terrorism, and in particular of a foreign Eastern European sort of conspiratorial, random blowing things up kind of terrorism. That reputation has in different forms haunted anarchism really since the beginning. And while the sort of bomb throwing aspect has always been very much a minority affair of what anarchism is about, it wasn’t entirely baseless. I mean, there was a tendency called propaganda by the deed, which had this theory that a spectacular attack against the symbols of authority would reveal authority to be both artificial and vulnerable and inspire the masses to an uprising. In fact [though] it never worked out that way. It was a theory that was partly developed under the circumstances of autocratic rule in Russia, and then exported into Western democracies. In Russia, where it was basically illegal to even speak about anarchism, there was a certain rationality to moving to direct attack.And that was also in a way legible to the population who was also suffering under this kind of censorship. But when it moved into the Western countries, really the effect was to baffle the population and to largely turn them against anarchism, as it became synonymous with things randomly blowing up. Wilde, in fact, in one of those interviews that I quoted earlier immediately followed his statements that he must be an anarchist with, “But of course, the dynamite policy is quite absurd.” Meaning that even at the point where he was embracing this term, partly for its shock value, he also felt like he needed to distance himself from its more extreme and somewhat bloody elements.
Scott (TFSR): And that’s interesting. Do you think that there’s a way that he uses the term specifically for it’s just like surface level or superficial subversiveness or, as you said, the shock value?
Kristian: I think that he always wanted to be just shocking enough to be interesting, and not so shocking as to actually get himself into trouble. Which was a line that he was not always successful in judging, obviously. And so yeah, I would suspect that some of his rhetoric about that was chosen, like in those particular instances, [it] was chosen for the way he positioned himself outside of the mainstream. When he said, “well, I’m a socialist, but we’re all rather socialists nowadays. So I must be something more,”it suggests that he’s looking for the position, which is just slightly too far. Interestingly though, in his most directly political writing, which is called “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,”what he describes is a socialism without the structures of coercion or authority. And he’s very explicit about that. He doesn’t use the term anarchism anywhere in the essay. And in fact, he begins one paragraph by saying “Communism, socialism or whatever we choose to call it,” sort of signaling that the particular distinctions may not be that important and that in any case the word is certainly not the thing that matters.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, that’s really interesting. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, because there’s a strategic way to use the word anarchism to get people interested, to get people to talk about things, and to use the way that it’s presented and represented in media. But then attachment to the word doesn’t necessarily help it if people are sort of doing their own thing. That was really illuminating to me to hear you put it that way. Since you brought up “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” kind of the central argument of your book is that this provides a key to give Wilde’s whole body of work a certain kind of cohesion through the lens of anarchism. I was wondering if you’d talk a little bit more more about some of the ideas that he presents in that essay. And then if you want to move on to how it shows up in other writings of Wilde’s.
Kristian: He begins the essay by saying that the main value of socialism is that it would free us from the burden of living for other people. Basically, in a society where everyone’s needs were being taken care of, it would be possible for people to pursue their own interests and to develop what is unique about themselves in a way that the burden of earning a living and the responsibility for taking care of your family, your dependents and all that sort of thing really limits a person’s ability to freely explore whatever it is that they find fascinating, both in the world and of themselves. And so he starts right at the beginning by arguing that the purpose of socialism is that it would make a kind of individualism possible. And in his conception, these two notions of socialism and individualism are tightly bound together. And that it’s possible for certain extremely privileged people to exercise a kind of individualism under capitalism, but for the vast majority of humanity, their lives are too taken up with drudgery and the struggle for survival.And a socialist economy would relieve them of that set of burdens, and therefore makes individualism a universal pursuit. He argues that when that becomes available we’ll see this whole renaissance of culture and art and science and intellectual and an aesthetic sort of blossoming of the human spirit. And then at the same time, he argues that any kind of authority or coercion is corrosive of that entire project, and that therefore no authoritarian socialism would be acceptable. What’s needed is socialism as this kind of voluntary association between free and equal individuals, which I’m not the first person to note is basically the anarchist conception.
Scott (TFSR): Right. That’s interesting, the emphasis on individualism. So in the way that puts him in a different place than some of the other aesthetic aesthetes and decadents. It made me think of that famous line [from the] Goncourt brothers about, you know, living our servants do that for us. The way that Wilde talks about some people, the people who are allowed to live some version of individualism are [enabled] to create beautiful things or even to think like that. Profound thoughts are relying on the work of others to do that. So his his individualism isn’t like a kind of selfish, narcissistic individualism, but one that is trying to extend that privilege to everyone.
