Aishah Shahidah Simmons on Love WITH Accountability (Rebroadcast)
This week we re-air an interview done with Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who is a writer, community organizer, prison abolitionist, and cultural worker who has done just an immense amount of work over the years to help disrupt and end the patterns of sexual abuse and assault within marginalized communities. In this interview we talk about a lot of things, her background and how she came to be doing the work shes doing right now, how better to think about concepts like accountability, what doing this work has been like for her as an out lesbian woman, and about her book Love WITH Accountability, Digging Up the Roots of Childhood Sexual Abuse which was published in 2019 from AK Press.
This interview feels very important right now, because we are in a time of overturn, tumult, stress, and uncertainty, and I think that in order for us to really be able to knuckle down and go in this for the long haul itll be imperative for our radical communities to take solid care of ourselves and of each other. I hope you get as much out of hearing Aishah’s words as I did conducting and editing this interview.
Before we get started, as a content notice: we will be talking about some difficult topics in this interview. I will do my best to repeat this notice at regular intervals, but please do take care and treat yourself kindly (however that looks).
To keep up with Aishah, for updates on future projects and more:
Making Links: June 11th, Long-term Prisoners, Anti-Repression Work
June 11th is the international day of solidarity with Marius Mason and all long-term anarchist prisoners. This year we want to explore the connections between long-term prisoner support and anti-repression efforts around recent uprisings, a sharp reminder to us that the difference between a status of imprisoned or not is often tenuous and temporary. With thousands of arrests for protesting, rioting, and property destruction from last summer’s George Floyd uprising, we must be preparing for the possibility that more of our friends and other rebels may end up in prison. We’re also seeking to find ways to facilitate interactions between our long-term prisoners and uprisings in the streets. We were happy to share the production of this episode with the lovely folks at June11.Org. To this end, we speak with:
Cameron and Veera, who are part of a group that have been supporting prisoners from the Ferguson uprising for the last 7 years;
They share with us their experiences with state repression, what motivates them, and some thoughts on what we can be doing to make us, our communities, and our liberatory movements more resilient. The speakers responded to questions in the same order throughout the conversation but didn’t identify themselves much, so remember that the order and the projects they’re involved in can be found in our show notes.
You can learn more about Marius Mason and how to support him at SupportMariusMason.org. You can see past podcasts by June 11th, prisoner statements, artwork, info about the prisoners supported by the effort, a mix-tape they curated last year and events listed for various cities you can join at June11.org. We’re releasing this audio before June 11th to entice folks to consider a potluck, an action, a letter writing event, a banner drop, a postering rampage or something to share the day with folks behind walls. Hear our past June 11 episodes here.
You can also hear the June 11th statement for this year alongside other info on prisoner support from comrades at A-Radio Vienna in the May 2021 BadNews podcast!
BRABC Letter Writing Today
If you’re in Asheville, join Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross today, June 6th for a letter writing from 5-7pm at West Asheville Park on Vermont Ave. BRABC meets every first Sunday at that time, provides info on prisoners with upcoming birthdays or facing repression, stationary, postage and company. Never written a letter? Don’t know how to start? Swing by and share some space!
Comrade David Easley, A306400 at the Toledo Correctional Institution, who has in previous months been viciously assaulted by prison staff at the direction of the ToCI Warden Harold May, as well as number of other inmates also who have been isolated for torture and other oppressive, covert, and overt retaliatory actions at that facility, denied adequate medical care for speaking out against the cruel, inhumane treatment at that Ohio facility. More and more comrades are reporting occurring throughout the ODRC, and across this country for any who dare stand up and speak up for themselves, and the voiceless within the steel and concrete walls.
This is a CALL TO ACTION to zap the phone at the U.S. District Court in Toledo, Ohio and demand that Comrade David Easley be granted a phone conference with Judge James R. Knepp II, and the Attorney General because Comrade Easley’s lawyer of record has decided to go rogue by not filing a Memorandum Contra Motion as his client requested and now the State has presented a Motion to Dismiss his case to that court.
Plaintiff: David Easley, A306400
Case No: 3:18-CV-02050
Presiding Judge: James R. Knepp II
Courtroom Clerk: Jennifer Smith
Phone No: (419) 213-5571
Also, reach out to Comrade Easley using the contact info he like many of our would appreciate the concerns, and love from us on the outside to stay the course, and not get discouraged in his Daily Struggle.
David Easley #A306400
PO Box 80033
Toledo, OH 43608
Anarchist Bank Robber and Prisoner, Giannis Dimitrakis Healing from Attack
the following was received from comrades at 1431 AM in Thessaloniki, Greece, a fellow member of the A-Radio Network. We had hoped to feature an interview they would facilitate with Giannis Dimitrakis for June 11th, however you’ll see why this hasn’t been possible. We hope he heals up quickly and would love to air that interview for the Week of Solidarity with Anarchist Prisoners in August:
On 24/5, our comrade, a political prisoner, the anarchist Giannis Dimitrakis was transported to the hospital of Lamia, seriously injured after the murderous attack he suffered in Domokou prison. G. Dimitrakis barely survived the the attack, and the blows he received caused multiple hematomas in the head, affecting basic functions of his brain. A necessary condition for the full recovery of the partner is the complete and continuous monitoring of him in a specialized rehabilitation center by specialist doctors and therapists.
In this crucial condition, the murderous bastards of the New Democracy government, M. Chrysochoidis, Sofia Nikolaou and their subordinates decide on Thursday June 3rd to transfer Giannis back to Domokos prison and even to a solitary confinement cell, supposedly for his health. Transferring our comrade there, with his brain functions in immediate danger, is for us a second attempt to kill him. Domokos prison does not meet in the slightest the conditions for the treatment and recovery of a prisoner in such a serious condition.
Αs a solidarity movement in general, we are again determined not to leave our comrade’s armor in their blood-stained hands. Nothing should be left unanswered, none of the people in charge of the ever-intensifying death policy that they unleash should be left out of our sights.
Immediate transfer of our partner to a specialized rehabilitation center
Hands down from political prisoners
Solidarity and strength to the anarchist fighter G. Dimitrakis
This is an invitation to engage June 11 in solidarity with Giannis Dimitrakis. On June 9th there will be a solidarity demo in Exarchia, Athens at 7pm!
Host 1: Would you please introduce yourselves and maybe who you are, what projects you’re working on and what experience you have with anti repression prisoner support work.
Cameron: My name is Cameron. I live in St. Louis. I’ve been doing prisoner support stuff for to varying degrees for the last 10 or so years. Having letter writing nights, fundraising for commissary stuff, sending in newsletters to jails and prisons.
Veera: I’m Veera. This is the biggest anti-repression prisoner support project that I’m a part of, or the longest running one. But similar to Cameron, I’ve been doing some support work for prisoners for probably the last 9 or 10 years, and have just maintained pen pals with several different prisoners across the states. And currently in southern Ontario, there are prisons, like across the region, that are on hunger strike, for different reasons, especially in regards to the pandemic and how they’ve been treated. And so I’ve been plugging into some of the hunger strike support work here. But yeah, also still getting acquainted with how projects are done here in this new place that I live.
Earthworm: Okay, my name is Earthworm from Atlanta, and I work with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund and the protester jail support team, and Cop Watch of East Atlanta. And we’ve got a lot of protester support experience because our friends have been getting arrested for years at different protests. So we turned it into something that has scaled way, way up, of course, particularly in the last year with the George Floyd uprisings.
Jeremy Hammond: Well, you know me, my name is Jeremy Hammond. I was recently released from federal prison several months ago. And I’ve been involved for most of my adult life. And since my release, I’ve just kind of been slowly getting my feet wet and seeing what my involvement would be most appropriate. And I’m also here with my brother-
Jason Hammond: Jason Hammond, that’s my voice right here. I’m his brother. And yeah, I’m a longtime supporter of Jeremy. But I’m also of course involved in on the ground protests related movements. One group that I’m a volunteer for is the Chicago Community Bond Fund. It’s a bond fund that has been involved in prison abolition struggles, most notably the George Floyd, Black Lives Matter uprising last year. We did a lot of work for political prisoners during these uprisings too.
Host 2: Can you tell us more about the role of your projects in uprising anti-repression, and some of the prisoners you’re supporting, or talk about examples of political coordination and action with other prisoners that might give the audience a sense of the agency of folks behind bars?
C: Well, I mean, in 2014, a group of us started supporting folks who got locked up during the Ferguson uprising, and it kind of came out of desire to not ignore, but actually just like, actively promote the reality that the folks that were participating were engaged in risky and creative and destructive actions, like looting, or shooting guns and arson. And we kept seeing a lot of people fall through the cracks in 2014, like in terms of getting support from like the, “movement”. So we just really wanted to make sure that folks got some kind of support. And so a lot of the people that were participating weren’t really like a part of a movement per se, like they weren’t like in an activist organization, or they weren’t organizers, they were kind of articulating themselves outside of that. And so we just felt like that was really important to see and acknowledge because, yeah, there were people that have gone away for, are now in prison for like five plus years, some people because of what they did.
And like there’s all sorts of narratives by nonprofits and activists, that the people who are like doing the heavier stuff were hurting the movement or kind of a part of a conspiracy of outsiders or criminals. And it felt like that kind of narrative was just reproducing the same that caused this moment, this uprising. This sort of demonization of people, this sort of keeping people in their place, ignoring the fact that people have agency and ability to like refuse to be victimized by systems that want to kill them or hurt them. And I’ve personally just felt like I was very frustrated to not see that narrative promoted or like accepted. That was kind of the big reason why I got involved in supporting folks.
To go back to like nonprofit stuff, like a lot of those folks weren’t really seeing what was happening right in front of them. This was an uprising that was extremely combative against not just the police, but also private property and with the authority of a lot of people who want to keep things the way they are. And people from all walks of life just coming to this situation, and like getting wrapped up in it, and like getting arrested, and like doing things that were dangerous, and not really talked about, and like a legible, easily palatable story. That was just a very hard thing to watch. Having gone through my own legal issues, through going through courts for years, and being arrested a bunch of times, and just like knowing how shitty that is to experience and how like grueling it is to go from one continuance to another. And I knew I had people who had my back, and people who would come to my court dates, and I just wanted to return that as well to other people.
V: Yeah, I can maybe just talk a little bit more about the specifics of the project that Cameron and I are a part of, as far as like the prisoners that we are supporting. They are just from a compilation of a list that we compiled from just mailing letters to people who got arrested during the Ferguson uprising. People from all walks of life and in that neighborhood, and not necessarily people that we could say that we were like politically aligned with, because it might even be safe to say that all of the people that we are supporting when we started supporting them wouldn’t necessarily have aligned themselves with any sort of politics.
Yeah, we sent letters and just said, basically, if they were willing to, we would put them on this public list — which is the list on AntistateSTL — put their images out there and their mailing addresses, and thereby making it easier for people across the country to support them. And so that list we’ve maintained, or someone has maintained, over the years. We had, I think 11 people at one point, and now it’s down to, oh gosh, like 5 or 6 maybe? Because people have gotten out just specifically from that list of folks, there’s two people that I spend a lot of time in communication with them and their families and have visited and everything. And one of them actually, Cameron was alluding to this, but you know, people would get arrested in Ferguson for doing a lot of what a lot of people were doing, which was looting and destruction of property and everything, and one of the guys that I support was arrested for those things and then because of priors, whenever he was sentenced, he actually got a sentence of 60 years. So he’s gonna be in for the rest of his life. So that’s like a very long term. In some ways that to me is like very mind blowing and it’s a very good example of the people that were acting in the streets weren’t always people that we were familiar with their lifestyle, or familiar with the risks that they were taking.
E: So we ran jail support for anybody that was arrested and were doing prisoner support for anybody who is stuck in jail, because they were denied bail or because they’re unfortunately, sent to prison. So we’ve provided all sorts of support for arrested folks.
Jeremy: All right, well, certainly my experience in prison, you have a wide variety of individuals who are locked up, many of which have become politicized in prison. And so they see someone who is locked up on a case such as mine with support from political movements on the outside people know that I’m an anarchist, and a prison abolition is right? And a lot of people are very curious about this. Right? Because of all the experiences in their own lives having been repressed by the criminal justice system.
As far as examples of coordination there’s unfortunately, like, prison they want to bury you, right? They want to prevent you from communicating to the outside world, to receive information of what’s going on in the outside world. And so the work that’s being done on the outside, such as everything from books to prisoners, to the support at people’s court dates and stuff, to having noise demonstrations outside the jail, really gets people who are curious about what’s going on. And so for an example, like I would regularly receive zines and newsletters from ABC and other organizations, right, which are very useful in discussing things that we would otherwise only have access to, like – say for example, something on the news, we would only receive information about what’s going on with the George Floyd uprising, the Michael Brown uprising, based on what was in the news, right? But now we have additional materials to share and discuss as a focus of discussions. For example newsletters from actual movement stuff itself.
And so when people see like the jail demonstrations outside the jail, when people see that there’s people attending each one of your court rooms, that they know that there’s kind of a camaraderie, a sense of loyalty and commitment to something. It kind of brings like prisoners together that we’re not just alone, that we’re, there’s a continuum of resistance, and each of our stories plays a part in that.
Jason: So this is Jason speaking right now, I can talk about my experiences with the Chicago Community bond fund. Just a little back history: this is a bond fund that was organized in response to the uprisings in Chicago against the Chicago police scandal, the murder of Laquan McDonald. There were a large movement, which included a number of arrests to protest the cover up of the murder. And so people had raised a good amount of money to bond out the resistors, the protesters, and in the wake of that it basically coalesced into a movement of an organization that tried to address you know, the problems of the prison system, the Cook County Jail, the mass incarceration project. It was an abolitionist project so we started just working with the community, bonding out people’s family, loved ones, friends, and all that, basically as much as we could try to empty the jail out. This was, I think, around like 2016.
Fast forward to the George Floyd uprising, the organization had been long a supporter of the BLM movement, and when this had happened the organization had definitely stepped up to do everything they possibly could within the organization, to not just bond out the protesters, and the activists but of course the larger community that was involved in, let’s say, property distribution, looting, breaking property, destruction. They stated clearly on that stance, which, in fact, BLM Chicago as well had made a stance to support people involved in the looting.
So we, every day, we’d be out bonding people from Cook County Jail. Sometimes, I personally would go up with a list of like 10 people in the jail, just bonding as many people as we possibly could, as well as trying to amplify and elevate the struggles of other organizations working to change the system. Yeah, this is one thing that’s Chicago Bond Fund had been doing in 2020. And we’re still doing it, you know. We also had a campaign to change the, basically end money bail type law in Illinois. It’s said it’s an “end money bail” but of course felonies and a little bit less palatable type charges, like violent charges or domestic charges, are not bailable, but these are details in the bond bill. But it’s still a pretty good bill the Pretrial Fairness Act, passed in Illinois because of our grassroots shit.
However, there’s still plenty of other challenges beyond the fact, about money for example, the campaign was “end money bail”, right? However, there’s all kinds of other, like compounding details that would allow a person to get what they call a “no bond”. For example, if they have two charges, they can be bond out for the first one, but for the second one in light of the fact that they were already on bond, they could have just be given what they call a “no bond” so that they’re still in there, no matter how expensive their bond is or depending on what kind of charges. So for that reason, there’s still tons of people currently in Cook County Jail and you know, we are expecting the numbers to go down as the the law rolls out, expecting to kind of be fully implemented in two years, but we are we are going to still see a number of people still in the Cook County jail system, even though they are pre trial, just because of all kinds of other laws that would prevent someone from leaving, you know. A large part of this country do not want to see the changes that we were fighting for be implemented. And you know, I mean, all you have to do is just kind of look at the rhetoric and what their actions are, they’re pushing back in the legal sense as well.
Yeah, there’s a major political battle basically between the far right, the John Catanzara FOP CPD camp, as well as the state’s attorney Kim Fox, Lori Lightfoot. Kim Fox has been actually a pretty vocal support of the end money bail project. So like there’s there’s a political battle, of course, as well.
TFRS: Have you seen your support work change over time? For instance the progression from supporting someone through their initial arrest and bonding out, to serving a prison sentence or doing other follow up work with them if that’s not the case. Or if you were in prison, how did your needs change over time from the initial court support and folks showing up and fundraising for lawyers during the initial phase to like, maybe follow up?
C: Well, I mean, initially, we found all these people’s names from like media articles, like there’s a website in Missouri where you can just like find all the court records of cases and so we just kind of like comb through all those and sent letters to them and stuff. And as folks started getting sentenced, some were incarcerated in prisons, other people were given time served because they’d been in jail the whole time and weren’t bailed out. So then the focus shifted from doing like court support, to like, just letter writing and some amount of fundraising when we could. So like just trying to fundraise for putting money on their books, or like maybe some of us have steady work or whatever, so we give $10-$20 a month to one person each at this point, if that’s where it’s at for the folks, at least for me, for the folks that are still locked up. And a few folks have been released in the last couple years. We kind of always tried to check in with them when they’re about to get released, like if they need anything, like, “here’s what we can offer”. It’s a pretty small group, we don’t, we’re not like an actual, like, organization, we just kind of run on our own capacity, but we try to help people when they get released a little bit. And I’ve maintained communication with at least one person pretty steadily who’s been released and we’re actually friends.
But yeah, basically, it’s been so long, I mean, 2014 is so long ago, and people who, a lot of these people like maybe they were in prison, and they got out…there was never an effort to convert somebody to like some political sway, or like political ideology. It was always just sort of like, you were a participant, and we would want the same if we were locked up. So because of that, like, a lot of times, there’s still a connection, but also people have their own lives. And they can move on or they like, have their struggles. I guess I bring that up, because yeah, just to sort of talk about the capacity that we have, as individuals, trying to do this and how we’re not a charity, we’re not a nonprofit or social workers. So we’re kind of trying to meet people where they’re at and have a more down to earth relationship. And if it leads to more of a friendship, then great, if it doesn’t, that’s not the point of it, or whatever.
V: I would, I would echo a lot of that. Honestly, like that progression, I guess, of what our support work looked like at times, I would even say was a bit awkward and clunky. Without this baseline of “we are anarchists” or “we are radicals and therefore we act it during this uprising”, I think it was a bit unclear for both the folks that were locked up and their support networks as to who we were, you know. We’re not social workers, we’re not like an activist organization with a bunch of money coming in, you know. We have a little website on noblogs.org. And we’re kind of you know, as far as this group is made up of now, I think there’s like two people left in St. Louis, who are still there and still active in it and the rest of us are, are all over.
So it’s rather like a disjointed and kind of a funny, awkward conversation to have at times where I’m talking to one of the guys that I support, his name is Alex and I had to have like several conversations with Alex’s mom to kind of like, get her to understand who I was, and that I wasn’t like someone who was going to help place her son in a job once he got out. I was just someone who was going to make sure that her son was looked after and not forgotten about and if something needed to happen where he needed his caseworker to be bothered about some piece of mail, or if he wasn’t getting shoes or something, then I was the person that was going to call and do that. And those sorts of things. I think that we had to be willing to kind of have those awkward conversations with people. And I think that for the most part, that’s been fine. You know, at worst, it’s awkward but we have been able to raise money and get people, when they get released, we’ve been able to give them phones and clothing and help them feel cared for in small ways. And I think that that’s a really important piece of what we do.
Host2: Earthworm, can you tell us about Atlanta?
E: I guess when we started doing jail support work, it was more on the fly in response to arrests happening. It was just kind of catch as catch can, you know. Somebody would be in jail and they’d need $4,000 to go to a bail bondsman to cover their $40,000 bail and we would need to come up with just by calling all our friends. Scrambling to put somebodys rent money up and hope that somebody could pay him back by the time rents due. And we realized in doing that, we needed a more organized, and we needed a bail fund. So in 2016, we started collecting money for that. And sometimes when people get arrested, it makes a lot of news and a bunch of donations roll in. And sometimes you’re able to even set some aside and have that for the next set of arrests. And of course, sometimes more expensive than the amount you bring in.
So we sort of struggled along through a whole series of different protests. And then in the George Floyd uprising, we were fortunate enough that we already were established. And we had that we had a website, and we had this long history of being able to bail out protesters, so we were sort of already a trusted group. And we were able to be really central in that effort and got way more donations than we were used to. But of course, also way more arrests than we’re used to. But with the donations, we were able to cover a lot more of the protesters’ needs. So whereas before, the money had just been very strictly for bail and hiring lawyers we’ve been able to do things like pay everybody’s fines and fees, and pay for medical costs and pay for other incidental things like a babysitter, if you need to go to court. Other things we would never have been able to afford before.
And the other thing that is very blessed that changed is we no longer have a cap to the amount of bail that we’re able to post, because before we had money, we didn’t want to blow it on one protesters. So if you were in there, on $40,000 bail or bond, we could only cover a portion of that, and then we would have to scramble to fundraise the rest of it.
So in the early stages, even before arrests happened when we hear about a protest getting set up. So that arrest might happen, we get the jail support team together and start scheduling who’s going to be available for the 36 hours after the protests if arrests go down. So we’ve got our phones people who have a physical cell phone, because that’s all you can call from jail, and they take turns carrying that and one phone person will bring it to the next person when their turn is over. We scheduled people to do arrestee tracking, which is finding out who’s been arrested, finding them in the jail system and keeping track of them to figure out when they are able to be bailed out, and then getting them bailed out and getting people to meet them they’re at the jail when they’re out. And then once they’re out, that is when court support takes over. And that’s everything from keeping track of when their court dates are and sending them reminders to finding lawyers and helping getting people there to their court dates, and whatever sort of support they need while their court cases going on. And then once their court case is over, there’s follow up hopefully they don’t go to prison or anything but there may be support to do as far as helping them if there’s going to be a civil lawsuit, helping them find lawyers for that, or helping them with whatever kind of evidence gathering or whatever support they need with that. Of course, they may have fines and fees to pay or like ankle monitor fees and that’s all stuff that fortunately now we’re able to afford.
Or unfortunately sometimes people go to prison. And then it’s time for prisoner support, which we do also to the people who are denied bail and they’re sitting in jail waiting for their trial to happen, of which we’ve got about eight in Atlanta. So that means writing the letters. And they also have the phone number so the same phone people who are doing the intake calls the night that people get arrested are also hearing from the long term prisoners, and just figuring out what support they need. Ideally, everybody who’s sitting in jail has their whole support crew of friends and family and whatever supporters, and those support crews can coordinate with each other and with the solidarity funds to make sure everybody’s getting what they need. Failing that, the jail support team just needs to act as a support crew for each prisoner. Meaning that the only number they’re calling is the jail support phone and the jail support phone people are communicating with the prisoner support people at large, who aren’t like the prisoner support for a particular individual and just saying you know, “so and so wants this kind of books can anybody volunteer to send them that” or “so and so is not receiving medical attention, and we need to get everybody we know to call the jail and pressure them to let him see a doctor”, and, and so on like that.
Host 2: Oh my gosh, it sounds like y’all really got that figured out *laughs sweetly*
E: *laughing* Well, I think it’s a process of figuring it out on an ongoing basis. I appreciate you saying that. But I definitely don’t think anybody feels like we haven’t figured.
Jeremy: This is Jeremy. So certainly the arrest and pretrial support work is very crucial. It’s very different than say post conviction, post sentencing. First, I think we just need to listen to the particular circumstances and needs of each person and their charge. But also recognize that since we’re talking about groups and waves of repression, all the circumstances are also linked. In particular, somebody who’s facing charges often can’t openly talk in detail about like, what they’re particularly being charged with. So I think it kind of does rely on support communities to kind of — it’s a political battle, because they want to, like build support for the individual, but also like, build support for the particular so called “crimes” that they’ve been accused of, if it’s like a direct action that they’re currently in prison for. So the way the public narrative goes the way of, in support of what the prosecution’s characterization of the crimes are, right. Like if say, some of the actions over the past couple years, and the uprisings involve various arsons, and property destruction. Well, I think it’s important these groups are doing support work, not just support the individual and whatever the particular legal strategy is, like, say they’re innocent, or whatever, but also support the actual crimes themselves. We had to legitimize the act itself to the public.
And then of course, post-conviction hopefully. I think it makes a difference the amount of time in the in the whole negotiation process, the charges, like the prosecutors are willing to offer up does make a difference if they believe that the person being prosecuted is in isolation, versus if they’re part of a movement, and the prosecutor strategy is also different, and then be more willing to make like better deals or make concessions, that would be a better outcome for the individual.
And then, of course, post-conviction & post-sentencing, you want to give a voice to someone who’s now freely able to speak. The other thing is, as the person’s time draws to a conclusion, and they’re about to be released, the needs also change. That you want to make sure that somebody has every opportunity to make it upon the release, especially long term prisoners, like their ease of adapting. And fortunately I can say that, like they’ve taken care of me throughout my entire bid. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the various groups that came out and supported me. And because of that, I had a pretty easy transition when I was released people came and picked me up from the jail, people were bringing me stuff at the halfway house. You know, my brother and friends made sure that I had a place to stay, you know.
So these types of things help ease the transition I mean, because otherwise, the state will just kick you out and basically hope that you fail again. And so it’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Host 1: Yeah, and that, but on that point, it especially when a person’s been inside for decades — like a decade is a long fucking time — but if someone’s been in for 30 years, like the amount of change that’s occurred during that period of time, the amount of loss of loved ones…
Jeremy: Yeah, yeah, it’s truly shocking. Especially the cultural changes, the changes in the city. You know, people might not…everything is technology, people definitely have difficulty adapting to how people apply for jobs and people secure housing and stuff like that is all different now.
J11: So there have been 1000’s of people arrested during the George Floyd uprising last year, over 300 federal cases and innumerable state felony cases. So given your experience, what can we be doing now to prevent and prepare for those uprising defendants, some of them serving time in prison, Cameron and Veera?
C: To me? It feels kind of inevitable. Part of it feels hard to prevent people from acting – or not…that’s not the question, but like, prevent, repression feels hard because uprisings are often just sort of like, they’re super spontaneous and people like who don’t necessarily consider surveillance or security culture like maybe some of us do. Or anarchists or radicals do are going to get get caught up in like the repression and I guess ideally it would be a matter of trying to like, really push for people to like, be aware of, if like a surveillance camera can see you or be aware of like, the risk that you’re taking, but also like, in some ways, having that kind of, sort of awareness can actually kind of placate you. So it’s sort of a hard balance to figure out how to kind of prevent avoidable repression. Because yeah, people are going to do what they’re gonna do. And like, I think, at least having that baseline of that’s what’s gonna happen is like, where I start from.
V: I think it’s very hard to know how to talk about what prevention looks like. We have our experience, and especially having gone through Ferguson, and especially like the repression support work, post Ferguson, we can look at that and say, “okay, we know how bad this can get, so let’s keep this from happening”. But then how do you do that? Like, how do you like, make those connections in the moment.
I can remember a moment last summer, during one of the demos, the George Floyd demos that happened, and I was… So I was hyper aware of everyone that wouldn’t have their faces covered. And so I’m running around and I’m a white woman, who’s in my 30s, running around telling people to cover their faces, and they feel invincible in the moment they feel like, “nothing’s gonna stop me, nothing, no one’s stopping me right now. Like, what do I care?” And here I am running around, telling them all to cover their faces, and they’re looking at me, like, “no, get away from me, this isn’t your moment!” You know? And, and then like, some ways, it’s like yeah, that’s true. And, like, what am I gonna do? Am I gonna stop you and say, “Look, I know how this goes I know how this ends and start telling them…” the answer is no, I’m not gonna do that. But I think that is part of what we can do show up to these things with just bandanas to hand out, you know.
And as far as preparation, I don’t know, I thought about that. But I think that the model of what this support group is doing, find a small group of people — and we are, we’re a small group of people that are just willing to say, “Okay, these 11 people, we’re gonna make sure they’re taken care of.” And I think if you can form groups like that, and just kind of trust each other to do the bottom line for some of these people that are getting locked up, I think that that can be a really good start.
E: Number one thing, I think we need to be educating everybody that we can about not talking to police, and doing other security culture measures to keep ourselves from going to jail in the first place. You know, as far as educating people about wearing masks and security cameras, and just taking precautions, about things that could get somebody in trouble, not talking about illegal things that somebody could get in trouble for, not posting sketchy stuff on social media. Not talking to the cops, or anybody who might talk to the cops.
And when I say “not talking to the cops”, like not saying anything to the cops, other than “I’m going to remain silent, I want to see a lawyer, or am I being detained? Am I free to go?”, or “I don’t consent to a search”. And that is it, as far as what anybody should say to police. So I think holding trainings and holding them for as many people as we can, particularly because we’re getting lots of brand new people who aren’t used to being protesters is going to save a ton of money, countless hours, and misery in terms of people going to jail, and potentially prison later on. Because it’s so heartbreaking when you hear about somebody didn’t know that they shouldn’t talk to the cops, or they didn’t know that they had the right to not talk to cops, and they’ve just threw away what power they had to protect themselves.
Or I guess you could say, conversely, when we hear about people who did get that training, and did know to keep their mouth shut, and were able to tell their friends to keep their mouth shut, that prevents them from going to jail. And that is a huge relief. You know, when we hear from people, and they’re like, “Oh, no, I didn’t say anything to the cops! You think I’m crazy?”. That’s just like a choir of angels singing.
Jeremy: So first off, as with everything, it’s important that you think through your actions before you carry them out. And I think it’s also important to look at the history of cases and to see how people got caught and the mistakes people have made. So the way we don’t repeat the same mistakes so that way, we don’t keep this ongoing cycle of arrests and incarceration. We obviously want to reduce the numbers of people captured by the state.
Jason: This is Jason now. Yeah so obviously, “don’t get caught” is the ongoing lesson that we’re trying to learn. Secondly, we can’t forget, we have to keep the momentum up for people who are facing charges, we have to demand their charges be dropped in whatever form we can we can be writing letters, we could do petitions, we could be doing protests, we could be doing rallies, we could be doing letter writing parties, we could organize our own letter writing chapters, we could organize our own prisoner support chapters. So there’s all kinds of things that we could be doing and are doing to kind of keep the momentum up.
This is a pretty unique moment where you’re still in the wake of where the largest uprisings of many people’s lives, and there is a lot of energy ready to be harvested to kind of push the abolition our work forward, as well as change the system. So the people who are arrested trying to fight the power, to change the system, they really need to be supported if we agree with their goals. So let’s, let’s do everything we can to keep the momentum going on. And you know, people are exploring new ways of doing this.
Host 1: So one of the big things with long term prisoner support that June 11th is trying to address is not letting these people be forgotten. As interest in detention from last summer is already greatly decreased. what can we do to ensure energy and support lasts as long as the effects of the repression will.
C: For me it’s important to be like unapologetic about what people do, or for people to be like, “yes, people engaged in collective and individual actions that were incredibly threatening to the State and Capital and then they get caught”. So it’s like, it is being unapologetic about it is sort of giving people a sense of agency in their actions, as opposed to kind of seeing folks as they became, I mean, obviously, people became victims of state repression, but like, they were resisting, being repressed in day to day life, or oppressed in day to day life. And I guess just like putting it that way can help me kind of see the reality of it, and for lack of a better word, like humanize people.
For instance I think last summer, people were actually coming out in support of looting. Like, that wasn’t happening in 2014. That was a very hard position to hold. And I think it still is in a lot of circles today, but it was very exciting to me because it helps people see the people that are doing that, and create this sort of contagious effect of “Oh, people who are doing that are doing that for a variety of reasons and they deserve to be supported if they get arrested”, that deserves to be spread, and not just throw it under the rug. Because I think if you do that, then you lose the essence throwing the fact that there’s looting, throwing the fact that there’s lots of burning going on, the fact that there’s a fair amount of combative gunfire in the air, just all sorts of creative stuff going on sort of gives a lot of dimension to these uprisings. And I think people can see themselves better in that than they can see themselves in like a more civil disobedience sort of narrative that often just completely erases that. Just talking about it in that way and just like, again, just being unapologetic.
We want to build a different world or live in a different world and the way we get to that is dangerous, but also can be very empowering and exciting and incredibly worthwhile. And the more people who are unapologetic about it, who are like “I support all these combative actions”, the more to me it’s on people’s minds, and the less likely it can be swept under the rug.
V: Yeah, I think that’s the move that we see, or like this boundary pushing of an acceptable narrative. I think that we can participate in that as anarchists and as actors in these rebellious moments. I don’t always know how to push those narratives of the boundary shifting. You know, social media has never been my strong suit, but I think that there are ways to take it to social media and push those things. You know, as the nonviolent protesters and the police were the big bad and “we weren’t doing anything wrong” sort of thing, that’s when we saw some of the people that we supported sort of get forgotten, you know? And I think that that’s changed. That was different last summer, and that the repression support is going to look different because of that.
I think that’s great. I think that there’s still more work to do. And I think that we can be a part of that work. Again, I don’t always know how, I think having those conversations. Just from my personal example, I know that every one of my family was very confused about my participation and Ferguson stuff. Last summer, half of my family was in the streets after dark. And I think in part because of the conversations that we were having, and the ways that things started to be more acceptable, and more people were willing to confront this discomfort.
E: Wow, that is a tough one. I think that’s something that long term prisoners experienced widely, you know? You get a lot of support in the first couple years and then once you’re in there for a few years, the world keeps going and kind of starts to pass you by, and it’s just heartbreaking to think about people in there, wondering if anybody still cares about them. And you know, getting those letters that are just such a precious lifeline when you’re in there, and getting them less and less often. That’s got to be a desperate feeling. I think anybody who hasn’t experienced that, we probably don’t understand just how much of a lifeline that support from the outside is.
So I think trying to communicate that to people, and talk about prisoner support as a core antirepression effort. I think it often gets overlooked as sort of one of the unsexy grunt work things. And it’s kind of hard to write letters, there’s some social anxiety there, people don’t know what to say. But just getting that to be more of a core part of all of our efforts. It’s a mutual aid effort, because you and I, one day, are very likely to end up doing some time. You know, if we’re effective at what we’re trying to do and I hope we are, it’s extremely likely that they’re going to come after us. So setting up these efforts and promoting them as “this is an important part of the antirepression work that we do”, supporting prisoners could directly benefit us one day, and will definitely benefit our community.
So, and I think that there are a lot more opportunities to do prisoner support but it’s kind of overlooked as an activity. Because I frequently run into people who say “I don’t have a lot of consistent time but I’m able to do something here and there, what kind of work do you recommend?”, and I’m like “write a prisoner. You can do that on your own, you can do it kind of at work, or whenever you get a few minutes, it’s totally independent”. And it is such a lifeline for that person. And it’s a way to directly help, you know? Cuz there’s so much that we do that is kind of planting seeds for the future, or just hoping that one day it’ll bring about revolutionary change — which this, I think, again, is a big important piece of doing the prisoner support — but it also directly means so much to a specific individual, that you can see the difference that it makes.
So, talking to people who need guidance about how they can contribute, and who maybe want to work independently, maybe can’t leave the house, don’t have good transportation aren’t able to come to meetings, this is something that you can do from home, that you can do entirely by yourself. If you’re not able to risk arrest, or if you’re not able to physically keep up with a march, you can keep in touch with a prisoner, you can write them. If you hate writing letters you can get a JPay account and send emails, that’s a lot easier. You can put money on your phone account and let them call you. Or you can, some jails and prisons have the like video visits thing, you can do any of that. Once again, I don’t think we can even really understand how important it is for them to know that there’s somebody out there that they can count on, that they can reach out to if they’re in a desperate situation.
I think another big barrier to people’s willingness to begin writing a prisoner is uncertainty about how much time they can commit to it and not wanting to start off strong and then kind of leave the prisoner hanging, which is an important concern. But I would say you know, if you can only do one letter every six months, be upfront about that. But if you can only do one letter as a one time thing, just be truthful about that, and set the expectations realistic. And whatever you can do is incredibly meaningful.
Host 2: And for you, Jeremy?
Jeremy: Well, certainly the work that people have done with June 11th have brought attention to like anarchist and Earth Liberation prisoners who have experienced long amounts of time behind bars and they have not been forgotten and their stories aren’t over either. As far as the cycle of oppression and arrests and incarceration and how do we avoid burnout, and how do we ensure energy and stuff like that: I think one of the big things is we need to realize that we have the capability of winning. That this isn’t just an ongoing cycle that’s going to repeat forever. We believe that we will win, we believe that there is going to be a moment that we could overturn the system. Abolition is mainstream discourse now so we just need to keep the pressure up and keep it going and keep chipping away at the armor of the system.
Of course avoid arrests I mean as much as possible, and bring attention to the people who have unfortunately fell into the dragnet. But I think one of the other things I liked about the work that people have done around June 11th is that it kept people who are behind bars involved, to the extent possible. And really as someone who’s been behind bars and who has been following the June 11th stuff…we want to see people continue the work that we’ve been doing. Even though we might not have all the details, we don’t need to know all the details.
Jason: Yeah. So, I mean, there were 1000’s of arrests last year. It’s summertime now, they say that somewhat the interest has waned in protesting, people wanting to go back to normal, whatever, but I don’t see it that way. I see plenty of people still willing to take the fight. And so let’s get creative, let’s see what new kinds of things we could do. Let’s keep the struggle up, keep amplifying. Like my brother said we do believe we could win, and we do believe that we have made a lot of changes just within the last year. Let’s see how far we can take it.
Host 2: What could it look like to have more connection between long term political or politicized prisoners, and activity and resistance in the streets and elsewhere?
C: Part of my impetus for being involved in the Ferguson prisoner support group, or whatever, is just kind of trying to encourage a culture of solidarity. Especially in a way that tries to cross all sorts of cultural and subcultural divides, whether that be like racial or gender, or class, whatever. Just trying to see how we can fortunately, and unfortunately, have this moment where — especially during an uprising — we’re not following an easy script. Because day to day life is extremely segregated, it’s extremely…it can feel pretty isolating going through day to day life, going to work, going to school, raising your family, whatever. And being just in that baseline, and then whenever that kind of gets shook up a little bit, it’s an opportunity if you have a certain perspective to try to bridge, or break out of, that sort of stalemate.