Kristian: Exactly. And what I argue in the book is that if we take Wilde’s political writing, and in particular,“The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” seriously, it helps us understand a lot of his other work, and that you see [that] marriage of individualism and socialism (and that version of individualism that should not just be the special property of the aristocracy) show up in other respects. And maybe the place where that pairing is clearest is in those lectures on aestheticism that he delivered in the United States. Where in addition to talking about the importance of sort of surrounding ourselves with beautiful things and treating life itself as a kind of art, meaning making the process of living as beautiful as possible. He also talks surprisingly much about labor and about investing in the skill and the craftsmen of the workers, such that the process of work becomes a creative pursuit and is pleasurable and then also produces beautiful things. Rather than everything being simply judged by its commercial value, and the worker simply being this kind of cog in a giant capitalist machine, where all of his initiative and all of the creativity is removed from the process in order to maximize the efficiency of profit.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, that was really exciting to me to read your argument in the book. One line that that especially stood out to me. You make the claim that while socialism is more aesthetic than economic, because, “ it takes as its model the artist, rather than a proletarian, and as much concerned to free the repressed bourgeois as the oppressed worker.” And that sticks out to me because I think you can [take as model the artist], just thinking about anarchism today. But I was wondering if you maybe would elaborate a little bit on this idea of shifting the revolutionary subject away from the traditional understanding of the workers, that kind of disciplined [and] manly person, and maybe that can also verge onto a critique of work, too. There’s a lot of anarchism goes away from this kind of idolizing of the worker as the person that will lead us to freedom. So, yeah, if you could talk a little bit about what this shift in thinking allows us to see for revolutionary politics.
Kristian: Yeah. I don’t know if he had an idea of a revolutionary subject, as you put it. Like, I don’t know that he thought that there was a particular class of people who were going to be responsible for the transformation of society, or at least not a particular economic class. What I meant in that passage was that rather than seeing the proletariat as the class that would become all of humanity, and therefore the model of how human beings would be, he looked to the artist. And so part of that, I think shows the influence of William Morris, who considered himself a Marxist, but whose politics are pretty hard to fit into any current conception of Marxism. And Morris largely thought that the purpose of socialism was to—rather than sort of a standard Marxist conception where industrialization will produce a particular class of worker who will then take over society—Morris thought that the purpose of socialism was to destroy industrialization, that he wanted to get rid of the factory system and its rigid division of labor, and in particular, this conception that there was a class of people who sort of designed and created and imagined the products of the world, and then there was this other class of people who were basically just like hired hands, who just did the work by rote without any input into the process. Instead, he wanted production to take the form of skilled artisans, bringing their full creativity to their work, and also therefore experiencing the work as an expression of their creative selves and finding joy and pleasure in the process of creation. And Wilde basically took Morris’s conception on the whole, which suggests that under socialism, rather than society being organized on the factory model with this mass of proletarians, who basically just like have the position in the assembly line and do the same rote task over and over again, that society would be organized as this free collective of artists and craftsmen, who would be able to express their individualism in the creative process while also providing for the needs of the society. So I don’t know that it’s a question of the revolutionary subject. It’s more a question of like: Under socialism, is the world populated by proletarians or is the world populated by artists? And the hope was that under conditions of freedom and equality, work would be more like art and therefore the individuals doing it would be more like artists and less like assembly line workers.
Scott (TFSR): Right. And that’s interesting these ideas, like you said [with regard to] industrialization, modernization. I mean, in Wilde’s concept of socialism there are machines that do the kind of dirty work so that people don’t have to and they kind of replaced that class of people. But this isn’t to enable some hyper-modernization, but to enable a kind of smaller scale of life that allows people to engage in the pursuits they want rather than this larger idea of driving civilization on, or something like that?
Kristian: Yes, I think that’s exactly right.
Scott (TFSR): There’s another thing that they’re brought up for me that is interesting because, you know, when you think of aestheticism, you think of Wilde and Art—art with a capital A—there’s already a kind of class distinction that’s assumed within.High Art versus other forms of art, but Wilde maybe through Morris and also Ruskin, [who] I know was like a teacher of his, isn’t making this big distinction between high art and crafts or other forms of creation. So then he’s also kind of envisioning a classless art world—would you say that’s right?
Kristian: I would say at his best, that is right. I think he was also prone to a certain amount of snobbery and ready to claim certain privileges of an Artist—with a capital A—that may not extend to everyone in society. And both sides of that showed up in his trial, where on the one hand when they tried to cite his writings as evidence against him and brought in The Picture of Dorian Gray and a set of aphorisms he had contributed to an Oxford magazine and that sort of thing,and they would ask him things like, “well, what is the interpretation that an ordinary person would put to these lines?” And Wilde would say something to the effect of, “I know nothing of the opinions of ordinary people, I’m only concerned with the opinions of artists.” And so he was willing to fall back onto a sort of special status for the artist, and in particular that artists could only be judged by other artists. At the same time, though, the prosecutor was absolutely outraged that the young men that he was associating with were often men of the lower classes. They were servants of various kinds or people who were just frankly out of work. And though nominally the court was concerned with the sort of homosexual nature of these relationships, the fact that he was bringing these servants into polite society was as much a focus of the cross-examination as any sort of sexual relation. And so the prosecutor would repeatedly ask questions like, “is this the sort of young man that a gentleman should associate with?” And Wilde would respond,“Absolutely—if the young man is interesting.” And he said over and over again, “I recognize social distinctions, not at all.” Meaning he didn’t care about their origins. He didn’t care about what they did for a living. What he cared about was their personal beauty and their radiant personalities. And that in particular was outrageous to polite society, in a way that [with regard to] mere same sex relations (there was a lot of that sort of thing at like the British public schools and then at Oxford and Cambridge) the men of Wales class were somewhat ambivalent about that. But the cross-class nature really was outrageous to public opinion and ultimately to the law.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, and that’s something that you elaborate [on] a little bit in the book in a way that I found very interesting. That people at the time, [some of whom] were anarchists and some weren’t, were kind of thinking about the cross-class same sex relationships as a sort of liberatory engagement. And that made me think that there’s sort of seeds of the radical gay liberation or queer liberation movements already in place in the end of the 19th century when these things were kind of being defined. I mean, I don’t know if any of these thinkers would go so far, but I was like reading into this this idea that men across class having relationships would be a sort of undermining of capitalist society. Could you talk a little bit about how the ways of this kind of cross-class relationship were being fought by the queer and anarchist thinkers at the time?