I think with the prisoner support stuff, it’s always felt important to me to try to meet people where they’re at to have a variety of folks from all sorts of disparate or common situations and just have more perspective. And I love trying to foster situations or moments or being in moments where that is a little more uninhibited, or more relaxed. So like, how do you do that outside of these ideal — and they’re not even really ideal, there’s all sorts of terrible things that happen in uprisings as well, I don’t want to romanticize that if I can — but it is a thing where, yeah, it feels a little looser and easier. So like, how do you do that when it’s over? How do you foster a culture of solidarity of mutual aid that continues to break down like separations? I think we’re always between a rock and a hard place with this, but I think, especially in this case, writing folks, after the uprising ends, ideally, it can help create a sense that “Oh, if this happens to a friend, maybe I would do the same thing”.
Maybe they would have always done the same thing. Because obviously people have their own support networks. But like, maybe us doing that kind of helps spark an idea that like, “oh, if somebody is in trouble, or if somebody is having a hard time because of state repression or because of work, or all sorts of struggles, I can do something too. Or I can call these people who helped me in the past, and we can do something about it”.
So that’s the ideal that I have of doing this project, and even on a practical level, having more support inside and outside of prison walls and jails is helpful. Like if one of us happens to go to prison or jail, we might know somebody in there, somebody you connected with who’s like out, who is released who might be like, “Oh, yeah, I got a buddy in this jail or this prison that you’re going to and it might help you out”. Kind of not the most empowering thing, but it’s like, again, it’s like you’re between a rock and a hard place and these situations…or ultimately I want to like break out of having to think about that, but I think it’s a great place to start.
V: Yeah, it’s I feel similar to Cameron. There’s parts of this that just feel tough to answer, especially regarding the prisoner support work that we’re doing with people who I don’t know that they would identify as political prisoners. But maybe something that I have learned from this and from them is I was kind of talking about the awkwardness of making the connection at first, and then sort of allowing that to just be what it was. Like, “I’m here, and I know you because of this thing, because we were acting at the same time in the same place for a lot of the same reasons” and then sort of seeing where that takes us. And because these guys are not political prisoners, or “political prisoners“, it’s taken me and our relationship in all sorts of places. And I think that that’s been a beautiful way to connect. It’s opened up like my eyes to a lot of the different day to day oppression that some of these people have been living through, and that they’re sort of like allowing me to see into their life me as someone who they wouldn’t have allowed that, before all of this.
And I think that that’s been a really beautiful piece that’s come out of this, because we sort of open it up for connection to happen in all sorts of ways that don’t really hinge on “let’s read this radical text together and have a book club about it”, but it looks different. And then suddenly George Floyd uprising happened, and I’m getting emails and phone calls from them, where they’re just talking to me about how this is inspiring them from the inside and how they’re talking to people, their other inmates inside about why they acted in the way that they did and suddenly you see this fire again, and then you get to be inspired by that with them. And I think that a lot of that is because we allowed for a more open connection, and then we’re allowed to go down this path with them. I think our connection with these guys is a bit different but it’s still one that I continue to feel inspired by.
J11: How about you, Earthworm?
E: Again, I think staying in touch with people is the very ground level of that. Writing to those folks and for their advice and their input. Atlanta ABC runs a newsletter that we send out to probably about 250 prisoners, mostly in Georgia, but throughout the Southeast, that’s mostly written by them: they’ll receive the newsletter and we put a ask for contributions in it, and then they’ll mail us and we type it up and get it in the next newsletter. And staying in touch that way at least they’re connected in with what’s going on, they’re getting news about whatever the revolutionary struggles are, and they’re able to give their input. They’re able to lend support to people who are facing charges, who might go to prison, because they obviously have the clearest idea of how to handle that, and how to keep that in perspective, you know? If you’re facing a little bit of time, being in touch with someone who’s doing a lot of time can be very helpful.
We also publish prisoners writings on the Anarchist Black Cross website. And when they are engaging with something that’s going on in the moment, we’ll publish that more widely kind of spread that to other news sources to keep them engaged that way. I think the other part of that is to hear from them about what struggles are going on inside the prisons, and connect the people who are working on the outside to lend support to those things. So, if people are being brutalized in there, or there’s some horrible racist guard who’s harassing particular inmates, or behaving badly in general, we on the outside are able to bring pressure on that as a result of maintaining this connection with the long term prisoner. There are eyes and ears on the outside.
Jeremy: Certainly like the world we’re building is a world without prisons and we want everybody to be freed unconditionally, regardless of their particular circumstance. We support political prisoners and prisoners of war, but we also support politicized prisoners, we also support prisoners of everything, you know? So, often though, like the state will target political cases as like a canary in the coal mine type situations, where they use new legal techniques to go after political prisoners that, if successful, they’ll generalize. But the same works both ways too. They’ll also use tactics to target segments of the population that they think nobody will rush to defend either for that matter. And so it’s important that we’re fighting for all different types of cases and not letting the state get away with anything.
As far as encountering each other we need to keep up sending physical newsletters into the prisons, sending books to people in prison, doing radio shows on radio networks that have reach within prison, the jail demos and stuff like that. You would be very surprised at the long term reach that some of these actions happen. Like, for example, like when I was being transferred around a couple years ago with the grand jury Virginia thing, right? I ran into somebody at the Oklahoma Transfer Center, right? And I thought he looked familiar, right? Then he came over, said something like “I remember you and Jerry were at New York, they were always having demonstrations outside the jail for you all”. And I was like, “Wow, that was like eight years ago”. But you never know, like, something like that can stick in people’s minds. And I think that has an effect on the mentality of people that “you are not alone, you’re not fighting this alone”, and that June 11th specifically, like, if you are questioning whether you want to be involved in something – first off you should always think your actions through — but know that if you do get in trouble the movement will have your back, will see you through this whole thing, that you’re not alone.
Host 1: Are there any last things that y’all want to add, any ways that people can follow your work or get into contact with the folks that you support?
C: People can go to antistatestl.noblogs.org there’s a tab on the website that says “Ferguson Related Prisoners” and that list is up to date as to who’s still locked up and who still wants some kind of support. There’s also a PayPal link for commissary donations, or release fund donations. People are also welcome just to directly send it to the folks inside themselves if they prefer that.
E: So the Atlanta jail support efforts is not just Atlanta people, lots of work is remote. So if you want to help out with our jail support efforts, we’ve got a mountain of work that needs to be done and we’d be delighted to plug you in and get you trained up to do that. Of course, there’s probably a similar effort in your area that you can get involved in with probably a little bit of googling. If you want to write to any of our long term prisoners, atljailsupport.org has an email that you can reach out to us on and we will plug you in and get you connected to one of them. Also atlblackcross.org is for not specifically protest related prisoners, but all prisoners who are now protesting the conditions of their confinement or protesting the system in general. And if you visit that site there are ways to write to them as well.
Jeremy: Alright, first, I want to pay my respects to the comrades behind bars who are still enduring this repression, the folks who are facing charges now who might have a journey in front of them still. I want to say: we got your back, we support what you’re doing, stay strong.
As far as the work me and my brother are doing, you all know that we do a podcast called Twin Trouble, you could check us out at twintrouble.net. As you all might know, I have several conditions of supervised release, which involves stuff about association with civil disobedience and a few of the things that make my involvement and stuff post a release is going to be difficult to navigate these conditions. Nevertheless, the spirit of resistance is there. I’m currently finding ways to become involved in a way that’s meaningful and safe for both myself and others. But so yeah, check us out on the podcast twintrouble.net we got a few other projects in the works, but I just want to show my appreciation to everybody who has had both me and my brothers back up until this point and the future is unwritten. So who knows what might come next.
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.
adrienne maree brown is the writer-in-residence at the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute, and author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds and the co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements and How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office. She is the cohost of the How to Survive the End of the World and Octavia’s Parables podcasts. adrienne is rooted in Detroit. More of their work can be found at adriennemareebrown.net
If you like Scott’s interview style, check out their interviews with Kristian Williams on Oscar Wilde and Eli Meyerhoff on higher education and recuperation. Also, to hear an interview with Walidah Imarisha, who co-authored “Octavia’s Brood” with adrienne.
So much heartfelt thanks to the folks continuing to send us donations or pick up our merch. We’re almost at our goal of sustainability, but still not quite there, but the one-time donations have definitely cushioned that need. If you’ve got extra dough, check out our Donate/Merch page.
As an update on the transcription side of things, we’re still rolling forward, comrades have gotten each episode so far this year out and we’ve imported the text into our blog posts and imported links into our podcast after the fact about a week after the audio release! Also kind soul has done the immense work of making zines and downloadable pdf’s of almost all of our already transcribed interviews up until last week! Those posts are updated and linked up to the text and you can find more by checking out the zine category on our site.
The Final Straw Radio: Thank you for coming and talking to us in the Final Straw. Do you mind introducing yourself with a pronoun and relevant information you want to give?
adrienne maree brown: Yeah, so, my name is adrienne maree brown, I use she and they pronoun. I am a writer based in Detroit and I’m the author of Emergent Strategy, Pleasure Activism, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood, and most recently, and I think what we are going to talk about today, the author of a book called We Will Not Cancel Us and Other Dreams of Transformative Justice. I have been a movement facilitator and mediator for over 20 years, close to 25 years now. And most of the writing work that I do is rooted in the experiences and questions that have come from those places. That’s who I am for people who are meeting me here.
TFSR: Thanks! I’m so excited to get to talk to you and I wanted to dive into your most recent published book because it offers a lot of food for thought, especially for people who are engaged in different kinds of community processes and accountability and larger projects of abolition and transformative justice.
amb: Oh, one thing you should know and it may show up for your listeners, too. I have neighbors upstairs and today is the day that they host the preschool pot, so if you hear big thumps and bumps and things like that, just know it’s kids playing and everyone’s all good.
TFSR: That’s a good [chuckle]. I also have a sleeping cat that may awake and attempt to hang out on the computer.
amb: Real life continues happening even during Zoom calls, so…
TFSR: I kind of wanted to just jump in into the stuff thinking about listeners have a basic concept for abolition and transformative justice. The first thing I started thinking about when preparing to talk to you was that way that cancel culture which you, you know, you reverting in the title, it’s become a kind of meme at this point. And there is plenty of critiques from the radical liberatory side which is the one that you are offering, but also right-wing conservative perspectives, like I’m thinking of Trump getting kicked out of Twitter, or the J.K. Rowling transphobic stuff that prompted this all of these rich and powerful people to talk about cancel culture, so I was wondering what you think… How do we differentiate those critiques from the liberatory side vs. the powerful side?
amb: Yeah, I feel like I’ve had to explore this a lot more since the book came out than I ever did before. I’m really not following what right-wing conservative people are up to or saying or doing. It’s literally not a part of my world, my conversation. So when I wrote the initial piece and people were like “Trump uses this language”, I felt like “What?” I don’t follow him, so for me, it was interesting. I can totally see the right-wing using the critique of cancel culture to dodge accountability and to me, the major distinction is what is the impetus of the critique. For me, it is a love-based, abolition-based impetus. I do believe that as people who are fighting for abolition, there are conversations we need to have, questions we need to be asking and practices we need to get good at that are related to how we practice being in deeper accountability with each other and starting to develop an expectation that accountability is possible when harm happens. Because I believe that those twin expectations are what lay the foundation for a truly post-prison, post-policing coexistence. So that to me feels like the primary thing is that when someone like J.K. Rowling is being like “No, cancel culture is being no good”, what she is fundamentally fighting for is like “I want to protect my right to be oppressive, to basically cancel or deny the existence of other people”. And what I think we are fighting for is the right to protect as many people as we can from being harmed, denied, erased. So there is a call, you know, to me, the difference is also people talk about call-out vs. call-in and this kind of things, I think a lot of what we are doing is that we want to actually pull ourselves into more interdependence, relationality, accountability. And that feels like a huge distinction.
TFSR: That’s a good point, cause the words can become slippery, especially as they get co-opted by people who don’t have those horizons that we have.
amb: When I was trying to figure out which words were are going to fight for, and how we do that fighting for. It’s hard, but I do think it’s worthwhile in some places. Abolition is actually still ours, transformative justice is still ours. I don’t think cancel culture necessarily is the one that is ours. For me, We Will Not Cancel Us is about the activity, like we are not going to cancel people we need to be accountable for. How do we do that?
TFSR: Yeah, this is a very important distinction, because cancel culture is already a mainstream critique of this thing, probably they see it as a youth phenomenon on social media. And canceling is a thing that people do, but it’s not a whole culture necessarily.
amb: It’s not, and what I think is interesting is that there is a culture of disposability, and there is a culture of conflict avoidance, but I think the cancelation… So much of it is rooted in social media culture, so social media culture is a shallow engagement, clickbait headlines, very surface-level arguments, and then canceling people. It all goes together: trolls-gone-wild, then we are trying to build a movement and how do we navigate and organize around social media as a part of building movement, and how do we harness it as a tool? I think what’s been happening is that it’s been harnessing us. We’ve got drown into the way social media works as if that’s how a community works and changes.
TFSR: There are two different levels that we can use social media as a tool for things that we’ve done historically to protect ourselves, but then there is this other level where it takes on another meaning. One thing I was thinking about reading your book is that probably also the most notable mainstream version of this that gets discussed is the #metoo. It’s called a movement, but from what you discuss in your book I don’t see it as a movement, cause it’s an isolated ax of naming something. It’s not necessarily a struggle in the streets. And I’m not saying this as a judgment, I’m reserving judgment of like it’s effective or should people do this, but I’m interested in thinking about that, not having a basis in a tangible community.
amb: It’s interesting, I think it depends on where and when you enter the MeToo conversation. If people enter the conversation as like this happened related to Harry Weinstein, a year and a half ago now, then I think that’s the case. But if you take it all the way back to the work that Tarana Burke has been doing for years, that was very tangible and the work that she has continued to do is very much tangible, happening in real-time, in real space, in real relationships and calling for changes that happened in the offline world, and using social media to help push that along, to spread that. But I just did an event with them recently and I was blown away by how much they are inviting people into offline practices. And I think ‘movement’ is a kind of slippery and tricky term. I see people telling like “We are starting a movement”, I don’t think that is how movement works, how things take off or people get called into something and like what is actually moving. And I look at, like, is policy moving? Is our sense of identity moving, is our sense of capacity moving? And in that sense, I would say that to me MeToo is absolutely a movement because it has moved and transformed how people negotiate the intimate relationship, intimate harm, how people negotiate being public or non-public about the harm that happened to them. So I would see it that way.
TFSR: I like that idea. I was thinking, bell hooks distinguishes between political representation and pop culture that doesn’t get grounded in grassroots. But the way you mention it makes sense, and the thing I admire about the call-outs that happen, cause though we could read from a lens of canceling or even carceral sort of minds, but it also is demanding accountability and giving voices to people.
amb: Absolutely, and that’s what I think is interesting is who do we listen to, so if we listen to Cherana and Nikita and so many people who are now working in that space, one of the things they talk about all the time is… this is actually not about destruction, it’s not about trying to bring people down and destroy them. We are trying to heal trauma, to end cycles of harm, and end trauma that has come from that harm. And I think this is one of the most interesting pieces about the distinction between what I had actually an issue writing about and the larger culture of cancellation and call-out, cause call-outs are rooted in the communities I come from – brown, queer, trans communities. And the reason why we initially needed the strategy was because the power differentials between us and the folks who were causing harm were so vast that we couldn’t be heard as equal parts of the story-telling, we couldn’t be heard in our survival. That’s still the case in so many scenarios where “Oh, these workers need to call someone out, or call out an institution, a corporate entity because the power dynamics are so vast. And with Harvey Weinstein, with R. Kelly, with some of these big public cases, I hundred percent support those, I’ve tweeted that, those make sense to me because the power differentials are so big that the only way to potentially stop this harm is by making this huge call. I think the difference is then how do we handle it when the harm is much more horizontal, within a community, where there might be slightly more positional power, slightly more social media cachet or something, but no one is wealthy, no one actually owns anything, no one has long-standing security in any kind of way, and a lot of time we are talking about survivors, where everyone is in a situation of survival or something.
And that to me, as I’ve stressed, has got much more complex, and again, that still doesn’t mean that we take it off the table. It might still need to be. I’ve witnessed, I’ve held, I’ve supported the situations where we have tried a million other things to get this person to stop causing harm and this is not the move. And I think that is the case… A lot of the push-back I got from people when I published the original essay, they were like “Hold on, in a lot of these cases, we have tried everything”. Don’t take the power out of the move that we do need the capacity to make. And that was not my intention in writing and it’s not my intention now is to say “How do we make sure that we are using the tactic precisely when it needs to be used and how do we make sure we have other options when we need other options, right? This is not the first thing people jump to.
TFSR: I guess that’s the thing with social media, and we have so many examples of it, especially because being harmed is a really isolating experience and being able to voice it really scary…
amb: It’s so hard.
TFSR: We see the representation of that on social media that can give you the ability to do something even if you wouldn’t reach out to your pod or whatever. That’s a distinction that, I don’t know, I don’t know…
amb: Well, just briefly on that point, that’s also part of what I’m fighting for. As someone who is a survivor myself and who really has to battle like “Would taking this public be healing for me? Who would I share this with that it would be healing for me? How would I actually be able to heal the pattern that happened here? What do I want for the person – multiple people in my life – who have caused harm?” And it’s a very intimate reckoning. I can’t outsource like “Here is what I landed on, and that’s what everyone got to do too”. Because it’s very intimate. What I do know is that I want the result to be satisfying. If people are taking this huge risk to tell these stories, I want them to be satisfied that they are not able to get justice, but they are able to get healing. I think it is often what happens with the way the call-outs play out right now. A lot of what happens is people take this huge risk, tell a story and now they are associated with that story. It’s now they become a public face of the worst thing that ever happened to them, and sometimes there is some accountability, but often there is not, sometimes the person who caused them harm just disappears and goes somewhere else and keeps causing harm. For me, I’m just like “Hold on, let’s examine this strategy and figure out how do we actually make sure survivors are having a satisfying experience or healing and being held, and getting room to process and not having to be responsible for managing anything to do with the person who caused them harm.
My vision is where we live inside of communities, that have the capacity and the skill to be like “That harm happened to you – we are flanking you, we’ve got you, you are being held, we are attending to your healing. And that there is also enough community to go to the person who caused the harm and hold them in a process of accountability and also healing”. Because fundamentally, we know something’s wrong if someone is causing that kind of harm, if someone commits sexual assault, if someone commits rape, steals resources, abusing power. We know that actually some healing is also needed there. Not that the survivor needs to guide the healing, but the community does need to be responsible for it. I think we are a long way from that. Where we need to be heading if we call ourselves abolitionists is we have to develop a capacity to hold all of that in the community, so that we are not outsourcing it to a prison, to the police.
TFSR: Yeah, it’s interesting in this transitional period, we are not there, it that vision just discussed, we are trying to reach that. There is that experience that so many people have and you’ve probably seen and had it yourself where accountability processes go wrong or a call-out isolates someone and the person who caused harm gets scrutinized and their process doesn’t happen or even I feel like processes can be used to wheel power within subcultural communities, whether that is anarchist or queer, and exclude people. So there is a high level of burnout or disillusionment with these processes, and I just wonder what you think about how we counteract that. That’s another form of healing that is needed.
amb: Yeah. I keep pointing people to these two resources, they just came out last year, which to me says so much about how early we are in the transformative justice experiment. And to place ourselves in a context of time, helps me to drop my shoulders. Be like “Of course we don’t know what the fuck we doing, these processes are fucking hard and everything” because we are so early and we have been… Mariame Kaba talks about this, that we had 250 years of the carceral experiment, of well-funded policing and prison systems rooted in enslavement practices, had a long time of those being well-funded and we have never had a period of experimentation in what we are talking about – transformative justice and abolition practices – have been well-funded. Of course, we don’t have the resources to do it.
So one book is Beyond Survival by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha which gives a history of transformative justice, which talks about the people who were doing it before they knew that they were doing it, maybe they didn’t call it that, but just different kind of case studies and models and experiments so people can see that we have been innovating and adapting and trying to figure this out. That feels like one resource for people to say “Go look, we are not the first people to fuck up”. We still don’t know how to hold this, we are learning. The other resource is Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan put out this workbook called Fumbling Towards Repair, and I’m in love with this workbook because it’s very tangible as a resource. Here is how you can do a community accountability process in your community when something happens. It’s rooted in the idea that Mariame talks about which is it’s not going to be a one-to-one shift from the carceral state to a perfect transformative justice system that someone else still holds outside of us. It’s going to be a system where we want to defund the police and the state and redistribute resources into a million different options in our community including that many of muscle up our capacity to do community accountability processes. And if we are doing one for the first time – I remember the first time I did one – I went in with a big dream of healing and I came out mid-level satisfying, like I said my piece, and this person agreed not to do whatever.
So I just think it’s important to be humble on a grand scale about the fact that we are still learning these things and there is a lot of people in our community who actually are developing some expertise around this, but you are developing an expertise in something that is very often a private process, so it’s not something you are writing out like “Honey, let me tell what I just did with this horrific person”, a lot of it is very private and quiet, and I think that also skews the sense of this moment because a lot of times the initial call-outs, initial accountability moves are much more public, and social media takes them very far, but then we don’t see what happens behind the scenes, we don’t see what was happening behind the scenes to lead up to that moment, all the things that are behind. So if we were able to be like “Ha! We don’t know how to do this yet, we have to learn how to do this. And learning happens mostly through failure. We learn by trying something, it doesn’t quite work, then we make the adjustment. We have so much to learn. We have to learn what roles work best for different people, who are the mediators, who are the people who can hold these processes, who are the people who are like “I’m a healer, I can hold a role in a community”. Do you have to experience these accountability processes yourself, can you just read about it and hold it? There is so much to figure out, and to me, it’s actually exciting. We are in an exciting place potentially for transformative justice and abolition. But not if we stay committed to outsourcing those we deem as bad or the processes themselves. It’s more like how do we turn to be like “Yeah, we don’t know how to do this, let’s learn”.
TFSR: Right. I actually had an opportunity to teach a queer and transformative justice class, it was very well-funded, it was right when those books came out, I was so excited, look at all these new books on this. Teaching this stuff to young people seems important, but also familiarizing them with the fact that it’s not a one-to-one replacement or solution. I use a lot Walidah Imarisha’s Angels with Dirty Faces because she talks about it not being a resolution we are used to within a Capitalist society…
amb: Exactly, and looking at those three stories, cause I think that’s the stuff, looking at these different real-life scenarios and being with the complexity of each of these human beings, I think it is such a great book. I also point people a lot to Mia Mingus’s work, particularly the work around apology, because so much of it is, you know, you are trying to get water out of the stone, it feels like “When I really need is an acknowledgment of the harm you did and an apology for that. Few people know how to give a good apology. There is a myriad of resources that we’re building and generating and slowly bringing into a relationship with each other. I think in ten years, it’s going to look very different.
TFSR: There is something interesting I was starting to think about. You talked about the privacy of the intimacy of situations that need this kind of handling. If we start having people specializing in training and that stuff that go around doing the work, we can run the risk of professionalizing it.
amb: I hope this is not the… To me, that’s why the workbook model is so exciting. And I say this is someone who has worked as a facilitator for the last 20 years. I recognize what happened for me was I had the skill, those I used in my community, and then it became a professionalized skill. Suddenly people started “We’ll fly you to all different places to do this”. For a while, it worked for me and allowed me to work with very exciting movements, but it also has the impact in the long run of making people think that they have to fly me in rather than looking around and see who in their community has this capacity and strength. I wrote Emergent Strategy to help with spreading those tools and I have a book coming out this spring called Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy. Facilitation and Mediation. And for me, the idea is similar, the workbook is like “Pick this up, integrate the skill-set, find the facilitators, the people who are like this in your community and do mediation, who are drawn to it, and let’s start to have more capacity for local reliance in these different systems and needs. I think the professionalization and the sense of bringing someone from afar to do this – we can do this, it’s possible on the level of the community.
TFSR: I know since you post so much from Octavia Butler that maybe you are kind of seeding the communities, then figure it out themselves.
TFSR: And thinking about Emergent Strategy and the new book you’ve just mentioned, OK, in We Will Not Cancel Us, you talk about the sort of supremacy within us and connect it to the diagnosis that the Oankali make in Octavia Butler’s book about the problem with humans is like…
amb: Hierarchy and intelligence…
TFSR: Yeah. I see that work that you do, the writing that you do as part of the process, the internal process that we need to do to unlearn supremacy, the hierarchy within us… And that would work on so many different levels – power, masculinity, and all these things.
TFSR: Do you see this as a sort of thing that takes place in culture, is it internal… It seems like you’re initiating a new genre to have an “anti-authoritarian help book” or something.
amb: [laughs] Thank you. The other day I was interviewed and they said that my new genre was “facila-writing”, writing stuff that facilitates people through a process, so I’ll accept this too, “anti-authoritarian help books” I do think that is something that happens at both ends and I say this like one of my great teachers, mentors, was Grace Lee Boggs who is an Asian-American freedom fighter based here in Detroit, part of the Black Power movement. And she said we must transform ourselves to transform the world. And when I first heard it, I was like “No, we have to go out and transform all the fucked-up people who are doing bad things, we are good”. It took me such a long time to understand what she meant, which is any of the systems that we are swimming in have also rooted inside of us, and as we un-root them, uproot them, we unlearn things inside of us, then we become both models for what it looks like to be post-capitalist, post-nationalist, post-patriarchal, post-white supremacy, we become models of that, we become practitioners and scholars. We actually understand what it takes to do that unlearning. That feels like such a crucial part of this.
In We Will Not Cancel Us, I reference my friend Prentis Hemphill’s essay Letting Go of Innocence because that feels connected to this. First, we have to recognize we are not above the people who have caused harm. They may have had different circumstances, they have let us to moving our harm in different ways or processing our traumas in different ways. I think it’s such a blessing, you know I have a life of trauma, but early in my life I was given tools around therapy and healers, I had a loving household, a loving jumping off board from which to process the trauma of being alive in this time, which I think everyone actually is experiencing at some level. I interact with people and they didn’t come across the idea of therapy or they thought that’s not an option or a healer – that’s private, that’s something you don’t do. And that energy is going to move somewhere. So I don’t look at myself as above anyone who ends up in the prison system or anyone who ends up canceled. I just had different circumstances and they allowed me to process the trauma in a different way. That’s internal work that allows me to be present with the fact that capitalism is in me, petty jealous behavior is in me, judgmental behavior is in me, and that I have to examine what is white supremacy, what is patriarchy, what are those things that live in me. I keep uprooting that.
At the same time, I do believe it is cultural work and that is why I write books instead of just having these thoughts in my head or only doing the work with a small group of friends, as I am interested in dropping seeds into the culture to see if other things can bloom. And my experiment with that, with Emergent Strategy, was so exciting to me because I released the book, didn’t really promote it, I was just like “Look, if there are other people hungry for these ideas, this will spread, if they are not, I will know that I’m alone in Detroit looking at ends and that’s fucked. I felt kind of OK either way cause the Earth is still offering its amazing lessons regardless of people see it through my book or not, but now I know that that strategy can really work. And We Will Not Cancel Us similarly, we did a couple of events that just felt like important conversations to have with Charlene Carruthers, with Cindy Weisner, with Shira Hassan, and with Malkia Devich-Cyril who wrote the Afterword. But mostly it was like the book is out and people are either reading that or not. And I have a lot of people who were like “I’m reading this”. I got a lot of messages from people who are like “I’m really surprised based on the first essay to what happened in the book, I’m surprised. I see what you did, I see the growth”. That’s still not the perfect book, it was a quick process, but to me, it feels important that people are reading it in their own groups and talking about their own local culture. Because social media is not the whole world, and so much is happening in our local movement circles, and how at a local level we are integrating these questions of “Well, how do we handle harm? How do we handle conflict when it arises? What are our case studies? Are there people who we have canceled or tried to dispose of? What happened with them? Where are they now? Did they stop causing harm? Did that work? If not, what else could work? Are we putting people in the line of the state, in the eyes of the state?” Just having it as a local conversation.
The thing I’m interested in is a culture of discernment, a culture of mature, generative conflict, and I think that’s so important on this journey towards an abolitionist future is it’s not just a policy change that will make that possible, it has to be an entire cultural shift, and culture shifts because lots of individuals shift.
TFSR: That’s a good way of thinking, cause the internal work, we are sort of taught to think of the internal work as of the work you do for yourself, your goals and your profession, but actually the internal work and this stuff, it turns you into a potential facilitator. I’m not perfect obviously, but I’ve done a lot of work, and the work that I do allows me to enter the situations from a different place, that I can help facilitate them. It’s not because I’m better or to be above them or avoid them completely, cause that’s impossible.
amb: Yes, and I think right now the culture that is being produced is one where people have a lot of fear around making mistakes which limits how honest people are, because if we are being honest, we are making mistakes all the time, and we have fucked-up thoughts all the time. One thing that I appreciate about my best friendships is that I can say something that is wild and my friend will go like “That’s wild, girl, you can’t say that, and let’s examine where that thought came from”. I grew up in a military household, in a capitalist family. I have to know that that shaped me that by the time – I went to an Ivy League University – all those things shaped me. And so as I’m unlearning this, a lot unpack there, and if I’m above that unpacking or I’m hiding from ever making a mistake, then I can’t do that learning. We want to move from a culture where people are terrified to show up to a culture where people are excited to be able to be like “Here is all of me and I know I have work to do”. And if it’s a culture of belonging, where even if you are fucked up, which you definitely are, you still belong to your species and you still belong to your community. And belonging means you are in a constant state of growth.
I’m rereading bell hooks’ It’s All About Love, and she uses this definition of love which is that you have the willful extension of yourself towards the nurturance of another’s growth or your growth. I want love-based communities, to me, that’s what it looks like when you see that someone has fucked up or failed, you are like “I’m going to willfully extend myself towards your growth” so that there is room to come back. That doesn’t mean people are ready for that. I held space for people who were like “I am a flamethrower, I’m in a flamethrower phase of mine, I’m just going to throw flames and everything, and then I was like “OK, this community just needs to set some clear boundaries, so that you know it’s not OK for you to be burning down everybody’s everything.
And that’s a particular move that says “You have a space here when you are ready to come back, and until you are ready to come back, we have to set this boundary. And again, there is no public shaming needed for that, there is no public humiliation, we don’t get pleasure from boundary setting, it’s just a boundary that needs to be set. So that is a kind of cultural shift that to me feels important.
TFSR: That’s an interesting way of putting it, to try and talk about it without shaming. In a relationship, I try to say “If I fuck up, tell me, cause that’s a learning experience for me, it’s an opportunity for me to hear your thoughts and know something else and also not do that again if I can avoid it.” It’s surprising that so many people don’t expect that, you have to normalize that.
amb: Right, because people don’t even realize that this concept of perfectionism is one of the ways capitalism plays out within us and within our community. That there can be some perfect and we can buy our way there or fake our way there or botox-or-plastic-surgery our way there or something. But actually, no one is perfect, people are making mistakes all the time, and I love how you said that, Scott, that a mistake is a place where an aliveness becomes possible, and learning becomes possible. There is also something really important. Just that piece around boundaries. I want boundaries from other people around me. I want to know what the boundaries are that I need to uphold and honor, even if it hurts. I think about it, in my most intimate relationship, when someone’s like “No, adrienne, you can’t cross this line”. And I’m like “Me? For real?” and them “Oh yeah, let me integrate that”. Because it actually isn’t personal, that’s that don Miguel Ruiz shit. Don’t take it personally, when you stop taking it personally, you recognize that people’s boundaries are about them, taking care of themselves, and you can love them by upholding those boundaries. Even that is part of learning.
I know a few people who have been through big call-outs and now they are sitting outside of a boundary, outside of a community that they once felt so at home in, and it fucking sucks. And I’m holding the boundary and I’m learning what I need to learn out here in order to be able to make my return. Even if I think there are other ways to do it, fundamentally, what we are trying to do is to develop a culture where we can set boundaries, the boundaries actually create growth and space for actual authentic love to be possible.
TFSR: It’s so funny, I always thought about the thing I liked about hanging out with anarchists is that I can leave any situation and people don’t need an explanation for it. I’m just like “I’m done”, with that ability to… there is not the same kind of expectation to participate beyond your limits.
amb: Because there is a practice of non-attachment, a practice of really being free around other free people, which is very uncomfortable for people who are… Ursula Le Guin wrote about it in The Dispossessed, that’s I really still identify as an anarchist, is that what it really means to be free is so at odds with how our culture is currently structured. We don’t realize all the ways we are weaving ourselves into a self-policed, self-controlled state, and we are making all kinds of agreements – control me, control me, police me, correct me, control me. I’ve just noticed that in the past year my visibility has gone up to a whole different level, which means that a lot more people think they should have control over me, and really staying free within that context is like “Oh, I’m glad I have developed the muscles before this visibility, that I am free and I deserve to fuck up and make mistakes and I can handle being in public, and someone is like “Yeah, I fuck up”. I am a human being, visibility doesn’t make me less human, but it is a muscle that I wish more people were thinking about even developing, much less practicing.
TFSR: Yeah, you have your podcast, but also your book model is a process. We Will Not Cancel Us is presented not as a finished…
amb: Yeah, it’s a process and I made uncomfortable decisions in it. It would be much easier for me on some level to just pull down the original piece and be like “That’s embarrassing. I made mistakes and people can see that”. But again, if I step outside of it, if I don’t think about it so personally, then I can imagine some young organizer being able to read a book and go back and see the piece and make a connection and be like “Oh, this was what you learned and improved, you still have room to grow, this could be better, sharper, clearer”. And I’m like “Great, you write the next book”. Keep this process going.
I recently got to be in a conversation with Angela Davis which is wild, she is someone who I really look up to, but I also love how I see her handle critique in her life. People come to her and are like “Why are you like this, whatever?” And she’s like ” Yes, exactly. Those questions are real questions that I’m in”. That she keeps herself a living, breathing, growing being who is learning and changing all the time. And she’s like “I’m not the same person I was when I was being pursued by the government when I was arrested and all that, when you campaigned to Free Angela Davis, now I’m this Angela Davis and I will continue to grow”. And I’m like “That feels like a great model for those of us who hope to be elder organizers, elder activists, elder radicals. Grace continued to be curious and grow, Angela continues to be curious and grow, and I want to be that. If I have the blessing of being old, I want to be that kind of an elder.
TFSR: I got what you mean, to have a continuation and the inter-generational connection for a diversity of people coming in now, stuff that is happening and just sharing our knowledge and experience and also getting theirs, cause they have a different perspective.
TFSR: I’ve seen this tactic used when there is a serial abuser in a community, someone who the community doesn’t believe can be accountable, they do a general call, flyering, posters whatever. There is also in science fiction like Woman on the Edge of Time, there’s this idea that eventually, if you keep harming, you get killed, right?
amb: In Woman on the Edge of Time, you get one chance. You mess up one time, they give you the tattoo, if you mess up again, they say “We are not doing prisons”.
TFSR: I have an organizer friend who says that part of abolition is maybe the community decides that that’s it for you, that’s the vision of it. I’m not saying that everyone everyone needs to adopt that, but there is also revenge and stuff like that, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on this.
amb: I think it’s complicated because I will admit that I have one response – here is my theoretical, philosophical higher-self response, which is that we have to keep building our capacity to hold even the most harmful people, somehow we have to figure it out. But then a part of me is in communities regularly and has had to hold and set those boundaries and has seen that person, I’m like “You literally don’t care, you must work for the Feds, you are just… when they are passing out fives of happiness and joy, you miss the entire bucket, you don’t know what happened”. I’ve seen this side and I’ve definitely been in a place where it felt like there was no other option. What I mean inside of this is I am not actually judging what communities have to do to survive and I don’t think that any of us can do that for other communities. At least I’m not trying to judge, I’m not trying to be like “You all are weak, cause you need to do whatever”. My thing is, there is something around how we feel inside of it. Any of those times when I finally had to be like “Look, they are not willing to stop causing harm, we have to set this boundary”, for me, it’s been a move of grief and relief. Like we just have to make this call and prayer, cause I know us holding this does not mean that the harm is going to stop and they are going to find someone else to hurt. And at an individual level, this is always a thing, someone has been abusive to you, do you call the person they start dating next and say “Look, this person is going to fuck you up” or you just like “Well, I hope it goes better for them”? People make different calls about that. The things that helped me through this: one is I do believe that people change. They may not change at the pace that we want them to. I do believe that sometimes a hard boundary is the only way to get people to change. I’ve seen it happen before, I’ve seen it happen to people who had that positional power, that they were abusing and abusing, and finally were like “You don’t have it anymore”. And that’s where they actually were able to turn inward.
So I do believe that hard boundaries sometimes can be the most powerful thing. I do think it’s difficult with the flyers and revenge. I’ve said it before – that person just needs to get their ass kicked. That what needs to happen. I struggle inside of the same complexities. I think it’s the important piece here. What I want us to get good at as a community is feeling like we have as many options as we do actually have and practicing all the options. A lot of what my writing is in this time is let’s not just above all the options that help keep this person in our community or help this person to heal from the harm that clearly has happened to them, or help this scenario play out differently. Let’s not leap over all of that to have the very first thing we do is, say, plaster this person’s face and name and the intimate stories of the worst moments of their lives all over the internet and then anyone can see. For me, that’s the move that I’m trying to keep us from. To be like “First, let’s understand the history of that person. What do we know? How do we protect the survivor from any further harm? Is the person actually open to mediation or any other process? If they are, who are the right people to hold that, we need multiple people to hold that?” And so on and so forth.