Kristian: Yeah, [and] this wasn’t just an anxiety on the behalf of the aristocracy. The men engaging in these relationships often did sort of theorize that it was going to destroy the class barrier and thus crash the social hierarchy, and that for them that seemed like an advantage. Of course, in retrospect, that all seems very naive, right? Like the ideas that wealthy aristocrats paying young men of the lower order for sex would destroy class relations just seems sort of fanciful. But it was a popular notion among radicals in those circles at the time. And I think to understand that, we need to remember sort of the difference between the traditional British class system and the sort of emerging capitalist system, where they still had the trappings of an aristocratic hierarchy, so that class position wasn’t simply a matter of who had money and who didn’t. And the divisions between the classes weren’t simply a question of one class being an employing in class and one class being a laboring class. The differences were also cultural, and it was possible to be kind of a destitute aristocrat, and it was also possible to make a fortune and yet remain ultimately sort of a middle class person. That [it] was a matter of both of the culture and the expectations and the values that people in those positions would have. But it was also a matter of how they would be regarded socially. So that in some way would even be more respectable to be an impoverished aristocrat than it would be to be a wealthy merchant. So there was this element where simply having kind of intimate contact with people of other social classes seemed subversive, seemed destructive of the barriers that kept them apart. And in particular, Wilde’s interest in the culture of the lower classes, and then also his interest in exposing them to what we would call High Art seems deliberately like trying to erase that cultural line between the upper and [the] lower. Though interestingly, he had basically no interest in the middle classes at all.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, which I guess makes sense. So there’s something interesting there, too, because you know, Wilde initiated a libel suit against the Marquees of Queensberry because he left this card at the hotel, where Wilde was staying.[And] that at least one reading of it, you say in the book of that card, posing as a sodomite reads like a misspelling. So he is being accused of posing as a homosexual. So this just made me think about how the class positions weren’t necessarily tied to actual wealth. But you could kind of portray the image of an aristocrat. And I wonder to what extent that relates to an understanding of aestheticism, like the kind of the idle dandy and the aristocratic bend to that. But you’re arguing that even though that’s one understanding aestheticism, it actually has a kind of anarchist political and ethical value or valence or something. So, yeah, I’m kind of thinking [and] wondering about this idea of posing, posing as queer [or] posing as an anarchist, and how Wilde uses these different positions.
Kristian: So artificiality was, in Wilde’s schema, a value rather than a vice. And part of that was that he had this idea that the purpose of life was this kind of self-cultivation, [this] sort of self-creation, which means that to a certain extent it is going to be an artificiality, that is going to be an element of artistry to the life that you create for yourself and the character that you develop in yourself, and also the presentation that you make to the world. And Wilde very deliberately created an image of himself early on as this sort of idle genius, and also as this person who in some ways was outside of the categories of conventional society. And he relayed that with his sort of flamboyant dress. He created that image by making a habit of saying outrageous things as he matured, the outrageous things that you said tend to have more of a subversive undercurrent to them. But especially early on, [it] seems like he was often just reaching for the thing that was going to outrage public opinion. So there was always this matter of posing.And one of his aphorisms is that it’s only shallow people who don’t judge by appearances. One of the things he meant by that is that it is the appearance that we choose for ourselves. That is the way that we decide to present ourselves to the world. And that that’s important, right? And that, you know, it’s like you can tell a lot about somebody from what they choose to show you. So there was always this self-consciousness to Wilde’s presentation, especially publicly, and there was connected in that a gendered element where he presented himself as the sort of foppish, flamboyant aesthete, which was always interpreted like the dandy, [which] was always understood as sort of an effeminate character. But it actually wasn’t really until Wilde’s scandal that it was fully identified also as a homosexual character. And so he was often seen and sometimes mocked as this living affront to the ideals of masculinity. And this is hard for us to kind of imagine now, but at the time that wasn’t necessarily associated with homosexuality. Which makes Queensberry’s claim that he was posing as a sodomite, a little bit complicated. And part of the work that the trial did was to construct this notion of what a sodomite is like, such that a person could be posing as it. And this gains a kind of circular momentum, where the image that it constructs is partly the negation of the ideal of a respectable middle class family man, but partly just the reflection of the image that Wilde has been projecting all along. And so in the course of the trial, what a sodomite is, the figure of the sodomite, is built so that Wilde will resemble it. Then once that equation takes hold, Wilde really becomes the icon of sort of what a gay man is expected to be like. I’m borrowing here from the work of Alan Sinfield, who wrote a book called The Wilde Century, which makes this argument in about 250 pages. So if you’re interested in that, and how exactly that happened, that is the place to look.