Now, I think we need a boundaries school. If I were creating a school that everyone in the movement had to go through for the next year, it’s the pandemic, and we are like “OK, you can’t be on the streets, let’s all go to boundary school, let’s all go to abolition visioning school and figure out when we say ‘Defund the police’, what responsibility are we taking on in that scenario?” I would have us be in some real serious schools. I think Prentice Hemphill could run a boundary school. I have visions on this step. And Sendolo Diaminah could run the school on abolitionist visions and on practicing it at the local level. Andrea Ritchie could do that, Mia Mingus, Mariame Kaba, there are so many people. There is a lot of learning and political education and practice education that we could do because there is pleasure in revenge, there is pleasure in being able to finally say “This asshole is an asshole”, there is pleasure in all those things. But I think it’s a temporary pleasure that doesn’t actually change the conditions that will lead to more harm happening. I want us to get the pleasure mostly from healing and knowing that we have a chance from the conditions that the harm will not happen anymore.
TFSR: That’s a really good way of putting it. I was thinking about glorifying Fanon sort of violence that cleanses things. Going back to Butler, she explores violence in terms of community, but she holds it in complexity. She doesn’t endorse it, she shows detriments to it.
amb: Yeah, and there is something fascinating. In one of my favorite explorations that she has, which is The Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind, those are two books inside the Patternist series, there is this character Doro, who is a straight-up body snatcher. I remember doing a series of reading groups around this where eventually, a whole huge interconnected network has to take him out because he just cannot stop causing harm. He literally can’t survive if he stops causing harm. But I was sitting in one of the reading groups one time, and someone turned to me and was like “Did she ever try to heal him?” The lead character is one of the most amazing outstanding healers that’s ever existed. And the person said, “Did she ever try to heal him?” I went back and read the book and I couldn’t really see it, cause she tried to argue, she tried to demand, she tried to shame, to run away, she tried a million things to hold him accountable and ask for him to change, but there is not really a moment that she laid her hands on him the way she did with others, and reached into that place where he was a child, his entire family had been killed, and this was the strategy that emerged for him to survive. I always come back to that, it moves me to tears each time, cause if we look at each person causing harm as a child who has been harmed, it changes the conversation, and I think it can change what’s possible. I keep wanting to make this distinction, but that to me is not the work of the person surviving their harm, for me as someone who had been and is being abused, it’s not my job to be like “Oh, I can see the child in you”. But I think in the community, we need to grow that capacity. We have to help, to figure out getting this person to therapy. That might be the mandate. I do feel there are things like that, like if you want to be here, we have to know you are getting support, if you want to be here, we have to see this commitment to your healing. And that would be a sophisticated future if that was happening.
TFSR: That’s a really good point. I was really intrigued in the book about this idea of how we feed intp surveillance and sort of a counter-surveillance. I just wanted to hear more about that idea. Is it airing dirty laundry, is it leaks that get turned against us? Again, it’s like, I’m thinking COINTELPRO and we are bringing all this stuff back to black queer organizers who use call-outs as self-defense. How do you conceive this kind of surveillance?
amb: I think it’s an interesting conversation and it’s part of why I was really excited to have Malkia write the afterword because Malkia grew up as a child of a Black Panther who has really done a lot of scholarship around COINTELPRO and surveillance and who has been fighting around facial recognition and surveillance and all these things. I feel I learned a lot about what Malkia thinks about these things. I wanted to bring this conversation into the larger conversation that we are having which is I don’t think we’ve ever healed from COINTELPRO and I don’t think we’ve ever really figured it out. There are people who are doing really interesting work around how do we relate to living in a completely overwhelming surveillance state, how do we relate to the fact that infiltration is very common and expected. And we can see the patterns of it play out, that is very hard at an interpersonal level to ever know who you can trust and who you can’t trust.
I just saw a screening of Judas and the Black Messiah which talks about the infiltration of Fred Hampton in the Black Panthers in Chicago, and it’s just devastating to know that people show up inside movement spaces with the intention to cause dissent, harm, and to keep us from justice and liberation. But that is definitely happening. And at meetings, I’m like “Hmm, I think that person is here for the wrong reasons. My response to this is mostly like “Let’s be overwhelmingly on point with what it is we are up to and hope that we sway them and they become a turncoat to the government, whatever. But that is very unrealistic. And much more realistic, since we have to be thinking how are we building trust with each other… For me, it’s all of the above, that is airing the dirty laundry piece that harms us mostly in the eyes of our opposition. They are like “Hey, they don’t actually have unity and solidarity, they are everyone at each other’s necks. And even if it’s true, I don’t think it serves us to have that be public and transparent. And I don’t think it feeds to generative conflict, if the move is that we put people on blast rather than sitting down and having a face-to-face conversation, I’m concerned about that. Zoom, face-to-face, whatever it is.
But then I also think there is something around how we isolate people. If we are taking someone and we are like “This person caused harm in our community” and we are putting that on the internet, then that person is now isolated out of the community and if someone who is surveilling and is looking for like “Who could we turn into an infiltrator, who could we reach in those ways, who could we take out, who could we disappear”. To me, it’s saying “Here are our weakest links, here are the weakest points of our movement. Come get us”. And I think right now, because the movement has grown so fast and because social media is such a bizarre space where people think they have a relationship with people they never met, they don’t know anything about, they don’t have any sense of an actual history for, we are in a really endangered species’ zone, when it comes to our movement work right now. That was a big impetus for the writing that I did, cause I was being asked to do these call-outs, and then I would go look who was asking me to do this call-out, it was almost people I didn’t know and there was nothing to show me that this person’s ever done any other community work. I can see that they’ve done other call-outs, but I don’t see anything like “Here is what they’ve built”.
I said this in many places: I’m much more moved by people who are creating, building, growing the movement, rather than people who are like “My job is to destroy this institute or organization, or turn down this activist, whatever”. That’s not organizing work. And we definitely have people in movement right now where I’m like “They may not be on the State’s payroll, but they might as well be based on how they spend their time, how impactful is it growing efforts of actually being able to advance a united front, something that is complex organizing strategy. So I just think we have to be more mindful around it. To me, even if you don’t agree with me, even if you are just like “Fuck that, it’s more important to be able to call these people out”, I’m like “That’s fine”. And at all times, let’s not pretend we didn’t live through COINTELPRO and not pretend that infiltration and subterfuge and undermining and sabotaging our efforts is not a possibility for what’s happening right now. To me, it’s not learning from our history and be able to transform the future, which is what our job is.
TFSR: That’s such an important point. That we can be serving the state in ways that are unintentional and holding up a purity…
amb: If we are already embedded in philanthropy, we already have so many compromises. We can’t also be throwing our people into those hands.
TFSR: Exactly, we need to accept that we are not pure and not expect other people to be pure. That was a really helpful way of way of packaging it, thank you.
amb: Thank you for this conversation. You have really good questions and I hope that it serves us all.
This week we had the opportunity to connect with Delee Nikal, who is a Wet’su’weten community member, about updates from the Gidimt’en Camp that was created to block the TransCanada Coastal GasLink pipeline (or CGL) that Canada is trying to push through their un-ceded territory. In this interview Bursts and Delee speak about ways folks can get involved, both in so called BC and elsewhere, how the covid pandemic is affecting their work, and many other topics.
The Struggle for Likhtsamisyu Liberation Continues, Updates from Delee Nikal
Before the segment from Sean Swain, we would like to draw attention to a fundraiser in order to get Sean proper legal representation. As we all may know by now, there is nothing restorative about the prison system, its only reason for being is punitive and capitalist. Sean Swain has been in prison for the past 25 years, for a so called “crime” of self defense and radicalized to being an anarchist behind bars. He has been targeted by numerous prison officials for his political beliefs, so much so that years were added to his sentence. If you would like to support this fundraiser, you can either visit our show notes or go to gofundme.com and search Restorative Justice for Sean Swain.
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You can write to Sean Swain at his latest address:
Sean Swain #2015638
PO Box 430
Dillwyn, VA 23936
You can find his writings, past recordings of his audio segments, and updates on his case at seanswain.org, and follow him on Twitter @swainrocks.
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In Solidarity with Italian Anarchists Facing RepressionWe send you our solidarity call with anarchist in Italy and some introductory words, asking you to spread it in the way you prefer. Thanks!
“From 2019 to today the Italian State has carried out many repressive operations and inflicted a series of restrictive measures on anarchist comrades, limiting their freedom of movement and forcing them to remain within the limits of their city or to move away from the city or region where they reside.As recipients of these kind of minor measures, together we want to relaunch our solidarity with the more than 200 comrades involved in the various trials in Italy that are starting this September and that shall continue throughout the autumn.In particular, the appeal trial of the Scripta Manent Operation will resume at the beginning of September: this trial involves 5 comrades who have been in prison for 4 years (two of them for 8 years) and which has resulted in 20+ years of sentence in the first grade.During this trial the prosecutor Sparagna gibbered of an “acceptable” anarchism and of a “criminal” one, statements that contain the punitive strategy that the State wants to carry out, based on dividing the “good” from the “bad” within the anarchist movement and the ruling of exemplary sentences.”---------WHO ASPIRES TO FREEDOM CANNOT BE “MEASURED”We are anarchists subject to restrictive measures following a series of investigations that have crossed the Italian peninsula in the last year and a half.They would like to isolate us, but they cannot. They would like to prevent us from supporting our comrades in prison, but their repression can only strengthen our solidarity.With these various investigations, measures and prison detentions they want to wear us out and divide us, but we remain firm in our ideas and our relations, also thanks to the strong and sincere solidarity that has never failed us and that is increasingly under attack in the courtrooms.They want to divide us between “good” and “bad”, between an anarchism they call "acceptable" and one they call "criminal". We are aware that it is our ideas that have been put on the stand in the latest inquiries, all the more so when these ideas find the way of being translated into action, because as we’ve always believed, thought and action find their meaning only when tied together. And it’s not surprising that a hierarchical system of power such as the State is trying to knock out its enemies by playing dirty and reviewing history, precisely when social anger is growing everywhere.We don’t intend to bow down to their repressive strategies and we reaffirm our full solidarity and complicity with all the anarchists who will be on trial from September: we stand side by side with the comrades under investigation for the Scripta Manent, Panico, Prometeo, Bialystok and Lince Operations, with the anarchist comrades Juan and Davide and with those who will be tried for the Brennero demonstration; we assert our solidarity with Carla, an anarchist comrade arrested in August after living more than a year as a fugitive, following the Scintilla Operation.We know very well who are the enemies that imprison our comrades and against whom we are fighting and every anarchist knows in his/her heart how and where to act to demonstrate what solidarity is.Even if not all of us can be present in the courtrooms alongside our comrades on trial or where solidarity will be manifested, we want to express all our affinity, our love and our anger to them and to all anarchists in prison.Let’s continue to attack this world of cages. Solidarity is a weapon, and an opportunity.-Anarchists “with measures”, exiled and confined
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.
Aric McBay on Ecology and Strategies for Resistance
This week we are airing a conversation that Bursts had a few weeks ago 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.
Pan-African Social Ecology: A conversation with Dr Modibo Kadalie
This week, we’re happy to air a conversation I had with the author and activist, Modibo Kadalie, author of Pan-African Social Ecology as well as Internationalism, Pan-Africanism and the Struggle of Social Classes. A version of Dr. Kadalie’s conversation with Andrew Zonneveld of OOA! Publishing, entitled Pan-Africanism, Social Ecology and Intimate Direct Action appeared up in the recently released collection Deciding For Ourselves, edited by Cindy Milstein out from AK Press. Dr. Kadalie has also been involved in political organizing including resisting the draft of the Vietnam War, labor organizing in Detroit and Memphis, ecological protest, community self defense in Atlanta and currently is working on writings about ecology and living in the territories of southeastern Turtle Island, including those of the Creek and Seminole peoples, and working at the Autonomous Research Institute for Direct Democracy and Social Ecology in Midway, Georgia.
In this hour, Modibo talks about autonomous community organizing, the contradictions between the survival of the species and capitalism, CLR James, his read on Pan-Africanism and Social Ecology, the pandemic, and direct democracy. We also talk about Geechee history in south so-called Georgia, the weaknesses of nationalism, hierarchy and revering individual historical figures and the strength of spontaneity and community action.
This conversation was recorded before the killing of George Floyd and but after the increased awareness of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery nearby to Dr. Kadalie in Glynn County, GA, which reflects in the discussion. Modibo shares some criticisms of official Black Lives Matter, liberal cooptation and the veneration of representative leadership.
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Songs used in this episode:
Marvin Gaye – Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) – What’s Going On
Quincy Jones – Everything Must Change – Body Heat
Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come – Ain’t That Good News
In the past few weeks since the uprising in response to police killings of Black and Brown folks around Turtle Island, amazing chances have presented themselves and folks have seized opportunities. One great and unfolding circumstance is known as the CHAZ or CHOP, an autonomous zone and occupational protest surrounding a police precinct in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The area was opened to community redesign after nights of intense battles with the police leading to the department evacuating the East Precinct to crowds of people chanting “Every Day”, meaning they would continue surrounding the police building. In many ways, the ability of the community, including anarchists and other radicals, to be able to respond to the situation was possible because of the mutual aid work that had been being developed during the covid-19 pandemic and years of building relationships.
In this podcast special, you’ll hear a fresh conversation with D. D is a Black Anarchist who grew up in and around Capitol Hill district in Seattle. He talks for this chat about that neighborhood and adjacent Central District’s rebelliousness and conflictual history with the Eastern Precinct that the Seattle Police abandoned, about his knowledge of the protests of past weeks and the retreat of cops from their pen. D talks about the foundation of what has been called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, aka CHAZ, aka Capitol Hill Occupation Protest (or CHOP), or as D calls it the Chopped City CHAZ. You’ll also hear a tiny bit about the history of occupations during protests in the city, engagement with the zone and indigenous communities in the area, the idea of monolithic Black Leadership, self-defense against the far right, the reproduce-ability of the auonomous zone model and other topics. We’re going to try to bring you more stories from this place soon and are super thankful to D for sharing his perspectives.
note: I was informed by my cohost William that in fact the retaining wall in front of the fourth precinct in Minneapolis that I was referring to was actually constructed by the Minneapolis PD, hence why it looks janky as shit.
// Note from the transcriber: I got rid of some conversational language on part of the speakers, words ‘So, like, well’ and so on. This has created a text that reads a little more formally than the interview itself. The reason for this is that I want to make this as clear as possible to folks who want to read it but are still developing a fluency in English. Apologies for any loss of tone or voice on part of the speakers. If you are studying English and find that it works for you, you may enjoy reading along to get a better feel for the interview.
I put special emphasis on removing words that can be used for approximation when they were being used as placeholders, such as ‘like’ and ‘kind of,’ since without hearing the flow of the conversation meaning might be obscured. I also cleaned up some sentences where the speaker backtracks and corrects themselves, or broke up long flows of speech into shorter punctuated sentences, to give the reader an indication of where an idea wraps up. For example “ …Where I doubt any of the white officers have any roots in Seattle. And Seattle, they’re like cutting edge on shit like community policing and community engagement.“ //
TFSR: Would you be able to identify yourself, maybe what political tendency you identify with, your relationship with Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, maybe whatever name and pronouns you prefer?
D: Sure. My Name is D, I use he/him pronouns. I’m a Black anarchist born and raised in Seattle, I grew up at the bottom on the east side of the Capitol Hill so I’m really familiar with the history of the area.
TFSR: Thanks for taking the time to chat, I really appreciate it.
D: Yeah, no problem.
TFSR: So there’s this occupation, this autonomous zone that was formed in the Capitol Hill district. Can you talk a little bit about what the protests were like in Seattle following the police murder of George Floyd and other Black folks, and what it looked like in Capitol Hill?
D: It started off with the Friday night protest, the Friday following the burning of the third precinct. I had actually just got back into town and went in not knowing what to expect. It was kind of directionless, some targets were hit that made sense for people, like an Amazon Go store was hit which reflected the sheer hated of Jeff Bezos. Then it was a very confrontational atmosphere in the crowd but also [it was] kind of not knowing what to do or where to go and nightfall happened the demographics of the crowd got very younger and much more Black and there was a newfound energy.
People were going around downtown Seattle and made their way up the hill until like 2am in the morning. The following Saturday were more organized protests that were in the heart of the shopping district in downtown, and before the organized event could really get underway the confrontation with the police occurred and things got really wild throughout the evening. That’s where you see the burning cops cars and the Nordstrom’s getting hit and the different looting occurring downtown. That Sunday, the next day, there were hundreds and hundreds of people out on Capitol Hill marching around and the cops wouldn’t let people downtown. Groups would break off in like groups of 100 and try to find a different way downtown while another group would stay behind at each police line that would be formed.
Over the course of maybe like seven hours people finally made their way downtown in different, smaller groups. Simultaneously with that happening, on the east side of Lake Washington in Bellevue, Bellevue Square Mall got hit and looted with seemingly a coordinated group of people there where the police didn’t know how to respond. All they could do was watch a they got hit and looted. I wasn’t there for any of that, I have no idea how that even happened or came about. It was cool to hear about.
Then, on the following Monday, somehow the line, the gathering point for the protest and the goal was the East Precinct on Capitol Hill. That’s kind of where the siege began and it kind of just stayed there.
TFSR: Can you talk a bit about Capitol Hill: the dynamics in that neighborhood, who all lives there, and what standing conflicts are like with the police? Just to name a reference that I have, I was in Seattle for the protests in ’99 and I remember some rad shit happening in that neighborhood. I think that’s where there was a RCP bookstore or whatever. There were a lot of marches, a lot of burning dumpsters in the street and I remember the difficulty of transiting between downtown and neighborhoods like that because those roads that go over the highway are really easy choke points to block off for the police.
D: Yeah, I can give you a quick rundown. I want to say it was like in the ’50s they got all this funding to build I-5 and they basically cut the side of the hill and built the freeway. In doing so the built these overpasses to get to downtown that you were just talking about, which creates these choke points. I think there’s four main ones on Capitol Hill, popular ways, then there’s maybe two more a little bit north in what people call the hospital district or Pill Hill. It’s a pain because you could go from like one overpass to another and if you have a crowd to take the streets it’s kind of hard for the cops to navigate around to get to the choke point. But I feel like they’ve got really good at spreading out their force and being ready for it and not getting stuck.
The population on Capitol Hill, for me in like the ‘90s and the late ‘80s up to the 2000’s was a very counterculture scene. Capitol Hill is also on the edge of the historically Black neighborhood so there was always this counter-culture/Black-culture mingling that’s existed on Capitol Hill. Grunge came out of there, a lot of punk kids, D.I.Y. people, and the hipsters were a really big thing. Especially post ’99 the hipsters moved into Capitol Hill a lot, and at that point I think Capitol Hill had cemented it’s neighborhood legacy as being like the queer neighborhood. So the hipsters started coming in and started changing a lot of the demographics, it became more hip, more expensive to live on the hill.
TFSR: More white?
D: Yeah, more white, for sure. And even the whiteness changed, it wasn’t like counterculture white anymore, it was conformist but like indie. It’s kind of hard to describe. I always use this reference of being in New York and going to a talk learning about how the hipster culture was bad and that was the first time I realized what a hipster was. I realized they were the ones destroying Capitol Hill, it was weird to go all the way across the country to get a name for what was happening to my town. Now it’s a really interesting demographic because there’s definitely a lot of tech money and a lot of single, or young couples. They’re very liberal and progressive and from those ranks you get a lot of ‘allies,’ a lot of people who want to be down, but you also get those who aren’t at all. The contest-ability of the neighborhood is lost, or i thought I was lost up until recently.
But it was always known for protests. Occupy was camped out there, a lot of the more confrontational protests post-Ferguson were up there and the East Precinct in particular was the police precinct which oversaw the Central District, which is the historically Black neighborhood so there’s a very deep-seated relationship, bad relationship, with the Black community in Seattle and that particular precinct. Like gang unit used to operate out of there, one of the more powerful Black churches is like three blocks away from there. So it’s very dynamic but it’s a very controlled neighborhood.
TFSR: Can you talk a little bit more about your understanding of who the cops are and where they come from? Like are they folks out of Tacoma, are they out of like Bellevue or other suburbs, or are they people – if you want to call them people – who lived and grew up in Seattle?
D: I don’t think any of them grew up in Seattle. I’m probably wrong, there might be a few. A lot of them are from surrounding areas. The cops that I know of what area they live in, most of them are from like Sammamish, which is east of Bellevue, and Bellevue is east of Seattle across the lake, so like up almost into the mountains and passes there are little towns up there and bougie enclaves up there. I wouldn’t be surprised that some of them live as far south as Tacoma or as far north as Everett or even further north, in some of the areas you could get some land, rural areas or whatever. I doubt very few come from Seattle, if any at all. I feel like some of the higher-ups maybe will have their kids in some of the more bougie private high school around, but that’s about it.
TFSR: That’s a pretty common trajectory in a lot of cities police departments. Particularly if there’s concentrations of people of color or communities of color and then you’ve got a mostly white police force that comes in from the suburbs and has absolutely no connection to their lives that their work has.
D: Yeah, Seattle’s interesting. I don’t know about other locations regarding this, but I think the cops of color are probably the ones who are most rooted in Seattle or have the most history and relations to Seattle. Where I doubt any of the white officers have any roots in Seattle. And Seattle, they’re like cutting edge on shit like community policing and community engagement. So like when Trayvon Martin died there was a Black officer, her name is officer Cookie, she had just taken over a community started chess program. Basically by like getting the library where it was held to not hold it anymore, and then took city funding to start her own chess club in the same place and talked to all the parents and had the kids come to her chess club.
So that had been going on for a few months and then when Trayvon Martin died she took photo ops holding a bag of skittles and an iced tea can and stuff like that. And this is a Black woman. And this is a few years back, and even now it’s Carmen Best who’s Chief of Police in Seattle, a Black woman who can hit the talking points like “my grandchildren are out in the protest” and “my son/daughter in law is out in the protest” and that type of stuff. But it’s there’s always been like, even in the neighborhood I grew up with, there was the Black officer who responded to every single call that was every made in the neighborhood. He was the first one there because he was the community liaison and so Seattle’s good for that – their community policing’s cutting edge.
TFSR: Some people in the listening audience may have heard the term ‘community policing’ in a positive way as like it’s a way to de-escalate situations and to decrease the likelihood of use of force through that way by officers, and cement conversations in neighborhoods or whatever, the smiling face of cops. When in fact it’s notably a counterinsurgency method.
D: Yeah, in Seattle it came directly out of Weed & Seed funding. Weed & Seed was a Department of Defense project [transcriber’s note – I checked, it’s Department of Justice] and it was literally like weed out the bad and seed the good. I experienced that growing up in the ‘90s, basically it was like they would send these community police officers or whatever into neighborhoods to build relationships with community councils, which were often grassroots organized, and would build these relationships and convince neighbors to snitch on each other. In doing so people, families, lost their homes. They literally get their homes taken away from them because their kids or families members were breaking the law, and they’d be turned in by neighbors. It was a very insidious program. And community policing was not the like…you know, I never once played basketball with a cop. But the cop would be sitting there staring at all the kids who were playing basketball at the park nearby and would know whose parents were who so it would make rounding up people easier for them, if anything. It created more divisions in our community if anything. It was insidious but it was also that happy, like shake hands, I’m here for you, here’s my direct line, give me a call if you see anything sketchy. Then as new neighbors came in and the gentrification picked up it was the white neighbors who were calling the cops on kids for doing what kids do.
TFSR: Well, to sort of switch gears back to the narrative of what happened in the runup to the police retreat from the east precinct, can you talk about that siege that you mentioned, what that looked like and how that panned out?
D: The police precinct’s on an intersection, so it’s a corner building. Basically a block down from the precinct the cops set up barricades, basically in every direction and the western barricade is where people gathered first, and they kind of kept gathering. It was pretty amazing, one chant that really stuck out to me was “Every Day” and people chanted it all the time, they would just chant “Every Day.” At first it made me chuckle, like, okay, we’re not gonna be out here every day. But people just kept coming and kept staying and they’d be at that barricade which wasn’t a super hard barricade, it was like a metal bike rack. People would be there for hours and hours and then the cops would find some excuse or just get worn out or find some excuse and throw like a flash bang or pepper spray people, people would retreat maybe twenty to 100 feet, then you would hear the chant “Every Day” and people would go right back to the front line again. It was that over and over for a few days.
One of the things, the anarchistic intervention in that, there was a call to build a vigil for all the people who had been killed since the uprising started and we built one and it gave the crowd a place to be emotional and process everything. It was about halfway down the block from where that main front was against the police barricade. I would see people leave the crowd, go and kneel in front of these candles and flowers or light a candle and process everything, and then go right back into the crowd. The crowd size would fluctuate, be small in the morning and late at night and then throughout the day it would get bigger and then into the evening it would get really big and more confrontational. It just got to a point where people were sick of the barricade so they removed it. That led to a pitched street battle and the cops pushed the crowd back three blocks but every time they’d try to make a new line you’d hear the can’t “Every Day” and people would re-form. It was different for me ‘cause I’d never been in a situation like that, it wasn’t a march where you were playing cat-and-mouse with the cops. It was like, they’d throw their flash-bangs, people would try and throw them back or try and retreat, and then if you got shrapnel or stuff in your eyes you’d go to the side and you’d get the care that you’d need and then you’d go right back into it.
So they pushed us back like three blocks, then something really strange happened: they started conceding territory, it was like maybe forty-five minutes where they slowly backpedaled all the three blocks they had pushed us. After they had re-established the barricades and got on the other side of the barricades, then it was like we were right back in the same position we had been in for days. Maybe I missed something but over the course of those days people started setting up mutual aid tents because we had a consistent place. So there was a ton of medics everywhere, as soon as someone would be hurt you’d turn around and scream for the medic and they’re there instantly, probably already taking care of the person who wounded. There was snacks, there was water, there was people consoling – like a mental health tent that was set up early on. People were willing to take care of those places and man those places. The medics had a whole area set up and were rotating shifts and were everywhere. So that helped sustain the siege.
The day after we got pushed back those few blocks, the next day when the crowd got pretty substantial and it got to be kind of late but not quite sunset yet, maybe like 7:30, people completely removed the barricades and passed them through the crowd that time, and inched closer and closer to the police. Every time the police would yell a warning over the blowhard it would either be “Fuck the Police,” a loud “Boo,” or the “Every Day” chant again.
TFSR: [laughter] It’s so ominous.
D: Yeah, it was great. A lot of chants I feel like are used to help us rejuvenate our own spirits and keep our own morale up whereas I feel like this “Every Day” thing was like we’re going to ruin the morale of the cops. It was a siege. I think it was effective.
Yeah, so that day they get really close to the cops – they’re now like a foot away from the cops, the frontline of the crowd. Like directly under the spotlight, directly next to the sound system. There’s basically no more room for the cops to give up, no more space that they could relinquish to us. Then they came, and the day before the day before the mayor banned tear gas. I think the police were a little more on edge and trying to be a little more restrained in their tactics. At that point all restraint went out the window, they started using flash-bangs and tear gas. This time the National Guard was actively with them, not just being behind them but actively in their lines and their ranks and they pushed us back down the street and in doing so split the crowd on two sides. Immediately when that happened all the old police barricades got repurposed to protect our flanks and the backside, and I heard that there were other people at the other police barricades that were set up at different areas. We regrouped under the chant of “Every Day,” people took care of themselves and were able to maintain the siege even though we were divided a little bit. And that went on I think until two or three in the morning, and then the next day there was all these reports of the cops preparing to abandon and the news was publishing photos of moving trucks, and then the cops ceded the precinct, they boarded it up and left. I don’t think a lot of people realized on the ground was that those barricades we had created in order to protect our flanks and our sides became the boundary of the zone immediately after. It kind of just happened.
I don’t many of the anarchists in town were ready for it, or prepared. I don’t think many of the activists or the radicals that had been on the street for years were ready or anticipating that by any means. I think it caught a lot of us off guard in the best possible way.
TFSR: Yeah, I don’t think we have many examples of something that feels like a success or a win when confronting the police. They basically are out there usually out there to distract us and tire us out or injure us. I have a friend who spent a lot of time in Chile during the uprising there and they were talking about how a lot of people on Turtle Island don’t realize this but this is something they saw in so-called Chile, there are bodies in those uniforms and that will tire out and they will give up. They put up this visage of being never ending sources of power and determination and whatever else but ultimately they will tire out and there’s more of us than there are of them. It must have been a crazy thing to see like suddenly the footprint of your self-defense became the outline of this little space.
D: Yeah, and the composition of the crowd was like – it’s weird because everyone’s in masks, so it’s even hard to find friends. I think it was also because the crowd had seen what had happened that Saturday when things were on fire and being looted and they saw the precinct burn in Minneapolis and they saw looting occur other places, that there was a level of militancy that didn’t necessarily line up with people’s political ideology. Like Bernie Bros with gas masks. It was just absurd to see what was going on, how people came, you had like sorority girls in training with like White Claw at the front-line screaming at cops, for the good and the bad that that makes. It was a completely heterogeneous crowd and that might be an understatement. It was so different.
TFSR: I want to ask about what you think about where folks who were there were coming from, and the impacts of cohesion being formed in the neighborhood a little bit later. Since the police actually pulled out their stuff there’s a lot of discussion in media like “Are they going to burn it?” The socialist City Council member was talking about turning it into a community center, there’s been a lot of discussion about what would happen and it’s been a while now since the space has been there. Can you talk about immediately after the cops had left and the cops realized what had happened how the space transformed? There have been gardens built, right, for instance?
Yeah, so initially I wasn’t on the ground that morning, I showed up later in the afternoon. But it seemed like people were a little bit unsure what to do and a few people who had been kind of like chosen by the city as “leaders” didn’t want it to burn down and other people were unsure if it should burn down or if we should even there the premises. So just like nothing happened. Which the next day kind of made a weird split, the first split between the Chief of Police and the Mayor because the next morning the Chief of Police went out and made a video directly to the rank and file saying that it wasn’t her decision to withdraw from the precinct and kind of throwing the Mayor under the bus when talking to her rank and file cops. It seems like they were expecting it to burn down and they were preparing for that because all the press conferences and talking points the next day said that, that they had got word from the FBI that there were plans to burn it down. Weirdly it might have been a strategic advantage to not do it, we’re really gonna know the answer to that later, like after this all unfolds.
In terms of the area it was cool to see because there were already mutual aid tents set up, the vigil was set up, the medic tents were set up, people immediately started to use this cop free zone to do what they wanted, and started taking care of each other. The zone is attached to a pretty big park on Capitol Hill, Cal Anderson park, so people immediately started setting up tents on the soccer field that’s there. Just past the soccer field there’s a small grass hill and people immediately started building a garden that grows every day. Around the garden now a tent city kind of popped up around it, and just past that area is an even bigger grass field and people started woking on that field, growing mushrooms I believe. Then some people planted nut trees along the sides, the full length of the park. Every surface became a canvas, basically. I think on that first day when the zone was established someone came in with white paint and wrote “Black Lives Matter” really big across the length of the whole block. The next day local artists came and each one got a letter and they did their own art in the letter. It was all local artists who did it for free as far as I know. It’s a beautiful sight, you see art everywhere, people helping each other. It continued to grow in that manner to the point where last time I was there, they call themselves the ‘No-Cop Co-Op’ or something. There were people doing shopping, get toiletries, fresh produce, snacks and water, Gatorade and juice. They were handing out tote bags so people could do their shopping, it was unbelievable. Then directly in front of the precinct was a stage area, sometime there would be a literal stage there and bands performing. It became a place for speak outs and other organized events that continually tried to ground the space in the Black struggle, to make it so that identity was trying to staying there. I think it’s yet to be determined if that was a success or not. It definitely became like a tourist attraction on weekends. There’s a nightly rotation at the barricades and crews that are doing that, who maintain that.
TFSR: In terms of like the barricades and defense of the space, I’ve heard about community patrols to stop white supremacists attacks. Can you talk briefly about this fear and say what you can about what security’s looked like? Do you have an honest impression of – like, the right wing has all these talking points (and probably a lot of centrists and liberals) about ‘lawlessness’ and ‘violence being created in the space’ and I have no sense from out here if that’s an on the ground reality or if I just have my ideological perspective that people tend to take care of each other if they have the ability to.
D: One thing I can’t stress enough is that the on-the-ground-reality is constantly in flux there, but in terms of your question, the barricades themselves were a response initially to street battle with the cops and then became more fortified, but they’re very modular so people can open them up for cars that need to come in for whatever reason. There’s no checkpoint, anyone could just walk in. I think the difficulty with that is that the heterogeneous nature of the crowd, there were a lot of liberals and a lot of progressive types who were still very adamant about free speech and so as the right-wingers and the alt-right and the white supremacists have been trickling in to see what’s there, confronting them has often leads to a couple of people from the crowd trying to defend their right to be there and their right to free speech, often because they don’t understand who these people are or the history or the violence these people enact. So that’s very difficult. I think once you get enough people who know that or are with it they can get them out of the zone, but I’ve also witnessed some conservatives, maybe not alt-right or people who flirt with that, come to the space and are kind of like disappointed. One person vocalized that they felt lied to by the conservative media and they don’t know what to think anymore. Which was very interesting.
It’s hard, security, there’s different formations that I think if we knew ahead of time what was gonna happen we would have been more organized and maybe politicized those barricades a little bit more. I think again it was like, woah, we were just given this zone, we didn’t expect it. But I think because of the history of Seattle and the radical organizing over the last 15 years in that town people kind of fell into natural roles that they knew needed to be done, maybe natural is the wrong word but it just fell into place.
What safety means in that that space is very different in that space than the rest of the city, for sure. I’ve had multiple like femme bodied people who have mentioned that for them it’s harder to actually confront people who are being inappropriate or touching them in that space because they’re surrounded by liberals, whereas if they were just on the street they could actually do something. They would actually feel a little bit safer defending themselves, which is interesting. Not having police is a very big thing and I don’t think a lot of people who go to that zone are ready to deal with that reality. And it became especially difficult during the weekends when it was such a tourist zone, you’d get a lot of well-off drunk people, or well-off liberals who are coming to see what it’s about and don’t understand a lot of the politics of the alt-right and the white supremacists factions. There’s the video of the armed Black man with his crew running around on the night when we thought some Proud Boys were coming to town. They were kind of behaving like police, they never like physically kicked anyone out but you do have a machismo or a macho culture that’s associated with that crew that’s problematic. It’s hard to describe.
TFSR: It seems like a conversation. I think the way that people keep themselves and their communities safe is imperfect and shifting, and like you said stuff on the ground is shifting. If you’ve got like a peace police instance, not saying the crew with guns are peace police, where people are experiencing getting inappropriately touched or getting attention they don’t want or they can’t just defend themselves and be like “Get out of my space, get out of my business, leave me alone,” because you’ve got liberals who are like “Woah, woah, woah, peace peace!” That’s weird.
D: Yeah, everything’s strange. I wish there were more conversations about the difference between peace policing and self-defense, and more time and avenues to have those conversations with people. I think most of the people who were really invested in the space were having those conversations but I think the overall appeal as a tourist attraction made it hard to really figure out solutions to these problems.
TFSR: Yeah, it sounds kind of like some sort of Exarchia situation where they have to deal with a bunch of drunk western tourists wandering in and being like, “I hear this is a cop free zone.”
D: Yeah, exactly.
TFSR: So at different point’s there’s been talk of there being demands from the commune or from the autonomous zone. Are you aware of any decision making forum in the neighborhood and if so can you talk a little bit about the process and the makeup of it?
D: There was an attempt, they tried to do a general assembly to help facilitate some kind of way to make decisions and breakout groups so smaller groups could figure out what they wanted to do. It seemed like it was going somewhere after a couple of days, but again just the flux of people all the time made that model really hard to implement and people who were on the ground were making autonomous decisions, the people who were really invested in the space. In terms of the demands it seems like three demands came out of the city of Seattle as a whole, or the communities of Seattle as whole which were: defund the police, fund the communities, and then basically amnesty for all protesters or rioters, so, free ‘em all and drop all charges. It seems like ‘Defund the Police’ is a national call, so it seems that that was really popular, and the idea of funding community police was also really popular. I think a lot of people were down the third demand of amnesty for all but maybe when they talked wouldn’t push that line or that would be the one that kind of got left out sometimes. There was one speak out early on in particular where someone was really attentively listening and compiled a list of I think 19 demands out of the while speak out that’s like pretty exhaustive, everything form like free college to like closing the juvenile detention center, no kids in jail anymore, increased diversion plans, defunding the police, I think releasing nonviolent offenders, decriminalizing sex work and all drugs, it’s like pretty exhaustive. That’s really the only demands I’ve seen that come out of the zone.
Right now we’re in an interesting spot because there are certain people who are working with the city and small businesses and they’re working with I think like the Department of Transportation, the Fire Chief and like some of these small businesses nearby and one person from one of these mutual aid tents. They’ve opened up the zone basically, that’s currently underway right now. It seems like they’re trying to make it like a pedestrian zone area. They are allowing the garden to still exist, I think the tent city still exists as of now. But these leaders have been picked out of people who have been on the ground. I think they’re often picked out in the morning when there are very little people around but I’m not 100% sure about that. To me it’s interesting because the city didn’t roll in the mayor or the city council or the police, it was like the fire department and the transportation or department of utilities or something, the aspects of the city that people don’t have a hostility to naturally, they were the ones that came in and made these negotiations to open it up for emergency vehicles, which is I think for the most part and for the average person a really hard thing to fight against. It’s hard to tell the fire department, “No you can’t have the street to put out fires,” or you don’t think of the department of transportation as being, um..
D: Yeah. Or doing the work of the mayor or the police. So that’s happened but it’s also increased some people’s antagonism again which is great. There are certain barricades that people are trying to keep erected and some people are feeling duped, honestly. They’re feeling like they got played by these department heads.
TFSR: Are people staying in conversation about that? It sounds like it, if you’re hearing it, people aren’t just trowing up their hands and walking away.