Scott (TFSR): It seems really important, and something maybe a lot of people don’t know, is that we’ve inherited a kind of gay male type or stereotype that can be traced back to Wilde, and these trials.That even over over 100 years, a lot of that hasn’t changed that kind of identity type that Wilde embodied, or even like the lampoon of Wilde’s identity still marks understandings of gay male effeminacy and campness, how Sontag talks about him. So I think you bring that out really interestingly. But like in your book, the thing that I think is really important that you add is that in the aftermath of Wilde’s trial, the queerness of Wilde sort of has an influence on anarchist thinkers at the time. In a way not only is Wilde’s queer identity becoming politicized and codified, but also there’s an anarchist element to that, and I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on that—about the trial and how his sexuality became influential for anarchist thinkers.
Kristian: Sure. This went in a lot of different directions and had several different elements. But maybe the clearest is that Emma Goldman. Other American anarchists as well, but Emma Goldman in particular was initially extremely sympathetic with Wilde, but simply as an example of the puritanical hypocrisy of the legal system, and as a victim of state oppression, it wasn’t until later that she became exposed to the sort of sexological literature that was elaborating the theory of homosexuality, where she realized that it wasn’t just a particular case of the state doing what the state does, but there was also an element[of] Wilde’s trial was intimidating and terrorizing for anentire group of people. And that it wasn’t just a matter of individual suffering and individual persecution, but that there was a group element to this. And so it became important to her to specifically stand up for the rights of homosexuals, sort of as a class rather than simply opposing the state putting people in prison, because of course we’re against the state putting people in prison. Another direction that that developed was that in Great Britain and in the US, the anarchist sexual politics at that time were already interested in sexual liberation, but mostly in the framework of a critique of marriage and free love and advocacy around issues of legitimacy, meaning really the rights of children who are born out of wedlock. And so adding to sort of queer element to that, they were already kind of primed for that development. And then what that meant was that it wasn’t just that Wilde’s trial affected anarchist’s sexual politics, it meant that a particular kind of sexual politics came out of that, that [they] were interested in gay rights as an expression of sort of sexual freedom overall. There was a natural affinity between the way anarchists were already thinking. And the sort of challenge and rethinking posed by the Wilde trial. Another direction that developed was that in Europe, and especially in Germany, individualist anarchists took a somewhat different lesson from the Wilde trial, and were less interested in conceptions of group identity and more interested in understanding it simply in terms of sort of individuality, individual rights and [an] individual person’s ability to express themselves and find pleasure in whatever way they chose, regardless of laws or social convention, or religious or moral precepts. And that, curiously, also circulated back into the United States, partly through Benjamin Tucker and his paper Liberty, which reprinted some of the European coverage of the Wilde trial, and also editorialized on its own, and very much in a more sort of individualist, libertarian kind of approach. So there were a couple of different developments from that in terms of how Wilde’s persecution shaped anarchist politics in the generations after.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, that’s interesting. This is a still a kind of problem and paradox within queer liberation—the idea of an identity and a group type or a minority group demanding rights, and then [the] kind of queerness that critiques and wants to do away with identity. And obviously, the way you were outlining Wilde’s understanding of posing and artificiality is already showing kind of ambivalence to that, even as he’s being put in the position of defining this type. So it’s interesting to see these things that [still] are. Anarchists today are always fighting identity politics as well, whether or not they’re queer. So I think it’s interesting to see that these things were already happening at that moment.
Kristian: Wilde himself directly addressed this question in a short story called The Portrait of Mr. W.H., which the story itself is complicated, and I’m going to do my best to sum it up quickly. Basically it involves a relationship between two men, one of whom has a theory that Shakespeare’s sonnets were inspired by and devoted to a young boy actor named Willie Hughes, the W.H. of the title.[He] then persuades the other man of this. The other man then goes and engages in a relationship with a third man and also tries to persuade him of this theory. And the whole thing is in some ways an excuse to make this argument about the history of homosexuality and its influence on culture. So it looks at the presence of homosexuality in ancient Greece. I mean, there’s no way to talk about this that isn’t anachronistic. I should say that,first of all. Like, Wilde never used the term homosexuality, but the presence of homosexuality in ancient Greece, the importance of homosexuality in the Renaissance, the importance of homosexuality for Shakespeare, and then more recent examples. The thing about the story is that they have this argument about the sonnets, but there’s no proof for it. And in order to try to persuade each other, each of the men engages in this fabrication of evidence [of] different kinds. The evidence itself, including the portrait of the title, is a beautiful work of art, but it’s also false. It’s also a fraud. And each of the men, once he persuades the other one of the importance of the theory, is then fatally compromised and dies–one of them by suicide, one of them by consumption. And at the end, you’re left with, on the one hand, this exercise in the construction of a homosexual genealogy, like a cultural genealogy of homosexuality. And on the other hand, the story itself exposes that construction as this kind of artifice and draws into question the wisdom of sort of latching your identity onto anything exterior to yourself. And so it’s both this exercise in the creation of a gay identity, and it’s also this deconstruction and critique of that exercise at the same time.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, and that seems like it could also be like a fitting parable for the attempts to naturalize or biologize sexuality and gender towards increasing rights for so-called gender or sexual minorities. Like these stories that we’re telling ourselves here in that essay or whatever you want to call it, like a story essay.