D: Yeah, it’s interesting. I feel like the anarchists and other radicals have maybe been a little burnt out and are exhausted to a degree. I’ve felt this way a bunch, where I’m kind of like “okay, that’s the end of that” and then something happens and brings the energy back. So I’m hoping for something like that. The precinct is still there, there’s an underground tunnel to the precinct so every once in a while you’ll see a cop in the building doing stuff. But figuring out what to do with that building beforehand or making sure it doesn’t get back into the hands of the police is a big priority for a lot of the people. The zone is one of these areas where some people are really, really invested with it and are going to hold it down til the last dying breath. Where other people might just be like, so much energy is going to this and our demands aren’t really being discussed with the city or leveraged.
TFSR: Well someone could always just like liberate a cement truck or whatever and fill in that tunnel pretty easy. [laughter] I saw pictures of a precinct in Minneapolis that just got a bunch of cinder blocks sealed up in front of the entrance in front of it.
D: That’s hilarious.
What’s been nice is that here people are like ‘how moveable are these things?” Anything in the zone people are like ‘we could do with it what we want’ which is really cool, that mentality is still there, it’s just how the energy turns. I’m personally waiting for the “Every Day” chants again.
TFSR: Weird question but is it CHAZ or CHOP? What’s the difference?
D: Uh…man, I’m the wrong person to ask. I’m up for either really, I also just don’t really care. The CHAZ thingI think was like a media branding more than anything. I want to say it came out of the Stranger because it sounds like something that they would do. The Stranger is the local, weird independent press that goes in-between being friendly with anarchists to despising anarchists. It seems like a very corporate brands so CHOP was the response to that. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about the CHAZ, the name. So the argument for the CHOP was that it’s like Capitol Hill Occupied Protest is somehow less offensive to the Duwamish people. Which from what I’ve heard the Duwamish people didn’t really care what this area was called. The Duwamish people are one of the indigenous people who were the original caretakers of what is now Seattle. There’s another argument I heard where someone tried to say that ‘occupied protest’ is more part of the Black radical tradition than autonomous zone, but I couldn’t follow the logic or history they were presenting. I think part of it was that some people felt like the name CHAZ came from the outside and they just wanted to re-brand it for that reason. Some people talked about CHAZ sounding super white and wanting to re-brand it for that reason. I’ve been referring to it as Chopped City CHAZ just to kind of like laugh at the name. But yeah, it’s interesting. I feel like the name being contested is reflective of the on the ground scene where there’s this contact flux and people are having identity problems, I don’t want to go as far as to call it a crisis but the space is still trying to figure out what it is.
TFSR: And the people that you – Suquamish, is that what you were saying?
TFSR: That’s the S-U-Q-U-A-M-I-S-H?
That’s Suquamish. Duwamish, so yeah, the area of Seattle from the history I know, totally could be wrong, was a shared space from a lot of tribes: Mukilteo, Suquamish, Duwamish, Snohomish, I’m forgetting a bunch probably, maybe the Puyallup. The treaty as far as I know was signed with the Mukilteo people but I could be wrong*. I’m just gonna stop talking about it because I don’t want to mess up anything.
The Duwamish people are, the government considers them a part of the Mukilteo tribe but they’ve been fighting for federal recognition for a long time and they have a longhouse in west Seattle that was actually where the original settlers landed. Oftentimes the opening of an event you would recognize the Duwamish and Suquamish people as the original caretakers of the land. So those are the two that are often recognized as the original caretakers.
*transriber’s note – the treaty was signed in Mukilteo by a number of tribes
TFSR: We had someone come on the show and present an interview that they did with someone from up there who was talking about this community center that I think had an art collective – it was like Rising Star, I think was the name of the indigenous community space.
D: Was it Daybreak Star?
TFSR: Daybreak Star – yeah, I think so.
D: Yeah, that came out of the occupation of a military base. Seattle has a real strong history of occupations and getting those spaces. So Daybreak Star was one, I forget the name of the organization that runs it now.
TFSR: Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center…
D: Oh, okay. Then there’s El Centro De La Raza which is a Latinx community space that was occupied by Roberto Maestas and his crew back in the day, I dunno the full history very well but they have like a huge building, they have low-income apartments now, the area where it is is kind of a cultural hub for the Beacon Hill neighborhood in South Seattle. And then the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), it came out of an elementary school building occupation that lasted for years, I think it’s still considered the longest occupation in US history minus the government US itself occupying all the territory of whatever. But it was a couple Black people who held down the school building for years and it was weirdly taken away from them and given to another Black group to then create the African American Museum and it has apartments above it. The people who were holding that down in the original occupation have occupied three other buildings in recent history and have been violently removed from them all. But there’s a radical history of people occupying stuff, I believe in ’99 that was a thing too, there were two or three apartment buildings that got taken over during the WTO thing
TFSR: I didn’t hear about that, that’s awesome. I’ll make sure in the show notes to link to some of these projects and spaces that you’re mentioning. I was wondering about the Suquamish folks because the political prisoner Oso Blanco put out a public statement saying there should be coordination and communication with Suquamish folks since it’s on occupied territory so it’s cool to hear that there is some dialogue and back and forth going on.
D: Yeah, there’s a lot of networks in Seattle that have been established over the years and I feel like a lot of those networks have moderate to pretty deep intimate connections with the CHAZ. I think figuring out how to turn that intimacy into a level of accountability is very, very difficult and takes a lot of energy that I think because people are doing so much stuff in this time they’re not, I dunno, the capacity isn’t all the way there. But I think on the second day of the occupation being established I overheard a phone call with the Duwamish tribe just getting clarification and I haven’t checked, they might have already put out their official statement. For the first week at the CHAZ there was drum circles, indigenous people were leading prayer and ceremony throughout the day at different times. It was indigenous people from tribes all around the region. I think there definitely could have been more connection and it could have been done much better but I think, again, people just not expecting this to happen. I think we were a little underprepared for that.
TFSR: Kinda ad hoc.
TFSR: Well, also, this is all a process, and accountability requires like you said, intimacy and so hopefully if nothing else this is sparking people to deep their relationships with each other and such.
D: Yeah, I really hope so.
TFSR: Well I just have a couple more questions. Rates of infection and death from the COVID-19 pandemic are rising nationally as states “reopen their economies.” I know Washington was one of the places hit really hard and really early. People aren’t getting public assistance or the public assistance they were offered was pretty paltry and ran out , so people are feeling forced to go back to jobs and maybe are in danger of losing their unemployment if they don’t. These protests nationwide have been expressing rage and challenging disproportionate rates of death at the hands of police of BIPOC but also have presented a dangerous vector for infection, is a fear that I have. Are people in the sustained spaced of Chopped City CHAZ keeping up harm reductive measures around the pandemic, is that a conversation folks are having? Cause I know it’s easy to be like ‘we need to stop Black death in this way’ that’s a demand that’s 400 years old.
D: I think, in terms of conversations I haven’t participated in too many besides like a couple of my friends who thought they maybe got exposed and they went and got tested and they found out it was negative so they came out. But there’s hand sanitizer everywhere, everyone’s wearing masks for the most part, it’s hard to maintain social distance but I feel like if you want to step away, people will let you step away if you want to practice it. I was trying to find the numbers particularly for Seattle and it looks like 1% of everyone who’s gotten tested who’s been at the protest has been infected, so weirdly enough the numbers haven’t risen yet, I dunno if that’s because of the incubation time, I don’t really understand biochemistry very well. I don’t really know why.
I think people are taking the measures that they can take. It’s been interesting for me to see that now racism is being talked about as public health crisis. So I’ve been seeing a lot of talking heads from the medical field who are saying like, this COVID thing’s a thing but we also have to talk about this as being a public health crisis. I’m curious how that conversation continues to grow.
TFSR: Yeah, absolutely. For me too. I’d heard inklings among activist communities and occasionally public health officials about – I mean, are you referring to rates of infection being higher because of disproportionate access to resources and stressors throughout lifetimes among communities and individuals that are affected by immediate racism?
D: Yeah, and I think also it’s like how the medical field itself is governed by white supremacy, so like Black women given birth have a much higher rate of death than white women, or any other category of women. How white supremacy affects the health of Black people and non-white people. I saw someone on I think it was CBS News, a corporate news channel, push back against – I dunno what they’re called, the talking heads, journalists – the guy from the medical field was pushing back saying yeah the COVID thing is a crisis, too, but racism as a health crisis has been affecting people for hundreds of years and we should now acknowledge it and talk about it. I think part of it is related to COVID and the disproportionate infection rates among different communities of color, but it’s also pushing this conversation to a point where we are talking about white supremacy as a public health crisis beyond just COVID, or Corona.
TFSR: I’m really glad people are digging into the roots of this and bringing it up. So I guess the last thing I was gonna ask was folks have been talking about trying to create autonomous zones following the model of Seattle, and it seems like if I understand the situation was kind of ripe in a lot of really material senses for the CHAZ with a lot of neighborhood unity around hated of the police, police stepping back, momentum from the protests, talk about police abolition, and amidst collective traumas of grieving the murder of Mr Floyd and countless others and on the back of months of the pressures of quarantining in this slow strangulation of capitalism, to create autonomous zones it seems like the means to live, like access to water, food, shelter and a wide shared sentiment of solidarity kind of need there for it to sustain itself. I know Asheville had a very, very short lived attempt a few nights ago at an autonomous zone on auto-zone or whatever. It did not stick, it did not plant roots.
D: Yeah, the solidarity point I think is crucial. The goal was never to build an autonomous zone as much it’s its ever a goal to build an autonomous zone. It was a siege, and that’s what we got out of it. It definitely wasn’t the intention of most people that I know, to manifest an autonomous zone. It was just kind of a siege and I think that’s the interesting point, it was a siege and it exhausted that precinct. I haven’t got to the point where I can image we have the capability to force a tactical retreat, I just think it was a siege. I think they were just exhausted and I think the chief of police and the mayor were playing a media game, and not really making their decisions based on what was happening on the ground. I could be wrong. I dunno, I’m not in those halls of power. But the “Every Day” thing – that was huge, just people saying they were gonna be here every day and then living up to that.
I was just watching about, I forget where it was in the country, they were setting up tents and camping outside of a precinct. I think that might lead to something. I think the siege tactic was what got us the zone, not any intention to go out and build the zone, if that makes sense.
TFSR: Yeah, . think so. Were there any things I didn’t ask about that you have a burning desire to talk about or any other pointers that you think people should take with, or good sources for keeping up on this?
D: Sources for keeping up on it? There’s a media outlet called Converge Media, they’ve been on the front-line live-streaming everything. When we were in to confrontation with the cops they were literally on the front-line filming everything. They’re they’re whenever the Proud Boys – when a crowd forms around someone, they tend to get really good video and the guy doing the filming asks pretty good questions for the most part. But there’s even a couple videos on their YouTube where they find someone new to the zone. It’s a Black media outlet, too, but a Black person would come into the zone, really curious and they would meet this person who’s filming, his name’s like Amari. He would give them a nice tour of the zone, there’s like two or three videos where he would do that at different times so you can see how the zone progresses over time.
But just, yeah, keep at it. And the “Every Day” thing, I can’t stress how powerful that was. I think just getting people to say they’ll be there and then just keep coming back, and keep coming back, and keep coming back. I think for anarchists and other radicals just being smart with their interventions and thoughtful and maybe creative, being prepared for the unexpected and hopefully being able to communicate and move together pretty rapidly. And just recognize face-to-face communication is so much better than any kind of text thread or email chain or signal group, and meeting people where they’re at and realizing the people are a little bit more open than they’ve been in the past to typical anarchist talking points.
TFSR: Actually I did think of another question that I didn’t script out, and if you don’t want to tackle it it’s totally fine. One of the things people had passed for me to bring up, was I had written down ‘liberal co-optation’ and that kind of felt covered by the talk of the bureaucracies coming in the mornings and looking for representatives to talk about the demands of the community, or sort of chipping away at the edges of it. I don’t know if you have any views you want to share about the call for taking Black leadership. I know there’s this conflict around this idea of monolithic Black leadership or any kind of community representation and people, like well meaning white folks wanting to be allies or accomplices or whatever word they want to put on it, showing up for things and then in some instances the loudest voice or the voice that has the most amplification from power as it exists, as in institutional power, gaining the mic and directing folks. Do you want to say anything about this?
D: Yes, man, that’s a heavy question. I think it’s important as a Black anarchists who are up in the city and who has been pretty active mostly for like the last 12 years. I’ve seen people who I grew up with who regularly sit down and are in a negotiation with the city and other projects like that, specifically Black capitalist milieus and the Black church and a lot of those people who I know intimately, who I grew up with, who are typically positioned to suck the energy from any Black radical uprising or divert the energy into what they’re doing. When they abandoned the precinct they came up to me and were very congratulatory, like “Good job, keep it up,” things I would never expect to hear from these people. We’re all for Black liberation but our understandings of how to get there are in opposition to each other and we both know it, are now saying “Good job.” They’ve been pushed a little more radical or at least is an opening for them to be amenable to these more radical things happening. I think there’s examples of that of some of the discourse between the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement, but I’ve never experienced that in my lifetime. I think that’s something that’s important to understand now, that the terrain’s different, especially with the recuperative measures from the Black bourgeoisie class or the Black Popular class or whatever you want to call it, and I think for specifically white radicals and white anarchists it’s important to understand that these so-called allies are coming out because they saw a precinct burn. In their mind they’re saying it’s for Floyd, which it may be partly, it may be in their heart. But they’re also responding to a precinct burning it’s not just the death of black bodies that’s bringing people out, it’s the action taken by those brave souls in Minneapolis. The discourse is a little different, that’s not to say these people have been pushed all the way radical but the conversations in Seattle – early on, it was oh this is kinda like Occupy except all the conversations are good.
D: You know, you’re not banging your head against some person stuck in their liberal politics or whatever.
TFSR: Or jet fuel burned down the third precinct or whatever.
D: Yeah. I think it’s worth nothing that, and it’s understanding that the Black community is definitely not monolithic. Nuance is very important, but people have changed, this has changed people to some degree and it’s worth acknowledging that. So even though you might have a past history with a certain group, the dynamics have changed so the conversations are going to be different than they might have been in the past, at least in the context of Seattle. I think in terms of following Black leadership I think you’re always going to hit that contradiction like you were saying of the person whose voice is most amplified is probably going to resonate with the same logic of the people who govern over us. So it’s going to be difficult to navigate that, but I think there was initially at least, hopefully it’s still there, an underlying hostility that’s bubbling to the surface. I think things are different, people are different. I think it’s important that formations like John Brown Gun club or any anti-fascist formation or any anti white supremacy formation need to be clear about their politics and what they’re doing, especially when confronting people who are white supremacists or known fascist. And willing to share simple ideas with people they find around them, like: bring an extra t-shirt and if you do something wearing that shirt get rid of it, no souvenirs. That kind of stuff. I think people are really open to hearing it if you just tell them. I think one thing we could have done better is help the people we’ve seen on the ground organize themselves in non-hierarchical ways and faster. I think that would have been very useful. It sucks because it happens but it’s an anti-police uprising and it sucks because there are still some liberals who say we need to dialogue with the police. Or will try to become the peace police, but in Seattle there are a lot less than there used to be. I don’t know in other places how they’re dealing with or facing that. I know personally for me every time I met a Black person who was like,“we need to be peaceful,” it was really easy to be like, “You want to abolish the police, right?” and they’re like “Well, yeah.” To get them to acknowledge that policing is bad in some way, and then to be like “Well, look at Minneapolis. This is what they’re doing and their city council is already trying to figure out how to disband the police. So the simple fact is burning a precinct works.”
I kept going back to that a lot, in my conversations with Black people. I’m also Black so I don’t know how that would work with white people engaging with liberal Black people. I would say maybe don’t do, maybe find people whose ideas are resonating with you and figure out how to move together and be effective and safe.
TFSR: I really, really appreciate that. When you said “Burning a precinct works” makes me think of this artist in the Bay Area who, I was still living out there when the Oscar Grant riots were happening. They put out a poster, just black and white stark, this was their style, with a picture of that cop that killed Oscar Grant behind bars. It just said “Riots Work” in big letters on it. This Overton window, shit is shifting like you say, and without people pushing on it it wouldn’t shift. Sorry to speak over you.
D: Oh, no, no, you’re fine. I was just gonna reiterate what you were saying, like, “Hey, this tactic works” whatever it is. That it’s rioting, burning a police precinct, whatever. It’s something the state does, the state knows that. I once went to a talk during Occupy times. It was shortly after that May Day that the courthouse got hit, that Niketown and some other businesses got hit, and banks got hit.
TFSR: It was 2012.
D: Yeah, I think it was 2012. I went to a talk and there was this person called Connie Rice who’s actually first cousins with Condoleezza Rice, and her job is to basically go to different towns and help them, I dunno if she still does this, but at the time her job was to go to different towns and basically sit in a room with the cops, the fire department, city officials and Uncle Toms and Aunt Sallies and other Black recuperative forces, and explain to them what their job is and how they need to move to recuperate the energy. One of her big lines was “A million dollars of damage,” like once a million dollars of damage is hit you have to concede certain efforts and once that point is made it’s the job of the Uncle Toms to get involved instantly, to immediately be there with the politicians who are making the concessions. That was her thing, they do that, they know that. They know that at a certain level of damage they have to give concessions, and that if the Uncle Toms and Aunt Sallies are there the concessions can be very minimal, and that’s all they need to do to quench the fire, or at least that’s all they used to do to quench the fire. But now it’s a little different, I think. We could use that on our side, at least, explaining to especially Black and Brown folks, “Hey, look, this tactic works, we get what we need, we could live a better life if this happens.” I think specifically anarchists are positions in a way where we can also talk about the repression that comes later and add that to the conversation. I dunno if any of that makes sense.
TFSR: Yeah, absolutely. Well D, thank you very much for taking this time to chat. I really appreciate the candor and you sharing your perspectives. I know you’re super busy, I think people will get a lot out of this.
D: Shit, thanks for having me. Also I dunno if you want to cut this or not, I think it’s worth maybe trying to reach out to one or two other people because I feel like there are so many perspectives to how this all unfolded.
This week we got to connect with Rosemary, who is an organizer in Minneapolis, about the liberation of a former Sheraton Hotel in that city and its slow but steady transformation into something that is becoming so much more than a housing cooperative. They speak about how this resocialization came to happen, some of the circumstances involved, about how this is a very deep collaboration between un-housed folks in Minneapolis and people involved in doing care work, the power of George Floyd who was profoundly involved in doing that same kind of care work with un-housed people, and many many more topics. Check out their new website up at SanctuaryHotel.org and their fundraiser at GoFundMe.com/f/SanctuaryHotel
In this episode, you’ll also hear a statement by anarchist prisoners, Comrade Malik and Sean Swain. We invite you to stay tuned for mid-week as we release a podcast special for the June 11th day of solidarity with Marius Mason and longterm anarchist prisoners. We hope to feature the voice of a longtime supporter of Marius with updates on his case, and that of anarchist prisoner, anon hacker and Federal Grand Jury resistor, Jeremy Hammond. More about June 11th on June11.org.
Greetings community. We hope this long post finds you as safe and well as is possible during a righteous uprising. We wanted to provide you some updates and opportunities to plug in.
The Minneapolis Sanctuary Hotel is a community-led sanctuary space for over 200 displaced and homeless people who needed safety from the military occupation that occurred following the murder of George Floyd. We center values of autonomy, harm reduction, community care, mutual aid, and abolition.
1. First! This page, started as a space to boost all kinds of different work related to COVID, homelessness, and community care, is transitioning to become the Minneapolis Sanctuary Hotel Facebook page. Look for changing name and photos shortly!
2. We are overwhelmed with support. This is a good problem to have but we’ve had to rapidly scale up our infrastructure to meet the needs. Here are some ways to plug in:
> If you are media with interview or press release requests, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
> If you are a restaurant, catering company, or are interested in providing hot meals, please contact Kimberly at 612-203-2779
3. A few boundaries to set for resident safety, capacity, and COVID reasons:
> Please DO NOT show up at the sanctuary hotel if you are not signed up to work a shift.
> Please NO MORE *non-perishable food* donations.
> Please DO wear a mask when on-site
Please continue to watch this space for more updates as we continue to learn and grow in the work of building a sanctuary.
. … . ..
Vigil For Fallen Comrades 6/7/2020 everywhere
From anarchist BIPOC & accomplices: Since the George Floyd rebellions began on May 26 2020, following his horrific murder by police, at least a dozen more lives have been taken by state and vigilante violence in the struggle for Black freedom. We wish to honor them by making space to say their names, commemorate their lives, and celebrate our own resistance. By acknowledging the risk we all take when we move into the streets, we remember the martyred and continue to fight for the living.
Calling for vigils everywhere, Sunday 6/7 at sundown.
This week we got to connect with Rosemary, who is an organizer in Minneapolis, about the liberation of a former Sheraton hotel in that city, and it’s slow but steady transformation into something that is becoming so much more than a housing cooperative. They speak about how this re-socialization came to happen, some of the circumstances involved, about how this is a very deep collaboration between some of the un-housed folks in Minneapolis and people involved in doing care work, the power of George Floyd who was profoundly involved in doing that same kind of care work with un-housed people and many more topics.
And now some words from Comrade Malik, held by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Comrade Malik: Peace and blessings, sisters and brothers, peace and blessings. This is Comrade Malik, reporting in from behind enemy lines at the federal penitentiary in USP Pollock, Louisiana. I’m sure y’all have been observing the news. There is a war on black men in america. From Central Park Karen in New York to the mom who drowned her autistic son in Florida, who do they label the perpetrator of those crimes? Who is the usual suspect? The black man did it.
Like I said last year, it is not just bald headed white males with swastikas tattooed on their bodies who embrace these ideologies of hate. The millions of white women in america who embrace and practice these divisive and hateful white supremacist ideologies. [mocking voice] “Oh my god, this (?) man filming and stalking me! Someone call the police now.”
In 2020, we still ain’t free. I ain’t one of those house negroes y’all done bought. It’s me, Comrade Malik, a servant of the people.
Police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, we all see it on national TV. Yet we have to plea and beg for justice. You call that free? Oh say can you see, I don’t feel like I’m free, locked down in a cell shackled from ankles to feet. Another day in the pen, you now hang from a string. The oppressors would love it if I hung it up, but I ain’t gonna do that.
Ahmad Arbery murdered by vigilantes in Brunswick, Georgia and now our brother George Floyd murdered by the police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A close friend recently said that I shouldn’t mix anger with my messages. They said that you give the oppressors power when you talk about them. I don’t agree with that line of thinking. There is something horribly wrong happening right now in America. We don’t see images of young white men being pinned to the ground by police with kneeled pressed to their necks, the young white man screaming “I can’t breathe! Help me!” We don’t see that on TV.
Why do police in America feel as if it is okay to abuse, mistreat and torture back citizens in America? This is a pervasive and systemic problem. Black men and black women have feelings of anger and hopelessness when we see these images. However, violence against the police is not going to solve our problems. It may feel good for a moment, but it will only make our situation worse. We need justice and we must demand it. And we can’t allow the victimizers to tell us what justice should look like. The Minneapolis police department fired the police who were involved in the murder of George Floyd. That ain’t enough. These police should be tried for murder, they must be tried for their crime against humanity. We should never be allowed to allow law enforcement to do this to us again. However, even if they are tried and sent to prison, that will not solve our problem which is white supremacy, racism and police brutality against black men in america.
As each day passes I am drawn closer to anarchism, and it is our belief as anarchists that we the people must abolish police departments. To some, this abolition of the police may sound like a radical ideal. But please, for one minute, look at things from my perspective. Ingrained in my memory is over twelve years of abuse and torture at the hands of the Texas Department of Criminal Injustice. Ingrained in my memory are the systematic and systemic murder and executions of literally hundreds of unarmed black men and people of color by law enforcement in America. Ingrained in my memory are the children in the state of Texas, thrown into cages by ICE and Border Patrol agents, and ingrained in my memory is the bloody stain and legacy of slavery in America.
I keep saying that we want free, and like Meek Mill, I ask, ‘what’s free?’ I can tell you now, free is not what we have right now.
This is Comrade Malik, reporting in from the federal USP penitentiary at Pollack. Dare to struggle, dare to win. All power to the people.
Announcer: At the time of this recording, Comrade Malik had not heard of Breonna Taylor, and we know that there are plenty of sisters who are being cold-bloodedly murdered all across this country. We say her name, Breonna Taylor.
Rosemary: My name is Rosemary, I use they/she pronouns, I live in Minneapolis on occupied Dakota land and I have been part of the efforts here to make a new place to live for about 250 people now, at the former Sheraton Hotel near Lake and Chicago. This was something that was made possible because of George Floyd. He gave us the power to be able to have this building. It’s hard for me to know exactly how to characterize it because it’s so new and it feels weird because we are winning and I wasn’t expecting that to happen quite so rapidly, but all thanks to George Floyd for giving us the power to carry on his legacy of supporting people experiencing homelessness by housing so many people.
TFSR:Absolutely, thanks for that. The whole really not understanding how to interface with winning is really resonating for me right now. Would you speak about your general experiences on the ground in Minneapolis since the murder of George Floyd?
Rosemary: So, I can really only speak to things in my neighborhood. I know that there have been things happening Northside, Midway and around the Twin Cities. In south Minneapolis there’s some pretty tight knit community and there’s just been so much happening. So there’s uprising that seems to have spread really far at this point and part of that is complicated so, there’s been a lot of property destructions for miles. Miles of buildings that have been burned and business that have been looted – or whatever – and it went on for days, it’s just very widespread. The landscape right now feels really different and still evolving, it’s hard for me to process what’s going to be happening during the day. There’s just a lot of energy going into a lot of different directions right now. And so during the day people would be out with brooms and trash bags, bringing out a grocery store’s equivalent of food donations by the side of the street, and people biking and driving up and down to see what was going on, and then go out at night and do it all over again.
There’s a lot of excitement that has come with things like burning the police station –
TFSR: I can only imagine.
Rosemary: Yeah, and like, multiple banks and large corporate retail outlet stores. And it’s complicated, there’s a lot of consequences from that in terms of food security, and family-owned, immigrant-owned, black-owned businesses and clinics and pharmacies and lot of disruption to basic needs things for people. The fires were affecting things in a major way for residents as well, and so a lot of people had to evacuate their houses in the night. There’s a number of people who lost their homes, especially if they were living above businesses. Everything has changed. I’m just trying to think about what it’s going to look like next, to think a few steps ahead. This in an area that has already faced a lot of speculation and gentrification, it’s very possible that this could accelerate that if there isn’t some organizing to address some of the land issues that we’re facing right now.
I think that the effort with commandeering this hotel will really help with propelling that in the right direction, it’s building on other tenant’s organizing that’s been happening with being able to get tenant ownership and cooperative control of the buildings that they’ve been living in so there’re been some good victories with that. In general some very strong organizing has been happening around housing issues that’s been uniting tenant’s organizing with people that have been organizing around homelessness, and un-sheltered homelessness, harm reduction work and public housing. I’m very, very excited about the ways these different communities and movements are coming together in a way that I’ve never seen. Historically it’s been hard to have housing organizers and homelessness organizers together, and particularly in the realm of homelessness, a lot of that happens through nonprofit-type, professionalized setting, and a lot of us work in that industry and that can be a limiting factor when it comes to being able to imagine more radical changes.
Right now we’re in this moment when our imaginations are all being challenged in some really new ways. We have to build back up from the ground and there are things happening that just did not seem possible. There are things happening because of the Covid pandemic that seemed impossible. The kinds of acts that I would have thought of two weeks ago seem super mellow now so being able to push ourselves to think of a horizon that seemed farther out than I realized…it’s good to be challenged in that way.
TFSR: That’s really amazing and I think that this is something that this country has not seen probably in more than a hundred years, so feeling your way forward, building up from the ground – I feel very resonant with that as well, thank you for going into that. Could you talk about how this liberation of the hotel happened, what is some context for this event; what do you see as some catalyzing moment or moments?
Rosemary: George Floyd was the catalyst. I don’t know how widely this is known but George Floyd worked at the largest homeless shelter in town for years, so there’s a lot of people that are living in the former hotel that knew him. This wouldn’t have been possible without him. He didn’t sign up to advocate like this and I don’t know how to characterize this in the right way at this point, there’s no way this would have been possible without the power that he’s given to all of us. There’s a lot of things that have happened spontaneously and I want to embrace that. This is something that we had been thinking about, and looking at, and dreaming about and thinking it would be kind of too hard to pull off for a while now. So it became possible this week and so we’re doing it, we’re just doing it and it keeps working out, I keep being surprised by all the things that are falling into place. All that’s a bit vague, I’m happy to get more into specifics if you like.
TFSR: Yeah, what I’m hearing you say is the groundwork for this thing that is unfolding before our eyes with the former Sheraton is that organizing had been laid brick by brick slowly over the years and then the catalyzing moment was George Floyd and his work and his like, people wanting to honor his memory and honor his life in this way. I’m wondering about the initial moments of the hotel takeover, are you willing to speak about that at all? I’d be really interested to hear how it happened blow by blow.
Rosemary: Yeah, and it’s weird, ‘cause there were no blows, too. I do want to make sure that it’s understood that it’s something that we’ve been organizing toward for a while and that organizing work was based on really deep relationships that people have with people that are experiencing un-sheltered homelessness in particular. And the relationships between particularly care workers and people who are experiencing un-sheltered homelessness, so people who work in the industry and have a radical analysis, people who are part of (?) Harm Reduction or other rad harm reduction outreach efforts, responses in the past to encampments in the area, native organizers since in un-sheltered homelessness here there’s just massive racial disparities – that just has to be very named and clear. So these were deep relationships that were made and expanded upon through the mutual aid organizing efforts that people have been doing all over the place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There’s this really, really smart groundwork laid where we use mutual aid efforts as a deliberate response to be outside of state control, to provide sort of a wedge to force public sector, nonprofit sector to pay attention to un-sheltered experiences. So with a stay at home order closing transit, libraries and public spaces, the shelters are full, there’s nowhere to go, people’s hustles dried up, money’s tight and by sort of really strategically mobilizing the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic and expanding the base of who is involved to be more than industry workers made this possible. It created conditions for people to have true, real relationships with our neighbors. I’m saying our…I don’t know exactly how to talk about these different kind of relationships right now, it’s complicated and I’m going to mess it up as I’m talking about because the reality is there are class and race and other divides between people who are doing care work and showing up in support of housed neighbors and people who are un-sheltered.
So those relationships were worked on really deliberately and around the country there’s been efforts. There’s empty hotels because the industry is failing due to the pandemic but there are people who don’t have a place to live. In Minnesota there are 82,000 hotel rooms and 20,000 people who are homeless – it’s obvious there’s no resource scarcity problem when you do the math, it’s an issue of distribution and choice and will and what we’re willing to do. And so around the country that’s an obvious thing and there’s been a lot of effort to reduce the concentration of crowded shelters, to reduce the spread of COVID. There have been a lot of institutional responses and it was never enough, it was systematically discriminating against people who were un-sheltered and weren’t part of a coordinated, formalized entry system. Like a poverty management model, this technocracy of how we deal with this problem of homelessness. So that’s the model that we’ve all been trying to challenge and that we’re also socialized into working and thinking in. The mutual aid work not only allowed for more people to have real relationships with unhoused neighbors, it also allowed those of us who have been working in the industry for a long time to shift the way we think about things and expand the imagination.
I want to make that clear, it’s not like these things just happened. You gotta do the groundwork, you gotta have relationships with people. You need to have actual relationships with people. That being said, the play-by-play of how we pulled this off was we tried to be really deliberate about exhausting all of our options and then moving someone in here and refusing to leave. It was exactly the right moment because the need was really obvious. The first night we had someone come in here the community paid for the room, above board. It was really necessary, the curfew had just been instituted, the national guard was invading the city as we were moving them the guard was approaching with a massive platoon of hundreds of guardsmen and armored vehicles, it was super surreal, we were very close to the third precinct and then just moving a mile down the way near Chicago and Lake to the former Sheraton hotel.
That night that intersection got real burnt, like hellscape burnt. There really were no other guests in the hotel other than journalists at that point, but there had been some families here because there’s a hospital nearby, who were here staying in the hotel because they had sick loved ones nearby. We had been looking at this site as a target for a while and were reluctant to do anything because we didn’t want to displace anyone who was staying here because they had sick family members. You know, do no harm. Then the hotel manager realized it was unsafe to be in the building with everything that was going on around, and planned to evacuate all the hotel guests out. So once we realized we wouldn’t be displacing anybody, we just went for it and crossed our fingers to see if it would work.
So we divided up roles in a way that would suit people’s talents. I got to be the talent of stubborn and just stay in the room, while other people who were more talented at negotiating with the owner did a very good job of that. The approach was just that we were trying to get another block of rooms for people who were still left behind and un-sheltered and displaced, and really just inform him that we were going to be here now. And then the owner said “Yeah”.
I mean, it took a lot of convincing and some of that convincing was having like ten of fifteen people, not even that many, who were waiting outside ready to come sit in the lobby when needed. He was inspired to say yes, and he’s still saying yes, and we now have an entire hotel, we have master keys to all the rooms, he trained volunteers in the system to make the keys so he can go home and sleep. It’s been a really interesting sort of relationship to have with the property owner. He is a motivated seller, the industry is tanked and in now the neighborhood around us the property values have tanked. We’ve essentially shamed the system into having to do something about un-sheltered homelessness in a better way and showing them what a better way is, and it’s worked.
We have a lot of support offered though county, state and city and different foundations. It’s complicated because those things can come with strings attached so we’re in a really powerful position right now and we know it. We’re taking our time and are really adamant the residents will be the ones who decide how this land will be held, and are letting things take the time that it needs to do that. It’s been a lesson in stepping into power and it’s still sinking in. People are here and are still worried about getting kicked out or this and that, and it’s sinking in now. At resident meetings (it’s majority native and black residents) people are saying things like “I used to be homeless.” There’s a woman who was saying the other day “We got our land back.” It’s not about having rooms, at really deep and fundamental level housing people is how we can redistribute land, housing is land, and we’re in need of some massive land and resource redistribution and this is one way of putting into pragmatic practice land repatriation. I’m hoping we’re able to shore up support in a way that lets that be the analysis that comes to fruition and doesn’t get sidetracked. We’re all conditioned to have constrained imaginations around this, it’s just a very unique thing.
TFSR: Thank you so much for going into that. Is there anything more you wanted to say on that topic?
Rosemary: I think we’ve been inspired by other work and I hope to learn more about what other people have been working on that we don’t know about but we’ve been inspired by Moms for Housing and the Homefulness community in Oakland who sent us a message of solidarity and support, that was really rad. There have been some actions with COVID organizing around commandeering hotels that have been limited to taking a room for a day and having some tight symbolic action with that, like some of the stuff Street (?) in LA has done, that has been cool. But like, we got an entire hotel and I think we might get another one, we got a long waiting list, and I just want that to spread.
TFSR:Absolutely. Just hearing you talk about it, I feel so activated and inspired in a good way, about what you all are doing and definitely sparking ideas on this end. We also live in an extremely hotel and tourist driven economy is that is pretty much going down the toilet right now and I’m just wondering about parallels we can draw.
Rosemary: Housing people keeps us healthy and safe. COVID has forced people to think about the impact of and connection between them because they’re afraid of getting sick from like the masses, and this is a different way of thinking about it. It has taken the awareness that I am affected by you and you are affected by me and our neighbors, and that housing people is a way of boosting people’s health and community health. This is a way of providing for health and safety in our community, not just for now but for the long term, we need to be thinking really carefully how we are responding, not just to COVID and not just to the aftermath of riots or the uprising but to this global economic depression we’re entering. How are we going to mobilize a community? If the economy in your area is failing, what are the resources and assets in the community and how can you make those community assets versus a privately held entity.
The other thing I’m exited about now is the union workers who used to work in the hotel here when it was a Sheraton, they’d been laid off I think about a month ago. And today the union workers came. The relationship between how we use our labor, how we’re grounded on the land that we’re on, all these things – it just feels really deep right now. We have the power right now, things just keep coming together.
TFSR: That’s really amazing. So the union workers came back to work at the hotel?
Rosemary: The union workers came back to see what we’re doing here, and see how they can offer support for what’s happening. I’m hopeful there can be an ongoing relationship about how organized labor and the workers who work here can be working together with the ongoing efforts here. Just as a connection point, too, shelter workers like George Floyd – it’s not like a high income job. One of the shelters in town, the starting wage is like $12/hr. Meanwhile just spitting distance from here, is a building that was not burned, a new condo building with these tiny rooms with murphy beds for like $1400 a month. So shelter workers can’t afford housing, so the connection between unionized work in a place that is now housing and what is happening in the homeless service industry is an important one to be making and is inspired by the disparate movements and communities that are coming together to learn from each other. I am learning so much right now, I feel silly being the person talking about this because there are so many people who are really solid strong organizers who have laid the groundwork work this or have been integral in making this happening. People are working their butts off to keep this going, it’s not easy, there’s a crisis around every corner but it’s happening.
TFSR: Since we only have a few minutes left I would love to ask how people, our listeners can best support y’all and are there ways folks can help get your back and send support and resources if that’s desired?
Rosemary: Yeah, the number one way would be to organize in your own community. Getting those messages of solidarity and support from other places is really really hopeful and hopefully we’ll get to the point where we can do the same for other communities as well. We’re pretty overwhelmed right now with trying to build everything up from the ground, so we’re still trying to get the infrastructure in place to handle an influx of volunteers and donations, and how to have a good system for responsibly taking in donations. I’m happy to pass on more information because I think it’ll be coming together soon here.
TFSR: Yeah, I would love to include that in the show notes. Just finally thank you so much for your time and your willingness to speak to us.
Rosemary: Yeah, thanks so much for sharing this story and I look forward to seeing what other people are doing.