Kristian: Yeah, it’s a little hard to know how to characterize it. It queers our categories.
Scott (TFSR): I mean, it’s all just part of the seduction anyway. I think that you’re reading of that is really interesting. One of the things that [is] still kind of going on, this idea of identity.The thing that stood out to me after reading your book was that the legacy of Wilde, in a way, entangles these three groups, the people that are are kind of unwanted or undesirable anarchists, the aesthetes or the dandies or decadents or whatever, and and whatever was being defined at the time as homosexual, we might say queer now. And thank you for pointing out that we’re talking pretty anachronistically. But, yeah, just these three types. Right. Anarchists, aesthetes, and queer people even at the time were sort of confused in people’s minds and had this sort of like specter haunting people as like unwanted types. Could you talk about how that sort of legacy still persists today? [How] these entanglements of these different positions politically, artistically and sexually persist today?
Kristian: Yeah.Well, I mean, some of it I think you’ve already hit on. Anarchism, as it existed circa 1895, was already a sort of hospitable environment for a gay politics to emerge in a way that most other sort of political realms were not. Because anarchism already had this critique of sexual morality, it already has its critique of the family structure. It was already advocating for birth control and the rights for children who were born out of wedlock and the equality between men and women and free love and all of that kind of stuff. So it was ready for the addition of the concern of homosexuals. And I think once that took root there, of course, gay politics have then expanded far outside of anarchism and even arguably outside of the left. But it’s now just very infused with the sort of culture of anarchism and also the values and those sort of self perception of what anarchists do expect ourselves to be like. The fusion between aestheticism and queer politics has developed somewhat differently, but it also remains there, right? Where on the one hand, this becomes an annoying stereotype,and on the other hand, it’s also something that gay men especially sort of celebrate about their shared culture, such as it is. Where it’s like there’s an expectation that there are going to be these sort of fabulous creatures with good style sense and immaculately decorated houses and an interest in music and theater and that sort of thing. And also for the same reason, it’s always a little bit suspicious when an adolescent boy takes too strong an interest in painting or poetry,right?So there’s a weird kind of both good and bad aspects to the two of those things coming together and forming a type, or a stereotype. The connection between aestheticism and anarchist politics is in a way more complicated. On the one hand, it means that on a shallow level it has helped inform the attraction of anarchists to sort of the artistic avant-garde, which has shown up really throughout the 20th century from Dada to the beats to punk, really. Greil Marcus territory there. And on a deeper level, though, I think that the notion that life should be the sort of splendid adventure, and that the way individuals live should be reflective of their character and personality, rather than bounded by convention and predictable and productive, but not necessarily very creative or interesting. I think that this has done a lot to maintain sort of the spirit and attraction of anarchism. And that puts us more in the lineage of the situation as to crime think, right. But then there’s also this this paradox, where especially in the last couple decades anarchism has taken a very moralistic and sort of puritanical turn that has also always been sort of a feature of it. You know, at sometimes if you look at a figure like the early Alexander Berkman, his ambition toward martyrdom and his sense of asceticism and his harsh judgment of other people is just annoying. So there’s always been that kind of puritanical element to anarchism as well. But at our best, that is counterbalanced by this free and flowing and urge toward the beautiful. At the moment, it feels like the sort of purist and puritanical element is more to the surface.And the notion that the life should be anything other than, [or] something more than, just the political struggle and the urge to purify oneself and the group of people around you. It seems to have receded. I worry that we’re at the moment insufficiently aesthetic, and I. I wish we could bring that back more to the surface.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. I mean, it’s a beautiful idea. I really like the way that you politicize Wilde’s aestheticism because I mean, it is such an old argument in a way that’s kind of like tedious and boring.That, even like Sartrean committed literature is against the art for art’s sake, because that is like amoral or even elite. But your reading of Wilde’s shows that even within the stuff that isn’t explicitly political, there’s like an ethical and political understanding that we can get. You say one line that I really liked—your reading [of] the plays is that Wilde’s evasions often hide the seeds of subversion. So there’s a way of reading Wilde that when he’s not saying, like, I’m an anarchist and let’s smash the state, he’s not saying that, but there’s something that happens in his work that allows the subversiveness of his thinking to come differently, [while] not hitting you over the head.
Kristian: Let me run with a couple of points of that. One is that I think that had his politics been more direct in his writing, probably his work would not have survived as well as it has. And while I think that there is even something which on the surface just seems like this exercise in silliness, like The Importance of Being Earnest. If you read carefully, it’s actually shot through with political concerns. Concerns about legitimacy, concerns about the rights of women, concerns about Irish independence and Fenian bombings, right? There’s all sorts of political elements, political themes, political subtext, political references in what at first seems like just this almost Dadaist banter about nothing in particular. But I think [that] had Wilde instead taken the approach of like a movement writer or a message writer, then the work would seem dated and less interesting and wouldn’t remain as fresh as it actually does. The other thing I wanted to say, and this goes back to aestheticism, is that my argument about Wilde’s aestheticism is that it’s not just the places, especially early in his career where he said things about, like the importance of labour and re-conceiving labour, conceiving of labor as a kind of art. It’s also that he pushes the sort of values where beauty doesn’t have to justify itself. And that’s really what art, for art’s sake means. It doesn’t have to have a moral message. It doesn’t have to have a social use. It doesn’t have to be commercially viable. That just the fact that something is beautiful and gives you pleasure is itself important. And I argue that that is an implicit critique of the values, especially of Victorian capitalism, and what Max Weber would later articulate as the Protestant Ethic.Which was supposed to value sobriety and hard work and thrift, and that every moment of every day was supposed to be invested with this improving moral weight, which meant making yourself a better person, but chiefly meant making yourself a better person through hard work. While aestheticism is just like a torpedo in the hull of that ship. Interestingly for us, I think it is also a good corrective to the more stoical and dour and sad faced parts of left wing thinking, the kind of Marxism that thinks that we should sacrifice everything for the party, or the kind of anarchism that thinks that the main purpose of politics is to morally cleanse ourselves of anything that may be socially compromised. That kind of puritanism, that kind of stoicism, that sort of often workerist, but also often workaholic element, I think need something to temper it. And I think the Wilde’s work, if we take it seriously, and also if we are willing to accept it as lightly as he produced it, can help us to avoid some of the temptations, if you will, of that kind of puritanism.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. And the way you elaborated that is really helpful because we see how, you know, anarchists then and other people who might identify as leftist or Marxist are replicating some of the kind of capitalist mindset of that work and seriousness. And Wilde, [with his] emphasis on pleasure and pleasure as a kind of perversion, I think is specifically queer and specifically helpful in a way as a corrective, as you said, to those tendencies. While you were talking, I was thinking a little bit also about like James Baldwin, who makes similar kinds of arguments [yet manages an] avoidance of being explicitly political in his fiction, [and how] he still he speaks to anarchists, as another kind of queer figure. These people who value the ambiguity of art, are also evading that Protestant ethic that goes along with the kind of capitalist path of individual development. I’m just really grateful for the way that you you expand on that in the book. There’s a bunch of a bunch of things that I can bring up. But one thing that we haven’t really spoken about, but that also I think resonates with today’s anarchism is Wilde’s experiences in prison. And so I wonder, he was incarcerated for two years and then his final writing was on prison. And I think that a lot of people are coming into anarchism specifically now through the abolitionist movement. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Wilde’s experience in prison, his relationship to prison and how that fits into his writing, and what he gives to us today as current abolitionists?
Kristian: Yes, I guess the first thing to say is that Wilde was against prison for his entire career. He thought that the whole notion of punishing wrongdoing was self-defeating and also barbaric. And in The Soul of Man Under Socialism in particular, he predicts that in a future society, there will be no need for crime, because there will be equality and there won’t be either the desperate need to resort to fraud or violence in order to meet one’s needs,nor the kind of resentment that results from being in the lower position of an unequal relationship. And that whatever traces of criminality remain, he argues, would just have to be the product of some sort of mental illness which should be treated by a physician, and not by the courts. So from early on, he was arguing a kind of abolitionist line. He also, partly from seeing the example of Irish nationalists who were being imprisoned, thought the prison could also be the sort of heroic and elevating kind of experience. And he had almost a Thoreauvian line that they could jail your body, but your spirit would remain free. What he learned when they put him in prison was that that was completely wrong. And he should you really should have known better based on what he already understood about the degrading nature of menial work and about the elevating possibilities of beauty and beautiful surroundings versus the degrading and oppressive nature of ugliness. And then he was put in this environment, which was really just designed to concentrate ugliness with the idea of breaking the prisoner’s spirit. And it was anticipated when he was put in prison that he would not survive the two years, that a man of his age and his class would not be up for the hardship and the deprivation, and were it not for the political intervention of some of his friends and the agitation of especially anarchists in Europe, who were demanding his freedom all together, he likely wouldn’t have survived those two years. And instead he was offered a number of privileges that were there to avoid the government’s embarrassment of him dying in prison. And he was very aware that that was the thing that was keeping him alive and that he was receiving this kind of special treatment.Much to his credit, he did his best to extend those benefits to the other inmates around him. [Mainly in that] he was allowed to request books and was allowed additional books from outside the prison. And reading his letters, you can see that among the books that he requested, there are books that he doesn’t particularly have an interest in, but he knows that the other prisoners would. And then for a while, he got the job of taking the library cart around to the cells to give prisoners the books they wanted, which importantly gave him the opportunity to talk to other people, because at that point, the prison system was entirely on a solitary confinement kind of basis.And then also gave him the opportunity to learn about the interests of the other prisoners, and again, sort of facilitate their intellectual pursuits. And then once he was released, he immediately set about agitating to improve the conditions for the prisoners and wrote a couple of long letters to the Daily Chronicle about conditions in the British prison system. In particular centered on the case of a prison guard named Thomas Martin, who had been fired essentially for being too kind to the prisoners. Martin’s specific offense was that he had given ginger cookies to very small children who were locked in prison for poaching rabbits. Wilde pursued both publicly and also less directly, through writing public officials and that sort of thing, the reform of the prison system, noting specific things that could improve the conditions for the prisoners, while also insisting that no amount of reform was ever going to be adequate, and in fact [stating] that the entire basis of British justice was badly founded and needed to be scrapped. This sort of reached its peak with his last published work (during his lifetime anyway) which was the Ballad of Reading Gaol, which I also think is his best poem, which his correspondence makes clear really intended as both a great work of art and also as the sort of political message that we were talking about earlier. It was intended as a pamphlet that would outrage the public against the prison system as a whole. And for what it’s worth, his agitation had some effect. There was a parliamentary commission that was investigating prison conditions at the time, and it took up many of the reforms that Wilde had suggested in his letters to the Chronicle. And just in terms of literary genealogy, The Ballad of Reading Gaol in particular became this almost scripture for anarchists talking about prisons in the decades that followed. So you you find references to it over and over again in the anarchist literature about prison, really all the way up into the 60s.
Scott (TFSR): That’s really interesting. I mean, there’s part of Wilde that is like the “Be Gay Do Crimes” sort, romanticizing the prisoner. But then there’s this seriousness, and it’s especially after his two years of hard labor imprisonment, where he is specifically acting against the prison system and going outside of the romanticism of the like criminal type or something like that. In your going over that history, another thing came to me that you show really well, there are somethings, like Wilde just seemed like a good person, like someone you want to hang out with and be friends with. And in that way, there’s [almost] another aspect of like Wilde the person and his actions that I think are worth reflecting on, [and] not just as a figure, thinker, a writer, but that he embodied this anarchism in his relationships with people, even about the way that he engaged in relationships, whether they’re like intimate or just in passing.
Kristian: Yeah. For a person who is renowned or notorious for being extremely individualistic and extremely sort of egotistical, he was also very, very generous. And he was generous with his wealth when he had wealth, and he was generous with other people’s wealth when he did not. Toward the end of his life, he was practically penniless and living on the generosity of his friends. And yet when people that he knew in prison would get released, he would send them money. And one of his friends and benefactors got kind of annoyed with him about this, because here they are giving him money, so that he can keep body and soul together, and here he is just giving it away. And he said, but if my good friends like you take care of me, how could I not take care of my prison friends? Which I think really captures both something of his spirit and also something of the spirit of mutual aid and solidarity. Friendship for Wilde was not a trivial matter. He didn’t think of his friends as just like people that you happen to know, he saw friendship as this deep and complicated ethical commitment, this kind of like practice of life. Which I think goes back to his reading of the classics, and probably Aristotle in particular. And so it’s also interesting that, lacking the vocabulary that we have now about like homosexuality and queerness, he described those relationships and the possibilities of those relationships in terms of things like passionate friendship and really saw them as, in addition to the sexual component and the political implications, also saw them as this tight interweaving of two people’s lives, and a sort of practice of generosity and engagement. Like a way that people could relate that was in a way deeply ethical, and in another way unconcerned with the conventionality and what at the time was was viewed as morality. So, yeah, I think there’s was something very anarchic about how he looked at that. And again, it was that very generosity that turned out to cause him so much trouble in the trials. Like had he just been hiring prostitutes and paying blackmailers, it wouldn’t have had the, I mean this is somewhat bizarre from our point of view, but it wouldn’t have had the outrageous moral implication that it had—that he was like taking these young men to expensive dinners, and buying them champagne, and taking them to the opera, and buying the suits, giving them silver cigarette cases with personalized inscriptions on them. All of that was like… You know, prostitution and blackmail was just old hat for a Victorian aristocrat. But that kind of intimacy with people of the lower classes and that effort to sort of extend to them the benefits of the society was politically very troubling and morally outrageous.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting how all of these things sort of overlap. I don’t know, like reading your book, I’ve always loved Wilde and had an affinity for Wilde and in a way Wilde has explained to me my gayness, my queerness. But then reading your book, I’m like, oh, my affinity for Wilde also has something to do with my anarchism that I’ve had over my whole life. And I just think the way that you tie those together and show them through going through his letters, his the biographical details, [and] the anarchists kind of response to him. And his work is really compelling. I guess the final question, you know, going back to talking about the role of art and the kind of corrective that we can bring to the sort of dour anarchist politics. The other aspect of him, maybe the term we could say is a utopian, and he uses that in The Soul of Man Socialism. Is there anything that you can say about Wilde bringing a sort of utopian anarchist politics or any way really you want to kind of send us off with, like, how Wilde speaks to us today? Because I think that this book is something that we can learn from in our current moment. So, yeah, any anything in that line that you want to kind of send us off with on Wilde, the utopian anarchist.
Kristian: Yeah. You know his utopianism makes sense, given his aestheticism, given the emphasis on the imagination and on sort of the fanciful and the artificial and the the creative possibilities. And therefore, he didn’t see Utopia as this thing that we achieve and preserve, which might be more of the Puritan model. Instead, he saw Utopia as this this aspiration of humanity that was always just past the horizon. And so it kept us moving. And so he says in The Soul of Man Under Socialism that all the progress is a realization of past utopias. And the utopia is a country where once we land, we immediately set sail looking forward again. And so there’s the idea that in order to achieve progress, we have to be able to imagine the better world. That once we achieve the world that we think we want, we’re going to imagine a better worlds still. And that, rather than that being a frustrating Rosero problem, in fact [it] is this beautiful hope that we can always be doing better. And, you know, right now I think we are pretty desperately in need of some utopian imagination, you know, with the pandemic really throwing our our usual social practices into question, and revealing the threadbare nature of many of our institutions, and the failure of hierarchical leadership structures to address the crisis in any sort of meaningful way, along with the increasingly present effects of climate change and the existential danger that that poses. And then also with the bizarre and perverse political culture that we inhabit in the United States, with the kind of polarization that makes every position a point of conflict and makes any sort of like of, I don’t know, reconciliation or even notion that we will arrive at an understanding of shared humanity, seem increasingly remote. We really need to be able to imagine something better. The alternative, I think, is a very bleak nihilism that just sees the future as only an extension of the present. And I think that from that view, nothing good can come. I saw a picture of some graffiti that said,“another end of the world as possible.” And I think that that that captures pretty well the need for utopian thinking right now.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. That even the dystopian stuff has dried up, I think. Yeah. I mean, you just said it pretty beautifully, so I don’t really have anything that I really want to add. I really love spending time with Oscar Wilde’s thinking and writing, and just thinking about him as a person. And you do, I think, a really important thing in kind of bringing him out as an anarchist thinker and bring him to us right now. And maybe it’s just like something worth living for. Like that in the end is like something, you know, he, sorry, my mind starts going in all these different directions…
Kristian: Oh, good! That’s what I’m aiming for.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. I mean, going from like living up to the blue China to dying so that he doesn’t have to see his wallpaper. But I think Wilde actually took things seriously in a way that’s instructive, even for all this kind of humor and artificiality. So, yeah, I don’t know. Again, I’m like really grateful for the book and for the chance to talk to you. And if you have any last things you want to add or also any other places you want listeners to go to the to access your work or whatever you’re up to at the moment.
Kristian: Yeah, I have a modest website it’s kristianwilliams.com, Kristian spelled with a K. Whenever I have a new article or whatever, I put something about it there and put a link to it. And then there’s some sort of category-based archives that you can look and see what I’ve written about the criminal legal system or about literature or about comics. And yeah. So if you’re interested in seeing what else I’ve done, that that would be a good place to start.
Scott (TFSR): Cool, and yeah I recommend people pick up this book, Resist Everything Except Temptation, and of course, Our Enemies In Blue is super important too. But yeah, I’m grateful for the time that you gave to talk about Wilde with me.
Kristian: Yeah, well, I appreciate the invitation. It was a good conversation.
History Repeats Itself?: Peter Gelderloos On Where We’re At
Its not uncommon to hear pundits and regular folks making comparisons between the crises we are now facing and other historical moments, such as the 1920s in Germany or the global rebellions of the 1960s. But is this an effective approach for gauging the potential of now?
For the hour, anarchist author and activist Peter Gelderloos shares some of his thoughts on those comparisons, on the revolutionary potential of this moment were living in and some lessons from past movements that we might keep in mind now to make the most out of these dire times. You can find many of Peters writings on TheAnarchistLibrary.Org, available through AK Press and independent bookstores. You can hear our past interviews with Peter by visiting our website.
Wayne Price is longtime anarchist, author and currently a member of Bronx Climate Justice North and the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, or MACC, in New York City. After reading his book, The Value Of Radical Theory: An Anarchist Introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy (AK Press, 2013), I got excited to speak to him about his views on anarchists engaging Marxist economic concepts and some of the historical conflicts and engagements between Marxism and Anarchism. We talk about his political trajectory from a pacifist Anarchist in high school, through Trotskyism and back to anarchy. Wayne talks about common visions of what an anarchist economy might look like, how we might get there, class and intersection of other oppressions, critique of State Capitalism. Wayne sees the oppressed of the world having a chance during this economic freeze to fight against re-imposition of wide-scale capitalist ecocide by building libertarian, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist and heterogenous future societies in the shell of the old.